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She laces her fingers tightly together, one hand entwined with the other, and even still she glares at them warningly, as though they might wander off unbidden given half the chance. Closing her eyes, she concentrates solely on regulating her breathing: in, in, out, out. She can hear the air shuddering through her throat, kicked off balance by her pounding heart, and hopes this is not noticeable to the woman reclining beside her, too close for comfort, surely close enough to witness a disobedient body, indiscreet and uncontrollable.

"Isn't it wonderful not to have to say goodnight yet?" Con rambles brightly, and Nell forces her eyes open, rearranges her features into what she hopes is an enthusiastic - not too enthusiastic! - smile. Yes, yes it is, wonderful. Dreadful. In, in, out, out. Con wriggles down the bed, horizontal now, draws closer; conspiratorial. Wonderful, dreadful.  In, out. Laughing blue eyes which surely see the slight tremble on Nell's skin and know that the chill of the night air, summer or otherwise, is not responsible. 

"We should do this more often," Con murmurs now, oblivious fingers deftly smoothing a stray curl from Nell's face; propped up on one elbow, her cotton nightdress slips to expose an unbroken trail of pale skin running from her jaw to the rounded outside corner of her shoulder, unnoticed because all her attention is concentrated on Nell; her attentive gaze burns in its intensity - wonderful, dreadful. Nell closes her eyes again, but already the image, too, is burned into her brain. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned...

She stands up and crosses to the window: anything to break the tension in the room. Three steps are insufficient to discharge her restlessness, but she can hardly pace back and forth without offering some sort of explanation. Coaxing the weighty wooden shutter open a fraction, she inhales heavily, as though the air from outside is all she needs to replace the atmosphere within. Stars twinkle above the stillness of the lake.

She hears movement as Con hastily extinguishes the lamp on the dresser, before coming to stand a half-foot behind her; not touching now, small mercy, but sweet warm breath tickles the back of Nell's neck. How long do they stand like this? It feels as if it might be forever: wonderful, dreadful.

"A fine mess of their plans you'll make, leaving the light on and throwing open the windows," Con murmurs, but her teasing lacks its usual vigour, and Nell gives a beseeching glance to the skies above.

"I wasn't thinking."

"No," Con agrees, and though Nell can't see her she can hear the tentative pause which follows. The room grows yet more still; both women hold their breath.

Then, at last, soft fingertips trace the length of her spine. Nell stiffens, but she does not pull away, and Con's hand grows more confident, slips around her waist and draws her in close.

"If nobody can see us," Con whispers against her neck, "then can it really count?"

Nell throws another anxious look at the stars above the Tiernsee: can it really count? Better safe than sorry: she reaches out to pull the shutters fully closed again, turns under cover of darkness to gaze upon a face she can effortlessly picture without any need of light.

Chapter End Notes:

It is quite possible I have modified the nature of the St Clare's windows for the purposes of this non-plot. I can live with this!




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