By Jen K. (Avsongbird)
It was loneliness, she told herself. Loneliness and the desperation that only such longstanding isolation can bring.
That was what drove her into those stone halls in the dead of night, her heartbeat pounding in her head and her bare feet feeling the rough texture of the stone floors beneath them as she made her way through countless corridors on legs that trembled from nerves as much as the cold of the winter’s night.
It couldn’t have been bravery, though on more occasions than she could easily count, she’d put herself into harm’s way in order to protect him.
She paused in her journey, lifting her left hand to catch herself with as she stopped to lean against the stone wall, her shadow cast on the stone floor beneath as she stopped to stand beneath the flickering torch on the wall, her head bowed as she swallowed over her nerves.
Her knees facing the full weight of her broken heart and lonely, aching, empty soul, she felt them buckle, and she gave out a soft sob, feeling the distance between them stretch away before her.
How long she knelt by that wall in the cold of the hallway, she couldn’t tell. Minutes, hours?
It could have been days, for all the feeling in her heavy, broken and aching heart.
Lifting her head, her tears reflected in the torchlight, she lifted her eyes to the end of the corridor, though she didn’t see it.
She saw his eyes, his smile. She felt his arms around her instead of the cold chill whipping past her in the hall.
She felt his lips closing against her own from across time, and space.
Had it really been so long ago?
Had it really been years since she’d felt his arms around her, seen the pain in his eyes, hidden somewhere within the hope she saw in his gaze as he’d declared his love for her, and made his offer to run away with her?
Mustering all the strength that was left in her, she forced herself onto her feet again, bracing her left hand against the stone wall to help her as she made her way down the hallway.
As she went, walking on barefoot tiptoe, her heart and her head waged a war within her that wasn’t new, and she felt the battle taking its toll after going on for so long without reaching any solutions.
Her heart was urging her onward, as her brain nagged at her to go back—to return to the life from whence she’d come, and to make peace with her place there. For her to leave him in peace to go about his life as he was destined to without her influence.
And for years, she’d fought her heart, however hard she’d wanted to believe his professions of love, his vows that he would leave everything he’d ever known, to have her as his own for a lifetime.
She’d gone faithfully to her own bed, turning from him however many times he came to her, believing she was doing the right thing, and every time their eyes met from across the room, she forced herself to ignore the pain she saw in his eyes, the heartache, telling herself always that she was doing the right thing, the proper thing.
And all the while, she pretended that her heart didn’t break a little more each time she turned him away, that her soul didn’t die a day at a time as she felt, so strongly, the distance between them.
And each time she was forced to look into his crystal clear blue eyes from across that distance, the feet became miles.
Tonight, for whatever reason, she couldn’t take it anymore. She had to see him, even for a minute, if only to tell him goodnight.
Her day in the life she’d been living had hurt her too much to go another night without just seeing the one she’d come to trust.
The one she’d long denied loving, and yet, that was exactly what she felt all those years.
And, somehow, deep down, he’d always seemed to know it.
Stopping, she lifted her head, feeling her heart hit the back of her throat as she realized she was standing outside the door to his room.
Her eyes glistening with her unshed tears, she drifted forward on tiptoe, closing her eyes against her tears as she bowed her forehead quietly against the wooden surface of his door, lifting her trembling left hand and letting it rest flat against the surface, just off to the left side of her head as she let out a deep sigh, fighting the urge she felt in her knees to give out, to hit the floor.
He was inside. She could feel it, pulling her from deep down in her heart, her soul.
And it was tearing her up inside to know that she couldn’t go to him, to kiss him and hold him and tell him everything she’d long hidden, and long denied, however badly she’d wanted to confess herself to him.
To bare her heart and soul to the one who had never abandoned her, who’d never turned and walked away when she’d needed him most.
Suddenly, the door opened before her, and she felt her heart hit her throat as she wavered on her feet for a moment, saving herself from falling forward into the suddenly open space.
She’d always thought herself an independent woman—a strong woman—untouchable, unbreakable, untamable, and yet, with that one word passing from his lips, she felt her heart breaking in her chest, even as she felt it answering his call, because she wasn’t free to.
Seeing his bare feet move into her vision as she opened her lowered eyes, she managed to lift her eyes, and she felt her heart somersault inside her chest as she saw he was standing there in his trousers and white nightshirt, his sword held in hand at the presence of an “intruder” so late outside his chambers.
“Em?” he tried again, concern in his light blue eyes as he took her hand into his, bringing her gently inside before releasing her, to turn back and close the door behind her before he turned back to her, letting his sword fall to rest atop his side table, “What’s wrong?” he asked, watching her eyes as he stopped to stand before her, reaching up to gently brush her hair back out of her eyes.
Stepping forward, she lifted herself onto her toes, lifting her left hand and turning her wrist to let herself brush the backs of her fingers gently down over his cheek, her eyes watching the movement as she let herself feel the smooth warmth of his flesh against her own after so long.
She inhaled softly as she felt his right hand close gently around her forearm just above the elbow, feeling a shiver pass through her as he let his hand slide caressingly upwards, to gently take her by the wrist, bringing her to move her eyes to meet his in the firelight.
She knew him well enough to know he was a lot of things, but she’d known him long enough to know that a fool wasn’t one of them.
He knew an intimate touch when he was given one. And he’d long known that she’d always loved him, however much she may have argued this fact at every given opportunity.
And he knew that, whatever her reasons, this was what had brought her to his chambers as he held her eyes and saw the vulnerability there, hidden somewhere inside the heartache and the strength of her love for him.
In all his life, he’d never known anyone who’d ever been as honest, as giving, or as loving to him as she had always been.
Never had anyone in his life challenged him so openly and so fearlessly as she always had, nor given him such unquestioning and unflagging loyalty, as she always had.
She had seen him at his strongest, and at his weakest, and never once had she turned from him, or failed to be there for him whenever he needed her most.
Never had anyone ever made him feel stronger, or braver than he did with her at his side.
It was why he’d wanted her to be his queen. It was why he could never see anyone else but her at his side, forever.
She’d long possessed his heart, as he had long known that he possessed hers. And nothing, including the two of them, could ever change that fact, whatever the fates had proclaimed to the contrary.
Standing there, watching her eyes, he seemed to be holding his breath as he waited patiently for her to push him away, as she always did whenever they became too close, emotionally or physically.
Then, she did something he never would have dreamed as she took a step forward, holding his gaze as she moved, and suddenly his eyes were gently falling closed as he felt her soft, full lips closing against his own.
“Marry me,” he said as they lay together in his big, warm bed, her lying on her back with her head rested comfortably against his pillows, him lying on his left side, his back to the window, the side of his head rested against the heel of his hand, and a warm, contented and loving smile on his lips as he regarded the woman lying by his side as they bathed in the afterglow of their first passionate encounter.
“You don’t mean that,” she shook her head, lowering her eyes as she turned her face towards him.
“I’ve never meant anything more,” he said, offering her the same easy smile as she lifted her eyes to meet his again, “I would be honored to have you as my queen.”
“And if I said no?” she asked, watching his eyes quietly, “You would find another, William.”
“Never,” he shook his head gently, watching her eyes as she lifted them again.
Tears welled up in Emily's eyes as her heart swelled in her chest with her love for him and, ignoring the protestations in her brain, that she had been shown differently where he was concerned, she gently cupped his face in her hand, drawing him in to kiss him again, feeling her heart somersaulting in her chest as she found he was smiling as she was, his lips curved upwards as they pressed her own.
She loved him, dammit. And just this once, she wanted to let herself be in love, and to enjoy being loved just as deeply in return.
For one night, she wanted to know what real love was, even if it meant spending the rest of her life mourning its loss.
Suffering in the knowledge that she’d had him, but could never keep him.
If she was destined to live the rest of her life in the shadows, so be it.
But just for tonight, she wanted to live in the light.