It's Christmas and Mary is watching Francis die.
It's Christmas and the candles are burning low and Mary is watching Francis die.
He tosses and turns fretfully in his fevered sleep, and she is sitting by his bed, not touching him, not making a sound. It was an infection, the physicians say, an infection in his ear, and it's spreading to his blood and his head. His face is pale and his skin clammy, and occasionally words escape, but it's like the infection is a world she doesn't live in, and his words are in a language she doesn't understand.
She doesn't understand much these days.
It's Christmas day and the castle is filled with candles, the grounds are filled with snow, and the air is filled with a chill that seeps deep into Mary's bones. She is so tired. Outside, the sky is dark with the promise of a new dawn.
It's the first time she's seen Francis up close in so long, and his ragged breathing feels painfully intimate. She wants to run away. But his eyes are closed, and she is the only one in this moment. It gives her courage. She slides off her chair, gown rustling quietly as she sits back down on the edge of his bed.
His face is lined and his brow furrowed. He looks so much older than she remembers. She feels so much older than she remembers.
She touches his hand and starts to cry.
There's no way he can make it, the physicians all tell her gravely, but she's can't listen. There's so much left for them. They have a kingdom to rule, unborn children to raise, a life to live together. She needs him because she tried doing this without him, tried pulling the pieces of her life together, and there were too many sharp edges left when she was done. She needs him because she could do this without him, but she doesn't want to.
It's taken a while for her to realise this, and now he's going to die before she can tell him.
If he can just pull through the night, she thinks, everything will be alright. She'll be able to tell him that she loves him, that she never really stopped, but everything just hurt so much that it was easier to stop, and somehow everything will be alright again.
What she forgets is that it doesn't work like that.
"Come back," she whispers, leaning over him, smoothing his sweat-damp hair, trailing her hand down his hot cheek. "Come back to me." She presses her lips to his impulsively, and if she closes her eyes, she can just imagine that she can feel a reciprocal pressure from him.
It's Christmas, and Mary's not ready to be a widow.
She doesn't mean to lie down, doesn't mean to cease her bedside vigil, but she's so tired, and it's so cold, and she's missed him so much, and somehow she finds herself curling her body into the curve of his. She falls asleep then, and it's been a while since her sleep hasn't been plagued by nightmares.
His fever breaks and he pulls through the night.
She wakes to him shifting in their bed, and startles like a bird. Her name is on his lips, but she can't bring herself to respond. Not yet. She is out of the bed before she knows what she is doing. The floor is cold and she pauses for a moment.
"Mary," Francis breathes. She looks at him. His eyes are still closed. Reaching out, she gives his hand a quick squeeze, then releases it.
She doesn't say I love you, but she means it.
The snow is cold and wet on her skin, and Mary pulls her furs closer around her. Her footsteps crunch in the chilly silence. Her breath mists in front of her face. The weak sun flickers through the clouds, melting the snow on the tops of the trees. The castle looms before her, a monstrous beast, ready to swallow her whole, and she lets it.
The corridors are darkened, and she can hear distant echoes of laughter and merriment from the Christmas feast, but she can't tell if they're echoes or memories. She feels more like a ghost than ever. Longing for a friend, for Aylee, for Clarissa even, rises deep in her throat and chokes her.
She hurries past her guards and into her chamber, and suddenly Francis is standing in front of her. He is pale and swaddled in furs, but he's standing there, and she – well, she didn't expect this.
"You should be resting," she says. Her gaze slides off him, and onto anything in the room she can find. Colour is rising to her face, and she is angry, but she doesn't know why. "You shouldn't be here."
"I had the strangest dream," he says hoarsely.
She says nothing. Her hands keep winding and unwinding the wrap that falls over her shoulders, working of their own accord. Her feet are carrying her past Francis and to the window just behind him. She can see the forest and the path she trekked not half an hour ago. Her footsteps are obscured by a heavy fall of snow, bitterly ephemeral.
"Mary," he says, and her breath catches. She turns to face him. He approaches slowly and carefully and she feels like the wounded animal he is hunting. Reaching out a hand, he hovers, waiting for her permission. Her brusque nod feels like relief. "Where were you going?" he asks, and his touch is so soft and tender she feels herself breaking.
"Home," she sobs. "I just want to go home."
His heart is breaking as he gathers her in his arms, but maybe it feels a little like coming home.
It's not a happy Christmas by any means, but they'll try their best.