A/N: Yay, this story is finished! It was so much fun to write, and strangely satisfying to torture poor Edmund. I think I feel that in order to deserve Fanny, he has to go through some suffering, angst and self-doubt himself.
Anyway – I've finally put him out of his misery in this chapter; I hope it's satisfying to read after the build-up! Please tell me your thoughts by reviewing.
Chapter Five – The Ever-Fixed Mark
Now the challenge was to get Fanny alone, so that he could try his luck. This for some reason was proving to be difficult. In Edmund's memory countless private conversations in the East Room, walks in the shrubbery and rides in the countryside stood out in his mind, but all of them seemed impossible to contrive now.
Over the next few days, whenever he sought Fanny out she seemed to be either sitting with Lady Bertram, instructing her sister in reading or sewing, or sitting in the midst of the entire family. He did not wish to draw attention to himself by publicly requesting a private audience with her, but if events did not prove more favourable soon, that would be his only option.
He was sitting in the drawing room with the rest of the family now, unable to concentrate on his book. His mind kept running through various ideas, and he was constantly alert for any opportunities which might come his way. Fanny was sitting by Lady Bertram, quietly reading aloud to her, and seemed entirely settled. For a moment he sighed dejectedly, but then an idea struck him.
Carefully, so as not to attract her notice, he stowed his book under the seat cushion and reached for the newspaper at the side table. After a few minutes of pretending to read it, he made a show of folding it up again. 'I forgot my book at Thornton Lacey this morning,' he announced to the room in general. 'I think I'll ride over and get it.'
Fanny had looked up at him as he spoke, and seeing that he had her attention, he said as casually as he could manage, 'Fanny, do you want to ride over with me? I'd like your company and I know you haven't had your morning ride yet.'
His heart skipped a beat at the expression of delight which lit up her face – delight at the prospect of exercise after sitting so long, he reminded himself, sternly checking his hopes. He would have done just as well had he not reprimanded himself; for Fanny's delight had been at his words – not 'I'd like some company', but 'I'd like your company'. Edmund wished for her to accompany him; not anybody else.
When two young people want so much to go for a ride, they cannot take long to get ready, and so it was that not ten minutes later, Edmund and Fanny were leading their horses out of the stables.
Later as he rode alongside her, Edmund kept darting increasingly tortured looks at her. He would have to say something; he had to make a beginning soon, or they would be all the way there and back without any progress made. What had Tom instructed him to say first? Something... something in praise of her beauty. 'Your ears!' he blurted out, before his brain had time to catch up with his mouth. 'I just noticed, Fanny, how... elegant your ears are.' The moment it was out, his face burned and he inwardly kicked himself.
For a moment she looked astonished, but then she began to laugh. 'All the better to hear you with, I suppose?' she said, smiling. Deep down inside, a tiny, detached part of Edmund appreciated the hilarity of the moment and was actually a little amused, but a far greater part of him cringed inwardly. This was not going well at all. He would have to begin again.
Accordingly, he opened his mouth to do so, but was interrupted by a rumble of thunder. They both had just time to look up at the threatening grey sky above them before it broke and rain began to fall. At first it was only a drop here and there, dotting the landscape, but then it began to fall heavily, enough to flatten their hair to their heads and find its way down their necks and into their shoes.
Dismounting hastily from their horses, they both hurried to the nearest shelter of a large oak tree, whose boughs, even though leafless, would still provide some semblance of protection from the weather until it grew fine enough for them to continue with their journey.
Looking over at Fanny, Edmund was just in time to observe her shiver at the brisk wind on her damp clothes. He could have kicked himself. Immediately he removed his thick overcoat to drape it about her small form. He could do very well without it, if it could prevent Fanny from falling ill due to his carelessness. 'I'm so sorry, Fanny,' he said, taking her small hands into his larger ones to chafe them and give them some of his warmth. 'I should have thought to bring an umbrella.'
He could hardly bear to hear her declamations of any blame on his side and her gratitude at his giving up his coat. Fanny always felt these things a great deal too much; it was his duty to take care of her, and he should not need thanks from her to do it. It only made him feel worse as he recalled all the times in the past year when he had neglected doing it, had neglected her.
After a time, they both fell silent and simply observed the rain which was pelting heavily around them. Edmund had not relinquished her hands from his, and his mind was racing trying to come up with a way of suggesting that they embrace for warmth without breaching propriety, when Fanny spoke, her voice soft. 'This makes me think of the tempest in Sonnet 116. I'm sure this is what it would look like if it were not metaphorical.' She sighed, her gaze distant. 'Imagine the love that could weather something like this.'
He froze. That sonnet again. That sonnet about enduring, un-altering love, the love which looked unshaken upon all tempests. The love she held for Crawford; the love to which his own love presented so feeble a comparison – or at least would in her eyes. 'Oh Fanny!' he couldn't help crying out, his grip on her hands involuntarily tightening. 'Is that love so essential to you? Is a foolish mistake, is my blindness, is my misguided infatuation to ruin my chances forever?'
She stiffened and her gaze snapped up to meet his, her eyes wide. A flush began to slowly creep up her neck, and even though from these signs he could tell she was beginning to feel uncomfortable, he could not stop himself. Hating himself, he ploughed on, all Tom's advice forgotten. 'I've loved you for as long as I can remember, and even when I deluded myself into thinking I loved Mary Crawford, I acknowledged your superiority of judgement, of manners, of taste.'
The expression of his eyes was so earnest that it almost overpowered her. Beginning to tremble from something that was most definitely not the cold, all Fanny could do was listen and hope against hope that she was not about to be awakened from the happiest of dreams.
'For many months now I have known my own heart,' Edmund continued, his thumbs absently chafing the smooth skin of her hands, 'and I can truly say that if you could ever forgive my stupidity, if you could ever love me as more than a cousin or a brother–' he took a rather shaky breath– 'if you could ever agree to marry me, then that would be a happiness which no description could reach.'
As he waited for her response, Edmund felt a curious sensation of simultaneous stress and peace. His every fibre was straining under the suspense of waiting for her answer, but at the same time it was as if a massive weight had been lifted off his shoulders. His secret was out, and now it was her turn to say something. The relief of this was greater than could be described, at least until she burst into tears.
His heart sank until it had settled somewhere around his navel, and he nodded twice in an attempt to force the understanding of the moment on himself. He squeezed her hands, and tried to smile. 'Dear Fanny,' he said gently, 'it's alright. Don't cry; don't be upset. I understand. I do. I'll always be your friend; we need never mention this again.' He bit his lip for a moment, not trusting himself to say more, and then with a heavy sigh he began to extricate his hands from hers.
He had never been more surprised in his life than when he felt her fingers clutching his, not letting him go. 'No, that's not what I meant,' she whispered, and then his heart leapt as she sobbed, 'Of course I'll marry you, Edmund!'
For a moment he stood numb, uncomprehending, unable to quite believe his ears, but then the next second she rested her head against his chest, still trembling; and as his arms came around her he couldn't help laughing joyfully. 'You will? Even after all you said about –' Suddenly he frowned, and drew away from her slightly so that he could look down into her face. 'Even after all you said about the love that could alter not deserving the name?'
She looked confused for a moment, but then she suddenly smiled, rather wryly. 'I was thinking of Mr. Crawford,' she said, 'flitting back and forth from Julia to Maria, to me and then back again. You didn't think I was referring to –'
Edmund laughed in sheer relief. 'Me?' he said, smiling. 'Yes, I most certainly did – and it has been the cause of many a sleepless night, I can tell you. I was convinced that since you believed so strongly in the love that couldn't be transferred, you would never accept me.'
Fanny smiled up at him so tenderly that he could not have predicted the sudden plummet of his happiness which accompanied her next words. 'I was thinking of my own first attachment when I said that,' she admitted softly.
She looked puzzled and hurt as he abruptly broke out of their embrace and turned away. 'What's the matter, Edmund?' she asked, worried by his behaviour. Suddenly the thought struck her that perhaps he regretted what he had said, and her eyes began to sting with the promise of tears. 'What's wrong?'
He turned back to face her, and he could have kissed her when he saw the sweet concern so artlessly etched in all her features. But no matter how much he wanted to, he could not do it. He had not the right. 'Oh Fanny,' he sighed, and despite all his notions of honour and propriety, he could not prevent his hand from reaching up to cradle her face. 'I do love you so, but I would not want you to accept me simply out of gratitude or a fear of hurting my feelings.' His thumb caressed her temple as he spoke. 'I know you must wish that you could love me, but I understand if you cannot help remaining true to your first attachment.' He sighed in defeat, his shoulders slumped. 'Mr. Crawford was a fool to throw away such love as yours.'
Her brow creased in a frown. 'Mr. Crawford? What has he got to do with anything?' She sounded as close to frustrated as he had ever heard her. He met her eyes, hardly daring to believe what he was hearing. She continued, her voice more firm than he had ever heard it, 'Edmund Bertram, listen to me, and listen well. I love you. You are my first and only love. I have no idea exactly how long I have been in love with you, but it was certainly long before the Crawfords arrived.' She smiled then, a beautiful, beatific smile, and even with her eyes filling with tears, she managed to incorporate a sense of mischief in her words. 'You are the only man in the world whom I could ever think of as a husband – hence my acceptance of your proposal.'
He thought he might die of happiness. He could only manage to raggedly choke out her name once before he dispensed with words altogether and instead covered her mouth with his own.
And as the tempest raged around them, they were unshaken to the point of forgetting about its existence.