Author's Note: I'm back with a TSOM story this time. A little one-shot, as it's all I can afford to write now. It's not proofread as I have no beta, so please excuse any typos and/or grammatical errors/inaccuracies that may have escaped me.
As always, thank you for reading. It means everything to me to know that you're still there.
"Fräulein, before retiring tonight, there's a few things I'd like to discuss with you."
Maria's eyes raised curiously to her employer.
"Certainly, Captain," she gave him a little smile and a nod. "I'll put the children to bed first, if you don't mind."
"By all means," Georg smiled back at her.
Maria turned to the children who were either sitting on the floor or at the table, playing, reading, or just lazying about with their favourite toys.
"All right, children, time for bed. Say goodnight."
Liesl and Louisa dropped their cards and Liesl picked them all up to put them in a box.
"Good night, Father," both girls said at the same time.
Brigitta put down her book and walked over to her father to kiss him goodnight. Georg caressed her cheek.
"Good night, sweetheart," he whispered to her.
Marta and Gretl picked up their dolls and waited for Brigitta to move away to kiss their father goodnight next.
Kurt and Friedrich put down the pencils and the papers where they had been playing battleships. They said their goodnights and followed their sisters out of the room.
Maria turned her head and met the Captain's gaze before exiting the living room.
"Shall I meet you here after putting the children to bed, sir?" she asked him.
"Yes, please," Georg nodded to her.
Tilting her head to one side, Maria stared at him for a couple seconds. Something had been feeling a bit odd about him for the past few days. Nothing specific, just an air of slight uncomfortableness, of reticence; and just today, that strange feeling had shifted somehow. There was something in his eyes that she couldn't put her finger on. Sadness, maybe? Melancholy? But it didn't exactly feel like that, either. He also looked somewhat tired, even apprehensive.
There was so much about that man that it made Maria's soul churn in a sea of emotions. She wanted to reach out and try to ease whatever was troubling him, but she knew it wasn't her place to do so. Still, she longed to help; it was her nature and it pained her to hold back.
"I'll be right back," she said, nodding to him.
Georg shook his head, coming out of his pensive mood and smiled at her warmly.
Looking aside, Maria nodded at Baroness Schraeder and Herr Detweiler.
"Good night, Baroness. Herr Detweiler."
The Baroness looked up from the magazine she was perusing and nodded politely to her.
"Good night, my dear."
"Good night, Fräulein," Max took the final sip of his brandy with a flourish.
It took Maria fifteen minutes to leave the children comfortably settled in bed. She turned off the lights of Marta and Gretl's bedroom and walked downstairs. When she entered the living room, she was surprised to find that Baroness Schraeder and Herr Detweiler were already gone and only the Captain remained. He was sitting in the armchair with an absent look in his eyes. She studied him for another long moment and for a reason unknown to her, she felt as if her heart was breaking.
She walked up to him and spoke in the softest voice.
Georg shuddered out of his reverie at the sound of her voice and raised his eyes to her. He became instantly animated and rose to his feet.
"Yes, Fräulein. Please, come with me."
Maria fell into step with him and they left the living room.
Georg took a deep breath and forged ahead.
"As you know, the party will take place in less than two weeks."
"Eleven days," Maria nodded to herself.
Georg stared down at her with an amused look.
"I didn't know you were keeping count."
Maria chortled gleefully.
"Oh, it's the children, sir. It's the only thing they talk about. Especially the older girls."
Georg's gaze turned inwards.
"I suppose it's an exciting event for a young lady."
"And not for you?" Maria asked, arching her eyebrows.
Georg turned his head to her as they climbed up the stairs together.
"Does it surprise you?"
Maria opened her mouth to reply, looking for the right words. She didn't want to offend him.
"Well..." she began, "...considering all the time you've spent in Vienna in the last few years..." she trailed off diplomatically.
Acknowledging her point bitterly, Georg looked down.
"You're right," he admitted a full minute later, when they were about to enter his study. "But as much as I hate to say it, it wasn't a matter of partying or waltzing about on the dancing floors of Vienna, but a matter of..."
"Running away? Hiding?" Maria supplied compassively.
Georg met her eyes, full of nonjudgmental understanding, and nodded poignantly.
A familiar dark shadow began to descend on him once again, but quickly shaking it off, he squared his shoulders. He grabbed the door handle and opened the door of his study, moving back for Maria to enter first.
"At the time, I couldn't care less about where I was, either dancing my grief away in Vienna or ice fishing in Lapland," he made a clumsy attempt at a joke.
Maria's reaction to it was totally unexpected. She spluttered and burst out laughing. A spontaneous, hearty laughter that brought a helpless grin to Georg's face.
Seconds passed and tears began to run down Maria's face as her laughter went on and on. Eventually, she had to sit down on the sofa and grab her stomach, as she literally convulsed with laughter.
Georg simply stared at the lovely reddened face, feeling something inside him bubble with a happiness he hadn't experienced in far too long. He ended up chuckling as well, beginning to see what Maria found so funny.
"I'm sorry," the young woman managed to collect herself sometime later. "I'm sorry, Captain, but it's just that the image of you... Oh, my God!" she bent over, exploding into laughter again.
Georg leaned back against his bookshelf and crossed his arms, absolutely enthralled by his governess' infectious, carefree laugh.
Finally, Maria calmed down enough to wipe away the moisture on her face. Some ocassional bursts of laughter still exploded from her, but she was mostly recovered. She raised her eyes to his, biting her lips to remain in control, and sniffled a couple times.
"Something tells me I'll never live down the mental picture of me that you have in your head right now," he observed with feigned sternness and a twinkle in his eyes.
Maria giggled and covered her mouth with her hand.
With a smile, Georg approached her.
"You see, Fräulein; since the party is only a few days away, I was wondering if, taking into account your outstanding gift for sewing, you would be so kind as to create some original dresses for my daughters."
Maria's eyes opened wide in astonishment.
"I would have the final word on the design," Georg continued, sitting down beside her on the sofa. "But this is the first party they're going to attend after..." he looked away and closed his eyes, missing Maria's empathetic gaze. "Anyway," he cleared his throat, "I don't want to buy them clothes that will lack the... caring touch of someone who knows them well. I want it to be special."
Maria stared at him unblinkingly.
"I'll have some fashion catalogues brought to you tomorrow," Georg said. "I'm aware of the fact that eleven days is a very short amount of time to..."
"It'll be more than enough, Captain," Maria reassured him with a smile that conveyed all the wonder and admiration she was feeling. "After all, I made their playclothes in only a week."
Georg returned her gaze with a mixture or relief and gratitude. She smiled at him earnestly.
"Thank you, Fräulein," he whispered as if a great weight had been lifted off his shoulders.
"No, sir. Thank *you*," Maria whispered back, getting lost in his eyes, in the naked honesty they reflected that took her breath away.
"What for?" Georg tipped his head, edging closer.
"For being the father every child in the world should have."
Georg winced and looked down.
"That man wouldn't exist today if it hadn't been for you," he interlaced his fingers in his lap, almost in prayer.
Maria shook her head, feeling her heart grow too big for her chest.
"That man always existed. And I'm so fortunate to have met his acquaintance."
Georg's head raised slowly until he was looking at her with a mildly sarcastic, but also grateful look.
"You're much too kind for your own good, Fräulein."
"I'm taking that statement as the compliment it's undoubtedly intended to be, Captain," Maria straightened up proudly.
Georg chuckled in fond exasperation.
"I guess that's it for now. Is there anything else I can do for you, sir?" Maria asked.
Georg's eyes observed her affectionately.
"No, Fräulein, thank you. You've done more than enough already."
His words immediately reminded them both of his heartfelt apology the day everything had changed for all of them.
Maria studied his face gently for an instant.
"It's just that... you have been different these past few days," she said in a rush.
"Different how?" Georg looked at her.
"I don't know," Maria searched his features, reading every subtle emotion crossing that beautiful face like an open book. "Distracted. Tired. Sad."
Georg's look intensified in amazement. He then smiled a knowing smile and looked down.
"I wish I could make it easier for you in any way I can," she insisted.
Arching his eyebrows self-deprecatingly, Georg stood up and walked away.
"I can't deny that a lot of old memories have been stirred up, but it was inevitable. It was bound to happen sooner or later," he sat down at his desk heavily.
Maria rose to her feet and walked over to him, the papers where she had been drawing some rough sketches for the girls' dresses in hand.
"You need to sleep," she respectfully advised, putting the papers on the desk. "Do you want me to bring you something?"
Georg brought his hand to the bridge of his nose and squeezed it, closing his eyes.
"No, Fräulein. That's not necessary. I'll retire in just a bit."
Maria stared at her employer and for the umpteenth time, a violent, fierce emotion swept her away with a power that gave her chills. She would give anything to soothe the infinite sorrow he radiated through every pore.
"Please do, Captain. Rest is good for the soul."
Georg let his hand drop to the table.
"My soul is lonely."
The pained, offhand admission hit them both like a ton of bricks, and it filled Maria's eyes with tears.
"Your soul is in good hands, sir."
The words were ripped from some innermost, untouched place that brought Maria's heart to a stop. They had felt like a pledge, but of what kind, she couldn't bring herself to...
Georg's eyes widened in shock and looked up at her with an expression that made Maria's own soul flutter. She was drowning in that look. No, she was finding herself in those heartbreakingly moving eyes.
"Good night," she dropped her gaze shyly; then, she turned and quietly left the room.
She was halfway down the corridor when she halted in her tracks, realizing she was breathless. She took some long, deep breaths until she calmed down, and continued her way down to the kitchen, where she proceeded to boil some milk and pour it into a cup.
On a sudden second thought, she reached up and opened a cupboard. She rummaged a little until she found the chocolate jar and added two coffee spoonfuls. She was stirring it when a little voice made her jump.
Maria turned about, bringing her hand to her chest.
"Gretl! What are you doing here, darling?" she dropped the spoon and squatted down in front of the little girl, who was rubbing her left eye sleepily with one hand and holding the well worn cream-coloured quilt she used as a sort of bed scarf with the other.
"I had a nightmare and I went looking for you."
"Well, you certainly knew where to find me," Maria smiled, taking the quilt from her hand and putting it on the counter without looking. "It was a very bad dream, sweetheart?"
"I woke up and you were gone. And Father said you wouldn't be coming back," the little girl made a frightened pout.
Maria's heart constricted with love.
"Oh, darling, I'm sorry that nightmare scared you," she wrapped her arms around the child and started to rise.
"You won't be leaving, will you, Fräulein Maria?" Gretl clung to her, effectively stopping her.
Maria bit her lower lip, struggling with the feelings that had been haunting her for too long now.
"I won't leave without telling you first, I promise you that," she winked at the little girl. "Now let's get you back to bed," she stood with the child in her arms. Gretl wrapped her own arms around her neck and put her head on her shoulder trustingly, falling asleep instantly.
Maria brought the youngest von Trapp back to bed and tucked her up cozily. After a parting caress to the pink cheek, she bent down and kissed it impulsively, making a wish she knew would never come true.
Walking on silent steps, she returned to the kitchen to pick up the chocolate, but the first thing that greeted her eyes was the quilt on the counter. Berating herself inwardly for her forgetfulness, she threw it over her shoulder and then checked the cup. It was still warm, so she stirred it one last time, put it on a plate and made her way back to her employer's study. She knocked, but received no answer.
"Captain?" she called.
When there was still no answer, Maria assumed he had retired, but just to make sure, she held the chocolate in one hand and opened the door with the other. She walked in a couple steps and froze on the spot.
The Captain had fallen asleep at his desk. Most of his face lay nestled in the crook of his left arm and in his right hand he was loosely holding Maria's sketches.
Maria's feet felt abruptly rooted to the floor. Her eyes roamed delicately over the vulnerable form, unable to look away. She knew she should feel like an intruder, but she actually felt like she had unknowingly been paid the greatest honour.
She was gradually seized by a storm of feelings so overwhelming that bordered on physical pain. And the longer she stared the more it hurt.
She could feel it. The emptiness. The fuzzy void around him that had been feeding on his tragic loss all these years, draining him and tearing him apart inside. Even the soft lightning in the room seemed to add up to that creepy feeling.
'My soul is lonely.'
Maria's feet brought her slowly closer to him.
'I wish I could make it easier for you.'
She placed the cup on the desk, just out of his reach, and cautiously pulled the papers from his hand, putting them aside.
Her eyes didn't dare to look at him again out of sheer respect, but her heart wouldn't allow her to ignore the soulful, desperate call. And she looked.
Just the fact that he had fallen asleep like this showed he hadn't been sleeping well. If she woke him up now, maybe he wouldn't be able to sleep for the rest of the night. But falling asleep at one's desk wasn't her idea of a restful, restorative sleep either.
What could she do?
From this angle she could see the closed eyes and the thin lips sealed into a line. Tightly withdrawn into himself, protecting his heavily shielded and yet so tender core from more harm. But the pain was there, lurking deep within. Yearning to be healed but the wound still raw and always ready to start bleeding again.
A small shudder shook his body.
Maria caught herself when her hand was centimetres away from the dark hair, just about to bury itself in it. She curled it into a fist and held it there, aching to be granted permission to offer comfort.
'Please, dear Father,' she begged.
And then she remembered Gretl's quilt on her shoulder.
She took it and threw it carefully around his back, covering him with it as best as she could; praying he could feel her sincere caring and that it would help him to have a peaceful, dreamless night somehow.
"Good night, sir. Sleep well," she whispered oh-so-softly, before tiptoeing her way out of the study.
The morning after started with the usual routine. Waking up the children, helping the little ones to wash and dress, and then meeting their older siblings in the nursery before going down for breakfast.
But this morning Gretl appeared a bit restless. She kept looking around as if searching for something, and when Maria asked her what was wrong she just shook her head and grasped her outstretched hand, allowing her to take her and Marta to the nursery.
Once together, the group engaged in idle chitchat for a couple minutes. Maria was helping Brigitta to straighten the knot at the back of her dress when Gretl tugged at her sleeve, and told her she was going back to her room for a second, to which Maria nodded.
When the rebellious knot of Brigitta's dress had been fixed to her satisfaction, Maria turned to the door just in time to see Gretl walking in with tearful eyes.
"Gretl! What's the matter, sweetheart?" she went to the child's side, crouching to her level and stroking her cheek soothingly.
"I can't find my kilt," the little child pouted. "I lost it."
"Excuse me?!" Maria's eyes bulged, trying to guess why would a five-year-old girl have a skirt used by boys and men in the Scottish Highlands.
The other children laughed out loud.
"She means 'quilt', Fräulein," Liesl clarified, her gaze turning thoughtful and somewhat melancholic. "It's a small, cream-coloured coverlet that our father gave our mother when I was born. I was wrapped in it when our father took our mother home after my birth." She turned to her siblings with a fond smile. "And they did the same when Friedrich was born. It became a sort of tradition for our parents to come home with each one of us wrapped in it." She looked down at her little sister and caressed the top of her head. "Gretl was the last one, and she's been keeping it on her bed ever since."
Maria smiled back at the eldest von Trapp child, deeply touched. How much love, devotion and constancy contained in that little story. It said so much about the kind of family they had been... It said it all.
Pulling herself together, she turned to Gretl with a reassuring look.
"You didn't lose your quilt, darling," she put one errant lock of blonde hair behind her ear. "You brought it with you to the kitchen last night when you came looking for me after having a nightmare, remember?"
"Oh," Gretl blinked in confusion as she only had a blurry, vague memory of going down to the kitchen in search of her favourite governess. "So it's not lost?" her eyes lit up with hopeful relief.
Maria smiled happily.
"No, it's not. In fact-"
"Is this what you're looking for, darling?"
All heads turned to the door at the sound of the affable, good-natured male voice.
Georg stood at the doorframe, holding out Gretl's quilt, neatly folded. The little child let out a squeal of joy and ran over to her father, taking the quilt from his hand and cradling it to her chest.
"Thank you, Father!" she looked up at him adoringly.
Georg cupped her face in his hand and stroked her cheek with his thumb with a wide smile. Then, he raised his eyes to Maria and an expression of utter serenity crossed his features.
Gretl walked back to her brothers and sisters to share her happiness over the recovery of her lost quilt.
Maria stood and approached Georg, examining him openly.
"You look rested today, Captain," she grinned at him joyfully. "I'm sorry I didn't wake you up, but I feared you wouldn't be able to fall asleep again."
"You did the right thing, Fräulein," the smile never left Georg's lips. "I needed a good night's sleep."
"It did you good," Maria nodded emphatically.
Georg's intense stare and his unwavering smile evoked again that powerful, breathtaking feeling that made Maria quiver inside. It was so strange... She could hardly hold his gaze and at the same time, she felt all warm and contented deep within. So appreciated and... embraced.
"Every day with our family, friends and loved ones is a gift to celebrate, isn't it, Fräulein?" Georg asked, his eyes skittering all over her face as if he didn't have enough of looking at her.
"Y-yes, sir. It is," Maria's voice came out in a ragged whisper.
"Let's celebrate, then," Georg brought forward the arm he'd had behind his back all that time and held out an exquisite, unmarred pink rose.
Maria looked at it uncomprehendingly, so taken by surprise that she just couldn't react. Finally, she looked up at him, blinking in wonderment.
The smile in Georg's lips turned fond and tender, and he offered her the rose again with a gentlemanly bow of his head, without breaking eye contact.
"Thank you," he simply said.
Maria looked at the stunningly beautiful flower again and then she saw her shaking hand taking it from his fingers timidly.
"C-Captain, I... I..." she swallowed the sudden lump in her throat. "I don't know what to say. I'm... I'm so..."
"You don't have to say anything," Georg shook his head, his voice hoarse with emotion. "Let me say it for the two of us."
Maria's eyes turned to the rose, taking in its deep pink colour, the perfection of every single petal and the absence of thorns that could prick her skin. It was so fresh, so delicate and fragile that she mourned how brief that beauty would be. She swallowed hard again and looked up.
"I'll meet you downstairs," and with a parting, bittersweet smile and another bow of his head, Georg turned about and left.
Bringing her free hand up to her cheek in bemusement, Maria watched him go, feeling as if an iron fist was squeezing her insides. When he crossed the door and disappeared, she turned about and returned to the children's side. Liesl was holding Gretl's quilt in her hands, caressing it with a faraway look in her eyes. Her siblings gazed at her so solemnly that Maria didn't dare to break the reverential spell. She was too shaken herself.
"It's five years today since our mother died," Liesl's voice seemed to float up to Maria's ears, snapping her out of her trance.
The echo of her words hung in the air for long, endless seconds. Instinctively, her siblings herded around her, seeking comfort from the group.
Maria felt as though she had been punched in the guts. As someone used to live with the weight of her own irreplaceable losses, she knew that anything she said would be superfluous, so she didn't even try. She could only share the silence, accompanying the children she so adored in their shared grief. Time might make it easier to live with, but no less painful.
Six heads turned to Louisa in unison, and Maria realized the girl had said out loud what all of them were thinking.
"Father only stayed home the first anniversary after our Mother's death," Friedrich explained to Maria. "After that, he left for Vienna one week before and returned one week later." He sighed. "It was too painful for him to remain here."
Maria met the boy's wistful eyes and smiled at him sadly.
"But now we're a happy family again," Marta's elated squeal sounded like the chime of a bell, "thanks to you, Fräulein Maria."
Maria looked down at the little girl holding on to the skirt of her dress, and the sight of her toothy grin as she looked up at her with such adoration left her speechless. The sharp ache in her chest returned full-force, and her eyes turned once more to the rose in her hand, needing to cling to something solid, something that helped to hold her together.
"It's beautiful," Brigitta was drawn to the rose in her governess' hand. To her father's gift to the woman who had brought healing to them all. "Are you familiar with the Victorian Language of Flowers, Fräulein Maria?"
Maria's misted eyes raised to hers, and she shook her head, biting her lower lip, too moved to speak.
"It applies not only to flowers, but also to herbs and trees," Brigitta stared, mesmerized, at the perfect metaphor of what they all represented, all together, and smiled dreamily. "Roses have different meanings, depending on their colour. Pink means innocence, gentleness; but most of all, gratitude, grace and joy. And admiration, too." She looked up at Maria's face, realizing how much in their debt they were, and understanding all the things her father was telling their governess with that humble flower.
Innocence. Gentleness. Gratitude. Grace. Joy. Admiration.
Maria couldn't understand what she had done to deserve so much kindness, so much consideration and gallantry. In the end, she acknowledged that she could only accept it and marvel at the privilege she had been given. The privilege of being allowed yet another peek at Georg von Trapp's hidden depths that only made her admire him more, and cherish every moment she spent in the warmth of his company, in the shelter of his loving heart.
And in a sudden flash of insight, Maria knew that every tear she had ever shed in her life, every unspeakable moment of physical pain, had just found its meaning, its reward. Here in her hand, this rose, this timeless symbol of unblemished purity, had healed it all, making all of it worthwhile.
That man. These children. This family. They were in her blood. They were the best part of her, for they had made her a better person, the best version of herself she could possibly be.
For the first time in her life, she felt wholesome. Accomplished. Fully realized as a human being.
She didn't even notice when the children guided her out of the nursery and down to the dining room, safely ensconced in the protective circle of their loyalty and caring.
Author's Note#2. Agathe Whitehead von Trapp died on September, 3; but I changed the date for the sake of the story.