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I

The other side of the bed was empty.

Con pushed back the duvet and got up. Through the window she could see Nell in the garden, continuing her battle with nearly a year's worth of weeds. Con did not need to see her face to know she was not happy. Her head was bent down, further and more solidly than strictly necessary for her task, and her movements were rapid without being especially efficient.

II

"I've made breakfast." Such a paltry peace offering.

"Oh." Nell stilled her movements, but did not look up yet.

"You're angry with me." Not a question. Far too easy to be a question.

"Yes." Amongst other things. Why is 'angry' the first one to come to mind? It's not, is it - it's just the easiest to say. I'm hurt, I'm shocked, I'm disappointed. I'm heartbroken. Breakfast? What could breakfast matter now? Nell stood up, looked at her lover at last.

"Can't we just enjoy the time we do have now, instead of going back to - that?" Con knew it was a stupid suggestion before she'd even finished saying it.

Nell stared. What a year. "I don't have anything left to enjoy, Con."

Con winced. "I'm sorry, Nell. I don't know what to say." Or, more precisely, I know there is nothing I can say.

Nell shrugged, gestured towards the cottage and the open kitchen door. "Shall we?"

III

Inside, she tried to relax. Tried, knowing all the while just how offensively futile it was, to follow Con's ridiculous suggestion; tried to make the most of what was still on offer: not enough, never enough.

Con sensed the conciliatory shift, tried to match it with another desperate attempt to be understood: "I - I wish it could be another way, Nell. I really do. It's not fair, I know it's not fair, but this is the world we live in. What kind of a life is this?"

"Indeed." Nell spoke drily, quickly, afraid that any pause would give her away. Life before - life in Tyrol with Con - had been good. Yet now it was not as good as the prospect of a lifetime with this man Con barely knew.

Con caught the expression on her face. "I - I don't mean I didn't enjoy it. But it's different for you - you have a vocation, you'll always want to teach. I don't. I want a home, children... Jock can give me those things."

Nell looked away. She couldn't begin to voice the biggest problem in what she had just heard: the last three years reduced to mere enjoyment; the unconscious use of the past tense. "I could have given you a home. And you have no idea what I might have wanted, what I might have sacrificed. You know nothing." Her voice was hard, though it was only from the effort of suppressing tears. Con had been right, she was angry, but she was finding that anger difficult to sustain. Con didn't understand - how could she? The more she tried to make Nell understand her own position, the clearer that became. Nell understood perfectly, didn't need to be told that a husband was easier, safer; and she understood, too, that Con really had no idea what was lost when she made that deal. If she was honest, she supposed she also knew that Con couldn't know how any of it felt to her - knew Con wouldn't really be sat here, in her kitchen, hurting her like this on purpose. Knew Con couldn't really begin to realise how awful the escape from Spartz to Paris had been - even if Nell had tried to tell her about it, which she hadn't, not really. How could she have told her - especially after arriving home to find a guarded, embarrassed letter asking to meet? Especially after meeting Con at the station with that same guarded, embarrassed look on her face? In that moment, right there on the platform, she had known the confession Con had come to make.

And if she was really honest with herself, she had known even before then, even in Tyrol when everything they touched turned to gold, she had known that it had only worked so long as it was light and happy. Already then, the things which Nell knew about and Con couldn't begin to imagine divided them, if either had stopped to think about it. Con couldn't be expected to understand any of it, and Nell didn't have it in her to blame her for that.

IV

Con reached across the table for her hand, but Nell moved it away. She might have a conscious understanding of Con's misperceptions, but that didn't mean she was willing or able to pretend anything was all right. "You have no idea about marriage, either, Con. Nobody talks honestly about it, even when they're not taking into account more, well, complicated pasts. It's not just - it's not just that I'm bitter and don't want you to be happy." She regretted it, the moment she'd said it.

"I don't think that." Con's face was flushed with guilt, and Nell realised immediately that she did think it, at least in part. She was almost grateful for this new and painful knowledge. It made it irrevocably clear, had there been room for any confusion, that there was no possible way back.

And again the increasing distance came to the fore, as Con slipped out of her chair and came to stand behind her, dropping soft arms around her in a way that would never again feel appropriate. Heavy-hearted, Nell shrugged her away. "No, don't, Con. It's not right, given your changed circumstances." Almost unconsciously, she touched the crucifix hanging at her throat.

Con raised an eyebrow. "Now? It's not right now?" Another issue they had never really seen eye to eye on. Another difference that hadn't mattered before.

Nell sighed, with as much patience as she could muster. "Yes. It's not right now, because it does count. I know it's not something you can shout about, and I don't doubt for a minute it would have cost us both our jobs, but - in the most fundamental way, I didn't ever think of you as an illegitimate secret who didn't count. I made my peace with that, I didn't think it was wrong - I don't think it was wrong. And I'm not going to be your secret who doesn't count - not now."

And she meant every word, and Con knew it; and they both also knew that, in the end, they would spend that night together again.




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