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the hearth that warms, the stone that chills

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Catherine drew her fingertips across the fabric, weft and warp a landscape rough, draped across the stones, on Atrus's makeshift desk that she knew from old. She raised her head, and turned a slow circle, taking in the columns and the darkness, waiting. The sound of his linking turned her to it, her welcoming smile already blooming on her face, a breath escaping, his name forming on her lips.

"Atrus," she whispered, and her lips curved into a smile.

His form shimmered into view, and she saw that he was already searching her out. Seeing her, he dropped the satchel he held from off his shoulder, making strides to her.

"Catherine," he said, "oh, how I've missed you." He leaned forward, gathering her to himself with a gentle grasp at her shoulders, moving up to cradle her face between them. He touched his forehead to hers; he closed his eyes.

She reached up and put her hands on his arms, reveling in the feel of him under her hands, warm and there, after so long. "And I you. But, what of your friend?"

He raised his head. His gaze was intent, focused only on her. She drew breath; held it. "Gone through the fissure, home, I pray."

She sighed out, bowing her head for a moment. That was good, as it should be. She said, "I have no doubt that will be so." She reached up, touched his face, the bristle of his beard prickling her fingertips, so conscious of him, his closeness. When they were still in Riven, she'd touched him so, but there was no time for more, and no privacy. She bent her fingers around his neck, and stood on her toes, and pulled down, and met his mouth with her own. His mouth was gentle against hers, and she opened her own to him, eager, tasting the warmth of his. So long without this, so long with just memories and dreams, that dissipated in the harshness of days passing. She opened her eyes now to see him--to chase doubt away, to make him real. He was; he was not a memory, not a dream, not the disorientation of turning in her cot to reach for him and touching nothing but empty space. She closed her eyes, her sight satisfied, and pressed herself up into him, learning the form of his body anew, wrapping her arms around him, under his cloak. The fabric of his shirt was smooth against her fingertips; hot with the proximity of his skin.

"It's been so long," she whispered against his mouth, and pressed her mouth against his again, a brief kiss, before she laid her head on his chest, and listened to his heart.

He sighed, a deep breath that seemed drawn from depths she could not fathom, and stepped back, putting distance between them, yet he did not let go of her. Instead he brought his hands up to her face, again, to curve them to her cheeks. She smiled and closed her eyes. His hands were warm on her face; his thumbs, with callouses worn soft with time, yet never quite gone, traced paths on her skin. Warmth bloomed in her breast. This was home. This was the heat of a hearth fire.

He took his hands away from her and she opened her eyes to see him turning away from her. He raised a hand to hide his mouth, and she frowned. That gesture of his was a sign of distressed thought. He said, "There is something I must tell you." He turned his head to look at her, his hand leaving his face, dropping down to his side. He said, "Our sons, Catherine...this is such a terrible thing I must say..."

She reached out, took his hand in hers, her face drawing tight with grief and concern. She said, "I know that I was sent to Riven on a false pretext. There was time enough and more to understand--"

He said, looking her in the eyes, "They have been trapped by the books I wrote--in Haven and Spire. They have done such terrible deeds... I can't find the words to tell you--"

She stared at him, mouth open. Though she still held his hand she could not feel anything within that grasp.

He said, "They fooled me as well, trapped me here, until our friend came. I'm sorry, Catherine, that it has come to this."

She felt her lips move, trying to summon words. He stepped closer, and placed his arms around her, drawing her to him with a careful gentleness. She found her voice, and said, "You say they are lost to us. Our sons. Achenar and Sirrus."

The pain in his voice was an echo of that in her heart. "Yes. I am sorry for this, for my failing you."

She turned her face into his chest, and closed her eyes. They burned. She said, the words coming out thick and clotted, tears caught in her throat, "There is nothing to be done, is there? There is nothing I need to forgive."

He said, "My love," and though his voice was low, it filled her ears like thunder. He held her closer and she squeezed her eyes tighter and wished for things she could no longer have.

"I am only yours," she answered. It was always true. It was all she could cling to, this love they had forged from pain and secrets kept. She held tighter to him and let the tears escape. She'd had so much time in Riven, and now, still, there was time. She was strong, then; she was stone, then. She could be it now.