Authors note: My first attempt at Austen fan fiction, so be gentle ^^ I feel it is only fair to forewarn you hat it is quite long and Brandon- centric. It is set a couple of years after the end of Sense and Sensibility, after Brandon and Marianne are married.

Disclaimer: The characters belong to Jane Austen, or whoever it is that represents her nowadays.

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Marianne sits in the music room, playing at the pianoforte. Her hands are poised lightly over the ivory keys, eyes closed and mouth pulled into a pout of concentration. Sunlight, pale and silvery, streams in through the frosted windows, casting cold highlights in her hair. Slim fingers drift over the instrument, picking an idle tune from memory. Serene. Dreaming. Beautiful. My Marianne.

I stand leaning against the doorway, silent: so as not to make my presence known. I heard the music from my study and came down to watch. The familiarity suddenly strikes me. It is much as it was the first time we met, my Marianne and I. She: lost in her world of music, young and lovely - and myself: unseen and still wearing my riding boots. Sometimes it is as though nothing has changed. But it has. I need only glance down at the wedding ring I wear to know that it has.

She allows her hands to press down harder on the keys, the tune now deepening to low and somber notes. Mournful. She only plays like this when she thinks that I am not around to hear her. I know who it is that she plays for, and why. She mourns for him still. Not openly, of course, and never in front of me, but mourning nonetheless. He hardly seems to deserve this devotion.

Willoughby. Does she think of his name as she plays? Possibly - the idea has the romanticism that no doubt she would find poignant. I wonder, does she think of how it was then, in those heady summer days when they were together? Or does she imagine how it might have been, had things turned out differently? Certainly it is he who she is thinking of. And, strangely, this fact does not bother me as much as one would suppose. Oh there was a time, perhaps, when it would have...but that was a long time ago. I have come to accept it as part of our relationship.

Besides, how could I begrudge her dreams of Willoughby when my own thoughts lead me to Eliza so often? I think of Eliza no less now that I am married to Marianne. She haunts me still. I do not speak of it to anyone, of course...least of all my wife. It is a secret that I keep close to my heart - as she does her grief for Willoughby. I have no wish to dig up old ghosts. It serves no purpose.

Eliza.

She was like Marianne in so many ways. Same love for life, same strength of spirit. They even share a passion for the pianoforte. Eliza was perhaps not so talented in her music, but she did not allow that to stop her. That is how I see her when I remember: fingers, long and pale, playing at ivory keys. She would sometimes glance up at me as she played, lips pulling into smiling when she noticed me watching her. I believe my heart must have skipped a beat every time she turned those bewitching emerald eyes on me. I would have married her in an instant. I almost did, in fact. Then certain...complications...arose, which made that dream impossible.

My family had never approved of Eliza staying with us. She was too poor, too plain, too unaccomplished...they never saw her as I did. And when they discovered of our feelings for one another...

The callousness that they, with such calculated cruelty, could contrive to separate Eliza and I is something that I believe I have never truly recovered from. I was sent away to the West Indies with such speed that I hardly had time to think. But Eliza's final promise, that she would wait for me until I returned, kept me in hope. It was a promise, however, that she did not keep.

I had been away from England but half a year when my aunt wrote to me to inform me of Eliza's desertion.

The agony...the sheer impotent frustration at knowing what was happening but being powerless to influence the situation...it almost drove me to distraction. Had it not been for my dear friend Sir John, I fear I would have dome myself a harm. I knew then that Eliza was lost to me, though it would be many years before I ever allowed myself to acknowledge that fact. I never spoke to my family again.

Why do I think of this now? I frown and pull myself away from my thoughts. I cannot change what has happened, I cannot make better what went wrong. To torture myself with such memories can only bring unhappiness, grief, sorrow and guilt. Guilt. My constant companion these past twenty years. Ah yes, I am well acquainted with guilt.

I can't help but feel guilty now, to be thinking of Eliza when my Marianne is so close. Still, I allow myself this brief indulgence. Would Eliza have liked Marianne? Would she have approved? I like to imagine that they would have been friends, had they known one another. They were very alike.

The music stops suddenly. I look up. Marianne has taken her hands away from the piano, folding them neatly in her lap, the sound ebbing away into an empty silence. Her head bows, as though compelled by some heavy weight. A single ringlet slips over her shoulder to rest against her collar bone. She looks to be in such grief that I almost step out from my hiding place in a will to comfort her. I resist the urge. There is nothing that I can do to take away that pain. I can only watch.

Silently, I turn away from the music room and leave Marianne in peace.

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"Brandon, Brandon, Brandon. More wine?"

I smile and hold out my glass obligingly to Sir John. He reaches over, bottle in hand, and proceeds to fill it with ruby colored liquid, talking as he does so.

"Got this when I was in Town last, you see, and I've been waiting for an excuse to break it open. Fabulous little wine cellar down Cheapside. Do you know it? Absolutely wonderful place! Discovered it by chance a couple of years back when Mother and I went down for Sir Anthony Scott's wedding, now there's a story, let me tell you..."

I lean back in my armchair and let his words wash over me. I have nothing but love and respect for Sir John, but his conversation has the tendency to leave me exhausted. The affects of the meal and the warmth of the fire make me comfortable and fatigued, and I can't help but close my eyes briefly. A familiar tingling contentment spreads over my skin, a gathering darkness creeping at the edge of my consciousness. Its lure is tempting, almost irresistible...

"Not boring you am I, Brandon?"

My eyelids slide open and I find myself looking at Sir John. He raises a graying eyebrow at me, good-natured smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth. I know that he's not offended. Nothing ever offends John.

I offer him a tired smile. "Of course not, Sir John."

"You look a little weary, dear boy. I sincerely hope that Mrs Brandon is not exhausting you."

He collapses into a fit of hearty chuckles; cheeks flushed pink in a combination of drink and merriment. The joke did not escape me and I give a slight nod of acknowledgement. He always gets like this after a bottle or two.

"I thank you for your concern," I tell him quietly, "Marianne keeps me in good health, I assure you."

It takes him a minute or two to recover from his own joke. Even then, when he looks up at me, he is still grinning like a wild-cat. I notice that his wig leans drunkenly to one side across his head, exposing a tuft of silvery hair. "And why should she not, sir? A fine young girl like that! Why, I daresay you are the envy of half of London town!"

I'm starting to feel a little uncomfortable at the rout of which this conversation is taking. I don't like talking about Marianne like this...as though *that* were all that I was interested in when I asked her to marry me. I won't deny that I enjoy that aspect of our relationship...but at the same time I feel no particular need to broadcast that fact to the neighborhood.

He must have noticed the fact that I do not join in with his joviality, however, as he quickly drops the subject. Sir John, for all his faults, is a good friend. He knows where to draw the line.

He gives me a tired smile and shrugs his shoulders apologetically. "Oh, don't mind me, I mean nothing by it. I fear that old widowers such as myself have little else to do with our ample free time but to meddle in the affairs of happily married men." A conspiratal wink, a sip of wine. "Pay me no heed."

We slip into silence for a while. Beyond the tall windows, I note the darkened sky, milky moon hanging low in the horizon. I had not meant to stay so late and it half crosses my mind that Marianne will be wondering where I am. She did not accompany me on this visit - Sir John's mother is away in Town and, with only gentlemen present, her attendance would be unsuitable. Poor Marianne. I sometimes worry that she may find herself lonely. For a lively young woman who has lived all her life in the company of sisters, the comparatively isolated life as a gentleman's wife may be difficult for her to bear. Elinor is so occupied nowadays, helping her husband in tending to the needs of the parish, that she and Marianne do not see one another so often as they would like. Perhaps I should invite the Ferres's to dine with us this coming Saturday...

"Brandon?"

"Hm?" Sir John's voice pulls me away from my thoughts. I frown and tilt my head, inviting him to continue.

He looks down at his feet suddenly. One of the dogs is curled up by his shoes and he reaches down to stroke absently at its ears. The fire crackles in the grate, sending glowing embers drifting into the darkness.

"May I ask you a rather personal question?"

I am surprised. It is unlike Sir John to ask permission to question - he usually just blunders in regardless and damn to the consequences. I study his down-turned face closely. He is making rather a show of being pre- occupied with the dog, only serving to further my suspicions.

"You know that you are permitted to ask me anything."

There is a moment's hesitation.

"Are you happy, Christopher?"

He uses my first name, a fact that does not surpass my attention. It is a name that he hardly ever uses, save on matters of extreme importance.

I smile and take a long sip of my wine. "Of course I am happy," I tell him lightly. "Why would I not be?"

My smile fades as he looks up at me suddenly. His face is uncharacteristically somber, a complete contrast to the uncontrollable mirth of only minutes beforehand. It unnerves me slightly.

I frown and set down my glass. "Why do you look at me so?" I ask.

The firelight plays on his features, one half of his face lost to flickering shadow. When he speaks, his voice is low and considering, thoughtful.

"Christopher, I have known you these past twenty years or so, and in that time, I flatter myself, I believe I have come to know you as good as any can boast. Now I am asking you to answer me in all honesty, from one friend to another. Are you happy?"

For a moment, I don't know what to say. It is all so unexpected - there is no sense in the inquiry. His eyes glitter on me intently and the automatic response that I would have given him dissipates on the tip of my tongue. His gaze is unwavering, but not without warmth. I know he only asks me because he cares for my welfare.

I give a slow nod. "I assure you, I am happy."

He continues to watch me uneasily for a moment, then looks away. For a long moment there is only quiet between us. The fire continues to crackle warmly, and there is a hollow ticking of clock previously unnoticed by me. Silence, heavy and unnatural, stretches before me.

Finally, he gives a short laugh. I start at the suddenness of the sound, blinking quickly as he launches into another one of his stories. The matter of my happiness is dropped and we do not speak of it again that night, preferring instead to discuss lighter subjects: the oncoming shooting season, the ball at Beamish House last month, the latest news from Town...all of no consequence, all reassuringly familiar.

...And yet Sir John's question continues to haunt me. It remains insistent in my mind, a phantom in the back of my thoughts.

---Are you happy, Christopher?---

And the truth is...I am uncertain as to how I should have answered.

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It is close to nine O'clock when I finally take my leave of Sir John. The ride home to my estate is cold and tiresome, my horse gaining a limp from a stone in its hoof. The clouds hang low over the hilled horizon, the promise of snow sharp in the bitter night air. I can't help but think that it would have been prudent to accept John's offer of a loan of a carriage. As much as I detest carriage travel, I feel that, perhaps, it would have been preferable to this exposure to winter. My hands are raw with cold - so numb that I can hardly hold onto the reigns.

The road from John's estate to mine is an easy riding distance, only an hour or so on horse, but the going this evening is slow and precarious. The dull glitter of frost reflects in the moonlight like new-cut diamonds, the landscape rendered strange and alien...eerily beautiful.

Were Marianne with me, no doubt she would remark of the night's splendor. I, however, harbor no such sentiments. Not right now at any rate. I am cold, and tired, and inexplicably lonely. The sudden yearning for the sound of another human voice is so strong that, for a moment, I can hardly breathe. The road stretches before me, seemingly into the infinite, and I find myself struck by my complete and utter isolation. Not another living soul for miles.

I think of Marianne and I wonder what she is doing right now. Is she concerned for me? Has she even noticed my absence? I would not dare hazard a guess - after all these years she is still something of a mystery to me. I will not pretend to know the secrets of her inner-most thoughts. She remains dream-like and illusive...like a faery maid from the myths of old. It is a quality that Eliza shared.

They say that all men who fall in love with nymphs are doomed to waste away to their deaths. Marianne and Eliza have both, in their different ways, killed me a little. It is the price I pay for the love that they bring me.

Am I happy?

Sir John's question continues to resound through my mind, incessant in its inquiry. Am I happy?

What is happiness? Is it freedom from melancholy? Release from guilt and pain...hurt...resentment? If that be the measure of happiness then I must answer that no, I cannot be happy. Those darker emotions plague me still. They are apart of my nature now, embedded so deeply within my consciousness that God himself could not free me from my burden.

But can the question of happiness truly be so clean-cut? I feel sorrows, yes, but I am not discontent with my situation. I do not despair. Indeed, I think of myself as being fortunate in my circumstances. I do not think that I would change them were I given the chance. I do not know what happiness is: it is a fickle term with neither sustenance nor meaning. What could Sir John have meant by leveling such a question at me? What did he expect me to say?

Am I happy?

The moon rises high above me, full and creamy white, the stars spread across the night-sky in a ribbon of dusted silver. It is getting late. The freezing breeze leaves my face pained and raw, my breath forming pale clouds with every exhale of air. Far out in the distance, burning bright against the surrounding darkness, I see the lights of my home draw into view. The sight kindles a little hope in me. Suddenly the only thing on earth that I desire is to be within its walls. I gladly urge my horse onward, wishing to leave the cold emptiness of the dark behind me. I do not want to be alone anymore.

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Sarah, one of the older servants, is waiting for me as I arrive. She immediately begins fussing over my hat and jacket, taking both from me with such swiftness that I am momentarily at a loss to explain their disappearance. She inundates me with offers of drink and food - all of which I decline.

"Would you care for a change of clothes, sir? For, to be sure, you look frozen to the bone, sir, if you don' mind me sayin' so."

I rub my fingers over my closed eyes, weary beyond description. "No thank you. Tell me though, what time is it?"

Her white cap bobs as she shakes her head. "Almost midnight, sir, 't is."

Almost midnight. I have been stumbling about in the dark for the better part of three hours. No wonder I feel so chilled...it will be a mercy if I do not catch a fever for this.

"Sir, Mrs Brandon told me to inform you that she'll be waitin' in the library pendin' your return."

"She is there still?"

"Oh yes. Been there since eight O'clock, to my reckonin', sir."

I cannot help but frown. This information momentarily confuses me. I had not expected Marianne to wait up on my account...particularly not to this late hour. Indeed, I had not been expected to be greeted at all upon my arrival.

I offer Sarah a short nod of acknowledgment. "Thank you. And now that you are satisfied as my health, may I suggest that you retire to bed? No doubt you are weary."

She gives me a grateful smile and bobs down in a country curtsey. "Yes sir. Thank you sir."

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Marianne is sitting in an armchair when I enter the library. A book lies open in her lap, but her eyes stare straight ahead of her into the crackling fire, paying it no heed. It is too dark for reading at any rate - the only light being that which originates from the grate. The orange glow of the fire casts a flickering light over her skin, fierce illumination picking out the golden tones of her ringleted hair. For a moment she is lost to thought, somewhere far away where I am unable to follow her. Then, suddenly, she is aware of my presence. She looks up.

"Christopher," she murmurs, rising from her seat and setting her book down, "You are home."

I hesitate, then take a step further into the room. The heat from the fire hits me suddenly, engulfing me in delicious warmth. The change in temperature causes my hands to sting most grievously, but it is a hurt that I am willing to ignore.

"Indeed I am, though I must apologize on the lateness of my return. I had not expected you to be waiting up on me."

Marianne shakes her head and walks towards me, smoothing away an imaginary crease in the front of her dress. "I could not have slept knowing that you were out on a night such as this."

I am touched by the sentiment and smile to demonstrate so. I cannot think of a suitable reply.

She comes to a half only a step away from me, reaching out to rest a hand on my arm. Her mouth opens, as though to say something, but whatever words she had planned were lost in a small yelp of surprise.

"Why, Christopher! You are frozen!"

"I am perfectly fine, Marianne" I lie, shaking my head dismissively. In truth I feel as though the winter air has somehow seeped into my very bones.

"Nonsense. Oh you foolish man, why could you not have used a carriage?" She wraps her arms around me and guides me to the armchair, sitting me down as though I were an invalid. "If you should catch a chill it will be of your own doing."

"I assure you madam; there is no need for this-"

My weak protests fall of deaf ears, so, after a moment, I submit to her attentions. She pulls off my riding boots, setting my feet closer to the fire. I let out an involuntary sigh as I feel the heat begin to penetrate my iced toes. The numb feeling in my legs turns to a burning pain, and from there to blissful warmth.

She gives me a quick scowl as she works at loosening the buttons at the neck of my shirt.

"You truly are the most insufferable man, Christopher Brandon: riding around the countryside in the depth of midwinter. Do you wish to leave me a widow?"

"You misunderstand my intentions," I tell her, voice muffled by a growing fatigue. "I merely wished to return home as quickly as possible."

She has opened my shirt at the neck and pauses, hands resting lightly on either side of my throat. "Aye, as would any man, lest the good Sir John press upon you a bed for the night." Despite the look of irritation that crosses her features, I know that she means nothing by her assessment of my friend. She has come to care for John almost as much as I have over the years.

I chuckle and allow my eyes to slide close, willing my icy skin to drink in the fires warmth. "As generous as his offer was, I felt it best to refuse."

"Very prudent, I am sure." Marianne sighs suddenly, running her fingers across my cheek. Her eyebrows draw together in a frown of worry. "You are shivering."

I had not even noticed that I was shaking until she pointed it out to me. Now I am acutely aware of every tremor of my body. It is a mildly disconcerting sensation - that I should have so little control over the movement of my own limbs.

"It is of no consequence," I assure her quietly.

She continues to watch me with ill-disguised concern. "You require rest. I do not want you to catch a fever."

I think briefly back to the time when Marianne herself became ill from exposure. The memory of her pale face, clammy and haggard with fever, enters my mind like a half-forgotten nightmare. This, in turn, stirs other unwelcome memories: my mother's white corpse as she lay in her coffin...the bloodied shoulder I received while serving in the army...Eliza dying in a poorhouse bed...

I have seen many horrors in my lifetime. My service in the West Indies exposed me to more than I would care to admit. Disease and conflict, dirt and blood...it was not all the colonial decadence that my fellow officers would have people believe. Beggars starved on street corners, lost to dust and grime. Sometimes we would hear the prostitutes screaming as we rode past the brothels. Those were not happy screams.

Occasionally, when he is made bold by drink, Sir John tries to talk to me about it - about the things that we saw - but I always cut him off. Some things are better forgotten; I have no desire to remember those sordid places.

Eliza's poorhouse reminded me of those grimy foreign streets in many ways. The smell was the same: the pungent scent of unwashed bodies and sickness was overloading to the senses. That was what first struck me when I walked through the door. The smell. Nauseous. Heady. Unclean. I shuddered to think of my love in such a place.

There is very little light within a poorhouse and walking through the building is like being submerged under water, a murky half-light washing everything in a dirty grey glow. Grey walls, grey floors, grey people. Even Eliza, my beloved Eliza, was stained in shades of grey. She was unrecognizable as the spirited young woman I had once known. The influenza, combined with years old hardship and strife, had drained the very life from her body, leaving her as a mere shell waiting for death.

I wonder: were I to catch a fever from my ride, would I end my days like Eliza? Grey and haggard, a shadow of what I was? Would Marianne recognize me? Would Willoughby comfort her through her grief? No - that scoundrel would never do anything so noble. Marianne would be alone. I do not want that for her.

I watch her through half-closed eyes. "It is late...you must be weary," I murmur softly, "Go to bed, Marianne."

She shakes her head firmly. "I will do no such thing."

"Marianne-"

She cuts me off with an irritate wave of her hand. "I will book no argument, Christopher, and you are in no position to resist. Now," she places her hands on her hips and frowns down at me "Are you able to make it to your chambers, or do you require assistance?"

I blink, attempting to clear the gathering fog in my head. "Let me rest here a while."

She purses her lips, but chooses not to quarrel. "Very well then, I shall stay with you."

"You are tired-"

"As are you."

"You require sleep-"

"I can make myself perfectly comfortable in here."

A sigh heavily and lean my head back, realizing the futility of this debate. I shiver unconsciously, fatigue weighting my body with leaden loads. The ride has drained me more than I care to acknowledge, the first tendrils of sleep tugging at the back of my brain.

"I daresay nothing that I say will make the slightest bit of difference in this matter?" I question sleepily.

Marianne seems to take this as an acceptance on my part. She sets herself down on the ground by my legs, arranging her skirts demurely around her legs and retrieving the book that she discarded minutes before. To my surprise, she rests her head against my outstretched thigh. The unfamiliar weight is strange, but not unpleasant. I feel her shift into a comfortable position. She now leans at the spot just above my knee.

Out of interest, I glance down at the book that she reads. It is a book of poetry - not unexpected - open at Shakespeare's Sonnet CXVI. I recognize the poem...and I recognize its significance for Marianne. It belongs to them - to Marianne and Willoughby. She was reading it when I entered the room. She must have been thinking of him.

"Marianne?"

She stirs at the sound of my voice. "Hm?"

A numbness begins to creep over my skin, taking my senses away to a welcome oblivion. I close my eyes and allow myself to drift into the growing darkness. Tired...so tired...

"Will you read for me?"

There is a moment's hesitation from my wife. My eyes open and I see that she has closed the book. It lies, unheeded and unnoticed, in her lap, Sonnet CXVI apparently forgotten. She stares intently into space, one hand resting against my leg, and slowly begins to recite from memory.

"Is love a fancy or a feeling?

No, it is immortal with immaculate truth

It is not a blossom shed as soon as youth drops from the stem of life

For it will grow in barren regions where no waters flow,

Nor ray of promise cheats the pensive gloom..."

Her words trail away, poem unfinished. I glance down at her. Her eyes have closed, lips parted slightly with deep breathing. She is not asleep though...not yet.

"Christopher?"

"Yes Marianne?"

She sighs quietly. "I missed you tonight."

I pause, considering her words. Without hardly realizing it, my hand drifts down to rest on the top of her head. Soft curls, twists of silk. Lovely.

"I missed you too."

It does not matter to me if Marianne still grieves for Willoughby. I, after all, grieve still for my lost Eliza. But need that entail that our love is lessened because of this? No, I do not think so. It is possible to love and mourn - they are both but two sides to the same coin. I love both Marianne and Eliza, just as she loves both me and Willoughby. I would not change my situation...I would not change her.

---Are you happy, Christopher?---

Will Sir John ever ask me that question again? If he does, how will I answer? I do not know. Emotions are not so clear-cut and easy to define in terms of mere happiness and unhappiness. I am content. I am at peace. That is enough for any man.

Comforted by that thought, I close my eyes and drift into sleep.

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