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escapewithstories, we did it, and I'm so damn grateful for you.

April 25, 1964

After watching Lucien's deep, even breaths for far longer than necessary, Jean rose from her chair next to their bed, bestowed a lingering kiss on his forehead, and smoothed the blankets one more time before leaving his side. Thankfully, he'd either been too happy, too exhausted, or both to notice the changes in their bedroom, like the stiffness of the curtains or the lack of clutter on her bedside table. Mattie made herself invaluable almost immediately by talking Lucien into taking his medication and lying down for just a tick. The way his medicine affected him, they'd have to wake him in an hour so that he didn't sleep until after dinner.

When Mattie suggested that they have tea in the kitchen while Lucien slept, the panic on Jean's face must have seeped through her mask. Just as quickly as she suggested it, Mattie decided that bringing a tray in the studio would be much better. Now, she waited for Jean across the room, scooping mounds of sugar into Jean's tea, and when she approached, the young woman smiled, almost too brightly.

"Are you sure you don't want to lie down, Jean?" she whispered, handing the delicate cup and saucer to her friend.

"No, I slept on the bus." As she sipped her tea, she watched Mattie prepare her own cuppa, worrying at her lip and creasing new worry lines in her forehead. As long as Jean had known her, Mattie had never been a carefree girl, having decided against her parents' wishes in favor of pursuing an education in a field dominated by men. But only in the darkest of times, during the last month of Thomas Blake's life, Lucien's most drunken fits, the frustrating fights with her father, and the days before Jean left Ballarat for Adelaide, had Mattie looked so troubled.

"You've got that look on your face." The light in Mattie's whisper offered some consolation. In response to Jean's inquisitive hum, Mattie said, "The one that says you're worrying about me even though I'm old enough to make my own decisions."

Stifling a laugh, Jean set her too sweet tea on the coffee table in front of the couch. "Which one caved? Danny or Charlie?"

Mattie nearly snorted into her cup. "Danny. All I had to do was start sniffling and he coughed up your entire travel itinerary." Though Jean laughed quietly, Mattie's mischief fled when her gaze shifted to Lucien. "They wanted to be here, but we all discussed it when I arrived in Melbourne yesterday, and we agreed that it might be…overwhelming for Lucien for us all to come at once."

In the silence, even the soft clink of Mattie's saucer on the table sounded loud enough to wake him.

Jean could feel it coming, the tsunami of relief and sorrow and pain that devastated her at its leisure. "Oh, Mattie." She brought a hand to her mouth to keep more words from pouring out, and Mattie took her other hand in both of hers. "He's been through so much, and even though I know I can't fix everything, I want to, more than anything."

Ducking her head to meet Jean's downturned gaze, Mattie squeezed Jean's hand. "No, but you are helping. And you aren't alone in this. We're all here for you both."

"Lucien is the one who needs our help—"

"And you can't help him if you aren't taken care of. Are you sleeping?"

Memories of her darling's thrashing and cries in the night washed over Jean like a flood and stole her breath, so for a moment, she could only shake her head. She lowered her shaking hand on top of Mattie's. "His nightmares are…worse than they ever were, except maybe when he first came to Ballarat. Sometimes, when he's having a night terror or a bad dream, I can't bring him back."

"Oh, Jean." When Jean looked in Mattie's pleading eyes, she saw less of the young woman who found Jean crying on the couch all those years ago, of the pretty young thing who still thought that life was kind. "Maybe we should go up to my room so you can let some of this out—"

"No, he can't wake up and not know where I am." The desperation in her whisper alarmed even herself, so in the face of Mattie's wide eyes, Jean sighed. "Mattie, when he first wakes up he—he sometimes forgets where he is."

Mattie's distress did not dissipate, but her understanding momentarily overpowered it. "Jean, there are doctors now that specialize in treating this kind of trauma."

Jean shook her head. No matter how many patients Lucien advised to seek therapy over the years, the likelihood of him taking his own advice was slim. Even if his pride and impatience with himself didn't forbid it, the best psychiatrists practiced far from Ballarat, and how could she ask him to leave home again when he woke, petrified and lost, next to his own wife? "Even if those doctors were nearby, you know Lucien wouldn't go for it."

"I agree he would need some convincing, but when he realizes how much you're affected by this, I think he would realize this the best option."

"He feels guilty enough without taking the blame for my inability to cope."

"If I were in your position, would you tell me that it was my own fault that I wasn't coping well enough?" Mattie's shimmering eyes revealed that, no matter what she intended, she needed the comfort now. Even though she'd seen more of the world and all its horrors, sweet Mattie, who dropped everything to take care of them, had not been prepared to see Lucien like this. The last time Mattie saw him, he'd twirled her around a dance floor on the eve of a milestone birthday she'd come to celebrate back home. Their time apart never affected the joy and ease of their reunions, like a father and daughter united against propriety and expectations.

How much more altered must he seem to Mattie, with only memories like those to paint her expectations with for the last year?

"No." Jean freed her hands from Mattie's only to wrap her in the warm, comforting embrace that benefited them both. "Never."

Mattie shook with the effort of keeping her cries quiet, so Jean rubbed her back in a slow, soothing rhythm. After taking a few steadying breaths, Mattie trusted herself to speak. "I'm supposed to be comforting you, making things easier for you."

"Oh, my sweet girl," Jean sighed. "You are making things easier. I'm so grateful you're here to help me."

Mattie's hold on Jean tightened. "We've all got a lot of healing to do."

When they woke Lucien for dinner, he persuaded Mattie and Jean to let him enjoy his first dinner at home in the kitchen, instead of tucked away in bed. Since he woke to the smiling face of his wife instead of a nightmare, his pleasant, almost cheerful mood persisted, but Jean knew that he only wanted to put on a jovial face for Mattie. Naturally, coming home gave him some peace and joy, but in the last month, Jean only witnessed this many smiles and attempts at laughter in the presence of Ying Yue, on whom Lucien was desperate to leave a positive lasting impression. Gradually, however, Mattie grew quieter and less enthusiastic, so she must have noticed the farce of his disposition.

By the time they finished their meal, Lucien's head rested a bit too comfortably in his palm. As Mattie rose and collected their dishes, Jean took his free hand in hers. Surprised when he didn't stir, Jean prompted him with a soft murmur of his name.


"What about calling it an early night?"

Lucien's drowsy gaze ambled to Mattie, who had just turned on the faucet. "But Mattie's here."

Jean skimmed her hand over his forearm. "And she'll be here tomorrow." No one's going anywhere.

Lucien shot her that sheepish smile that made her want to kiss his embarrassment away. "Quite right."

At the sound of a knock at the door, Mattie turned off the tap. "I'll get that."

Jean thanked Mattie as she passed, and when she turned back to Lucien, his gaze was already fixed on her. She almost asked him what was wrong, but his wistful smile put her at ease. Nothing was wrong, for the first time in so long. Now, sitting together in their kitchen, Jean basked in her husband's adoration, and God how she'd missed this, smiling when she caught him staring and holding his hand over the kitchen table, rather than clinging to the stale sensations of memories.

The thud of the closed door snapped them both out of their reveries, and they prepared to greet an exhausted, irritable, and hungry Matthew Lawson. Instead, Alice Harvey, white as a sheet, with pursed lips and a vice grip on her handbag, stood frozen on the other side of the serving hatch. Mattie stood at her side, eyes flitting from Alice to Lucien to Jean, holding her breath until someone made the first move.

"You fell over thirty feet." Even after Alice broke the silence, no one knew how to respond. "Thirty feet into freezing water and jagged rocks."

Lucien, now facing his right so that he could look Alice in the eyes, nodded slowly. "It…wasn't pleasant."

Oh, Lucien.

"Wasn't pleasant?" Alice snapped. "It's impossible to survive."

"Apparently not." Lucien's foolhardy attempt to lighten the mood only roused a huff and a glare from Alice. "If you'd…come sit down with me, I can tell you how I did it."

Lower lip trembling, Alice slowly shook her head and took a step back, and Jean cursed herself for not telling Alice herself and cursed Matthew for letting her confront this alone. More than any of them, Alice truly believed she'd lost Lucien to that river, mourned him accordingly, moved on as best she could. And now all that anger, devastation, guilt, resignation, and acceptance had collapsed all around her, out of sequence and without adequate explanation. Alice Harvey did not deal in miracles.

"That's alright," Lucien murmured. "I can tell you from right here."

"Why do you assume that I want those particulars?"

"I—I don't know. I thought it might—" He broke off, glancing back at Jean as if she could salvage this. "I thought it might make you feel better."

"Why in God's name would that make me feel better?"

"I'm—sorry. I'm not saying any of the right things, am I?"

Even with her eyes welling, Alice managed a small smile. "I suppose that's how I should know it's really you." Squaring her shoulders as if gearing up for a fight, she stepped forward, rested her handbag on the hatch's ledge, and rounded the corner into the kitchen. Before Lucien could turn around, she stood in front of him, one hand outstretched in an invitation, a challenge not to Lucien but to her own disbelief.

Only when he covered her hand with both of his did she allow her shoulders to droop, her breath to release, and her tears to fall.

Within fifteen minutes of Alice's arrival, Matthew joined them, having delegated the remaining tasks to his junior officers. He seemed surprised to find Alice in the kitchen, leading Jean to believe that no matter what his plan for Alice's reunion with Lucien had been, Alice ignored it. At first, Jean worried that Lucien would find so much company overstimulating, but his friends' presence revitalized him. Matthew had only just sat down with his plate before Lucien goaded him about his relationship with Alice, whose ring finger remained bare. Their matching blushes, however, eradicated any concern Jean felt for the strength of their mutual adoration.

To her surprise, Jean's fatigue nearly overcame her. She knew when she ignored Mattie's suggestion to lay down that she would pay for it later, but she expected it to be much later than half past seven. With his hand on her shoulder, Lucien woke her from a daze and repeated his desire to turn in. One by one, Alice, Matthew, and Mattie bid them adieu, and Jean helped her husband down the hall to their bedroom.

As she closed the door behind them, Jean's conscience nipped at her heels. Tell him where you've been sleeping before he figures it out on his own.

But then she turned and he intercepted her, wrapping one arm around her waist and pulling her close and brushing his nose against hers, and she couldn't open her mouth for fear of ruining this perfection. They swayed like this for a few moments, foreheads touching and eyes closed, until Lucien kissed her, and oh, suddenly opening her mouth wasn't such a terrible idea. They couldn't go much further than this, not for another week, but when he traced the roof of her mouth with his tongue, she let herself imagine taking her darling to bed, kissing every inch of his skin, healing him with her touch.

She broke off with a gasp when his hand migrated from the small of her back down to her bum, but she softened the blow by sliding her lips against his neck, smiling when he hummed.

"Suppose I shouldn't start something I can't finish."

Kissing her way up his neck, Jean sighed. "Soon."

"Will you come sit with me by then fire? Just for a few minutes. I don't think it's such a good idea for you to dress me for bed just yet."

Giggling, Jean pulled away, just enough to catch the light in his eyes when he flashed her a wicked grin. Moments like this, sensual and playful, had been few and far between, and for a moment, Jean allowed herself to bask in it.

Lucien, however, not willing to let her slip away just yet, took a step forward, intent on backing her against the door, but he put too much weight on his bad leg and nearly buckled.

Jean hit the door with a thud as he fell into her, and she wrapped her arms under his to keep him upright. "I've got you. Are you alright?"

"Fine," Lucien snapped, relying on his cane and the hand braced against the door to push himself up. He sighed heavily. "Forgive me. I'm not cross with you."

"I know," Jean said, even though she needed to hear it. She reached up to stroke his cheek, relieved when he offered her a small smile. "Come, sit with me."

They eased down on the couch together, but Lucien immediately scooted to the right, carefully draping his legs over the arm of the couch, and eased down with a groan, resting his head in Jean's lap. Gazing up at her, he kissed her palm. "Much better."

His tenderness made her ache, and as usual, he saw right through her.

"What's wrong?"

His concern only deepened her guilt at having put off this conversation for so long. In Shanghai, another topic to discuss or a truth to confront appeared around every corner—Lucien's part in the murders, Jiang's execution, Ying Yue's next dance recital, the recovery and rehabilitation plan, Li's marriage, news from home. These topics put a comfortable distance between Jean and her confession. In the face of so many other problems and occasional joys, the studio didn't matter.

But since they entered the studio a few hours before, her confession wormed its way, word by word, around her throat. Just when she thought she could admit it, Lucien needed to rest or she needed to talk with Mattie or Lucien said something so unbelievably sweet she could cry. Each time she put it off, the chain of words tightened, and by now she wanted to scream.

I'm as bad as your father.

I couldn't bear to be here without you.

I locked away our memories and dreams and moved back into the shadows.

She did not understand the difficulty in professing this truth. Of all the harsh realities she and Lucien faced together, of all the emotional upheaval of the last month, why did telling him that she'd shut up the studio weigh on her so? Every time she helped him dress or bathe, the horrors of his trauma and anguish screamed at her without either of them saying a word. She could face that. Why couldn't she face this?

Quit lying to yourself. The same voice that once told Lucien to stop wallowing in self-pity taunted her now. You know why. He'll think you gave up on him. He thought of you to survive captivity and torture, and you buried memories of your life together to survive daily life.

She could handle her guilt, rationalize it in the light of day after a good night's rest, but she could not bear his disappointment. When she looked down at him now, where his head rested on her thighs, at his adoring and understanding gaze, she took her hand from his grasp and pressed her palms against her eyes.

"I couldn't stay here without you—I'm so sorry." The words stumbled out, stuttering and tripping over each other to catch up. Underneath her, she felt his head leave her lap and the couch cushions shift as he sat up, but she refused to peel her hands away. Even with the words uttered, the thought of his anguish kept the chain tight around her neck. "I locked up this room and moved into your old bedroom because I couldn't stand the memories we made her, mocking me, but I had to be near you. I slept in your robe until it smelled more like me than like you, but I couldn't stay here." She'd confessed, but she still couldn't breathe.

"Jeanie, look at me—"

"You have every right to feel angry and betrayed—"

"I'm not. Jean, look at me, please?"

Lucien wrapped her wrists in his scarred hands and with a gentle tug, he helped her face him. In his eyes, she found not a trace of the disappointment she'd feared, only regret born from his desire to take all her problems away. Slowly, the stunted, shuddering gasps evened out until she could hear Lucien's voice over her breath.

"It's alright, Jean."

"But your father—"

"My father was grieving," he said. "I can fault him for many things, but hiding from the memories in this room is not one of them." Sliding his arm around her shoulders, he murmured, "Give here, love."

"I don't want to hurt you—" After months of longing only to be in Lucien's arms, she couldn't believe she was arguing with him.

"You won't. Let me hold you."

God, she'd missed this, folding her legs over his lap, nuzzling him just below his collar bone, being surrounded by him—the warmth of his hands rubbing up and down her back, the gentle rise and fall of his chest with each breath, the taste of his skin as she kissed his chest. They'd held one another this way in Shanghai, but now they were entwined at home, in their bedroom, back where they belong.

"I didn't forget, Lucien," she whispered. "I didn't want to forget our life together; I just couldn't handle the constant…assault. One minute, I'd be sitting on this couch, and the next I'd be in tatters because I remembered what it was like for you to hold me like this, and I'd feel so alone."

"You will never be alone again."

"Please don't promise me that. Not after what we've been through."

"I don't mean that. Of course I can't make promises like that anymore, but Jean—" When his voice broke on her name, Jean kissed his neck again and buried her face in the smudges of lipstick. "I've neglected you, ever since you found me."

"You've done no such thing."

"I have." He held her tighter, his breath kissing her forehead. "You couldn't even look at me because you were so afraid that I'd resent you for grieving, and that's because we haven't talked very much about how this ordeal has affected you."

"There hasn't been time."

"I'm going to make time." When he tugged gently on her arm, she pulled back, resting her head against the back of the couch instead of on his chest. "I know you carry on regardless, and I'm so proud of you, but you don't have to carry on alone anymore."

He offered what she'd longed for, the chance to talk to him, to confess all the things too private, too morbid to tell anyone but Lucien. Now, granted the opportunity, she expected the words to gush out like her confession about the studio, but after so many months of silence, the words lodged in her throat. They seemed cursed, as if letting them escape would poison the reality they enjoyed. How often had she wept alone by the fire, missing him so much that she could almost feel his arms around her as they were now? How many times had she woken in the dead of night, alone in his old bed, reaching for him?

Why can't we just enjoy being together?

The answer almost immediately followed. Because if they didn't heal together, they would become strangers, like he and Mei Lin had.

"Everyone was very sympathetic for the first few months." Her voice barely rose above the crackling fire. "Very understanding of mornings when I didn't stir until after 10:00 or when I didn't speak for hours or when I burst into tears in the shops over a bushel of apples because they're your favorite fruit." The quiver in her voice stopped her, and she returned her head to its place on his chest, relishing in the soft security of his touch, of his steady heartbeat thundering in her ear. "But I was in this kind of limbo, where I couldn't grieve you because I didn't believe you were really gone, but I'd lost you. When I had good days, my mood confused people, like I was supposed to be in absolute tatters all the time, like my feelings were…wrong." A bitter laugh escaped her, and Lucien pulled her closer. "Some days I had no idea what I was feeling, but everyone seemed to so sure—my friends from book club, the butcher, my son, Matthew. I wanted to know what they knew, how they could all be so certain about my feelings. Oh, God." She pushed back from him just enough to hold his face in her hands, look for her reflection in the pools of his eyes, search for the answers she still didn't have. "This shouldn't matter now. You're home. My greatest wish was granted, and I should be grateful, not wallowing."

Lucien shook his head and covered one of her hands with his. "Just because you got what you wanted doesn't mean everything is fine."

"God knows it isn't," Jean said. "I'd do anything to spare you this pain."

Shushing her gently, he slid both of her hands from his face to his chest. "You're putting me back together, piece by piece, day by day. Please don't think that just because you can't make this last year disappear, that you're somehow less of a miracle to me. And please, darling. Don't think that since I'm broken, you can't rely on me."

"Oh, Lucien." She snaked her hand around his neck and played with the hair at his nape. "I love you so much."

"I love you. And I'm going to spend the rest of my life making this up to you—"

"No, my love. Just spend the rest of your life next to me. That's all I need."