Gwendolyn Briggs (née Anderson) isn’t prone to hyperbole. She never has been. But then, she muses, if someone had asked her how she expected this evening would turn out, she never would’ve answered that she’d end it kissing Mildred Ratched. Kissing her while she sits on her lap, no less. With her auburn hair tumbling tantalizingly over her shoulders – which are clothed in a too large pair of Gwendolyn’s own pajamas. So she wonders, perhaps, if it’s time to reconsider her sense of her own personality. Because she genuinely feels as though she could sit here, doing this, forever. And that’s definitely hyperbole.
Because she can’t.
And not for the morbid reason anyone else might think, either.
(Not that at all. Not even close. She isn’t letting that reason creep into her consciousness. That’s for tomorrow. She refuses to allow it to undermine their bliss tonight.)
No; her problem now is much more mundane, and much less medical. Because she can tell Mildred’s growing drowsy, and that means they’ll have to stop. Partly for consent’s sake, of course – which is always crucial – but mostly for the sake of practicality. Because her darling needs rest. And, Gwendolyn begrudgingly admits, she does too. So she pulls away (gently) and says (softly), ‘Sleep time, sweets.’
Mildred’s forehead creases in the most adorable frown, and her mouth forms into a moue of discontent with which Gwendolyn has already become more than passingly familiar. ‘Can’t we stay up just a little longer?’ she asks, in a tone that’s clearly meant to sound arch – but Gwendolyn can tell is a cover for anxiety.
She shakes her head and, hoping she comes across as consoling, croons, ‘I can understand why the concept of bedtime might’ve been a difficult one to deal with in your past, Mil. But I’m here. And we’re making a future together. So, starting tonight, you don’t have to deal with those demons alone.’
Mildred blinks, obviously bewildered. ‘But –’
‘But?’ Gwendolyn repeats, wanting to prompt without pushing, and choosing to ignore the deflection for now.
‘I thought you’d prefer me to have the guest room – or even sleep on the sofa – if we aren’t –’
Her heart squeezes as the younger woman breaks off, but she tries to respond calmly. And she succeeds. At first. ‘I want you close to me, my love. That isn’t contingent on –’ She pauses, searching for the right word. One that won’t be charged. And she settles on, ‘anything.’
She worries that might be too vague, and seem empty, but Mildred’s dark eyes light up eagerly as she squeals, ‘You mean we can just – sleep – next to one another?’
Gwendolyn nods, chuckling, although she notes the surreptitious evasion of the word “together”. Then she confirms verbally, ‘We can hold each other.’
Mildred beams, but a shadow soon flits across her face. ‘Are you sure I won’t disturb you? You need rest.’
Gwendolyn wishes she could kiss away the doubt, but she can tell Mildred’s sense of self is too insecure for her to be confident that any consent is willingly given. So she just says, ‘I’m sure. You could never be a disturbance. Besides, you need rest too, and I’ve a sneaking suspicion you won’t sleep at all if I leave you to your own devices. Which means I won’t sleep for fretting over you.’
She winks, and the last sentence apparently has the desired effect, because Mildred tuts. ‘Oh, we can’t have that,’ she says seriously.
Gwendolyn shakes her head. ‘No,’ she agrees, trying to conceal a chuckle at the younger woman’s earnestness. Then she matches Mildred’s serious expression and reiterates, ‘Sleep time, sweets?’, but ends it with an upward inflection to ensure it’s understood as a question.
Auburn hair nods in acquiescence as Mildred mumbles, ‘Mmkay,’ and starts to stand up. But, the second her feet touch the floor, she falls back into the sofa cushions with a shout of surprise. ‘Oh!’
Gwendolyn catches her, relieved her reflexes are still quick, but she’s concerned by the cause. Until she sees the excess material that’s become snagged on the smaller woman’s toes, and curses not reminding her to roll up the pajama pants. ‘Oh, darling, I’m sorry,’ she soothes, smiling into Mildred’s shoulder as she feels her relax into her gentle grasp. ‘I’m not certain you’ll make it upstairs, at this rate.’
‘I’ll roll them up,’ Mildred murmurs stubbornly.
Gwendolyn hums noncommittally, aware this is about more than the practicalities posed by an oversized outfit. ‘Or I could carry you?’ she offers. ‘That’d make the journey quicker and a little less daunting.’
She thinks she hears a gasp, and wonders if it’s a sign of a positive or negative reaction. Thankfully Mildred doesn’t keep her waiting – although she does answer with a question. ‘Can you?’
Gwendolyn is affronted for a moment that her ability isn’t immediately obvious. ‘Excuse me?’
She hears a giggle, then, which suggests Mildred has heard her mortification. ‘Oh, I don’t mean generally,’ the younger woman says shyly, ‘you seem very strong. I meant more – should you – I suppose. Now that –’
‘Now that nothing, Nurse Ratched,’ Gwendolyn returns wryly, ‘I didn’t even know I had it until yesterday, it can’t – won’t – have sapped my strength so fast.’
Mildred makes a sort of snuffling sound, and Gwendolyn guesses she’s about to scoff at the display of such inadequate medical knowledge; but the snuffling swiftly grows into something that can only be called a yawn. Then Mildred mutters, ‘Fine,’ her tone only slightly mutinous. ‘You may carry me to bed, Gwen.’
Gwendolyn muffles a laugh in the smaller woman’s neck, and whispers, ‘Why thank you, Mil.’
Then they’re laughing together, and loudly, while they adjust their positions so Gwendolyn can pick Mildred up. She resists the urge to give Mildred a playful bounce as she settles her in her arms, wary of startling her sweetheart, and instead asks, ‘Happy?’
The younger woman chuckles at the question, and Gwendolyn wonders if she chose the right – or rather wrong – word, because Mildred takes a second before saying anything more in reply. But then an answer arrives that causes Gwendolyn’s stomach to flip in awe as opposed to anxiety. ‘Happier than I’ve ever been in my life,’ Mildred whispers, her eyes shining with a sincerity that more than compensates for the softness of her voice and her decidedly skittish expression. It’s as though she can’t believe she spoke aloud. But her frankness is followed by a further statement. ‘I’m not being flippant,’ she adds, sounding awkward.
‘I know, my love,’ Gwendolyn breathes, barely able to contain the catch in her own voice.
Because she does know. Or, at least, she’s beginning to understand. And the truth of what she’s just been told is at once a deeply touching and terrible thought. But she’s distracted from too much distress by Mildred giggling. ‘You have so many pet names for me,’ the younger woman murmurs, in obvious awe. ‘I’ve never had even one before, and now you’ve given me more than I can count.’
Gwendolyn chuckles, even as her heart clenches at the bittersweetness of this comment. ‘You like them?’ Auburn hair nods. ‘Well then,’ she continues, ‘I’ll have to find a new one for you every day.’ Mildred turns the most adorable shade of red, so Gwendolyn goes on by returning to a practical topic. ‘But tonight we need to head for bed.’
Auburn hair nods again, and the strawberry-blonde starts off in the direction of the stairs. She steps carefully, and then takes the climb slowly – for both their sakes, although she’d never admit her own anxiety. She’s so acutely aware of the nerves hidden behind the formidable nurse’s stalwart effort to smile that she refuses to let anything else get in the way of securing Mildred’s sense of safety.
And she gets further evidence of how shaky that sense is when they reach the bedroom and the smaller woman whispers, ‘You drew back the covers already?’
Gwendolyn nods. ‘I did. I was acting on the hope that you would be all right to be carried, and thinking I’d lower you down and tuck you in. Then I can lie next to you and we can face each other. How does that sound?’
Mildred’s lip quivers, and she nearly panics that she’s way off the mark, but then the younger woman says shyly, ‘It sounds perfect. Thank you.’
Holding back a tut at the gratitude, Gwendolyn grins, although she does give a reminder. ‘You don’t need to thank me, darling. Not for things like this.’
Mildred blinks up at her. ‘But – you’re so kind.’
Gwendolyn fights off a grimace at the incredulity in Mildred’s tone, and answers evenly, ‘So are you. You’re one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. Most of your actions are motivated by a desire to ease other people’s suffering. And you deserve kindness in return. Starting with some snuggles, and then a good night’s sleep, in a warm bed of your own. Our own.’ The younger woman blinks again, but nods, so the older woman is satisfied it’s safe to ask, ‘Ready to lie down, my love?’
Mildred giggles. ‘Yes. And I think I like that pet name the best.’
Gwendolyn grins, relieved they are back to joking, and (as she walks over to place her precious cargo on the bed) whispers, ‘Excellent. I plan on using it a lot.’
This is met with an arched brow. ‘You already have,’ Mildred murmurs, before flipping onto her side as soon as she’s settled on the sheets.
Gwendolyn doesn’t address the impertinence as the covers are drawn up around her darling. She doesn’t say anything at all until she herself is lying on her side, and their faces are level. Then, though, she tugs the bedclothes up over her body as well, and clarifies with a chuckle, ‘A lot more, in that case, my love.’
She’s gratified when Mildred not only giggles but lets out a soft moan. Watching her blush again, Gwendolyn is about to say something soothing, but the smaller woman speaks first. ‘Sorry,’ she whispers, chewing her bottom lip, and clearly anxious. ‘I just – it makes me feel good when you call me that.’
The strawberry-blonde stops herself smirking at this confirmation of a suspicion she’s harbored for some time now – and which has only strengthened throughout their interactions this evening. She doesn’t dare risk shaming Mildred for what is an unequivocally positive response. So she replies readily, ‘Never apologize for feeling good, my dearest darling. I only ever want you to feel good.’ The dark eyes opposite her blue ones widen, and Gwendolyn swears she sees their pupils dilate a little; but she isn’t convinced this is the correct point to push. She therefore doesn’t act on the assumption of Mildred’s arousal, and simply smiles, prompting, ‘All right?’
‘All right,’ Mildred repeats, her voice husky with oncoming sleep.
Gwendolyn hums thoughtfully. ‘D’you think you can try closing your eyes, sweets? I’m right here.’
Auburn hair nods determinedly, although the younger woman’s anxiety remains palpable as she asks, ‘Could you hold me, please, Gwen?’
‘Of course, Mil,’ Gwendolyn coos, reaching to wrap her arms around Mildred’s waist, but keeping the gap between them so they can maintain eye contact. And so she can check that the smaller woman is, in fact, falling asleep. Which she seems to be, because her eyelids droop. ‘That’s it,’ the taller woman praises softly, ‘I’ve got you. Let yourself drift off.’ Mildred mumbles something incomprehensible, but shuffles closer, so Gwendolyn gathers her against her body – tucking her head into the crook of her neck. ‘I love you,’ she whispers, ‘so very much, my love.’
Mildred moans quietly, suggesting that she heard, which in turn suggests that her journey to sleep isn’t proving totally successful. Then she mutters, ‘Gwen –’
‘I’m here, Mil. You’re safe,’ Gwendolyn purrs.
‘Safe,’ Mildred echoes dreamily, causing Gwendolyn to shiver pleasantly at the sensation of warm air passing over the small patch of bare skin above her pajama shirt collar.
‘Yes,’ she reassures, ‘safe, sweets.’
Then she goes quiet, listening intently for the subtle shift in the younger woman’s breathing pattern that will be a telltale sign of her slipping into slumber. It doesn’t arrive immediately, but – with all the horrors that lurk in the marshes of Mildred’s mind – Gwendolyn knows she would’ve been far too hopeful (at best) and naïve (at worst) to think it could. So she’s prepared to wait patiently. It isn’t as though she’s got anything else to do.
Anything except lie awake herself, that is.
Mildred would throw a tantrum if she got the slightest inkling of her hypocrisy. Gwendolyn guesses she could probably pass it off as protectiveness – but even that would probably irk the fiercely independent nurse. Despite the fact that taking care of others is clearly one of her strongest strategies for self-preservation. Because Mildred would be mortified at the implication that Gwendolyn doesn’t feel safe enough to share her struggles. And that mortification would undermine all the progress they’ve made in coaxing Mildred to share hers.
No, Gwendolyn muses, her mouth forming into a grim line, the only fair and honest thing to do is to open up about her fears. No matter how scary that might be in itself.
As a consequence, she’s strangely relieved when Mildred stirs, shifting back a bit on the bed – and she hears herself whisper, ‘Hey.’
‘Hi,’ the younger woman replies just as quietly. ‘I can’t sleep.’
Gwendolyn feels her lips shifting into a small smile. ‘Isn’t it funny, then, that I can’t either?’
She watches Mildred’s eyes narrow pensively, and wonders if she’s thinking back to their dinner before the dance. But, if she’s bothered by the purloining of her phrasing (admittedly a paraphrase of it), she doesn’t show it. Instead she asks simply, ‘Do you want to talk about it?’
Gwendolyn considers for a while, and eventually answers, ‘I don’t think I can yet.’
She’s frustrated with herself – isn’t this why she wanted them both to be awake!? – but Mildred just nods, unquestioningly accepting. ‘At your pace,’ the smaller woman quips, an impish smile appearing on her face, and the taller woman chuckles at the knowledge that they’re each using the other’s words to their own advantage.
‘I suppose I set myself up for that,’ she observes wryly.
‘Mhmm,’ Mildred murmurs, seeming inordinately pleased with her cleverness.
And deservedly so.
Gwendolyn contemplates how sweet she’d taste if she stretched to kiss her – but she doesn’t have consent to do so and, since Mildred can’t sleep, she’s wary of reawakening anything additionally difficult. But she recalls how lost the younger woman had looked after her outburst at the puppet show, and wants to shoulder some of that burden. So she returns Mildred’s question. ‘Do you want to talk about it?’
She’s fully expecting this advance to be rebuffed (because that isn’t without precedent and, for all that’s changed between them, the topic she thinks might be most relevant is a tough one). But she sees auburn hair nod, and hears a soft voice say, ‘I think so, actually. It’s a relief to have someone who knows – except for Edmund, of course –’
Mildred breaks off, obviously feeling she sounds silly, so Gwendolyn repeats, ‘Of course.’ Then she asks, ‘Is he on your mind, my love?’ Auburn hair nods a second time, so she poses a second query. ‘From before or now?’
Dark eyes widen, and Mildred seems taken aback. Gwendolyn curses herself for being so gauche – but then the smaller woman responds slowly, ‘Both – I think – although I don’t entirely understand how that can be possible –’
‘I do,’ Gwendolyn interjects, immediately and involuntarily.
‘You do?’ Mildred echoes, her expression wary but her tone intrigued.
‘I do,’ Gwendolyn affirms, thinking of their conference with Dr Hanover and Governor Wilburn, and the centrality of Charlotte Wells’ case. It’d been doomed before it started, but that didn’t mean she hadn’t listened; or that she didn’t care. The reverse, in fact. It’d taught her a lot about trauma and its effects. Not that she’d mention any of these musings to Mildred. Even after the puppet show. All she says, in the end, is, ‘Minds can play strange tricks.’
‘Yes,’ the younger woman agrees, ‘they can.’
Gwendolyn knows such ready assent is borne of the convenient distance Mildred is afforded by being someone who works with patients – as opposed to an admission from someone who acknowledges she needs (or even deserves) to seek out help herself. But this conversation is a start and, for that, the strawberry-blonde can only feel resounding gratitude. Gratitude that guides her to go on, and provide a further prompt. ‘Can you tell me what tricks yours is playing, sweets?’
Mildred huffs out a sigh, and Gwendolyn wonders if this will be the end of this line of enquiry for tonight, but it’s apparently a pause for thought. ‘I think –’ Dark eyes dip downwards as the smaller woman falters for a second, but then auburn hair bobs up again, and Mildred makes a request, her tone determined. ‘Could you hold my hand, please? Like you did earlier? I want to stay here as I talk; not go off somewhere else.’
Gwendolyn smiles at the strategy – although the need for it makes her heart ache – and reaches to do as asked. ‘Of course, my love.’
Any heartache is not just eased but banished when Mildred locks their fingers together and answers, ‘Thank you, my love.’ The strawberry-blonde is rendered briefly speechless at the reciprocity, and her delayed reaction seems to make the auburn-haired woman anxious, because she babbles, ‘I’m sorry – I shouldn’t’ve – I didn’t mean – is it okay if I call you that?’
Gwendolyn’s heart aches again, but this time the sadness is coupled with a seething sense of rage that Mildred would ever feel she has to ask. She voices none of this, though, saying only, ‘Of course, my love. I’m sorry I went silent. It – it makes me feel good too.’
Mildred’s eyes grow round, and Gwendolyn thinks she hears her gulp, before breathing, ‘Really?’
‘Really,’ she repeats, pairing the word with a gentle rub over the smaller woman’s wrist.
‘Wow,’ Mildred whispers, biting her lip, and clearly overwhelmed by the confession.
So Gwendolyn grips her wrist just a little tighter, and murmurs, ‘But it’s all right, sweets, we won’t do anything other than talk tonight. And we don’t even have to do that, unless you want to.’
‘I do,’ Mildred says decisively, ‘or else I won’t sleep at all.’
Gwendolyn grins, dazzled by her darling’s tenacity in the face of terror. ‘All right, my love. I’m here for whatever helps.’
Mildred moves closer again, and mumbles, ‘You help.’
The strawberry-blonde is grateful for the chance to conceal the tears threatening to brim over at the innocence in the auburn-haired girl-woman’s statement. Because it’s abundantly obvious that Mildred’s younger self was the one who said it. But, yet again, Gwendolyn doesn’t draw attention to any of this, and gushes instead, ‘I’m so glad, gorgeous. I only ever want to help you. And you help me, you know.’
Mildred pulls back, and Gwen sees her cheeks have flushed pink. ‘You – you think I’m gorgeous?’
‘I do, darling,’ Gwendolyn says with a nod, ‘and I’m hoping to help you think you are, as well, in time.’
Mildred giggles, and dives forward, so her face is hidden from the strawberry-blonde once more – by Gwendolyn’s own shoulder. Then she gabbles, just about audibly, ‘I – I – I – think you are also.’
It takes all of the older woman’s resolve not to bend and press a kiss to the younger’s precious head nestled so perfectly beneath her own. But she restrains herself, not daring to breach a boundary they haven’t discussed, and says a soft, ‘Thank you, sweets. I’m not sure you’ll still think it when my hair starts falling out if I have chemotherapy.’
‘When you have chemotherapy, you mean,’ Mildred mutters, raising her head and arching a brow. ‘And I will, because it’ll be yet another sign of how strong your spirit is. Not to mention an excellent excuse for me to buy you several new scarves to add to your already impressive collection.’
Gwendolyn stifles a gasp. Not at the certainty in what’s fast becoming her favorite voice –that sureness is almost her favorite of its features, even if she can’t trust so easily herself. Nor at the practical focus. But at the description of her spirit as “strong”. Because that’s an adjective she’d far more happily apply to Mildred’s spirit. For having come through so much and still being here.
But then, Gwendolyn supposes sardonically, surviving a near-fatal shooting only to be diagnosed with terminal cancer is probably a comparable amount of “so much”.
So she doesn’t disagree, and says, ‘Thank you, my love,’ but then deflects by asking, ‘You like my scarves?’
Auburn hair nods. ‘I do.’
The strawberry-blonde feels herself blushing. ‘But you’re much more stylish than I am.’
Mildred shakes her head. ‘I steal clothes, it doesn’t count.’
The statement is said so simply and easily that Gwendolyn blinks. But she pulls herself together enough to repeat two words. ‘You steal –’
She can’t complete the sentence, unsure if it was going to be a question, or what she hopes to gain from getting clarification, regardless. She can at least rationalize that, in the grand scheme of all the younger woman’s past behaviors, this is a comparatively insignificant one.
But, when Mildred speaks, it seems she’s given it far too much thought – because the nurse smirks, and says, ‘Yours, you silly thing. I’m wearing your pajamas, aren’t I?’
Gwendolyn smirks in return. ‘You are, yes. But I lent them to you. That’s different.’
Mildred’s mouth forms into a thin line, and she watches her thinking. ‘No-one’s lent me anything before. Especially not clothes. And I wasn’t going to tell you at first, and try and get out of it by being funny, but you should know I used to steal clothes. I had to.’
Gwendolyn’s new habit of hyperbole makes her wonder if her heart might melt at this honesty; and at the progress it signifies. But she’s uncertain how best to respond, so she steals a strategy herself, and jokes, ‘Well, darling, I think I can let that one slide – if you’ll consider having bologna less frequently.’ Then she winks, gauging the younger woman’s reaction as she did when they first met at Lucia.
Mildred blushes beautifully, but fires back, ‘For you, my love, I could be persuaded never to touch it again. And it likely wouldn’t take much – your metaphor’s already started ruining my appetite.’
They giggle together like schoolgirls, before Gwendolyn decides she ought to make a serious point. ‘I’ll never stop you having something you enjoy, sweets.’
‘I enjoy you,’ Mildred whispers, and the older woman questions whether she heard correctly, until the younger woman continues, visibly embarrassed. ‘I can’t believe I said that out loud.’
Gwendolyn replies with a gentle tease. ‘I think you said it quietly, darling,’ she drawls, before taking pity. ‘That was very brave of you. I’m flattered – and flustered – because I enjoy you, Mil.’ She hopes that will be comforting, but she sees worry in a pair of dark eyes, so she prompts, ‘What is it, my love?’
Mildred whimpers, but whispers, ‘I haven’t let you yet. Enjoy me, I mean.’
She bites back a protective growl at their return to this topic, and responds, ‘You have. I’ve been enjoying your company since you said “I know exactly who you are,” and your personality since you told the Governor not to put his hand on you. But that gives me a good opportunity to remind you – you are in control of your body during our interactions, and I only ever want to touch you if you want me to, too. Enjoyment of that sort isn’t enjoyment unless it’s mutual, and we’re already enjoying each other in so many ways that are much more important. And much more intimate. Does that make sense, sweets?’
Auburn hair nods. ‘It does. I don’t fully believe it, though,’ Mildred admits, her voice wavering. ‘And I don’t really know how to respond to it – so I’ll try – by trying to talk about how I’m feeling. Like I said I would.’
Gwendolyn’s face hurts from how wide she grins in pride at her beloved’s bravery. But she offers another reminder. ‘Only if it’ll help. You’re under no obligation, all right?’
‘Okay,’ Mildred confirms, mirroring her smile, if somewhat more timidly. ‘But I think it’ll help me sleep. And, if it doesn’t, it’ll pass the time while we’re awake.’
Gwendolyn chuckles adoringly at the pragmatism in this approach, and murmurs, ‘It will, my love.’
‘Okay,’ Mildred says again, drawing in a deep breath before adding another single word. ‘Edmund. He, uh, did things –’
The smaller woman breaks off, and the taller woman tuts sympathetically. ‘I’ll understand if you find it too hard to be specific, sweets, you don’t need to put yourself through that.’
She’s surprised to hear Mildred laugh. ‘No, I, uh, not with me. With Dolly. It got reported by a guard, so I went to speak to him, and he said if he couldn’t have a normal woman then I’d have to do. He took my hand through the bars of his cell and –’
Mildred breaks off again, her voice shaky, and Gwendolyn muses that this tiny snippet of a story might be more than enough for her to commit murder, were she not a liberal sort of person who didn’t believe any other human deserved to die. But she only says, ‘You can stop, sweets.’
Auburn hair shakes. ‘No. I need to say this. Because I was so scared. I dug my nails into his wrist, and spoke firmly to him, but I was so scared. Like we were children again and we were going to have to – so I couldn’t – and I found an opportunity for him to be with Dolly. But since then I’ve been frustrated with myself, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about how different things might be if I’d given him what he wanted. Because he and Dolly wouldn’t have – and you wouldn’t have been shot –’ Mildred pauses, and then murmurs plaintively, ‘I feel so guilty, Gwen.’
The older woman holds back a groan at the realization of where all this worry has stemmed from – or one layer of it, at least. Instead she insists, ‘You mustn’t, Mil, you mustn’t. It isn’t your fault. None of it. I won’t have you thinking that any longer, do you hear me? I know minds are mischievous, but I won’t let yours linger on that. If you consider it from another angle, if I hadn’t been shot, we may not have found the –’ She stops, suddenly finding she feels unable to speak the word, which strikes her as odd after it’d rushed out so easily when she was so desperate to put distance between them. Perhaps that’s what’s different. It seems too harsh now, as though it might tear their tentatively-constructed closeness apart. Whatever the reason for her reluctance, she lets it pass, and continues as calmly as she can, ‘But that might be too morbid for tonight. So I’ll just say, if either of us should be feeling guilty, sweets, it’s me.’
Gwendolyn hears Mildred gasp, then squeal, ‘You? Why?’
The strawberry-blonde is amazed at this response – she’d thought it obvious why, but that’s possibly because she’s been frustrated with herself ever since it happened. So she explains, in simple terms, ‘I made such a fuss about the puppet show.’
Auburn hair tickles Gwendolyn’s arms as Mildred curls up even closer, and she wonders what she might get in reply, before the smaller woman settles and whispers, ‘You didn’t know.’
‘No,’ Gwendolyn allows, ‘I didn’t. But you told me you didn’t want to go, and you were clearly extremely defensive and distressed, so I should’ve read your signals better.’
‘You thought I was defensive about us, though,’ Mildred observes, astutely, seemingly still aiming to absolve any wrongdoing.
‘I did,’ the taller woman admits, ‘but you were always specific that the puppet show was the problem.’
‘I guess I was,’ Mildred mutters thoughtfully, but then adds, ‘I just wanted to make you happy.’
Gwendolyn can hardly cope with this confirmation that Mildred forced herself through something – something so awful and agonizing – purely for her pleasure. She thinks she might faint, or scream, or both. But she does neither, and steels herself, saying, ‘Nothing that hurts you could ever make me happy, my love. But I don’t want you to take that as me blaming you. Because I know you were acting on a survival instinct. But you don’t have to do that. Not now. Not with me.’
She isn’t sure if this will be too much – and the last thing she wants is to overwhelm her darling – so she waits with bated breath for a response. Of any kind. But whatever she expected isn’t what arrives. ‘I don’t deserve you.’
At least she knows what to say in return. ‘Yes you do, my love, I promise you do.’ She pauses, pensive, her heart pounding painfully. ‘I might not deserve you, but by some unknown blessing you’re in my life. And now I’ve found you – now we’ve found each other – I don’t want to let you go…’
She trails off, suddenly lost in the terror of losing her, much like Mildred was earlier in the evening. And she wants so much to stop herself from spiraling. But she can’t – and in fact, it appears, all she can do is cry.
This is excruciatingly embarrassing (she’s supposed to be the one offering support, not the one needing it), but the last of her willpower seems to have washed away with her tears. So she surrenders to the great heaving sobs that are racking her body. Well, almost. There’s a small part of her subconscious that’s fretting over Mildred’s feelings. But, before that bit has a chance to come to the forefront, she hears the voice of the very woman she’s worrying about.
‘That’s it, I’ve got you. Let it out.’
The words are the last she might’ve expected. But, now they’ve been said, she’s grateful. And not just because they’re her own, which makes her laugh. Or perhaps “snort” is more accurate. Either way, they cut through her distress, and she finds the strength to whisper, ‘Hey! That’s my line.’
There’s a muffled giggle beneath her chin, following which Mildred queries, ‘Is it helping?’
She feels her throat relax a little more as she manages a slightly louder, ‘Yes.’
This gets a second giggle. ‘Good.’ But then Mildred’s tone becomes thoughtful as she adds, ‘I only ever want to help you. Like you help me. And I’m going to help you through this. Whatever happens. Okay?’
‘Okay,’ Gwendolyn hears herself repeat.
Raspier and more reticently, but she repeats it nevertheless.
Because, for the first time in the past two days, a flame flickers in her gut. A flame she’d thought was burnt out in the service of others, but which has been fanned back into an approximation of its former fierceness by someone (her most special someone) selflessly deciding to stay by her side.
As she clings to Mildred, she realizes they’re both crying. And she realizes too that – at the crux of it all – this is what they’ve both been craving.
An intimacy more intense than intercourse could ever be.
And she doesn’t plan on giving it up lightly.