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The Burdens of Love

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“Henry, this form is eleven pages long,” Abigail whispered.

“Safe word,” Henry mused.  “Hm.  ‘Cantaloupe.’”

“Cantaloupe?”

“I detest it,” Henry said, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world.

She leaned over and looked at his clipboard in his lap.  Predictably, he was on the second to last page while she was still slogging her way through the fifth.  

He had a very detailed and accurate measurement of what kind of pain he was willing and capable of accepting, and where.  Abigail, with far less experience of mortal and non-mortal wounds, wasn’t as confident with her answers.

He signed the last page with his a perfectly scribed flourish, then capped his pen and tucked it into his breast pocket.  He kissed her on the cheek.

“Thank you for doing this, Abigail.  Though unconventional, her methodology is therapeutic.  If I have a better understanding of her procedures, I’ll not make this mistake again.”

“Henry,” she said, unable to contain her eye-roll.  “You’re allowed to be wrong.  Even with two centuries of experience you’re bound to learn a few things now and again.”

“I should have recognized electrocution.  It was a foolish error, and I was blinded by the other markings on his body from his treatment.  If I have a better understanding of the boundaries and limitations of erotic electrocution and other physical domination techniques, I’ll be better prepared for next time.”

“‘Next time.’  As though sado-masochistally beaten and electrocuted bodies are de rigeur in the morgue,” Abigail said.

“You never know.”

“If you wanted to be erotically electrocuted, darling, you only had to ask.”

Henry laughed and winked at her.

“All in the pursuit of professional development.”

Henry’s burning curiosity over the domination therapist had been an ongoing theme in their conversations all week.  Friday was Abigail’s day off, and though Henry was normally at work just as Abe was at school, this morning he’d popped his head in the bathroom door as Abigail was drying her hair, a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

“How would you feel about couples’ therapy?”

“I wasn’t aware we were in need of couples therapy,” she’d replied, but she’d already known from the moment she saw his impish reflected grin in the bathroom mirror that she’d go along with whatever his hare-brained scheme was this time.

Henry and his projects; since starting at the morgue a year ago, despite his resolve not to care about the human side of his cases, he’d gotten sucked into the investigative end.  Jo Martinez, the detective he worked with, had become a good partner and a fast friend, and more often than not Henry came home glowing with some mystery they’d pursued, and questions he was desperate to answer to solve the case.

Abigail let him talk her into experimental poison injection, ferried him to a bridge in the middle of the night to pursue evidence—and oh, her irritation when he’d gotten himself hit by a car—and come to pick him up from the police station when he’d gotten himself arrested for purchasing heroin ‘for research.’

And now, here they were at a domination therapist, with Henry making the excuse of pursuing couples’ therapy as his way in.  Apparently the therapist, one Mistress Iona Payne, had mistaken Jo and Henry for a couple upon their first visit, giving Henry the idea.  Henry’s curiosity, once piqued, was not easily dismissed.

“Mr. And Mrs. Morgan?”

Iona Payne was slim and blonde, dressed to perfection in a simple back wrap dress, her hair and makeup effortlessly glamourous to a level that Abigail only reached with several hours of devoted effort with the curling iron and an arsenal of beauty products.  She had confidence that radiated from her like a gravitational force, a natural and grounded centre to her that made Abigail feel immediately like a child guilty of some crime.

They stood to greet her, and Henry put a hand to Abigail’s back, standing tall and strong at her side.  Abigail fixed a polite smile in place.  

God only knew what Henry had gotten them into this time.  To think, she’d had to practically drag him into the art museum that time ten years ago when they’d crashed a donor’s party.  Henry was terribly fun when he did allow himself to be impulsive, but more often than not it was her giving him a kick in the seat to get him over his ingrained caution.

Abigail was sure this odd adventure was to be just as memorable.  The art gallery adventure had led to him on one knee proposing.  Maybe this would lead them somewhere interesting, too.

“I stand corrected—Doctor and Mrs. Morgan.”  Iona raised an eyebrow at Henry, and then her gaze slid to Abigail, scanning her up and down.

“Doctor and Doctor,” Henry supplied cheerfully.  “Abigail is a doctor at the hospital.”

“Yes, thank you, Henry,” Abigail said, putting a hand on his arm.  Now was not the time for his cheekiness.

“Doctor power couple.”  Something about Iona’s smug, amused air reminded her of Henry when he was at his most annoyingly superior.  “Please, come in.”  She stood aside and gestured towards her office.

I hope you know what you’re doing, Henry, Abigail thought.

Though his extended lifetime had not brought him the gift of telepathy, they knew each other well enough that he easily interpreted her expression.  He leaned close and kissed her on the temple.

“Thank you again, Abigail.”

Abigail braced herself, but the office inside was the simple, tasteful comfort she’d expect from any therapist who charged a pretty penny for their services.  Comfortable couches, a beautiful large desk, silver throw pillows threaded with gold.  In the corner an ornate stand with a number of different clothing options hanging from it, and to her right, a floor to ceiling heavy red curtain.  The eleven page questionnaire and release form she’d signed regarding her preferences, tolerances, interests, and therapeutic concerns, had more than excited the imagination as to what lay behind the curtain, but there was no sign of it so far.

“I’m surprised to see you again, Dr. Morgan.  Did you have further questions?”  Iona pulled a comfortable shawl cardigan from the umbrella stand and slipped it on.  It was a light brown and hung to nearly the hem of her black dress, and softened her intimidating elegance.

“Here in a research capacity this time, Miss Payne.  Given that my lack of knowledge resulted in a critical misdiagnosis, we thought it would be educational to consult you—as an expert in your field.”

“So,” Iona said, focusing on Abigail as she collected their paperwork.  “I see your husband is quite enthusiastic to be here, professional interest and all, but here you both are in a couples therapy session.  Why did you come?”

Henry had stressed the point that understanding physical domination was useful knowledge for his work again and again, but… Well, the man protested a little too much to pass it off so easily.  She’d had far too much fun teasing him for his sudden interest, but Henry never took the bait, only laughing good naturedly and continued to ramble on about tissue striation and the effects of controlled strangulation on muscle strength.

If she were very honest with herself, she was curious about the excited edge this had awoken in Henry.  For a man with such deep feelings who could be incredibly affectionate and demonstrative, he kept a tight rein on himself a great deal of the time.  He indulged himself, he enjoyed himself, but he rarely abandoned himself, or let himself run.  Something in this had tweaked his imagination, and she was desperately curious to find out what exactly it was.

Facing Iona in all her powerful, gorgeous glory, Abigail suspected she knew.  Good thing she wasn’t the jealous type.

“Henry’s description of your skillset was interesting,” she said with a polite smile.  

“And you’re here for a demonstration, is that it?”  Iona folded her arms as she smiled at them both.  “Forgive me for making assumptions, but most of the couples I see are less harmonious than the two of you appear.  Of course, looks aren’t everything.  We all hide many things—some of us beneath layers of sweet talk and manners.”  

She shot Henry a particularly keen gaze with that statement, and Abigail had to cough to cover the laugh that threatened to escape.  Henry let out a self-deprecating chuckle, but Iona’s statement had hit the mark, taking some of the shine off his confidence.

“Have a seat.”

They sat next to each other on the couch, and though Abigail wasn’t nervous, per se, she and Henry sat close enough that their thighs were touching, and Henry automatically put an arm around her.  There was a mild tension in his body, at odds with his calm façade.

Iona sat in the armchair opposite them and folded her hands on her lap.

“You understand what I do here?  Domination therapy uses physical stimulation to help unlock the emotional issues people are unable to access in conventional therapy.”

“Yes, we understand,” Henry said with a deferential nod of his head.

“Hm.”

Iona propped her chin on her fist, silent as she contemplated them, then she took a sharp breath and smiled brightly.  She kicked off her high heeled shoes and tucked her feet up under her, settling into her chair as though they were old friends having drinks after dinner in their living room.

“So, how long have you two been together?”

“Thirteen years,” Henry supplied, his arm tightening around Abigail as he smiled broadly.

Iona’s eyes darted between them again, her smile deceptive and soft.

“Young love.  Aren’t you sweet.”

Henry’s submerged laughter was a gentle thrum she could feel rumbling in his chest.  While she might have qualified as young at twenty-three when they’d met, Henry, at the spry age of two hundred and fifteen, did not.

“We’ve been most lucky,” Henry said, and turned his head to grin at her.  “Haven’t we, darling?”

“Henry—may I call you Henry?”  Iona lowered her feet to the floor.  She leaned forward so her elbows rested on her knees and clasped her hands together.

“Yes, of course.”

“Are you here for the full experience, or do you want to only discuss my techniques?”

Henry glanced at Abigail.  What she saw there—she almost held her breath.  A flash of honesty, running the fine line between excitement and fear.  He’d talked all week with clinical detachment even as his body nearly vibrated with tension, trying to pass it off as academic passion for the novel.  This was so much more than that; this meant something to him he hadn’t confessed to Abigail—or possibly, himself.

Abigail took his hand in hers and squeezed it with a smile.  Henry so rarely found new things in life; she wouldn’t deny him this.

Besides, she was so very curious to see where this would go.

Henry blinked a few times before he looked back to Iona, his sanguine confidence reasserting itself.

“Yes, of course.  I’d be most obliged if you’d treat us as you would any clients.”

“Very well.  Henry, be quiet.  Don’t speak until I say you may.  If you can’t be quiet, I will gag you.”

It was so conversational, so off-hand, that it took both Abigail and Henry a moment to comprehend what Iona had said.  Henry’s mouth opened slightly in wrong-footed bemusement.  It was so delightful to see Henry caught out that Abigail had to duck her head to hide her giggle.  Henry gave her a look of mock betrayal, but she had no sympathy—leave it to him to get into trouble within two minutes of speaking with a professional dominatrix.

“Why, yes, I do believe I will enjoy this experience,” Abigail said to him quietly, bumping her shoulder into his.

Henry pressed his lips together with an exaggerated sigh.  He pulled his arm from around Abigail and lacing his fingers together in his lap, making a very obvious show of being quiet.  Silence was not Henry’s natural state, and Iona had pegged him quite well if she’d decided on this as his punishment.

“Now, Abigail.  What do you think about my work?  What is your opinion as a doctor?”  Iona’s smile hadn’t altered, but there was a sparkle of good humour in her eye.

“Other than my few rotations through psychiatric during my residency, I have little experience with various therapeutic practices.  I can see the potential benefits of exciting a cathartic response via painful stimulation, but as for the long-term success…”  Abigail shrugged.  She didn’t want to insult Iona, but it was hard to know whether or not trauma could successfully be treated in this way.

Iona scooted forward on her chair.

“Ah, but pain is only one aspect of it.  If you left it there, it would be empty action without meaning.  The psychological plays a far bigger part than most people realize.”

Henry, unable to keep himself from interjecting, cleared his throat and leaned forward.

“Yes, I am most curious about the aspects of…er…”

He trailed off when Iona slowly turned her head to stare at him.  She bore the blank reproach of a forbidding matron who’d heard a young child speak out of turn at the formal dinner table.  Without taking her eyes off Henry, she stood from the chair with flowing grace.

“Abigail, excuse me a moment.”

Iona went to her desk and pulled out a roll of fat white surgical tape from the top drawer.  Her stockinged feet were silent against the carpet as she glided across the room towards them.  She stopped in front of Henry, who was eyeing the tape with trepidation.

She held the tape out towards Abigail.

“Gag him, please.”

The roll of tape hovered before her nose, and when Iona didn’t so much as blink, Abigail took it.  It was heavy in her hand, and she wasn’t sure if she should laugh at this as joke, or if she was serious.  She looked up at Iona, expecting the same stern blankness she’d given Henry, but there was no judgment, no disapproval at Abigail’s hesitation.  She was all patient attention.  Kind, even.  A respectful request, not an order.

She’d deposited the power in Abigail’s hands and left her to make her decision.  

Henry was watching Abigail, his mouth very firmly closed.

“This was your idea,” she reminded him, the question of whether or not she should do this hidden in the statement.

The corner of his mouth quirked up as though to say, “so it was,” but he didn’t say anything.

When in Rome…

Abigail ripped a strip free and pressed it over Henry’s mouth.  With two swipes of her hands she secured it to his skin, stopping to pat his cheek before she handed the tape roll back to Iona.

“There.  Much better.”  Iona gave Abigail a warm and empathetic smile as she took the roll.  “You must have the patience of a saint.”

“More like years of experience,” she joked lightly.

Iona hummed an amused laugh and sauntered away from them to settle in her chair.  

Henry’s breath huffed noisily from his nostrils.  He did not like being unable to get the last word. Henry blinked lazily towards Iona, then settled his hands in his lap once more, apparently resigned to his fate. Abigail giggled again, unable to help herself.  The entire situation was ridiculous, and Iona’s playful sense of humour was disarming, her inclusive laughter an invitation into her sphere.

“Thirteen years is a long time.  How did you meet?”  Iona asked.

Abigail set her hand on Henry’s to gauge his mood, and his answering grip was reassuringly steady.  Whatever this silly game they were playing, he was taking it with good humour.

“We worked together.”   

It was a short answer to a very complicated series of events, from their meeting at the emergency room, to Abe’s adoption, through to the shooting where Henry had disappeared beneath her hands.

“Do you still work together?”

Henry’s hand tightened around hers, and she squeezed back.  The subject was still tender.  The man that had died two years ago when Henry was shot with him, as Henry fled to protect his secret… Henry had not been able to reconcile the act with his Hippocratic Oath and had left his position as a general practitioner, despite Abigail’s reassurances and objections.

He’d shifted his attention to pathology, and his obsession with death had become something of a difficult point between them.  She came up with a much more palatable lie to offer Iona.

“No, we do not.  My emergency room work is unpredictable, and so Henry took a regular hours position with the County medical examiner’s office.  It makes childcare much simpler.”

“You have a child?”

Henry uncrossed his legs and sat up straighter.  The conversation had strayed too far into personal territory for his tastes.  Abigail, too, was feeling the uncomfortable brightness of light shed on the life they lived.  Confidences were very carefully doled out in their lives.

“Yes, Abraham.  He’ll be thirteen this summer.”

Henry couldn’t keep still any longer, fidgeting in his seat and squeezing her hand again.  Abigail wasn’t surprised that Iona had found the limit of what he could quietly bear—whenever Abe came up, Henry was fiercely protective.  He didn’t hide the fact that he was married and had a child, and Abe lived a full and happy life with friends at school and various after-school activities, but they tried to keep their family and professional connections limited should they ever need to leave quickly.

“And how long have you lived in New York?”

It was a simple question, but answer with the honest ‘year and a half,’ and she opened the door to the follow-up of where they moved from, and for the life of her she couldn’t remember what story Henry had told at his job.  A sudden blip of memory, very poorly timed. They’d agreed on Cincinnati as part of their story, but he’d been caught off-guard one day and answered instead with….  What was it?  Amsterdam?  Copenhagen?  Something in Northern Europe.  The answers had to match, given that Iona had tangential connections with his work, and with Henry gagged, the answer fell on her shoulders.

She wasn’t a bad liar—she’d gotten a lot better at it since knowing Henry—but she’d also learned that even the smallest stumbles could give a lot away, especially to an observant party.  From the shift in Iona’s body language Abigail knew she’d already stumbled.

Nothing to do but persevere.  She smiled with as much charming warmth as she could manage.

“Almost two years, though it feels like longer.”

Abigail braced herself for the next question, scrambling through her memory for what Henry had told his colleagues, for the half-forgotten conversation over dinner where he’d updated her, and doing her damnedest not to look as uncertain as she felt.  Henry’s thumb rubbed over the back of her hand, and she relaxed her grip.

Instead of the expected response, Iona only nodded slowly.  The room was silent for the beat of a few second, emphasizing the sound of Henry’s breathing, just a little faster than normal, rushing through his nostrils.  Were his mouth not taped shut, his state of alertness wouldn’t have been so obvious, but now it was like a red flag for anyone who was listening.

Iona slipped her feet into her shoes and stood.  She walked towards them and stopped before them, hands clasped in front of her like she was giving a presentation.

“The point of my therapy is to take emotional burdens that are too large to deal with and turn them into something manageable.  We can forgive ourselves for hurting when its our bodies, let ourselves feel it and confront it.  For some, that’s the only way they can find relief.”  Iona looked to Abigail.  “Would you please remove Henry’s gag?”

Abigail wasted no time peeling the tape from Henry’s mouth, grateful to have his backup once more.  He grimaced as it tugged at his groomed facial hair, but not enough to indicate it really hurt.  She balled up the tape in her hand, expecting Henry’s usual prattle to cover her lapse, but he was oddly cowed, at a loss for words.

Iona held out her hand expectantly, and Abigail deposited the wadded up ball of surgical tape in her palm.

“The two of you carry a lot on your shoulders.”

Neither she nor Henry said anything. The balance of the conversation had tipped, and whatever power Abigail had held had ebbed away.  It was dizzying, these sudden twists and turns.

Henry finally cleared his throat to speak.

“We’re fine, Miss Payne.  It was your expansive expertise in the subject at hand that brought us here.”

“You’re a flatterer, aren’t you,” she said with a hint of laughter in her voice.  She gestured towards the thick red curtain to the side of the room.  “I could offer you a more practical demonstration, if you like?”

Henry’s mouth sagging open, eyes darting to the curtain.

Sometimes Henry got lost into the storm of thoughts and memories that rattled around in his overfull head, and whatever her offer had stirred up, it sucked him in, leaving him frozen, like he’d briefly overloaded and had to reset.  It look several long seconds for him to resurface and remember himself, and when he did, he swallowed heavily and looked to Abigail.

“I, ah…”

He wanted to say yes.  He was looking for her permission.

She’d humoured him in this to begin with, but she hadn’t expected Henry’s odd, hypnotic excitement.

Nor had she expected the tug that compelled her to stay, despite the uncertainty.  Not just for Henry, but for herself.

“You can leave at any time,” Iona said, with a reassuring tone that told them she knew what silent conversation had passed between them.  “I won’t hurt you.  Unless you want me to, of course.”

There was a hint of challenge in that smug jibe, enough to prick Abigail’s stubborn pride.  Abigail never could turn down a dare.

“Yes, well…”  Henry eyed the curtains again, then Abigail.

So like Henry to bring himself to the brink of something and hesitate, unwilling to take the last step and plunge in.  Always his caution, his fear, leading him to thwart his own desires and retreat.

Abigail stood and tugged Henry’s hand until he stood with her.  She turned to face Iona squarely with Henry at her back.  His hand settled on her waist.

“We’d be most interested in a demonstration,” Abigail said.  “Thank you.”

Iona’s nod was brisk and business-like, and she pulled aside the curtain.

What met them was everything Abigail had pictured upon coming into the office—leather, chains, rope, instruments that looked better suited for torture than treatment.  However, she marched forward to follow Iona into the darkened space with Henry trailing behind her.

Iona hooked her fingers into two sets of handcuffs that dangled from a bar above her. Henry stopped and hovered a few feet back.  Iona raised an eyebrow at Abigail, leaning close enough that she could smell the sweet floral scent of Iona’s hair.

“I think we’re going to have go get him,” she said in a mock whisper.  Her smile was that of shared confidences, of conversations had late into the night, of inside jokes and special connections.  She tilted her head to look past Abigail.  “Come on, Henry.”

Iona let go of the cuffs and spun Abigail around towards Henry, and then she went to bring Henry over so that Abigail and he were facing each other with the bar above their heads.  Iona hooked her fingers into the collar of Henry’s jacket and deftly slid it off his arms, then cast the jacket onto a side table along with her own cardigan.  She returned, once again forbiddingly elegant in the simple black dress.

“Here, like this,” Iona said softly to Abigail.

She guided Henry’s hand up and closed the handcuff around his wrist, ratcheting it shut.  Henry jumped at the noise, with a hissed intake of breath.  Iona paused, eyebrows drawing  together.  She slid a sidelong glance at Abigail, then placed a hand on Henry’s back.

“Are you alright?  Not too tight?”

“No, I’m fine,” he said, but his voice was tense, his gaze fixed somewhere past Abigail’s shoulder.

He had told Abigail of arrests, of long-term imprisonment, of days when medical treatment involved heavy metal chains on hands and feet.  Abigail placed her hand over his heart, a mirror image to where Iona had hers on his back.  Henry’s fixed gaze focused on her, and he relaxed slightly.

“We can stop any time,” Iona said.

“Please continue,” Henry said formally.  He shuffled his feet and rolled his shoulders, then nodded.

“Very well.  Abigail?”

At Iona’s prompting, Abigail guided Henry’s other hand up.  She had to stand on her toes to secure him, but this time Henry didn’t flinch when the cuff closed.  Once secured, Henry tugged to test his bonds and set the handcuffs rattling on the bar.  Henry favoured her with a wry smile, but there was a nervous sheen of sweat on his brow.

Iona stepped away from them, and a loud rattle of chains yanked the bar up a foot, bringing Henry’s hands above his head.  The goggling look of surprise was nearly comical.  Abigail went on her toes once more and kissed him on the nose, smoothing her hands over his waistcoat and then tugging it down into place.  That coaxed a more honest smile from him, and he caught her for a quick peck on the lips before she went back flat on her feet.

“I’m fine, darling.  Merely a new experience.”  Then Henry’s gaze darted past her and he paused, eyes widening slightly.  “Oh.”

“You put a lot of energy into protecting him, don’t you?”

Iona’s voice was close behind her, and there was the scent of her shampoo again.  She turned, and sure enough, she was nose to nose with Iona.  Wide, warm brown eyes, soft blonde hair, easy and confident, with smooth bare shoulders, and… and so much more.  Despite herself, Abigail’s eyes travelled down over the tight-laced bodice and black leather corset that displayed Iona’s lithe body to perfection.

“My work outfit,” she said with a smile.  “I’ve got another, if you like.  I think you’re about my size.”

“I…um.”  Abigail was at a loss for words.   Iona was stunning.

Iona took Abigail’s shoulders and turned her towards Henry again, this time setting a hand on her hip—the same spot Henry had set his.  She was close enough that Abigail fancied she could feel the heat of her body against her back, and she swallowed as she looked up at Henry.

Henry’s mouth was hanging open as he stared, either baffled, amused, or highly aroused.  Possibly all three.

“Henry, does Abigail protect you?”

“We protect each other,” Abigail said, her heartbeat thrumming so hard it made her voice shake.

“Shh, I asked Henry.”  Iona’s words purred in her ear, her breath a caress against her skin.  Abigail shivered.  “You two speak for each other a lot, don’t you?”

“We support and protect each other, as any good spouse should do,” Henry said.  “That’s how it works when you love someone.”

“No matter how much two people love each other, secrets can create rifts.”

“Henry and I don’t have any secrets from each other,” Abigail said.  Iona’s hand was burning hot through her blouse, and when she shifted her body brushed against Abigail’s back.  Between that and Henry’s blunt look of desire, Abigail was finding it hard to concentrate.  Another rapid shift, jerking her in another direction.  How did this woman do it?

“I didn’t mean from each other.  Hiding secrets for each other can be just as destructive.  Isolating.  Just the two of you against the world, as though nothing else is real.  An island unto yourselves.  That can be exhausting.”

As Henry absorbed her words, his face fell, open and vulnerable.  His self-imposed guilt was never far from the surface, and the comment had blindsided him.  His thoughts were so obvious they might as well have been screams—all the sentiments he’s spilled in tearful, regretful moments over the years yanked into the light; the burdens his immortality had placed on Abigail and Abe, how he made their life a challenge it needn’t be.  She’d kissed away every worry as best she could, but his fear and paranoia ran so deep she feared he’d never fully heal.

She only had the meagre span of her own lifetime to make a difference in his.  God knew he and Abe had become the centre of her own life, and she’d fight to make every moment they had together the best it could be.

Henry’s gaze dropped to the ground at his feet, and smouldering flame leapt to life in Abigail’s chest.  She turned around in Iona’s arms, sharp words queueing on her tongue, ready to drive back the smug, invasive attack.

But Iona was not smug.  Her eyes were wide with concern, mouth drawn in the smallest frown.  Abigail’s fury faltered without a proper target.  She blinked and sputtered wordlessly.

“Someone hurt him, didn’t they?” Iona murmured.  “And you’re ready to take on the whole world to keep it from ever happening again.”  She placed her hand against Abigail’s cheek, her palm smooth and soft as she stroked.  “That’s so much to carry alone.  Let me help ease that burden.”

“It’s not a burden.”

Her life with Henry was a choice she made every day, and every day the answer was the same—she’d be with him as long as there was life in her body, and even then she would beat back the inevitable to steal more time with him if she could.  No, Henry would never be a burden, could never be, no matter how many unique challenges his immortality evoked.  She willed Iona to understand, wanted her to understand, how very worth it Henry was.

For one thrilling, frightening moment, she thought Iona might kiss her.  The way her eyes lingered on Abigail’s mouth, the tilt of her head, the soft brush of her thumb over her cheek.  Abigail couldn’t breathe, caught between the magnetic desire to step into Iona’s embrace, and the hyper-awareness of Henry’s sharp breath behind her, just one step back, hands restrained or she knew he’d reach for her.  Abigail was caught between these twin forces of nature, and she didn’t know which direction to move.

“You’re a lucky man, Henry,” Iona said, her gaze shifting to look at Henry past Abigail.

“I know.”  He was quiet, sure.  “Believe me, I know.”

With firm and gentle guidance, Iona spun Abigail back around towards Henry. Abigail was dizzy with flip-flopping between Iona’s commanding attention and Henry’s splayed-open vulnerability.  Iona cuddled close against her back this time, hooked her chin over Abigail’s shoulder and wrapped her in an embrace.  Abigail was nearly against Henry’s chest, caught between the two of them.

She blushed when she looked up at Henry.  It must be so transparent; the way her stomach was knotting up, the thrill of Iona’s bare arms wrapped loose around her waist and stomach, Iona’s hair tickling at her neck and cheek and chin resting lightly on her collarbone, the stiff corset as unforgiving as her breasts were pliant against Abigail’s back.

“Go on, touch the poor thing.”  Iona’s words caressed her ear.  “He needs it.”

Abigail’s cheeks burned, but she did as Iona told her, laying her hands on Henry’s chest.  The corner of Henry’s mouth quirked up.  He licked his bottom lip slowly, his heavy-lidded eyes the ones she saw before a deep, slow kiss, the ones that burst her heart with how much love he was capable of, the ones that made her remember that she would die to keep Henry safe if that's what it took.  God, she was close to tears, and she didn’t know how that had happened.  She spread her fingers and slid her hands beneath the open vee of Henry’s waistcoat, the warmth of his body seeping through his dress shirt into her skin.

“Good girl,” Iona hummed, and she released Abigail to push her forward slowly until she was against Henry.

With an explosive release of breath, Abigail wound her arms around his torso and laid her head on his chest, holding him tight.  

“I love you, Henry.”  She whispered the words into his chest, as though she could drive the sentiment directly into his heart.

His breath caught and the handcuffs rattled—he’d moved to put his arms around her, but couldn’t, and he made a small, faint whine of protest.  He was forced to receive the love he deserved without any recourse but to passively accept it.  He kissed the top of her head and nuzzled her hair in lieu of an answering hug, and Iona rubbed the centre of her back between her shoulder blades lightly, brief and obvious approval.

Abigail closed her eyes and breathed in his familiar cologne.  It mingled with Iona’s lighter scent and filled her head, soothing her sharp, jittering excitement.  The three of them were in a moment of balance, with Iona delicately orchestrating their dance and staggering her and Henry in turns.  Iona caught them after every stumble, righting them and bringing them together again.

“Now,” Iona said, and there was a sparkle in her voice again.  “Abigail, how would you like to learn how to electrocute someone?  For educational purposes, of course.”