HMS Laconia, Plymouth, England
"I shut my eyes, and would not understand you, or do you justice."
There was, perhaps, something of poetic justice to the fact that it was Mr. Shakespeare’s Iago who first scorned hearts worn upon sleeves.
What was the danger he imagined? The pecking of daws?
At this juncture, however, gulls would be more appropriate.
The shrieking cries of the shore birds beyond his porthole were certainly grating enough. It was impossible for Captain Frederick Wentworth to devote his attention to his sister's letter with all their uproar. Surely with such a racket, their constant bickering and scrapping, they could be as destructive as Shakespeare's daws.
If only there were something for them to destroy. There was no beating heart sitting upon the Captain's sleeve. Only a metaphorical one he, like so many others, had been born bearing: a Golden Mark.
A Golden Mark whose match could be found on the person of his, and any man who was similarly blessed, true love.
Since the dawn of time, men had been branded with these glowing symbols of God's loving interest in mankind's happiness. A Mark, Frederick had always been told in his schoolroom lessons, was a promise. An assurance from the Almighty that his true equal, his partner in life and love, walked the earth with him.
Of course, the danger in a promise is that it is so very easy to break.
Yes. It was quite fitting that Iago, that schemer, that betrayer, first spoke of such a marked weakness. Just as it was quite fitting that Frederick's Mark was laid out in shining gold across his arm.
Below every sleeve he wore, lay his heart.
It was likely too poetic a thought to share with his men. Too personal, as well. It was better not to share it with anyone. He certainly could not dash it off and send it to Sophia, though not because she would find the poetry of it offensive. It was far too morose to send to his sister. She already worried for his wellbeing as it was; he would not add this dark doubt. Still, Captain Wentworth would stand by his assessment.
So visible a heart, a weakness, only asked for pain.
Perhaps if he were to rid himself of the familiar cluster of lines—trust a sailor's Mark to point the way to Polaris—he could also rid himself of the heartache that now seemed so inextricably tied to it.
And what depths his heart knew! Compared to the dizzying heights of first seeing his Mark on precious Anne's skin, Frederick would have sworn his existence now was not much better than those who roamed the pits of Hell itself. That was what this existence was, surely. To live without the love of his Match, his twin soul, was little better than whatever curses the Devil himself could have dreamed up.
There were plenty of stories among sailors. Stories of sailors lost to sea and their Marked loves doomed to wait a lifetime for their return to shore. How unlucky it was that Frederick was doomed to the opposite. His match was lost to him as surely as those drowned sailors were to theirs. But Wentworth's match had chosen this existence. Anne had chosen the pride and position of her family over the love their bond assured.
It felt a lifetime since he had last seen her. In reality, it was but two years.
Two years he had spent alternately regretting and cursing his time at Monkford.
Cursing, for if had he never summered in his brother's country curacy, he never would have laid eyes on the Mark that so clearly matched his, laid out on skin as delicate and fair as his was weather-worn. He never would have met the damnable Anne Elliot— No. It was her father and sister and godmother who were damnable. Anne herself could only bear the blame for bending to another's will. That was more than enough blame to bear.
Regretting because even on the days he loathed the Mark that remained unaltered for all it had been so soundly rejected, Wentworth still wished Anne had made a different choice. They had been so happy, for a time. When he was capable, which happened only rarely, of looking back on his stay in Somerset with fondness, he was sure they could have remained so.
Had she been stronger, more steadfast—
Frederick laughed, humorless. Wishing for Anne's constancy was as fruitless as wishing the sky to collapse, the sun to go dark, the seas to dry up. Like the sky and the sun and the seas, Anne could do no more than that for which she was made. How clear it was now, as it had not been in those months he fell in love, that she was made only for the consequence of her family. Nonetheless, he still loved her.
With a sigh, Captain Wentworth turned back to the letter sitting abandoned on his desk.
This whole morose stroll through his pass had started because Sophia had written to tell him of that shortened sleeves were currently taking over all the most fashionable ladies' wardrobes in town. This undoubtedly spoke less to her belief in Frederick's interest in news of this vein than her desire to fill the page with anything at all. In fairness, Wentworth himself had not supplied her with much worthy of response. Short of telling her brother that he had become an abominable correspondent, she had taken to filling her letters with pointless nonsense, more to provoke some kind of riposte from him, he suspected, than because of her investment in these matters.
Surely, though, she could not have intended to inspire a reaction like this.
It was something of a surprise to even Frederick himself that Sophia's disinterested description of the shortening sleeves in ladies' gowns had spawned such a violent recollection of his one true heartbreak. An idle thought, spared for how Anne could possibly hide a Mark that was so clearly distasteful to her when her father and sister would insist on following the vagaries of fashion, was all it took to plunge him into a depth of melancholy he had not experienced since they were first separated.
And, for the first time since they were separated, Frederick was returned to the same country as Anne. He had been posted to a new ship, and needed to assume command, but it would be the work of only a day, perhaps two, to go to her. He was only a county away, rather than the entire ocean that had separated them the past two years.
If not, he could write to her. Tell her he still—
What good would it do? His words could hardly mean anything to her when the matching Marks on their skin had not been enough to overcome the whisperings of her father and Lady Russell. She had allowed herself to be swayed, led by the hand away from him. Could she ever have loved him, as she once claimed, if it was so easy for her to set aside his suit and the Mark that proved its sincerity? Certainly not.
Anne Elliot was nothing more than proud coward, and what use did a sailor, a captain, have for a wife like that?
No, a sailor needed a wife who knew her own mind and had a strength of conviction. Someone who would bear the burden of being left at port, but provide a sweet and warm welcome when her husband returned. A woman who could dine as easily with the Admiralty as she could show care for the lower ranks of enlisted men. A wife who honored her husband's profession.
That he could not think these things, believe them wholeheartedly, and still it was Anne's once dear face that filled his mind surely meant nothing. It was only her sudden proximity that threatened to undo his carefully constructed indifference.
He was indifferent to her fate. What care had he if she was already married? It had been two years. Surely her father had made her a more suitable match. Even now, she was likely raising a brood of children for some country squire or impoverished baron.
The thought, as it never did, gave Frederick no pleasure.
He set his letter aside. A reply to Sophia would keep. She had waited far longer for messages from him and would not grudge him this.
Absently, he turned his attention out of the porthole. The gulls had quieted or removed themselves to more welcoming environs. Only the steady swell and fall of the sea fill Wentworth's ears. He breathed in the salt air and wished to be back on open waters. Soon enough, he would get that wish. They sailed for Gibraltar within the week.
Perhaps when next he returned to England, all thoughts of Marks and regret and Anne Elliot would be left at sea where they belonged.
New York, New York
"So altered that he should not have known her again!"
Frederick Wentworth would be lying if he said his heart didn’t skip a beat the first time he laid eyes on Anne Elliot again.
It'd been eight years. Which, apparently, wasn't long enough to kill dead any tender memories Fred still harbored.
Luckily, since anger, hot and rushing, flooded his veins the second it recovered, he didn’t have to think too much about that.
The anger was a bit of a surprise. All week, he'd known that this meeting was inevitable. Even if he didn't relish its arrival, he hadn't really worried about it. What was there to worry about, anyway. A long-dead, whirlwind romance he'd had the semester he studied abroad in Rome? Yeah right. Fred hadn't even thought about Anne in years.
It didn't count if he didn't mean to do it, after all.
This past week had, of course, blown that streak out of the water. Between staying with his sister in the Elliot brownstone—the very house where Anne grew up—and regularly visiting with her brother-in-law's family—and, for someone who'd willingly tied himself to the Elliots, Charles Musgrove really wasn't so bad—it was clear that Anne Elliot was back in his life. Even if it was just on the periphery. It didn't matter how he maneuvered and finessed things to keep away from the younger Musgroves' house and their houseguest. As long as he continued not to tell anyone exactly what kind of history (or that they had one at all) he and Anne Elliot had—which just wasn't an option; he put up with curiosity and outright nosiness enough in his professional life, Fred wasn't going to let his new friends subject him to it, too—Anne and Fred would meet again. Was it so wrong to want to be prepared when it finally happened?
Okay, maybe he'd been a little worried.
Now that the moment of truth had come, though, Fred wasn't sure why.
Maybe he'd built Anne up in his mind over the past eight years. Maybe he'd made her into something she wasn't: a bored, little rich girl who liked the challenge of seducing him or, worse, someone who'd fallen in love and knew what life she wanted, but still wasn't strong enough to withstand her family's disapproval.
Either way, and even if neither take was completely accurate, the results were the same: Fred's broken heart.
(How this monster lived alongside the almost fond memory of his Annie, Fred didn't quite understand. Then again, he was an artist. Not a psychologist.)
This woman certainly wasn't any of those things.
Fred couldn’t say she was the woman he thought he'd known, either.
She'd changed. And not for the better. All of the wild, youthful energy he'd known and loved had leeched away, leaving behind something far frailer, more cautious. In the nearly fifteen minutes he'd been in the room, she hadn't looked at him a single time. Once, he would've expected her to challenge him in spite of—because of, even—their history. Now, she sat quietly, sipping coffee as her sister continued to complain about the weather, and otherwise doing her utmost to blend into the background.
Her spark was gone. The girl he’d loved so desperately was gone.
Sure, maybe a lot of it had to do with the fact that neither of them were 19 and running around a foreign country, falling in love, but it wasn't just age that had rubbed away the vigor of Annie's smile, the laughter in her eyes. It was something much harsher.
She should have regrets. More than Fred did, anyway. He was the one who'd done everything right. He'd stood by his decisions, tried to convince her to do the same. Fat lot of good that had done him.
He couldn’t help but hate her. Hate her for neither confirming his worst thoughts of her nor living up to his kinder memories. Hate her even more than he had in those months after she first broke up with him, standing outside their favorite trattoria. He'd had to leave Rome to escape the feeling of the knife twisting in his back every time he passed some familiar landmark.
(Just outside that museum, walking through the gardens, was where he first saw her. Stab. That gelateria was where they ended their first date and she stole half of his stracciatella. Twist. That piazza was where he first sketched her laughing, and where, when he showed her the final product, she finally kissed him. Pain.)
Hell, he'd had to leave the entire country to escape the ghost of his teenage weakness and stupidity. Not that it had worked all that well. The thing about memories was that the more he tried to forget, the more ended up thinking about them. It didn't matter how many canvases he filled with his rage and betrayal and heartbreak. Just as many were covered in the feeling of waking up with her head on his chest, the color of her eyes as the sun set, what her music sounded like drifting through the studio.
It didn't escape Fred that his muse, even all these years later, was still the girl who'd first broken his heart. He'd only painted her the once—God, he hated that painting, hoped to never see it again, in fact—but everything else still had a bit of Annie in it.
But this woman in front of him, sitting in the living room of her sister's well-appointed Manhattan apartment? This wasn't the woman who'd confessed to dreaming of a career as a songwriter and listened to his dreams of making it as a painter in return, the one who'd gone for joy rides on Vespas through narrow Roman alleys, and got drunk on cheap wine in his cheaper apartment. That was Annie, the love of his life, the woman he missed every day.
This was just Anne. A virtual stranger.
He'd already greeted the lady of the house, Mary Musgrove née Elliot, traded a few pleasantries and nodded politely through her well-bred complaints thinly veiled as an apology for the size and disarray of her apartment. Fred hadn't thought it was possible for minimalism to experience disarray, but managed to get through the encounter without earning more than one purse of Mary's lips.
There was no more putting off the inevitable.
So, he smiled and tried not to dissect whether or not this one was different from the one he'd flashed the Musgrove girls already. "Frederick," he said, offering Anne a nod rather than a hand to shake. "Nice to meet you."
Startled, her gaze finally shifted away from the spot over his shoulder and right into his. Her chapped lips parted, but no sound escaped her as she blinked, once, twice, three times in a row, like she couldn't quite believe what was happening. It was impossible, for Fred at least, not to see the confusion and hurt that flashed across her face.
It didn't feel as good as he wanted it to. It didn't feel that bad, either, though.
"Nice to meet you," Anne echoed, not quite faint. Her eyes turned away from his again.
There. The first hurdle cleared.
Before Fred could congratulate himself any further, the Musgrove girls leapt into the conversation, chattering about the plans to go to the Met.
"Fred's a famous artist you know," Henrietta—Fred was 80% sure it was Henrietta—enthused to Anne, who had recovered enough to look politely interested in this information. "He's a painter."
He tried to head that off, uncomfortable with the way Anne's attention darted back to him, though he couldn't say whether it was surprise or judgment that colored her expression. Huh. Guess he didn't know her so well, after all. Smiling charmingly, he demurred, "I wouldn't say—"
The other one—Louisa maybe?—was already on a roll, though. "That little gallery in Soho— You know the one, Anne! With your mom's self-portrait?"
Mary took that moment to sourly interject, "With our mom's self-portrait, you mean? It's not like I was adopted or something."
Louisa traded an exasperated look with Henrietta but didn't argue with her sister-in-law. Apparently everyone unlucky enough to meet one learned not to dispute an Elliot. Anne, meanwhile, set her cup down without the ceramic so much as making a clink against the glass table and reached out for her sister. Mary shook her off without even looking. Fred wished he hadn't been.
"Right." For one syllable, Louisa managed to pack in a lot of subtext. Then, back to her more bubbly approach from earlier, she continued,"Anyway, they've got a whole collection dedicated to Fred's work. He's the youngest artist they've ever showcased like that."
"That's quite the accomplishment," Anne said, though she wouldn't quite make eye contact. There was nothing to decipher from her tone, either. She was Switzerland, and it was pissing Fred off.
Not because it felt unnatural to struggle to understand this woman. Definitely not that.
"Especially for someone without many connections," Mary added shrewdly, proving that Walter Elliot's influence extended to all his daughters. Finally, she sat forward, abandoning her magazine in favor of scrutinizing Frederick. Her sister picked up her mug again and did her best to hide behind its wide rim. Yeah, that seemed right. "Have you had any gallery shows before?"
As politely as he could, he replied, "Oh, here and there," offering a bland smile when she looked dissatisfied.
"He's just being modest!" Henrietta—it was Henrietta! Unless Louisa had an "H" pendant—broke in.
Not to be outdone by her younger sister, Louisa added, "They've even got something that's never been shown in public before! The only one that's never been shown."
It was true. Even after he went back to the easel at 21 and finally finished his portrait of Anne, Fred could never bring himself to put the thing on display. He didn't want to answer questions about it or let anyone else in on the bubble of his doomed relationship. It wasn't enough to have painted it, but it was something.
Yet, out of his entire collection, many of which were objectively better than what he'd accomplished in his haze of first romantic idealism and then bleak heartache, it was the only thing anyone ever wanted to talk about. And not just to him, either. Without his realizing it, Frederick Wentworth and his mysterious Untitled were the talk of the art world.
Here, Anne gave up on running out the clock on this visit. Her gaze landed back on him, but there was something much sharper about it now. There was no way she could know this painting, this strange aberration in style that everyone seemed so keen to study and dissect and speculate over, like it wasn't his beating heart, was the only one he'd ever done of her. She'd known when he started the studies and even began the underpainting, but it wasn't as if they were speaking when he finished. Fred still beat back the urge to swallow nervously. Annie might not have shrunk from reading him the riot act, but he had a hunch Anne wouldn't dare, especially not in front of her sister.
"Oh?" she asked, managing polite, detached interest better than he ever could. "How interesting."
He shrugged, but the Musgroves beat him to the punch again. Louisa nodded fervently, saying, "It's all very mysterious. Hardly anyone's ever seen it in person, but it's all anyone's talking about. And no one knows who the model is, either—you can't even see her face!"
"She's naked!" Henrietta giggled, leaning against her sister's shoulder. Louisa managed not to join in, but it was near thing.
Still, that didn't stop her from frowning judgmentally. "Just her back." At this, the line of Anne's shoulders loosened, barely perceptible even to those watching. Of course, only Fred was, so Louisa was free to go on. "Really, Hetty, there's nothing to laugh about. It's Art."
The younger Musgrove frowned, but she did stop laughing. Then, clearly trying to rebuild her credibility, she turned to Fred, eyes wide and innocent, "You're really not going to tell anyone who your model was? Not even us?"
She batted her eyelashes, and he just managed not to chuckle. Instead, and without directing so much as a glance Anne's way, he replied, "Oh, she's no one. Just someone I once knew."
Louisa and Henrietta—and even Mary in a more distant way—looked disappointed by this information. Their pouting, however, had nothing on the way Anne looked down at her hands, bottom lip caught between her teeth. Her cheeks were pale, but Fred had a sneaking suspicion that if she lifted her eyes, they might shine with more than just the early afternoon light.
It didn't make something in the pit of his stomach, wedged hard against his ribs and growing fast, seize up.
Fred couldn't be more grateful when Charles finally came back and signaled an end to this interview.
But even as he walked through the streets of New York, preparing himself to guide two gratifyingly interested girls—and their brother—through the Met, Frederick couldn't quite shake the image of Anne Elliot alone and lonely, even surrounded by her family.
Well, he tried to convince himself, smiling invitingly at Louisa—this one was Louisa, right?—and telling himself to enjoy the way she grinned flirtatiously back, that only meant he wasn't trying hard enough.
Uppercross, Somertunshire, Brytain
"Do you mean that she refused him?"
Diolenna swooped low over the open fields, stretching their bond as far as it could reach.
Perhaps a bit further than she should, if Frederick were to be perfectly honest. Such as it was, he was left to hide a grimace as the bond tugged at some place hidden in his heart. Much as he could not approve of her antics, he was loath to call attention to it. Better to let her express her displeasure in this tried and true display, and let her return at her own pace. At sea, when he'd displeased her, she would skim over the waves, pulling him very nearly over the rail before consenting to wheel back, sure he had learned his lesson.
On this fine morning, though, Frederick had no idea what had ruffled her feathers. The sun shone, warming the turning leaves and rustling grass with a hazy, golden glow. A gentle breeze wafted over the countryside, carrying the scent of drying hay. Summer approached its end, but not before leaving one last memory of its passing.
In short, it was a perfect day to revel in the outdoors, just as he was doing. His daemon could not begrudge him that.
Furthermore, and suspecting this to be the true crux of his harrier's disgruntlement, Captain Wentworth had yet to even speak to Miss Elliot today. Surely he could not have done anything to upset either her or his touchy daemon.
As if she heard his thoughts, Diolenna let out a low cry and reeled, sweeping over his head, just low enough for her talons to rake over the top of his hat.
At his side, Miss Louisa Musgrove shrieked in delighted terror and clutched at his arm, which she had yet to relinquish from when he'd helped her over the last stile. Combined with the way she had been smiling archly up at him, Frederick had a better idea of what had begun to bother his ordinarily reserved daemon.
Nonetheless, Frederick elected not to care. He was having quite a marvelous time, even in spite of the unplanned addition of the ladies of Uppercross Cottage to this walk. In spite of having to take a walk at all, having intended to go shooting with Charles. But a long walk with agreeable company—agreeable company in the form of a pretty, young lady at that—was no chore.
Miss Louisa settled again, though she did not take the opportunity to resume her previous—far more respectable—distance. Frederick elected to ignore this, too. Her own daemon, a small, yellow songbird of some kind, darted around them in a passable imitation of the much larger Diolenna. His range was shorter than hers, and he kept returning to Louisa to reassure them both, but he made up for it with a display of dizzying spirals and loops. The outstretched tips of his wings cut awfully close to Frederick on several occasions.
With Miss Henrietta and Charles visiting with their cousins and Miss Elliot and Mrs Musgrove left behind on the other side of hedgerow, the only person he could possibly hope to impress was Frederick himself. And Frederick was quite willing to be impressed. It was not so wrong, after all, to relish in the attention of an eligible young lady.
If Frederick allowed this good mood to influence his tongue, that was hardly his fault. It was hardly likely that Miss Louisa Musgrove attended his words with any diligence. She was as flighty as her fleet daemon, which suited Frederick just fine.
Although, she did laugh when he said something droll about Mrs. Musgrove's refusal to go down and attend her husband's family, so perhaps her attention was not quite as scattered as Frederick had believed.
"Oh, Mary!" she exclaimed, her little bird daemon coming back to perch on her bonnet. "She can be quite agreeable, I will admit, but when her pride is called up, there is no reasoning with her. All because she was born an Elliot of Kellynch Hall." They strolled for a moment longer, searching for more hazelnuts, before she sighed, sounding truly regretful. "If only it had been Anne who agreed to marry Charles."
Captain Wentworth only just managed to keep his footing at this revelation. It took a moment before he could reply, his mouth unexpectedly dry as tinder. Silently, and sensing his discomfort, Diolenna settled on his shoulder, her beak carding through what little hair she could reach beneath the brim of his hat. It gave him the strength to swallow and say, "Anne? And Charles?"
"Oh, yes. Charles proposed to her first. I thought you knew. You've been spending so much time with my brother."
Frederick did not reply that gentlemen, particularly when they had been acquainted for so short a time as he and Mr. Musgrove, hardly discussed their failed romantic entanglements. And that was doubly true when those entanglements happened to be with the same woman.
Instead, he hummed, a short note that could convey more about the listener's inclinations than the sounder's intent, which was more than enough to set Miss Louisa off again.
Conspiratorially, she said, "Henrietta and I think it was Lady Russell that put Anne off the match. That Charles was not good enough for her, so of course Anne wouldn't agree."
Now, that was a familiar story indeed. And one that made it all the easier for Frederick to shake off the disquieting desire to knock at least two of Charles Musgrove's teeth in. The gall! He thought he was worthy of Anne's—
Perhaps it was not quite easy to shake off that particular desire.
"But she did refuse him?" At her confirmation, he could not help but ask, "And when did this happen?"
Louisa thought for a moment, nose wrinkling with the effort. "Sometime when Hetty and I were both at school. But it must have been a year before he married Mary instead. Perhaps five years ago?"
After she had begged off from their engagement, then. Captain Wentworth did not quite know what to do with that information.
For her part, Miss Musgrove continued to prattle on, even as they turned back down the lane to return to the waiting ladies. Frederick hardly listened, too deep in his racing thoughts to spare any attention for the gossip of a country neighborhood.
Most of the gossip at the very least.
Part of him, the part that always sounded suspiciously like Diolenna, wished Anne could be happily settled, even if it was not as his wife. Who could ask for a better family than the Musgroves to welcome her into their fold? Surely she would be happier as the mistress of her own home, with sisters of whom she could be unreservedly fond and a mother and father who recognized her goodness, her sweetness.
The vast majority of Frederick's mind, though, rebelled at the thought of Anne married to a man, though good-hearted and clever enough, of such inferiority as Charles Musgrove. Surely she would have made him a better man, someone worthy of the place in the neighborhood he would one day inherit, but who would care for Anne's betterment? Who would encourage her to improve herself? She deserved a husband who came to the alliance as her equal. A man who would encourage her to be brave even as she counseled economy. Someone to be her true partner.
A man like Frederick Wentworth, perhaps.
Only "like." That path had been closed to the man himself for many years.
Soon, he and Miss Louisa made it back to the other ladies. No sooner had they returned than Mary, strolling through the sun with Anne, called Louisa away, leaving Frederick to lean against the stile to await the rest of their party's return.
Diolenna shifted her wings. It only spoke to her shift in mood that she did not clip his ear or knock off his hat with her mantling.
"You cannot be surprised someone else made an offer to her," she murmured, low enough not to carry on the breeze.
No, he could not. He said as much. "She could have been happy. Happier than she is."
"I believe most situations would be happier than Anne's," Diolenna remarked, "but think only one would truly make her happy."
The subtext, as it always was when his daemon spoke of Anne, was clear.
Diolenna had always been more fair-minded when it came to their separation from Anne and her Haruzen. Where Frederick had raged and eventually sunk himself behind strong walls and a resolution to remain single, Diolenna had mourned and never truly stopped. True, she had not brought Anne up independently in years, but she was the one who relished the chance to return to Somerset and the familiar neighborhood of Kellynch once again.
Frederick could, perhaps, admit that she had been right. He had been prepared to return to the Elliots' sphere and feel all over again his inferiority and the impossibility of ever gaining Anne's hand. Age and experience had rid him of the former—what did a country baronet know of Frederick Wentworth's stature?—though the second remained. After Louisa's idle gossip, its strength had only grown.
If Charles Musgrove, who would one day inherit a fine house and was so intimately acquainted with the Elliots, was found wanting, what hope did Frederick Wentworth have? With his career—though brilliant—and pedigree—thoroughly indifferent—surely he would never be seen as a proper match for a daughter of Kellynch Hall.
Even a daughter so disappointing, to them if no one else, as Miss Anne Elliot.
Captain Wentworth was well aware it was a matter of some embarrassment to Sir Walter that the daemon of one of his daughters settled as a dog. That poor Haruzen did not even have the good manners to settle as a dignified hound or elegant lapdog only made the shame that much more acute. After all, the rest of the family had managed to keep a form in line with the gravity and consequence of the baronetcy. The regally self-important house cat of Sir Walter, his late wife's delicate songbird, his eldest's showy peacock, and even the slightly surprising primate of his youngest were all true credits to the Elliot name.
A sheepdog and the woman he reflected, though, were only sources of embarrassment. As the baronet had no compunction in relating to Miss Anne.
In his darker moments, Frederick had derived a certain amount of pleasure from that knowledge.
Now, though, he could only regard Haruzen with a chagrined fondness. His large frame was meant for the outdoors; there was no delicate furniture or narrow halls for him to dwarf. Just the rolling expanse of hills, broken up by fences and hedgerows. Were he a real dog, with a real flock to defend, he could not look more at home
Unlike Diolenna, though, he did not stray far from his other half. The great fellow pressed close to Miss Elliot's skirts, his large, shaggy head casting from side to side as he viewed the terrain. Captain Wentworth had no trouble believing that Miss Elliot was similarly alert, though her attention was admirably trained on her fretting sister.
It was the pricking of his ears that alerted Frederick and Diolenna to Henrietta and Charles' approach, accompanied by the young Mr. Hayter.
With their party united, and expanded, once more, Frederick forced himself to push all thoughts of Anne and her missed future as Mrs. Charles Musgrove (and Mrs. Frederick Wentworth, he was sure Diolenna would urge) as far from his mind as possible.
At least on the walk back to the Great House, Diolenna did not subject him to any strong tugs at their bond.
There was enough of a clenching in his chest. He did not need her adding to it.
Unified Galactic Tech-Base LYM-3
"Turning to her and speaking with a glow, and yet a gentleness, which seemed almost restoring the past."
There were any number of things that Captain First Class Frederick Wentworth could be doing with his time. He was a highly decorated war hero, a commander with an impeccable track record, a tactician with a long string of successes under his belt. Any interstellar conglomerate would have counted itself lucky to hire him after his last tour, and his contract, with the Unified Galactic Corps, was up.
But no. He had to re-up and sign on to this.
This being command of the UGSS Cassandra.
He'd thought the assignment was a dream come true. The Cassandra was just a small ship out of the Unified Galactic Corps' training fleet, and one that traveled entirely through protected space, at that. After cutting his teeth in the Contested Territories, fending off raiders and coordinated attacks from the System, Frederick had thought commanding a ship full of newly minted cadets would be as easy piloting through a Class Four Kenosian Galaxy. Which he could do asleep and with one arm of his regulation atmosuit malfunctioning. Whipping a handful of green, but enthusiastic, space explorers into shape was practically a vacation.
Unfortunately, he'd thought wrong.
Not only was it a constant battle to temper the hotheaded, brash impulses of his new crew, he had to do it under the watchful eye of the one woman who'd ever broken his heart.
Technically, he was her superior; he was meant to supervise her. And yet, Frederick doubted that something as trivial as official rank and military order could make a dent in the famed Elliot pride. Even if that pride must have taken a hit or two when Anne decided to join up in the first place.
When he took command of the ship, and realized Anne was on board—as a doctor, too, not just a medic—he'd toyed with the urge to summon her to his office and lay down the law. Even as a non-combatant, she was under his command. She could expect no gentle treatment from him because of their past. The opposite would be closer to the truth.
Before he could quite talk himself into one direction or the other, though, she'd appeared at his door , promising to stay out of his way as well as she was able. And from that day to this, she had. Though he was aware of her presence on the ship, and even on a few of the sporadic missions he conducted with the cadets, she very nearly bled into the background. The occasions that she didn't, Wentworth had to begrudgingly admit that time had served her well; she was a calm, cool head in any situation and was a credit to her profession.
Those were the appropriate, professional things he was allowed to think of her. To his surprise, the things he wasn't had gradually shifted from embittered longing to something slightly gentler. Nobler, maybe.
Still, Anne mostly kept out of his way. She'd learned how to keep a promise, he supposed.
Frederick groaned and wished he had something to drink. If he'd known he would be saddled with a crew of cadets with more daring than sense and the one woman he'd ever wanted to grow old with, he would have jumped at retirement. The chance to fill his days with frivolous things like asteroid surfing or exploratory exozoology. Anything but the soul-wearying grind of living out the same day over and over and over.
Because he was stuck in a time loop.
Technically, they were all stuck in a loop, which he expected was courtesy of some rogue experiment gone awry here on base. Once the issue resolved itself, providing he even remembered the experience, Frederick intended to make sure Harville started keeping a better eye on his staff, providing Harville wasn't responsible himself. That was the problem with stranding so many scientists on a remote base like this. They all enabled each other, too interested in the could-bes to consider the should-wes.
The fact that Fred appeared to be the only one aware of the anomaly was neither comforting nor helpful, though he did have to admit this was better than the time he'd been stuck in a loop while on a raid in a System-controlled galaxy.
Which was all because of Cadet Louisa Musgrove.
What should have been a simple supply run and intelligence briefing on the tech-base LYM-3, with just a handful of cadets and senior officers in attendance while the rest of the ship ran evasive maneuvering drills in the unique atmosphere of the base, quickly devolved into a nightmare.
Louisa, when one of the developers conducting their lab tour complained about his inability to make any more progress in his highly experimental anti-gravity atmosuit, immediately volunteered for the job. From the first, Frederick tried to warn her away from this course, but she would not listen. He was relatively sure her insistence was tied more to her desire to prove herself against the mild reprimand he'd given the previous evening as they disembarked on base than any interest towards furthering scientific horizons, but what did it matter?
Nothing he did, within the loop anyway, seemed to have any effect; Cadet Musgrove was determined to pilot that anti-grav suit come hell or hydrogen fuel.
(She was almost as bad as her brother; and never, in his nearly fifteen years with the Unified Galactic Corps, had Frederick ever thought he'd meet someone to rival Dick Musgrove's particular brand of stupidity. That the successor to Ensign Musgrove's reign of infamy should be another Musgrove was only too appropriate.)
He could assign her to the bridge or the galley or the medbay, suggest someone else to test the suit, cancel the tour all together, order her to stand down, threaten to suspend her, but none of it had any effect.
So, every day, Frederick had to re-watch the stubborn girl leap from the scaffolding, laugh with unbridled delight as she hovered weightlessly for a brief moment, before screaming in terror as she plunged back to the ground and the tech failed. The way her screams stopped so suddenly was worse.
How many times had he seen it? At least twenty, though some days he managed not to be on site for the event. The sickening crack of her leg as she collided with the ground, not to mention the echoing thump of her head, hadn't become any less horrifying with repetition. It didn't help that Frederick had yet to get over the numb shock that stole over him and arrested his ability to function every time it happened. His periods of inaction were coming in shorter now, but he hadn't yet succeeded in suppressing the reaction entirely. In the first two or three cycles, it could probably be excused, but at this point was just getting pathetic.
He was the only person on base aware that this had all happened before, and he still couldn't come up with an appropriate response to seeing one of his crewmembers do her very best to get herself killed.
The calm, measured response was left to Anne.
Every time, every cycle through, she was the first to leap into action: sending Dr. Benwick off for a gurney and scanner from the medbay, keeping the other trainees calm, rallying the senior officers—including Frederick himself—into order.
Every time, Frederick had watched her take command of the situation, and every time, he'd been a little more in awe. No matter the circumstances, which only seemed to change based on what he did in the scant hours before the tour—not that he was any closer to finding a way out of this temporal glitch—Anne was always levelheaded, calm, and authoritative.
It certainly wasn't the first time since taking over the Cassandra that Frederick had caught a glimpse of the woman he'd fallen in love with, but it felt more significant now somehow. Maybe because this wasn't just Anne as she'd been when they fell in love; it was Anne as the woman she could've grown into at his side. Each time the cycle reset and she flew into action once more, the impression only grew stronger.
Unfortunately, so did his conviction that she would never look his way again. He'd burned that bridge too thoroughly to ever think he could cross back over.
Frederick just couldn't face it all today. He needed a break, and he was taking it. Who was going to stop him? As he'd thoroughly proven the past two weeks, the time loop wasn't going anywhere. Maybe it'd be easier to figure his way out of it if he didn't have to watch a horrifying accident unfold before his very eyes. It was worth a shot, at least.
Which was exactly why he hadn't left his borrowed quarters yet today. Actually, he hadn't yet left his bed. There were only so many times a man could watch a young woman, who he was increasingly sure only wanted to impress him, put herself in danger and succumb to the odds in every instance.
Tomorrow, he thought darkly, tomorrow I'm raiding Harville's stash of bootleg whiskey before holing up. This is all gonna be his fault anyway, he might as well start paying me back.
Before he could further embellish this plan, a sharp flurry of knocks sounded at his door. In spite of himself—though more because the person on the other side refused to stop and leave him in peace—Frederick struggled upright and made his way over. With a quiet, mechanical rush, the door slid into the wall to reveal—
Frederick blinked down at her. He'd never seen her like this before. She looked positively livid, which was the only possible explanation for her presence when she'd been doing such a good job avoiding him until now.
"What are you doing?" she demanded, a dark flush riding high on her usually pale cheeks. "Why weren't you on the tour?"
"The tour?" he echoed, at a loss. Yes, this was the first time he hadn't bothered to show up at all for another round of yesterday's events, but he'd assumed no one would bother him about it after the medical alert he'd posted for himself early in the morning. At least not in person. Sagittarian Flu was nothing to sneeze at. Literally. It constricted the lungs until there wasn't enough oxygen left to sneeze, and it was highly contagious.
"Commander Harville's tour of the Development Lab was today. You were supposed to accompany them."
He didn't argue. Officially, he was supposed to accompany them, but officially, he wasn't supposed to be in a time loop, either. Yet, here he was. "Did something happen?" he sighed instead, already knowing the answer.
"Cadet Musgrove," Anne reported, worry lines creasing her brow, "as she tested a prototypical anti-grav suit, had an accident. She's in the medbay in induced stasis while the scanners run a diagnostic test on her."
It was the most Anne had spoken to him in one go in years. Still, he nodded and did his best to put on a concerned expression. "It sounds like you had everything well in order. I'll visit her tomorrow."
Like she could sense his insincerity, Anne frowned. "You didn't answer my question. Why weren't you there? You should have been—"
"I'm sick," he tried, adding a pitiful cough for effect.
Her frown turned thunderous. "You are not. Definitely not with Sagittarian Flu at least. Tell me the truth. Why weren't you on the tour?"
"Because I didn't feel well enough—"
"You should have been there! You could have put a stop to it!"
"I could have put a stop to it?" he scoffed, like he hadn't done everything in his power to put a stop to it. That seemed like the most likely way out of the loop, after all. Find a way to keep Louisa from injuring herself, maybe teach her a thing or two about deliberation and caution, and he could get back to real life where the days only happened once.
"Yes! She looks up to you! You could—"
"What? Order her to stand down?"
"There's an idea!" Anne spat, practically vicious and—
Was it wrong to like her even more for it? To have confirmation that the fire in her hadn't completely burned out?
Wentworth could practically see it, flaring in her eyes. Smell it, too, the way smoke threatened to curl out of her ears she was so incensed. Her head was tilted back so she could meet his gaze directly, which, distantly, Frederick realized was only because he'd stepped into her personal space, looming over her.
"I'm still your captain, Dr. Elliot," he warned, matching her tone.
"Then act like it!"
"You're skirting dangerously close to insubordination," Frederick reminded her. If she wanted a captain, she could damn well have one. "I could sanction you for this conversation alone."
"Do it," she laughed, a little too panicked and shrill for him to take her at her word. "It doesn't matter! You won't remember this anyway." Frederick straightened at that, but Anne hardly noticed, too caught up in her indignation. "Weeks. Weeks I have been trying every possible thing I can think of to keep Louisa from jumping. I've gone to Harville, Benwick, Louisa herself, but none of it worked because of course it's you! Of course it's you I have to confront when I'd rather jump myself off that scaffolding myself!"
Her eyes widened as soon as the words were out of her mouth. Pure mortification flooded her face. Rather than let Frederick reply, though he was still too caught up in the realization that he wasn't the only one conscious of the time loop, she turned on her heel and fled down the corridor.
Shocked, Frederick stared after her.
Entirely inappropriate, a burble of laughter welled up in his chest, throat, and out his mouth. Of course it was Anne stuck in this System-blessed loop with him. Who else would it be? Definitely not anyone who could stand him even a little bit.
Still laughing and cursing his luck, Frederick Wentworth went back to bed and waited for the day to reset.
Hogwarts Castle, Scotland
"No!" he replied impressively, "there is nothing worth my staying for;" and he was gone directly.
Maybe it was too self-centered to have expected that once he cleared up the whole mess with Louisa Musgrove—and how lucky was he that Benwick somehow stumbled onto the scene, primed to fall in love, or at least have a good snog or two, again—things with Anne would fall into place without much more effort at all.
He'd become too used to her being overlooked, or at least only noted for her usefulness. Even now, as seventh years, it seemed that all anyone wanted was Anne the Head Girl. Not Anne the pretty witch or Anne the clever potioneer—unless someone wanted her notes, that was. To most of Hogwarts, she was all too easy to overlook in favor of her yearmates or sisters—the legacy of Elizabeth Elliot did loom large, after all.
Not to Frederick, though. In spite of their short-lived romance last year and fraught break up, he had never really stopped loving Anne. Yes, even when he was acting like a right git and rubbing his rebound with Louisa in her face. He liked to think that he'd matured over the course of the year. He'd definitely cleaned up his act. All for Anne and the future he wanted them to have.
It seemed so neat. Tidy. But mostly, it seemed right. N.E.W.T.s were over, soon they'd leave school for good, and start making their way in the world, fully qualified witches and wizards. Of course Fred would do it with Anne at his side.
He would make a professional quidditch team and Anne would begin her training at Saint Mungo's. They'd get a little flat in London, with room for Anne's cat and his sound system. Sometimes, they'd have friends over or go out, but mostly they'd turn off the Floo and hang out together because they'd already missed out on so much time with one another.
It all played out in such dazzling detail across his mind's eye. Of course Fred never questioned it. After all, once they left Hogwarts and started building their own lives, there was no reason for him and Anne to stay broken up. No reason for Anne to listen to the worries of Professor Russell or her father. Or at least no reason to listen to them over the beating of her own heart.
Yes, Frederick Wentworth was positive that he wanted Anne Elliot in his life after Hogwarts.
He even thought Anne might not hate the idea of it, too. She was finally talking to him the way she had last year, before everything went down in flames. She'd look at him without that guarded expression in her eyes. Sometimes, she ate lunch or dinner with him. Even breakfast, where he barely resembled a person, let alone someone anyone would want to spend time with. They had conversations again, about more than just coursework, though that came up often enough, too. Anne no longer hid herself away in the darkest corners of the library. Instead, she in the Herbology section where he could always find her and her table always had enough room for his books as well as hers.
Best of all, Anne was smiling at him again.
For anyone who thought a smile shouldn't be the best part of anything, Fred would just say that they obviously had never been on the receiving end of an Anne Elliot smile.
So, with just a few weeks to the end of term, he'd started hatching a plan. It even seemed to be going pretty well.
Which, of course, meant it was high time for someone to throw a spanner in the works.
Not that Frederick had any reason to believe William Elliot knew a spanner from a space bar. It wasn't as if he'd ever deign to take Muggle Studies.
Still, Elliot made a pretty convincing, if proverbial, spanner, having spent the last few weeks cozying up to Anne, getting in her good graces. After, Fred would like pointed out, seven whole years of neglecting to acknowledge her existence at all.
And Anne—who likely didn't have bad graces to speak of—did not appear nearly as repulsed as she should be.
(Marrying a distant cousin might be completely normal in a pure-blood family like Anne's, but it certainly wasn't in a muggle one like Fred's. And pure-bloods thought they could look down their noses at muggle-borns. Ha!)
To be fair, there was nothing in Anne's reaction to Elliot that indicated their relationship was sliding anywhere near marriage from semi-estranged distant cousins, but could anyone blame Fred for worrying? William Elliot was exactly the make, if not the right model, that Professor Russell probably wanted Anne to end up with. Head Boy, Prefect before that, excellent marks in the classes that counted for anything. And he came from the right kind of family.
But that didn't matter tonight. Because tonight was the night that Frederick Wentworth made his move and secured the lasting happiness he was so sure Anne's love and partnership could provide.
He was wearing his nicest robes—even though seven years in the wizarding world had done nothing to convince him that they were at all practical or in any way better than a regular suit—had put actual effort into styling his hair, and charmed the disgusting spot that had erupted overnight off his chin. In short, he'd never looked better.
So, it was with an extra bounce in his step that he walked into Professor Slughorn's magically expanded office for one last end of term gathering.
Immediately, he caught sight of Anne, wearing the same pale yellow robes she'd worn to this party last year. She'd done something different with her hair, though, had swept it off her shoulders so only a few short strands dangled down, brushing her neck. Fred battled back the urge to curl one around his finger and draw her in close. There'd be time for that later.
He didn't think the way Anne lit up when she saw him, too, was just wishful thinking. She gave an apologetic smile to the boy she'd been talking to and headed straight for him.
"Fred," she greeted, with the same sweet smile he'd once counted as his favorite thing in the castle. In the world, probably. And, okay. There was no once about it. As soon as it had caught his attention, back in fifth year, it had become his favorite thing. "I wasn't sure you'd come."
"Couldn't miss the last Slug Club party, could I?"
"Exactly!" she exclaimed before shaking her head, a little rueful. "Will didn't agree. He said there were better things to do than hang about with the same lot we've seen the past seven years."
Merlin, what a wanker.
Fred just managed to avoid rolling his eyes. Instead he asked, as casual as possible, "And how is Willy, anyway? Still transfiguring his tomatoes into toejam?"
Anne laughed, but she still gave him a mild scold. "You know he hates being called that."
"I forgot," he lied.
She grinned, like she could see right through him. Fred wouldn't be surprised if she really could. Anne had always known him better than anyone but maybe Sophia. Still, she didn't call him on it, instead asking, "So, what did you think of that Charms practical?"
It wasn't until later, much later, that Frederick realized he'd passed most of the evening wrapped up in Anne.
Not literally. Even if it was impossible to believe it really had been almost an entire year since he'd last kissed Anne. Looking at her now, with her flushed cheeks and dark eyes and pink, grinning mouth, Fred couldn't possibly imagine what had kept him away so long except his own colossal stupidity. Still, the figurative was almost as good. It was like it had been before they'd dated, when they were testing the waters, teasing and talking and generally flirting. It felt good. Right. None of the awkwardness and anger of earlier in the year.
It was a sign. Time to make his move.
Except the minute Fred opened his mouth to tell Anne how he felt, who should show up but that obnoxious git William Elliot? Did he have a spell to sense when he was least wanted to time his entrances or something?
Honestly, it was possible.
"Will, you came!" Anne exclaimed, wrapping her cousin—her distant, distant cousin—in a hug.
"I hated the thought of you alone with the rabble," he drawled, casting a judgmental eye around the partygoers. When that eye landed on Fred himself, there was no mistaking the smug smirk tugging at the corner of Elliot's mouth.
"Be nice," Anne scolded, but she was smiling anyway. Smiling the exact same way she'd just been smiling at Fred.
It was more than enough to pour a big bucket of ice all over Frederick's hopes for the night. And the future, if he were even a little honest.
Merlin, he was always going to love a girl he couldn't have, wasn't he?
Woodenly, because someone might as well have spiked the punch with a Draught of Despair for how willing he was to give a genuine one, Fred smiled. Anne smiled back, automatic, until he began to inch away. "I should get back to the tower," he said, more than a little listless.
"Already?" Anne certainly wasn't smiling now. While that meant she wasn't smiling at her cousin, Fred had long since moved past wanting any of Anne's unhappiness. He didn't relish being the cause of her frown now. "It's not even eleven."
"Yeah, I know."
When Fred didn't offer up any further excuse, Anne's frown deepened. From the corner of his eye, Fred could still see Will Elliot's insufferable smirk, but Anne either didn't notice or didn't care.
"I can't convince you to stay?" she asked instead, looking so openly hopeful, he almost agreed.
But then Frederick remembered the pain of last summer, of living through the break up. Anne had decided once that their relationship wasn't worth the effort; there was nothing to stop her from doing it again. True, there'd been a lot of effort involved on her part, from her family to her advisor, and they'd only been dating a few months, but that hadn't made the hurt any less real. He couldn't do it again, not right as his whole life was about to start. He wouldn't.
Moreover, he wouldn't do it to Anne. She'd been through enough already without having to add another heartbreak to the list.
"Don't bother," he muttered. "There's no point, anyway."
Then, before she could demand an actual explanation, Fred had melted into the crowd and disappeared. Almost like magic.
Bath, Somersetshire, England
"I am half agony, half hope."
Frederick paced the gravel path that lined Union street.
To any passerby, he likely looked agitated, settling and resettling his hat, tugging at the fingers of his gloves and otherwise imitating the first stirrings of a mad man. It was no wonder that poor housemaid had given him such a wide berth just moments ago.
Any disquiet in his outward appearance was nothing to the turmoil raging in his heart.
What on earth had possessed him to write such a letter? Not only to write it, but to leave it where anyone could find it! Perhaps, in his youth, he might have been forgiven such a folly, but Captain Wentworth was a seasoned sailor now. He, of all men, knew the virtue in a steady hand at the wheel. None of his actions in the past half an hour spoke of steadiness.
Yet, he could not feel shame, for when he had returned to retrieve his gloves and spied Anne, some several paces closer to the table he had just occupied, his heart had soared. Still it soared, in spite of the wild paths traced by his mind.
How long had it been? Surely not above twenty minutes since he last left her. Not enough time. Anne could hardly come rushing out of the house unaccompanied to find him. She needed time to collect herself and her effects. Time to politely extract herself from the Musgroves' company. Frederick could give her that. He had already waited eight years for her. What was a few minutes more?
Those few minutes could do him good. A racing heart and disordered thoughts would do nothing to help him in his suit. While Frederick was reasonably confident in the message he had put to paper, it was only a mere fraction of the feelings Anne stirred in him. If she required further argument, further persuasion, he would give it to her, and gladly, until Miss Anne Elliot finally consented to become Mrs. Anne Wentworth.
So caught up in these thoughts was he that Frederick very nearly missed the passing of Anne and Charles, proceeding up the street toward Camden Place. However, like his heart called to hers, Frederick turned in his pacing, lifting his head at precisely the right moment. At the sight of her, even graced with only the back of her pelisse and bonnet, he could only marvel that he had ever thought this feeling that took up so much of his being, his energy, was anything but the deepest, most profound love.
Quickly, aware of how much time he had already wasted, Frederick pursued her.
He instantly knew the moment she recognized his step. From behind, he watched as her head lifted, her gait slowed. It was as though she awaited his call.
Obligingly, Frederick hailed them. Hailed her. His Anne.
Charles, with true surprise, slowed enough to let him fall into place, cheerfully greeting him, though they had not been separated above half an hour.
Frederick, however, did not attend him. He had been so eager to encounter Anne again, so ready to share his felicity and join with hers, that he had not considered that she might not desire it. It was entirely possible that he had read her feelings wrongly, and she had no wish of renewing their promises to one another.
So, hesitant, he walked beside them, not quite part of the grouping, and studied Anne for what could well be the last time. Dear, sweet Anne, whose life he hoped to tie to his. He would not speak until he knew.
And how quickly he knew!
The bloom of vigor had returned to Anne's lovely cheek, high spots of color that only heightened the glimmer of joy in her eyes. She smiled, soft and sure, and Frederick would swear he had never seen anything nearly so beautiful.
It very nearly brought him to his knees.
Thankfully—providentially—Charles excused himself, commending his sister to Frederick's care. Such a duty was all he wanted in life, though the short walk back to Camden Place would do for now.
With Anne's hand tucked into his elbow, and his heart near to bursting with joy, it was one of the happiest walks Frederick had ever had.
It was made all the sweeter when she told him, "I knew my mistake as soon as I made it. I do not expect you to say the same, but my heart has always been yours."
"There have been none but you," he swore. "All the while I was so angry, I never did manage to stop loving you."
"I am sorry that you were angry," she said, her fingers curling a little on his sleeve. Soon, he would be able to hold her ungloved hand, feel those slender digits twine with his. They would not be separated by wool and linen and lace forever. "As sorry as I am grateful that you would still have me."
He halted in his tracks, smiling fondly as his darling Anne looked up at him in query. How he longed to brush a dark curl away from her face. Soon. Soon he would do that and more. Presently, he contented himself with brushing a tender kiss over the back of her gloved hand. It was but the first—could those kisses he bestowed on her all those years ago count? They felt like another lifetime—of many he would give. Upon her hand and anywhere else she wished.
Her lips parted in a soft sigh and Frederick battled back the urge to lay the next kiss right there.
"My Anne," he murmured, drawing her closer than strict propriety would allow. He did not care, and neither did Anne. Her warmth radiated into him, well worth whatever shocked glances they might draw.
"My Frederick," she replied, voice steady but wondering all the same.
"Yes," he agreed. "Always yours. In any world, my dearest, I am always and faithfully yours."