It is well, Sebastian has often thought, that he was born a boy. Otherwise, he might never have attracted any notice when placed in the same room – or even the same country – as Viola. Both of them are educated, well-mannered, comely, gifted in both sport and dance: a credit to their noble parentage. But there is a wit in her conversation, a determination in her stance, and a spark of vitality in her expression that he cannot hope to outshine.
Why would he try? He, too, loves her more than himself. How many times in the wake of the shipwreck does he prattle of her virtues until even patient Antonio bids him change the subject, or curse the gods before pleading with them to take him in her stead?
He is not, then, as surprised as perhaps he should be to discover that his own wife agrees with this sentiment.
Still, as Olivia looks at him for what he realizes is the first time, a sharp pain splinters his heart at how the wild radiance of her gaze has turned to confusion and caution. Foolish to let himself believe he could so captivate any woman at first sight, let alone this woman.
"I only ever saw you," he hears Antonio's voice whisper in his ear, adoring, accusing. He brushes it aside. Hasty though it may have been, he made a vow. And he, at least, knew what and to whom he was swearing. Now he must ensure she does the same.
Slowly, he settles into the household, befriending the servants while careful not to challenge their mistress's place in their loyalty. His first and closest ally is the clown, Feste, who praises his ability to appreciate a joke without getting in the way of the delivery, and his willingness to furnish coin for various and sundry "emergencies" without demanding the details (though several of which he suspects relate to Olivia's uncle).
When she speaks of her brother, he listens, prompting her when he senses she needs to talk, and withdrawing when she begins to retreat into silent reflection. He knows all too well what it is to lose a sibling, and understands her loss all the more keenly in the joyful miracle of having had his restored.
In the morning, he watches the glints of sunlight in her hair, grinning unabashedly when she catches him staring. And in the night, when she rouses him from his own dreams with startled cries, he never asks the questions she is too shaken to answer: only holds her and bids her sleep until her brow uncreases and she settles back against the pillows, eyes closed once more.
He is not the man she fell in love with. Perhaps he never will be. But if it takes every waking moment of every hour of every day for the rest of his life, he will be one she can love.