You dress her for Miss Swire’s funeral; she’s weak still, for all she says about feeling much better. She’s paler than you’d like, and just watching her stand makes your heart jump, fearful, to your throat. It’s a shadow of what you felt before, her forehead burning beneath your fingers, but a shadow’s plenty bad enough. She ought to have an arm to lean on, this soon after, but Lord Grantham’s been all but a stranger to this bedroom lately. Even when she was twisting and writhing, too mad with fever to know her own name, he kept mostly away. It wouldn’t do for an earl to court death so, maybe, but that man’s slept in her bed nearly every night since you’ve been in this house. You half-expected him to burst in and relieve you of your duties, or try. Coax the sickness out with love alone. A year ago he would have, you think. And so it’s true then: war changes things, even the things it ought not to touch.
Never mind him. You’re here, even if he won’t be. Her ladyship will feel the lack of him sooner or later. It will be later if you can help it, and you usually can.
(Jane’s turned in her notice and gone. She was lovely enough: that smile of hers always seemed on the verge of pretty and pathetic weeping. A war widow, trembly around the edges with grief and sweetness. What man wouldn’t want to take her in his arms, smother her in promises to make it all better? A decent man, perhaps, but God knows there’s a fair few of those. Jane’s turned in her notice and gone. One ten minute conversation in the servants’ hall saw to that. It was nipped in the bud early enough that her ladyship need not even begin to suspect.)
“It’s terrible, isn’t it?” she says now, meeting your eyes in the mirror. You fasten the black buttons of her dress with an ease your hands have never quite found anywhere else. No one would believe you capable of a touch so soft and quick and sure, and as for her, well, you doubt she’s ever noticed, which is just as it should be. Maids are like breath; not to be paid attention to, unless something’s going wrong. “All of us expecting a wedding for so long. She was such a kind girl. I—” She goes quiet. It’s not so unusual – she’s always had her thoughtful silences during these talks between the two of you – but this one’s got such exhaustion in it. It wrenches your heart. (The heart you don’t have, according to most. Even Thomas would be skeptical of its existence. That’s why he likes you best, after all.) “Do you know, O’Brien, I can’t shake the feeling that death took the wrong one.”
It turns your stomach. Never mind Miss Swire, sweet and rosy-hued and content to stand in Lady Mary’s shadow and lap up whatever leftover affection her fiancé remembered to toss her. You’ve nothing against the girl, but you would throw her to the wolves a thousand times over, if it came to a choice. You’re glad death seems to feel the same way.
You remember to breathe. To button. The skin of her back is cool as it should be, and used to your touch, as used to it as your fingers are to being there. “Milady, don’t say such things,” you order, as if you’re one to be giving orders.
“I’m sorry,” her ladyship says, and sighs. “I just feel so dreadfully for Matthew. For her family. And she was so young and bright. And it came over her so quickly. I expect everyone was halfway to picking out their mourning clothes for my funeral when the tables turned.”
“Not everyone,” you say. The words are as sharp and hard as it felt to stare down at her in her bed. You had not meant to let her see any of your pain; it’s not for her to worry about. But there’s a bit of you that’s still shaken. As if this is all a dream, and you’ll close your eyes and open them to find that she’s not gotten better at all.
She looks away from her reflection to you (always lurking there, dutiful and plain behind her beautiful angles, making her shine). She hasn’t got all of her beauty back yet – for once, the two of you are almost evenly matched.
“Of course not,” she says. If her looks are still on the mend, then at least her voice is as unusual and fine as ever. What a comfort that is. You’ve always liked her odd tones, though she’s been mocked for them more than once below stairs over the years by housemaids who fancied themselves mimics. You didn’t used to tell them off, but you would now. She turns to face you properly. You’re more used to her skin and her hair than her eyes. “You know I can’t thank you enough.”
“I didn’t do it for thanks, milady,” you tell her, “only because –”
—Because there’s a part of you that will always be walking into that bathroom a few moments too late; her body as perfect a thing as there ever was, more your business than anyone else’s, save his lordship’s – and crumpled like a cloth doll’s, and all because you let your wicked, searing, broken heart eat you up. Just for a second, but then, a second’s all there is between living and dying. (You were on your knees before you even knew it, took her in your arms, tender as a mother and her babe or a prince with his sleeping beauty; brushed her hair from her eyes, and shaken as she was, she looked up at you with such trust)—
“—I can’t bear it to see you suffer. If I might ever lend my hand to help, I’ll do it.” And still it will never be enough, but you keep that to yourself.
“Bless you, O’Brien,” she says, her mouth curving in a fond smile. She lifts one hand to your cheek. Her thumb moves there, back and forth, just for a moment; she’s used to pouring affection on her husband and her daughters, after all, and so it comes easily to her. No doubt she forgets you’ve got no one to touch you, and touch no one but her. “To think you were wasted on me.”
“Not wasted,” you say. “Not by any means.”
You could almost tell her now. It’s been so many years. She’d look at you and see you as you really are, and gone would be the Sarah O’Brien she’s dreamed up, the one who’s boundless kindness and devotion. It’s a silly lie. You’d miss it, though, selfish fool that you are, and so the cat’s got your tongue.
“Was Robert in the room very often?” she asks. The moment’s passed, and thank God for that. “When I was ill?”
Who can know for sure where he was? This big house with all its rooms, so easy to keep secrets in.
“I think it shook him very badly,” you answer carefully, and decide she can find what she likes in the words. “Seeing you in such a state.”
“Ah.” She looks disappointed. You wish at once that you’d done the kind thing and lied. “I knew somehow that he wasn’t there. God only knows how – I think I spent most of that time convinced I was a child again and wandering my grandmother’s house, or maybe the moon. But I think I would have known; he’s been so good about staying by my side for all these years, it’s as if I’ve developed a sense for it. I twisted my ankle once—”
“I remember,” you say.
“—and you’d think I had lost a foot altogether, the way he doted. I’d gotten a little spoiled.” She looks confused for a moment, as baffled as a child who’s let go of its mother’s hand in a crowded street and finds itself suddenly alone. You’ve heard stories from those here longer than you of how she worked to win his heart. She’d never imagined losing it; you can read that much on her face. “I suppose I’ve been neglecting him, what with all the hustle and bustle surrounding the war. I’ll have to try to be better.”
“You couldn’t be, milady,” you assure her, and damn him silently meanwhile. “From what I’ve seen, husbands seldom deserve their wives. Even men so fine as his lordship.”
She laughs, seeming to like the idea. “I’ll have to remind him of that.”
“Do,” you say, and add Or I will to yourself, even though of course you won’t. She has a faint smile on her face; her eyes are on you, but her mind isn’t, and you think she must be trying to follow his lordship wherever he’s gone. What you wouldn’t give to bash his teeth in. You put a hand to her arm – just to steer her to the vanity, is all. “If you’ll just sit down now, milady, I’ll fix your hair.”
“Ah, yes,” she says, “of course. I don’t know how it slipped my mind.”
“You’re recovering still,” you say, sitting her down.
“Do you know, O’Brien,” she muses, her eyes finding your reflection in the mirror again (it must seem like your natural habitat to her), “sometimes I forget why you’re here in the first place. You’re less a lady’s maid these days and more – oh, I don’t know – an imaginary friend. I don’t know if there’s anyone else I can talk to in quite the same way. I would be so lost without you here to steady me.”
Imaginary friend, are you? Thomas would surely sneer later, smoking out back, if you took this to him the way you used to all your stories of her and the barbed, sweetly thoughtless things she’d say. Shows how much worth you’ve got in her eyes, hmm? Don’t even exist outside of her.
“I hope you do count me a friend, milady,” you say, honest as you’ve ever been.
“And you me,” she answers. It surprises you, and you hadn’t thought that anything could at this point, or at least anything good. She reaches for your hand over her shoulder. Obediently, you give it to her.
She squeezes your fingers between hers. You cherish that grip; a small thing, but there’s life in it, and maybe you put it there.
“Heavens, aren’t we progressive,” she marvels, her voice turning airier as she lets go. “Maybe Sybil’s sparked a family trend.”
“Times do change,” you remark. “There’s not much anyone can do to stop that.”
“But we haven’t changed so very much, have we? You and I?”
“No,” you say, “not so very much.”
You loose her hair from its braid and run your fingers through. You wonder: have you done this a thousand times? And does it feel like more or less, and how many more times will you? In any case, she relaxes under your hands. You reach for her hairbrush and begin.
“Is this all right, milady?” you ask. “You tell me if it hurts.”