"What do you think I should wear?" Meg asked, searching through her functional, but not particularly flattering, clothing. She had not anticipated needing nice clothing, since she would be living in the Northwest Territory for a month, and she had packed lightly. She had left her business suits and cocktail dresses back in Hearst. She laughed at the thought of wearing a cocktail dress out here, and looked at the selection laid across the bed. She had the grey slacks and the white sweater that she had worn to the social; she just did not want to appear twice in the same thing, for a special occasion.
"Just be comfortable," Caryn answered, from the kitchen.
"I know; all of my stuff is comfortable. Should I go with the same thing as last time?"
"What size are you?"
"Hmm...I might have one or two things. I haven't been a size ten for years, though; I can't guarantee anything."
"Okay..." Meg opened the closet doors and looked at the clothing hanging there. A grey pant-suit over on the right caught her eye, and she pulled it out. "How about the grey suit?" she called out.
"Oh—wait a second," Caryn came into the bedroom, dishtowel in hand. Meg held up the suit on its hangar, inspecting it Caryn nodded.. "Mmm, I bought that for my first interview with my publisher a couple of years ago. It might do for you, but it might be a little...I don't know, try it on."
Meg held the grey jacket and pants up against herself and went over and looked at the full-size mirror, pushing the door closed slightly.
"I think it looks all right," she turned her head from side to side, judging it.
"I've got a pair of nice boots that might—" Caryn's words cut off with a moan, and she suddenly grimaced and clutched her abdomen. Meg dropped the suit and got to Caryn before she fell, helping her lower herself to the bed amid her cries.
"What is it, what can I do?" Meg heard the edge of panic in her voice, and told herself to stay calm. Caryn exhaled slowly, and the hand that clutched Meg's in a tight grip relaxed.
"Just...let me have a second—ahh!" She squeezed her eyes shut and rocked back for a moment. Meg let out a little moan, herself. A wan smile crossed Caryn's face.
"I'm not going to break, hon," Caryn said, opening her eyes. She hissed, and then blew the air out through her mouth. Paul pushed the door open and came running into the room, Maggie close behind him.
"Mommy, are you okay? Mommy, what's wrong?"
"M'okay?" Maggie asked, through a mouthful of oatmeal-raisin cookie.
"Nothing's wrong, honey, Mommy will be—ah—okay," Caryn smiled through the pain on her face. "Go find Daddy, and tell him I need him."
"Yes, Mommy!" Paul ran from the room, but Maggie, with wide eyes, stood watching the two older women.
"Go with Paul, Maggie. Go find Daddy for me," Caryn said, relaxing back for a moment.
"'Kay," the little girl said, and still watching with wide eyes, she made her way out of the room, and then turned and ran, shouting, "Daddy!"
"What is it?" Meg asked, beginning to feel frightened by Caryn's pale face and the force with which her friend was clutching her arm when the pains came.
"I think it's time...thank God..." Caryn exhaled, breathing slowly. "Though these are coming on very...quickly, very fast. Sudden." She frowned slightly.
"Is that bad?" Meg shifted her weight on the bed, trying to make Caryn more comfortable.
"It depends," she answered. "Ah!" She squeezed Meg's arm.
"I wish I could do something."
"Clear...off the bed."
"Do you want to lay back?" Meg started to stand up.
"No—no, I'll just sit here like this, I'll be all right." Caryn pulled her hand away and supported herself on bed.
"Yes, yes. Ahww!" She grimaced, and her hands pulled the bedspread into twin knots. Meg quickly gathered her clothing from the bed and left it in a pile on top of her travel bag, against the wall. Just as she was going to turn down the covers, Dave came into the room, his eyes questioning.
"Call for Miriam?" he asked.
"Yes," Caryn answered.
"What do I tell her?"
"Contractions are coming less than a minute apart, all of a sudden—" Caryn grimaced, then continued, "tell her: sharp pains, not like before..."
"I'll be right back." He gave Meg a nod, and left the room.
"Is Miriam a midwife?" Meg helped Caryn up for a moment, and with her friend leaning heavily on her, they made their way around to the head of the bed.
"No, Miriam Intuvik is the family physician."
"She delivered Paul and Maggie?"
"Yes." Caryn lowered herself to the bed and laid back again the pillow, sitting in a half-upright position. Together, she and Meg manoeuvered the rest of her into bed. Meg went to get a damp cloth in the kitchen, just as Dave finished with the radio.
"How's she doing?"
"All right. I think she's all right." Meg didn't feel too sure as she wet the facecloth.
"Is Mommy gonna die?" Paul asked, his eyes frightened. Maggie started to cry.
"No, Mommy is not going to die," Dave crouched down next to his two children and gathered them into his arms. "She had to do the same thing with both of you. That's how babies work."
Meg smiled at them and went back into the bedroom. She dampened Caryn's forehead, and held her hand. In between moans, Caryn smiled up at her. "Don't worry."
"Who's worrying?" Meg smiled back.
Dave came with the two children. "We're going to wish Mommy a good night's sleep—" at this, Caryn fixed him with a look— "and then you can go back out and let Mommy rest, okay?" They both nodded at him, and he let them down. They ran over to the bed, and Caryn ruffled their hair.
"You two do as Meg tells you to, okay?"
"Okay," they echoed in unison. Caryn looked up at Meg.
"Bring them to Vera's?" Meg asked. Caryn nodded, and after exchanging a smile, Meg led the children out of the room.
It had been five and a half hours of false labour, and everyone was exhausted. It was far past the children's bedtime when Meg called Vera and asked her if she could keep Paul and Maggie overnight, and since they were already sleeping, and Meg was on the verge of falling asleep standing up herself, they arranged to have them picked up the next morning.
Fraser had radioed over at half-past six to ask if she was all right, since she had not made it to the Glens' home for dinner. He later came over to check on all of them. Somewhere around a quarter to midnight, they finished sharing a cup of coffee with Dave, and Fraser had left, quietly promising her that he would reschedule with the Glens. Meg fell asleep that night, exhausted, and dreamed restlessly until she woke to the sounds and smell Dave's cooking the next morning.
"Thank you for a wonderful dinner," Meg said, as Ivy cleared the plates. "Here, let me help you..." she got up, taking one of the serving dishes with her. It had been two days since Caryn's ordeal, and Meg was just starting to relax, now that she was away from the Coopers' home. She felt obligated to care for her friend, but they had kicked her out of the house with Fraser and told her to enjoy the evening. The only places to go out to in this little hamlet were to their neighbors' houses, and so Fraser had taken her, as promised, to see the Glens for dinner. So far, it had been good evening. Meg was privately amused at the difference between a city date and a country one. She was beginning to get the sense that courtship was a community project here, and instead of being annoyed, she was starting to like it.
"Thanks, dear. Put that there, on the counter, yes," Ivy said. Meg left the dish she was holding on the counter-top and went back to clear more.
John and Ben had gone into the den and were making themselves comfortable. As Ben sat down, he noticed that there was a third occupant in the room. His father sat in the armchair across from him in his Mountie dress uniform, looking placid, with his legs crossed. Ben nodded to him, and the ghost nodded back and then looked down and brushed an invisible piece of lint off his knee. The three of them sat in silence, engaged in their respective thoughts. John Glen was not usually one for chatter after dinner and Ben was in a rather introspective mood at the moment, also. Dinner had been really quite an enjoyable time. He had been surprised to discover that Meg was a reasonably good storyteller. He had never really gotten the chance to experience her creative side before.
"She's a fine woman," Fraser Sr. said as Ivy and Meg came back into the den several minutes later. Raised from his thoughts, Ben frowned at him. Fraser Sr. gestured towards the two women as they sat down. "Margaret."
"You know, I was just wanting to tell you what a fine woman I think you are," Ivy affirmed, settling herself on the love seat beside Meg.
"What did you say?" Ben asked carefully. Ivy looked at him oddly.
"Margaret, here, she's a fine woman," she answered. "Isn't that right, John?"
"Mmm-hmm," her husband nodded, and smoked his pipe. He took it out of his mouth for a moment. "It's been a pleasure having you over, Margaret. I hope you'll visit us again before you return home."
"Thank you, I hope to."
They sat in peace for a while, sipping their drinks and settling. Even Fraser Sr. did not speak; he just smiled widely at his son, who was trying to pretend that he was ignoring the spectre.
"So what do you think of the weather?" The ghost asked.
"It has been nice that since you've been here, Margaret, the weather's been mild, not too bad lately," John Glen said, around his pipe. "I expect the Liard'll be cracking soon."
"Spring is almost upon us," Ivy said.
"It's been a good year," John said, nodding.
"Yes, Jeb mentioned that he's considering buying another bush plane after next season, since his son has been doing pretty well with his transport service this year," Ben said, glaring pointedly across at his father.
"The more tourists, the more business," Meg said, taking a sip of her tea. "How is it up here?"
"The tourists? Usually a few hunters in the Fall, hikers in the summer. By and large, those that come here are pretty serious, and know how to respect their surroundings," John said.
"There was that one party last summer, though, towards the end of the season..." Ivy trailed off with a disapproving tone. Fraser nodded.
"What happened?" Meg asked.
"They were intoxicated, and started a fire. One of them suffered second-degree burns," Fraser answered.
"Sleeping bag caught," John said.
"Did the fire destroy anything else?"
"No; luckily Jeb was flying just over there and saw it. He called it in, and we were able to contain it to within a few hundred yards of the camp."
"That's good," she said. They all nodded. She started a new topic. "The kids have been enjoying all the snow—Paul Cooper is quite the sculptor, isn't he?"
"He takes his play seriously," Ben said, with a grin.
"It'll be nice to have grandchildren," Robert Fraser's ghost said wistfully. Ben closed his eyes and counted to ten.
"Many of the children here are like our own grandchildren," Ivy said, smiling proudly.
"How many do you have?" Meg asked.
"Oh...we don't," the older woman answered.
"Oh—I'm sorry," Meg said quickly.
"It's all right. The Lord has blessed us in so many other ways. We had one son, Eliot, who was a wonderful boy, and his life honoured us all. The children in this community have become like our own now, in some way. We love each of them."
Meg looked down and smoothed her pant leg, feeling embarrassed at having brought up such a painful topic at her first evening with the older couple.
They were all quiet for a short time, and then the old minister looked up from his pipe. "I can see that you want to know how he died."
"Oh, no, really—if you don't want to talk about it," Meg said. She looked over at Ben, and he nodded, as if to reassure her.
"We don't mind," Ivy answered, with a smile, touching Meg's hand.
"He was killed in the line of duty," John said. "He protected a convicted rapist and murderer from being shot by the angry father, by taking the bullet for him."
"But why—?" Meg felt as if the man's death had been pointless. Protecting such a criminal with your life?
"It was his duty," John answered simply.
"He had told the convicted man about God's love one day at the beginning of the trial, and the man had spat in his face. But the man sent us a letter from prison, only two days after the shooting, and we read it at Eliot's funeral. He had accepted Christ into his life, and you could hear the difference in his spirit in those words," Ivy said, tears glistening at the edges of her eyes. "Our son touched so many lives, and this one most especially. Everyone at the funeral was touched, and so many people stood up to speak. That was one of the most beautiful days of my life."
Meg was taken aback at Ivy's words, but she saw the genuine openness in the woman's eyes, and wished that she could have met their son.
"He was a courthouse guard?" she asked.
"No, RCMP," John answered proudly, and adjusted his pipe.
"He never married," said Ivy, smiling, with a small shake of her head. "Not unlike Benton, here."
"Resemblance is a bit uncanny," said John quietly.
"He's not exaggerating," Fraser Sr. said, looking back and forth between Ben and some invisible thing near the doorway to the kitchen. "You're about the same height. My son's better-looking, of course."
"Eliot was a handsome lad," Ivy said proudly.
"I meant no offense," Fraser Sr. said amiably to the doorway.
"It's been nice to have Benton around; someone to 'mother' a bit," laughed Ivy.
"And I thank you," Ben smiled. "You both have been very kind friends."
"She's a nice lady," said Fraser Sr. "If I weren't dead, I'd like to taste one of her apple turnovers."
"Oh—I almost forgot! Would either of you like one of my apple turnovers?" Ivy asked them. "I made a fresh batch this morning."
The most frustrating thing about this one-sided conversation with his father was that Ben could not even discreetly whisper a response to the ghost, since they were on opposite sides of the room. Ben looked across at his deceased father, who smiled serenely back at him.
"Sure, I'd love to try one," Meg answered. Ben nodded, and Ivy smiled. She disappeared into the kitchen and returned a few minutes later with warmed turnovers. They smelled of apples and cinnamon and just a touch of butter. Fraser Sr. closed his eyes and made a humming sound. Ben sighed and then looked up at Ivy and smiled as he took his turnover from her.
"Are you all right?" Ivy looked down at him, her gaze piercing.
"I'm fine, thanks for asking. This looks delicious." He busied himself with forking a piece of his turnover.
"Thank you." She turned to her husband, who was smoking his pipe, and he shook his head. She gave a plate to Meg and sat down again. She looked between her two guests.
"So how long have you two known each other?"
"Long enough for a train and a mountain," Fraser Sr. pursed his lips and glanced over at the doorway with a knowing look on his face.
"We first met six years ago," Ben answered.
"We were assigned to the Chicago consulate," Meg said, relaxing back with her turnover.
"So you attended state dinners and that sort of thing?"
"Yes, that was one of my—our duties."
"What else did you do there?"
"I was the liaison with the Chicago Police Department," Fraser said, taking another bite.
"An entirely self-invented position," Meg answered.
"Not entirely," he said.
"The 'liaising' the Sergeant did—at the time he was a Constable—was well above and beyond the call of duty," Meg said, by way of explanation, since Ivy's eyebrows had risen at their exchange.
"Ah," John nodded in a kind of understanding, and he smiled. "But for each of his good deeds, you had to fill out more paperwork?" His smile widened.
"Something like that," she answered drily. "Though it did give our consulate excellent public relations. Most of the time."
"Yes—I think I recall seeing mention of your consulate in the Times, on-line," John said, half to himself. "Wasn't there once when it was involved in handling a bomb threat?"
"Oh yes, you're right—I remember reading about that," Ivy said, with enthusiasm. "Wasn't it on that train that was transporting the Musical Ride down to the States, and some American had rigged the train with explosives?"
"I think I heard that Disney was commissioning the rights to that story," John said, at length.
Ben thought that he might sink further down into his chair, if he could. Meg was taking a great interest in the remains of her turnover.
"Ah well, it's years in the past, now," Ivy said, settling back on the love seat. Ben looked across the room at the window, and he could almost feel the roaring of the train under his feet and the wind whipping past him now, his arms wrapped tightly around her in a hungry embrace. Funny how the one thing that he was supposed to forget was still the most vivid years later.
"We went our separate ways four years ago, and it's just when I came out here that our paths have crossed again," Meg said, and cleared her throat. "It's been a good, relaxing time out here."
"I'm glad you're enjoying yourself," Ivy said.
Meg looked over at Ben, and he smiled, looking relaxed himself. Something settled itself comfortably in her belly as she looked at him, and she wanted nothing more at that moment then to walk slowly over to him, drape herself across his lap, and run her fingers through his hair. She looked away from his gaze with a small smile.
"She wants you, son," Fraser Sr. said. He smiled, rose from his chair, and disappeared into the kitchen, soundlessly.
I know, Dad, Ben answered. As Meg looked away from him, he intensely wanted to get them both home, together.
"Thank you for this evening," he said, looking from John to Ivy. He slid forward on his seat, resting his arms on his knees and holding his empty plate. "The meal was excellent, as usual." He smiled at Ivy.
"Oh, you shouldn't spoil an old woman so," Ivy grinned back.
"Who's doing the spoiling, here?" he answered, with a charming smile. Ivy feigned embarrassment and waved her hand at him. They all stood up and made their way into the kitchen, where Meg and Ben got their coats from beside the door.
"Thanks again for a wonderful dinner," Meg said, smiling, and giving Ivy a brief hug.
"Come again soon, we'd love to have you," Ivy said.
"It's our pleasure," added John. "Take care of yourselves; if you need anything, just ring us."
"We will. Likewise," Ben answered.
"Would you like to bring some turnovers back to the Coopers'?" Ivy asked.
"I'm sure the kids would love them," Meg answered.
Ivy quickly wrapped up a bundle and gave it to Meg as they put their coats on. They made their good-byes and the Glens stood together, waving in the doorway, as they sped off towards town.
Meg kept herself close around Ben; he preferred a stronger grip, so he could feel that she was still holding on through the layers of coats, and so she held on tightly. Sitting close against him, she could feel the movements of his hips as he banked the snowmobile and flew across the landscape. The stars were out in a perfectly dark violet sky, and off to their right she could see the waving green-lit swaths of the Lights. It was beautiful, wild, free, clear, and cold, and she was with him. It was a great and wild thrill of anticipation and the night sky. She thought she heard a wolf howl, and as a little shiver of fear ran through her, a smiled widened on her face. What a beautiful night! She pressed her cheek against his back, and held on for the ride.
They were going towards his cabin, not towards the Coopers', and she felt something tightening in herself, some anxiousness creeping in. As much as she wanted to be with him, she hoped... She didn't want it to be awkward, and unfortunately, this cold air was clearing out her mind enough to think as they drove. She had to admit that she was a little afraid of the speed of the relationship; she felt she'd known him for so long, and that something between them had been reawakened, but she was still anxious, just a little. She pressed herself more firmly against him and closed her eyes. It would be warm in the cabin.
A short time later, he pulled the snowmobile around the last bend and slowed as they pulled up to the shanty door. When they came to a full stop, she leapt off the vehicle before he could, and ran the few metres ahead to open the door. He nodded his helmet in thanks, and quickly drove in. She closed the door behind them, and took off her own helmet. She looked up at the warm light coming through the window and took in a deep breath. He came around beside her and gestured for her to go ahead of him. They went up the stairs and into the warmth of the cabin.
He took her coat and his own, leaving them on the hooks beside the door. They removed their wet and cold outer garments, and she laid them out to dry, off to the side of the fireplace. She pulled off her socks, also, and shuffled around contentedly in her jeans and her white sweater.
"Make yourself comfortable," he said, nodding to her. He spent a few minutes building up the fire in the hearth, while she laid out the wet clothes and then went to brush out her hair.
While she straightened out her hair from its flattening under the helmet, she frowned at her reflection in the mirror. Ben was something of a conundrum. While he guarded his privacy fiercely and appeared to be out of his depth when faced with forward women, there was a frightening depth of certainty in him when he chose to demonstrate it. In Chicago, she had often wondered how much of his naiveté was an act he put on to avoid uncomfortable situations. His manner since they had left the Glens' was not one of discomfort. If anything, it was the opposite. When he knew what he wanted, he pursued it with a singular sureness.
It sent a shiver of anticipation through her, seeing this side of him, and knowing that it was directed at her. She closed her eyes, knowing with certainty that his presence could easily overpower her if she let it, and the knowledge left her with a mix of emotions running through her body. She looked at herself in the mirror, decided that it would have to do, and went back out into the main room.
He had gone into the darkness of his bedroom for a minute, and she put the package of turnovers on the table on the other side of the room. When she turned from the table, she saw him come out of the bedroom, and the sight of him sent a sudden warmth into her and made her catch her breath. He was wearing a dark cotton three-button shirt and comfortable, well-worn jeans. He'd let his hair grow a little, out of the strict military cut, and she saw that it had some wave to it. He didn't move quickly towards her; it was a slower, more deliberate movement. She imagined the tension between them increasing as he came nearer, and instead of pushing it away, telling herself to back off a notch, she welcomed the new sensations. It had been a long time since she had experienced them, and they made her feel more alive, excited.
His eyes had darkened, she could see as he came nearer. He wasn't smiling—his expression was intense, one of desire. She felt drawn to him, and she finished moving the last step between them. No words were needed at that moment—he simply drew her to him, and she slid both arms up around his neck and pulled him against her.
The intensity of the connection almost frightened her; her heart was beating wildly, her skin was warming up rapidly, and the thumbnail that he drew up from the base of her spine sent tingling throughout her entire body. She gasped at its pressure and arched against him slightly. At the release of her mouth, his lips travelled down the curve of her jaw and she felt his breath across her neck. His hands kneaded the back of her shirt and she moaned as she felt his tongue against the pulse on her neck. He tugged insistently at her shirt until she felt the pressure of his fingers against the bare skin of her back. She threaded the fingers of her right hand through his hair and let her other hand travel down, over the hardened muscles of his shoulder. She moved both hands down to the inside of the collar of his shirt, rubbed into the hot skin there with her fingers. With a kind of soft moan, he lifted her against him, and they moved back together. He guided them around the edge of the sofa, and they tumbled down, legs catching against the edge. She laughed, and licked at the hollow of his throat. His stomach was hard, and she shifted, wiggled slightly against it, feeling his reaction.
He suddenly groaned, and she felt his hands pushing against her hips, pushing her back as he slid up. She pushed herself up from his chest and looked down at him. His eyes were shut, but he opened them and looked at her, then turned aside.
"We can't do this," he said, his voice rough and thick. He looked back at her, the breath rising and falling in his chest.
She slowed her breathing, too, feeling the humming in her belly subsiding as she slid further back, her hands moving down his shirt. He shifted, pulling his leg out from under her so that she could sit back, one leg tucked under herself. He pushed himself up and took a deep breath, his eyes fixed on her, apologetic, dark, and with more than a hint of tears at their edges. He closed them and looked down, and she could almost see him drawing himself back. His stomach moved with his controlled breaths, and she swallowed.
"No, it's—I'm sorry—"
It all came out in one breath, neither knowing who had spoken first.
"I know..." she looked over at the flames of the embers in the fireplace. The logs would last several more hours, burning slowly amid the cooling ashes. He followed her gaze, and then he slowly lifted himself off the sofa and bent down to put another large piece of wood on the coals. He lowered himself to the floor and sat back against the edge of the sofa, his head near her foot. She watched the low light flickering across his features, and admired the lines.
She didn't feel bad; in fact, she felt somewhat relieved, in a kind of dreading way. Now that the sudden feverish pitch had subsided, and her thoughts had begun to trickle through, she realized that she didn't feel any of what she expected to. Instead of being angry at him, or doubting herself, she began to focus on him, on what he was thinking, on their surroundings. He was still quiet, but his shoulders were relaxing. She sank back a little against the pillows and looked down at her hands, not knowing what to say.
"I suppose you want to know why," he said, at length, and she heard the weariness in his voice.
"I suppose I do," she answered quietly.
"I couldn't—I can't," he said it a little awkwardly, as if unsure of what he meant.
She felt a thread of fear go through her; Ben, impotent? But then, she dismissed the thought quickly. No, from what she'd felt, at least what she'd thought she'd felt, that wasn't what he meant, but...
"I've...been wrong. I don't want to make the same mistake again." His words were quiet, but were gaining surety. She breathed a small sigh of relief that her first fear was unfounded. He was speaking from a philosophical point of view, not a physical one. What was he referring to? The Metcalfe woman, perhaps? But it was so long ago. But so was my own experience, and yet it reasserted itself painfully only a week ago, she realized, and the thought was sobering.
"What do you mean?" she asked. She shifted herself and pulled her leg out from under her body; she was starting to feel her foot going to sleep. She stretched her legs out across the sofa.
He leaned his head back against the cushions and closed his eyes, not answering her question. The light flickered over his eyelids, and she looked at the dark lashes laid on his cheek. He opened his eyes again and sighed, then turned to look at her with a resigned gaze.
"Are you angry at me?"
"No," she answered frankly, returning the gaze. "To be honest..." she paused and looked at her hands, then looked back up, "I'm...relieved."
His expression changed quickly, into a half-puzzled frown. "Why?"
"Probably for the same reasons you are," she answered quietly. He looked at her for a long moment and then turned back to stare at the steadily-growing fire.
"Tell me yours," he said, quietly.
Meg paused, and looked down at her hands. She rubbed her knuckles and tried to gather her thoughts.
"I love you, Ben."
The words surprised her and she caught herself for a moment, wondering where her heart was taking her. She had never intended to blurt that out. She had not even been sure of it until that moment, but now there it was, and she took in a deep breath and continued. His eyes were closed and his head was down. She did not know what he was thinking.
"I...loved you five years ago, and I find myself realizing that nothing has changed. Here, all of this time, I thought I'd changed. Years later, thousands of kilometres away, and the first moment I see you again, my heart does this—leap—into my throat and butterflies start fluttering around in my stomach and I feel foolish all over again."
He laughed softly at her last words, his eyes still closed, and he seemed to nod in understanding. She took it as encouragement and kept going.
"Now, being that I'm no expert on the subject—" she could hear herself going into 'official' mode, and stopped with a sigh. There were a few seconds of silence, and then she tried again, this time without the distancing that she had done out of old habit. She decided to just be honest, but it hurt to make herself vulnerable; the more she gave away to him, the less she felt distinct and separate from him, and that in itself was a little frightening.
"I don't know about love, Ben. I haven't been very good at it, I've never before truly found it, and I'm afraid that this could just be another mistake—I don't mean you are, I mean I just don't want to—I, I don't—" she faltered.
"I know what you mean," he interjected quietly, into her uncertain apologies. To him, it was both a relief and a touch of fear that he understood her so clearly, and that she had managed to express exactly how he felt, also. They were so different, and yet—he was beginning to realize again—so very much alike.
"I don't want to get my hopes up again and give myself to you, only to have us both hurt in the end," she finished, feeling a welling of tears at the corners of her eyes. He remained quiet for a long moment, and then he took in a deep breath and let it out.
"I have not felt so intensely...alive for so long, Meg. I mean, I love all of this—" he made a wide gesture with his arm towards the outside world and then let it drop back down again. "I feel alive when I can stand outside on a cool night and breathe in deeply and feel it filling my lungs. When I can hear the wolves howling and the Lights singing in the night sky. But, in here..." his shoulders rounded a little and he closed his eyes, gesturing into himself, "...I keep it at a distance. It's just easier to focus on my mind and my environment, and to leave my heart alone." He opened his eyes and looked at the fire. "But you don't let me do that; I can't stop this...this life that you stir in me."
Meg was silent, listening.
"I want to trust you," he turned his head to look at her, and spoke slowly. "I want to be sure: mind, body, spirit. I don't want a casual encounter between old friends. I made that mistake once and paid dearly for it." He fell silent, and turned back to the fire.
"Neither do I," she answered, slowly. They sat silently for a few moments, and then she asked, "What do you want?"
"A wife," he said, simply. "I just want to spend the rest of my life with someone I can trust, someone I could raise a family with." He let out a long breath, as if some great weight had just fallen off his shoulders. Well, there it was—certainly more direct and honest than he had expected his response to be, but true, nonetheless. He didn't think there was enough left of his heart to survive being torn in two again by playing a game and losing. He would rather just put his cards on the table and end it there. Some wounds did not heal as well as others.
Her heart leapt into her throat, but she swallowed it down and took another breath. Tonight seemed to be the night for unexpected earth-shattering revelations to be delivered without ceremony. She was not sure how to process this last one, and so she settled on the question still floating in her mind since she had begun to speak.
"Do you love me?"
In a deliberate motion, he pushed himself up, moved over, and was beside her on his knees.
"Well, yes, isn't that rather obvious?" A little lop-sided grin appeared on his face. Meg felt a smile creep on to her own.
"Is this a proposal?" she asked playfully.
"It isn't?" Her face must have fallen, because he reached out to cup her cheek with one hand.
"No...it's me telling you what I want, as you asked."
"What do you want?" He deftly turned the conversation to her instead of answering her question. He ran his thumb along the hollow of her cheek.
She was not entirely sure, and her silence was his answer.
"It's only been three weeks—" he said.
"And a few years," she inserted, a little angry that her heart had jumped ahead and had left her mind behind, and she didn't have a good answer for him.
"—and I think more time would be good," he continued. "You know my desires, and since I rather abruptly sprung them on you, I think it would be better for you to have some time for yourself instead of feeling pressured right now. That's why."
He was right, and she nodded, still a little unsure of how to take it all.
"How do you know that this is what you want?"
"Because," he said, his voice low, "I know with utter certainty that if you left this place, I would go through heaven and hell to come after you."
"I am leaving in a week," she answered, lowering her own voice. "And besides, you did the leaving last time."
"We both chose to go our own separate ways. You can't deter me that easily, Inspector," he replied, smiling. She moved to kiss him, and when their lips touched, she closed her eyes.
"Fair, then?" he murmured, when they separated.
"I should take you home."
"Thanks for a wonderful evening."
"You're welcome. Thanks...for your patience," he looked down, seeming a little ashamed all of a sudden. She put her fingers under his chin and gently lifted his head back up.
"No," she said. "Thank you for your wisdom and restraint. I really appreciate your honesty."
He smiled, a kind of resigned smile, and then stood up.
"C'mon, let's get you home."