General fanfic disclaimer: These aren't mine, and I'm certainly not making money off this. I only wish :-).
Thanks to Carmen Williams for the beta.
Mary: A Romance
It was a sunny day when she first met him. Fitting really, for a soul like his. He was working as a farm hand in a place just out of London; one of a thousand different jobs he'd breezed through in his life. The children had finished their chores and she was taking them for a walk to town, when she happened upon him in the yard.
The children abandoned the discipline she'd spent the morning instilling them with immediately and all three crowded around in delight, asking him for a magic trick, calling to her to watch. She clicked her tongue in resignation, not really irate, of course, but needing to keep up appearances. When he turned to her, however, with eyes that shone with an adult's wisdom and a child's mischief, she couldn't help but smile back, a little. Who could help but smile with him?
And so he joined her and the children on their daily trips, smiling with wonder and glee, regaling them with tales of his many adventures, treating her like the perfect lady, as if he were a gentlemen and not a restless jack-of all-trades.
She didn't tell him that she was leaving the farm that first time. She told herself that it didn't matter; that she wasn't important to him, and he certainly wasn't important to her. After all, her heart was always, would always, be with her work. Romance was a silly thing, and she was always, always, sensible.
She met him next in York, busking through the streets with a weather-beaten banjo and a voice that sounded like a battered angel. She stupidly expected there might be some rage, some resentment, from her abrupt exit, but then, she hadn't known him as well then.
He smiled at her with genuine warmth and played a silly song for the children. She pretended to be irritated at his frivolity, but when the day ended, they'd arranged to meet up again. In the weeks that followed they met for picnics and for tea with the youngsters, and he made her smile. When she left this time, she made sure she passed the place where he played, and she made sure she waved. He waved back, and something in his eyes sparkled with an understanding that made her terribly, terribly grateful.
London next time, and he sang to her as they walked through the greenery, danced with her on the rooftops, smiled with her all the while. For once, for the first time, she met him without the children, on her day off. They walked through another park and they talked about the weather, and the world, and everything except that which was important. Finally, at the end of the day, she cursed herself and broke her perfect facade, just for the moment. She would be leaving again soon, she said. She would always be leaving, must always be leaving. He was a wonderful man, but this was what must be. She opened her mouth to say more, but he silenced her with a finger to her mouth. He smiled at her, gentle this time, and took her face in his hands, and said that he knew. He saw the magic in her, knew who she was, knew the limits of what she could give. But it was enough, and it didn't matter. And when she asked him why, he said she was beautiful.
So it was. The years went by and they drifted through each other's life. She continued her work, and he continued to wander, and if their paths crossed more than mere luck would account for, neither of them owned up to it. This was all that would ever be. It was understood.
But then he was sick.
It had started as a cold, caused by a day standing in the rain selling trinkets. Not all things that start small stay that way, however, and pneumonia took hold quickly. Far too quickly. Far too late she heard. Far too late she came to him.
Far too late to do more than watch the end. Almost too late for that.
He was being cared for in a church poorhouse, a simple place where he lay in a simple bed at the back. He was shivering with fever, but when she came into the room he opened his eyes and smiled.
"Well, look who we have here," he whispered, and then he coughed and doubled up. She hurried to his side, rubbed his back, chastised him for talking while he was so ill. The smile didn't leave his face.
She talked to him for hours, told him all the things that had happened to her since the last time she'd seen him. Told him more than she'd ever told him before. Watched him with eyes tinged by a desperate sadness. For all her wisdom, she had never really understood illness. Had never experienced illness; never got sick.
The end came far too soon. His breath grew shorter, his pale face grew greyer. But he still smiled; always smiled when she was around. She held his hand tighter, told him of beautiful things. And when at last the end came, she took his face in her hands, just like he had done that day, so many years ago.
"Bert." She said. "You are the finest man I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. Always remember that. Always know it."
He looked up at her face, the light fading from his eyes. Awed, marvelling, he told her, "You are beautiful." And then... then he was still.
Mary Poppins traced a finger over his face, bent her head.
And for the first time, she cried.