The fire sparked back to life when Mortimer upset it with the poker, the crackling and flickering in sync with the level of his agitation. He attempted not to glance towards that door but could not help himself. Behind it, Eugene lay more than half dead, with a doctor doing what he could for him and his... his new bride at his side.
Mortimer did not want to think about her. It was all he could do not to storm into that room and demand that she vacate Eugene's bedside and give him his rightful place, earned through years of friendship and dedication and unfaltering loyalty. He had even lived through his friend's peculiar and worrying moods - moods he now knew had been directly related to Eugene's visits to the girl's abode and her continuing rejection of him. At the time, being ignorant of the full facts, he had blamed himself for Eugene's strange behaviour, had obsessed over what he might have done wrong and all the ways in which he might have failed at being a true and trustworthy friend. He had never imagined! What a pitiable, blind fool he had been.
He despised himself for allowing such unkind thoughts into his heart, at a time like this. But he felt as though he had been cast aside years ago and left to find out for himself. There was a voice inside his mind which told him that without Lizzie Hexam... no, Lizzie Wrayburn, Eugene would not even have a life to cling to now, however tenuously. A less charitable voice however insisted that were it not for her, Eugene would never have been attacked so savagely.
He dropped the poker carelessly by the fire and rested his head in his hands, rocking back and forth on the edge of his chair. He felt cold and empty enough to not even feel the fire. Should Eugene die, he knew he would never feel warm again.
Mortimer woke with a start, wincing in discomfort from having slept at such an awkward angle on his reading chair. Embers were shooting up the chimney, and he realized he had been woken by a falling log. Immediately, he cast an anxious glance towards the bedroom door - it was still closed, and there was no reason to assume anyone had left or that anything had changed. He would have been woken.
Or would he? He was no longer Eugene's closest... His wife was with him. She would not know, nor likely care, that Mortimer's heart was tearing itself to shreds waiting for news.
As if she had been conjured by the thought, the door opened slowly to reveal Lizzie. She looked at him, a frown between her brows. She was very pale.
Mortimer leapt to his feet and took a few steps towards her. "How--"
She smiled wearily. "He is a little better. The doctor cautions not to be too hopeful yet, but I believe... I feel he is a little better." She lowered her eyes. "I thought you would like to know, and would like to see him."
Mortimer's heart beat a little harder. "Yes. Yes, I would."
Lizzie nodded and stepped aside to allow Mortimer into Eugene's room. He was surprised when she did not follow him inside but closed the door behind him.
"Ah, Mr Lightwood. I shall join Mrs Wrayburn in a cup of tea. Do call if there is any change, won't you?"
Mortimer nodded, his eyes fixed on his friend's wan face and battered body. He barely heard the doctor leave the room, but the moment the door clicked shut again, he hurried to the bed and sat carefully on the edge. "Eugene?"
The bruised eyes opened a little way and Eugene tried to turn his head, but Mortimer laid a hand on his forehead and stilled his movement. "Are you better? Do say you are, Eugene."
Eugene made a valiant attempt at a smile. "I am better, my dear, dear friend."
Mortimer sighed. He felt as if he was able to take his first full breath in days. "No more talk of leaving?"
"No more talk of leaving. I have much to anchor me here now."
"Yes. Yes, of course." Mortimer stroked his fingers through Eugene's damp hair. "Your wife will return shortly." He swallowed. "She looked in need of a little rest."
"Poor Lizzie," Eugene murmured. "A fine husband she has found herself." He coughed.
Mortimer took the glass from the bedside table and, with one arm around Eugene's shoulder to raise him up, he lifted the tonic to his lips. "She has indeed. You will be well soon, Eugene, and I dare say she will tell you herself how lucky she is." He somewhat reluctantly entrusted his friend, gently, back to the pillow.
"I am doubly blessed to have such a loving wife and a loving friend both."
Mortimer attempted to smile. "Be sure to reward them both by getting well in all haste."
Eugene's hand fumbled for Mortimer's on the blanket. "Whatever happens to me, old friend, look after my Lizzie for me."
Mortimer squeezed the limp, dry hand. With a heavy heart, but fully intent on keeping his word, he promised, "I will, Eugene."
With a smile of relief, Eugene closed his eyes and fell into a light sleep.
A particularly cold morning saw Mortimer once again sitting by a dying fire, waiting less anxiously, but still waiting. He had not slept much nor well, and had woken from his most recent nap chilled to the bone. He was kneeling by the grate to stoke the fire back to life when Lizzie appeared by his side, and he was astonished that he had not even heard her steps. When he looked up, he saw she bore the same dark rimmed eyes and pale skin which greeted him each morning in the mirror.
"Eugene has rested well. He woke only once and fell asleep again immediately." The relief was clear in her voice and her wan smile.
Mortimer, relieved, rose and was about to thank her for letting him know when she swayed unsteadily, the hem of her dress nearly touching the fire. He caught her by the shoulders and lowered her into the chair alongside his own - the one Eugene used to occupy on long, quiet winter evenings they used to share; Mortimer wondered whether they would ever do so again.
"Forgive me, sir. I felt suddenly light-headed."
"I shouldn't wonder. You have barely slept in days." She looked at once like an uncertain child and an old, careworn woman. Mortimer, despite himself, felt a stab of sympathy. "Let me get you some tea and a few biscuits," he offered.
"Thank you." Lizzie smiled up at him gratefully, resting her head against the chair back.
When Mortimer returned, she was dozing lightly, but he cleared his throat and when she blinked at him, he set down the tray at her side and handed her a cup. "I thought refreshment might be of more urgency," he explained. "Then, perhaps you would care to have a proper rest. I shall be glad to stay with Eugene."
"Of course," she agreed. "He would like that very much. Thank you."
Until that moment, as he watched her drink her tea and nibble on a dry oat biscuit, Mortimer had not taken the time to consider that she was as dreadfully worried about Eugene as he was himself. He felt petty to have been so cold to her. She was not to know that she had, in a way, taken his place.
"He will be quite himself again soon," he assured her awkwardly. "You have cared well for him."
"As have you," she hurried to say. "Please, do not feel as though you are intruding. Come and see him, and sit with him, whenever you wish. You have many years of close friendship with Eugene, and he loves you dearly. He has spoken much of you during his waking times, and while I hope you do not find me presumptuous, I feel I have come to know you a little, through him."
Mortimer averted his eyes, gazing into the crackling fire. It was the brightness of the flames he blamed for the stinging of his eyes.
There was a soft sigh. "I believe I will take a nap now, Mr Lightwood. Thank you for the tea."
Mortimer looked at her as she stood tiredly. He did not know what to say, and the dense feeling in his throat prevented any easy, quick response. By the time he had swallowed it down, Lizzie had gone.
When Mortimer entered Eugene's room, he found his friend's eyes already trained in his direction, and a smile turned up his lips at once.
"There you are at last, my dear. Did Lizzie tell you I feel much improved?"
"She did, and I cannot recall better news." Mortimer perched on Eugene's bedside. Lizzie must have opened the window shutters, for a thin shaft of sunlight fell across the bed. It showed Eugene's bruising to have faded greatly, and the spark of life had returned to his eyes at last. "She is resting now. I will keep you company meanwhile, if you do not mind."
Eugene frowned. "I want you at my side whenever you care to see me, my friend. Do not feel like a poor substitute for Lizzie."
Not having expected such a straightforward comment from his ailing friend, Mortimer looked at him in wide-eyed astonishment. "I... well..."
"It is so good to see you. Lizzie tells me how you fret and worry out there by yourself. No more of that, my dear."
Mortimer swallowed down the tears threatening to rise up. "No, Eugene, no more of that."
"Good." Eugene covered his hand once more with his own. "Now tell me, do you think you could get me some proper food? I feel I need something a little more substantial than broth to draw me out of this bed. Something to fortify me so that I may rejoin my family."
Mortimer beamed. "Eugene, I will bring you a feast!" He extracted his hand reluctantly and leapt up. "Right away."
Eugene smiled at him. "Perhaps not quite a feast. A few morsels to tempt my returning appetite will do nicely."
"Indeed." With a spring in his step, Mortimer moved to the door, turning back once more to find Eugene gazing at him fondly. His smile widening even further, he hurried from the room and was halfway to the kitchen before he stopped in his tracks. He considered for a moment, then diverted his path to the room where Lizzie was resting. He knocked lightly and she bade him enter right away; clearly, she had been unable to go to sleep as yet.
She was already sitting up when he opened the door. Her full hair had come loose a little and her eyes were wild. "Is anything wrong, Mr Lightwood?" she asked anxiously.
Mortimer smiled. "Quite the contrary, Lizzie. Eugene has demanded food."
"Oh!" she exclaimed, covering her mouth with both hands as if to hold in the joy and relief all too clear in her eyes. A moment later she gave up on propriety and jumped up, tiredness forgotten, and flung herself into Mortimer's arms with a cry.
He held her for a few moments, smiling when she drew back looking embarrassed and suddenly wide awake.
"Shall I prepare something for him? Yes, yes, I will," she said, uselessly attempting to pat down her hair and straighten herself up. "I shall prepare him a good breakfast, and you, Mr Lightwood, can take it to him, yes?"
He blinked at her. "Mortimer," he said, his voice sounding a little choked. "Please, Lizzie, call me Mortimer."
Her answering smile was warmer than the sun.