It was so close to freedom. Salvation within reach.
"I'm so sorry," Mary said over and over again as she wept into his chest, clutching him for support.
Francis held her close but loosely. "It's alright," he murmured into her ear. "We'll figure something out. I can ask Conde to stay here as a member of my privy council."
Mary sniffed, confused by the suggestion. "What? Why?"
"I only want you to be happy, Mary. So if he makes you happy, then..."
Mary raised her head to see his stoic expression masking his hurt. "No, Francis, I-"
"Please," he interrupted. "Let me say this: I understand. I do. You blame me for what happened, as I blame myself. I hold no resentment, no judgment. The heart wants what the heart wants. Just know that mine will always belong to you...even if you've given yours to someone new."
"Francis, stop." She closed her eyes. His being wonderful only made the love and remorse more excruciating. "I haven't. My heart is where it's always been. I'm not in love with Conde."
His brow furrowed. "You're not?"
"No. As I explained to him last night, comfortable companionship isn't love, and neither is one-sided devotion. I didn't recognize it at the time, but I had taken advantage of Conde's feelings for me and used him to indulge my whims." She looked down, still feeling awful for unknowingly manipulating and hurting Conde. "I apologized to him, but I don't think we'll be seeing him at French Court again soon, if ever."
"And you're not heartbroken that you may never see him again?" asked Francis uncertainly.
She shook her head. "Only sad to lose a good friend who was there in my time of need. More so because I regret the way I mishandled our friendship."
Francis let out a short breath, and some of the tension left his posture. "Then why run away with him, if you didn't really love him?"
She shrugged ruefully. "For a brief moment, I thought I did. But now I realize I was just looking for a way to fill the hole in my heart." She gave a heavy sigh. It was time to give Francis an explanation. But would he forgive her? She gestured to the window seat, and they settled onto the cushioned bench.
"Do you remember how happy we were on our wedding day?" she asked, and they shared a wistful smile at the memory. But it soon faded as she said, "It feels like such a long time ago. The past few months, our life has become one tragedy after another. First with the loss of our child..." She placed her hand on her stomach, taking a second to wipe away fresh tears, and cleared her throat. "Then the strain on our marriage caused by Narcisse's blackmail, and finally the castle attack..."
"I'm so sorry, Mary." Francis said desperately, torment marring his face.
"No, I'm not blaming you, Francis," she said quickly. "Not anymore. But after it happened, I did. In my mind, it marked the end of us. Being with you was so painful, because I thought we could never again have the happiness we once shared. I couldn't be the girl you loved." Francis started to protest, but she raised a hand to let her finish. "Since that night, I've been lost in a haze of sadness. And it seemed the only thing that could take me out of it was Conde." Francis looked down in disappointment. She pressed on. "But it was only temporary, a crutch, not the cure. Here was this man, who never knew me as you did, but who loved me unconditionally, even as the damaged woman I'd become. There was no past to compare to or wallow in, no expectations. Just a new life with a caring, good man, someone like you, Francis. Only instead of the heartache I felt whenever I saw you, it was a respite from it, an easy escape. When I was with him, it felt like going back to the beginning of our story, Francis. The times when we only felt the highs, before the lows came. I realize now he was a kind of replacement for you. But you're irreplaceable to me." She leaned across and took his hand, comforted by the familiar warmth as he gently squeezed back, and delighting in the light that shone in his eyes.
"I thought leaving France, leaving you, meant standing on my own." Mary confessed. "I thought I was being strong and breaking free of everything that had been weighing me down, the politics, the pressure, the pain. But this castle was never my cage. My chains did not come from our marriage. I see this now. Because out there, I was just as trapped as ever, and I did not know how to get out. The shadows still lurked; the memories still haunted. The prison was within my mind, and the only way I would ever be free of it was if I stopped running and faced the darkness inside me."
Francis nodded, encouraging her to continue. She took a deep breath. "So I decided to come back. It took my leaving for me to understand that my place is here. My life, the one we built together, is here." She turned to look out the window at the castle grounds. "Oh God, Francis, I've been such a ridiculous fool. How could I have ever thought to leave the wonderful life I have and abandon everything I care about? Worst of all, I almost threw away our love, the most precious gift I've ever received." Her head bent down in humiliation. "I'm so ashamed, and infinitely sorry. I know I don't deserve it, but I beg for your forgiveness."
Slowly, Francis reached out to tip up her face. "There's nothing to forgive, Mary. You weren't yourself, and that's not your fault. You've been through so much these past months. I'm sorry I couldn't help you more."
"No, Francis, you were perfect, so patient and generous and understanding. This was just something I had to work through myself, to get to this point. I just wish I could have made these revelations without hurting you."
He shook his head. "If anyone should ask for forgiveness, it's me. Mary, I can't tell you how sorry I am that you had to pay for my sins. None of this would have happened if I hadn't killed my father and-"
"And if it weren't for my uncle poisoning Henry, you wouldn't have had to for the sake of France and your family. If I hadn't condemned Narcisse's son to death during the plague outbreak, you wouldn't have been targeted for blackmail in the first place. Lord Castleroy would have never accidentally funded religious extremists had it not been for his conversion to Protestantism after his daughter had been killed by Narcisse's son. And around and around it goes. I've gone over it in my head countless times, trying to find another person to hate, another reason to still be filled with such anger and sorrow. But only the monsters who attacked me are responsible for it, and they're dead. It's time I let go of that all-consuming grief and hatred."
"Still, I should have told you the truth about what I'd done and the blackmail."
Mary sighed. "Do I wish you had? Yes. Would it have changed anything? I don't know. We'll never know what might have gone different, but I do know that you were trying to protect me. Narcisse had enough evidence to accuse both of us of regicide, and you were afraid to involve or endanger me further. I said I would fight at your side, whatever the danger, even if it led to my death. You knew I meant it, because you know me better than anyone. You should have confided in me, but you trusted in my love for you, as I should have trusted in you."
"There are regrets on both sides." he said, then added wryly, "We're a sorry lot, aren't we?"
She gave a soft chuckle. "Yes, but it feels good to say it all out loud. And I'm done looking back. If I keep holding onto the sins of the past, there won't be room in my life for anything good in the future. And I want to focus on that future, with you."
Francis smiled and squeezed her hand again. "You don't know how relieved I am to hear that. But do you think you're ready to try again with me? I don't want to be another temporary solution. Are you sure that it's really me you want?"
"It is, I swear. Always." she said adamantly. She met his imploring gaze, willing him to feel her sincerity. "I love you, Francis. Now, more than ever. And I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that I can't get through this without you."
He cupped her cheek in his hand, and she leaned into it. "I love you, Mary. I promise to do everything within my power to help you, whatever you need, whatever you ask."
"Thank you," she whispered. She turned her head to kiss his palm then looked back at him. "I realize we can't simply pick up where we left off months ago. But I very much hope that with time and hard work, we can rebuild what we had."
"We can." Francis said confidently. "We'll trust and heal each other. We'll fight and rule side by side again. And someday, we'll find our way back to that perfect happiness together."
Mary glowed with a renewed sense of hope. "There's nothing I want more." Then she leaned her head to rest on Francis' shoulder, taking in his scent, listening to the sound of his steady breathing and beating heart, relishing the feel of his arms around her once again. Fear and sadness melted away, and for the first time in so long, she was at peace. It was only in her husband's embrace that Mary felt truly safe and whole and happy. She was home.
It was freedom. At long last.
AN: I hope I stayed true to the characters and treated the serious subject matter with proper respect. And I hope you enjoyed my version of 2x16. Please leave a review with any thoughts or suggestions. Thanks for reading!