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if we must be symbolic

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This is hardly what Maud would have imagined if she’d ever considered what her life would be like after... After. She never imagined willingly returning to Briar, to those books and that world. She never imagined Sue returning with her.

But Sue is here. She comes to Maud during the day and asks to be read to as she traces a heavy hand over the curve of Maud’s hair when it has started to slip free of its knot, occasionally rubs her hand over the curve of Maud’s gloves when she pauses in her work, fingertips ghosting over the pearl buttons. The feel of them pressing lightly against her skin now makes Maud’s hand tighten around her pen, forces her to put it aside lest she stain her current work.

“What’s this then?” Sue asks, and leans in over Maud’s shoulder waiting to be informed. Her mouth opens and tries to silently trace out the words letter by letter, slow and struggling as though the small familiarities with the way the letters of her own name look will make Maud’s own writing easier to read. “Another of your books?”

Maud clears her throat and looks away. She feels flushed and still uncomfortable with watching Sue so openly, knowing Sue can see her doing do. “It’s – yes. A story for another book.”

Sue nods, solemn, her eyes still tracing the lines. “Is this one about you and me as well?”

Maud hesitates, feeling caught out, but pushes through it. “Yes.” This is nothing she hasn’t admitted to before. “The last one did well enough that I’ve been commissioned to write another.”

Sue hums. “What’s this one say then?” she asks. Her eyes are still on the book, making it hard for Maud to see her face or gauge her feelings.

Maud looks at her, then at the page she’s been writing for the day. She reads, “She’s asked me to keep my gloves on and the contrast of their pale leather against her glowing curved skin fires my blood. I caress her with them, my fingertips running over each part of her, from her smoothly curved shoulders to her breasts, and over her stomach and thighs to between them where she’s opening like a petal covered with –.” Sue makes a stifled sound and shifts abruptly, face turned away, and Maud stops.

The silence between them feels heavy, and Maud wonders if it will always be this way, so uncertain yet. She would apologise except that she can’t; not about this, not about what she has now made herself into. The words won’t come.

“Sue,” she starts and then stops, unsure how to continue.

Sue finally turns so Maud can see her face. She laughs a little, awkward and wry. “You got that from us, from between the two of us.” Her fingers press lightly down on the buttons on Maud’s glove again. She waits for Maud to nod. “Your gloves, my pet – petals,” she struggles, “you’re telling them that?”

Maud nods, something in her greedily storing away the details of Sue’s self-conscious confusion, the way the warmth of her blush has rushed pink under pale skin up from her breasts to curve over her throat and cheeks. Later, she thinks, she might write the feeling of these words into another sentence, might put down more of the two of them and make it feel real.

“To them it’s simply a story,” she offers, voice as calm and unaffected as she can make it, nothing of the thumping of her heart or the heavy possessive feeling that sits in her belly when she writes these things.

Sue nods, distracted. Her eyes have turned back to the page and stayed there, as if she sees something even while Maud knows she cannot read it.

“I couldn’t ever write it the way you do,” she says. “I couldn’t put it all flowery and pretty for people to pay to read,” like she feels the difference between their hands, the gaps in the ways they shape their vowels, and thinks less of herself for it.

Maud purses her lips, uncomfortable with it all. Nothing that she has read before or written now is pretty to her; it was filth earlier and now it is – it is something different. Not bad, but greedy and sharp-edged. It is not pretty.

“But sometimes,” Sue whispers, the fingers of her other hand lightly tracing the edges of the page, “I’d wish I could.” She looks straight into Maud’s eyes like she understands exactly why Maud feels compelled to repeat everything they’ve done or that she’s even considered them doing, out in ink and paper, drawn with careful hands.

Maud’s the one to swallow and look away this time, caught out. “Well,” she says, taking refuge in briskness, pulling her hand away from under Sue’s and standing up, “I suppose the only thing for it is to teach you.”

*
Months later, Maud will sit perfectly still as Sue will claim a promised reward for her work, will hold still as Sue laboriously traces out the jagged curves of her name against the pale, veined skin of Maud's wrist, finally putting her own mark on this thing between them. Just the sight of her makes something in Maud clench like it hurts, and Maud feels the breathless clutch of it as love.

Sue has learned other words by now but still likes this best, the still barely familiar curves and flourishes of her own name, having written them over and over even before she knew what the letters meant. Her handwriting remains crude and jerky, never as fine as the lines Maud has written for her to copy, but she traces them slowly and carefully, her chin drawn close to her chest with determination.

Even now, having drawn off Maud’s glove slowly and pressed a kiss to her palm, Sue tips her chin inwards in habit as she starts to trace out the familiar letters. The sharp edge of the nib feels like a sting on Maud’s skin, a smudged ache the second after.

“Tell them this too,” Sue whispers, and rubs her thumb above where the ink is still drying on Maud’s skin, firm and possessive, “tell them I put my name on you,” and kisses her.