Excuses

by Ophelia


The promise of night spread before her like a new land, its hills fragrant and unexplored, its beauties and dangers undeniable. They had spoken of plans, of dreams, and when he brushed back her hair, his tenderness, like the graceful sweep of an angel’s wing, pushed wide a door of feeling the breadth of which surprised even her. But her love for him, liberated, surged through her, rushing and eddying about the corners of her heart. She could not know what this Winterfest would bring, and her anticipation left her breathless.

She had hoped, believed, even before he took her hand, that he would in every way be the man she had always treasured.

She had not dared to dream that he would be even more than she imagined. She had imagined much.

Nothing seemed more right to her than the gathering Below. The celebration among those who asked so little warmed her. And to see his freedom from care, to watch him partake of the gifts of friendship, nourishment and laughter, gave her joy beyond measure.

The rich resonance of his voice, as he told the story of their world again, made the room seem bright even before the ceremonial lighting of the candles. The reach of his hand for hers beneath the table, however, disarmed her. They walked together under the glow of the chandeliers, admired the tapestries, behaved as if it were only Winterfest. But the light and the air had changed, and she knew that she – that they – were changing, too.

She smiled and talked with friends she loved, but through the night her eyes returned always to him. She had no choice but to gravitate back towards her center, towards the glowing embers that felt as if, at any moment, they could burst into flame. Or perhaps it was only she who might catch fire, she thought, beneath the weight of his gaze.

How could she know he would give her the gift of herself? Many times she had been called beautiful. Yet only now did she understand how true beauty felt: he bestowed that feeling on her tonight. The way he touched her hand, the protective bend of his arm at the small of her back, the way he watched her, his yearning undisguised, allowed her for the first time to see herself through his eyes.

Her need to drop her gaze when he beheld her came as revelation. She suffered from neither timidity nor faintness of heart. It was the brilliance of him, the longing she could not hide, that made her tremble and retreat. She would lower her eyelashes, her cheeks flushing with warmth, only to find him still there when she returned, his smile tender, his eyes truthful. A new pride illuminated his face. She could feel him acknowledging his power as a man – the only man. He possessed so many expressions, and she had studied them all. But never before had she seen this one: it reached into every place inside her, as light that sought to banish shadow. It said he knew he could claim her with the merest glance. It said he gloried in the knowledge.

When the bright music ringing through the Hall slowed to a gentle waltz, the notes of the violin sang with an unexpected sweetness that made her throat ache. He turned to her, his form tall and regal, his hair a cascade of gold and copper shining in the tapers’ glow, filling her heart with utter delight.

“Catherine . . .”

He did not have to ask. He radiated calm, and as he took her arm, she believed . . . no, she knew . . . that for him, she was the only woman in the room. In circling step he drew her across the dance floor, and all she saw was blue, blue – the sapphire of a gaze that steadied and cradled her, that pulled her into another realm. Transported, she felt the cool night air and the delicate swirl of her skirts as they danced. His warmth and sheltering embrace both weighted and freed her. There was a stillness in their outer circle, a watchful repose – of breath held, and admiration. She felt them there, a cushion of supportive loved ones, and yet they might not have been there at all. There was no room for anyone but him.

The most magical, wondrous evening.

The most difficult goodbye.

“Good night, Catherine.” His voice was a thread of rough silk, and she wanted never to leave the warmth of his shoulder where she rested. Their walk to the threshold Below had been lingering and deliberate. Now, he anchored her close, his fingers weaving through the lengths of her hair before stroking gently across her cheek. The imprint of a kiss graced the top of her head. His arms then lowered, in a slow trail, down and away from her, as if prolonging the inevitable. With reluctance she pulled back from his embrace, and the sorrow she saw in his eyes mirrored her own. “I will miss you,” he murmured.

She could not bring herself to say the words. I already miss you. So many partings, but never, even under the worst conditions, had the pain felt like this. Their new openness, their fresh need for each other felt so fragile, so like a dream, that she feared she would wake and find it gone. “Sunrise is a lifetime away,” she admitted, trying not to sound sad.

“Not so long,” he encouraged, his tone somber. He reached for her again. “But too long, still.” His arms around her were solid and strong, the bristle rubbing against her temple a longed-for abrasion. He whispered against her hair, “You will be there, in the morning?”

“I will,” she sighed, wishing the time was now. She was suddenly glad for William’s awkward approach this evening, informing them of the post-Winterfest breakfast Below. Any excuse to be close to Vincent was met with gratitude.

She felt no gratitude, however, for the wait. Alone, she sat up in bed, the satin of her gown slipping down one shoulder, the pillowed comforter no comfort at all. The pitch of charcoal shapes across the wall, the sterling grey of the moon through her window, were cold and silent. Her apartment lacked life and cheer. It lacked him. The contrast between her joy tonight and this dismal aloneness was both stark and dispiriting.

The minutes proved an endless agony, the illuminated clock dial heralding the mere passage of an hour. In frustration she collapsed on the mound of pillows. At this rate, morning would simply never come.

Missing him was a palpable, physical ache. She just needed to see him; she would not ask for more. Just to feel his presence, to hear the quiet of his breathing, experience even the change in the air because he was near, would be enough.

But it was a time of rest in both worlds. She found her confidence of the night might never have been, and she began to search for an excuse to go Below. Her uncustomary worries of others’ opinions wore at her; she found herself vulnerable, considering the reverberations in the tunnels. What would he think of her – what would they think, if she showed up, hungry for him, at 2:30 in the morning, no crisis in the making?

You exaggerate, she tried to reassure herself. It is the newness of it that makes you exposed and defenseless, the preciousness of what you are together that raises this fear.

But she was Vincent’s Catherine, as Mouse called her. Surely that stood for something? Surely that was enough?

On the other hand, an additional prop might not hurt her credibility – just in case. She looked about for any homely reason she could offer, an excuse.

Her spirit had fallen, it seemed, from soaring heights to muddy, earthly lows. There could be no excuse more mundane than returning William’s deep-dish pie plate. William had sent it – with pie – home with her one recent evening. The piece was old and decorative, with cherries on the rim: he might need it for the breakfast cobbler he planned to bake in the morning. She smiled. It was an excuse. How did she not think of it before?

Then her smile faded. All those sumptuous dishes at tonight’s feast, and William needed a pie plate? A stretch, Catherine. A stretch.

Well . . . what else? There was the sweater she had left in Vincent’s chamber. One of her warmest. It was wintertime, after all, and it was cold, and . . .

She shook her head silently, unamused and self-scolding for the obviousness of such a ploy. She did not need to see her closet to visualize the angora vying with cashmere for space there. Then her eyes dipped down and regarded her delicate shoulders, practically bare in her wisp of a nightgown. Here in the upper reaches of her apartment building, she did not have to worry about adequate heat.

Such transparent, such patent pretext.

She could not give up. There must be something. A communication, of an urgent nature, perhaps, to be shared only with Vincent. What about a brilliant idea for next year’s Winterfest, lest it be forgotten?

Hardly urgent, and hardly real. Utter fabrication, in fact. You have no such idea – yet – and have another year in which to share the idea you haven’t got.

Glum, she sighed. And then the glumness turned back to real pain, an awful, hollow, searing pain that had been only temporarily dulled by the hope that she might see him.

What reason do you need? He is the reason. Where is your confidence? Where? Are you afraid you will be mistaken? That this won’t be the wonderful, shining dream you dreamed tonight?

The thought – that they were less than she believed – horrified her. It could not be. She put no faith in such ideas but she refused to back away from them in fear. Squarely, she faced herself, considering.

No. She shook her head. It didn’t ring true.

Tonight she had not discovered that her dreams were merely as she thought, or less than she thought.

Tonight, she had discovered they were more.

So much more.

Until now, in spite of all your hopes, you did not understand – fully understand – that this man, this man alone, can level you, raze you to the very foundation of who you are. His passion, and yours, can burn a hole through the world, through heaven itself. To believe that it can be – and to live so? There is nothing in your life that has prepared you for that.

That was it. And as if in proof, she felt herself begin to quake inside, and briefly had to clasp her hands together to steady them.

She could no longer bear his absence, come what may. Changing her lingerie for an oversized sweater, soft, dark trousers, and boots, she rushed to the door. Then, in a tremulous afterthought, she ran back to the kitchen and grabbed William’s pie plate for protection, not caring that it was ridiculous she should need protection from herself.

The tapping was at its lowest ebb as she moved through the dimly lit corridors, nary a soul in sight as she hurried to the chamber where her heart lay. As she turned the corner, her abrupt collision with a solid wall of flesh surprised her.

“Catherine!”

Vincent caught her. She knew his intense perusal of her face was an assessment for damage, and it was only when she smiled that he relinquished her, allowing his hands to drop. Clutched in one of them, she now noticed, was a familiar sweater.

“I was on my way, when I felt . . .” He seemed uncustomarily wordless. “I felt . . .” Wheat-gold lashes lowered as rose surfaced beneath the bronze of his cheekbones. “The winters are so very cold, Catherine,” he murmured, as if to offer an apology.

So – it was that powerful for him, too. Of course it was. How could it not be? His chink in the armor. A compassionate but willful smile toyed at the corner of her lips, though she tried to mask her relief with a serious expression. “The winters are very cold, Vincent.” Her small fingers brushed the length of the sweater he clasped. Then she raised the pie plate in full view before him. “And those Below are very hungry,” she responded with equal gravity.

She met his eyes, as he searched her face, the spark of recognition and wonderment peeking from blue before he bowed his head, newly unburdened by this reprieve. He pulled her to him, his warm and velvety chuckle a soft gust at her temple, her gentle laughter pressing into the thermal shirt beneath his cloak. She delighted in his merriment as it mingled with her own. As their amusement eased, he drew the circle of his arms more tightly about her. “We are quite new at this,” he confessed, and it lightened her heart to hear the gladness in his confession, his optimism in joys yet to be. “It will take us time to grow, fully, into our truest selves.” A wave of love swept over her as he rested his head against hers. “Come.” And they turned in continued embrace to walk towards his chamber.

They were practically at the entry when Mary, wiping her hands on her apron and looking back over her shoulder, emerged from his room. Her expression startled, she cried, “Oh!” when she saw them, as if it were news that Vincent might be on his way to his own room, and at such an hour.

Vincent’s head tilted with his astonished query. “Mary?”

“Vincent! Catherine,” Mary offered in delayed observation, her rattled mien now bearing a nervous half-smile. “I was . . .” she paused, and looked back again over her shoulder.

“You were?” came Vincent’s bewildered prompt.

Mary smiled again, her eyes darting back and forth from Vincent to Catherine. “I was . . . I had just brought you . . .” she faltered again.

“Yes?” Vincent encouraged.

“Oh, well,” she said with a dismissive shake of her head, “nothing really; just a little repast. You both danced so beautifully tonight . . .” Mary squinted as she beamed at the memory. “I thought it certain you would be hungry, especially when you went to get Catherine.” Catherine suppressed a smile when Vincent looked at her askance. “So I just . . . well, it’s on a tray in your room. A small something to tide you over, and help you, well,” she paused again and looked at her feet, then forced a smile. “Help you keep up your strength.” At this, Catherine glanced again at Vincent, whose brow signaled alarm.

Any response Vincent might have was preempted by Mary’s masterful change of topic. “Oh!” she exclaimed, “William’s pie plate! Just what I’ve been looking for. I’ll take that, dear, he’ll need it for the morning.” Catherine felt the pie plate being pulled from her hand; she had to think to let it go, and Mary nodded in appreciation. “You can almost go in; I think Jamie and Mouse are nearly finished,” she added.

“Almost?” reiterated Vincent. “What do you mean, Jamie and . . . ?” Vincent’s words trailed away. Catherine craned her head toward his chamber, as Vincent did, and then they looked at each other, Vincent appearing deeply perplexed.

Mary’s grin was broad now. “You did dance just so beautifully,” she repeated, her voice momentarily girlish and shy, before she hurried down the hall. “Good night!”

They both watched Mary retreat before moving to the chamber. Vincent was wary. “I’m almost afraid to find out.” But, arm in arm, they walked, and entered a room ablaze with light.

“Fixed it!” Mouse volunteered; his back was to them, curved over the last of many candles imported into Vincent’s bedroom via a now-empty homemade wagon. Jamie saw them first, and her brilliant smile dampened immediately.

Catherine wondered if the shock registering on her own face equaled Vincent’s. If so, it would be considerable.

“Come on, Mouse,” Jamie said, her voice tinged with disappointment. With enthusiasm, Mouse blew out the match in his hand.

“See? More light!” he blurted, his face joyous.

“They can see that,” Jamie said kindly, as she tugged on Mouse’s sleeve. “Let’s go.” She turned to Vincent. “Look, if this was a mistake . . .” she began, her incomplete appeal plaintive.

“Mistake?” interjected a confident Mouse. “No mistake! Romantic! Need lots of light!” He leaned toward Jamie in emphasis. “Lots of candles. Good for . . .” His eyes grew rounder as he continued to look at her, his enthusiasm suddenly waning, and he struggled with the end of the sentence. “Good for . . .”

“Reading,” Jamie offered, pulling him toward the exit. “Very good for reading.”

“Reading,” Mouse repeated, sounding relieved and somewhat chastened. “Okay. Good. Okay, fine!” And it was he who drew Jamie in haste across the chamber threshold, his candle-wagon squeaking and dragging behind him. “I told you we got too many,” Jamie muttered in the corridor.

When they had gone, Catherine stared at Vincent, bemused. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Nor I,” Vincent stated, turning about the room and examining all the lights.

“How could they get them all in here so quickly, even with the wagon?” she wondered aloud, stunned. “They had to have planned it. This is more than I’ve placed on my balcony. More than Kanin’s candles.”

“More than your candles and Kanin’s candles.”

“I thought they’d all be asleep by now, but they had to be up, waiting and wondering about us.” Not for the first time that evening, she blushed. “Don’t you think we’d better . . . ?”

“Yes,” he concurred, though she had not completed her question; his forehead was crinkled in worry as he continued to assess the room. “Extinguish them, before something in the chamber catches fire.”

If she considered lighting so many candles an undertaking, dousing them proved an equal task. Together, by blowing, snuffing with a candle snuffer, and occasionally quenching with fingertips, they put out all the flames save those that usually burned in Vincent’s room. He had long since removed his cloak, due to the heat, and by the time they were done, she was rubbing her eyes in fatigue. They laughed when they reclaimed breath enough to laugh, and the tired gleam in Vincent’s eyes filled her with a happy glow. Mary’s tray sat untouched on Vincent’s desk.

“I might have believed it,” Vincent conceded, “but I would not have predicted it. I wonder if Narcissa has been working one of her spells.”

“Perhaps.” Catherine grinned. “Or perhaps it’s sometimes true that we teach people how to treat us. Maybe they learned something from us tonight.”

“You may be right. If so, it is a lesson we will want never to forget.” He grew serious. “There are others who are less than happy for us, and may remain so.”

She knew it to be true. Silence ensued, and she felt it grow full as they stood in the room together, only the night between them now. “It’s so quiet,” she said, her voice low. He said nothing, just nodded in his graceful way, his blue eyes intent on her face. She sensed it, then – his new unwillingness to cloak the way he saw her, as a woman. The way he lingered over her features, pausing at her lips, the way he made her feel . . . beautiful. Her breath caught in her throat, but she managed to continue. “It seems dim in here compared to how it was,” she smiled, knowing even as she said it that she still reached for normalcy. “I think all those candles skewed my expectations. Do you think there’ll be enough light, to -”

“Read?” he inquired, smiling in return. But his expression further softened with tenderness as she continued to look at him. She wondered if she would ever grow used to his luminous spirit, this force of such powerful beauty, in her life. Beauty was not the wrong word. Surely there was no better place to be lost than in those arms, in the azure of those eyes, as the light – loving…jealous - worshipped all his colors. She watched the rise and fall of his chest quicken, saw the naked vulnerability in his features; he had not made a sound, but she felt him laying his heart completely open to her. She wanted to move, and never move; to remain forever in this moment. Yes, he was beauty, and more; he was life. Her life.

Catherine.” His voice was a strained whisper, his brow lifted in almost helpless wonder. “When you look at me like that . . . . “

If she had language, then, she could not find it. He was the one to move now, taking one step closer, and another, until she thought she might drown in the power of his gaze. His breath puffed hot across her skin, but sweet moisture, ready to make amends, hovered, glistening, just above his lower lashes. As if to ascertain whether she might be real, his hands touched first the sides of her face before trailing along the slope of her shoulders. His voice was hoarse with need. “I try to tell you, Catherine, and I . . .” She heard him swallow, fighting, too, to speak. “And words are not enough, never enough. How can they tell you? How can I? That you are everything . . . everything I might ever hope for. Every wish, every truth, every yearning, every dream . . . oh, Catherine!”

She could not help it; his words moved her utterly; stole the strength from her. Her eyes drifted closed, her head drooping in trust towards his shoulder, and her slender arms, feeling so heavy, lifted slowly as if to clasp around his neck but reached only to his chest. He drew in a breath, sharp and audible, and she felt his hands catch hers, placing them firmly on his shoulders. Suddenly she was weightless, floating across the room, until he lowered her easily onto his bed. Pillows shifted behind her, and the fleece of blankets enfolded her. Then she felt him, his body long and close, his arm encircling her shoulders as he nudged her head with gentle insistence so that it lay across the beat of his heart.

Time seemed to stop, and for a moment the world disappeared. She was not certain how long she lay there, resting against him. Her eyes, still heavy, fluttered open, barely, just as they had fluttered closed, and she felt him stir as she stirred. “Vincent?” She knew she sounded confused, as she was.

The smile had returned to his voice, his passion a sleepy undertone. “You are exhausted,” he murmured, “and overwhelmed. As am I. Rest now.”

She struggled to lift her head but the serene press of his hand urged her back to his chest. “You need not get up, Catherine, unless you choose.” He stretched, briefly, and sighed, shifting back into what was clearly a position of comfort. She felt him breathe; heard the strong and steady thud of his heart beneath his breastbone.

She could not imagine wanting to be anywhere else. But there might be consequences for Vincent should she stay, despite tonight’s show of support from others. With reluctance, she asked the question she preferred to ignore. “Do you think I should go to the guest chamber?”

“The guest chamber is cold and unprepared tonight; no guests were expected.”

Relieved, she allowed her eyes to drift closed again, her generous mouth bowing upward in a playful smile. “I suppose I could go home,” she suggested.

“The chill at the threshold between worlds is almost unimaginable.” His warning sounded more like an endearment, and he gave no sign that he believed she would actually rise. His hand began a lazy caress of her hair. “It’s the harshest of winters, the bitterest of winters we’re having, Catherine.”

“But your reputation,” she teased, drowsy. “Maybe I should walk to Jamie’s chamber and ask to sleep in the spare bed in her room.”

“Then I should be cold,” Vincent complained. “And lonely.”

“Oh, no.” The game was at an end; she could not entertain such a thought even in jest. “That won’t do.” She nestled closer, inhaling the freshness of him, her hand traveling to pass in affectionate brush across the stubble at his jaw before resting, limp, on his shoulder. Words formed with difficulty now, and eyes opened not at all. “I can never leave you lonely, Vincent.”

His chest, warm against her cheek, vibrated with mirth, and his voice came to her as from a distance. “You are not long for this wakeful world,” he remarked, his tone shaded with quiet joy. “At any moment -” and the merest touch of a nail traced the length of her nose, “you will walk through dreams.”

She pushed against the seduction of sleep, though it now fractured her speech. “Walk with me, then. Promised not to leave you; must . . . “ Her voice trailed, thin, and again she nuzzled deep into the weave of his shirt before completing thoughts fatigue would have her abandon. “Must . . .” What were those words, now? Softly, she exhaled. “Keep me honest. Can’t leave.”

She did not expect the gentle jostling that provoked her involuntary whimper of dissent. But if he inflicted a kindly insult – by daring to move – he also soothed it, grazing velvety, feather-light caresses across her forehead, cheekbones, and chin. Next broaching the briefest distance, his lips moved with ardor across hers, clinging, seeking her response. Her arch against him was instinctive, even on the boundary between sleep and waking, and he answered back, a honeyed moan. Tickling, then, a few riotous strands of hair swept across her nose, his breath beguiling and warm at her ear. “Keep you honest, Catherine?” he whispered, worrying her earlobe. When he dropped a last brief kiss upon her mouth, his curving smile was a sensory certainty. “Excuses. Excuses.”

Once more he pillowed her head against his shoulder, and she felt his breathing, slow, matching languorous pace with her own. The heat of him offset the cool tunnel air, and the reach of his tranquility deepened hers. At last she allowed the dark to take her, and she tumbled, confident, toward her dreams. She knew that she would find him there, and that he would share them with her in the morning.

~

 

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