The first thing Aubrey noticed was the smell. Fresh warm scones, straight from the oven. He imagined piling them high with jams, butter, cream, how they would melt in his mouth and warm him belly. How he wished for scones.
Next, the tingling sensation in his toes made itself known to him, a feeling not as painful as pins-and-needles but not as soft as a feather tickling his soles. The feeling spread slowly, and Aubrey tracked its progress with mild interest. Soon his whole body was tingling lightly. It felt nice, Aubrey decided in his semiconscious state.
He suddenly became aware of the light that shone from behind his eyelids, reddened slightly through the thin skin. Where did it coming from, Aubrey wondered. It was brightest at the bottom of his vision, so it must be on the floor.
No, Aubrey chuckled to himself. Im lying down. In an exceedingly comfortable bed, at that. I say, I wonder what if it's down.
Wishing to investigate the composition of the wonderful mattress, Aubrey eased his eyes open and waited for them to adjust. They felt like coarse sandpaper, and his vision was blurred.
Once the light had wakened him from his strange mattress-obsession, Aubrey surveyed the room he was in. A plush ensemble, he decided, richly carpeted floors and beautiful paintings adorning the walls. A window allowed streaming light in through the far wall; though the only source of light in the room, it lit it up cheerfully. Aubrey heard birds chirping outside, and smiled. Surely birdsongs were a good sign all was right with the world.
Startled from his revelations, Aubrey whipped his head around to the origin of the voice, and immediately regretted it. His neck felt like angry insects were eating it from the inside, which, he reasoned, was an unfortunate feeling to have in ones neck. Feeling terribly sorry for himself and his neck, he groaned pitifully. And, he added, I didn't need to look at all. I would know that voice anywhere.
Suddenly, the face which owned the voice was above his. He felt her sit on the side of the bed and soft cool hands rest on his neck.
"Oh, Aubrey, are you alright, did you hurt your neck? I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to startle you, its just you've been fitful for days, waking up then going under again, and I just… I just… I'm sorry…"
"Caroline". It was more of a croak than a string of syllables, really. But it held weeks of remorse and longing in it, everything Aubrey had wanted to say to her since the night of the ball. Caroline stopped talking for a moment and simply gazed at him. Aubrey could fairly see the worry and nervousness brimming in her green orbs, and was abstractly aware of the dark smudges and puffiness surrounding them. She looks so beautiful, he thought wistfully.
Suddenlly Caroline was off again, babbling as if her life depended on it and busying herself with straightening his pillow and covers, fiddling with the drapes so the room wasn't so bright, and pulling a food cart from somewhere in the vicinity, piled high with fruits, jams, butter and, of coarse, scones. Blessed, warm scones.
"…your mother and father have been so worried about you, they visit all the time, so does George, of course, and he's always here. He's just gone to get some breakfast, bless that man, but he does have a large appetite, fairly never stops eating…"
Aubrey half listened as he watched her flit about the room. He was perfectly happy to keep his silence, and honestly probably couldn't get a word in at any rate. Deciding he was straining his eyes, he struggled to use his elbow and prop himself up. His body still tingled, strangely; he would have to investigate that further, but not now. He heard a strangled cry, several running steps, and then Caroline was back, supporting his torso while she put more pillows under his upper back.
"Aubrey! Don't you dare strain yourself! Your not in any condition to be attempting anything by yourself, you've already worried me enough-"
Caroline straightened quickly, her eyes averted and cheeks colored a deep magenta. How did she get that shade so quickly? Aubrey wondered.She made to escape back to the food cart but Aubrey, deciding enough was enough, reached out and snagged her wrist. She started, jerked her arm, and then looked down at their hands, as if they were quite suddenly the most fascinating thing in the room.
"Caroline", Aubrey wheezed again. He tugged on her arm, hoping he wouldn't offend her. On the contrary, the ever poised and independent Miss Hepworth obediently sat on the edge of his bed, eyes still down and cheeks still rosy.
"You're shaking", the surprise in Aubrey's voice was evident through its grate. Caroline sighed and nodded almost imperceptibly.
Nothing to lose, Aubrey thought, and reached his left hand over his body to cocoon hers, squeezing gently to expel the slight tremors. Her hand felt wonderful in his, seeming to fit perfectly. Beginning to stroke a line on her hand with his thumb, he looked back up at her face.
Caroline had her eyes closed, her face a mask of calmness and contentedness. She breathed slowly and deeply, in through the nose, out through the mouth, in, out. When she opened her eyes again and looked into his, he saw in them the Caroline Hepworth he knew and loved, steady, self-possessed and fiercely determined.
When she gently disentangled her hand from his, he felt a surge of disappointment. Aubrey was astonished and delighted to realize that it was a short lived emotion when she leaned over him, slip her closest hand in between his back and the mattress, laid the other on his chest and then gently lowered her head until it also rested on his chest. Her face was turned up slightly so her breath ticked his neck, and Aubrey could feel her carotid pulse literally pounding in her neck. Both delightful sensations, he happily admitted. She doesn't mean anything by this. We're friends again. She's just happy I survived, nothing more.
"Aubrey", sighed Caroline, her breath bringing goose bump's to his skin. Aubrey hesitantly rested one arm around her slender waist and, receiving no objections, stroked her hair with the other. He breathed deeply of her scent. Violets. I love violets.
"You almost died", she murmured.
"Ah", Aubrey joked half-heartedly. "That would explain the sore neck and swaggering headache, then; all healthy symptoms of a near death experience".
"Don't". Caroline winced and her grip on him tightened. "Your pain is my fault. It should have been me. You know that spell was meant for me."
"No, I won't allow you to fault yourself for my actions; they are my responsibility alone". Aubrey sighed. "No one is to blame; it is done. In the past, as it were".
"Promise me you won't act so foolishly in the future." Caroline's voice was fierce.
"Promise me you won't put yourself in danger like that in the future", Aubrey countered with equal solidity. Caroline merely breathed deeply again and fell silent.
They stayed there for what seemed like an age, each reveling in the new sensations.
It slowly occurred to Aubrey that soon someone would come to call; George or his parents. He still had things he wished to say and explain to Caroline, things best said now in private. With this in mind, he reluctantly removed his arms from around her and gently pushed her up.
"Caroline", he stated for the third time. She stayed poised over him, so her face was no more than a foot from his. Gazing at him with sleepy eyes, she waited patiently for him to speak. Gathering his thoughts, he began.
"I wanted to explain about our time in Lutetia", Aubrey began. Seeing she was going to interrupt, he forestalled her.
"No, you must allow me to explain". She closed her mouth.
"When I had you expelled from the University, I had two goals in mind. One was to secure your help in our adventures, because I knew you were invaluable. But the other more important reason… I wanted to keep you near me, at my side. I understand I was being unforgivably selfish, and I crave your pardon for my transgressions". He closed his eyes now in response the painful memories and to avoid the hurt he would surely find in Caroline's features. "Im so sorry that I hurt – "
Aubrey had stopped talking when he felt something silky brush against his lips, and his brain shut down. He sat there, utterly flabbergasted, before gradually opening his eyes. Caroline's face filled his vision, her nose brushing his.
"Aubrey", she breathed. Her breath was mint laughter. "Stop trying to apologize. I forgive you".
And then she was kissing him again, with greater urgency, and this time he had the good sense react, his arms settling on her back and the nape of her neck. Caroline embedded both hands in Aubrey's dark locks, gently endeavoring to pull him closer and deepen the kiss. Dimly, Aubrey thought to himself, Friends don't kiss... After a blissful time, she pulled away, kissed him on the tip of his nose and rested her forehead against his, eyes closed. Aubrey, his breath matching Caroline's quickened pace, lay with his eyes open, staring in awe at the literally breathtaking woman in front of him. He'd never felt so whole in his life.
Aubrey gently massaged Caroline's neck as both their pulse and breathing rates slowed. Caroline murmured happily and leaned more heavily into his chest, though she still felt like a feather to him, and her breathing continued deepening. Aubrey soon realised she was asleep. Gently, he maneuvered her until her head again lay on his chest, her lips now brushing his neck and his arms cradled around her slight torso.
He drifted slowly into oblivion.
Aubrey rose to consciousness slowly, reveling in the feeling of waking up with Caroline in his arms. He spent several idyllic minutes cataloging everything about her that his senses recorded; the minty spike in her breath and the feel of it against his skin, the sound of her even breaths, the feel of her soft skin against his, the way her chest rose and fell under his arms, the smell of her perfume, and the feel of her heartbeat above his. During her sleep Caroline had somehow managed to lift her legs onto the bed; one of them had curled its way around Aubrey's through the covers, a situation, Aubrey discovered, that he was thrilled with.
A sound rudely interrupted his bliss, and he frowned in displeasure. He felt like he should know that sound… there were more sounds now, soft pitter-pattering noises, getting louder. And now the murmur of voices. But what was the first sound, Aubrey wondered, searching the corners of his mind for he answer. A door, he decided triumphantly. Someone had opened a door. Satisfied, he settled back again.
Wait… A door! But that meant… oh no…Aubrey focused intensely on the growing noises. Voices and footsteps. He picked out his father's deep baritone easily, and thought he heard his mother to. Soon, Aubrey had added Mrs. Hepworth and George to the list.
Damn, he thought miserably.
He focused again on Caroline, sleeping beautifully, and then decided he didn't want to move. He was an actor, after all. I can feign sleep.
So Aubrey kept still as he heard the voices outside the door, the handle turn, and then the group file into the room. George was trailing off.
"I left Caroline in here with him… I say…"
The shuffling stopped, followed by a moment's silence, then:
"They are asleep?"
"Certainly looks that way".
"Yes, well, I think we can visit again in a few hours, don't you dearest?"
"But of course, my love". Two pairs of footsteps retreated.
"Well, I think I may start on an early afternoon tea. You can never start too early, you know". George's heavy strides faded slowly.
Mrs. Hepworth spoke softly. "Aubrey. I know you're awake – you don't have to move. I want you to know that you have my wholehearted blessing. A match made in heaven, if you'll excuse the cliché".
More shuffling footfalls could be heard, and then the gentle click of a closing door, and then glorious silence. Aubrey let out the breath he didn't know how long he had held. His head spun.
You have my wholehearted blessing. What did that mean? Aubrey was in no condition to contemplate this, so he filed it away in his 'thing-to-be-considered' file.
Meanwhile, Caroline began to stir. She started slightly and tensed, and Aubrey knew she had opened her eyes and had forgotten where she was. Then he felt her relax, and was hugely grateful she hadn't attacked, knowing first-hand her skill in self-defense. She made a strange muffling sound, and her shoulders shook slightly – Caroline, giggling?
"Good afternoon, my lady". Aubury put on his best gentleman's voice, attempting to be charming. He felt Caroline lift her right arm, which was lying on his chest, reach up and stroke the side of his face lightly. Her ghostly touches made him shiver. She brushed his left earlobe, and ran her fingertips down his neck. That alone was enough to make him giddy, but Caroline had also decided to kiss the pulse on his neck lingeringly, before smiling into his skin and returning a muffled salutation. Aubrey quite suddenly forgot how to speak.
They sat there for a time, Aubrey reveling in the tickle of her breath and her touch as she stroked his neck, Caroline leaning into the warmth of his neck and listening intently to his reassuring heart beat. Aubrey decided to broach the 'parents-and-George-visited' subject.
Caroline listened silently as he recounted what happened. He left out the part about her mother, feeling the timing to be inappropriate. She sat there for a time, and then raised herself onto one elbow, keeping her face close to his. Aubrey held his breath while Caroline considered him. She seemed to come to a decision and nodded slightly.
"Aubrey, it's not like this is unexpected. You displayed your feelings pretty openly, you know". Aubrey grinned and colored slightly at this, and Caroline dimpled before continuing.
"And I… well; I've hardly left the room since you got here. I sleep in that armchair in the corner… its surprisingly comfortable… and George brings me food, bless his heart… I probably smell abominable" – Aubrey snorted at this – "… three of the longest days of my life…" Her eyes were unfocused in recollection, but she refocused, smiled, put her mouth to his ear and whispered conspiratorially.
"I do believe they caught on, Aubrey".
Aubrey had to agree with her logic, mostly because Caroline was kissing him again, and he just couldn't manage independent thought.