It took me 13 months to write this story, in three different chunks, 20 pages long each or so. Thank heavens, I'm the most stubborn person I know, that's how I got to finish it.
There's a lot of fluff and shameless cuteness. Nothing too dark or sad, as I tried to maintain continuity with the spirit of the film.
The story starts right after the Captain "asks" Maria to stay.
After taking a quick shower and changing her soaked clothes, Maria trotted happily down the stairs, heading for the living room. Her hair was still wet, but she was too impatient to lose a single minute drying it.
She couldn't believe the events that had transpired mere moments before. In the blink of an eye she had gone from rowing on the lake with the children to having the most heated discussion she had ever engaged in with anyone, being dismissed, and then readmitted with an awkward but heartfelt apology.
Slowing down the closer she got to the living room, she fought to curb her excitement. It would be inappropriate now in front of the Captain and his guests.
And yet, she couldn't contain the immense feeling of joy bubbling in her chest. Every single night since the Captain's absence she had prayed to find a way to reconcile the children with their father; and in a certainly convoluted way, she had done it.
Now, she only had to help the children to accept and eventually grow to love their new mother.
She had only caught a glimpse of the Baroness. She had been too preoccupied preparing mentally for the discussion that was coming to pay much attention to her, but she looked beautiful and refined. And also tactful, as her subtle disappearance from the scene had evidenced.
Taking a deep breath, she walked in, to the most lovely sight. The Captain, sitting on the settee the Baroness had occupied earlier, surrounded by his children. Marta and Gretl were leaning against their father, who had one arm wrapped around each girl. Their siblings were either standing or sitting on the floor, as close to their father as space allowed.
She stopped in her tracks, her heart filling with contentment.
Everybody's heads turned to her and the children greeted her warmly, urging her to join in the happiest moment they had known in a very, very long time.
"Ah, here you are," the Captain smiled up at her with sparkling eyes. "Allow me to introduce you, Fräulein," he said, rising to his feet, but keeping the little girls close to him. He turned to his guests. "Baroness Schraeder, Herr Detweiler, this is Fräulein Maria."
"How do you do, my dear?" the Baroness said, tipping her head courteously, the small bunch of Edelweiss still in hand. Amusement was evident behind her eyes as she contemplated her.
"How do you do, Baroness?" Maria replied politely.
Herr Detweiler walked up to her, took her hand and kissed it with a flourish.
"A pleasure, dear," he appraised her, eventually arching his eyebrows. "I do have to commend your taste, Georg," he said, turning to his friend. "It took you an indecent amount of time, but you finally found the right one."
"We were due a stroke of good luck," the Captain agreed, casting Maria a bright, grateful smile.
Maria smiled back at him, a bit dazzled. It was difficult to reconcile the man she had known before this day with the relaxed, joyful and... smiling man looking at her.
"I was talking about her looks," Max clarified with a twinkle in his eyes. "Thank God, this young lady doesn't look at all like the governess you had during my last visit. I've never seen a woman with a moustache thicker than mine. And the poor thing had so many problems fitting her... bulk, onto the chairs..."
"Fräulein Gretchen, number nine," Kurt promptly supplied.
"That's right, Fräulein Gretchen," Max turned to Maria, bowing his head in acknowledgment. "Yes sir, a vast improvement."
"Thank you, sir," Maria smiled at him, getting her hand back. "I think," she added as an afterthought.
Laughter echoed through the walls of the room.
The next few hours passed in a blur. The children couldn't seem to get enough of their father. His closeness, his voice, his touch. They had been truly starved for his affection, and Georg could hardly cope with his offspring's pleas to do this or that, look here or there, hear his or her story.
Maria watched the constant communication and sensory feedback between the Captain and his children, in awe. She couldn't wrap her mind around the fact that this remarkable man had chosen to withdraw into himself after his devastating loss, instead of seeking comfort in the only ones who could understand and soothe the rawer edges of his pain.
'Do not judge and you shall not be judged,' a voice resounded in her mind. Nodding to herself, Maria simply accepted what it was and set out to enjoy the beautiful view.
The evening was over before anyone noticed, and dinner was just as merry and happy-go-lucky. The childen were higher than ever, and Maria had to make a real effort persuading them to go to bed. Finally, after much insistence, she convinced them that tomorrow would be another day, and their father would still be there.
Closing the door of the nursery after her, Maria let out a long sigh. She knew it would take a long time for the children to go to sleep. Today, their dearest dream had come true, and it wasn't easy to let go. She realized that they also had many things to share with each other in private, so she let them alone for a while as they chatted away from bed to bed. She would return later to make sure they were sleeping.
She was tired. Every single day was a challenge, but today's emotional roller-coaster was beginning to take its toll.
When she was going down the stairs, she bid goodnight to the Baroness and Herr Detweiler who were also retiring. Once in the hall, she stopped and looked around, in much the same way she had done when she first arrived.
Something had changed. It was nothing that she could pinpoint, but the villa looked different, more alive than it had seemed then.
"You feel it too, don't you?" a soft, masculine voice said at her back.
She turned about with a small start. The Captain was standing in the middle of the living room, looking in her direction. The look in his eyes was one of wonder, but there was also a rough edge to it.
"Yes, I do," she simply said, venturing inside.
He looked down and began to pace, hands behind his back in typical military fashion, as seemed to be second nature to him. Maria watched him in silence. Observing him these past few hours, she had begun to notice several things about him. Gestures and mannerisms. Characteristics that spoke of a very complex personality, with lights and shadows. And also, hidden depths that spoke of a gentle soul underneath that stern façade, struggling to find itself again.
Finally, Georg stopped his pacing and faced one of the windows. He strained to look out of it through the thin lace curtains. He took a deep breath.
"It's the most sobering experience to realize that you're responsible for making the lives of eight people miserable for nearly four years. Including your own," he admitted, letting out a small sigh. His shoulders dropped a little.
Maria's features softened and she tilted her head to one side. Even though he couldn't see her, she hoped he could feel her willingness to listen, that she was someone he could trust.
"But it's even more sobering to see that in three weeks, you've come to know my children better than I do." He made a pause. "Studying them today, how they looked, what they said, and how they responded to you, I suddenly realized they're..." she felt him fighting the words he was about to say. "They're strangers to me."
Maria winced at the bitter pain and regret in those words.
"They're not strangers, sir," she hurried to try and reassure. "They..."
"I appreciate that you're trying to spare my feelings, Fräulein," his tone was self-deprecating now, "but it's not necessary. I may have been a fool in many ways, but I'm not afraid of admitting the truth, as hard as it is. I would be a complete fool if I was."
There was a short silence in which Maria's respect for her employer grew to unprecedented heights.
"As I said before, there's still time, Captain," she took one step forward. "They love you, and they're desperate to be close to you," she said passionately. "They talked about you so often these past weeks. They're very proud of you, and they miss you dearly." She shrugged and shook her head. "You only have to open up and let them in. They'll do the rest."
The conviction in her words made Georg turn around and look at her.
"Just like that?" self-contempt was written all over his face. "Can four years of emotional neglect be dismissed so easily?"
"They don't see it in terms of emotional neglect. Just in shared pain at a distance."
Something extremely painful moved behind Georg's eyes, and he looked away.
"I pray you're right, Fräulein," he said in a hoarse voice.
"From what they told me and from what I've seen today, I'm positive, sir."
His eyes quickly turned to hers, with burning intensity. Maria shrugged once more and did her best to drive her point home.
"If I got to know them in three weeks, it should be infinitely easier for you."
He smiled ironically, but also conveying his gratitude for her optimism.
"You make it look so easy."
"It *is*," she smiled back at him. "Life is often complicated, but I also think we human beings sometimes make it more complicated than it is."
Georg raised one eyebrow and turned inwards for a moment, pondering her words. He nodded, as if coming to a sort of agreement with himself. He braved her eyes.
"Will you help me?" he asked with staggering openness.
Maria's jaw dropped open. She couldn't believe the profound change that man had undergone in just a few hours.
"I-I will be honoured, sir," she replied, not knowing where her words were coming from.
"Thank you," he said, looking at her with the same shy, vulnerable look he had given her that evening in the hall.
"You're welcome," she smiled at him, a part of her reaching out and reassuring him mutely that his feelings were safe with her.
Georg nodded again and took a deep breath, pulling himself together.
"Good night, Fräulein," he said softly.
She nodded back at him.
"Good night, Captain," she bowed her head courteously and left the room.
TO BE CONTINUED...