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On the subject of need

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It was some days afterwards.

They were sitting opposite each other in front of the fire in the sitting room, she teaching herself to embroider (in order to prove that she could after Mrs Pearce expressed distinct doubt) and he ostensibly reading a text on Germanic dialects. They'd been here quite some while now in total silence and comfort, bathed in warm yellow light and content with each other's company.

Eliza found she could not leave it at that.

She locked her needle into her fabric and lay the sewing hoop aside. "Did you really fall to pieces without me?"

"Of course not, you silly girl, what ever are you..." He didn't look up from his book, but he could clearly see her dangerous expression of arch incredulity with his peripheral vision. Possible outcomes if he should persevere ran through his mind and across his face. He cleared his throat and shifted before saying, "Well I suppose I did rather, yes. If you must put it in such undignified terms."

She smiled. "You need me."

His lips pressed together and a tiny furrow appeared in his brow, but he gave no other reaction.

"Henry."

He did look up at that, clear blue eyes wide with surprise before slowly narrowing in calculation. He saw that she was not merely rubbing his nose in her victory, which he would not abide much more, but that she had some insidious ulterior motive. One did have to make concessions, however, he'd learned his lesson on that score. Eliza was to be told the truth even on the few occasions he'd rather she wasn't. "I do."

"I don't need you," she said directly, ignoring his wordless exclamation of protest. "I had to leave to know that. I had to be certain that I could never be lost again, that I could stand upon my own two feet and hang on no man's charity for my livelihood or my worth. Only when I knew I could build myself a life without you, could I allow myself to want you."

He was watching her now, his long fingers resting on his temple and his thumb curled beneath his chin. This was very near to uncharted territory and he couldn't decide whether he had the fortitude to keep from steering the conversation into more familiar waters. One was a confirmed bachelor all one's life and then suddenly expected to understand the female creature one kept such status strictly to avoid the necessity of understanding.

"Marry Freddy?" he said with pointed laissez faire.

Eliza did not look quite embarrassed, but she felt a little sheepish about the matter now. There had been no neat, logical reason for her determination to that end, no rhetoric she could spit back at her former teacher. "Freddy loves me."

"An idea of you, Eliza, an idea. That ridiculous boy never had the slightest inkling of what you were and even less of what you are. If he'd but known the mighty tigress who toyed with him between her paws! Claws tucked away, but oh-so-close to soft vulnerable flesh." He made claws with his fingers and swiped them at her, glee and mocking menace in his eyes. Sobering suddenly, he saw an opening he had ignored before as absurd. "Even if he did love you, where's the sense in that? You don't love him, and he'd hardly be much use."

"I thought it should be nice to be adored."

He tisked at her. "It had nothing whatever to do with me, of course."

"Why should it?"

He put his book aside and slid forward to the edge of his seat with an air of preparing a reasoned treatise on all that was clearly wrong with that assertion. Eliza leaned across the remaining gap between them and kissed him.

It wasn't much of a kiss. A quick, chaste press of her lips to his, but its effect was prodigious.

"Eliza!" he said, staring at her as if she had done something positively indecent.

"I wouldn't have married him to make you jealous, Henry." She knew that he knew that. He thought too much of her to accuse her of such base silly-girlishness, but there was the tiniest fleck of substance in the suspicion. "I just wanted you to know that I wasn't about to pine for you."

He choked on that and permitted himself a dark chuckle, "It was you who did the leaving, Eliza. I very much doubt I was under many illusions on the matter of your affections or lack thereof."

She rolled her eyes, muttering, "Almost as many as you are now."

"Enunciate."

"Did I not just kiss you?" Eliza's chin lifted imperiously as she gestured between them in exasperation

He folded his hands elegantly, a smirk tugging at his lip. "Perhaps. I can't remember. Remind me."