|Shades of Grief|
|Summary:||Belle comes home to comfort Hardwicke.|
|Date:||February 16, 2012|
|Related Logs:||Battles of Women|
|Hardwicke's Chambers — Four Eagles Tower|
|Pretty emo at the moment.|
|February 15, 289|
It has been — long enough. For the very basic aspect of the news to reach him, in any case. Hardwicke sits on his bed in his chambers, stripped of his armor down to just his Terrick heraldry. He sits there, his elbows on his knees and weight braced forward in a lean. He does not weep, but there is something — broken about him. He lifts a hand to his face and takes in an unsteady breath.
It's a wan and weary Belle that finds him there, many hours after Evie's passing. She enters quietly, coming to sit beside him, taking his hands and threading her fingers with his. She rests her head on his shoulder… and says nothing at all.
His muscles are bowstring-taut beneath her head, near to trembling in their tension. Hardwicke takes in another ragged breath and squeezes impossibly, desperately tight to the hands she offers. He says nothing, either.
If he hurts her, she doesn't let on, only squeezing back tighter. "I'm so sorry," she whispers, finally. "There was nothing anyone could have done. I can tell you… that it was peaceful. She said what she felt she needed to, to Luci and Anais, and she slept — knowing that she was loved, that… your daughter was by her side." She swallows. "Before she slept, she asked me to tell you that she loved you. That all she'd ever done was out of love. And I told her you knew."
His eyes close in time with a quiet breath when she so identifies Lucienne. Hardwicke swallows, silent for a long while after she speaks. When he finally does reply, his voice is raw. "She told me she'd rather see me miserable and alone for the rest of my life than marry you. She never loved me." He opens his eyes, but his gaze is averted away from her. "How you must hate me."
Belle is silent another moment, lashes lowered as she considers. "I cannot believe she meant that," she says gently. "It must have been a very bitter thing, to see someone else give you the things she couldn't. At least openly. We all say… things… when we're in pain. I think she would have taken it back, if she'd had the chance." She takes a breath, letting it out slowly. "What is it I should hate you for?"
"I asked you to trust me," Hardwicke says quietly. "I simply — didn't want to have to tell you." He turns into the scented warmth of her hair. "I was so young, Belle. And I didn't — want to lose you for it."
"Hardwicke…" Belle whispers, releasing his hands so she can put her arms around him, stroking his hair. "How could you have betrayed my trust eighteen years before we ever met, before I ever gave it to you? Sweet Seven…" She kisses his brow. "I wasn't shocked. I already knew there was a… relationship between you, even if you didn't want to admit the full extent of it. There was your specific and very deep devotion to Lucienne, how you protect her, and how you would have killed over a rumor — the kind of outrage that comes from a blow not far off the mark. And Evangeline… is a proud woman. Proud women can be vengeful, and yet she forbore her husband's bastard in her home. I'm not sure she could have done that, if she hadn't, in her own way and in her own mind, evened the score." She shrugs gently, hands stroking down his back. "It all proves nothing — Luci is safe and always shall be — but at the same time… it's there for anyone with eyes to see."
Hardwicke winds his arms about her to pull her close, burying his face in the curve of her neck. His shoulders tremble quietly in the embrace, too full of emotional contradictions he doesn't know what to do with. He draws in another ragged, shaken breath and clings to her as if he's drowning.
"It's all right, my love," whispers Belle, holding him tight as her slender arms can manage. "It's all right. I'm so sorry for what you've lost — but you have a beautiful daughter who is the best of you both. Let that be some solace. And I…" she shakes her head gently. "I'm not going anywhere. Cry or rage — do what you must… I'm here."
He curls his fingers in her hair and tips her head as he lifts his to press a kiss of aching need to her mouth. Hardwicke leans into her, pressing her back onto the bed as his other hand reaches for her skirts, sliding underneath to travel up her leg.
She's soft and yielding, a different creature from the eager minx he usually has in bed. Not that she's any less responsive to his hands and mouth, lithe limbs and lush curves shivering, arching to meet him. She is — as the saying goes — gentle with him, raining soft kisses down his throat and across his shoulders, cradling him to her body. Where his kisses ache, hers soothe.
He moves quickly to part what there is between them, to shift skirts and unlace breeches, but he takes her with yearning slowness that is heavy with trembling grief. Hardwicke gasps against her skin for what she offers him: the tender, caring openness, the release of some small part of his grief. He is left ragged and panting, his body a dead, heavy weight atop her.
Belle has no complaint about the weight atop her — but then, she's always liked that. The solidness of him, the feeling of his breath and his heartbeat. One leg draws a slow caress up and down his side, her fingertips tracing tender patterns from the nape of his neck to the small of his back. She kisses his shoulder, his cheek, throat, jaw… in no hurry at all. Present entirely in the moment, with him completely. And she gives him rest.
Eventually, he shifts slowly onto his side, though he keeps her close as they move. After another unsteady inhale, Hardwicke whispers, "I don't know what I would do without you." His fingers curl through her hair at the nape of her neck.
She rolls with him, content to stay close, tangling her legs with his and bringing his free hand to her mouth. "I don't really do anything," she whispers, kissing his knuckles. "I'm just here."
"That is everything," Hardwicke whispers. He is quiet for a moment, breathing her in. Until he finally has to ask: "Does Lucienne know?"
Belle nods, solemnly. "She does. Evangeline wanted her forgiveness. And she received it."
"Gods." Hardwicke turns away from her, exhaustion writ clear on his face. He sits up in the bed to begin the slow process of undressing himself, beginning with his boots.
"Hardwicke…" Belle sits up and wraps her arms around him from behind, her chin on his shoulder. "You have been a good father to her. The best any many could be. You've loved and protected her and never claimed her as your own — you may think any man would do the same, but you'd be quite wrong. Most people… only love what the can possess. I love you all the more for the father you've been to her, and I think — when she's past the shock of her grief — Luci will, too."
"I will be what ruined her, Belle," Hardwicke says very quietly as he tosses his boots aside. He pulls off his tunic next, leaving it in a heap on the floor before leaning forward to scrub his hands over his weary face.
"Hardwicke," Belle says, more firmly, sitting beside him once more and turning his chin to face her. "There were three people in that room when Evangeline told Luci the truth. Lucienne, her mother, and me. Who will ruin her?" She arches an eyebrow. "You? Me? Luci herself?" She shakes her head. "She is Lucienne Terrick, and Lucienne Terrick she shall remain."
Hardwicke watches her a long while when she turns his head to her, his dark eyes studying her face. Then he turns away again to remove his breeches to leave him bare when he lies back on the bed. "I can't think about it," he whispers. "I can't—" He shakes his head and pulls her back down with him.
Belle settles herself half atop him, propping herself up on one elbow and smoothing back his hair. "Then don't," she tells him softly. "Rest now. Leave tomorrow's troubles for tomorrow."
He closes his eyes, the grief etched deeply into the lines of his face. Breathing slowly, Hardwicke asks her in a quiet voice, "Would you undress for me?"
She kisses his forehead, then his lips, and slips from the bed. Standing just a step away from it, she unlaces her gown, letting it slip into a puddle of silk on the floor. She unties the ribbons of her chemise and it also falls away, then steps from her slippers. And bends to roll off her stockings. There's nothing coy or teasing about the act, but there is a certain… presentation. A tender but almost ritual solemnity as she reveals in slow increments what is his alone to see.
He watches her, not with a heat of arousal or desire, but like the sight of her is some small balm upon his grief. Hardwicke finds a steadier breath when she is finally bare before him, and he reaches a hand to her from the bed.
Belle comes to him, taking his hand and placing is on her cheek, then turning her head to kiss his palm. She crawls in to lay beside him, kissing his forehead, the bridge of his nose, his cheeks as she twines her body with his.
He draws the blankets over them both, holding her close against his body and allowing his exhaustion to begin to take hold. "I love you," Hardwicke whispers before he's asleep, his arms holding tight.