(the only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely)
(the only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely)
She is still there in the morning; he had half wondered if he’d dreamed her. She’s lying curled up tight, wrapped in a sheet. She twitches her nose now and then like a snuffling rabbit, purrs gently like a cat as she breathes in, out, in, out. He watches her for a moment feeling stunned, happy. He cannot believe how lucky he is.
For one thing, this has all worked out. It is not a failure.
For another, he has Apolline. Apolline. Him and Apolline. Who would have thought it? He was so focused on her portrait, on creating that masterpiece, achieving the unobtainable, that he spent all those months looking past her, seeing only what was bad, seeing... something else. He can’t believe he couldn’t see that she was what mattered all along.
“Morning,” he murmurs, the moment he hears her stirring.
“Morning.” She throws her hair back from her face, smoothes it into place. A small smile plays about her rosy lips, a laugh smirking in her eyes. “Sleep well?”
He grins and so does she. They keep grinning and glancing here, there, everywhere, not keen to make eye contact.
“Ok,” she says. “This is awkward.”
They stare at each other for another minute, grins stretching wider, fading thinner. She starts to giggle.
“Oh, this is silly,” she says. “We were fine last night.”
“We were drunk last night.”
“You’re a very eloquent drunk.”
“You aren’t. Just a very forceful one.”
She laughs and it’s nice. She’s laughing with him, not at him. They’re laughing together. It’s nice.
“I’ve got to go to work,” he says.
“It’s seven thirty.”
“And I have a client in an hour.”
“If you’re an early morning person, this really isn’t going to work out,” she tells him seriously.
“I’m not. This client is, however, and you know I’ll do anything to keep a client happy.”
She recognises the tease and whacks him on the arm. That’s nice too. It isn’t awkward, he thinks, despite the giggling and the staring. Not too awkward anyway. For a relationship that for months has been strained and prickly, it should really be more so. He takes it as a good sign that it is not.
“I don’t appreciate being thrown out so unceremoniously,” she complains, dressing slowly, casually. He is quicker and more self-conscious and soon is heading to the kitchen to toast bread and make coffee.
“Sorry,” he calls behind him as he leaves. “You could stay, I suppose, but it might be a tiny bit uncomfortable.” He hears her laughing as he scrabbles around for clean mugs, wonders if it would be wrong to just scrape the mould off the bread. He’s mortified that his house is such a state and hopes she won’t follow him in.
She does. “Got any eggs?”
“No. I don’t seem to have much of anything, actually. Sorry.” He can feel himself blushing. He can’t believe how much things have changed, and how quickly. A week ago and he would have been cursing her silently.
“It’s all right. I’ll pick something up on the way.”
“On the way to where?”
“I’m meeting someone for drinks. A friend.” A devilish grin. “You looked jealous there,” she says cheerfully. “Don’t you dare deny it.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here,” he says, but he’s smiling too.
“Just because we only admitted what was going on last night, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been happening for weeks,” she says. “Weeks, months? I don’t know.”
He likes that she can be so open, so honest, in the way that he cannot. His reservations and insecurities did damage to what he had with Jacqueline, and he won’t let that happen again.
“Yes,” he says. “I suppose that’s true. But still,” he adds, trying to joke, “this friend had better be female.”
“It isn’t,” she says airily. “It’s Robert.”
She’s meeting Robert. Apolline and Robert. Why?
Robert had recommended her to him in the first place. She had seemed happy to trust Robert’s opinion unconditionally in the matter. Why?
Henri remembers his suspicions about them having some connection that Robert would not admit to. What if they were –
Henri doesn’t want to think about it.
If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing.
Henri is not religious, and is fairly sure that neither Robert nor Apolline has ever been married, certainly not to each other, but still, the point stands, and the idea is not a pleasant one. There is definitely a line there that should not be crossed. Henri shudders a little at the thought of it all. He will confront Apolline about it, he determines. Or perhaps Robert, who is less intimidating.
He is undeniably shaken, however, when he receives an owl from Robert just after he has finished with his client. I’m at Maggie’s. Brunch?
Clearly, Robert knows. Apolline has told him. Henri does not like the thought of that; he had hoped to break the news to Robert himself. Robert will not like it, he is sure of that. But why will he not like it? Henri muses. Because he wants her himself?
Henri attempts, without success, to shove all such thoughts from his mind as he heads to the little cafe down the road that Robert is so fond of. The wind is biting outside and he wishes he had thought to put on a cloak. He knows Robert, and Maggie too, will be amused by his Muggle suit.
He doesn’t really know why they keep going to Maggie’s. The name of the cafe is Le Rosbif, the humour being that Maggie, its proprietor, is as English as they come. Naturally the food is awful, but the prices are reasonable and Maggie so cheerful that neither Henri nor Robert has ever minded. Presumably Robert in particular finds other attributes in Maggie that compensate for her inadequacies in the kitchen, but that is beside the point.
Indeed, Robert is chatting with her when Henri enters, trying out his English and making an utter fool of himself. A rapturous Maggie is giggling and urging him on. Henri wonders why on earth he has been invited; to approach them would seem intrusive.
“Henry!” Maggie cries, catching sight of him. Her French is more than passable, but she always calls him this, knowing it annoys him. Similarly she pronounces ‘Robert’ with a crude English 't', though he claims he finds her accent charming. “Nice suit,” she comments.
“Hi Maggie.” He smiles a greeting and she returns it. Her smile is less bright for him, but he’s used to that.
“A pot of that fabulous English tea of yours, please, Maggie,” Robert grins, flicking her a shiny coin. “We’ll be in the corner. We’ve got a serious conversation to have, haven’t we, little brother?”
Henri is immediately on edge.
“We do?” he asks nonchalantly as they head over to Robert’s chosen table.
“Of course we do. I know about Apolline,” he says, sitting down.
Of course he does. He’s just had coffee with her, hasn’t he?
“I assume you left Jacqueline’s party together?” Robert says.
“Did you shag her last night?”
“Well did you?”
“That’s none of your business!” Henri blusters.
Robert should be smirking, laughing, and he does, but only for a moment. Then his face falls into seriousness, his mouth into a hard, straight line. He leans back in his chair, lighting a cigarette with his wand. Henri wrinkles his nose at the smoke.
“Just be careful, little brother,” Robert tells him.
“I’m not a teenager, Robert.”
“I’m serious. I don’t want this to be Jacqueline all over again.”
“Apolline is nothing, nothing like Jacqueline.”
“She is.” He says it with casual confidence. “She really is.”
“How would you know?” Is this it, his perfect opportunity to ask? He is scared of finding out. “You told me you barely knew her.”
“I don’t. I barely know her at all.” (Lies, Henri wonders?) “But I’ve heard an awful lot about her, and not all of it’s good.”
Henri almost laughs. Mere gossip? He had been expecting much worse. “You called me here to tell me that? So some people don’t like her. That’s a reason for me to avoid her like the plague, is it?”
“Don’t be like this, Henri. I’m just trying to look out for you, that’s all.”
“Well, thank you so much for your concern, but I think I can look after myself.”
He feels very angry all of a sudden. What business is it of Robert’s? If Robert wants Apolline, then he should have tried harder to get her. If he does not, and Henri is just being paranoid, then as far as romance is concerned, he should occupy himself with Maggie or Jeanne Dubois or whoever else there might be, and leave Henri to his own life.
“Please, Henri, can you just let me –”
No. He will not let him. Whatever it is that Robert has to say, he does not want to hear it.
“No, I don’t think so. Thank you for the thought, but I really must be going. Goodbye, Robert,” he says, a little more harshly than he intended. Robert doesn’t try to stop him, just shakes his head, sets his jaw.
He ignores Maggie’s words of concern as he leaves, brushing past her, slamming the door. He knows he’s being childish, dramatic, but Robert has no right to complain when he has nothing to say. He doesn’t even know her.
If there is one thing Henri is sure of, it is that he does know Apolline Lefèvre, the real her. He has seen her at her best, and her worst. She is not perfect; he certainly isn’t deluding himself about that. But he can cope with her failings, her faults. He can cope with them and he wants to, if that’s what is needed to be with her.
He makes his way quickly back up the road, flattening his hair against the wind, which has grown more ferocious in the mere minutes he was inside the cafe, and soon reaches his apartment. His eye is caught for a moment by the bronze plaque on the door, Henri Delacour, Portraits and Paintings, Enquire Within. He looks at it and he thinks of her painting, the picture that brought her here. Brought her to him.
He pushes the door open and, to his great surprise, is greeted by a significantly more pleasant sight than the one he was expecting – Apolline perched on his desk, wearing robes of periwinkle blue and a bright smile that only widens when she sees him.
“How did you get in here?” he asks, a little bemused, closing the door behind him.
She smiles. “Robert lent me his key. He said you wouldn’t be gone long.”
His heart sinks a little. “I see. Enjoy your, er, meeting with him, did you?”
She shrugs. “Yeah, it was good.” She slides down from the desk onto her feet, makes her way towards him. “Are you all right? You look a little –”
“No, really, I’m fine.”
Doubt flits into her expression. “Would you rather I hadn’t come here?”
“No, no, it’s fine – it’s great actually.” He seizes upon a thought that has suddenly entered his mind. Yes, he thinks. It is time. It has been far too long. “There – there’s something I’d like to show you,” he says. “If you don’t mind.”
She looks intrigued, and reassured, and allows him to lead her upstairs, going left when they reach the little landing. Her face lightens a little as she recognises the doors to the kitchen, bathroom, his bedroom... But he leads her right to the end of the corridor, to the final door. He hesitates, fingers brushing the handle. Then he feels her breath on his neck, her hand on his arm, and he turns it.
It is the smallest room in his apartment, no more than a cupboard, in truth. The walls are plastered in shelving, any sign of wallpaper completely obscured by row upon row of sketchbooks, notepads, single sheets of parchment, paper, card, all stacked in tottering piles, snaking their way around the tiny room.
This room is his life in art. Everything he has ever painted, drawn, sketched – everything that is not to be sold. Everything that does not have to be displayed, to be brashly shown off to the world, that can still have meaning and power when hidden away in the darkness, just one of many, just another book on the pile.
He watches Apolline, trying to gauge what she’s thinking.
Two things catch her eye at once, as he expected them to. Firstly, the blank frame on the wall opposite them, nothing more than an empty armchair, its occupant absent. Then her eyes dart downwards and fix upon the large, rectangular something stood upright on the floor, directly beneath the empty frame. It rests with its back against the lower shelves, tauntingly covered up by a crisp white sheet, just begging to be unveiled.
She chooses to ignore the blank frame, for which he is glad. As for the other –
She takes a step towards it, pauses, turns around. “Is that –?”
“Yes. I’d like you to see it.”
She laughs. “Finally! You were very irritating about it, you know, always keeping it from me, promising it was nearly finished and then trying to tell me I couldn’t have it at all.”
“You can have it now, if you still want it. If you like it.”
He doesn’t know why he is so nervous. His hand hovers above the sheet, fingers caressing the thin, coarse material that protects something so beautiful, so flawed. He meets her eyes and she’s smiling, nodding. He pulls back the cover.
She stares, drinking it in. He doesn’t. He has seen it far too much, spent too many nights gazing upon it in frustration: it is imprinted on his brain. He doesn’t look at her either. He’s not sure that he can. He knows that it isn’t what she wanted. He remembers their very first session, him asking her what she wanted, her describing a picture that he was never going to paint. She wanted to be sitting, he recalls; he has shown her standing. She wanted a window in the background; he has given her blank slate. She insisted on wearing silver robes, and he gave her blue, somewhere between the purity of ocean waves as they hit the shore and the brightness of a midday sky, the blue that matches her eyes.
“I know it’s all wrong,” he says quickly. He takes it as a bad sign that she hasn’t spoken. “But this... this is how I always saw you. This is how it’s meant to be.”
She still doesn’t speak, just walks from one side of it to the other, taking a step back, then one forward, then one back again, examining it from all angles.
“And it was never going to be perfect,” he says now, regretting more than ever his decision to show it to her. “I did try and tell you, though, that I just couldn’t do it, that you were too – too difficult. I’ve repaid your deposit, and I don’t expect you to give me anything for it now, don’t worry. I – I tried my best, that’s all I can do –”
“Henri,” she interrupts. “Stop.”
She turns away from the picture, back to him. She kisses him once and he wonders what it means. Is this a thank-you, or a consolation, or just something to do because she hates it so much that she doesn’t know what to say?
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“Henri,” she says again, “I think it’s beautiful.”
Even as relief sweeps through him, he registers that she’s staring at him too intently, too seriously for her. He tries a joke. “Of course you do, you’re the one in it.”
“Yes,” she says, confident, unabashed, “and you’re the one who did it.”
He isn't quite sure what to say to that.
A/N: Sorry, I know it's been a while. I'm terrible with updates. I'm a bit unsure about large parts of this chapter, so it'd be brilliant to hear any thoughts at all that you have on it :) Oh, and the "if a man shall take his brother's wife..." line is from Leviticus 20:21, in case you're wondering what all that was about. Thanks so much for reading!
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