This life may have been his happiest. Simple, comfortable and in good company. He had started to worry that it wouldn’t last.
“I love you.”
His hand shook at the words, red paint splashing across the canvas. Tristan was roused from his thoughts, surprised. Inspiration lost, he stopped painting and gazed at her. What had she just said?
She looked back warmly, grey eyes softened, ice melting into pools whose depths he could not explore. She made sure she had his attention this time.
“I love you.”
He tried to ignore her and turned to his canvas. Bright colours had mixed in ugly lines. He wasn’t sure whether he could save this portrait. He would have to start over.
“Beloved, listen to me.”
Brigitte had somehow sneaked up behind him, hand petting his cheek. He flinched from her touch as if it burned. For all he could tell now, it did.
“I love you.”
Why was she doing this? Why was she tearing the fragile pretence they had kept going for the last two years of a game where they played at a relationship? Where there was no love and no hurt? Had she started to hope their marriage was real?
He didn’t love her. But he didn’t want to hurt her. He didn’t want things to change. He was greedy, selfish and lazy. He wanted her love, her affection, her easy trust and fiery attention. But he couldn’t give her this, not his love.
“I don’t love you,” he answered and something clenched in his chest at his tone. Cold, calm, unaffected.
She nodded confidently as if she had always expected such an answer.
Tristan thought that she would either break down or try to possessively lock him at her side. She did neither. Her eyes reddened somewhat but nothing else. This had always been the only point they had never acknowledged. For him, it was always all a charade. The police, the media, her family. It didn’t matter. But for her...
“I love you,” she repeated.
“I know,” he frowned. Hearing it again and again hurt. “You told me. What are you, a broken record?”
She didn’t laugh. Why didn’t she laugh? This was the moment to move past this, to pretend it never happened.
“I love you,” she continued as if she did not hear him. “I love you and I always will. You do not love me and you may never do. But I love you. I want you to know that I love you. I care not for who you are or who you were. You, here, now, I love you. And I always will.”
She then lifted his chin, face ever so close to hers. He closed his eyes, fearing and reluctantly anticipating a kiss that never came. His lips remained untouched, but the corners of his eyes felt the softness of her lips, drying up his tears. Had he been crying? He did not notice.
“My beloved,” she whispered, one last caress over his cheeks, and she moved back to sit on the couch, posture ready to model as she originally had been doing.
He stared at her uncomprehending, before realizing he had been granted a reprieve. He removed the red-painted canvas and placed a new one on the easel.
Tristan started sketching. He would have to draw her eyes softer than before.
He lived in this world for a long time. He usually left as soon as he finished completing his host’s last wishes, not wanting to linger in a world that wasn’t his, in a life that wouldn’t have been his choice. But he stayed this time. And it was all due to the aged woman resting on the bed.
Just as she had promised over 50 years ago, Brigitte loved him quietly but fiercely, determined to never let him forget. He spent every morning and every night these past few decades, with a kiss upon his cheeks and an “I love you” for a greeting. But nothing more. It seemed she had decided to simply be thankful for what she had, him as her husband-in-name, sleeping in the room next to hers.
If things were different, if he hadn’t been a mere spirit lost amidst worlds, if he had been the true Tristan Lewis, he could have loved her. And he would have been the happiest being on that planet for simply being able to return her selfless love. But he wasn’t. He wasn’t Tristan. And he couldn’t love her. He couldn’t let himself give in like that. Not once. It would break him.
“Beloved?” her voice was just as warm, if not warmer after years of use.
“What is it?” he asked, placing his hand on hers.
She was dying. His friend, his only reason for staying, couldn’t stay herself any longer, and in that, he couldn’t either.
“Stop thinking sad thoughts,” she scolded him. He chuckled. She spoiled him incessantly but the only thing she would never let pass was his propensity to guilt-trip himself.
“I was happy,” she continued. “I am happy. And it is all due to you.”
Brigitte slowly took his hand to her lips for what was likely the last kiss.
“Pervert,” he grumbled because he had done so for a lifetime.
She smiled. For some reason, she adored his complaints. “I love you. Always.”
After the first few years, he got used to her confessions, and he answered differently from his first time, when he had been fearful and confused. “Thank you.”
Thank you. For saving Tristan. For meeting you. For loving me.
~ End of Arc 1: Unless first a dream