A/N: Thanks for reviewing, sealednectar! :) I'm actually not certain what exact year this is set in, but I guesstimate it to be around the late 19th century. Glad to hear you're enjoying it!

Barely two days had passed before I was admitted into Rookfield Hall; time was infinitely precious, and I needed to speak to Mr Harlock as soon as I could. After all, I had no idea how long he had left to live, and could afford to waste not a single minute.

The journey there was long - almost painfully so. I had little else to do but sit and ponder the next few days while the countryside rolled by, steadily growing less familiar and more rural. The grey, misty exterior did little to aid my growing sense of trepidation.

I had been told that Rookfield Manor was situated near the moors in the north, surrounded by hills and forest land, most of which belonged to the manor's estate. Having always surmised that Mr Harlock was a wealthy man, this came as no surprise; however, that did not take away any of the awe that I felt when I finally arrived at the manor itself...

It was a broad, stately building, with some very fine old masonry and sloping rooftops. The morning mist had left the tiling damp and shiny, the windows gleaming in the watery sunlight as they reflected the dark verdant green of the surrounding hills. Small birds, their tiny bodies dark against the cloudy sky, flitted around the uppermost windows, where they doubtlessly had a nest hidden beneath the roofing.

My own heart was fluttering just like their little wings as I clutched my travelling shawl about my shoulders, thanking my driver and proceeding up the gravelled driveway to the stone steps leading to the front door.

Nervously biting down upon my lip, I finally stood before the wooden door, taking a few seconds to calm myself before I managed to summon the courage to knock.

A few tense seconds of waiting ensued, in which I could hear the patter of footsteps gradually growing closer. The door opened, and I was greeted by a fairly young, rather grave-looking maid.

'Yes?' she said.

'I'm Rosa Brookley - Mr Fulchester sent me to write for Mr Harlock,' I told her.

'Ah, yes - do come in, then, miss,' she told me, and I obliged, entering the main hall.

For a moment I stood there in wonder; I had seen very few homes as grand as this. The walls were finely papered, bearing beautiful oil paintings, which showed images of various landscapes and country scenes. The wooden flooring was laid with long rugs, leading to doors on either side and up the grand old staircase right before me.

I came to myself when the maid gently relieved me of my suitcase, and gave me the quiet instruction to follow her. Feeling slightly humbled, I proceeded with her across the hall and up the stairs.

'The Master will be quite pleased to learn of your arrival,' she told me. 'It's been a few days since Doctor Swinford forbade him other visitors. People had been calling at every hour before that, and the Doctor had been obliged to turn them all away so the Master could rest. But since you're coming to fulfil a special wish of the Master, his doctor is allowing your presence.'

I nodded in understanding, although I was rather surprised to hear that Mr Harlock had been refused company for the past few days. How could he be left on his own in such a way? But I supposed that this Doctor Swinford was doing this for Mr Harlock's own well-being...

The maid, whose name she revealed to me was Nancy, showed me to the room that was to be mine for the next week or so. It was in a rather dark corridor, that had other doors leading off it.

'Why are all the curtains drawn here?' I enquired, finding my eyes slow to become accustomed to the lack of light.

'The Master's bedroom is just off this corridor as well,' she replied. 'He needs dim surroundings if he is ailing.'

If possible, I felt another surge of sympathy for the man, left without sunlight as he was.

'Your room is here,' Nancy told me, stopping at a door, which she duly opened. 'It is nearer to the Master's room for convenience - he made it clear that he didn't wish a guest of his to walk further than necessary.'

I smiled. It appeared that Mr Harlock had not lost his courteous nature. 'That's very kind of him.'

Nancy put my bag down beside my newly-made bed, then smoothed the sheets out briskly, before turning back to me, with a look of deep conflict upon her face. 'It's been hard, miss,' she admitted to me abruptly. 'Mr Edward was always such a lively man. I always felt so fortunate to be working for him - other girls aren't usually blessed with such nice employers. All of us household staff adored him and his wife - and now, the Mistress is dead and the Master's fading away, and almost all of the staff have had to leave...' The poor girl looked on the verge of tears. 'Even now, weak as he is, he keeps his kind heart...'

I looked on in sympathy, at a loss what to say. I had known Mr Harlock to be a popular man, but I had never thought of those who ran his household. Even with them it seemed he had managed to make himself admired and respected...

'Forgive me,' Nancy sniffed, turning to dab at her tears.

'I understand perfectly, Nancy,' I told her heavily. 'I met Mr Harlock a few times long ago, and I don't think I shall ever forget him.'

'Me neither, miss, me neither,' she replied, gathering herself together. 'I'll leave you to rest a while, shall I? I'll come back later to take you to meet him.'

When Nancy returned a while later, I was still feeling rather nervous about meeting Mr Harlock. I could hear the murmur of hushed male voices through the wall, and knew he would be there with his doctor. Nancy, who seemed to have regained her composure, explained to me that Mr Harlock had been moved a week ago from the master bedroom to the warmer, more accessible bedroom in this corridor, in which he would no doubt spend his final days.

It pained me greatly to think of a great, strong-spirited man like himself in such a terrible state, but it strengthened my resolve to do all that was in my power to fulfil his wishes.

At the door to his bedroom, I took a breath, unconsciously bracing myself, before Nancy opened it and we entered the room.

The bedchamber was dim as the curtains were drawn, but visible in the low light was a narrow bed with crisp white sheets. And upon that bed, painfully propped up on pillows, there sat a pale figure swathed in tight bandaging. The man himself...Mr Harlock.

My heart was beating wildly as my eyes took him in. Of face, he remained recognisible...but only just. Even though the flames had not ravaged that part of him too significantly, his suffering and agony had. Lines of torment marked his fine features, each expression deepening the painful furrows. In addition to this, his left cheek and jaw were marred by an angry red streak of blistered flesh, stopping mere inches from his eye.

The loss of his wife was apparent in the line of his brow, the set of his handsome mouth. His pallid face still seemed deadened with shock.

Then, his eyes turned on me, long-forgotten and stormy-grey. I saw in them a spark of life that remained, a faint glitter of the man he once was shining through.

'Rosa? Rosa Brookley? Is that you?' he murmured, his voice with its upper-class lilt wonderfully rich and velvety and familiar, albeit being slightly hoarse. He instinctively made to sit himself up straighter, but immediately winced as he strained the bandaging that bound his wounds. I felt a horrible jolt of nauseous fear within me at the sight of his suffering; I hastened to his side.

'Yes, sir,' I replied earnestly, hands clasped together in front of my skirts. 'I...I have been sent by Mr Fulchester.'

Mr Harlock's lips formed an 'Oh...', but he merely gave a silent nod. The crystalline grey of his gaze focused upon my face, taking in my features. When he finally spoke, it was to say in a quiet, contemplative voice: 'My...you have indeed changed since we last met. I can see the small, inquisitive little girl has long grown into a bright and talented young woman. I often wondered whether our paths would happen to cross again...'

I smiled, rather bashfully. 'I had also been hoping to meet you once more, sir,' I told him with all truth. 'Except...I would that our meeting was on a less solemn occasion than this.'

He breathed a sigh, his eyelashes dark against his pale face as he looked downward. 'As would I, dear girl,' he answered, then a humourless smile twitched the corner of his mouth. 'But fate is seldom inclined to cater to our whims and wishes, is it not...?' I saw his linen-wrapped hands move slightly upon the bedspread. I stifled an involuntary intake of breath as I remarked the absence of three of his long, bony fingers - the fourth and fifth on his left hand, and the middle one on his right.

I raised my gaze to his face again, only to find that he had been watching mine closely. The sight of my reaction to his missing fingers must have upset him, for his mouth became cold, the shallow lines of expression upon his face hardening as his eyes drained of emotion.

'If my condition causes you disgust or aversion, Miss Brookley, you may feel free to pass this task on to a less impressionable person,' he told me in a chilly tone - one that nevertheless barely masked the hurt beneath it.

'No - no, of course not, sir!' I replied, shocked at myself for having emotionally slighted an already suffering man. 'Please forgive me - I didn't intend to seem so callous. I - I simply haven't realised the...the extent of your injuries...' I was so shaken that I was almost near tears.

Something softened slightly in Mr Harlock's stern countenance, and he sighed, the frown leaving his brow. 'You are forgiven, Rosa,' he replied. 'Think nothing more of it. I understand that you may be shocked by my condition - it is enough to unsettle anyone.'

He lowered his eyes, as if suddenly weary, but then abruptly seemed to remember something.

'Oh - but how could I be so rude? Rosa, allow me to introduce my erstwhile physician, Doctor Swinford.'

I turned in the direction of his gaze, for the first time noticing the presence of his doctor - a serious and bespectacled man whose sidewhiskers were bushy and greying, giving him an air of some severity. However, I assumed that his appearance was not a strong indication of his manner, so I greeted him with all due respect.

'I take it you were sent by Mr Fulchester, is that not true?' he asked me, assessing me with calculating blue eyes.

'Yes, I was,' I replied. 'My name is Rosa Brookley, sir.'

He nodded vaguely, but he still appeared somewhat flummoxed, brow furrowed. 'Forgive me, but I had been under the assumption that Mr Fulchester would send a...person of the male gender. Although I am well aware of female employment going on, it hadn't occurred to me that women could be given work such as this.'

I kept my lips sealed, forcing back the pinkening in my cheeks. Accustomed though I was to the general surprise I was often met with as a working young woman, it was still a test of courage to withstand this doctor's blunt remarks. But what of it, if I enjoyed what I was employed to do? I certainly was not keen on spending my life doing housework, as my mother and grandmothers did before me...

'Come, now, Swinford,' Mr Harlock's slightly hoarse, but perpetually velvety voice chipped in, soothing the tension with his light, certain words. 'Rosa is the daughter of an old acquaintance of mine - it would not do to embarass her with trivialities. Besides, our society is moving on, and many women nowadays have some form of paid work.'

Swinford pursed his lips, still looking at me with mild disapproval.

'Of course,' he agreed reluctantly. 'Do forgive me, Miss Brookley, I had not intended to cause embarassment. I was simply surprised to learn that your employer would send a member of the gentler sex to take on this manner of uncomfortable task.'

I accepted his apology with good grace, even though it did not escape me that Mr Harlock's jaw clenched imperceptibly.

'And on another note if I may, Miss Brookley, I should like to have a word with you outside for a moment,' Doctor Swinford added, taking me by surprise.

Normally I would have been more than a little intimidated; however, his tone had taken on a manner of detached professionalism that I could not ignore. It was apparent that he wished to talk to me about Mr Harlock, away from his hearing. Loath though I was to leave his bedside so soon after our initial meeting, I reluctantly agreed.

'Very well,' I answered, matching his tone for coolness.

'Do you mind, sir?' Swinford asked Mr Harlock, almost as an afterthought.

'No, you are very welcome,' he replied dismissively, raising a spidery hand to rub tiredly at his eyes. The sight of those bandaged, partially missing fingers very nearly gave rise to a shiver, which I hurriedly suppressed. Feeling rather guilty, and more than a little anxious, I followed Swinford smartly out of the door.

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