I catch her leaving. I felt the mattress ease up beneath me when she left our bed. Hearing the sounds from around and below, sounds that I'm not used to hearing from her so early in the morning, I followed.
The false dawn before proper daybreak is all that illuminates the front hallway. She stops when she realises I'm there, not meeting my eyes. She's got a bag over her shoulder, and another in her hand.
I ask her, then and there, what she thinks she is doing, and move to stand between her and the doorway.
I'd never stand in the way of anything she wants to do, but I want to know why she's going away; it's Christmas Eve, and my family are due to visit tomorrow. There's a tree in the living room and a turkey defrosting in the oven.
Now that I stand here questioning her departure, it seems as though she can't find the words to answer me. She says nothing.
Her lips are parted, her eyes intense, but she can't say a word to me, and I know, suddenly, that this is the last time I will see her like this, fresh from my bed in the early morning.
I knew it would happen, someday. I'd hoped that the strength of my love for her could be enough to make her stay, or that of her love for me - I know she does love me - but I know now that that wasn't true. Couldn't be true. There's always been something in the background that she'd never let me see, something that worried me.
"What happened?" I ask, knowing that something will have happened to instigate this. She wouldn't leave me so suddenly for no reason, I'm sure, and she won't leave me without a word, not now that I know she's going. Perhaps if I hadn't woken, I would never have known what happened to her. But I'm here.
Her face is still, but her posture screams worry and danger, muscles all tensed as though she were a cat, coiled and ready to spring.
"They're coming." The dark blue gaze is fixed on me now. Her eyes are like lasers, as though she can see through me and knows she can trust me not to say a word, if she leaves me behind.
"I can't tell you," she says, dropping the bags to pull me close for a hug. I go willingly, inhaling her scent as if by so doing I could keep her with me, safe from harm. I wish I could.
I don't argue with her assertion. I know by now that there are things in her past that she never wants to discuss, things that have had her on the run for a long time. She dyes her hair, she took weeks to respond automatically to the name she told me when we met. She usually wears contacts, and she's not wearing them now. Sometimes her accent slips - in bed, usually, if I can get her to lose control completely - and I hear a trace of a nationality she's never mentioned to me.
I hoped - I think she, too, hoped - that these things were behind her, and that she'd stay here with me in the end, but I should have known things weren't so easy as that.
Life is never that easy, is it?
"It's so cold out there, love. It's snowing again. Where are you going to go?" I murmur into her ear, cheek pressed warmly against hers, arms around her waist. The short dyed-copper curls of her hair tickle my chin, and I take a deep breath of the vanilla-lily scent of her perfume from her neck. She shivers, and her hand comes up to stroke my hair. I nuzzle closer into her neck. I can feel something hard against my hip; a gun, I think. I know she used to shoot at the range; that much she's told me. I'm not afraid of what it implies.
"There's a place," she starts, and hesitates. She's still shivering, lightly. She doesn't want to tell me more – doesn't want to put me in further danger, I'm sure. She thinks I will be okay when she leaves. She thinks that her disappearance won't tear me apart as easily as if she stayed here and let whoever is after her come and get us both. She doesn't realise that she's wrong. That she is the kind of woman who comes along only once in a lifetime, and that she's the kind of woman to be treasured for the rest of that lifetime.
She's lied to me about plenty of things over our time together, and obscured much more, but as a person, she's honest enough in all other ways that I've gone along with her tales all the way, until this. It would not have been the worst relationship I'd ever had if I'd never known who she used to be. I've let her believe that I didn't know she wasn't being entirely truthful. That wall's coming down, now.
The image of her on the ground, as cold as the ice around our windows, freezes my heart and in that moment, I know what I'm going to do. Whether she wants my help or not, whether she thinks she's putting me in danger or not, I refuse to let her face the demons of her past alone. I know she wants to protect me – she always has, and loving that about her, I have often let slide how obscure she is about her past – but this is not the time. It's my turn.
"I'm coming with you," I tell her firmly. "Do I have a minute to get dressed and throw some things in a bag, or do we have to go now?"
She pulls back suddenly. Consternation fills her face. "You can't--"
I hold her wrists. Just tightly enough to hurt; I know she doesn't mind. I hold her eyes, trying to show her I'm serious.
"Anna, I can and I will. If you go, I will follow you. Isn't it safer for both of us if we go together? I can always leave the deeds for the house on the kitchen table when we go; I'll transfer it to my mother - she's got the keys to the place, and she can deal with any arrangements that need to be made."
She looks about to argue, and that's what I'd be used to; I'm startled when she relaxes against me and gives in. I let go of her wrists, and her hands slide down to take mine.
"You think too quickly," she says, a brief smile showing through the strained worry of her lovely face as I counter her objections before she speaks them. I know this woman well, even if I don't know who she was before.
I laugh, brief and slightly bitter. "I know you," I tell her. "Even if I don't know your real name, or where you're really from, Anna, I know you."
Her eyes flick upward to my face. She doesn't appear to be surprised to learn that I know she is not who she claims to be. In fact, she almost smiles.
"Come on," she says, briefly, her face sobering as fast as her tone of voice. "Let's get you some things. You can't go out in that," she gestures at my flannelette nightdress, "and we have a little time yet."
I wonder how much, but I don't ask that question. I just make sure that she comes back upstairs with me as I go.
She allows her hands to drop into her familiar habit of stroking my skin as I take off my nightwear. She would seem not to be quite so desperate to leave as I'd first thought. Perhaps she just thought that this morning would be an opportunity to leave me without having to say goodbye, to make that final cut. They may be days behind her - us - yet. I hope.
I pull her down to the bed, and she is hot, her porcelain skin glistening and flushed against my body, as I love her as hard as I can. Her breasts against my palms are a blessing, and I whisper my own benediction into her throat, kissing and kissing and kissing. I don't want to let her go, and I won't.
We shower and dress quickly afterwards. I know we don't have much time. Clothes, purse, money-- my identification? She shakes her head and grabs my driver's licence and passport from my hand, sliding them both carefully underneath the edge of the carpet.
"It won't stay a decent hiding place for them for long, but we can't take them with us."
Her reasons are unspoken, and I don't feel like asking. It's time to go. I make sure she wraps up warm for the snowy day outside, and she does the same for me. I don't dare leave her to the ravages of the weather, or to the questionable mercies of whoever is chasing her. She means too much to me for that. So much that I'd leave my life and my family and my job in a moment for her.
I'm trying not to think too deeply about what I'm giving up by this. I'm sure I'll see them again, someday. I have siblings. I'm not leaving my parents entirely alone. I can get another job somewhere else, anywhere else – there is a perpetual shortage of teachers in every country I know, after all. Anna has money – she claims it was inherited, but I've never been sure of how true that was, and now I know why – and can support us for the time being.
I take the necessary documents out of the wall safe in our bedroom. I drop them on the kitchen table when we get downstairs – somewhere my mother will easily find them.
Lucky we never did get that cat.
She pauses at the door; it's full daylight now, but we won't look like people running from something. Not if we're together. We'll look normal – not like we're people being chased. Just a couple going out for a morning walk in the snow, which carries on falling softly onto the already-frozen ground. Or perhaps a weekend break over the holiday.
She takes my hand, holds it to her face. Drops her eyes.
"Helen," she whispers to me.
She nods, and smiles sadly. "It's been a long time since anyone called me by it."
"Do you want me to?"
"Not right now, love," she says, her mouth twisting into a little grimace. "Not while we're trying to stay under their radar. But -- later?"
My response is simply to kiss her.
We step out into the icy morning, and she locks the door behind us.
We can outrun them. We walk down the street, trying to keep our feet on the slippery ground. Not the best time to run. Is there ever a good time? Perhaps where we're going will be warmer. It feels rather like an adventure, though a dangerous one. She hasn't told me where we're headed, yet; she probably won't, until we get there. I'm okay with not knowing. I'm just grateful she's let me come with her; I know she could have stopped me. She'd probably have had to knock me out to do it, but she probably could have done that. I'm grateful to be with her.
So long as we're together, nothing else matters.
Least of all her past.