"And how are we feeling today, Signora?" her doctor asked, letting himself into her rooms with a smile.
She looked up from her desk, where she'd been rereading the letter she'd dictated to Giorgio. "Doctor," she started, her voice pained.
... She'd been up half the night worrying about her Giorgio. She couldn't help it. Eventually, she'd given up and sat at her desk, reading and rereading the letter.
"Yes. Signora?" his voice was light, chipper.
"How..." she struggled with her words, knowing she wasn't even supposed to have been talking to Giorgio, let alone writing to him or following him. "As you know, I followed Captain Bachetti to the bluff."
"Yes," he sighed, nodding. "I was aware of that, though I've managed to keep that from your cousin. And, honestly, Signora, what good did it do? You followed him to the bluff and now the both of you are sick." He sounded... Far less chipper and decidedly unamused.
"So it's true then," she breathed, closing her eyes.
She hated to think of her darling Giorgio in any pain. She hated that she was... The cause of it. She would rather her own symptoms be worse than Giorgio feel any pain.
"I beg your pardon?" he asked, now bustling about her room to prepare her bath.
"Doctor, Captain Bachetti; is he... Will he be alright? What's wrong with him?" she couldn't keep herself from asking, she was too worried.
He turned, stopping what he was doing so that he could turn and face her. "Well, if you must know, Signora-"
She nodded, "I must." …. She had to know. She hadn't slept the night before and, in her condition, she needed all the sleep she could get.
"Yes, I've noticed that," he looked serious, grave... Angry. "When he wakes and is cognizant enough to understand, I'll be informing that I've assigned him forty days sick leave."
She couldn't keep the gasp from escaping her, pushing herself up on shaky legs to move closer to him. "Forty days?" she echoed, fear and worry and pain etched into her voice. "Doctor, is that really necessary? Wouldn't he receive better care here, under you?"
Forty days? That was so long. She hated to think how she'd function without him. She was at a loss when it was only a few days at a time. Forty days? That was... Nearly six weeks. … Nearly one thousand hours... It was simply too long. She didn't think she could stand it.
"I believe he will receive adequate care in Milan," he told her, the location pointed. The doctor was sending him to that woman. That... Common adulteress whore. She wouldn't care for him. Not the way Fosca could. "And he will recover more comfortably."
He walked her back to her desk, she only mildly aware as she retreated to the recesses of her mind. "Milan? But-"
"Signora, this is not up for discussion," he interrupted, his voice cold and stern. "You are not a certified doctor and are, therefore, ill-equipped to make an informed decision. He cannot remain here as the necessary care will be far too involved while I must care for you. So Captain Bachetti will be taking his sick leave in the comforts of Milan."
She collapsed back into the chair at her desk, feeling.. Forlorn and broken. "B-but, Doctor-"
"Signora," his voice was gentler this time. "I'm sorry to say, but you would do well to remember the 'other woman' you've mentioned in your delirious ramblings. I believe you said her name was Clara?"
She nodded mutely, unable to focus on him as her mouth open and closed wordlessly, still searching for a reason Giorgio should remain at the base.
"And even if she were not a factor, your cousin would not allow-"
"I am a grown woman, Doctor Tambouri," she ground out, interrupting him.
If Giorgio ever returned her affections, her cousin's permission would not be something she cared about. By all standards, she was not bound to him, he too distantly related to have really taken ownership that he may have been allowed had he been a brother or the like. She stayed with him because he asked her to, because he felt guilty.
"Very well," he conceded, nodding. "But your health would also not allow any romantic relationship with Captain Bachetti. It would be best for you to let him go."
He left her side, finishing preparing her bath water. "Signora, when you are ready, your bath has been drawn. Now, if you'll excuse me, I believe that my attendant at the door would be bringing me news of Captain Bachetti."
She looked to the door, suddenly noticing that one of her cousin's men was standing there. Her fingers curled around the back of the chair as she turned to listen, desperate to know that Giorgio would be alright.
"You asked to be alerted the moment Captain Bachetti awoke, I believe. Well, he's just awoken. He is groggy and feverish, but he is awake, sir," the... There was no other word for it. He was a mere boy.
"Very good," the doctor nodded, pleased. "I will be there shortly. You are dismissed." He turned back to her, "Signora, please take your bath and then return to the confines of your bed. This most recent relapse of yours has worried your cousin endlessly and I would like to be able to give him good news."
And with that, he left.
… Giorgio was awake, though he would evidently be leaving within a few days. He was seriously ill, but not in critical condition.
… She would go with him to Milan, to care for him until he was well again. And then... If he wished it, she would leave him alone. She didn't have to bother him; she wouldn't again. After all, the last time she'd interfered- pushed, really- she'd landed him in a sick bed. She wouldn't again. Not once he was well again.
She watched carefully from her window; truthfully, she was getting even less sleep. But it hardly mattered. All that mattered was that she was aware of Giorgio's condition and when he would be leaving.
Two days after her talk with the doctor, she saw them leading Giorgio from the house just after nightfall when the rest of the troops were going to sleep. She quickly grabbed her shawl and suitcase- she'd had it packed since she'd talked with Doctor Tambouri- and slipped silently from the house, having just barely made it onto the train before it started moving. She handed her luggage off to the boy she saw with Giorgio's, managing a weak smile in thanks, before going off in search of her Giorgio.
She stumbled through compartments, finally seeing him in one and opening the door to the compartment to let herself in. She really hadn't any intention to say anything to him- he'd made it clear he didn't want her to. She was going to sit there until they reached Milan. And then she'd care for him in silence, speaking only when spoken to. She could do that for him... If that's what he wanted.
But then he spoke. His voice... smooth and easy, if accusing, "How could you? How dare you follow me?"
"I've come to speak to you," she said... That was partially true. She hadn't intended to speak to him at all- she just wanted to nurse him back to health- but he just had that effect on her. When she was around him, she often found herself saying things she didn't intend to say. Or doing things she'd told herself she wouldn't.
"I am ill," he told her, sounding tired. She didn't like it. He sounded... weak. She preferred when he yelled at her to when he sounded tired and weak... It hurt less to hear him yell terrible things at her if only because she was the only one in pain. "Do you understand? You are the reason that I am ill."
"I apologize." He was looking right at her... She couldn't remember the last time he'd focused so much attention on her. It made her stomach flip and seize despite herself. "Nothing could be further from what I wished for you." He scoffed... Did he not believe her? Did he think she wanted him in pain? Never. She'd rather take his pain unto herself. She was used to it. She could function with more... It was worse to see him like this, sickly and in pain, and to know that she caused it. "That is why I wanted to follow you to Milan, to see that you are well," she raised her skirts slightly to allow her to sit beside him, still looking to him imploringly.
He sighed, sounding exasperated, "That is the reasoning of a capricious child. You can't do this."
What was he trying to convince her of? That he'd never return her affections? She knew that. She just wanted to make sure he was well again.
"I heard what you said, Giorgio." her voice was coming out quietly... Meekly. "I've come to tell you I'll keep my distance, stay out of your path." She hoped this would be enough for him because it was the best she could do. She couldn't even keep herself from continuing, "But I can be nearby; I can be there, quietly waiting."
For what, she wasn't sure... For him to need her again like he did now? For... him to talk to if he wanted to? … Whatever he wanted or needed.
"And this, you think, will make me love you?" Even he sounded doubtful of the effectiveness of this plan... But that wasn't her plan. This wasn't about him loving her.
She shook her head, sadly, "No. No, I am doing this because I love you." She said the words with conviction, the most she'd had in her entire life... And she knew it was true, even if he didn't believe her.
He looked away, shaking his head is disbelief. "Well, my heart feels nothing for you. How many times must you hear this?"
… She wondered vaguely if this was some sort of test. But, no. He would never return her affections. And as long as she could love him- if only from a distance- she was okay with that.
But she couldn't keep from telling him. She knew it was superficial. That if she had the beauty of his Clara, he would love her. Because she loved deeper than that woman did... She just lacked her beauty.
Her dark eyes ran over his body before meeting his again sadly, "This has nothing to do with your heart. This has to do with your eyes, what you see. If I were beautiful-" She faltered, looking away as she looked down at herself, taking in the form she knew he'd never love. She couldn't look at him. She knew what he saw, her frail form, her emaciated thinness... She knew why he didn't return her affections, why he never would. She looked out the window of the compartment, back to the train as she moved fully onto the bench they were sitting on. "-if there were ample flesh on my bones, if my breasts were large and full-" She shook her head, stewing in anger, her voice coming out pained and forced. … She hated her body, hated knowing that Giorgio would never look at it and desire her. Not the way she did him or the way he desired his Clara. "-if I were soft and warm to your touch - you would feel otherwise."
"No," he told her, his voice firm. She looked back to him, but noticed he was staring down, towards their feet... He knew what she said was true. "Your appearance is no excuse for the way you behave. My feelings towards you are the result of your relentlessness-" he finally looked up at that, his voice raising and she couldn't keep from shrinking back just slightly, "-your constant selfishness and insensitivity." He broke his gaze, looking ashamed for a second as he looked away from her.
… She wanted to pull him into her arms and tell him he could yell at her all he wanted if it made him feel better. But she didn't, knowing he wouldn't want her to touch him.
"I'm sorry," she finally managed, her voice small and choked. "No one has ever taught me how to love..." He still wasn't looking at her but she knew he was listening. She could see it in the tensing of his jaw muscles. "I know I feel too much. I often don't know what to do with my feelings," she couldn't believe she was admitting this... Though, she supposed she shouldn't have been surprised. … She usually said more than she intended with him. "You understand that, Giorgio, don't you?" she looked to him, her eyes pleading.
For a moment, he couldn't look at her and she wondered if she'd said too much, if she shouldn't have said anything at all."Fosca," he moved closer to her on the bench and she felt her pulse begin racing... Would-was it possible he would return her feelings? Would he maybe tell her, now, that they could be together? "You have to face the truth. Please. You have to give me up."
No, of course that wasn't he wanted to say. He was telling her, again, that he didn't and wouldn't ever return her feelings.
"Loving you is not a choice, it's who I am," she started, not entirely meaning to. But, no. She... She would tell him everything, all that she felt. "Loving you is not a choice and not much reason to rejoice; but it gives me purpose, gives me voice to say to the world: This is why I live... You are why I live."
She vaguely noticed the blank way he was looking at her, only his eyes holding a hint of emotion. She pressed onward, her eyes closing to stave off tears, "Loving you is why I do the things I do." She found herself, surprisingly, unable to look at him as she poured out her emotions. She shook her head, her eyes closing again, "Loving you is not in my control. But loving you, I have a goal for what's left of my life..." She forced herself to look back to him, nearly trembling with emotion, "I will live and I would die for you."
"Die for me?" he echoed, sounding shocked and... touched? "What kind of love is that?"
It took her a moment, steeling herself against the backlash she was so sure he'd display, before she answered softly but confidently, "The truest love." She was quiet for a moment, nervous, before she continued, "Would Clara give her life for yours, Giorgio?" By his features, she knew he was thinking that she wouldn't. She pressed on, "Would she? I would." She looked away again, forcing back tears with surprising strength, "Happily." She looked back to him when she was certain she had control over herself, "In the end, you will finally see what is-" she faltered slightly, her voice choked, "-beautiful about me." She could feel his eyes on her as she looked away again, suddenly aware of how much she'd bothered him. She hadn't meant to. She only wanted him to be well again. She purposefully looked away, her voice coming out choked and forced, "Do you want me to move- to another com-partment?"
"We're getting off at the next stop," he told her, his voice smooth again, confident. She looked back despite herself. "I'm taking you back... You're freezing," he told her.
And as he said it, she was suddenly aware of how much she was shivering and trembling despite the way she held her shawl tighter. She continued looking away, trying to mask her shivers and labored breaths.
She was highly aware of him standing beside her, taking the blanket from his shoulders, "Cover yourself up." He moved to give her the blanket and she stared blankly. She was supposed to be caring for him and he was giving up his warmth. "Do you want to get sicker?" he asked, ignoring her look of confusion and wrapping an arm around her shoulders so he could cocoon her in the blanket.
She stared at him, his face was so close to hers, and continued shivering in his arms despite herself. She couldn't help but remember the kiss he'd given her in her room that night... His lips against hers, even that briefly.. Her hand came up, clutching the ends of the blanket together obediently, leaning forward just slightly before stopping herself... And, God, it was still warm from him... Being wrapped in his blanket... It was almost like being wrapped in his arms. It smelled like him and it was warm like him and... She let out a shuddered breath, her eyelids fluttering, before he finally moved away from her, sitting beside her again.
She tried to ignore the way he was shivering, the way each one cut through her painfully. She knew he wouldn't accept the blanket back. Instead, she changed the subject, looking out his window and at the grounds, "The moonlight makes even this landscape look lovely." He didn't respond and so she leaned close, gently nudging him as she pointed out the window, "Look over there: there seem to be faces in those rocks, smiling at us."
The train slowed before he could answer, he shaking his head and standing before offering his arm. "Did you bring luggage?"
She took his arm, leaning into him contently as she let him lead her to the exit, "Only one small case. I can carry it."
It was raining when they got off the train, the stop a small town. He led her wordlessly down the muddy road, squeezing her arm in encouragement as she shivered with the harsh cold of the winter night air. She dug her fingers into his arm, closing her eyes and exhaling as she shuddered, the motion too sweet. They reached the sheltered stop, another train not scheduled to arrive for several hours.
"Sit, Signora," he implored her, guiding her to a bench. She clutched his arm despite herself as she fell heavily to the bench, exhausted. "You are incorrigible. What will your doctor say of this? And your cousin?"
She shook her head, "I left a note. We will get back before my cousin finds it but had he seen it, he would read that it was my decision to follow you and that you had not invited me. I explained how I forced this, not you, and you were a good, honest man and your only mistake was showing pity to a sick woman with too much love to give at the end of her life."
"And how am I supposed to leave now? I was scheduled for forty days sick leave, time to rest and recover from the sickness you had caused," he reminded pointedly.
She looked at her feet, the snow starting to seep through her shoes and skirts and cling to her, "I never intended to bother you, Giorgio. I only wanted to see that you were well. You don't even have to speak to me."
He scoffed, sitting beside her, "You expect me to continue on with you in tow? I told you I'm taking you back. And then I will continue on to Milan alone."
"I will follow," she admitted softly. "I know it is selfish, but.. I cannot be without you for that long, not knowing you are so sick." She looked back to him, his face shining beautifully in the moonlight, "I can help."
He exhaled, dropping his head to his hands, "Fosca, you are not being fair."
She reached, extending a hand and petting his head before retracting her hand a moment, clutching it to her breast. Swallowing, she draped the blanket over his shoulders again, "I am as fair as I can be. I am not as strong as you, Giorgio. I cannot bear it. … I'm sorry."
He looked up at her, his fingers brushing hers where they lingered on his shoulders and sending electricity through her body. "... Very well. I shall return in four days. I cannot avoid going to Milan for a short visit but I will return in four days."
"Do you really mean that?" she managed, his face so close to hers.
He nodded, "Yes; I promise. … Now sleep? You are too sick to be missing a full night. I will wake you when the train arrives."
"You need sleep," she reminded, painfully withdrawing and leaning against the wall of the small sheltered stop. "I will stay awake to watch for the train."
"Fosca," he exhaled heavily.
She shook her head, "I care more about you. I want you to sleep."
He pointed to a clock, "You are to wake me at quarter of one. And then you will sleep and I will watch for the train. Do you understand?"
She nodded, forcing herself not to reach for him, to pet and caress him. "Yes." He moved the blanket from his shoulders, spreading it across both their laps before leaning back as well and closing his eyes.
She smiled softly when his breathing slowed beside her, his chest moving with each soft breath. And then his head lolled to the side, falling to her shoulder as his hand found hers in her lap. He was cuddling. Not.. consciously. And, yes, his dreams were probably of his Clara- he probably dreamed he was cuddling with her- but … he was touching her like this, leaning close to her. And it was almost too much to take.
Her eyes closed a moment, her breath catching, before she reached with her free hand, lightly caressing his face. "Giorgio. My love..." Moving very slowly, she managed to press a kiss to his head, wishing she'd taken the chance before he'd started leaning on her to press a kiss to his mouth and feel his soft, warm lips against hers again. She studied the parts of his face that she could see instead. And the feel of his hand in hers and the warmth of his body pressing into her own.
He didn't otherwise stir in his sleep, his head cushioned by her shoulder, and quarter of one came too soon and she had to lean him back against the wall to spare his ego before waking him.
"Giorgio," she murmured, "Do you want to sleep longer?" He didn't stir right away, immediately trying to curl against her- how she longed to let him- before she pet his head, smiling sadly.
Yawning, he stretched and looked around, realizing his current situation before looking to her and leaning away. "Try to get some sleep. I will wake you when the train arrives."
"I can wait if you are still tired," she promised quietly, reaching for him despite herself and wanting to pull him back against her.
He shook his head, his features tight and his voice gruff, "No. I am fine." He exhaled, softening his tone, "Thank you. But.. you should sleep."
She swallowed, nodding, "I- will try." She leaned her head back, closing her eyes.
How was she supposed to sleep when he was so close and she knew he would be leaving soon?
Sleep overwhelmed her much faster than she'd anticipated, stealing her too-brief moment with Giorgio. When she awoke, it was to Giorgio silently carrying her off a train- she'd slept through the entire train ride. These were precious moments that were slipping away, lost in a dreamless void she couldn't recapture.
"Are we back?" she murmured sleepily, trying to force her senses to return to her. "So soon?"
"I have to carry our luggage," he started by way of answering, his voice apologetic. "Can you walk?"
She nodded, "Yes, of course." Her knees nearly gave out when he set her down, though, forcing her to take her small case so that he could keep an arm around her in support. Not that she minded terribly. .. She just wouldn't have thought to plan it.
"You see what you are doing to yourself?" he chided gently. "Honestly, Fosca, how do you expect to get better?"
"I don't," she admitted softly as they approached her cousin's quarters, "I expected only to tend to you. If I'd have died en route, it would have been worth it."
Her doctor appeared before he could answer, one of her attendants sweeping forward to take the case from her doctor when he took it from her. He took her arm, Giorgio releasing his grip on her as her doctor led her towards the stairs.
"I see you have returned to us, Signora; in tact and with the Captain," her doctor nodded, seeming unamused. "Luckily, your cousin has not discovered your absence as Captain Bachetti was kind enough to return you to us. Honestly, Signora, do you know how your cousin would have worried?"
"You know how I feel," she told him, her voice soft but raw- the trip had left her exhausted. "I couldn't let him leave for forty days without apologizing and telling him-"
"Signora, it was improper. He will never return your affections, you know that."
"That changes nothing of how I feel," she ground out, her eyes narrowed. "... He's told me he's not taking his sick leave, that he'll be back in four days. He doesn't love me, but he's my friend. Why can't you let me have that?"
"I think it best that you retire now. Your cousin will expect you to be in bed when he awakens. It would be in all of our best interests that you be there," he warned, gesturing.
She was being escorted upstairs by an attendant as they started talking- her doctor and her- no, not hers- Giorgio, that is. .. Like she couldn't hear or, perhaps, understand simply because she was a woman.
"Don't be offended if I'm amused, Captain. But this is all – quite bizarre, really. She led you home like a lamb." No. Not home. Home would never be with her. His home was with Clara, as much as it broke her heart. … But it made him happy. And that was what was important.
"You know her. You know there is no way I could have acted differently," Giorgio answered. … Of course, it wasn't a surprise. She knew he didn't care but... It always hurt to hear him say it, though, to hear the reminder.
"You needn't worry," her doctor assured him, "No one knows of her exploits." … That would be what he was worried about, what Giorgio was worried about. She wasn't. She didn't care who knew. She was in love with him. She still failed to see why she should be ashamed. He was... Beautiful. And caring and strong and intelligent.
"I suppose I should be relieved." What? Suppose? "Yet in truth, it-it matters little to me." Was- had she reached him? Did he finally understand her feelings? Might he actually... accept them? Perhaps even return them one day? "And who told her I was leaving?" … No. He was just more concerned with her having intercepted his departure.
"I hardly thought it was a secret," Doctor Tambouri excused himself, their voices carrying to her room. Though, this may have only been because she was awake and listening so intently. At least, she hoped her cousin wouldn't learn of her 'embarrassment.' For his sake.
"What is it that you want, doctor?" Giorgio demanded.
"I don't know what you mean-"
"You know what I mean," he insisted.
"Why did you bring this woman into my life?" he pressed.
… Then he was irritated. Which, she supposed, she knew. But... She hated that she was causing him so much pain. .. She wouldn't anymore. She'd meant what she'd said. She would love him from afar.
"I thought it would help her. I thought it might give her some small degree of happiness." More happiness and heartache and pain than she'd imagined possible. Giorgio had brightened her life, made her feel again. But... Not all of those things were good. But she had a purpose now. It had helped her. Immensely. "I never intended for it to turn into this, Captain. Honestly, I didn't. I apologize." Turn into what? Her falling in love? What was she supposed to have done? Girogio was- he was perfect. "She tells me that you are going to Milan tomorrow, but for only four days. I assume this is just a pretext and that you will not be coming back." … Perhaps she was naïve, but that hadn't even occurred to her.
"I don't wish to be away from my duties for that long," Giorgio managed, his voice sounding almost quiet.
"Signora," her attendant started. "Is there anything I can get for you before you retire for the evening?"
"Quiet," she snapped, waving a hand and listening intently.
"Has Signora Fosca brought you to this point?" Doctor Tambouri demanded harshly. To what point? What had she done? Was he sicker? Had she threatened his well-being and recovery by following him!
"Absolutely not," Giorgio answered, his voice firm and allaying her fears. He was strong. "This was my decision."
"Don't you see what she's doing to you? To your mental state?" he asked, sounding almost frazzled.
"Signora?" her maid began again. "Can I get you some tea, perhaps? To settle you down after the busy events of your evening? Or would you, instead, like a bath?"
"Will you be quiet?" she pleaded, chancing a look in her direction before looking again at the door and focusing on the sound of their voices.
"You really shouldn't try to listen on the conversations of men. It isn't befitting a lady."
"Do I look like a lady?" she hissed, startling her maid into silence.
"Why are you behaving like this?" her doctor asked, disapproval laced in his voice.
"I feel it my duty to help her."
Giorgio? He thought- he wanted to help her? He cared, then? He must.
"Don't you understand, Captain? Nobody can help her," her doctor ground out gruffly. … He didn't believe she could be cured. It was necessarily surprising- she rather suspected it- but... It was still slightly startling to hear. Her cousin certainly didn't verbally share this ideal. But... Her doctor was just waiting for her to die.
It was silent downstairs now, neither party talking. After a moment, her attendant surged forward, forcing her to lie down before helping her out of her traveling clothes and hauling the blankets over her. "Signora, you must forget what you've heard. Women aren't supposed to listen in on the conversations of men, least of all soldiers. It isn't a woman's place. Now go to sleep and your doctor will be in to check on you in the morning."
She nodded weakly, "Y-hem-yes. Of course." Her doctor, Doctor Tambouri... The man who didn't presume her curable and was awaiting her demise- not that she was terribly surprised- even while darling Giorgio endeavored to save her.
And yet.. She felt safe, secure in the knowledge that Giorgio did intend to help her. … If he intended to help her, he would; regardless of the opinions of her doctor.