Sara rarely saw anyone from the farm over the next few days, and so she stayed close to Rose Cottage, reveling in Aunt Hetty's and Aunt Olivia's obvious pleasure in her company. She couldn't even consider telling them the truth. Aunt Janet's damp, downcast face was a physical pain lurking on the surface of her memory, but Uncle Alec's eyes... Tears filled her own whenever she thought of him. That conversation had taken everything she had. Aunt Hetty was content to order her around and Olivia content to spoil her rotten, and that was all she could handle.
Felix, though, appeared more than once; Sara saw in an instant that he knew everything, but he never said a word about it. The closest he ever came to mentioning her illness was a chance remark (as Sara thought) made one unusually chilly night as they sat on the veranda of Rose Cottage, admiring the clear, starry sky and thinking of things so far away that neither felt the wind savagely biting at their faces and ears.
"Funny to think, on a night like this, that it won't always be winter," Felix said suddenly, after a silence so protracted that Sara jumped as it shattered.
"Yes, it does seem strange," she replied, almost to herself; she wasn't thinking of Felix at all, really, but of King Farm in the spring, the bright flowers, the new lambs, all the green fields and sunny days she'd never see again. Well, unless she was much mistaken, or much luckier than she had any reason to believe.
"We both have to keep remembering," Felix answered wryly, and almost immediately, as if she hadn't spoken. "Just keep reminding ourselves, and each other, that nothing lasts forever. Not the beautiful things, not the bad times. Nothing."
"I'll remember." They were both whispering now; in the dim starlight, this pact felt sacred, like an oath sworn under the vast eye of Heaven.
"Come home with me, Sara. Just for tonight. You can have my room, and I'll take Felicity's old bed."
Sara sighed. "I don't know if I should."
Felix cocked his head and looked at her for several moments. Sara couldn't read his expression, even as he spoke. "Trust me."
Felix woke her at first light, before Aunt Janet was even up yet. Sara knew he meant to give her a chance both to assist Aunt Janet in the kitchen, thereby proving how much of an invalid she wasn't, and to face Uncle Alec before he left the house to begin the day's work. Felix apparently noticed her trepidation and winked at her. "Remember, Sara," he chided.
"Oh, alright, I'm up," Sara groused. "Now get out and let me dress."
"It's my room," Felix grumbled good-naturedly as he exited, to which Sara replied with a brusque pillow to the back of her witty cousin's brown head.
When she got downstairs, Felix had gone, presumably to the barn, and the kitchen fire was alight. Sara managed to light the lamps and start the tea before Aunt Janet appeared in the doorway like the ghost of Miss Havisham, her white nightdress and frizzy braid suggesting the image, while her sheet-white complexion and stunned expression topped the whole thing off. Sara looked away; it hurt to have anyone she loved looking at her like that. The doctors in Paris had done it often enough for anyone's tastes.
"Tea's almost ready," she said neutrally, fishing around for cups and saucers. "I suppose Felix will get around to bringing in the eggs at some point."
"That's Daniel's job," Janet replied automatically, still staring at Sara as if she might be an illusion.
Sara gave a frustrated sigh. "Felix brought me back here last night. I thought I might as well make myself useful. Please, Aunt Janet, either accept my help as it's meant or send me home, but don't keep looking at me as if I were about to disappear."
Janet stepped forward and hugged Sara tightly, apologetically, and Sara happily returned the embrace. "You're perfectly right, and I'm sorry, sweetheart. Now, between the two of us we should have breakfast on the table in no time."
They had, and it was soon being heartily devoured. Sara was collecting the toast on the rack when she heard her uncle's footsteps on the stairs, and she willed her hands to stop trembling as she joined the others at the table. She was refilling her aunt's cup when Alec walked in, and when Sara managed to raise her eyes to meet him, she nearly dropped the teapot.
Uncle Alec looked suddenly old to her eyes - old and worn, as if he hadn't slept in a week. And he was heading out the door without even a glance in the direction of the breakfast table. Every limb in Sara's body went rigid; her lungs froze in her chest. 'Oh, God, I've done this...'
"Have some breakfast, Uncle Alec!" The words burst out of her on a wave of desperation, an almost reflexive impulse.
Alec hesitated, obviously not having noticed her sitting there, but only momentarily; with just a perfunctory "no, thank you," he quickly continued out the back door.
Blood rushed back into the frozen extremities, her heart beat once again, and with a wild cry that caught on a sob, Sara launched herself out the door after her uncle.
"Uncle Alec, please!"
He turned in a flash and began steering her back inside. "Sara, get back in the house this instant before you catch pneumonia!"
Sara laughed harshly, and her tone slicing through the air surprised him into a swift halt. "Pneumonia! If only it were! I suppose, if I didn't recover, it would give me about a week, maybe less. If I had let you know when I was in hospital in Paris, is this what I would have gotten? You, pretending I don't exist - Felix making cryptic remarks - Aunt Janet gaping at me as if I were some kind of walking corpse! I hope I catch pneumonia! I can't take weeks, months of this; I'd rather go tomorrow!"
Tears were crystallizing on both their faces, and Alec dashed them away before they froze completely. "Sara. Maybe I'm a selfish old man, but I'd rather you didn't. I don't suppose it's occurred to you that this...time...is the only part that doesn't really involve you. This is the part when we all decide for ourselves how we're going to survive...losing you." He forced the last words out through gritted teeth. They'd begun making their way toward the barn, and as they stepped inside, Alec seated her on a bale of hay before hauling the door shut behind them. "After we've fortified ourselves as much as we possibly can, then we'll move on to the bit when you'll be praying for five minutes alone."
As he took a seat beside her, Sara dropped her head wearily to his shoulder and sighed. "I'm sorry."
"For what? You gave me a pretty good lecture the other day on misplaced guilt; better start practicing what you preach, my dear." He gave her nose a soft tweak.
"I can't help it," she sulked. "It's because of me; I'm doing this to us."
"Not true. The only thing you've ever 'done to us' is given us the chance to love you. Do you think any of us would trade that away because of the pain we're feeling now?" Sara silently burrowed into her uncle's side. "Do you remember what you said to me when we were tied up in that fortune-teller's caravan? That you just wished you'd had a chance to say goodbye to your father. You've done all you could, Sara; you've come home to us. You've spared us that."
Sara smiled. "You're a very wise man, Alec King."
"Oh, yes? Well, if I'm so wise, how come I can never get anyone around here to do as I say? Now, I'm taking you in to your aunt to be fussed over, and don't come back out until you're wrapped up to her satisfaction."
A slight giggle involuntarily escaped her. "If you happen to see a pile of coats, blankets and scarves with a pair of feet sticking out, stumbling around the place on its own, that'll be me, wrapped up to Aunt Janet's satisfaction."
Alec grinned, and Sara rejoiced to catch a few shadows fleeing his eyes. "So be it. I'd rather have a bundle of clothing for a farmhand than an icicle."
Sara bounced up joyfully when she realized what he'd said. "I'll be right back!" she shouted, racing for the door in a rather good imitation of her younger self. This image was reinforced for her uncle when she suddenly froze mid-step, sprinted back to him, pressed a soft kiss to his cheek and then dashed off again.
"There can't be a world without her in it," he muttered to himself. "There simply can't be."