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SUMMER I, 1992

 

It was all tinted in gold. Not at first, not when she hugged Maman and Papa and Madeleine goodbye, not when she sat quiet on the bus for hour upon hour, staring at rolling fields and quaint villages passing by outside the dirty window. But the rest. The warmer memories that became of later, once the bus had stopped on the side of a village square, and there was a dark haired girl holding a sign with her name on it.

Golden. Like the sand-dust on the cobbled street by Marianne’s house, like the fine hairs on their arms after weeks spent in the sun. Like the colour of the tiny car that Marianne’s parents drove, where Héloïse willingly took the middle seat despite being the tallest, to be able to act as a buffer between Marianne and her rowdy younger brother.

Like the sun setting over the hills, shadows growing long and purple; and the apple juice in the fridge at the superette, droplets of condensation rolling down the bottle and onto fingers like icy pearls.

They were both a bit reserved at first, and somehow they found each other in a quietude that eventually flipped, as things sometimes do when two minuses combine into a plus. Silent glances turned into open curiosity, fits of giggles, secrets whispered, they discussed heaven and earth and everything inbetween.

Marianne could draw a field of sunflowers that looked like it was about to grow out of the paper, but she couldn’t kick a football to save her life. She would happily play goalkeeper though, albeit a dreamy, distracted one. Héloïse forgave her time and time again, and took to aiming for the frame of the goal instead, lying down next to Marianne on the line when she grew tired, looking at clouds and pulling dying grass off the field to sprinkle in each other’s faces. Since those weeks down south, the earthy scent of sunburnt grass would forever bombard Héloïse with a heap of memories.

It was the best summer of her short life so far. But time is a vicious thing, and before Héloïse knew it, despite how endless the days had felt, she was heading north again; teary eyed, clutching a mixtape with tiny butterfly stickers on it, Marianne in her too-big jean jacket waving goodbye as the bus rolled away.

She tried to explain, and her parents were happy to hear that she had made a friend, that her summer had been good. But it felt like they didn’t understand completely, that Marianne was more than a friend, that she was the best friend – the first human Héloïse had found on her own and wanted to keep. And how empty it felt now that she wasn’t around anymore.

Then, one day after school. A letter.

The very first.

 


 

Dear Héloïse!

I hope you are doing well. School has started now, and it’s not as fun as vacation. But I have one art class every week, and I like it. I’m getting good grades I hope.

Nicolas fell off his bike last Saturday when we were in the forest, so now he’ll have a cast on his arm for a while. Papa says for two months. I drew a dinosaur on the cast when Nicolas had stopped crying. Also, he can’t swim with it so I have to be diss secret about going to the pool for swim lessons so he won’t get sad.

I miss you.

/Marianne

 

PS1. My address is on the back of the letter. You don’t have to write back but if you want to you can.

PS2. Maman found your address because she knows your parents’ names. I’m not a spy or anything.

 


 

The letter was written on actual stationery, pale pink with a flower pattern along the right side. The ink was red, and smelled faintly like strawberries. Marianne’s favourite pen, Héloïse knew, and felt strangely honoured that she had used that one to write to her.

Héloïse begged her father until he agreed to take her to the nearest book and paper shop the very same afternoon, where she spent a long time pondering the merits of violet stationery with butterflies scattered around the edges, versus light blue with forget-me-nots. In the end she went with blue, because she knew Marianne liked that colour. Like the sky and the sea, she had said, and Héloïse had countered that both of those could have several other colours as well. She would know, having lived all her life a good stone’s throw from the sea. Which Marianne was well aware of, of course, she was clever, but she had elaborated that she specifically liked the shades of the sky and the sea in happy weather.

 


 

Dear Marianne!

It felt strange and very formal to call Marianne “dear”, Héloïse thought. Not because she wasn’t, she most certainly was, but because it sounded like something old people would say. But it was the custom greeting in letters, she knew that, so she went with it.

Thank you for your letter. I got it after school today and I’m answering rigth right away. Well, I had to go and buy satio stationery first, because I didn’t have any. School is okay, my favourite subject is P.E. and also history. My worst is math. Which is your worst subject?

On Saturday I have a football game and I’m nervus. I hope we win and that I score a goal. Or more.

And I am doing well, I hope you are doing well too.

I miss you too.

/Héloïse

 

Héloïse looked at the paper. Still some space left at the bottom. Then she remembered.

 

PS. I am sorry about Nicolas’ arm. What kind of dinosaur did you draw?

 

She looked at it again, feeling quite satisfied with the result. Maybe less so when her eyes caught the spelling errors, crossed over. If she wrote another letter she should probably use a pencil instead of a pen. Or improve her spelling. Or write a draft. But as far as first letters go, Héloïse felt like she had done a good job.

She folded it neatly, put it in the envelope and snuck into her father’s office to retrieve a stamp.

 


 

Dear Héloïse,

Thanks so much for writing back. It made me very happy. My favourite subject in school is art, but you know that. I also like french. My worst is P.E. becusse I get picked last for teams, and I can’t do cartwells cartwheels. I hope your football game went well.

I drew a Tyranniosaurius because Nicolas likes them. And an apatosaurus, like Littlefoot in that movie we saw that made you cry. He still has the cast for three or four more weeks. So I’m probably gonna draw more dinos for him later.

I miss you. I hope I get to see you again.

/Marianne

 


 

Dear Marianne,

I would pick you first for teams if we went to the same school. Always. And cartwheels are not very important, they just make me dizzy. We won the football game. I scored two goals. And the next one too. But then I scored three. A boy on the other team got angry because I am a girl, but my coach said I shouldn’t listen when people get angry because of that.

The dinosaur movie did not make me cry! It was my allerigs allergs allergies.

I miss you too. Maybe I can see you again next summer? I will ask my parents.

/Héloïse

Chapter Text

 

INTERLUDE I, 1993 – 2001

 

“Told you I’ve gotten taller,” is the first thing Marianne says, triumphant. Or second, technically, after squealing “Héloïse!” and giving her a long hug the moment she got out of the car. She is indeed taller, almost caught up with Héloïse now. Still a lot of elbows and knees though.

It’s hot out, and Héloïse feels vaguely carsick, but it goes away when Marianne grabs one handle of her duffel bag and leads her to the back porch, where there are glasses of lemonade waiting for them in the shade.

A while later the adults reappear.

“You’ve got everything chérie?” her mother asks. Héloïse nods, knowing better than to speak with her mouth full of biscuits.

“I’ll pick you up in a fortnight, Be good,” her father says and kisses her forehead.

“I'm never good,” Héloïse whispers to Marianne, causing them both to explode into a fit of giggles.

 


 

They keep seeing each other over the summer break for a few more years – when they’re thirteen, Marianne is even allowed to take the train from Provence to Bretagne, all by herself, but the next year after, Héloïse switches to a new football team and from then on her summers are eaten up by practice and games. It’s fun, and she improves a lot, but there’s a Marianne-shaped hole in her chest, and when she stays behind after practice, doing shooting drills on the impeccably lush field, she often finds herself longing for the unkempt meadow on the outskirts of Marianne’s village, and its net-less, raw wood frame excuse of a goal.

They write letters still, letters that grow in time with their bodies, soon long enough to require additional stamps, heavy with words passed back and forth. The respite of having a friend outside the everyday bubble, of someone not shared.

 


 

2000, NEW YEAR'S DAY (TECHNICALLY STILL NIGHT)

 

It’s an hour and a half past midnight, and she’s just about to go brush her teeth when the phone rings. Her parents and Nico are still down at the village hall, celebrating, so she runs down the stairs, unbothered about the noise she’s making, ripping the old cord-phone off the wall in the middle of a ring.

“The world didn’t end!”

The voice on the other end is familiar, and excited, practically shouting, and there’s a lot of background noise.

“You have a very special talent for starting up conversations,” Marianne says, rolling her eyes even though no one is there to see.

“The computers didn’t crash!”

“Yeah, no, they did not.”

“Bonne année!! Like, ninety minutes late, but still!”

“Héloïse, are you drunk?”

There's a short pause followed by a frustrated sigh.

“Maybe a little.”

Marianne is silent for a few seconds, not sure how to respond to her usually so serious friend letting loose.

“Very little,” Héloïse adds then, a hint of embarrassment in her voice.

“Whatever, it’s only a new millennium every thousand years or so, right,” Marianne offers.

“Something like that,” Héloïse agrees. Then, “I shared half a bottle of wine with Matthieu. He took it from the bar when no one was looking!”

“Sneaky.”

“Have you ever been drunk, Marianne?”

“No,” she admits, feeling the immense weight of being a very boring fifteen-and-a-half year old settle on her shoulders.

“Don’t be sad, it’s not that fun actually. And wine tastes quite awful.”

“Maybe you should drink some water?”

“Yeah.”

Héloïse is yawning, very relatable. Then she speaks again, more quiet now.

“I think Matthieu likes me.”

Suddenly, Marianne’s heart is speeding up, and there’s a strange unrest in her body.

“Do you like him?” she asks, hesitant. She doesn’t want to know, wants to change the subject, but the question was out before she could stop herself.

“As a friend.” Héloïse says, after a moment’s pause.

“Not as anything more?”

“No. No, I don’t think so. I don’t know. What is it supposed to feel like?” She sounds a little concerned, which makes sense because she's Héloïse, wants to excel at everything, be it sports or schoolwork or social interactions.

“I’m not sure,” Marianne says, because she isn’t.

“He’s fun, I like hanging out with him. But when I think of.. kissing him, or doing other stuff? No. I don’t want to do that.” Her voice wrinkles on the word stuff, like she’s cringing a little.

Marianne’s heart feels lighter again. Had she been jealous of a boy she barely knows? Maybe. She just doesn’t like the thought of someone else becoming a very important person to Héloïse, of getting shoved into second. Sure, they both have other friends, but there’s this special bond they have, how they talk to each other that Marianne doesn't have with anyone else, and at least up until now she thinks that sentiment has been mutual.

“You don’t have to do anything if you don’t want to.”

“I think Madeleine thinks I like him. She’s been making eyes at us all night.”

“Blergh.”

“I know. I just.. maybe I’ll start liking boys later, but I kind of don’t get what the others are on about right now. And I don’t have time for it regardless, with school and football and all.”

“It’s not like you’re in a hurry? You’re not even sixteen.”

“Neither are you.”

“Exactly. And I haven’t had a boyfriend either.

“Fair enough. But do you want one?”

“Well, someday, I guess.. But I don’t like anyone just now.”

“Have you ever kissed someone? Like the real way?”

“Yeah, once. At a party.” Marianne thinks of Truth or Dare, of Thibaut and how it had felt like nothing special at all.

“What was it like?”

“Nothing special,” she sighs. “A bit weird.”

“Oh.”

“Maybe it’s better if you actually like the person. Kissing someone because of a game seems kind of dumb.”

“Mmm.”

“Hélo?”

“Oui.”

“I’m really tired, I was about to go to to bed when you called.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. You go sleep.”

“I will. But it was nice talking to you. I can call you another day?”

“Yes please.”

“Héloïse?”

“Mmh?”

“Bonne année.”

“Happy new millennium.”

 


 

2001, SPRING

 

Dear Marianne,

I think you have all the right in the world to be uncertain, of everything. Most of the time I feel like the whole “decisions you make now will affect your entire future” is a load of crap, because the world today is nothing like it was when our grandparents, or even parents were our age. But once I’m done thinking that, the existential dread comes creeping, whispering that they might be right anyway. But I am certain that you will find the way in the end, you’re too smart not to.

As for me, I also feel like I’ve lost my footing a bit recently. Literally and figuratively. I probably should have called you, but you know I’m uneasy with phones sometimes, and frankly – this thing still hurts to talk about. It’s easier in writing, I can take pauses and think.

So.

I blew my knee.

At practice.

And it wasn’t anyone’s fault, I didn’t get pushed or anything. I just changed direction real fast in a gameplay drill, and my foot got stuck in an uneven spot of the grass, and I had a weird fall.

And pof.

Ligaments gone.

Is it wrong of me to wish I could blame someone? I feel like I can’t even blame myself, I’ve done those drills and movements a thousand times over, and on the one-thousand-and-first, things go to hell.

I can’t very well go around being angry at grass for the rest of my life, can I? But right now I am. Angry at grass.

I’m waiting for a surgery appointment. The swelling needs to go down first.

The timing is awful, honestly. Next season is gonna be mad and even in the best case scenario I won’t be playing any matches this year. Maybe the back half of the season after this one, but then there’s the Bac, and after that university, and I don’t know what to do. Perhaps I should just focus on school, it’s not like there’s any future in sports, not really. I know I’m good, but I’m not sure if I could ever be good enough long term. Good enough to put in the sacrifice, of time.

Maybe I’m making it sound like I don’t even like playing anymore – I do. It’s just difficult to be positive right now because I’m angry at grass.

And if this is as far as I get, at least I can brag about having played in the D1F, even if it only was for one season, and mostly as a sub.

My coach says I’m welcome to help with coaching over the summer, if I want and if it fits with my rehab schedule. I’m definitely thinking about it, it would keep me in touch with the team, and I like the tactical aspect of the game too. Maybe I can learn enough to coach on my own at some point. Or teach, or something. I’ve been thinking about pursuing teaching. My father wasn’t too pleased when I mentioned it to him, in his world anything other than business or law is a waste of years of study, but it’s my life, not his, so.

Anyway, enough about my existential crisis and inadequate physiology, how are things with that guy you wrote about, Émilien? I hope things are going well, and by that I mean that whatever happens or not is what you want.

I’m still not seeing anyone, too busy hobbling around on crutches to think about that stuff. Things have stopped being weird between me and Matthieu at least. It’s so silly because we weren’t really talking to each other for a while there, just letting everyone else get into our heads about he/she really likes you. And then when we finally did talk it was so clear that we were both prepared to do the whole “I really like you as a friend”-speech. Honestly, the general perception that guys and girls can’t be friends is really pissing me off because in a way, people are right, I really like Matt. Not just in that way. It makes me quite sad that strong guy/girl friendships are so undervalued and uncommon.

I may have shouted at Madeleine about it too, which, in my defense she refused to let up on the whole “Héloïse and Matthieu sitting in a tree”-thing she had going last time she was home visiting, even after I’d told her to stop. So I yelled at her a little and maybe told her that I had liked kissing Jacqueline Gérard during “truth or dare” more than I had liked kissing Matt. And then I had to bribe her to not tell Matt, because it’s not his fault that Jackie Gérard happened to be a better kisser and I don’t want to hurt his feelings even if neither of us ever want to kiss the other ever again. Anyway, I'm glad that's sorted and Matt and I are friends again. Next person who says "just friends" so I can hear it is getting kicked in the shins. There is nothing "just" about being friends.

My life is ridiculous, isn't it?

Oh, and in other Madeleine news, she and Arnaud got engaged a little while back, so now maman is spending a lot of her time floating half a metre off the ground most likely daydreaming about wedding planning and grandchildren. I find it neat, one parent off my back for a while. I’m also mildly freaked out because getting engaged at 23 feels very early somehow. But it’s not like Maddie and I have ever done things similarly, and they have been together for four years already so whatever makes them happy. I just hope I don’t have to wear some horrid bridesmaid dress when that day eventually comes.

Miss you, looking forward to hearing from you.

/H

PS. I’m currently reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, which is like the most obnoxiously weird book ever, but it’s got its moments. In one chapter there is an animal that has been bred to the point of wanting to be eaten. I’m not sure if that would be a satisfying solution for the cruelty-side of the vegetarian movement, but it’s a great starting point for discussions about ethics and freedom of choice, for sure. I’ll spare you my ramblings this time though, lest I will be yelled at for being late to dinner, but remind me some other time if you want to. I have Thoughts. There's also a planet populated by mattresses.

Chapter Text

 

SUMMER II, 2002

 

“Serious?”

“Yes, I’m serious. You survived the Bac, now go have some fun.”

“You are the best sister ever!” Héloïse exclaims. Madeleine even gets hugged, which feels weird at first because they rarely do that, but they ease into it. And it feels good to hug her these days, now that she’s no longer so thin she might break under the caring pressure.

Héloïse’s thoughts are racing. A car. A summer holiday. No plans or musts whatsoever. Freedom in the shape of a crappy little hatchback.

She calls Marianne, high on hopeful excitement.

 


 

A week and a half later, after a long drive including an overnight stop at great aunt Claudette’s house just north of Saint-Etienne, Héloïse rolls into the sleepy village. It's been six years since she was here last, but it looks just the same, except for the canvas awning of the superette which is several shades more bleached by the sun. She has the windows rolled down and one of Madeleine’s mix CD’s blasting questionable music through the tinny sound system.

Marianne’s parents insist that they at least stay for lunch before setting off to god knows where, and they spend the whole meal gushing over old memories of Héloïse and Marianne and how sweet it is that they’ve stayed in touch through the years and are going on an adventure.

“Sorry about them. It’s the hippie nostalgia I think,” Marianne murmurs to Héloïse when her parents aren’t listening.

“I bet they also want to have no responsibilities and go on a roadtrip.”

“Definitely. But don’t mention it so that they can hear, they might want to join us.”

Héloïse zips her mouth shut instantly.

She feels bewildered.

Not at the thought of Marianne’s parents joining the roadtrip, now that is only a case of solid aversion, no matter how lovely and not-stuck-up they are. But meeting Marianne again, in real life, is bewildering. She’s been reduced to letters, and the twice-a-year birthday phone call for the last five years. Lately with the odd email sprinkled into the mix, but still.

This is a lot.

She’s so quietly alive. A novel character sprung off the pages, all of Héloïse’s favourite childhood memories carried forward inside the shape of a young adult.

 


 

They don’t get going until the early evening, as the light grows golden.

“Are you sure a roadtrip is a good environment for him?” Héloïse wonders, nodding at the greying toy rabbit sticking out of the main compartment of Marianne’s backpack.

“He’s my companion, I don’t trust my parents to save him in case of a house fire, so if I travel, he comes with.” There’s not an ounce of hesitation in her voice.

Héloïse can’t argue with that, and thus Monsieur Lapin finds himself instantly promoted to co-map-reader, tugged out of the backpack and placed on the dashboard, his dark beady eyes steady on the road ahead.

“So..?” Marianne starts. Héloïse takes her eyes off the road for a millisecond to look at her, nodding for her to continue.

“Where are we actually going?”

Héloïse has no idea. Her plans so far haven't stretched past picking up Marianne. The freedom of not knowing almost overwhelms her. She takes an extra lap in a roundabout, bouncing the question back.

“Where do you want to go?”

 


 

They only drive for an hour and a half that first evening, enough to get them past the invisible border of how far Marianne’s family used to take them on outings and hikes, enough to get a sense of the unknown. Héloïse thinks of Samwise Gamgee, stopping at the edge of a field, knowing that every step from there on is further away from home than ever before.

“Are you calling me a hobbit?” Marianne protests.

“No, silly, you’re way too tall,” Héloïse laughs. Inside, in secret, she thinks Marianne might be elven, or half elven at the very least.

 


 

“Is this stupid?” Marianne asks once they’ve managed to pitch the tent.

Héloïse knows what she means. Two young girls, camping alone in a clearing by a backroad.

“No,” she replies with all the bravery she can muster. “I’ll defend you from the wolves.”

“There are wolves?”

“God, I hope not,” Héloïse laughs.

If there had been wolves – she thinks, later – they’d probably been scared off by all the laughter and the talking. Sleep is secondary when you’re eighteen and catching up with a person you haven’t seen in years. When the sun wakes them, turning the tent into a blue-tinted sauna, they’ve maybe gotten four-five hours at the most. Marianne’s eyes are small and soft and sleepy when she crawls out of her sleeping bag to figure out some breakfast. There’s an ominous jolt in Héloïse’s gut.

 


 

In hindsight, they would have saved a lot of gas money if they had planned even the slightest bit ahead. By the end of the summer they have crossed the hexagon of mainland France in all possible directions half a dozen times – backpacks full of stories, wallets void of cash. Though, it did make all the sense in the world from a freedom and memory-making point of view.

There was the time when Héloïse almost got them kicked out of the Modern Arts Museum in Strasbourg because she argued too loudly about the merits (or lack thereof) of a large and apparently Important Painting and a group of Cultured People found her to be a nuisance; and the time they somehow ended up shitfaced at a calvados tasting in rural Normandie with a group of ageing american tourists and had to spend the next day – Bastille Day to make matters worse – in the same minuscule village, nursing hangovers because neither of them were fit to drive.

They bypassed Paris whenever they got too close, because of Paris being awful in the summer heat, and Héloïse arguing that she would get enough of it once in university anyway. Marianne didn’t mind, Paris would still be there for whenever.

She is the one who insists on driving through the Massif Central instead, thanks to a childhood obsession with volcanoes. The word “extinct” apparently holds no value to Marianne when she has entered nerd-mode, and Héloïse grumps loudly for every meter they gain while hiking up Puy Mary in the scorching august sun.

“It’s the largest remainder of a stratovolcano in Europe,” Marianne tells her, unreasonably excited.

“Keyword remainder,” Héloïse huffs. “It’s been out of business since before the wheel was invented.”

"That is a good thing," Marianne points out, skipping ahead of her on the steep trail and making Héloïse wonder what all those hours on the football pitch ever did for her body, if a bit of volcano-fuelled enthusiasm can make Marianne "running is torture" Laurent bounce past her so easily. She decides to blame the altitude.

“You have to agree the view is pretty great from up here though?” Marianne says when Héloïse catches up with her.

“I'm only here because you promised me ice cream, when do I get my ice cream?”

“Oh my god, you are such a child! That month and a half is really showing right now, you know that, huh?” She gives Héloïse a symbolic push up the last few metres of the trail, almost tripping herself over with the effort.

That makes Héloïse shut up because ice cream or not, she would like for Marianne to consider her an adult. It’s also pretty great after all, standing shoulder to shoulder at the table d’orientation, having Marianne lean in even closer when she points out various other peaks and tells random facts about the formerly volcanic surroundings.

“Someday I’m gonna have to take you to Iceland, or Etna, so you can see an active one,” Héloïse blurts out.

“Oh, would you?” Marianne exclaims, eyes wide and happy, and she realises with a jolt that she’s blushing, they're both blushing, and she has no clue what to say next.

Héloïse gets her ice cream eventually, at the café where they parked, and after ending the day with a spontaneous dip in a creek, she’s willing to chalk it down as another excellent detour on this Tour de Detours, as Marianne has quite fittingly named their journey.

 


 

After spending a day getting semi-lost on the backroads of Camargue, Héloïse finally remembers to write a much overdue postcard to Madeleine, which feels like the least she can do as a thanks for borrowing her car all summer. It reads as follows:



Port Saint Louis du Rhône, août 14, 2002

Dear sister,

I hope this postcard finds you well. Marianne and I are perfectly fine, and thank you again for providing us with the necessary vehicle for this epic excursion. I could probably write you half a novel about the things we’ve seen, but I’m gonna keep it short.

  • Marianne still maintains that your mix CD’s are of “questionable taste”. I blame the All Saints’ song, or it could just be that Marianne is a pretentious snob. (I’m NOT! /M)
  • If you’ve lived this long without getting drunk and subsequently terribly hungover off of calvados, I would recommend you to keep avoiding it. It sucks. (Don’t worry, we did not drive during the day of the hangover. In fact, we barely moved at all.)
  • People who find it weird that bumblebees can fly have not seen flamingos fly. They have way too many gangly body parts for them to be airborne make any sense whatsoever. Yes, this is a hill I am willing to perish upon. How the fuck does flamingos fly? (And “by flapping their wings” is not a valid answer.)
  • It's entirely possible to live off of nothing but pizza and watermelon for three days straight. We are now living proof. It was a fun experiment, but we have also decided to keep a more varied diet from now on.

Love,

Héloïse (& Marianne!)

 

She chucks it in a mailbox on the walk back to the small campsite outside of Martigues where they’re spending the night. The bar by the entrance is full of people, and for a second, Héloïse contemplates suggesting walking over for a beer before bed, but reconsiders at the sight of a group of guys maybe a few years older than them, occupying the foosball table and easily outnoising the thousands of crickets having a concert in the bushes.

There’s a pre-written script waiting if they go there, and one shared look is enough to disregard that as a whole.

“Do you think it’s boring?” Marianne asks later, when they’re lying down surrounded by the tropical darkness of the tent.

“Boring what?”

“That we mostly hang out with each other?”

“Why would I think that? I went on this trip with you because I want to hang out with you.” Héloïse feels like this is a non-issue. Marianne is better company than anyone else she knows, even Matthieu, and certainly better than people she don't know.

“I know but.. we could see other people. Isn’t that what backpackers are supposed to do? Get drunk with random people from all over, go to foam parties, and do drugs in Berlin.” Her tone is a bit uncertain, and Héloïse can't figure out if it's because she wants to do the things she's talking about, or if it's because she thinks Héloïse wants to do stuff like that.

“If I wanted to go to a foam party I would have booked a flight to Ibiza, but I’m here.”

"Yeah."

"Where I want to be," she adds for clarification.

“Good.”

“And we’re not backpackers, we’re roadtrippers. Much more epic.”

They’re quiet for a while, but Héloïse knows Marianne is still awake. It’s in the breathing.

“We could though, if you want.”

“Could what?” Héloïse is not asleep either but her mind has skipped to other trains of thought during the silence.

“Go out and get drunk with other people. People our own age I mean, not the lovely seniors of Sandwich, Massachusetts.”

“I can’t believe they live in a town called Sandwich.” Héloïse cracks up at the memory. It had taken until she found it on an actual map for her to believe it was a real place.

“Me either.” Marianne’s voice is a smile in the dark. “But anyway. I don’t want to keep us from going out, and stuff. If you want.”

“Nah, I’m good. Unless you want to?”

“Me? No. Not really, no.”

“Not interested in observing loud boys playing foosball and yelling at sports then?” Héloïse is not sure why she brings that back up, keeps pushing the topic, other than that it feels like their silent agreement to not visit the campsite bar was the catalyst of this whole conversation.

“I have enough self-preservation skills to know that that would have been a bad idea,” Marianne says. “A beer could have been nice, but there’s no way that gang would have been satisfied with just looking from afar.”

“Same," Héloïse echoes. "I mean, would have been nice with a beer maybe but those guys..”

“Agree. Some boys can be fun to look at though?” She phrases it like a question, and suddenly, Héloïse wonders if Marianne knows, if she’s figured it out somehow. It feels like, maybe- but how?

It’s a split second decision, the words are out of her mouth before she has time to overthink anything.

“I- Actually, I don’t think I like looking at guys much. At all.”

“Oh.”

“Yup.”

She feels oddly light. She said it. Marianne heard her. And she’s still lying there in the next sleeping bag, will probably remain there, and the world seems to still be turning like it did half a minute ago.

Maybe it will be alright. Keep being alright.

She’s staring straight up in the indigo fabric when Marianne’s sleeping bag rustles.

Turning her head, she can barely make out her face in the dark.

“I’m glad you told me that,” she whispers. “I mean, I didn’t misunderstand, right?”

“No. I mean yes, I- you know.”

A solemn nod.

“We can talk about it. If you need to talk. But I’m very sleepy so maybe tomorrow?” The last sentence is half swallowed by a massive yawn, so big that Héloïse suspects it might be for show, not for lack of oxygen or sleep.

“No, I’m- I’ll be fine. But thanks.”

She falls asleep easily, despite the myriad of emotions pacing in her chest.

 


 

Somehow they’ve found a deserted parking spot, at a viewpoint high up in the hills. Côte d’Azur is spread out below them, transforming along with the setting sun, from detailed doll-landscape to dark silhouettes speckled with lights. The air is still tropical, relentless, sticky. Héloïse wants to shower, it feels like half of the sand from the beach they spent the day at is still stuck on her skin.

Marianne gets out of the car, fetches a can of Orangina from the coolbox in the back and gestures for Héloïse to get out too. She scrambles onto the hood of the car, lies down, back on the dusty windshield. Héloïse frowns.

“Why are you up there? You’ll get dirty.”

“I am already dirty,” Marianne corrects her. “Now come here.”

“Why?”

“Because I’ve seen adults-pretending-to-be-teenagers do this in more movies than I can count, and now I want to know what all the fuss is about.”

“Lying on a dirty car looking at the stars?”

“Exactly.”

“Fine.”

Héloïse hops up next to Marianne, the metal of the hood making an ominous, echoing sound, causing her to slow down and gentle her movements.

“I think.. maybe this would be more comfortable on a bigger car,” she says after a minute of contemplation.

“Shut up, I’m experiencing,” Marianne whispers, swatting at her arm, taking another sip of the soft drink.

She leaves her hand where it drops, knuckles grazing the fine hairs on Héloïse’s arm, setting off a goosebump explosion that might show up on the richter scale. At least that’s how it feels to Héloïse.

The thing is, there is one thing they don’t really do much.

Touch.

Which, from Héloïse’s side at least, has been a very conscious decision.

She felt it the second she stepped out of the car on day one, Marianne jumping right at her, wrapping her slender arms around Héloïse’s neck. The pull in her gut. The warmth. She had feared it, on the long drive south, that maybe her nervous feelings for Marianne wasn’t just “finally meeting my very close friend again”, and when she appeared in person and Héloïse’s dodgy knee malfunctioned not only from spending too many hours in a car, that was pretty much all she needed for confirmation.

Marianne’s knuckles are stroking her arm, so slow and gentle that the movement is almost not there. A prickly, anxious buzz is rushing through Héloïse’s nervous system, itching to do something, something, anything beyond lying still reduced to carefully measured breathing and a pounding pounding heart. Her fingertips are molten embers.

Knuckles. Fingertips. Marianne whispering about constellations and crappy american movies.

Then she goes quiet and tangles their fingers together, and that is just as well, because the uncomfortable convex of the windshield, the wiper that has poked into Héloïse’s spine? Gone. She can't feel them anymore, she might float away, Marianne in tow.

Silence stretches to minutes, Marianne’s hand still steady laced with her own and eventually she has to ask, just so say something.

“So, what’s the verdict?”

“On what?”

“Looking at stars on top of a dirty car.”

“Oh. That.”

Héloïse can believe that Marianne had forgotten what they were doing in the first place, simply based on her own state of being. But she won’t let herself.

“Yes, good,” Marianne continues. “But I think that a blanket on a meadow or a beach would be more comfortable. It might be an imagery thing more than anything, because finally being allowed to drive is a symbol of freedom for so many teens, and if you chuck a car into a philosophical stargazing scene it’s just another way of indicating that now the world is your oyster. Just get behind the wheel and go.”

“Kind of like us.”

“Just like us.”

Another span of silence. Héloïse can feel the windshield behind her back again, grounded now, a little, in Marianne’s hand not letting go, in the tiny stroke of the pad of her thumb. The sense of something sprouting, maybe.

“We don’t have the world though. Just France.” She doesn’t mean to sound whiny, but there had been a lot of eye-rolling from her part when her parents had agreed to letting her go, on the strict condition that she was not to drive outside of mainland France. She had debated passing through Monaco at some point just to spite them, but apparently parking there was a hell hole, and Héloïse didn’t care much for yachts and rich people either way.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but France is quite big,” Marianne laughs.

“My butt knows for sure. It is not made for ten hours of sitting driving between point A and point B.”

“Héloïse, it’s not your butt, it’s your personality. You’ve always had ants in your pants.” Marianne tells the stars, then turns her head towards Héloïse.

“I do not. I’m lying still now, right?” She turns her head too. Marianne’s thumb stops it’s slow movement, and breathing is difficult again.

“Exception that proves the rule,” Marianne whispers, eyes dark and her voice laced with impossible fondness.

Héloïse knows where this is supposed to go. She has read the books, seen the movies, wished to be Hugh Grant kissing Julia Roberts in a London garden even though she would never ever own up to it if anyone asked.

But she’s not Hugh Grant. She’s Héloïse, and she does nothing, because she’s scared.

 


 

They’re more than a month into their roadtrip now, and Héloïse should not be surprised that when Marianne’s eyes lift from the pages of the road atlas, all lit up and she utters the words “fun road”, it will almost certainly mean “painfully narrow, skirts edges of cliffs, hairpins, high risk of wanting to vomit”. Still she falls for it, over, and over, and over. Such is apparently the fate of whoever looks straight into those fascinating eyes. Or maybe it’s just Héloïse who is the victim of that particular weakness.

Either way, that is why a three-and-a-half-hour drive north towards Annecy ends up taking them several days. At least the main reason. The first day disappearing in the winding alleyways of old town Briançon is mostly Héloïse’s fault, as proven by Marianne threatening to use violence if she has to hear the name “Vauban” from Héloïse’s lips one more time. The second day, however, is all on Marianne.

The disgustingly narrow roads are not too bad – the views make up for most of the terror, and the car happily hums up even the steepest parts of their itinerary. But things take a turn for the worse after they’ve stopped at the shore of a massive hydroelectric dam, high above the treeline and surrounded only by barren peaks and vast sky. It’s not the actual idea of a hike that is bad – and the waffles at the restaurant on top of the nearby col (that they could have driven to “but where is the fun in that?”) are great. It’s just that Marianne is too much of an optimist when it comes to weather, and the dark clouds amassing are moving faster up the valley than their feet can walk to get back down to where they parked.

When the first raindrops are crashing onto the hot tarmac with loud splattering sounds, Marianne decides to start running. Five seconds later, there’s a flash of light, instantly followed by a loud cracking noise, and that’s when Héloïse, too, picks up her pace, passing Marianne in four swift steps.

“You're too fast, it's unfair!” she hears her shout from somewhere behind.

They’re completely soaked long before they reach the car, laughing and gasping as they rip the doors open and scramble inside. Héloïse can feel droplets streaming down her back underneath her t-shirt, water is dripping from her nose, her eyelashes, all over. Marianne is not doing any better. The car seat is damp underneath her within seconds, and the rain is so heavy that the shoreline of the dam is hardly visible, despite only being ten or so metres away.

Marianne twists in the passenger seat, half climbing out of it to reach for their towels that have been hung to dry over the back seat since yesterday’s dip in a river. Her elbow nudges Héloïse’s arm – a cold layer of rain on top of sunkissed skin.

She’s still a little out of breath from their mad dash back to the car, and her heart shows no signs of slowing down. She accepts her towel from Marianne, wipes her face, then wraps it around her shoulders and back before leaning back in her seat.

Another crack, stretched over countless seconds, reverberate between the surrounding peaks.

“Are you just gonna sit there?” Marianne asks, and it’s only then that Héloïse becomes aware of having closed her eyes.

“I’m experiencing. I’ve heard that is an important activity at scenic moments in life.”

“You’ve got goosebumps.”

“Part of the experience.”

“Oh, come here,” Marianne says then, reaching out to tug at the towel, pulling Héloïse towards her by it, then lifting it up in a vain attempt to dry her hair.

And again, like on all the other rare occasions when they’ve been this close, Héloïse’s heart runs amok in her chest.

Time feels abstract, but pretty soon, Marianne gives up on the ruffling of Héloïse’s hair – leaving the towel on her head like a ghost of bathrooms past.

She peeks out from underneath it, and Marianne is so much closer than expected, and has leftover mascara under her eyes, and Héloïse reaches, mindless, trying to catch it with her thumb. Marianne’s mouth stutters open, a gasp as Héloïse holds her cheek steady with one hand, gently rubbing the stray make up away with the other.

The rain hammering on the roof of the car is loud, Héloïse knows this. But she can’t hear it anymore. The world has gone silent, and when she attempts to pull back, to rub off the black smudge on her thumb on her shorts, to make her brain start back up again, Marianne stops her.

“You had-” she tries, but Marianne is shaking her head – urgent, nervous.

A rushed grasp on her arm, her hand muted in the middle of a movement, stuck on the damp skin of Marianne’s neck.

Héloïse is frozen as Marianne leans back in, her gaze flitting restlessly between her eyes and-

She licks her lips, mindless, a mimic of Marianne who is so close now that she’s becoming distorted, and Héloïse shuts her eyes and just feels. Lets herself drown in Marianne’s hot, trembling breath, balancing terrified on the edge of something that might change their whole dynamic.

Marianne’s hands are somehow holding her steady even when Héloïse can feel them both shiver. The cold wet, yes, but also the other-.

When it finally happens, it’s so gentle, so questioning it’s barely there. The faintest brush of lips, the scent of rain on hot skin, chapstick, sunscreen, Orangina. Sharp intake of breath through the nose, flying.

The smallest touch and it really, really feels like flying.

Then, Marianne pulls back. Héloïse opens her eyes and is met with Marianne’s face just as she is looking down at where her hands are settled – one on the centre console, the other on the edge of her seat.

The second before she lifts her head feels eternal and painfully unclear.

Until it’s not.

There must be a parallel of sorts, between the terrified, hopeful delight she can see in Marianne’s eyes, and whatever emotion is reflected on her own face, because the choked up feeling of “so I wasn’t alone in this” is so evident, almost tangible, even though they're both too stunned to actually say anything.

“I-” Marianne starts, just as Héloïse leans in again, slow and with all the time in the world for a change of mind, for any kind of hesitance. There is none. Only Marianne, and the tiny whimper she lets out as their lips meet anew.

 


 

There’s a period of time after that where Héloïse has questions. So many, like an interrogative bee swarm have taken up residence in her head.

Are you okay?

Are we okay?

Have you done this before?

Have you thought about it because I don’t want to admit it but I have, I have, I have.

(As in general, yes, but also. With you.)

She asks none. Marianne’s lips are steadier now and even if she could muster enough thought to speak she wouldn’t want to. Gentle, shivering. From the rain or from- from this, Héloïse doesn’t know. Both is good. Warm breath in her mouth, fingers, timid, from her cheekbone to her neck and further down. Searching. Collarbone. Waist. Settling on thigh, strong and she suppose sufficiently stable even though there’s not a single atom in her body that feels stable right now.

Tongue. Oh god. Her tongue is soft, so insistent, and when Héloïse pushes back, mimics, she moans.

Héloïse feels like she’s floating, weightless – like she’s unbound electricity, a static current under her skin desperate to connect to every inch of Marianne.

When she leans back in her seat, trying to pull Marianne along, they realise just how much they’re hindered by the centre console of the car. It doesn’t deter Marianne from trying to climb over it and into Héloïse’s lap, but there’s also a steering wheel, and multiple gangly arms and legs, and not even remotely enough space.

It all feels so different though, different good.

Like life is amplified.

It’s everything she tried to feel when kissing Matthieu, and then Cedric. But now it’s effortless. Not a single doubt, no room for thought – just feelings.

It’s also different because when Marianne breaks the kiss, looks her in the eyes, and moves her hands to the hem of Héloïse’s soaking wet t-shirt, the panic she expected to flood her chest is not there. Instead there’s warmth and want and every shaky breath draws her closer to Marianne, every movement is an excuse and a confirmation.

“Are we? Do you-”

Marianne’s eyes are wide and dark, her expression serious, close to awed.

One solemn nod.

“Are you sure? We could, I don’t know-” Héloïse feels herself go red before she says it. From shame because of how it sounds, from desire simply because. “..drive down.. get a hotel, or something.” Last words a stumble, mumble.

But no. They stay. Marianne wants no hotel, she says.

“I just want you.”

Héloïse might float away.

“And the rain, and the crappiest hatchback in France?” she asks, a tremble hidden under the laughter.

“It’s perfect,” Marianne replies. "All of it."

Then another kiss, more intense than any before it, a kiss that is the polar opposite of a question mark, turning every part of her body loose and hot and wanting, until suddenly Marianne breaks it, leaving Héloïse dazed and gets out of the car, opens the trunk, rummaging around in the back.

“Have you lost your mind?” All laughter, not an accusation. Wonderment. Héloïse leans over the backrest of the driver’s seat, watching.

She’s moving things around, hurried in the downpour: folding down the seats, making a space just for them. For this. And of course, of course this is how it will happen, more unexpected more free, than in any of the possible scenarios Héloïse will never admit to having thought out in her head.

Out in the open but hidden by the decreasing light, and the still torrential rain hammering against the roof of the car.

“My lady,” Marianne says, serious underneath it all, droplets stuck in her eyelashes slipping down her cheeks and Héloïse breaks out in a smile at the sight of the makeshift bed – sleeping bags and blankets laid out diagonally on the space in the back, their sparse luggage shoved to the other corners, and here, to her, it is beyond every fairytale.

 


 

“What? How the heck did he end up back here?”

Héloïse grapples underneath her own back, pulling out the lumpy creature by its long, floppy ear.

“Oh hello,” Marianne says, cheerful, bashful. Takes Lapin from Héloïse, a kiss on his soft forehead. Dirty white, almost cuddled to pieces, as becomes a lifelong companion.

“I love you, but you’re back on lookout duties, monsieur” she tells him, stretching over Héloïse to put him in the passenger seat, eyes facing so he won’t see them. If cuddly toys could see.

All Héloïse sees is- she wants to be respectful about this, but it’s proving to be quite difficult when Marianne leans up and over her like that, and about five minutes have passed since her t-shirt was pulled off and thrown to dry in a heap of wrinkles somewhere so it's a lot of soft skin on display and-.

Her hands that froze on Marianne’s waist are moving up again, a teasing finger along sheer fabric, a hand cradling her cheek.

“Look, we don’t have to,” Marianne says, and it is the sweetest thing but underneath the shivers and nerves Héloïse is about to burst.

“No, I-” her hands are shaking badly, and trying to defeat a bra clasp one-handed is way beyond what she’s currently capable of. Marianne smiles, reaches back and does it herself. Héloïse wants to protest but she is topless on top of her, and turns out talking is hard and Marianne is beautiful and Héloïse is now made up of nothing but want; blinking, stunned. Until she catches herself, redirecting her eyes to a spot just above Marianne’s shoulder.

“I wondered,” Marianne says then, sitting up a little straighter in Héloïse’s lap, a finger slowly tracing along a collarbone, a minuscule pressure that keeps Héloïse half lying down.

“Wondered what?” Héloïse asks, trying to not think about how her voice is pitched a little higher than usual, a little further from casual.

“If you were just shy, or if- because you don’t look at me. Didn’t. In underwear, I mean. And when we’ve gone swimming. You always.. don’t.”

“It’s-” Héloïse tries. But it’s difficult, when you begin to understand that you might be different and you start staring into the walls of the gym class changing room. Anything but looking, anything. Ugly tiles, gray-ish white, wooden hangers. The safety of the corner. Of towels. Of getting changed very fast or very slow. It’s a habit hard to break.

“I know,” Marianne says. “But I want you to look at me. Please?”

So Héloïse does.

 


 

She looks and looks and looks, takes in every curve and dip and scar, wordless to the point where Marianne is giggling and blushing, audibly swallows before moving things forward, again.

“You can touch, too, you know.”

“I know,” Héloïse whispers, and pushes herself up a little so she’s kind of sitting with Marianne on her lap, semi-stunned at the opportunity, the opportunities, at everything.

“I want you to,” Marianne whispers back, and there’s something akin to pleading in her eyes before Héloïse gathers herself enough to put her hand back low on Marianne’s ribcage, feeling her breath catch as Héloïse kisses where her neck meets shoulder, tasting rain and salt. Then Marianne’s hand is on hers, pulling upwards melting into her touch and she tries to kiss her properly but they only end up sharing air, and it makes no sense how touching another person can make Héloïse feel so good, but she will never argue, never, she just goes with it moves them over lies her down and she will never forget this even if she lives till hundred, Marianne on the sleeping bags, with her.

She keeps going, slowly slowly drawing a path with their linked hands. Down now.

A deep kiss just as they move past the open fly of shorts, below underwear, warmth. Marianne somehow smiles relieved so big it ends in a giggle. A nod. Okay.

And then. It’s fumbling, at first, and the shorts are hindering but neither of them can be bothered. Marianne’s hand still on hers is helpful, and Héloïse only feels stupid about it for a second. Then Marianne makes a new noise – a gasp maybe, or a moan, keening high pitched in the back of her throat, and okay, Héloïse has got this. Marianne moves her hand away, up tangled in Héloïse’s hair, down her neck, shoulder, grasping for anything to hold on to.

“There. Yes,” Marianne’s voice is tense and airy, hips rising into her hand, and Héloïse is the most helplessly powerful person on earth.

 


 

She’s not sure where to put her hand once she has moved it, gently, feeling Marianne shiver one last time. She thinks of wiping it on her shorts, but Marianne beats her to it simply by reaching and holding.

It’s wet and sticky, made more obvious when touching Marianne’s not-sticky fingers.

They’re equally short of breath, the two of them, emotions flying in all directions. Marianne is sort of curled into her, as if she’s been sleeping. She has not.

“This is backwards,” Héloïse points out, when Marianne has regained the use of her limbs a bit more and decides to remove her shorts and underwear completely.

“Well, it’s only,” a quick glance at her wrist, void of watch, blushes, “nevermind.”

Héloïse understands. She’s not at all tired, and it can’t be very late judging by the deep golden light breaking through underneath the receding storm clouds.

“And, ehm,” Marianne continues, biting her lip, eyes roaming all over Héloïse, a hungry hand tugging at the clasp of her bra, and turns out she needs this like she needs air, and whatever panic she had felt when it was Cedric touching her is nowhere to be found now, all she wants is more, closer, closer want her in her own damn bones shared breath everything. Lying on top of Marianne, kissing her into oblivion and she hadn’t even properly considered the feeling of breasts pushing together, naked, until this moment, how good it would feel, but now it’s melting her brain in the most exquisite way, and her shorts is off somewhere, and it’s really only when Marianne’s hand reaches between her legs, gentle pressure on the damp cotton that Héloïse remembers to be nervous, that she’s never-.

“Wait, wait.”

Marianne pulls back in an instant.

“I-” she swallows, “I haven’t-”

Marianne’s face is a mix of surprise and understanding.

“I thought- there was that guy you told me about?”

“Cedric? Never happened,” Héloïse mumbles in a hurry because she doesn’t want to waste a single second on anything but here and now. “I came up with so many excuses, he got tired of waiting.”

“What a jerk,” Marianne scoffs, reaching out to tuck a lock of hair behind Héloïse’s ear. Feels comforting. Calm. “But just as well, if that’s all he was after.”

Héloïse thinks she might be right.

“I mean, I have, you know-” she adds, looking determined somewhere around Marianne’s collarbones because they are lovely collarbones and also decidedly not eyes, and wow, her face must be burning now.

The look Marianne gives her once she actually looks up is a study in confusion, and why Héloïse is so adamant to be understood is beyond her own comprehension but here she is.

“You know?” Nodding at Marianne’s hand, hot and patient low against her own stomach. She feels the crack of her voice more than she hears it.

Marianne follows the line of her gaze. Stops. Gets it.

“Breaking news, an eighteen year old admits to having masturbated,” Marianne teases, tucking her head in the crook of Héloïse’s neck, a kiss just because. “Alert the Vatican!”

“Oh, fuck you.”

“Um,” Marianne says, the laughter dying in her throat and suddenly every spot where skin touches skin is on fire, the air in their little bubble scorching hot once more.

“Fuck me?” Heloïse asks in a moment of complete lack of brain, regretting the timid words the instant they’ve left her mouth because Marianne is laughing again, but it only matters for a second because then her eyes darken and it’s her turn to be flipped laid down in the messy nest of sleeping bags and blankets and Marianne pushes with her thigh and okay the underwear needs to go now and she’s never been less graceful in her life and it doesn’t matter, she can see it in her eyes.

It doesn’t matter at all.

 


 

At some point during the night, the rain stops for good. When Héloïse wakes up, it’s to the sound of sheep on the nearby pasture, water licking the grassy shore, and Marianne’s gentle snoring.

Life is different. Different and just the same.

It’s still early, light but pale greyish watercoloured. A promise of sunshine later on. Marianne’s legs are sticking out from under one of the blankets, satin smooth, sunkissed skin. Héloïse-kissed skin. What a concept.

Héloïse stretches, sleepy and content. Flat on her back, soles of her feet pushing against the hatch of the trunk. Arms reaching for the sky because there’s no space to stretch them anywhere lengthwise.

Marianne wakes eventually and for once she is in no particular rush for breakfast, instead content staying where they are sharing an apple and a bottle of water to delay their reentry into the world for a while longer.

Apple juice on her lips, fingers, gentle traces everywhere, everywhere. Windows rolled down a little to let the crispy morning in and dilute the scent of sated bodies. It carries with it a faint tinge of autumn up here, where the thin air makes the seasons move differently, dewy hillsides starting to yellow already in august.

“I like this,” Marianne says.

“Me too.”

“No, this, specifically. It’s a beautiful line. Curve. Whatever.” Marianne is blushing, fingers stilled, staring at the skin they’ve been tracing, where hip meets thigh, apparently fascinated by the softly swept lines of the human body. Héloïse’s body.

Héloïse, back propped up on pillows and luggage, leans back, hands behind her head. She feels like a piece of art under Marianne’s eyes. Doesn’t even have it in her to be bashful, lets herself feel appreciated.

“I’m so used to the point of my body being for it to be useful. And then you look at me like that, and it’s all null and void,” she says.

“What do you mean?”

“You look at me.”

“Yes.”

“And- like,” she blubbers something incoherent about a body being a tool versus a work of art.

“You are a work of art,” Marianne says with certainty.

“And you’re a cheeseball,” Héloïse says, blushing. “Your soul is. A beautiful cheeseball.”

 


 

There are only a few days left before they have to head home, Marianne first and then Héloïse alone to the north west, and somehow it’s as if this knowledge makes them averse to moving around much more. Instead they settle, spend the last couple of days at a camping on the shore of Lac d’Annecy, renting pedalling boats and wandering the old town. It’s crowded, and the last heatwave of the summer turns the valley floor into an absolute furnace, but the lake is cool and they buy ice-cream and everything’s new and wonderful and Héloïse feels like a magnet or a moon, constantly orbiting Marianne, needs to be near her and Marianne doesn’t mind in the slightest, always has a hand waiting to be held, a cheek wanting to be kissed, and it feels so unfathomably good. To be allowed. To allow herself.

 


 

“When was the first time you wanted to kiss me?”

They’re lying in the tent, and it’s the last night before returning Marianne home, and they’re both ignoring that fact like the plague.

“You didn’t notice?” In hindsight, Héloïse feels like she’s been an open book all summer, but perhaps she’s been wrong.

A thoughtful look sweeps over Marianne’s face. “When we were lying on the hood of the car?”

Héloïse is instantly brought back to that moment. How close they’d been, how, now when she knows, she knows that she could have, had she not been so scared.

“It wasn’t the first time, but yes.”

“But when?” Marianne asks.

Héloïse turns the question around instead of answering it. “What about you? When was the first time?”

“When you told me you don’t like looking at guys. I mean, there had been times before, but then it felt like I had a chance for real, and it hit me then, how much I wanted it.” She stops, swallows, corrects herself. “You. How much I want you.”

“And then you pretended to be sleepy.”

“Yeah. I freaked myself out a little, I think,” Marianne admits.

“Are you sleepy now?”

She shakes her head, slowly, the sleeping bag rustling.

“Can you be quiet?” A kiss. “We wouldn’t want to scandalise the camping.”

Marianne’s reply is wordless and without doubt.

 


 

Every minute counts. Every minute takes them closer to farewell, to one last night – the first in a house, in Marianne's narrow childhood bed. They should want to draw this out, slow it down. And yet Héloïse can't help but drive as fast as the speed limit and then some – ochre cliffs and blue river rushing past to the left of the autoroute. Towards the sea. It always feels easy, somehow, going south, even when it shouldn't. Treebeard had a point. And Marianne, she has her feet on the dashboard, lanky body bent in a posture that would make physiotherapists cry. Legs for miles in cutoff jeans. She's skipping between radio channels at a ridiculous pace, only occasionally stumbling upon something worthy of her ears.

"Crap. Crap. Crap. Uuugh. Crap."

"Has anyone ever told you you're picky with music?"

"Never." A big grin. "Crap. Crap."

"Wait, skip back!" Héloïse interrupts.

She does as she's told, and a familiar chomping guitar, soaring background piano, all in all a textbook radio pop sound fills the air. Héloïse can practically mouth along word for word with Marianne as she objects to the song. She won't let her skip it again though, instead she turns up the volume and sings along, loud and not very well, just for the hell of it.

 

 

and if there's no tomorrow, and all we have is here and now
I'm happy just to have you, you're all the love I need somehow
it's like a dream, although I'm not asleep
I never want to wake up
don't lose it, don't leave it
so go on, go on, come on, leave me breathless

tempt me, tease me, 'til I can't deny this

 

 

Before the song comes to an end, Marianne, helpless and embarrassed enough for both of them, has joined in.

 


 

The letter is a surprise and at the same time not at all.

It should be redundant, because they have been talking on the phone more or less daily since they parted ways, and if Héloïse has spent an evening or two on the family computer when she's home for the weekend, trying to figure out if she could transfer universities after her first term and how, then so be it. Maybe she has.

The letter, Marianne’s familiar scrawl, blurry photos from their trip tucked between the sheets of paper, makes her heart soar no matter the actual level of surprise.

 

Dear Héloïse,

(My dearest Héloïse, my darling Héloïse, I couldn’t make up my mind, pick whichever you think seems the most appropriate or appealing.)

I know it doesn’t make much sense for me to write you a letter, because we just talked on the phone, and I’m sure we will speak again at least once or twice before you get this, especially since the only address of yours I have is for your parents place, but I feel like I want to write too, because of the permanence. As if a thing that is written down it has more certainly existed.

I’m so glad you asked me to come along on your road trip. Our road trip. Tour de Detours 2002. I can’t imagine what my summer would have been without it. And I also can’t believe that we went several years between seeing each other in person before that. It feels wrong, somehow. I hope that will never happen again. I’ve developed the film rolls from my camera, I made you copies of the least horrible ones, but none of the ones you obviously took when I’ve been asleep. Serves you right for not asking for permission. Just kidding, maybe I’ll send them to you in another letter later on, good things come to those who wait. As you are aware.

I think we’ve done things in a very good order though, you have to know that.

I miss you so much, I miss talking to you in person and seeing your smile, I miss waking up to you even though you are a grump in the mornings sometimes. And I miss your hands on me, everywhere. I can’t wait to see you again.

Love, always.

Marianne

 

Héloïse is blushing by the time she’s finished reading and turns to the photos. They are a mix of everything – sceneries, Marianne or Héloïse standing in front of various landmarks, weird closeups of them both trying to squeeze into the frame. The last one is the best-worst one. Objectively, it’s a terrible photo, blurry and weirdly angled, but Marianne is hugging her from behind, kissing her just to the side of her mouth and Héloïse herself is beaming at the camera like there’s no tomorrow. A combination of things that makes it the best photo of them all.

“Héloïse!” her father calls from upstairs. “You’ve got a phonecall. Marianne.”

“J’arrive, papa!”

She leaves the letter on the table and skips to the study to be able to speak to Marianne behind a closed door.

 


 

She tells her parents. In hindsight, it’s quite possibly the worst idea she’s ever had. Not that she expected hugs and encouragement exactly, but still. The letter had been sent to her parents address, and her mother asked who it was from, saying something about “oh, Marianne, she’s a lovely girl” when Héloïse had told her.

Lovely girl. Indeed. Coming from her mother, that is not bad. She mulls it over before she falls asleep, and tells them the following morning.

Her mother goes silent, visibly pales, then leaves the room.

Her father, explodes.

“But Marianne is..”

He cuts her off.

“But Marianne?! Marianne? So that is what it’s all about? Don’t take me for a fool, I know exactly what is going on.”

“You don’t know anything.”

“But I do. Don’t leave your loveletters and photos scattered on the kitchen table if you don’t want the rest of the household to see them. I thought it was just her, I thought you knew better!”

“Better?” Héloïse almost shouts? “What do you mean better?”

“Better than to- to-”

For the first time in her life, her father is at a loss for words

“I won’t stand for this. Héloïse, you’re ending this right this instant.”

“It’s my life, you don’t have to stand for anything! I thought you would be happy that I found someone!”

“It might be your life, but it’s my money that keeps you afloat through university, remember? First deciding to go into teaching, now this.”

He shakes his head, changes the direction of the small, angry circle he’s been pacing in.

Héloïse can feel her heart turn to stone.

He’s right. She may be an adult, legally, but the money is his, and she kind of needs it.

Two seconds later, she explodes with fury again.

"Do you even hear what you're saying, papa? Do you think so little of me, that your money could make me change who I am and whan I want to do with my life?! Who I want in my life? Is that who you raised me to be?"

"I know I didn't raise you to-, to-" he still can't take the words in his mouth, and if Héloïse hadn't been so deeply hurt by the whole situation she would laugh at him and his pathetic ignorance. It's hard to laugh though, when his tone turns calm and dangerous, to-the-point.

"It's unnatural, Héloïse."

She doesn't even bother slamming the door behind her, she just goes.

Grabs her old bike, rides down to the beach to roar herself empty at the relentless cold Atlantic.

 


 

“Your dad is an absolute asshat,” Matthieu says, throwing another stone into the sea, not bothering trying to skip it over the choppy surface. “I think you should max out your student loans and run away. Switch schools, show them that they can’t control your life.”

“I know. I should.” Héloïse is weighing a piece of flint in her hand, stroking her thumb over the silky smooth sides, then over the edges. Thinks of when flint – so brittle, fragile – was the source of weapons as well as fire.

She chucks the stone into the dark water.

“I can hear the but you know,” Matthieu comments.

“It’s your special skill.”

“You deserve the world. Don’t let anyone tell you you don’t.”

“I know I do. But," she pauses, takes a breath "they’re still my family, you know. Maybe they just need some time.”

Matthieu throws another stone.

"He said it's unnatural, Héloïse," Matthieu reminds her, his voice shaking with anger. "Unnatural. I just don't want you to hope they'll come around and end up hurt, is all."

 


 

Apart from telling Matthieu, she tries to keep the fight, and the following angry silence with her parents to herself. Or at least keep it from Marianne.

It works out fine until they meet in person. Héloïse spends the entire train journey to Toulouse imagining, what it could be like. Living in the same city. Seeing each other almost every day.

But over the course of the weekend, life slowly comes crashing down on her within the walls of Marianne’s tiny dorm room. When the immediate ecstasy of being close again has faded a little, when Marianne stops kissing her for long enough to notice the rain cloud she has in tow, when she holds her as she cries because as wrong as her parents might be it still hurts like hell when they barely talk to her. And somehow, finding out that Marianne’s parents had reacted in a completely different way makes it hurt even more.

They talk and talk, about school and family, the past and the future, what will happen next, and somewhere along the line it becomes painfully clear that the current equation is not adding up, no matter how they tweak the parts, no matter how much they want it to.

“This is not gonna work, is it?”

Héloïse doesn’t even reply, her voice too weak against the tears. Just curls herself into Marianne, drawing deep shaky breaths of everything that is her, never wanting to let go.

 


 

Marianne walks her to the train station, two pairs of feet leaden on the sodden sidewalk, a perfect match to the clouds above, pushing damp and cold towards the ground. They’re early, the train not due to leave for another half hour, but dragging the goodbye out until then will only make it hurt more.

“I hate this,” Héloïse mutters, obscured even more by her scarf. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Marianne says, even if it’s not.

“I just- they’re my parents. I have to give them a chance, I owe them that much. And I can't ask you to wait for me.”

Marianne’s hand in a fluffy mitten comes up to caress her cheek. Héloïse wants to stop time, let this point be where the universe ends because right now she still has her, here, close, in a way.

“Don’t you dare disappear on me. I want you in my life, always, even if it’s not in the way I hoped for,” Marianne says, and Héloïse makes that silent promise; to never, never disappear.

She wraps her arms around Héloïse in a hug so fierce it feels like they might merge for eternity.

Stupid tears are back again, chewing away any strength from Héloïse’s voice.

“I love you,” she mumbles, so low, so deep into Marianne’s red scarf that she knows she can’t hear. What a terrible time to say that out loud for the first time. What a terrible way. A milestone she will want to forget forever.

One final hug, a brief and teary kiss. Marianne walks away. Turns around once, and Héloïse is so close to running after her, so close. But no. She stays on the platform until Marianne has disappeared up the escalator. Then she gets on the train.

Chapter Text

2004, summer

 

From: heloise.the.great arobase hotmail.fr
To: marianne.quatre20quatre arobase orange.fr
Subject: My reputation is lost forever.
Attached file: pleasedeleteasap.jpeg (3.47 MB)

Since you’ve been asking so nicely, attached to this email you will find the photographic evidence of me in a fugly bridesmaids dress. I shall spend the remainder of the year contemplating a suitable revenge on my sister for making me wear that thing. And I’m still mad at Matt for not keeping his word when he offered to change clothes with me, he would have been stunning in any dress, and way more comfortable than I was.

Anyway, I shall now proceed with the quest to re-find my dignity, or something. Have a nice day!

/H

 


 

From: marianne.quatre20quatre arobase orange.fr
To: heloise.the.great arobase hotmail.fr
Subject: Re: My reputation is lost forever.

That dress was truly a sight to behold. Am I right to assume that your mother had a hand in all this? The amount of frills and lacy detailing point to that being the case.
My verdict: Dress is indeed fugly, you however are not. Not sure Matt would have worn it better. He’s cute but you have better legs.

Hope you’ve found your dignity.

Bisous,
Marianne

 


 

2005, september

 

Dear Marianne,

I’ll give you a more thorough report via email or a proper letter later on, but I think there’s something to be said about sending an actual postcard from time to time too. If nothing else they keep my rambling in control thanks to the lack of space. (Case in point, running out of space already.)

Toronto is nice. I live not too far from the uni, in a shared house with my own room, and my flatmates haven’t shown any actual signs of being lunatics so far. They’re all canadian, except for Manuela, who is from Mexico. Classes begin the day after tomorrow. I’m a little nervous, I’m not sure if my english is quite up to par. But I’m sure I’ll adjust soon enough. So far I’m not missing France in the slightest. Hope all is well with you.

Miss you loads!

/H

PS. Did you know that the name Toronto means “where there are trees in water”

 


 

2008, end of winter

 

“I’m not the one who has to like him.”

“No, but I hope that you will. I liked Manuela, she was fun.”

“Yeah and look how well that turned out,” Héloïse sighs. “Sorry. It’s not your fault she lives halfway around the world.”

Marianne doesn’t question why Héloïse is being prickly about this. It’s part of the things they don’t talk about anymore. They’ve become experts at retelling the stories from that summer to themselves, and the world, without ever crossing that line.

“Just, try and be nice? Please? For me?” Marianne’s pleading mostly makes Héloïse feel like the actual crap person she is, so she forces a smile and tries to sound a bit more cheerful.

“I know, I’ll be nice. I know it’s important to you.”

Why though? Héloïse asks herself. He’s just another face walking through the endless revolving door of boyfriends. By her next visit Louis will be a Lucas, or Laurent, or who knows, maybe even a Laure.

She ends up being wrong about that one, because apparently Louis is a keeper. Textbook tall, dark and handsome, a year older, he and Marianne first met at a christmas house party although Marianne is being somewhat vague with the details. He’s also clever, and kind, and allergic to kiwi. He has the bad taste of supporting Olympique Marseille, but Héloïse will begrudgingly forgive him for that because he can’t help what part of the country he grew up in, and he actually still plays, doesn’t just have football as an excuse to drink beer and be shouty.

He’s a computer something something possibly analyst that Héloïse pretended to understand when she first asked, and now it’s too late (and she’s too proud) to admit that she didn’t get a word of it. He wants to go island hopping in Greece someday, a leftover from a childhood mythology obsession.

And he’s clearly head over heels for Marianne.

Which.. is good.

It is.

She deserves it.

It’s just a bit of an adjustment period.

Héloïse is not used to having to share the title of Marianne’s favourite person, is all. And she’s not used to Marianne being all gushing and enamored either, she’s usually so “whatever, let’s have fun while it’s fun” . Hearing her talking about going on actual dates and meeting the parents is weird. But they’re turning 25 next year, maybe it’s time for life to get more serious.

There’s a bit of an eyeopener that happens for Héloïse a few days into her visit, when Marianne is away on a grocery run. She finds herself in the kitchen, with Louis, and the silence is on the verge of becoming uncomfortable when a familiar song comes on the radio.

“Wow. I haven’t heard this song in forever. My big sister used to play it non stop when we were kids.”

Héloïse has to do a mental double take, because the words were for sure thought out in her head, but it was Louis who spoke them.

“What? You too?”

Louis nods.

“Three sisters, two of them are older than me and they were head over heels obsessed with Patrick Bruel.”

“Ouch. I feel you. I only have one sister and that was more than enough.”

And just like that, because of a small thing they have in common separate from Marianne, it feels a lot easier. When Marianne returns with the shopping, it’s to Héloïse and Louis still in the kitchen, drinking beer and singing along to old songs blaring from the iPod dock at what is frankly an ear-shattering volume.

“We have bonded!” Héloïse exclaims.

“Over sisters with questionable taste in music,” Louis adds, equally excited, lifting his bottle in a toast.

“This is actually not a bad song,” Marianne counters, confunded, and starts stuffing the food into the fridge, all while fending off Héloïse who tries to grab a carrot to use as a fake microphone.

“Alors, regarde!” Louis exclaims, waving his long arms in a gesture towards the entire kitchen. The produce still waiting on the counter looks thoroughly unimpressed.

“Regarde un peu!” Héloïse joins in, and barely registers Marianne’s sigh of “I wanted you guys to like each other but must you do it so loudly?”

“Tu verras tout ce qu'on peut faire si on est deux!”

 


 

2010, a few days after Marianne's 26:th birthday

 

“You what?!”

“Bought a house!” Marianne is giddy like a child on Christmas Eve, and Héloïse is not following in the slightest.

“When?”

“Well, we haven’t finalised the paperwork yet, but the loan is sorted and everything. So we’re moving in two months.”

“Wow,” is all Héloïse manages to say. “Why?”

“What do you mean why?” Marianne asks, clearly annoyed.

“I mean..” Héloïse hesitates, trying to be diplomatic while wrapping her head around the news, “This apartment is not bad, you’ve got heaps of space and it’s close to everything. Why move?”

“Because it’s a sensible thing, to own a home. And no noisy downstairs neighbours. Plus, it’s nice to have a garden. I thought you would be happy for us?” Marianne looks upset, accusing, and Héloïse finds herself struggling to explain what’s going on in her brain.

“I am- I’m just.. you always said you wanted to go travelling once you had finished school and built a bit of a resumé. I’m surprised that you’re doing this instead, is all. What happened to South America? Transsiberian Railroad?”

“They’re not going anywhere,” Marianne objects.

“Fair enough,” Héloïse gives in, and then without thinking “and neither are you it seems.”

It’s March, and they’re in southern France, which means temperatures are definitely in a range that most people would describe as pleasant, but they might as well have been teleported to the middle of Greenland for the amount of frost that suddenly settles between them.

“I-” Marianne is at a loss for words, and Héloïse is frozen, stuck, unable to even apologise. The silence draws out while emotions are washing over Marianne’s face, nothing quite settling, until:

“You know what? I think you’re jealous that I’m starting to get my life in order while you’re just flailing around. When was the last time anyone wanted to make any sort of long-term plans with you, hmm?”

Marianne doesn’t raise her voice a millimeter, she doesn’t have to.

And Héloïse doesn’t answer, because she knows they both know.

 


 

She walks around Aix for hours, desperately trying to get lost in the winding alleys of the old part of town but not succeeding. Eventually she makes her way back to Marianne and Louis’ place, taking the stairs all the way up to fourth, to delay her re-entry a little longer.

“Oh, hi. I’m on my way to practice,” Louis says when they almost collide in the doorway. It’s a bit redundant, seeing as he’s in shorts, carrying a ball, and it’s also clear he knows they argued, as if Héloïse’s absence for the last five hours hasn’t been telling enough.

“She’s in the kitchen,” he adds as Héloïse unties her shoes.

“Bye chérie!” called out to Marianne.

And with that, he’s gone.

Her feet are like lead on the floorboards as she enters the kitchen. Heavy as the icy silence between them, but Héloïse is not going to leave here without at least trying to mend the things she broke between them. Even if it takes all the duct tape in the world.

Marianne is sat by the table, frowning at a crossword puzzle and actively ignoring Héloïse who hovers in the doorway by the fridge, terrified of making things worse than they already are.

It takes maybe a minute or two before Marianne snaps. “Are you gonna stand there all day?”

“No,” Héloïse mumbles.

“What do you want then?”

“To apologise.”

“By all means, go ahead.”

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.” Héloïse means every word, and still she feels like a five year-old apologising because they’ve been told they have to.

“Yeah, you shouldn’t. So why did you?”

Somehow, it would have been easier if Marianne had been furious. But that’s not her. This is – the knowing, knowing that there are thoughts Héloïse doesn’t say out loud until they’ve grown uncontrollable, thoughts gnawing in her head, that eventually leads to her saying cruel things. Marianne knows, and Héloïse finds herself wishing she didn’t.

“Because it feels like everyone but me are going places,” she mumbles eventually.

Marianne doesn’t answer, leaves the silence intact for her to elaborate.

“You were right. I am jealous. Not just of you, of everybody. Everyone’s running off building lives, and I’m.. not. Maddie and Arnaud are having another kid, Matt just moved in with his boyfriend, and I’m pretty sure one of my cactuses is dying.”

“Oh. I’m so sorry about your cactus,” Marianne says, looking genuinely distressed, which causes this warm fuzzy feeling in Héloïse’s gut that needs to bugger the hell off. “But, Héloïse, do you want to build a life?“

“I don’t know!” Héloïse moans, holding her head in her hands. “I’m just.. walking around with this overwhelming feeling of fuck this shit maybe I should just move back to Paris because I’m tired of feeling alone and like an oddball all the time you know.”

“But you’re not alone,” Marianne objects. “You have Matthieu, and your family, and me and Louis, and your coworkers, and-”

“You know that’s not what I mean.”

Marianne nods.

“But you know you have to do things if you want change, yeah? Life is not like one of Matt’s cheesy movies, if you want to find someone to build a life with you have to go looking for it, relationships don’t just fall into your lap.”

“Yours did, literally. Or, you did the falling, whatever.”

“Exception that proves the rule. Also it was mortifyingly embarrassing at the time, and a result of once-in-a-decade bad weather.”

“But still.”

“Yeah, I know. But honestly, Hélo, get yourself out there. Go on a date or five. It can be casual.”

Héloïse grimaces before she can stop herself.

“But you don’t want casual.”

It’s not a question.

“It’s not that I don’t want to, more that I’m not sure if I can. I don’t think I have a casual bone in my body. I think I’m built to be intense,” Héloïse says, letting her head fall back against the door frame with a muted thud. “There’s a spider on the ceiling.”

“I know,” Marianne says. “Both the spider thing and the intense thing. And for what it’s worth that’s one of the best things about you. Just so you know.”

“Doesn’t feel like it.”

She lets her gaze skip around the kitchen, expects Marianne to lecture her on not being so critical of herself, but it doesn't happen. Instead; a question.

“Héloïse, can you promise me something?”

“Depends on what it is.”

“Try? I don’t know, join a pottery class or try online dating or..”

There's this troubled tinge to her voice that Héloïse has no idea what to make of.

“Pottery class?”

“You know what I mean. Interact with people.”

“Fine, I’ll do it. Any horrible urns I make will be your christmas gifts for the next few years, as punishment.”

Marianne laughs, a low genuine sound, and it feels like the worst is over. Héloïse finally steps away from her corner of uncertainty and shame by the door and walks over to the sink to pour herself a glass of water before sitting down opposite Marianne.

“Hey, this is your area of expertise: club of Zizou and Platini, eight letters?”

“Juve.”

“That’s four.”

“Juventus,” Héloïse groans. “Jesus, Marianne?”

“Sports turn my brain cells into zombies, you know this.”

“I know, but it’s-” Marianne stops her with a glare. “..perfectly normal to not burden your brain with useless knowledge like the name of one of the largest football clubs in the world.”

“Exactly,” Marianne smirks, and after that, the air only gets easier and easier to breathe. By the time Louis returns from his football practice, the traces of their fallout are more or less gone.

Héloïse leaves the next day, but before she goes, she asks a promise of Marianne in return for the hypothetical pottery class.

“Yeah?”

“Don’t forget about the rest of the world just because owning a house is a neverending adult version of a tree house.”

“I won’t. Adventure is out there.”

 


 

Héloïse sticks to her promise of trying to meet new people, but picks a Muay Thai beginners class instead of pottery. Matthieu is equal parts terrified and delighted, because “it’s not like you need to get stronger, but it might be a good outlet for aggression”.

That’s where she meets Sandrine, who is a year younger than her and works as a nurse when she’s not practising kicks and punches for fun.

Things happen, because of course they do, the first time the two of them are paired up in practice the tension is probably visible from outer space, and even though they’re really only supposed to hold the strike shields for each other, Héloïse still ends up with a cut in her lip and a five-minute "I’m-so-sorry"-monologue that turns into an offer of beers the next friday in lieu of an apology and-.

After that it’s all going quite well until one night about six months later when they’re stumbling back towards Héloïse’s place after a Halloween party at a friend of Sandrine’s, and Héloïse gets the brilliant, drunken idea of bringing up christmas. She’s giddy and willing to tweak her plans around whatever holiday habits Sandrine prefers, but an hour and some confused crying later she’s gathered a heap of clothes and random belongings into two Carrefour sacs, handed them over and stands alone behind her front door as it shuts.

Turns out they weren’t on the same page after all, and that it’s apparently entirely possible to spend any and all of your free time with a person without it being even remotely serious.

As for Christmas that year; it’s spent with her family, which more or less boils down to non-stop playing with Madeleine’s oldest daughter, who is just as attention starved and clingy as four year-olds tend to be when they are burdened with infant siblings. There are not enough tiny humans around to warrant a children’s table at dinner, but if there had been, Héloïse knows in her gut where she would have been seated.

 


 

2012, early spring and onwards

 

Sometimes, Héloïse thinks, life is nothing but an endless string of heartbreaks in various sizes, with moments of respite in between. Some more severe than others, but heartbreaks all the same.

She’s about a week shy of her 28th birthday when a big one happens.

Another letter. It’s oddly shaped for an envelope, square but not of any standard mail size. The paper is thick, almost cottony, which goes well with its warm, light gray hue. Marianne always has had an eye for those things, and the address is written out in her familiar scrawl.

That’s the last happy thought.

She gets as far as “Dear Héloïse, you are hereby cordially invited to the marriage between Marianne-”.

There’s a noise in her ears. High-pitched. She’s staring at the words before her, willing them to fade, a desperate fragment of hope that it’s all made up, that it’s not happening. Marianne getting married is a milestone that Héloïse is not prepared to deal with in the slightest – it’s too definite, too settled, too much building something inevitably carrying her away, while Héloïse is still stumbling around the metaphorical bricolage, looking for the right screwdriver.

In a ridiculous train of thought, that almost makes her laugh at herself, she hears Samwise the Brave in her head, whispering through tears; “don’t go where I can’t follow”.

That’s what Marianne is doing, has been doing for a long time now, and Héloïse knows she needs to be happy for her, or she might lose her completely.

 


 

She puts on a brave face. Dodges the bachelorette party with an excuse about it clashing with an aunt turning 60 that she knows Marianne will see right through. It’s just.. she doesn't really know Marianne’s other friends – she lives halfway across the country and has met them maybe a handful of times over the years and she is very much not a part of that clique with their collective memories and inside jokes. She’s flattered though, that she’s made enough of an impression on them to have them tack her name onto the neverending chain of emails and messages, but still. It’s not her thing. She knows it, and more importantly, Marianne knows it.

 


 

Six weeks after the dodging of the bachelorette party, Héloïse steps on a southbound TGV, ugly little wheeled suitcase in tow. She doesn’t want to drive down this time, she needs a set departure, and a definitive time for her return. Something solid, unyielding, that she can’t change (at least not without paying a stupid fee), when everything else in her life feels like running up a steep slope with sand under her feet. Unstable and exhausting.

She’s alone, even though the invitation allowed for a plus one. Matthieu could have come with, but she didn’t even ask him even though he’d for sure have a ball charming old aunts and hitting on the entire bridal party. This feels like a milestone, one of the kind that she needs to handle by herself.

The ceremony is beautiful. In a church, but the words of the priest have been modernised, and no one is giving Marianne away. She is the master of her own destiny, or however that old quote goes. There’s not even that line about “if anyone objects”, that probably was constructed for the sole purpose of stirring up drama in romantic movies. But no, no objections, no drama, only Marianne publicly, starry-eyed, promising to love Louis until an end that’s so far away it might as well not exist.

Marianne’s parents are sitting at the front, two rows ahead of Héloïse, and several times she can see her father, an odd sight in a tux, dabbing his eyes with a tissue.

He’s a sweet man.

As for Héloïse, she doesn’t cry at all. A couple of times she even smiles all the way to her eyes.

The maid of honour, Emma, is one of Marianne’s cousins, and she had asked beforehand if Héloïse wanted to make a speech. Héloïse does not. But she has written one, in the shape of a letter, and sneaks it in well hidden behind a box of fancy wine glasses on the table with all the gifts. Marianne, the name on the envelope reads. Louis will understand, he’s not a bad person in the slightest, he just happens to be living the life that Héloïse for all her trying can’t seem to stop daydreaming about. Which he’s blissfully unaware of, but either way he’s used to their friendship – the letters, the closeness stretching through and above their everyday physical distance.

Still, Héloïse thinks, she probably should have addressed the letter to them both. But that would have required it being written for both of them, which it’s not. Louis will forever be a bit of a stranger to her, and vice versa, which is a fact more than it is a problem.

 


 

The party is wild, and goes on until several hours past midnight. Héloïse is more than a few drinks past tipsy, and the familiar rain cloud that always attacks her when she gets too drunk is starting to gather itself above her head.

When she looks up from her glass, Marianne’s dad is watching her, head tilted slightly to the side. For a second she expects him to say something, but he doesn’t.

Once the newlyweds have left the building, it’s as if every ounce of energy leaves Héloïse’s body. She debates doing another fruitless scan of the dancefloor, maybe finding someone to invite back to her hotel for something spontaneous and probably regrettable, but she ditches that thought. There are no opportunities here, unless she wants to be a tick on the bucket list of someone straight and curious.

In the end it’s Nicolas who saves her from making any stupid decisions. At 26, he’s no longer rowdy and annoying, only currently about the same level of “a little too drunk” as Héloïse is.

“Hélo! Allô!” he exclaims, and maybe Héloïse needs to rethink the part about him not being annoying anymore.

“Santé, Nico” she replies, tipping her glass at him before downing the last of its contents.

“Wanna share a cab?” Nicolas asks, straight to the point, and Héloïse abruptly feels the longing for her quiet hotel room and comfortable clothes. It’s in her bones. She nods.

They have just enough time to say rambling goodbyes to the people that matter before the cab arrives.

 


 

“Somehow I always thought it would be you in the end.”

They’re waiting for the elevator – Nicolas exhausted, slumped against the wall, bowtie tucked in his chest pocket. Héloïse has been standing, shifting her weight between her feet to stay awake. Suddenly that problem has vanished.

“Me?”

“Yeah, you know. Marrying her.”

Héloïse’s insides feel like stone.

“She told you?”

“Ages ago.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

The elevator arrives. Neither of them enter, and eventually the doors close followed by the faint woosh of it moving to a different floor.

“We were eighteen, you know. It was ten years ago. It wouldn’t have- it..” She sighs, walks a few steps, a small circle.

“I know.”

Silence.

“Would you have wanted to?”

“Nico.”

“Sorry. Not my place. I’ll stop now.”

“It’s not like it’s fucking legal for me anyway,” Héloïse grumbles, suddenly furious at the world.

“It might be though. Soon,” Nicolas yawns.

“But to answer your question, I honestly have no idea.” Héloïse pushes the elevator button again, then looks over at Nicolas. He’s struggling to stay awake, but more from exhaustion than alcohol by the looks of it. Quietly, she adds “But I think I’ll never wholly forgive myself for not trying harder when I had the chance”.

The elevator makes its renewed presence known with a ding way too loud for the late hour, and Nicolas snaps his head back up with a start.

“Come on, you,” Héloïse yawns, ushering him into the elevator. “What floor are you on?”

 


 

The summer holidays are over, Héloïse comes home from work one afternoon and is treated to not one, but two pieces of snail mail. One is a postcard from Greece, that must have been severely delayed since she knows that Marianne and Louis returned from their honeymoon over a week ago. Most of it consists of Marianne rambling about the volcanic history of Thera, and how it might have played a role in the legend of Atlantis. The other snail mail is a thank you card from their wedding, a photo of the beloved couple standing under a tree, overlooking rolling fields.

Héloïse’s reply is one and the same, once again setting off on the back-and-forth of letters that has her coworkers calling her old fashioned, and makes sure Matthieu never has to scratch his carefully tousled head over birthday gifts. Stationery. Always stationery.

 


 

2014, february

 

Message de: Louis

“We’re all good.”

 

Message de: Héloïse

“Congratulations!”

 


 

2015, some time in fall

 

His name is Théo, which is not short for anything even though it could be.

“I don’t see the point,” Marianne had said over the phone a few days after his birth, “of giving a kid a long name and then shortening it from day one.”

“So no Théodore or Théopold then?”

Marianne groans.

“Théopold?” Héloïse asks again, just to make sure, and more importantly to mess with Marianne.

“Is. Not. Even. A. Name,” Marianne mutters through gritted teeth but Héloïse can hear the almost-smile, she knows it’s there.

“Cool, cool, got it.”

Théo is just over a year and a half when Héloïse finally meets him in person, and by then he’s old enough to actually be a person. A small, wobbly one, who has the fluffy dark hair of both his parents, who speaks in bursts of one or two words, mostly unintelligible to anyone but Marianne and Louis.

Héloïse’s feelings are all over the place.

She’s not anti kids. But they never seem to like her. Her nieces and nephew for example, it’s only now that the oldest one is in school proper, talking in full sentences, coherently, about actual subjects, that she’s not terrifying. The two younger, sure, they think it’s fun when they’re at the beach and she’s tossing them in all directions, but do they like her? Héloïse is not sure. She feels more like a fun-machine than an aunt. Like she’s not really a person to them.

Théo is too small to toss in any kind of water, and Héloïse is a bit lost. He babbles at her, and she replies to him as if he was an adult, determined to not resort to baby speak.

“Oh-n!” he exclaims, handing her a pinecone.

“Thank you. What a nice pinecone,” Héloïse says, feeling severely judged by the universe.

“Ooh!”

He waddles off again, only to return half a minute later with another pinecone.

“Oh!”

This one, he’s decided to eat. Not the best idea he’s had, as far as Héloïse is concerned.

“I don’t think you should do that,” she tries.

Théo licks the pinecone, making happy gurgling sounds.

“No, really. If you’re hungry I’m sure we can find you something more nutritious, and less chewy.”

No response.

Héloïse dislodges the pinecone from his grubby little fingers.

Théo turns into a wailing devil spawn in two seconds flat.

Merde. Now he’s terrifying on top of being difficult to communicate with. Thankfully, Marianne is there in an instant, hugging him and calmly explaining that no, Héloïse is right actually, pinecones aren’t good food unless you’re a squirrel, and then there’s a song about a squirrel, and an apple being cut into pieces and reluctantly chewed on, and then he’s trotting off again, pinecone trauma completely forgotten.

Héloïse is amazed. She knew it, of course, but seeing it in person is something else. This parent-add-on that has seamlessly integrated into her already incredible friend.

There’s a light breeze in the trees as they sit there, idly chatting while Louis plays with Théo.

“It happened sooner than I wanted, I know. But now, I can’t imagine being without him,” Marianne says.

Héloïse understands as well as she can.

Life throws curve balls, incessantly.

They have the picnic, Théo grows sleepy after running around like a lunatic, followed by food. For some reason he decides to curl up in Héloïse’s lap despite having two parents present. She’s unsure what to do, so she just lets him be, trying to keep still, one hand gently stroking his back, his soft red t-shirt as he slowly drifts off, a tiny lump of breath and bone and soul.

They start to pack up, Marianne and Louis gesturing at her to stay put, let him sleep, no need to help, so Héloïse sits, and when the time comes for Théo to be put in the car seat, preferably without waking up, Louis steps in and lifts the dozing toddler from Héloïse’s lap, whispering to him as he stirs, and for the nth time in her life, Héloïse feels her soul being dragged down a maelstrom of what if’s.

What if her parents hadn’t been conservative and demanding.
What if she had been more brave.
What if.
What if.
What if.

“You alright?” Marianne asks.

“My leg fell asleep,” Héloïse answers, dazed, trying to put a lid on the spiraling envy, trying to not think about how she would give anything to trade places with Louis, who has a sleepy toddler and a wife kissing his cheek.

“You were wrong by the way.”

“Was I?”

“Yeah, about small kids never liking you. Théo likes you. He never falls asleep on anyone but me or Louis. Not even my parents.”

“Oh.”

Twist the knife a little deeper, why don’t you, universe?

 


 

The years roll on, as years are wont to do, and life is okay, and sometimes even more than okay, but Héloïse can’t help but feel like she’s gotten stuck in a loop of work and sleep and eat without much of an end goal.

For a while she’s seeing a girl called Élise, which – can you even say “seeing a girl” when both people involved are over thirty? Héloïse isn’t sure, and Matthieu points out that “woman” sounds more adult but also makes it feel a lot like a weird mix of boring and scandalous.

Either way, they’re closing in on a year together, when all of a sudden there’s nothing at all, only Héloïse trying to grasp where the accusations of her being uncommitted came from when she was the one who brought up the “maybe we should think of moving in together” in the first place.

She doesn’t get it – aside from working, hanging out with Matt, and the occasional visits to see her family, or Marianne and Louis, Héloïse thinks she’s been pretty darn committed to Élise.

She delivers this little rant on Matthieu’s doorstep, and in true Matthieu fashion, he just shrugs, says it was probably for the best since she evidently turned out to be a bit unhinged, and hands her a beer before she’s even had the time to take her shoes off.

“Remember when Madeleine and everyone at school tried to shove us two together,” Héloïse says a while later, in an attempt to distract him from the video game they’re playing. She’s shit at FIFA, she needs all the help she can get.

“How could I not.”

“I was so pissed off at Maddie when she wouldn’t stop bugging me about it.”

“At least you had your first kiss with someone not a total creep, right?”

Héloïse makes a pfft sound and shoves Matthieu in the shoulder, causing him to drop his controller and her to score a thoroughly undeserved goal.

“Okay, that’s cheating, asshat.”

“It’s not my fault your hands are weak.”

They bicker for a while, Matthieu riles Héloïse up enough to make her lose focus and then he scores three times in rapid succession, and she demands a change of games.

“Where did you think you would be now? When you were like 15-16 I mean,” she asks while he’s untangling the wires of the N64 controllers.

“Rich, for no good reason. Living in a mansion in Beverly Hills or Saint-Tropez or something. Honestly, I never thought much ahead like that.”

“Me either.”

“Blue or green?”

“Green, thanks.”

Matthieu hands her the controller, flips the switch on the base unit. “Anyway, I guess, maybe I thought I’d be married to someone, but up until recently that was sort of depending on who I would date, you know, so, no big plans about that either. I like it okay where I’m at though. Don’t you?”

“Yeah, I’m alright. I just.. I’m not sure where I’m heading long term you know.”

“Do you have to know?”

“No, but, wouldn’t it be nice? To have a dream like in five years time I wanna do this or that or whatever?” She picks Yoshi, as always.

“I guess. But if you plan too much you’ll never have any adventures.”

“You have a point. I just-” she takes a swig of her beer while the game loads. “I have never successfully made plans for anyone but me alone, not bigger than the odd vacation anyway. And that makes me sad sometimes. I would like to make plans with someone and not have it all blow up in my face when I’m trying to make an effort.”

“Clearly you need to date girls that are less unhinged.”

“Clearly.”

“Somehow I feel like both our teenage selves would be majorly upset if they found out that we’d still be spending our Friday nights playing Mario Kart and eating too much snacks,” Héloïse says, breezing past Matt who is slowly picking up speed after a head-on collision with a very angry mole.

“Our teenage selves didn’t know what was good for them.”

“You have a point there.”

Héloïse wins the first few races, but loses her temper when Matthieu manages to blue shell her off Rainbow Road twice in one lap.

“You stupid little mushroom,” she grumbles, blaming the aging joystick and bad luck all at once.

“Movie?” Matthieu asks.

“Sure, why not. You pick something, I’ll go make popcorn.”

 


 

She tells Marianne about the break up with Élise the next time they talk. By then it’s been a few weeks and she’s not so freshly hurt anymore, and she’s trying to not moan too much about her bad luck when it comes to relationships.

Marianne sounds tired, and says she is tired; how managing the logistics of work and life and a three-year old is like a puzzle where pieces are forever getting lost under a couch or eaten by the vacuum cleaner.

Héloïse reminds her that there’s another adult available to the equation, too, to which Marianne mostly grumbles, and then apologises for no reason at all.

Then she steers the conversation towards other topics, like a trip to the mountains and Théo initially being very suspicious of snow, and when they hang up, Héloïse has a small lump of concern growing in her stomach.

For the first time in over 20 years of friendship, letters are starting to go unanswered. Héloïse writes still, because she likes to write and she’s wary of spontaneously calling because there’s something intrusive about phone calls – you can never really know if it’s a bad time, and in the evenings theres the added concern of maybe waking Théo.

But now the replies are texts, always of the “I would love to write back but I don’t know when I’ll have the time, can I call you on thursday?”-sort, and Héloïse replies yes, don’t worry about it because of course, she’s busy at work but apart from that she has time, and if she could she would gladly pass some of it over to Marianne because she on the other hand appears to be running on fumes lately.

She doesn’t want to pry, but Marianne isn’t saying much, and she can’t shake the feeling that something is wrong.

 

Chapter Text

Summer III, 2019

 

One Tuesday, almost halfway through Héloïse’s summer holidays her phone rings, and it's Marianne, and that is weird and alarming because they rarely call aside from on their birthdays, at least not without texting about it first.

They stumble through a minute and a half of awkward pleasantries before Héloïse interrupts Marianne with a sigh, asking her what’s really going on.

“I-” Marianne’s voice cracks, and then there’s a silence long enough for Héloïse to think the call has disconnected.

“Marianne?”

“I-, we.. getting divorced.”

She can hear Marianne starting to sob on the other end of the line after the last choked word – this exhausted, quiet sound – and her heart breaks under the weight of sympathy.

“It’s just- not working anymore.”

Slowly, through sobs and long pauses where Héloïse stays quiet and lets Marianne take her time, she explains. How she got wrapped up in the novelty of a relationship that actually developed past the fling- or hookup-stage, how it fit so well into how she wanted her life to pan out and before she knew it there was the little house and the proposal and the marriage and it was good. It really was. It had been. And then it wasn’t any more.

“Did he cheat on you?”

“No!” The reply is clear, direct.

“No. He.. I. It’s me.”

For a second, Héloïse is struck by a profound disappointment – she thought better of Marianne than to betray anyone like that. Then Marianne must have realised how she made things sound, because there’s a short gasp, an “oh no”, another brief silence.

“I didn’t. I could never!” Then, smaller. “But I was the one who said I’m done trying, that it’s not gonna work out.”

Héloïse feels bad. There’s no better word for it. She should have known, should have been friend enough to ask better questions, friend enough to connect the dots. Sure, she had noticed how Marianne had seemed under the weather for ages now – tired on the phone, texts instead of letters – but had chalked it down to sleep deprivation and a particularly rainy spring – not doubting her marriage. Has there been hints? She’s unsure.

“He’s just so sad,” Marianne continues. “I’m sad too, but I also feel relieved. And then I feel horrible for feeling relieved.”

“Relieved how?”

“Just.. about everything. From the big stuff like how he never completely takes my side if I disagree with something his family says, and how he thinks I’m overreacting when I’m encouraging Théo to always, always talk about emotions; to small, dumb stuff like I’m officially done finding forgotten laundry in the washer every other day, and him still not knowing which toothpaste I prefer. Eleven years of getting it right every third time. At some point it wasn’t cute anymore. It started feeling like he didn’t even bother.”

“I still remember what toothpaste Élise used, and that’s been over for.. a while,” Héloïse mumbles.

“Exactly. It’s not that hard. And it’s just.. been uneven for so long that he doesn’t even notice it. Like, I can count the times I’ve been away overnight with friends since Théo was born on one hand, and it’s taken some serious puzzling skills for that to even happen. Four times in five years. But somehow his guy's weekends away always magically goes off without a hitch.”

Marianne ends on a sigh, and they just sit there in silence on their respective ends of the line for a little while.

“What about Théo?” Héloïse asks after maybe a minute. She can hear Marianne sighing and sniffling a little on the other end.

“He’s with my parents for the week. We haven’t told him, or them yet, but I think my parents understood why I asked if he could come visit. They always know, somehow, and I..” her voice breaks, “I can’t deal with them right now.”

Sobbing, again.

“I can’t deal with any of it. Everything here is built around an us and I don’t. I’m-”

A deep breath.

“I need to be me. And here I’ve been half of a pair for so long I can’t breathe anymore. I need to be just me and I think I’ve forgotten how.”

Despite everything, there’s a hint of determination to Marianne’s tone, and Héloïse thinks of the saying that it’s better to be angry than sad, because anger gives you strength. It makes her relieved, that Marianne at least seems to have that spark still. The energy.

“You should come here,” Héloïse offers, feeling deep in her gut that it’s the right thing to do.

“Can I?” Marianne’s voice is so small and relieved asking. “That’s not why I called, I promise. I think I just needed to talk to someone who actually remembers me . The singular person.”

“You can always come here.” It’s the truth. “Always. Anytime you need.”

“I can get a hotel, I don’t want to be a bother.”

“When have you ever been a bother?”

“Oh, I can think of a lot of times.” There’s laughter in her voice, underneath the tears now. Like tiny snowdrops struggling to reach spring from underneath the leaves of yesteryear.

“Fair, but a bother for real? Never.”

They debate it back and forth for a little while – Marianne being a bother and it’s on such short notice and really she doesn’t want to impose.

“Just come here you dummy,” Héloïse sighs eventually. “I have a sofa bed and zero plans. If you’re not here by tomorrow evening I’m driving down to pick you up myself.”

“Thank you,” Marianne says with the exhausted-relieved voice of someone who just saw sunlight for the first time in months.

They hang up, and within seconds, Héloïse is texting Madeleine, telling her that she’s come down with the flu and can they postpone her visiting them until she feels better?

Why her sister is not questioning Héloïse getting the flu in July, she doesn’t know.

 


 

Marianne is as tall as ever, but she feels fragile in Héloïse’s embrace. Maybe she’s lost weight from stress and worry, or Héloïse could be projecting. Nevertheless, after what’s possibly the longest hug of their life, Héloïse sends Marianne off to take a bath and freshen up after the long drive, while she starts sorting out dinner.

When Marianne re-emerges forty-five minutes later, it’s with damp hair, dressed in shorts and an old band t-shirt, shoulders less tense already. She sits on the kitchen counter, slowly sipping from a glass of white as Héloïse simultaneously keeps an eye on the sauce simmering and talks about her oldest niece getting her nose pierced without asking.

“I mean, she’s thirteen, I don’t understand why Madeleine is freaking out so much over it. Isn’t that what thirteen year-olds are supposed to do?”

“God I hope not,” Marianne says. “I would flip if Théo came home with a DIY piercing in a few years.

“He strikes me more as a spontaneous tattoo kind of person.”

Marianne looks horrified for a second, until it dawns on her that Héloïse is mostly trying to rile her up.

“Did he ever draw on any more walls by the way?” she asks, referring a few years back in time.

“No, he’s understood that there are benefits to sticking to paper for now,” Marianne laughs. “The exchange program of art-for-chocolate my mother set up is a key motivator.”

“He reminds me so much of you,” Héloïse says. “I mean, it’s been a while since I saw him but he still has that same calm about him, no?”

With anyone else, except maybe Madeleine, Héloïse would be eager to steer the topic away from children, but it’s different with Marianne. Partly because Théo is the one child in the world that she’s not related to and still unconditionally likes. Partly because Marianne knows when it’s time to change the topic too. It’s like the adult evolution of spending recess talking about a party that not everyone present was invited to. Totally fine to retell, but it cannot be the be all, end all of topics. And also because talking about children with anyone she’s not close with inevitably leads to questions about wanting your own, and that just hurts.

It's not like Héloïse has anyone to have a kid with anyway, and she is enough of a realist to understand that even if there are possibilities, raising a child alone from scratch is more of an undertaking than she's willing to commit to.

“More wine?”

“I don’t think I should. I’m emotional enough as it is.”

Héloïse gets it. She has weepy drunk-tendencies of her own, without ever having had to deal with the stress of a divorce. She plugs the cork in the half-empty bottle, puts it back in the fridge for another day.

 


 

While Marianne is off to the bathroom, Héloïse makes up the sofa bed, brings a glass of water and turns off all the lamps except for the reading one next to one end of the couch. She always goes out of her way to be a good host when she has people staying over, but she knows she’s trying a little harder this time. Marianne and her tense shoulders clearly need a retreat chez Héloïse, even if the guest herself would protest it to the moon and back, and had Héloïse not known it would be fruitless, she would gladly have swapped and given Marianne the bedroom.

When she returns, they stop, silent opposite each other for a little while, barefoot on the off-white rug that has followed Héloïse from her university dorm, through the years and all the way here. Héloïse starts scratching her neck the exact same moment Marianne yawns.

“Ehm, good night then,” Héloïse mumbles while pulling at the thick yarn of the rug with her toes.

“Thank you,” Marianne says instead of a sleep well or the like, and in the blink of an eye she has stepped closer, her arms wrapping around Héloïse’s neck in a hug that makes her feel a bit like a buoy. Just as Héloïse starts getting over the initial shock of having Marianne so close again and relaxes a little, she steps back.

“I mean it. Thank you,” she says.

Héloïse nods. “You’re welcome. I hope you’ll sleep well.” Then she pads up the stairs, throwing a glance over her shoulder to see Marianne burrowing down under the duvet with a book.

She takes out a pair of reading glasses. Héloïse didn’t even know she uses glasses now.

 


 

Saturday jumps at Héloïse like an unwelcome prankster. Three days have passed in a flash of long walks by the sea, experimental and for the most part edible cooking, silent hours on the sofa or the terrace with a book each, that seamlessly morphed into their never ending conversation when either of them had something to say. Then Friday evening had brought with it a thunderstorm, and so the world smelled fresh and new this morning.

She’s about to go ask Marianne if she wants to walk down to the beach for a swim, when she overhears her talking on the phone. She’s in the small garden on the back of the house, pacing angrily.

“Louis- no, let me talk. I know you’re pissed off, but it’s not just-”

“If you would just listen to-”

“You know what, I’m gonna call you again in-” a short pause where Marianne looks at her watch, her body language all snappy and frustrated, “-an hour and a half, and we will have to sort this out. Get a grip. Call a friend. Use a lifeline, je m’en fiche!”

“Yeah, bye.”

She lets out a long, frustrated groan, throws her phone onto an innocent pillow on Héloïse’s deck chair, and drags her hands through her hair.

“Are you alrigh- sorry that’s a stupid question,” Héloïse asks from where she’s stood in the doorway.

“Oh.” Marianne’s hands fall to her sides as she turns. “You heard.”

“I think Madame Grenier two houses over might have heard, and she’s eighty-nine and I can sometimes hear her television even when the doors are closed.”

“Merde.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“He’s just.. it’s like talking to a brick wall. I mean, he has all the right in the world to be upset and angry, but he’s not even making any sense right now.”

Marianne sighs and sits down on the footstool belonging to the deck chair.

“He’s pissed at me for going away for a few days, and at the same time says he doesn’t want me in the house – which we own together, as he’s very well aware. And on top of that he’s kicking up a fuss about Théo staying with my parents, as if they would pick sides in front of a child! We haven’t even told them we’re splitting yet. And either way it’s because his mother is older and doesn't have the energy to keep a five year-old by herself for more than a few days. Which he would realise if he could manage to pull his head out of his own fucking ass!”

“Would you prefer it if I just listen, or do you want to hear my thoughts?”

“Honestly? I’d prefer to just not think or talk about it at all. Just makes me angry.”

And there’s that exhaustion again.

“We can do that,” Héloïse says.

They go down to the beach. The silence is unexpectedly comfortable, as if the open space itself somehow makes things less heavy.

“When are you leaving tomorrow?”

“After breakfast or I’ll be back home way too late.”

Héloïse nods.

“You know you..” she shoves her hands deep in the pockets of her shorts, talking straight ahead instead of looking at Marianne. “..if you ever need a change of place or anything you’re always welcome here. You can stay longer now too, if you want.”

“I know. And thank you.”

They end up not swimming, the wind is chilly. Walking barefoot on the sand, chased sideways by the waves is enough.

 


 

When they’re back at the house, Marianne disappears out in the garden with her phone again. Héloïse tries to read but she can’t focus, keeps re-reading the same sentence over and over. The radio over in the kitchen is on, quite loud to make sure Marianne knows she can’t overhear her, and it’s doing nothing for Héloïse’s scattered brain.

She changes into workout clothes, which at this time of year really only means putting on a different pair of shorts and her running shoes, and when the low murmur of Marianne’s voice stops for a little while she steps out in the garden.

“Ça va?”

“Better now, thanks.” She’s sitting on the foot rest of the deck chair, mindlessly locking and unlocking her phone.

“I’m gonna go for a run. I’ll be back in an hour or so.”

“Okay.”

Héloïse gives her a swift pat on the shoulder before turning to leave.

“Wait?” Marianne reaches out and stops her by grabbing her hand, lets it drop between them when Héloïse has turned back around.

“Yeah?”

“Um, I need to talk to Théo first, but you said I could stay for a few more days?” The eye contact is very brief, Marianne dips her head down three words in, looking somewhere in the general area of both their feet. Up again. “If I wanted?”

“Of course you can,” Héloïse blurts out so fast that they’re almost overlapping.

“You sure?”

“Would I have offered if I wasn’t?”

“No, no of course you wouldn’t have.”

“You can stay here whenever you want. I can write it down if having it on paper helps?”

Marianne chuckles. “Asshat,” she says, looking down again. “And thank you. I don’t think I’m ready to go back and deal with my life just yet.”

Héloïse leans down and hugs her, because she’s not quite sure what to say, then gathers herself and sets off on her standard five kilometer loop. She never runs with actual music, instead she’s driven by the beat of whatever song is stuck in her head that day, no headphones required. Today, for no good reason, it’s the soaring bridge of Coldplay’s Fix You, over and over and over.

Halfway through her second lap, she starts humming Hakuna Matata to herself, in a desperate attempt to get rid of all the echoing guitars and harmonies.

 


 

Héloïse returns sweaty and a little more clear headed, just as Marianne is about to call Théo again. By the time she’s showered and changed, the phone call is finished, and Marianne is sat on the sofa, zapping between channels.

“How was he?”

“Théo? Oh, he’s perfectly fine,” her lower lip trembles a little, voice shaky. “He literally squealed when I told him that he can stay for a few more days if he wanted to. Apparently the kids next door to my parents’ are building a treehouse.”

“That’s great!” Héloïse exclaims. “Isn’t it?” she backtracks right after, unsure, because Marianne is silently crying.

“No, no, it’s good, it is. I just- sorry. I’m nothing but one massive mood swing right now.”

“You miss him?”

Marianne nods, staring empty at the weather report while large anime tears roll down her cheeks.

Héloïse sits down next to her, scooting close and putting her arm around Marianne.

“It will be fine. It might take a while, but it will be.” She’s trying her best to sound sincere and reassuring, despite the worry in her stomach, hoping that it will turn out true in the end. “Focus on staying upright for now, okay?”

Marianne sniffles, nodding into Héloïse’s shoulder, then takes a deep breath and rubs at her eyes with the sleeve of her hoodie.

“It’s just- I just realised, it’s always gonna be like this now, isn’t it?”

“Is what?”

“Half time with Théo.”

The moment Marianne says it, it’s all so clear. Héloïse can’t believe that she hasn’t thought of it herself.

“It sucks. It’s allowed to suck,” she points out, gently rubbing Marianne’s back somewhat in time with her sobbing. It’s stressful, seeing her so down, but nothing good comes from bottling up emotions, and she much rather spends an evening comforting Marianne here and now, than have her suppress her thoughts and feelings and eventually explode. This is better in the long run.

“You know what Matt told me after his parents got divorced?”

“No?”

“That it’s a lot nicer to have two happy parents in two different places, than unhappy parents living in the same house. Kids can tell, Marianne. And Théo’s still little, so soon he won’t remember much else than having two happy parents. Sure, the switching houses every other week is not ideal, but it’s also not the end of the world.”

“Why are you so wise?” Marianne sniffles.

“Me?” It comes out almost as a laugh, for good reason. Héloïse knows she’s smart, but wise is a whole different concept. “I’m not, I’m just relaying wisdom from one of my best friends to my other best one. I’m nothing but a humble messenger.”

“You don’t sound very humble saying it all pompous like that.” There’s a tinge of laughter in her voice now, and it makes Héloïse’s heart soar in a most inconvenient way.

“Shh, it’s all part of the deception,” Héloïse says, leaning back on the couch. She expects Marianne to curl up on the opposite end, like she’s done the other nights, but she doesn’t. She stays where she is, leans in close again.

“What have you been watching lately?” she asks, handing Héloïse the remote.

“Oh, nothing important. The West Wing, for the nth time, but I know you’re not a fan, we can-”

“Nono, that’s perfect, put it on. Then I won’t have to engage my braincells.” She reaches to grab a pillow, hugs it and leans back onto Héloïse’s shoulder.

By the end of the episode, Marianne is nodding off.

“Do you want your bed back?”

“No, too early,” she suppresses a yawn. “One more, it’s nice to hear all the talking, even if I’m not really listening.”

“As you wish.”

“Is this okay?” she asks, putting the pillow in Héloïse’s lap instead before lying down, curled up like a cat.

“Mhm, sure.”

“Thanks.”

It’s a good thing Héloïse is left-handed, because Marianne steals her right one, puts it on her waist and it’s also a good thing she’s seen this episode a million times before because it’s difficult, keeping up with dialogue that fast while her hand is gently moving in time with the rise and fall of Marianne’s chest, causing her internal monologue to turn into nothing but a steady stream of curse words mixed with personal admonishment. It feels too good, so easy, too easy, to pretend that Marianne slumbering on her lap happens every day instead of once every other decade.

 


 

The next day it rains. Steady, with no signs of stopping, and Héloïse has to bring out a whole boatload of reasons to get Marianne off the couch and out for a walk after lunch. She seems low again, quiet in a bad way and Héloïse is not sure what she can do to help, if anything. When they get back in, Marianne is back in front of the TV the second their outerwear has been hung up to dry.

Héloïse leaves her there, and goes on a treasure hunt in her drawers and closets. It takes her a good fifteen minutes, but eventually she finds what she’s after.

"Here." She hands the item to Marianne. It’s a shoebox, for a pair of Nike hightops that lived a long and happy life once, but went in the trash almost a decade ago.

“What is that?” Marianne asks, eyeing the dusty carton in Héloïse’s outstretched hands.

“Oh, it might be stupid, but I thought maybe you needed to just.. do something for fun. If you want.”

She takes the box, shakes it gently. There’s a familiar rustle.

Inside the box is a mess of old art supplies, most of them barely used.

"I haven't drawn anything for fun in ages."

"So? It's like riding a bike to you, no?"

“Yeah, maybe..”

Marianne sounds hesitant but takes the box with her to the breakfast bar. Héloïse turns the radio in the kitchen on to a low murmur, and fills a few glasses with water, placing them next to the box.

“There are watercolours in there somewhere. I think.”

“Mhm,” Marianne nods, having lifted the lid off, already borderline lost to the land of possible art.

 


 

They end up losing the whole rest of the afternoon. Or gaining, come to think of it. Héloïse gives up after a few cartoonish sketches, and an abysmal attempt at a beach scenery. She starts reading a book instead, occasionally lifting her head to regard Marianne’s progress – small drawings and paintings, appearing one after another.

Her parents’ house and the dusty cobbled street. A little boy that must be Théo, with a kite in a field – very Monet-esque, that one. A menhir they passed on a walk the other day. All from memory.

Watching her like this is mesmerizing – the quiet focus, the errant lock of hair that keeps falling in her eyes, keeps being blown at, tucked away only to repeat the whole ordeal after the next movement of head. Chewing on her lip, scratching the back of her neck with the shaft of the brush. Everything about her is beautiful, fascinating, always has been, which is terribly impractical but there’s no way to deny it.

Héloïse drags her eyes back to the book again, it’s not a masterpiece of any sort but it’s decently written and interesting enough and she needs to do something other than looking at Marianne or she will get caught while at it, so she keeps reading, until the words blur and she’s shaken back to consciousness by a soft hand on her shoulder.

“I fell asleep?”

“Mhm,” Marianne nods, amused.

“What time is it?”

“Just past six. I think you were out for maybe half an hour.”

Héloïse grumbles. Sleeping during the day makes her disoriented and angry. Or possibly just hangry, her stomach is rumbling.

“You want me to order pizza?” Marianne offers, clearly in a better mood now than earlier, before Héloïse even has woken back up enough to voice her need for food.

“It’s still raining, and they don’t do deliveries, stupid hipster pizza place.”

“But you do own an umbrella. I can go pick the order up, don’t worry.”

“There are also cars, come to think of it?”

“I don’t mind the walk. It will be refreshing.” She walks over to the notice board where the menu for the pizza place is pinned next to a christmas card from Madeleine and her family, stretching her arms above her head with a groan as she goes. Her t-shirt rides up a little, shows off a sliver of skin above the waistband of her jeans. It’s a second, it’s nothing, just the shadow of a spine. Yet Héloïse is staring, staring and then promptly scolding herself because no , nothing has changed, and even if it had, now would not be the time for ogling, Marianne is going through a life crisis. So, never. Never is the time for that.

“One Reine and one Persillade?”

“Hmm, what? Oh yes, that’s perfect.”

While Marianne is away – decked out with an umbrella, the same breton raincoat she had borrowed in the morning, and Héloïse’s wellies that are two sizes too large, Héloïse clears up after their impromptu art session. Along with the finished pieces she already saw, there is a fourth one, a simple pencil sketch. Although simple is not really a fitting description.

It’s her, asleep at the table – one arm acting as a pillow, the hand of the other trapped between pages of her book, a limp bookmark. Drawing-Héloïse looks serene and comfortable. Actual-Héloïse rapidly puts that sketch with the others, can’t look for too long at the careful render of herself – but silently decides that if Marianne doesn’t want to keep them, she will.

 


 

“Call me when you’ve arrived, yeah?”

“I will, promise.” Marianne swings her small duffle bag in one hand, squints at Héloïse in the sunlight.

It’s as if there were tiny strings or a spider’s web attached to the walls of the house, holding them back, trying to keep them here. Marianne should be sat in the car by now, heading off, but every step has something hesitant and unwilling to it, as if she would prefer to stay, and Héloïse knows she’s no better. Hovering by the door as if her keeping a distance to the car would act as a magnetic pull or something.

“And if Louis keeps being an asshat and you need me to come kick him in the balls, just say the word.”

“Héloïse.”

“Sorry, I won’t kick him in the balls.”

Marianne smiles at the ground for a second, then looks up, serious.

“I don’t know what I’d do without you. You’re such a rock. And I’m sorry you missed out on the weekend at your sister’s.”

“On what?”

“She texted you about rescheduling. Your phone was on the counter so I saw, I didn’t snoop or anything.”

Héloïse feels her face grow warm, and she pushes back the instinctive squirm. “Oh, that. Don’t worry about it. You needed me more.” Which is one hundred percent true. “I can throw around my tiny relatives next weekend instead. Now get your butt out of here before this gets all weepy.”

She kicks at the ground looking in all possible directions when Marianne puts her bag in the back of the car. Farewells are the worst.

Then she gestures for one more hug, and who is Héloïse to decline, really?

“I mean it,” Marianne tells the crook of her neck. “Thank you, so, so much. I’m feeling more like a person again.” Marianne takes half a step back to be able to look straight at her. Her eyes are a little glassy, she’s linked their hands, and Héloïse is feeling far too many emotions for one person to contain.

“No crying, I said,” she scoffs, untangles their fingers before ushering Marianne to the car.

“Call me or text me when you arrive, please,” Héloïse tells her, again. The windows are rolled down in an attempt to de-furnace the little vehicle that has been stood in direct sunlight for at least a couple of hours.

“I will,” Marianne says, reaching for Héloïse’s hand through the open window. “I’ve missed you. I-,” corrects herself, almost. “I’ll miss you.”

“Miss you too,” Héloïse says, and then Marianne is off, turns around the corner and Héloïse is left with echoing silence and a strange feeling in her gut.

 


 

She calls Matthieu, while the dust is literally still settling on her driveway, and in the least unexpected reaction to anything ever, the words “Marianne is getting divorced” are barely out of her mouth before there’s a stunned “oh putain”, followed by “what did you do?” on the other end of the line.

“I didn’t do anything!”

“You didn’t?”

“No!”

“You sure?”

“Yes! Just because I’m me doesn’t mean that..'' she trails off, desperately racking her brain for a change of topic.

“That she’s secretly been pining for you all this time despite being with what’s-his-face for over a decade?”

“Yes. That. No.” She lets out a loud groan. “I don’t know. I just..”

“..have a tiny but loud voice in the back of your head shouting things like finally ?”

The silence that follows is telling; Héloïse can’t deny it..

“So, how are you gonna get her back?”

“How am I? No. Nonono. Not. Happening.”

“But she’s single now, right? Or is she, technically? Maybe there has to be papers signed first? I have no idea how these things work, but-”

“Matt. Shut it.”

“Anyways, she will be single, soon, at least.”

“No. Yes. But no.”

“Héloïse.” There’s a tone in his voice, and Héloïse does not like it.

“You know what? You need to cut down on your cheesy movies and tv-shows. That is what needs to happen. Read fewer romance novels.”

“Pfft.”

“Seriously. Matt, I mean it.”

“Well, in that case you need to get over the chick you’ve been silently and not only subconsciously pining over since the beginning of the century.”

“Ouch, that’s harsh, man. And unfair.”

“Actually, no. It’s true and we both know it.”

Héloïse sincerely hopes that he can feel the power of her glare through the silence she’s creating.

“I mean, you could try and get under her instead.. no? No?”

“Matt, I’m hanging up now.”

“No, you’re not. Because either you still need to talk, and if you don’t, or don’t want to, I do, because-”

And with that, Matt is off on a rant about differences in supporter culture diversity between small-town teams and the big city powerhouses, and Héloïse is struck by a sudden jolt of affection for him.

 


 

After those six days in late July, one thing changes. They keep in more regular touch than they’ve hardly ever done before, talking over the phone almost every day. Life is messy on Marianne's end – finding a place to live close enough to Théo's school, sorting out the details of Louis buying her half of the house, moving out, figuring out a routine of being a parent every other week instead of full-time, figuring out how to navigate the social life that has been shared for over a decade as a separate person instead of as part of a unit. Every time they talk Marianne finds reasons to tell Héloïse how nice it is that they’re constantly in touch now, how much she appreciates having someone not her parents who is undoubtedly on her side. Héloïse thinks that the second half of that statement is sort of a given, since she's not part of the everyday life and drama, but it makes her insides go warm all the same.

Marianne comes to visit again, for a weekend in the beginning of September, just as the air is starting to grow crisp and golden.

“God, I’ve missed you,” she mumbles into Héloïse’s neck seconds after setting foot on the platform, dropping her duffle bag next to their feet. Héloïse, somewhat stunned, says nothing. Just holds her, gentle as the bustle of the train station passes by around them. Hands low on her hips because there’s a backpack keeping her from wrapping her arms around her. She feels a whole many things while trying her best not to.

“How was the trip?” she asks when Marianne eventually lets go of her.

“It was alright. Wifi cut out for a while, but I got all the work stuff out of the way, so now I’m all yours for the weekend.”

 

All yours.

All yours.

Get a grip, Héloïse, it’s just a phrasing.

All yours.

 

They drive home, swiftly fall back into the routine from last time, of Héloïse cooking while Marianne freshens up, once more reappearing just in time for some wine while sitting on the kitchen counter dangling bare feet as the food gets ready.

Only this time, they don’t stop themselves after one glass of wine each, instead they finish off a bottle and then some while having a 90's romcom marathon – loudly heckling the prudish excuses for love scenes and silently swooning at the meet cutes, no matter how high up on the scale of improbability they land.

They fall asleep on the couch in a tipsy heap of blankets. Together.

 


 

Héloïse wakes up at six the following morning with a faint headache, and realises after ten or so seconds that she's the little spoon. She hasn't been the little spoon ever. Or at least not since that summer.

2002.

"You're tall."

The same reasoning by everyone in the could-have-should-have-been-longer line of women that has ended up in her bed and her life since then. Since Marianne.

Being tall does not equate a lack of wanting to be held every now and then.

Her heart is about to beat its way out of her chest.

Marianne doesn't even as much as stir for another two and a half hours. Héloïse spends all that time barely able to breathe. She wants to run, and also to never ever move again.

Then, a yawn. Content humming against her shoulder blade. She can feel the warm puff of breath through the fabric of her t-shirt. The arm around her waist ever so slightly tighter, pulling ever so slightly closer. A languid, slow-motion kick of one leg.

Héloïse doesn't run.

Instead she turns in Marianne's arms, because the truth is she is a masochist who never properly got over her first crush. (Love, says the tiny voice in the back of her head, remembering the words she’d mumbled, unheard, at the train station in Toulouse so many years ago. Love, not crush.)

Also because watching Marianne wake up is one of life's small miracles. The scrunch of the nose, the yawning with eyes still slammed shut. Blinking, for a short while confused at being conscious. And, a smile. Just like when she was eighteen, only with added crow’s feet in the corner of her eyes.

Then, Marianne's eyes go wide and her smile changes into a look of mild confusion. That's all that happens. She's still holding Héloïse, who still struggles to breathe with any sort of depth or rhythm. Marianne swallows, audibly. Opens her mouth a little, but no words come out.

As if it wasn't already too much, she carefully lets go of Héloïse’s waist, only to sneak a hand up and push a stray hair out of her face instead, tuck it behind her ear. And yes, her hand lingers, thumb on cheekbone, slowly, slowly, and there are tears threatening to well up in Héloïse's eyes because this, this hurts.

She wants this, but for real, not for a weekend away from real.

"Don't do this. I can't-" Héloïse chokes out, pulling back ever so slightly, a whisper, broken and wheezy, because she knows the look on Marianne’s face and what it can potentially lead to. She learned it, happily, almost half their lives ago. The adoration, but also hunger, and something deeper, overarching.

Marianne's thumb stills. The dead quiet is urging Héloïse to continue. A deep breath, oxygen – enough of it for the first time since she woke up. The truth, because otherwise she might never recover. Her voice is quiet, careful not to shatter the entire morning. Still a voice that might break at least one heart: her own.

"Please don't do this. I won't be able to get over you a second time. Barely managed the first, even- even though that was my own fault."

The following silence is the loudest she's ever heard. It feels endless, grating.

Marianne swallows again.

Then.

"I don't want you to get over me."

Héloïse blinks. Searches Marianne's face for something, whatever it might be, any sign of uncertainty because.. this? Is not happening. It can’t be.

She finds nothing of the sort. Warm eyes, steady on her now, another stroke of the thumb.

"I don't want you to get over me again. Ever."

Again. Ever. This time, her words sort of settle, stirring something in the very core of Héloïse.

Who promptly loses it. Her eyes are suddenly flooded with tears, bottom lip violently trembling, she's curling inwards, sobbing, hulking in the most undignified way. In ten words, Marianne has somehow managed to smash through the most solid of all her walls, almost twenty years in the making, and all her body can do faced with such a massive wave of relief is apparently to cry, scrunched into a sniffling, hiccuping ball, wrapped up in a woolly blanket too warm for the season, and Marianne's arms.

Marianne who holds her close and strokes her hair and whispers "I'm so sorry that I hurt you", to Héloïse who vehemently objects that “no, (hic) the only one responsible for the hurt is myself (hic) and my stupid (hic), hung up brain.”

(hic)

"In a way, I'm glad you were hung up."

Héloïse stares at her, puffy eyed and shivering. Marianne's eyes are glassy too.

"It sucks a little less when it's mutual."

Héloïse swallows. Rubs at her eyes. Can’t fully comprehend what Marianne is saying, but slowly relaxes out of the ball she's curled herself into.

Inhales. A terrible, snivelling noise.

"I need to blow my nose, I think."

Tries to untangle herself from the blankets and Marianne, but is held back.

"No. Stay. Just-"

And Héloïse gets it. This moment, right here, is maybe possibly one of those that will be written out with capital letters when she gets to the point of summarizing her life.

"I'm a mess," she whispers, wiping at her eyes, again. She can’t control it, the tears just keep rolling, a small steady stream as if to keep the tumultuous pressure inside her somewhat at bay.

"Yes, yes you are," Marianne agrees, fond eyes sweeping over her face, pausing briefly downcast at-

"But you're you. And-"

Her fingers are scratching, pulling at the neckline of Héloïse's t-shirt for a moment, like she's trying to find something to hold on to but afraid of it at the same time. Still flitting between eye contact and again, miraculously, lower.

"-and I know this is a lot, but dammit, Héloïse. I just want you." There’s an urgency in her voice, expanding and hectic as if she’s been timed while solving a puzzle – rapid, angular movements putting the last pieces in place.

"But you have me."

"Not like that. Not just letters and occasional visits, and trying to solve the world over the phone."

Somehow they've shifted even closer, so close that Héloïse needs to pull back a little for Marianne to not just be an unfocused blur when she tries to look her in the eyes. She’s not let far away though, Marianne hooks a foot over hers under the blankets, gives her a pointed look.

"Héloïse. Please?"

Despite everything, she can’t come up with a single reason not to.

It's simultaneous, slow as, and maybe even more fumbly than their first-first kiss all those years ago, and Héloïse's eyes are leaking rivers again, but it doesn't matter. It's everything, again, still. The light pressure, over and over. A tilt of head, eyelashes. The shiver – she can feel it in both of them – when she moves her hand up to hold her neck. The soft hairs at the nape under the tips of her fingers.

Then Marianne sighs into her mouth, her whole body moving closer with the movement of a breath, and her lips are gentle and eager and all the tiny bits and pieces that make up Héloïse’s soul, they sort of float into place.

Not stable, not yet, maybe never because that’s not how life works. But in place.

 


 

They take it to the bedroom, eventually. And maybe things are happening too fast by any sort of reasonable standards but at some point the awe and all the butterflies has turned into urgency hunger, and t-shirts and sweatpants are fast becoming the most annoying creations in the universe. Héloïse knows that the itching, almost painful stress inside her can only be quelled by either stopping right this second, or by getting naked and reckless – and judging by the stars that keep exploding in her own gut, and how Marianne now seems to be completely incapable of going three seconds of her life without putting her lips on Héloïse’s skin – stopping does not feel like an option.

It only takes a near-fall off the couch for Marianne to get them there – to the bedroom – because Héloïse is adamant in letting Marianne be the one to set whatever pace they’re going at, happily following – and then she’s being pulled up on unstable legs and is trailing after her, to the hallway, up the narrow stairs, breathless and buzzing.

Halfway up, Marianne stops, turns to look down at her for a second. Backlit, angelic, stray tendrils of her hair like a messy halo blurring her outline, and there’s a whole array of metaphors and comparisons going off in Héloïse’s brain. She tells her mind to shut up, lets herself be led.

Unlike the living room, her bedroom gets the direct morning sun, and the warm light forcing its way through the window is somewhat startling, and Héloïse hadn’t thought to make her bed or do anything about the piles of clothes lying around before Marianne’s arrival because why would it matter what her bedroom looked like?

It wouldn’t matter in the slightest, as it turns out. Marianne only has eyes for her.

They stumble to a halt in the middle of the floor, because kissing, they need it more than air, and Marianne is tugging at Héloïse’s sleep shirt and-

“You want to, right?”

“Are brussels sprouts an abomination?”

“Well, technically-”

Marianne doesn’t get any further, stops in the middle of a sentence, presumably due to Héloïse having tugged her own shirt over her head as a way of moving things forward, appearing a second later, hair in all directions and eyes asking one single question.

“I’m- gonna take that.. as a yes,” Marianne concludes, briefly looking down between them, gaze so warm and starving before she, too, takes her t-shirt off and pulls them together again.

Were it not for her hands being busy – busy solid on Marianne’s hips turning her walking her backwards to the edge of the bed hand up between soft angular shoulder blades laying her down on top of the messy duvet – busy crawling up after her, stroking one hand up her ribs, holding herself up on the other, then higher, softer, softest, Marianne gasping eyes shut head tipped back oh, Héloïse, and all the skin of her neck, every inch of it, busy scattering kisses anywhere she can reach.

Were it not for all of that keeping her hands and mind occupied and taking immense priority over a reality check, Héloïse would have pinched herself.

Instead she leans down, placing another kiss on Marianne’s sternum, feeling her heartbeat thunder under the smooth skin that’s almost glowing in the sun.

“Wait,” Marianne stops her as Héloïse is tugging at the waistband of her underwear. “Curtains?”

Oh. That.

“No neighbours on this side. And second floor. And a tree.” Héloïse explains, gesturing vaguely at the green leaves that indeed are visible through the balcony door, hurried, ending with yet another kiss for emphasis, and the broad grin on Marianne’s face, the way she squirms a little, settling deeper in the heap of duvets and pillows. The way she lies there, wanting, wanting, waiting; a piece of art in the sunlight, prettiest ever seen, softly squeezing their linked hands resting low on her stomach. How she lets go of Héloïse’s hand just to wiggle out of her underwear, very nearly placing a knee in her solar plexus because she is not looking anywhere but in Héloïse’s eyes, laughing, arms over Héloïse’s shoulders, pulls her close for kisses down her neck a hint of teeth tongue hot breath softly crying out in relief neck tense hips twitchy when Héloïse moves her hand lower. How Marianne’s legs must have been made with one sole purpose in mind – smooth and strong perfectly wrapped around Héloïse’s waist. It’s everything. Absolutely everything.

 


 

Héloïse have always hated the phrase “make love”.

But she is honest enough with herself to know that there is – at times – no better description.

 


 

“That. You.”

Marianne leans her head back, eyes closed, and lets out a deep sigh, body limp and sated.

“So good.”

Héloïse freezes next to her, torn between delighted and bashful. Marianne’s tone of voice poking heavy at the embers in her lower abdomen.

“I didn’t have much to compare with back then. Now I have, and it’s still just as good.”

Héloïse hides at that, buries her face in the crook of Marianne’s neck.

“You’re still shit at compliments, aren’t you?” Marianne points out, nudging Héloïse until she reappears, red in the face and sort of unable to look her in the eye.

“Um.”

“It’s cute. And totally uncalled for.”

“Mhf.”

She reaches for the glass on the bedside table, takes a sip before she lies down, half on top of Marianne again, because there simply cannot be too much skin on skin at this point in time. Their idle attempts at conversation are constantly punctured by kisses to the point of being forgotten altogether, left by the wayside for later and if Marianne could hurry up and just flip them or something already that would be very welcome because her wandering hands means Héloïse is too turned on to think but also languid kisses are nice and they have time and to all that is holy the look on Marianne’s face when she finally slips her hand down between them, as if she’d need that confirmation, as if they’re not already practically one shared heartbeat – and Héloïse wants to stay in this moment forever, half lying down on top of her, hips longing for her, arms shaking and Marianne has to be doing this on purpose this gentle smirking enough touch to make her shiver but only just.

“Please,” Héloïse whimpers into the crook of her neck, arms on the verge of giving up. “Please stop teasing.”

“Okay,” Marianne says, gently rolls them over, and she may have agreed to no more teasing, there is a pressure now, but she keeps going slow, so slow and Héloïse can hardly think, too overwhelmed by steady hands and the amount of emotions currently wreaking havoc in her body and mind.

She has learned, mostly, to live with the consequences of her own past decisions, and even thinking of the way things have been as some kind of second best situation is not fair, because there will never be anything “just” about friendships, a real friendship is not an afterthought. But right now, when Marianne is looking at her like she’s an oasis in a desert, possibly even a mirage judging by the hint of disbelief in her eyes, when that reverence is felt in the way she’s touching her, travels through Héloïse’s nerves and limbs, everything but this very second feels like it’s been muted, not going at full speed.

And every emotion she has pushed back over the years, out of respect and fear and regret, comes out in the open. It’s slowly settling, the knowledge, the realisation that she’s allowed to feel without that last level of restraint. Everything that she once put to sleep for sanity’s and dignity’s sake is stirring awake now, with the force of possibility, the relief, and it’s completely overwhelming and so very nice.

“You-” she hears Marianne, just as her eyes can no longer stay open and the world goes blank.

 


 

“Can I ask you a stupid question? And you don’t have to answer.”

“Go ahead.”

“Is it weird for you? Having sex with someone else after so long?”

She’s quiet for a while, chewing on her lower lip.

“No,” Marianne says eventually, dropping back on the pillow next to Héloïse, eyes open to the white ceiling. “I thought it would be, when I thought about it at first, just the idea of having someone new touch me, but I didn’t know then that it would be you.”

“Oh.”

“I’m glad it’s you.”

“Me too,” Héloïse tells the roof, feeling Marianne turn next to her. Soon, her face appears in Héloïse’s field of view.

“Uh-huh?” head tilted, eyes sparkling, questioning.

“Uh-huh what?”

“You know.” Marianne nudges her.

“Okay, fine. So? It might have been a while. I live in a small, boring town. I’m in that horrible age where everyone’s paired up already, and lesbians do sadly not grow on trees,” Héloïse grumbles, pulling the duvet up above her nose which is making her way too warm but she’s willing to suffocate a little to stay hidden.

“So there was Laure..?”

“Mhm.”

“And after her, Élise?”

“Ouais.”

“And..?”

“And, well..”

She can practically hear Marianne counting backwards in her head.

“2016?” she asks, tugging the duvet down to see more of Héloïse than her eyes and forehead.

Héloïse inhales, slowly, stares at the roof for a bit.

“Early seventeen. Whatever.”

“Wow. And here I thought I was the one starved. Nonono, don’t pout!”

“So, I’ve learned I don’t get much out of random hookups. And I’m perfectly capable of taking care of things myself,” Héloïse blurts out, only to right away regret it when Marianne starts laughing, helplessly.

“I don’t doubt it. You’ve said so before, remember?”

Héloïse is thrown back, abruptly, to the back of her sister’s old car and her nervous eighteen year-old self, and lets out an unhappy groan that ends only when Marianne kisses her. With lots of intent, and tongue.

“Anyways,” Marianne says in a very conversational tone once Héloïse has been properly turned to mush, “I’m here now so..”

The rest goes unsaid, and would have been obsolete either way, because there’s this finger that has been drawing abstract patterns on Héloïse’s torso for a little while and now appears to be shifting to more purposeful tracks. Along a collarbone, to the dip between, then down towards one side, swapped for a thumb gently gently rubbing and it’s instantaneous the way she feels her spine turn liquid body loose even looser what with fingers giving way to lips and sure, DIY is all fine and good but it has nothing on Marianne’s warm mouth on her breasts and she stays there for a long time, long enough that when she eventually moves further down, Héloïse feels almost delirious, her lower back like lead so heavy from pulsing heat she should be incapable of moving but she isn’t, can’t be because Marianne’s hands are trying, trying to hold her steady, and Héloïse is trying to make it last, wants to stay in this feeling for as long as physically possible, forever please, but it’s a struggle and not even thinking about boring stuff like kitchen utensils or tax return helps, not when she’s humming like that and the sound reverberates like an electric current up Héloïse’s spine, not when there’s a push inside and she feels hollow and complete at once.

She holds herself up on her elbows, for a few seconds caatching a glance at the messy head between her legs, the not-quite-long-enough hair escaping it’s ponytail in all directions. The one arm wrapped around and over her thigh, fingers spread wide on her stomach as if to touch as much of her as possible at any given moment. The other hand she can’t see, only feel, and before long she falls back on the pillows again.

 


 

Marianne looks up, eyes full of things that are too much to say. Bends down for a kiss at the soft inside of a thigh and Héloïse almost wants her to stay there, to just keep going because her body tells her please in the dazed afterglow but she doesn’t and that probably just as well, lest Héloïse would end up a puddle of goo and not much more.

“Were you trying to prove a point just now? About DIY?” Héloïse mumbles when her brain has recovered enough for words. Marianne has curled up with her head on Héloïse’s chest and she’s playing with her hair, slowly raking her fingers through the dark strands, over and over. Their whole world smells like apple shampoo and sated bodies.

“Hmm, not really,” Marianne replies after a little while. “I just can’t seem to get enough of you.”

 


 

They make it out of bed eventually, mostly because of growling stomachs growing impossible to ignore – have separate quick showers or else the whole day would disappear – and reemerge wearing actual clothes before eating a breakfast so delayed it barely qualifies as lunch. 

There’s a lot to think about.

“That’s adulting for you,” Marianne laughs at Héloïse’s grumble about the logistics of life, coming up behind her as she’s taking care of the dishes. Arms around her waist, kissing at her neck, earlobe a hint of teeth, whispering sweet nothings as teasing curious fingers explore up under the hem of her t-shirt, up, up, up her side, and Héloïse, once again mindless, boneless, knees close to buckling turns off the tap and steers them towards the nearest horizontal surface.

Adulting gets, per mutual decision, postponed.

It happens later, over plates of baked salmon with fresh tomatoes and basil from the garden, on Héloïse’s small terrace. There are things, lots of them, to consider.

Théo, first and foremost. Which should maybe scare Héloïse, but it doesn’t.

Measuring love is a silly concept. Marianne loves Théo, unconditionally and forever, as she should. Doesn’t mean she can’t love Héloïse too, just as much, only different. The difference mainly lies in that Héloïse, for all the quiet heartbreak and years spent regretting a decision made as a teenager under pressure, is independent. She can want Marianne to the moon and back and beyond, but she doesn’t need her in the way Théo does. And love is like the wind and the sun, an unending resource, at least within a timespan the human brain can comprehend. There will be enough. They just need to reorganize the space around it a little.

Héloïse gets all the way to the sustainable energy metaphor before she chokes on a piece of potato because of what the voice inside her head is up to. Throwing around big words like that, alarmingly casual.

Love.

But it is. The warmth that comes after the concern in Marianne’s eyes as she’s coughing and wheezing, that’s it. The “are you alright”, the glass of water poured, the reassurance from Héloïse that “yes, it was just a piece of potato, I’m eating too fast”.

“But you’re the slowest eater I know,” Marianne says, her voice laced with impossible fondness.

Point is, there’s a difference between this, and any other romantic relationship Héloïse has ever had. The others always started out from scratch, putting everything together at the same time – learning how someone wants their coffee in time with figuring out how to make them ache and moan, and what they can talk about for hours.

But Héloïse knows how Marianne wants her coffee, which is to say black, but only ever before noon or the following night will be insomnia haven. She suspects it might be the knowledge of having had afternoon coffee more than the caffeine itself, but that’s not the point. The point is that they have had twenty seven years of knowing each other before getting to this point, and instead of building the whole thing from the ground up, this is more like redecorating the living room, or adding a terrace with a sunbed out back. They have so much between them already, twelve hours in it’s silly how easy this second run at romance feels.

 


 

“Can I ask you something?”

Héloïse is doing the dishes again, this time from dinner, and it’s taking forever, again, because instead of wiping and putting things back in the cupboards and being generally helpful, Marianne is once more dead set on distracting her.

“Fine, fine, I’ll stop,” Marianne huffs, shoving her hands in the pockets of her shorts – her own shorts this time.

“No, no, that wasn’t it.”

“Oooooh.” The playful happy of her voice almost, but only almost, manages to derail Héloïse’s train of thought.

“No, wait- okay, serious? Just- gimme a minute.” Héloïse fumbles with the towel. “You’re very distracting.”

“Right. Of course. Sorry, I’ll-” she takes two steps back this time, stands nervous like a child in trouble while Héloïse puts the pot and pan back in their right cupboard, wipes off the sink and bench, and washes her hands after hanging up the dishcloth.

The towel is too damp to be of any more use, she wipes her hands on the back of her shorts instead, Marianne shaking her head at her, asking “So, what was it?”

“Right. Yes.” Héloïse hesitates for a moment, secondguessing herself. “Did- were.. were you flirting with me last time you were here?”

Marianne looks confused and Héloïse wants to sink through the floor. Of course she hadn’t, how self-absorbed can you be, thinking that someone might be flirting when they’re busy going through serious emotional turmoil?

“I didn’t mean to,” Marianne says. “But maybe I did? Did I overstep?”

“Nonono, I just wanted to ask. It felt like it, a little, like when you used me as a pillow while not-watching tv.”

She nods in understanding, hops up on one of the stools by the breakfast bar.

“Honestly, I don’t know if I’ve ever flirted with you,” Marianne adds. “Or well, I have tried, but the *accidental* hand holding while looking at stars was so innocent it can’t have counted?”

Héloïse can feel herself turning into one big smile at the memory, blushing.

“It worked though. Kind off. I wanted to kiss you.”

“But you didn’t.”

“I got scared.”

“I can have that kiss now, instead,” Marianne says, and just like that, Héloïse is back in orbit.

“See, that was definitely flirting,” Héloïse points out a while later.

“I suppose.” Marianne is blushing, squirming a little while still sitting down, holding one of Héloïse’s hands.

“So you are flirting with me.”

“Sort of. I mean, it’s not that I don’t want to, or don’t want to be with you, it’s just that it’s effortless. In a good way,” Marianne adds quickly, eyes wide and concerned with the slight frown Héloïse is trying to erase from her own face.

“Like, I’ve never schemed or planned or been self-conscious of who I am when I’m with you. I’m just me, and even so you still look at me like that. Even now.”

“Like how?” Héloïse feels warm and anxious all over, and she’s not sure if it’s a good or a bad thing. It’s as if Marianne can read her mind though, because she stops them at the very right moment.

“As if- I’m not gonna say it, I’m not, because it’s lightyears too soon and we both know that. But I’ve known you for most of my life and I know this,” she reaches for Héloïse’s other hand and tangles their fingers together, “sort of just happened, or re-happened, but it feels so good. I’m not saying it will be easy, because there’s a world outside of this bubble, and a million things that could mess things up, but I’m above the clouds here. You have to know that.”

 


 

There are no goosebumps on her skin, despite the duvet only covering her from the waist down. Her face is half burrowed in a pillow, she’s flopped belly down, facing Héloïse. Remnants of a tan lingers, a pale line of a bikini strap drawn across her shoulder. Héloïse wants to reach out and trace it, her fingers itch with it, but she contains herself. Content with just watching for a moment, trying to process the last 24 hours. She wonders if she’s ever lived more in the moment than right now. Maybe this is what all the yoga people goes on about, but in a different setting.

Waits, until the change in breathing tells her she might have a conscious audience.

“You know how people always go on about how sleeping in fresh sheets is the best feeling ever?”

“Yeah, why?” Marianne mutters, words muffled by the pillow.

“They’re wrong.”

“Héloïse, it’s 06:45 on a Sunday morning, and I’m only like, 28 percent awake, if you’re gonna go all philosophical on me, I will fall back asleep, no matter how cute you are,” Marianne groans, eyes still squeezed shut.

“No, no. I was just gonna say that the best feeling is the morning after you go to bed in fresh sheets. Because they’re that little bit softer, and the laundry detergent scent is less sharp, but they still feel crispy and cool somehow.”

She had remade the bed last night. Banned Marianne from the bedroom for ten minutes while she changed to fresh sheets, wrestled with the duvet covers, kicked some disorder under the bed, lit a few candles. Just because.

Debated putting on fancy underwear before remembering that’s something she doesn’t really own.

Toothpaste kisses and the softest, oldest t-shirt ended up being more than fine, for all of the four minutes she wore it.

“Fine, you have a point,” Marianne grumbles. “Now go back to sleep. I wanna make the most of not being annoyed into consciousness by an over-eager five year-old at godawful o’clock in the morning.”

“You’re awake though.”

Seven stubborn seconds of silence, one lone kiss in the borderland of ear and cheek.

“You’re insatiable.”

“No, I-” the objection dies on Héloïse’s lips. It’s true. It’s also much deeper than simple libido. She can’t seem to explain it though.

“Insatiable, over-eager thirty-five year-old,” Marianne repeats, scooting closer, hands moving under the duvet, and it’s a new day but the trail she’s drawing up the inside of Héloïse’s thigh is old familiar and scorching and maybe Marianne is right and maybe she will tease Héloïse about it when she’s all done and out of breath but in this particular game they seem to both be winning a lot recently so who is she to complain, really?

“Yeah, for you I am” she agrees weakly, rolling onto her back, completely surrendered, surrounded by Marianne, squinty-eyed morning breath and all.

 


 

Saying goodbye is an even bigger blur of feelings this time around. It takes up the entire back half of the morning, Marianne moping around gathering her clothes and things strewn around. She’s scattered a remarkable amount of things in less than 48 hours.

Héloïse sees her picking up a sweatshirt, then deliberately putting it back on the couch, chucking a few pillows on top. She doesn’t comment on it, only melts at the thought of having it later.

They had decided over breakfast that barring anything urgent happening, Héloïse will be driving down to Provence in eleven days. Marianne’s next solo weekend. Nothing odd about a lifelong friend coming to visit over a long weekend, help sort out the last things after the move, that kind of stuff.

“If my parents find out you’re in the area they might want to see you though. It’s been years, and they’ve always liked you. Would that be okay?”

“I’m okay with whatever you’re comfortable with, but I don’t think we should tell them about.. you know- yet.”

“Our thirty-six hours of debauchery? Yeah, no, let’s keep that to ourselves for now,” Marianne says with a smirk.

“Is it alright if I tell Matt? He will know something’s up.”

“He will, won’t he.”

“His radar for when I’ve- ehm.. is unmatched.” Héloïse squirms. “And he knows you’ve been here this weekend.”

“If you want to tell him, tell him.”

“I want to, but not if it’s only thirty-six hours of debauchery.” She doesn’t mean to sound so sad about it, and there is no viable reason for her to feel as unsure as she does, especially not considering the conversations that have taken place in between the.. debauchery, but the grains of doubt are sprouting wildly, fueled by the blues of incoming inevitable separation.

“Oh honey,” Marianne says, swooping across the room and wrapping herself around Héloïse in two seconds flat.

Her eyes are very large and serious and apologetic.

“You know this is a lot more than thirty-six hours of debauchery to me, yeah?”

“I know, I’m just- miss you.” Her voice cracks and her cheeks are burning and wasn’t Marianne supposed to be the overly emotional one?

“I’m gonna miss you too.” She holds Héloïse’s face in her hands as if she’s made of porcelain. “But it’s not even two weeks, remember when we’ve gone years without seeing each other?”

“Not the same,” she sniffles.

“No, you’re right. Not the same.”

 


 

They kiss goodbye on the platform, probably skirting the edges of what is considered public decency, and Héloïse haven’t cared less about that in her life.

“Eleven days,” Marianne whispers in lieu of a goodbye before stepping on the train. “It’s just eleven days.”

Héloïse returns home to silence and a stack of aggressively ignored essays waiting to be marked. It’s going to be a long Sunday afternoon. She puts on Marianne’s not-actually-forgotten sweatshirt and feels a lot warmer instantly, then makes herself a cup of tea and gets to work.

 


 

“Héloïse, know that I’m happy for you but are you even listening to me?”

“No!” Héloïse shouts over her shoulder, gleeful, increasing her pace. She’s exhausted, and flying, fuelled by only three days until she’s leaving for Provence, and hours on the phone with Marianne the night before.

“I hope-” Matthieu gasps, somewhere behind her “that you-” three footsteps, closer now “will get back to earth eventually.”

“Why?” she slows down for a second.

“Because otherwise our runs will kill me!” he wails, falling behind again. “Aren’t you supposed to be rendered useless from too much phone sex or something?”

“Dude, it’s not just about sex,” she protests, panting, slowing down enough for him to properly catch up.

“I know, I know, love of your life and all that.”

“I NEVER SAID THAT!” she shouts in panic.

“Dude, you don’t have to say it, it flipping shows.”

“Don’t- don’t jinx me!”

And off she goes again, with the sound of Matthieu cursing her pace decreasing with the growing distance.

 


 

The long distance every-other-weekend thing is frustrating, but things are going well. Still, Héloïse is hesitant to tell anyone but Matthieu. Namely her family. Not so much because of what happened the last time the subject of Marianne in a girlfriend context was brought up – her parents have slowly (too slowly according to a certain very loyal friend, but anyway) made peace with the thought of girlfriends over the years – but simply because it feels too good. She wants it for herself. But say the peace which lasts forever.

“So, who is she?” Madeleine asks, eerily casual while walking down the stairs after a trip to the bathroom.

“Who is what?”

“The owner of the second toothbrush.”

Shit .

Héloïse doesn’t even consider making something up, just goes with the truth, bracing herself.

“It’s Marianne.” Her heartbeat has turned up to 190 beats per minute over the course of a few seconds, and she feels dizzy all of a sudden, but Madeleine is completely neutral somehow.

“Oh, right, of course she’s been visiting a lot. I forgot about that. How is she holding up by the way?”

“No, I mean- yes she has and she’s doing alright, but.. it’s Marianne.”

Silence.

Madeleine stares at her, and Héloïse can actually see the moment when all the wires connect. She blinks, twice, mouth opens a little.

“No way,” she whispers.

“Mhm.” She looks down, unsure of what will happen next and also to try and hide the smile in her eyes that appears whenever she thinks of Marianne. Marianne who on her latest visit had given her a potted fern and asked her to officially be her girlfriend, all while blushing like a tomato.

“Oh, Hélo!” Madeleine squeals, leaping across the room and wrapping herself around her little sister in a fierce hug. “I’m so happy for you.” When they’ve untangled, eyes maybe a little red-rimmed on the both of them, Madeleine plops herself down on one of the stools by the breakfast bar and stares expectantly at Héloïse.

“What are you staring for? You’re freaking me out.”

“Details,” Madeleine says with all the energy of a child on christmas morning. 

“Euhm..” Héloïse squirms, scans her open plan ground floor in search of an escape route. Finds nothing.

“Héloïse, I am a mother of three who’s been happily married for one and a half decade now, and that also means I’m a little bit starved for the joys of sprouting romance. Tell me everything! Please!”

Héloïse makes a barfing noise.

“Oh no, no, don’t even think about it. I know there’s a sappy romantic underneath all that practical, well-read exterior,” she says, gesturing wildly in the general direction of Héloïse. “Now, spill. I want to hear every nauseating little tidbit of how the heck this happened. Ple-ease?”

Not that she would admit it to Madeleine in a million years, but it does feel quite good to gush about it. Under the strict condition of not telling anyone else, yet.

 


 

Context is everything.

They have discussed it at length. Decided that it’s time, time to add another person to their weekends together, because it’s working, will continue to work.

The fern is thriving, Héloïse watered it before she left home in the morning, suitcase ready to go with her to the train station straight after work. Still, she is a tangle of nerves when she steps off the TGV in Aix. Stiff legs staggering out of the way to not be flattened by the throngs of friday-evening-desperate-to-get-home people speedwalking along the platform.

Stretches her neck, up on her tiptoes to see above the crowd, and finally, a familiar red beanie ten or so metres away. A hand waving, moving closer.

“Héloïse, salut!” The greeting sounds out from somewhere around her navel, just as Marianne squeezes past the last faceless businessman that separates them, pulled through by her excitable offspring. It’s been about a year, so Héloïse assumes he’s grown a bit, but he’s still small. After all, he’s supposed to be.

“Salut! Ça va, Théo?”

“I got to stay up and wait for you!” he informs her, looking very pleased, and she’s suddenly very aware of her time of arrival being way past the usual bedtime of a five-and-a-half year-old.

“Exciting,” Héloïse agrees, slightly distracted by Marianne greeting her with a one-armed hug and a kiss on the cheek.

“Shall we..?” Marianne asks, reaching for the handle of Héloïse’s little suitcase, which she immediately snatches out of her reach. Marianne gives her a look that says something along the lines of “fine, be all stubborn and adorable,” and that somehow makes her feel a little more grounded.

Instead, Marianne takes Théo’s hand, one hundred percent understandable because he could probably disappear in three seconds flat in a place like this, barely taller than the poubelles by the walls, and the three of them head towards the entrance.

After maybe ten steps, Théo reaches for Héloïse’s hand too.

Which is a bit like the emotional equivalent of being hit in the head with a cast iron pan. Repeatedly. Never mind the honeymoon bubble of the previous weekends she and Marianne have spent together over the course of autumn – shit just got real. Real as in talking about Théo and knowing that he will be a part of this equation if it’s gonna continue is one thing. Holding his hand on the way to the car is another. Héloïse remains fairly calm on the outside, but on the inside she’s all turmoil.

 

You barely know him.

His parents split only a few months ago.

Do five year-olds even understand the mess that is romantic love?

What if he doesn’t like me?

 

The second they set foot outdoors Théo starts swinging their linked arms, giving Marianne what Héloïse assumes is his best puppy eyes expression.

“Maman, can you swing me? Ple-ease?”

“Théo, Héloïse is tired, she’s been on a train for very long,” Marianne replies, shaking her head but smiling.

“But she’s strong. You’re strong, right?” he asks, looking up at Héloïse.

“I.. um-” she glances at Marianne, trying to wordlessly ask her to be the decision maker.

“Héloïse is super strong.” Marianne tells her son. “She’s a P.E. teacher after all, they have to be in good shape.”

“Cool,” Théo decides, doing a little skippy-jump, as if to tell them to let him fly already.

Héloïse pictures the three of them from an outsider's perspective for a second. Two adults, and a boy in a jacket bought to grow into, the street lights reflecting in the puddles of water here and there in the parking lot. Maybe they look like a family. She’s terrified, but counts down from three, before swinging the giggling kid as high as she can. There’s enough space for another six flights before they’re by the car.

During the drive home, Héloïse is tasked with making sure Théo doesn’t fall asleep – a nap now would allegedly turn him into a nightmare insomniac once he’s actually ready for bed.

“Ask him about dinosaurs,” Marianne whispers. That turns out to be a golden tip, and the final leg of Héloïse’s journey ends up doubling as a refresher course in general dino knowledge. With some jumbling of complicated names, but that’s only to be expected.

“Is this Nico’s fault?” Héloïse asks Marianne in a short lull of the conversation.

“Yup.” A sigh. “He´s the master of indoctrination, apparently.”

 


 

They’ve agreed on the couch, because there are several conversations yet to be had outside of their own little sphere, and Héloïse is completely understanding of the fact that Marianne wants those conversations to happen when she chooses, not to have them jump at her unannounced due to random observations of who sleeps where.

Héloïse understands one hundred percent. Doesn’t make it any easier.

“I really wish you didn’t- fuck ,” she hisses, Marianne’s lips hot on her ear, neck, by the collar of her t-shirt. She had only meant to say goodnight before returning to the sofa in the living room, but there is no such thing as just one kiss .

“I’m so sorry. Me too.”

She’s not acting as if she’s sorry though, a curious hand sneaking down from Héloïse’s waist to her bum.

“If I get in that bed with you, I’m not gonna get out. We both know this.”

She didn’t mean it as such, but Marianne takes it as a challenge, walks her backwards until there’s solid wall behind her, whispering, “We don’t need the bed, just be quiet. Can you be quiet?”

She will try.

 


 

The couch is not bad actually, aside from its distinct lack of Marianne. Héloïse sleeps well and uninterrupted, until she’s woken up by the sound of small footsteps. She opens her eyes to Théo, looking at her from two metres away. He’s matched his green dinosaur pattern pyjamas with fluffy green slippers with claws and his aura is beyond non-threatening.

“Bonjour,” he says as she rubs her eyes.

“Hello.”

“It’s saturday. I’m allowed to watch tv in the mornings on saturdays because maman wants to sleep longer than I do,” Théo informs her.

Héloïse doesn’t doubt this for a second. It’s barely daylight outside, and a quick glance at her phone confirms her suspicions. 06h37.

“Right. What are we watching so?”

Théo is already busying himself with the remote, navigating the menus effortlessly despite probably not being able to read very well, until a colorful cartoon of some kind fills the screen. He plops down on the floor next to the couch without a word.

“Do you wanna sit on the couch instead?” Héloïse asks him. “I can make space for you.”

“Mhm,” he nods, scrambling up and taking the space where Héloïse’s feet had been just before.

Her brain soon decides that it’s a waste of energy trying to follow the maniac speed of the cartoon. Instead she’s drifting in and out of sleep for maybe an hour and a half, until she wakes herself back up with a distinct hollow rumble from her midsection. Food. Right.

“Théo, I’m hungry. Are you hungry?” A nod. ”What do you usually have for breakfast?”

“Waffles!”

The look on his face and tone of his voice tells her all she needs to know – waffles are definitely not his standard breakfast, even on a saturday. Also they’re quite an undertaking. She pops into the kitchen and takes a look in the fridge before deciding on a compromise.

“I won’t do waffles because I’m not even sure I know how. But I can make crêpes. Do you like crêpes?”

“Yup.” Then a sly look. “With Nutella?”

“Eh, you have to ask your maman about that, I think. But I’ll make crêpes then.”

Théo nods excitedly without taking his eyes from the cartoon, and Héloïse scrambles out of the sofa and gets to work in the kitchen. Her timing is on point – just as she’s finishing setting the table, and has flipped the final crêpe, Marianne’s tousled head shows up in the doorway above a dark blue The Killers World Tour 2009 t-shirt. Her legs are bare and Héloïse feels acutely distracted.

“You are so dreamy,” Marianne says, voice still scratchy from sleep, making Héloïse’s insides go all soft.

“I-” She’s not sure if she was going to dodge the compliment or toss it back, it’s as if all words have abandoned her under Marianne’s adoring gaze.

“I try,” she settles on, blushing. Marianne pads up to her, gives her a quick peck on the cheek.

“You succeed,” she decides. “Crêpes, hmm. And you have flour on your nose. I’m gonna go put on some pants.” And with that, Marianne walks off in search of her sweatpants, and Héloïse can’t do much more than stare longingly at the back of her.

 


 

Later, Heloïse is sat on the floor, surrounded by Lego and trying to keep up with a five-year olds understanding of the Star Wars universe, which is to say – how to put this nicely – limited and wildly inaccurate. Théo has handed Héloïse a mostly complete X-Wing, and tiny plastic person she’s fairly sure is Luke Skywalker

“How are you doing down there?”

“He lost me when he called Jabba The Blob ,” Héloïse says, trying to communicate her mild sense of panic to Marianne through eye-contact only.

“Yeah, I know. He inherited all the Lego from one of his older cousins, and it gets a bit confusing because all he knows about Star Wars is what others have told him. And it will stay that way for a while,” Marianne adds, “because Leia might be a Disney princess now but there is no way in hell my five year old gets to watch movies with “Wars” in the title, at least not until he’s old enough to read the subtitles and can handle it where people die on screen. Right now Bambi is too dark for him.”

“Makes sense.” Héloïse nods in agreement, just as a 74-Z speeder bike whooshes past in the outskirts of her field of view.

“Honestly, I think it’s nuts, the stuff some people allow their kids to watch,” Marianne continues. “It’s got the ratings it’s got for good reasons, and I don’t give a crap if someone else is allowed to see it because they have an older sibling or whatever. And it’s not even the actual topic of death that is the problem, it’s just that I’d rather talk about death with my son through, I don’t know, Adieu Monsieur Câlin or something.”

She’s sort of miniature-pacing now, covering a very small area of the floor, careful to not step on any stray pieces of Lego. “Death is all over in action movies and people are dropping like they’re unimportant. Which they’re not. Stormtroopers have feelings too, you know.”

Marianne takes a deep breath and pulls a hand through her hair. Héloïse can only look at her.

“I’m sorry,” she says then. “I just have a lot of thoughts about what we allow children to watch, and when, and with whom and.. I think it’s important, you know.”

“I love you.”

It takes a second for it to sink in. What she just said. Marianne looks as stunned as she feels, eyes wide and defenseless.

Then.

“Oh, putain.” Héloïse puts her hand over her mouth, right as the curse word brings Théo back to the world outside of his space bubble.

“You said a bad word.”

“Yeah, I did. I apologise.”

She’s sat on the floor, surrounded by colorful pieces of plastic and netxt to a small boy who is completely unaware of the emotional earthquake around him.

“If I say bad words, I have to put 50 centimes in the jar,” Théo points out.

“Oh.”

“Théo, Héloïse is an adult, she doesn’t have to put money in the jar.”

“But you do.”

“Yeah well.. that’s different.”

“I’ll put money in the jar,” Héloïse decides, scrambling to her feet, her knee making that creaky popcorn noise it always does when she’s been sitting weirdly for too long. “I’m sure I’ve got cash somewhere.”

 

-----

 

For hours, they move around each other with caution – terrified and longing. Héloïse feels like she might burst with the need to talk, but she doesn’t want to bring it up when there’s risk of interruption, this is a conversation that deserves full attention, and for some reason Théo has decided that she’s the best person to play with, ever, and won’t let her out of his sight.

She makes tea, while Marianne is putting Théo to bed. Not because she wants tea, more to have something to do. And a teaspoon to fiddle with, later. Brings the cups to the living room just as Marianne gently shuts the door to Théo’s room. Not entirely, open just a crack.

Sits down on the couch, angled towards Marianne, teacup in both hands. Her heart should be racing, but it’s not, only beating more determined than ever.

“I love you.”

“I’m sorry I said it so soon.”

Their words collide over the almost muted mumble from TV, in the blue light quiet.

Héloïse in Matthieu's old sweatpants and hoodie, Marianne in leggings and something knitted that once could have been described as a cardigan. Now it's just shapeless and very soft.

The silence is given time to settle.

"I don't think you said it too soon," Marianne says eventually. "I'm not sure if I can remember not loving you."

 


 

“I told him.”

It’s wednesday, the week after Héloïse’s visit. And now Louis knows.

“How did it go?”

“Alright, I suppose.” Marianne sounds unsure, but not upset. “He didn’t say much. Mumbled something about you not being an idiot and that he appreciates that I told him before anyone else.”

“But that is good, right?”

“Yeah. It is. But I still feel like I’ve been emotionally ran over by a car or something.”

Héloïse doesn’t want to ask questions, doesn’t want to pressure or push.

“I’m gonna tell my parents,” Marianne continues. “And Théo, his next week here. I can’t keep you and me, us, to myself for another second. I don’t want to.”

 


 

Some days, the distance – the actual hours and hours of space to cover that lies between them, makes Héloïse want to tear a hole in the fabric of the universe.

“I got christmas,” Marianne says with a hollow voice over the phone, and Héloïse, confused, aches to hug her. It’s november, painfully so – grey and damp with a wind that refuses to slow to anything below mildly tempestuous. It takes her another second to tune in, to grasp that Marianne is speaking of a specific of splitting a family in two.

“Oh?” she says. Hesitant, not sure of what to think, or feel. Is she even allowed to feel anything or have a say? It’s so early still, in a way.

“It feels so fucking weird. Dividing things like this.”

“Oh honey,” Héloïse says, consciously leaving it at that because saying that she knows? She doesn’t.

“Can I do anything?”

“Come here for New Year’s?”

It’s not like she had planned much else.

 


 

It’s quiet. The fireworks are loud, lighting up the hills, but on a whole, New Year’s is quiet. They have dinner with Marianne’s parents which feels disturbingly normal seeing as they haven’t met Héloïse in the capacity of girlfriend since 2002 and even then it was very brief. Together, they watch the fireworks from the terrace before walking the whole way back to Marianne’s place, neither of them wanting to bother with the hour-long wait for a taxi.

“It’s an hour and a half to walk!” Marianne’s mother had protested to ignorant ears before covering them both in reflective gear.

It’s cold, and dark, and lovely. For kilometers, they don’t say a word, just comfortably coexisting under the stars, hand in hand in fluffy mittens.

“Wanna know something silly?” Héloïse asks.

“Hm?”

The sky ahead of them is vaguely lit up by the lights from the town they’re slowly approaching, the air smells like pine trees and frost.

“You’re the first person I’ve ever kissed on a New Year’s Eve.”

Marianne squeezes her hand but says nothing. Then.

“I want you to be the last person I ever kiss on a New Year’s Eve.”

The quiet tramping of boots on cold tarmac. Then.

“That was very cheesy. Cheeseball.”

Marianne tries to pull Héloïse’s beanie down in revenge, over her eyes, but is hindered by her mittens.

“I’m your cheeseball though.”

“That you are.”

 


 

They’re past a year since that life-altering phone call, over a year of driving back and forth, of delayed trains and too-short weekends and taking it slow.

Of laying metaphorical foundations, of maybe keeping an eye out for any schools hiring in the general vicinity of where Marianne lives. Just in case.

Of the time on the outskirts of winter, when Héloïse is invited to Théo’s sixth birthday party and nearly explodes of nervous energy.

“.. but Louis?”

“Louis will be there. And he will be fine. Will have to be fine.”

“Really?”

“Théo said he wanted to invite you. I didn’t even mention- they were making a list the other day when I picked him up at his grandma – not my parents, his other grandma.”

“Oh.”

“It’s okay if you don’t want-”

“Nonono, I’ll be there. I promise. It’s on a weekend, right?”

 


 

The house has descended into that peculiar type of quiet that happens when there’s been a crowd around, and everyone has left. The dishes are done, the child has finally been put to sleep, teeth brushed and wrestled into pyjamas because the wrestling part is apparently entertaining, especially when it includes being held upside down by the feet and shaken to make sure any leftover dirt has fallen off. Freshly minted six year-olds are curious beings, and Héloïse is still reeling a bit from the pyjama wrestling and Théo’s spontaneous “going to bed is more fun when you’re here”. 

“You alright?” Marianne asks, soft footsteps on the tiles walking up behind Héloïse who is refilling her glass of water in the kitchen.

“Mh.”

A head, heavy leaning on her shoulder.

“I’m glad you’re here. Today went well, I think.”

“As long as I won’t have to small talk with anyone until Monday morning, I’ll be fine,” Héloïse says. “I swear all the aunts were multiplying at some point. Neverending stream of them.” She turns, plants a kiss on top of Marianne’s tired head.

“Big talk okay?”

“I was kinda thinking sleeptalk, but sure. I think my brain still works.”

Marianne shuffles around her, into the small space between body and kitchen counter. Hops up, creates space for Héloïse to stand between her legs.

“I talked to Théo the other day. About us.”

“Again?”

Marianne nods, a strangely chopped movement, and just like that, the air is nervous.

“About you visiting. A lot. Which you do.”

Now it’s Héloïse’s turn to nod.

“And I asked him how he would feel if you weren’t visiting.”

It’s far from the first time Marianne says things in a way that can be misunderstood, and Héloïse knows this. Knows there’s no reason to invite someone to the birthday of your child if you intend to break up with them or ask to slow things down. She knows this. And still her eyes go wide.

“I mean- I don’t mean-” Marianne’s words catch up on her.

“So,” Héloïse puts her hands on the soft bend above Marianne’s hips. She needs to hold on to something. Just in case. “-how he would feel if I lived here?”

Tilts her head to the side as if to ask because that’s what you’re getting at, right?

Marianne’s eyes are teary in the low light.

“He would feel happy, he said.”

Héloïse hugs her, tight, drawing slow deep lungfulls of Marianne, who wraps her legs around Héloïse’s waist, and she should probably be buckling under the weight of trust and responsibility involved in this conversation, but all Héloïse feels is light.

“I love you,” she mumbles onto Marianne’s shoulder and feels the arms around her tighten a little bit more.

Home can be a place, or a person, a concept, or a feeling. For Héloïse it’s standing in a kitchen on a Saturday evening, with her arms wrapped around Marianne, fingers grasping at a ratty old band t-shirt and listening to her heartbeat and a car passing on the street outside.

 


 

“It feels unfair,” Marianne sighs as she’s stacking another cardboard box in the back of the rental van. “You’re uprooting your entire life, and all I’ve done is made space in my wardrobes, and given away an armchair that I didn’t like much in the first place.”

“It’s not. Or maybe it is, but it also doesn’t matter,” Héloïse tells her. “And you also bought another bookcase.”

“Oh, I’m with the friend-stealer on this one,” Matthieu announces from inside the vehicle, partly hidden behind the massive potted plant he’s trying to secure. “Utterly unfair. How am I gonna survive in this hellhole without you, huh?”

“You’ll be fine. I’ll visit, and you’re always welcome to ours.”

Ours . The world feels strange in her mouth still. But promising.

“Besides, weren’t you talking about relocating anyway? Or was that just two-glasses-of-wine-plans?” Marianne adds.

“Yeah, that whole “the world is my disgustingly slimy and terribly overrated type of seafood”-speech did sound convincing. Maybe do something about it?”

“Héloïse, I refuse to let your hatred of oysters infiltrate my plans for my future,” Matthieu protests.

“So there is an actual plan?”

“Yes. Maybe. Might need to get drunk one more time to sort out the details. Unless I perish before that from exhaustion after lugging around crates of books. Why do you own so many books?!”

“Because I’m not allowed to write in the margins of the library ones.”

The van vibrates with the force of Matthieu’s groan.

 


 

Marianne only says it out loud in its entirety once. That is enough, and it is for them to keep.

“I thought I could love him enough to stop wanting you. I thought building a life would keep me occupied enough, make me stop wishing. Maybe change what I wanted.”

“Do you regret..?”

“No.”

The amount of things two simple letters, a single syllable word, can contain.

Héloïse understands as well as she’s capable of. There are memories, and actual, genuine good times.

And there’s Théo.

Life is strange, it takes the weirdest, twistiest roads.

And the heartbreak was worth it after all. When Théo, as she picks him up after football practice because Marianne is running late, when they take the longer road on the forest trail home (home!), with him pedalling like a madman to keep up on his small bike. When she lets him pass her, watches him howl with uncontrollable joy as he takes flight from that one big root, landing almost without wobbling a few metres further ahead. Skidding to a halt on the soft dirt, demanding “did you see, did you see?!” helmet a little lopsided and that is not safe, needs to be corrected or perhaps he needs a new one, and when exactly did she start to care that much about the safety of one specific tiny head?

“Yes, I saw. It was definitely longer than the last time.”

Théo stretches with pride.

They keep riding in the evening light under the canopy of leaves, heading home to raid the fridge, ignore the pile of unfolded laundry, curl up in a pile on the sofa the three of them, Marianne will be stuck in the middle, complaining about “such sharp elbows, the both of you”, and not meaning a word of it, and Héloïse will briefly and with no regret wonder when watching children’s shows on TV became one of the best parts of her day.

The bikes are locked, two steps from the front door, when Théo stops and turns to look at her, looking deeply serious despite the lack of two front teeth.

“Héloïse, I like you so much.”

“You too, Théo, you too.”

Then, the world keeps turning and Théo opens the door, shouting “maman, we’re home” into the warm hallway.

Home.

Chapter Text

and after all, october 2020

 

Héloïse wants to vomit. She knows that if she looks at her reflection in the window right now, she will be fifty shades of green. Thank god Marianne is driving, while at the same time keeping up conversation with Théo in the backseat.

“It’ll be fine,” Marianne had assured her, over and over. Why she wasn’t more nervous, Héloïse doesn’t know. Maybe because the only time Marianne actually properly met her parents was the summer when they were thirteen, long before things got weird and good and worse and slowly back to better again.

It’ll be fine. They’re staying at a hotel in town, got there yesterday evening with enough time to spare for dinner and settling in, and there’s no need to spend every second of the weekend surrounded by Héloïse’s relatives, unless they want to.

Héloïse does not want to.

“I don’t like that it coincides with maman’s birthday. We could go visit earlier,” she had tried, not wanting to subject her own little family to the many-headed chaos that she’d been born into.

But then Théo had football games, and dad-weeks, and Marianne got a mean cold, and suddenly summer had turned into autumn, leaves were on the ground and time was up for earlier visits and here they were. Héloïse tethering on the verge of fainting, and her two companions as cool as cucumbers. At least as far as she could tell.

They turn off the main road and onto the private access driveway, long and shaded by ancient beeches, and as they approach the old manor-like building and its surroundings, Héloïse is struck by a feeling of time not moving around here. She feels like she’s five, and a hundred and every lived and not-yet-lived year of her life.

They’re early, they very much intend to be, and the only other cars present are her parents’, and Madeleine and Arnaud’s. 

“It’ll be fine,” Marianne repeats, one last time, pulling the handbrake of the rental car and taking Héloïse’s hand in both of hers over the center console. Héloïse can only nod. A deep breath, just as her parents appear on the stone steps by the entrance, no doubt alerted by the unmistakable sound of tires on gravel.

She gets out of the car on not entirely stable legs, walks half a step behind Marianne to greet her family, Théo in between them, always hoping to fly.

“Marianne, how lovely to meet you, again,” her mother exclaims, and it sounds completely genuine, and Héloïse knows it’s different now, that half her life has passed since 2002, and they are invited, the three of them and what she was so afraid of, she doesn't know.

Her father shakes Marianne’s hand, says hello to Théo, who unprompted takes off his beanie the second they are ushered indoors – this tiny show of manners that makes Héloïse want to attack-hug him into infinity. Coats are being shed, shoes unlaced, they all put warm socks on in advance – Héloïse has an entire childhood of experience of how cold the floors can be.

“Oh, isn’t he the spitting image of Marianne?” her maman gushes to her as Théo trails behind the other adults into the sitting room.

“Mhm, like a tiny print screen,” Héloïse agrees. “Genetics, hmm,” she adds with a shrug.

“Such lovely hair. It’s so nice with a bit longer hair on little boys, don’t you think?

Honestly, Héloïse is struggling a bit with thinking in general right now, and talking about something as frivolous as hairstyles would be a difficult subject for her even on her best days.

“Eh, I guess,” she mumbles. “He’s been refusing to have it cut since May.” At this, she sighs, knowing far too well how fun it is to deal with the tangles every other day or so.

 


 

By the time the people who are not immediate family start arriving, Héloïse is mostly at ease. The glass of champagne she had sure helped a little, as does the oddly proud feeling of doing the rounds of introduction with her girlfriend the architect , and pointing out Théo in the gaggle of children that zips around the salon to various aunts and uncles. It is silly and shallow but damn if it isn’t nice. She’s not stupid, she knows the extended family talks, compares them – Madeleine the nuclear family poster child, and her deviant lesbian of a younger sister. And it’s never gotten to her, not really, but it’s still nice. And showing Marianne off is the easiest thing in the world, and for some reason she is looking particularly stunning today.

 


 

Sometime after dinner, during round two of general mingling, Héloïse is trapped listening to a second cousin’s tales from a trip to Martinique. She’s about to actually bite her own tongue to not call him out on colonialist tendencies, when there’s a small hand pulling at her shirt.

“Yes, Théo?” Héloïse turns around and stoops down to his level, thankful for the interruption.

“Can I ask you a question?” he whispers.

“Of course.”

“Is Mathis my cousin now?” His look is one of concern, and Héloïse is very much not sure what is the right answer to that question, but Marianne is nowhere to be seen and she doesn’t want to leave Théo hanging when he decides to come to her with questions of this size.

“I think,” she mulls it over for another second, “..that you should probably ask Mathis what he thinks, and then you can decide for yourselves.”

Théo nods, solemn.

“I also think that it looks like you are becoming friends. So maybe start there?”

“Yup,” Théo agrees, and then disappears as fast as he showed up, 

 


 

She’s been trying to make her way back to Marianne for an hour, but navigating a sea made up of distant relatives is difficult, especially when one is high in demand thanks to the gossip circuit. Héloïse will remember this as the one downside of her change in relationship status since the last family shindig a year and a half ago. In the end, Marianne is the one who finds her, sneaking an arm around her waist and pulling her to the side of the room.

“In the last half hour I have had five different people either giving me meaningful looks or asking outright if I’m pregnant. Does no one here understand the concept of not drinking because driving?” she huffs.

“Um, I would like to say that they do, but I’m not sure if that would be an honest answer.”

“Your great-aunt-”

“Claudette?”

“The very same. Commanding presence, huh? Anyway, she just went straight for the congratulations. So I had to disappoint her, and then she started asking a heap of questions about how two women would go about procreating that I’m honestly not entirely sure how to answer.” Marianne is exasperated, and Héloïse tries and fails to not laugh.

“Not funny! I want to make a good impression!”

“Just say something vague about going to Spain. Her hearing is bad on a good day, she won’t catch half of what you’re saying anyway.”

“I’m staying here. I need you to protect me from more small talk.”

“I can do th-” Héloïse trails off, distracted by a tray of pastries being carried out. “Oooh, muffins!” she exclaims, dragging Marianne with her to the table of desserts being assembled.

 


 

“I’m sorry, I feel like I barely got to talk to you guys,” Héloïse laments.

It’s late, and she’s carrying a conked out Théo, and she’s spoken approximately twenty words in total to her sister and brother-in-law all day despite them being her favourites out of all the adults present, aside from Marianne.

“I know,” Madeleine agrees, while trying to wrestle a jacket onto her own, equally conked out son. “Let’s try and plan a weekend soon. Or soon-ish. And we’ll see each other tomorrow too, less people around then.”

There’s a brief, one armed hug, and Théo’s head stirs a little on her shoulder, but he falls back asleep again the second Héloïse has put him down and secured his safety belt in the backseat. Marianne is behind her, saying some last farewells to Héloïse’s parents and great aunt Claudette, and it feels good, to see them all hug her. It feels even better when she hops in the car and they drive off in the direction of town and the hotel.

 


 

“That might have been the longest day of my life,” Héloïse groans, flopping belly first onto the bed. It’s bouncier than the one at home.

Marianne says something in reply, completely unintelligible and full of toothpaste foam. With eyes closed, breathing in the scent of crispy clean sheets and an unknown laundry detergent, Héloïse listens to the familiar bathroom melody of her spitting, the tap running, rustle of towel, the snap of the lid of her face lotion bottle. All the little noises of home, away from home.

Then, the best sound. Of bare feet, padding closer until the mattress sinks to her left, or technically right, but she’s lying front down still so.

“It was a good day though. But long,” Marianne agrees, pulling at the duvet, shoving Héloïse to the side to get it loose before throwing it over the both of them.

“I’m sorry it took until now for us to come here.”

Marianne looks at her.

“Because it would have been easier if it wasn’t also maman’s birthday party,” she explains.

“We killed a lot of distant relative flies in one go today though,” Marianne smiles. “And besides, I know you enjoyed it. You were showing me off.” It’s not an accusation, or if it is, it’s a happy one. She’s smiling, eyes flashing from bashful to teasing and back again.

“Yeah, well, what can I say, part of my extended family is a shallow, conservative bunch, and to them, me shacking up with someone well-educated is almost enough to erase the shame of me being a lesbian.”

“Almost?” Marianne asks, and there’s a hint of fury in her voice, clear as day even if she’s half-whispering to not wake up Théo.

“Don’t worry about it, please. They’re not worth the energy, honestly. It’s the twice removed bunch, and I hardly ever see them.”

“Fine.”

“And you’re smart, and interesting, and beautiful, of course I like showing you off.” Héloïse trails one finger along the neckline of Marianne’s t-shirt, voice low and suggestive.

“I like when you tell me that.”

“That you’re beautiful?”

Marianne nods.

“Well, it’s true.”

“I like when you tell me the other things too, but-,” her voice falters a little, and Héloïse cups her cheek before leaning in to kiss her. Soft and slow, in lieu of a jumble of superlatives.

“You’re beautiful.” Another kiss.

“So beautiful.” A hand up her back, under the t-shirt, and feeling her soften under fingertips never gets old, smiles ruining kisses, knees colliding, a brush of tongue, Marianne biting her lower lip.

Then, halt.

“Théo is right there,” Marianne whispers, agitated, suddenly remembering and waving an arm in the general direction of the extra bed.

“I know, I know.”

Another kiss, slower and sleepier, the urgence being put to the side for now.

“If he wasn’t..” Héloïse points out.

“I know, I know, trust me I know.” There’s more than a tinge of longing to Marianne’s voice, and a small part of Héloïse curses the child sound asleep three metres across the room. Then she placates herself with the thought that there will be tomorrow, and the day after that, and beyond that, an unknown but probably very large amount of other days will follow.

“Get some sleep now, we still have lunch with your parentals tomorrow,” Marianne mutters, and curls herself around Héloïse’s back.

Sleep comes easy.

 


 

“Héloïse can you go find your father, please? I think he escaped to the garage or something. Tell him lunch will be done in ten minutes.”

Her maman is in that vaguely terrifying state of mother hen that comes with any sort of family gathering, and Héloïse is happy to escape for a while. Turns out Marianne is way better at handling that – setting the table, asking polite questions about the cooking, that sort of thing. It’s just the way she is. Théo is off exploring somewhere, outside, and if both he and the maybe-cousin-definitely-friend one year his senior returns to the house without being in a state of needing to be hosed off, it should probably count as a success.

She finds her father in the bike shed, which is not a shed but the unofficial name of a corner of the garage, dedicated to three road bikes, all currently in various stages of disassembly. The raw wooden shelves are littered with parts and tools, and a selection of various chemicals, and there’s an old poster for Paris - Nice tacked to the wall. The smell of rubber and grease could kickstart a thousand memories.

“Maman says lunch is ready soon,” Héloïse tells him, not bothering with announcing herself – footsteps on concrete did that for her already.

“Hmm, yes.” Her father is changing a wire, nods but his eyes are on the bike. “Did you know this is the exact same model of bike that Bernard Hinault rode when he won the World Championships in Sallanches in 1980?”

“I think you might have mentioned that a couple hundred times, yes.” She manages to keep her voice somewhat enthusiastic. 

“Not the same frame size though, Bernard is short.”

“Not everyone can be as tall and handsome as you are, papa.”

“What can I say, it runs in the family. My side, at least.”

Héloïse smiles at that, remembering how Madeleine had moped when she – a gangly thirteen year-old – unwillingly had committed the unspeakable crime of outgrowing her older sister.

“When I bought it, Madeleine was only two. You didn’t even exist yet,” her father continues, reverting back to the old bike. “Your mother and I, we agreed.. it was important for both of us to still be our own persons, even if we were also parents, you know what I mean?”

“So you bought a bike.”

“Yes. To have a thing, a pastime, that was only mine. Like maman and her aerobics classes.”

“It’s impressive actually, that you kept it all these years.”

“Hmm, yes.”

“Dad, are you worried that I’m not going to like being a parent?”

“No. Yes. Yes. It’s a lot. You never stop worrying, and sometimes you do the wrong things. You know. Things that are wrong, even if they come from a place of well intent.”

Oh. Okay. So this is when it’s going to happen. The big excuse that has been lurking in the background of their relationship for just over eighteen years.

“I was wrong, you know. I wanted to protect you from something you needed no protection from, because I was scared that the world would be too hard on you for it. And it was.”  His voice cracks and for the first time since Héloïse entered the garage, he looks up. “And I- I ended up being part of what made it worse.” He’s not crying, not really, but his eyes are glassy and he’s hesitating on the words in a way that’s completely uncharacteristic.

“Papa, some day you’re gonna have to learn how to say the word 'lesbian'. It won’t bite you, I promise.” She tries to joke some of the heaviness away. It’s unclear how well it works.

“I know. I’m- I’m trying. Anyway. I never properly said I’m sorry. But I am. And I guess I didn’t completely understand how sorry I’ve been until I saw you with them. Because if-.” He stops, searching. Héloïse gives him time.

“Maybe you would have gotten there sooner, if it wasn’t for me.”

“A wizard is never late, nor is she early. She arrives precisely when she means to.” Héloïse feels light, bare, maybe even a little empty, and a silly quote is as good a thing as any to hide behind.

“Some day, my child, you’re gonna have to stop quoting dead Englishmen. France is the land of great thinkers,” her father says, shaking his head.

“But it is not this day,” Héloïse replies. He doesn’t catch the second reference, instead puts the hex key on a shelf once the wire for the front derailleur is fastened.

“Better not keep your mother waiting,” he mutters, wiping his hands on a dirty rag to zero effect. He pats the handlebars of the old renovation project, nodding his head in a “shall we”-motion, and together they return to the house. Halfway across the gravel, he shakes his head as if remembering something, then turns to Héloïse.

“Does Théo like cycling?”

“Eh, he’s six and a half,” she shrugs. “He likes anything that involves some sort of speed and a risk of getting injured.”

“But he has a bike?”

“Yeah.”

“Good. All kids should have bikes.”

 


 

After the train change in Paris, Theo falls asleep. One can apparently only stare at so many rolling fields before dozing off. Marianne moves over to sit next to Héloïse, stopping a conductor in passing, who tells them the fourth seat is unreserved until Avignon. They share an apple, and a bottle of water – alternating bites and cursing the strips of peel getting stuck in between teeth.

“My dad apologised,” Héloïse says once it’s clear that not even the ruckus of people leaving and entering the train in Lyon will awaken Théo. Marianne takes her hand.

“It’s weird, because I think I mostly forgave him years ago. So this was probably more important for him than for me.”

“Still, I’m glad you got to hear it,” Marianne says.

“Yeah. Me too. If not for any other reason so just to have it out of the way.” She leans back in her seat, looks up at the roof, the luggage rack and the bright lights. “I know it’s been eating at him but I always felt like it wasn’t my place to bring it up, you know.”

“And you had every right feeling that way.”

“I know. Part of me feels kind of petty for it though.”

“You don’t have to. You were barely an adult, and he was in the wrong.”

Héloïse turns a little, leans her head on Marianne’s shoulder. Eyes closed. Slow breaths of her shampoo, a tinge of perfume, and all that is uniquely her. It’s calming in a way that compares to nothing else in the world. When she opens her eyes, there’s a millisecond of eye contact with a stranger across the aisle. A woman probably a few years older than them, with a flash of fondness in her eyes before they both look away.

How incredible the world is – that for a moment, you are center stage in a stranger’s life, and then earth keeps turning and everyone goes their merry way. And equally incredible – that some random happenings become lasting. Chance moments turning into foundations of entire lives.

What if Marianne’s family hadn’t been in the holiday programme all those years ago. What if Madeleine never had fallen ill and Héloïse never had spent that summer away. Héloïse’s head is spinning with possibilities. Because she feels, deep in her bones, that this is where she is supposed to be. That all the links in the chain of her life have turned out alright, because they got her here, a little bruised along the way, but here. She tilts her head up, for just a brush of her lips at the hinge of Marianne’s jaw.

“You know what my next project will be?” she asks her.

“Tell me.”

Héloïse sits up straight, looks right at Marianne and is incapable of holding back the smile growing inside her.

“To teach my father to say lesbian without looking like he’s about to faint.”

Marianne laughs. Right out, unfiltered.

It earns her a kiss, an arm over shoulders, Marianne tucking her back in that crook-of-where-neck-meets-shoulder space where she belongs.

“I love you, you asshat.”

“Love you too.”

 

Chapter Text

 

and another thing, 2023

 

 

“Héloïse, why aren’t you and maman married?”

The question should not be too surprising, what with Louis’ upcoming wedding and Nico finally deciding to tie the knot with Chloé earlier in the year.

“I-” still, she finds herself searching for an answer. “You know what Théo, that’s a good question. I should probably discuss that with your mother.”

“Mhm,” Théo nods, a sneaky little smile on his face.

 


 

“I think your son has opinions on us living in sin,” is how she brings it up later that night, after they’ve put said son to bed, and have curled up in their own with a book and a crossword, respectively.

“He has what now?” Marianne scrunches her nose, looking extra adorable when her glasses slips down a little.

“He asked me why we aren’t married. And I didn’t really know what to answer to be honest.” Héloïse puts her book on the nightstand and turns over on her side, facing Marianne.

“Yeah, good answer. I somehow doubt that marriage is a patriarchal institution forced upon us by millennia of oppression, economic alliances and guilt would go down well with a romantic nine year-old.”

“So do I.”

“Would you, though? Want to get married?”

Héloïse goes quiet, running the thought through all the winding corners of her mind. Marianne waits patiently, curling up next to her, with her head in the crook of her neck, tangling and untangling their fingers, until Héloïse holds their hands steady, as if to say that she’s done organising her thoughts now.

“Why is this scary to talk about?” she asks. “I’ve known you forever, we share a house, a life, kids..”

“Because expectations and traditions?” Marianne asks back.

“Yeah,” Héloïse agrees, her voice smaller than before. Then, “I love you”.

“I know.”

“And I don’t need to be married to you to be sure of that. But I also wouldn’t mind. It just..”

She swallows, waits for another batch of words to gain structure.

“I might sound like the least romantic person in the world now, but I’m good. We’re good, right? The only reason for me to get it on paper is literally just that. To have it on paper. In case something ever happens to one of us.”

“You’re not the least romantic person in the world. Quite the opposite, in my opinion,” Marianne says, scooting even closer and planting a kiss on her cheek. “We could also just pop by the mairie one of these days. To get it on paper. And to be a part of a statistic that will bug at least some conservatives.”

“You want to get married to spite ass backwards idiots?” Héloïse has to hold back a laugh.

“Hell yeah. Also, because I love you, and it’s a good reason to have a party.”

“I’m not wearing a dress though,” she blurts out, because she needs to say something that might slow down the speed of this conversation, even just by a little bit.

“Good. Neither am I.”

“You’re not?”

“Nope. I’m thinking nice pants and a shirt. Or that flowy white top you like.”

“I do like that top.”

“I know.”

“I like taking it off of you even more though.”

“Héloïse. Don’t change the subject.”

“Don’t bring up the top. You know it gets to my head.”

“Fine, I won’t.”

Héloïse lets out a disappointed sigh, flipping her pillow over to get the cold side. “But, are we having this conversation, are we doing this? Really?”

“Why the heck not. But can we just.. not make it a thing? I’d much rather have a party some other time, when I think of it. Not because I don’t want to shout from the rooftops that I’ve called dibs on you forever and ever, just.. I don’t know.” Marianne swallows, and Héloïse understands, reaches for her hand. “It was just such a big deal, last time. So much trying, and it just.. felt weird. Not wrong but weird. Like, all the hullabaloo, the effort to make it a big thing – it shouldn’t have to be so complicated.”

“I know, and I agree. We can keep the ceremony small. Just us, and the kids, and the witnesses.”

Marianne smiles at her, an arm sneaking around her waist under the duvet, pulling her a wee bit closer. “If we ask Matt and Nico to be witnesses, we can also ask them to babysit. Just for the night,” she points out.

“I like how you’re thinking.” Héloïse pushes herself up a little, and Marianne mirrors her movements, rolling fully onto her back. And as if to underline that very thought, their lips are millimetres apart when a sob makes its way through the slightly open door of what used to be a tiny home office, through the corridor and into the also slightly open door of their bedroom.

Héloïse flops down like a pancake. Marianne lets out a soft oooof sound, then starts to giggle.

“I’ll go,” Héloïse sighs, scrambling out from the warm nest of duvet and into Marianne’s dressing gown and whichever pair of slippers is closest to the bed. They’re too small, so probably not hers. Whatever.

 


 

The light is out but Marianne is still awake when she returns five minutes later, with a tiny passenger in passed down dino pajamas sniffling on her shoulder.

“I know we said she should sleep in her own bed now, but-”

“Meh,” Marianne mumbles, lifting the duvet to make room for Amélie who immediately curls up like a ball next to her, mumbling something incomprehensible. “As long as we can hand her over to the uncles for a day or two if we actually get married, I’m good. Also, we will miss this when she’s a grouchy teenager.”

“When.”

“When what?”

“You said if we get married. I say when,” Héloïse points out, wiggling around to get comfortable.

It’s not pitch black, neither of them has ever felt the need to draw blinds except for in the middle of summer, and she can see Marianne’s eyes softening. “Okay, when,” she agrees. “But no dresses.”

“No dresses. And no hullabaloo.”

“I’m calling dibs on you forever.” Marianne smiles completely unrestricted, and Héloïse scoots up to kiss her, slumbering kid between them be damned.

The sleepy quiet is just about to settle, when Marianne whispers. “Wanna bet that Théo will be the most well dressed out of everyone present?”

“Of all the things he and my father could possibly bond over, they chose bowties ,” Héloïse grumps. Then. “Oh god maman will kill me if we get married in secret.”

“Don’t be dramatic, I know you secretly think that’s a bonus.”