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but you built me dreams instead

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October 1945

I. (The first day

of the rest of

their lives.)

        - Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman, Good Omens.

On Munich Street in Molching, Germany, there was a tailor shop owned by a man named Alex Steiner. Decrepit, yellowing, and cramped, it was a homely little place, though nothing too impressive.

In the back room of this shop, there was a sixteen year-old Liesel Meminger sitting at a table, her pale fingers working to re-attach the arm of a suit to its shoulder. She worked to the best of her ability, though this ability was not great, and found pricked her fingers often.

It was a mundane existence, she knew, to work at a tailor shop for nothing but to see time pass more quickly, to see that Alex Steiner was healthy, and to return home to the house of the Mayor of Molching, who had been her guardian for some two years.

Yes, for all her intelligence and intuition, Liesel Meminger was rather aware of the simplicity of her life, and, seemingly, of her fate.

But she was patient.

And she was waiting.

****

It had been something like three years since Max Vandenburg had been to Himmel Street (only two years or so since he'd been marched through Molching, though), and his heart swelled in his chest at the thought of seeing them again; of seeing Hans, and Rosa, and little Liesel - who must not be so little anymore.

To see them all, to see this family who had risked all to save his neck, as a free man.

How old would Liesel be now? Fifteen? Sixteen? He'd tried so hard to record time, counting weeks with scratches of dirt on the wall beside the floor that seemed to be his designated bed at Dachau, but he'd lost track so quickly.

His lungs were light, and his mind full of hope; in the bag strung over his back, carefully packed over his sweaters and slacks, were gifts for all of them. A little wooden box of rolling papers and tobacco for Hans. A box of laundry utensils wrapped in paper for Rosa. A thick book with a red ribbon tied prettily around it for Liesel.

Max Vandenburg avoided the street he had been marched down when he had last seen Liesel; it would do him no good, at such a time in his recovery, to see a place he remembered so well, to see a place he'd tried so hard to forget.

He nearly got lost, as he'd only ever seen Himmel Street from the outside twice; when he had first arrived, all shaking hands and freezing cold body, creaking limbs, and when he'd left, with a half-full stomach, and warm hands.

Max would never, of course, see dear Himmel Street from the outside ever again, for when he turned from Aberle Street onto Himmel, there was nothing there to greet him but the grey, burned ground, seeming to go on forever, and a plaque stuck into the blackened grass.

Before his mind could establish what this meant, what had happened, he shook his head frantically, checking the sign on the street he'd just passed to confirm that, yes, this scorched land was what was left of Himmel Street.

"No."

His unseeing eyes stared at the plaque, and he forced himself to begin reading, though he only made it to the end of the first sentence.

IN MEMORIAM OF THE VICTIMS OF THE HIMMEL STREET BOMBING. OCTOBER 5TH, 1943.

In the middle of what was left of the cobblestone road, the man fell to his knees, palms flat on the filthy ground.

Max's tired eyes filled with tears, and he began to heave.

He thought of the snowman in the basement, of Rosa and the warmth that bubbled under the surface, of Hans and the magic he made with that accordion of his, and of Liesel, Liesel who brought him newspapers and held his face in her hands when he, the filthy Jew, had wept in the street.

Max Vandenburg stopped breathing, and instead sobbed silently, tears sliding down his cheeks with an ease they'd never known before.

They had been dead, bombed, buried, for two years, and he'd had no clue.

With no possible explanation or reasoning, he'd somehow thought the family invincible. After losing all of his own, perhaps he'd bought into wishful thinking.

After a long while of heaving and sobbing and praying, he pulled himself to a standing position.

He began to read through the list of names.

There were Hans and Rosa. Thomas Müller - the boy with the twitch Liesel had once mentioned, surely. Frau Holzapfel - the woman Liesel read to, with the two soldier sons, perhaps? And Rudy, with Rudy's family, and more names he recognized vaguely or, more often, not at all.

After a silent moment of mourning, of regret and guilt, Max's aching mind slowly stuttered to a realization.

There was no Meminger. No Liesel. If she had died, they would have written down her name on the memorial? Right?

He read through the names once more, and then again, for reassurance.

Liesel was alive.

In Molching, or Munich, in Berlin, somewhere on Earth, the girl was alive.

Max Vandenburg shook on his feet, and then, after kneeling to offer respects to the dead, began to walk toward the centre of Molching again, the air cold on his wet, clean-shaven face.

****

Max stood in front of the door of Steiner Schneidermeister for something like ten minutes before he had the courage to open it, to walk meekly inside and ask after Liesel.

"Come on, Max," he finally murmured to himself, having to force himself to step forward, to wrap a hand slick with sweat around the doorknob and to turn it, to walk inside.

He stood some six feet from the front counter where, glasses perched on the end of his narrow nose, sat a man with thinning blonde hair, and a tie that was staggeringly large in comparison to his long neck neck.

The man looked up at him slowly, through his glasses, and Max stepped forward once. And then twice.

"Is there someone here," he started, his voice wobbly, "by the name of Liesel Meminger?"

The man stood up from his stool, came around the counter. Surveyed Max. Max, in turn, evaluated the floor. Months had passed since Dachau, and still, the minute Max felt threatened, it brought him back to that damned camp.

"Yes, she's in the back. May I ask who is calling on her?"

Liesel was there, in the store, feet away from him and - Max had to do his best to not run to her.

Steiner already seemed to know.

"Max," he finally said. "My name is Max."

His hands shook.

He disappeared into the back for only a moment. Max heard the drop of something to the floor, heard feet running, and, before he could react, had Liesel crash into him like a freight train.

Max's arms wrapped around her tight, up her back, around her shoulders. He sobbed into her shoulder, and could hear Liesel saying his name, again and again, as she hugged him, cried into him, held him so closely he thought his bones might break. He wondered if he would mind.

His knees did buckle, unable to hold up his own weight, let alone a full grown Liesel's, and they cried into one another for a long time, interwoven and desperate for the other, now with the newborn knowledge that the other was alive, was healthy, was present.

And it felt like finally, finally, finally.

****

After the two had collected themselves, by which time they were on the floor, with Liesel sitting across Max's thighs and their arms in vice grips around the other, they began to laugh, wiping at their swollen, wet faces.

Max hiccuped, and Liesel covered her pink, smiling mouth as she slid down onto the floor.

They stared at one another for a long while, smiling, and then began to unravel themselves, skinny limbs untangling like vines from one another. Liesel tripped before standing, and Max required a moment of allowing himself to regain normal breathing before he could join Mr. Steiner and Liesel, standing, his body still regrowing. The girl immediately slipped her hand around his, and gripped him tightly.

"Alex - Herr Steiner - may - could I -"

"Go, fraeulein." His face was wrinkled underneath his glasses, lines under his eyes and by the sides of his mouth deepening like creases in a page as he smiled down at her. He gestured to the door, and nodded at Max. "I'll see you Monday, maybe, then."

Liesel's smile was as big as Alex Steiner had ever seen, and after murmuring a quick 'danke, Herr Steiner', was dragging Max to the back room, having decided against separating herself from him at all.

"Just need to grab my bag, Max," she offered as her explanation. Liesel felt she couldn't say his name enough, couldn't let go of the fullness of her lungs she it came off her tongue, through her teeth and into her ears, into the air around both of them. She had been avoiding his name for so long, along with all the others, and to free that part of herself she had been holding back was something she needed. The two of them walked sideways in order to fit through the narrow space between shelves of papers, of filing, of suits and shoes and shirts and even pairs of socks, falling apart, that one man was particularly attached to. The Schneidermeister's few customers were eclectic, if nothing else.

A moment later, she'd grabbed her bag from a hook, and began leading them through the back door.

"Max," Liesel said, "where do you want to go?"

"Anywhere," he said immediately, eyes squinting as they adjusted to the sun, hot and bright above them. Max found he had to squint just to look at Liesel's blonde hair. "Anywhere, Liesel."

****

They talked for as long as they could, and, after that, after the words and their throats ran dry, sat together by the fire in the Inn room Max had rented out.

Liesel's hair glowed by the firelight, and Max's suit jacket hung over the back of the chair that sat by the chair in the kitchenette.

Max sat on the floor by the fire; the muscles in his face and neck, arms and back were still regrowing, and in the warmth of the room he could feel them thawing out. He closed his eyes, and breathed in the company of Liesel.

She brought a peace he'd forgotten, in the months of Dachau, in the months of searching for his family, in the weeks he'd spent trying to jumpstart his life.

Liesel, meanwhile, was curled up in the armchair closest to Max, chin held up on her small fists. She watched Max, his legs crossed, and tried to think of what was swimming through his mind. Or if there was nothing; if it was quiet, if it was peaceful.

"I should walk you home," he finally said, collecting his shoes from where they sat; by the fireplace, as Max had hoped they would warm up.

She nodded, exhausted from the day, from their reunion, and sat up fully, before standing up, reaching her arms out above her head to stretch out her lithe, catlike limbs.

Max pulled himself up into a chair, and tied his shoes on loosely. Reaching for his jacket, and beginning to pull it on, he looked to Liesel through tired eyes.

They walked slowly; there was no rush, though it was late enough that some pubs were closing their doors, throwing out couples and lone drunks alike. After he offered his arm, Liesel linked hers through his, leaning against him as they walked.

The two avoided the street where they had met, where they had relived the Word Shaker together; there would be years for that later. They walked to the mayor's house, and, at the end of the driveway, Liesel slipped her arm from Max's to hold his hand.

By the porch, they held hands for a long moment. Liesel yawned. Max rubbed at his eye.

Max slipped his hand away from Liesel's, and she stepped up onto the porch. When she was at the door, handle in hand, she looked back to Max over her shoulder, pushing blonde curls from her face.

"Will I see you tomorrow?"

"Of course."

****

The two walked side by side, Max's shoulders concave beyond his twenty-nine years. The two walked slowly, with Max timing his steps so Liesel wouldn't have to double hers to keep up with him.

They walked mostly in silence; every so often, one would point something out.

A new house in town. The chill in the air. A sign in a window. The colour of the sky.

The silence was comfortable, and neither felt any need to fill it up with anything false.

Liesel had come by Max's hotel room as early as was deemed polite; it seemed obvious that, him being by her again, she would spend every moment she could with him.

But, as they walked seemingly aimlessly, both of their coats tugged around themselves in protection from the cold, Liesel felt herself tugged forward, and began leading the two of them down a path she seldom, if ever, visited.

It seemed she had a need to run straight to the truth, rather than tiptoe prettily around it.

Down a sidewalk, across a street, around a corner, and through a gate, Liesel and Max found themselves at sea with the dead.

Liesel stepped forward after a pause, crossing the threshold into a world she rarely visited in reality - in dreams, she'd find herself there nearly nightly for what seemed like more infinities than she could count on her fingers, on her thumbs, on her toes.

Max, who had grown used to graves, to death, hung behind for a moment, only able to move forward when Liesel looked back at him, drawing him back into the world he'd been avoiding for so long. Back into the belly of the beast, into the land of the dead. While it wasn't corpses that would come crawling out of graves, it was memories. Those seemed harder to defeat.

The two of them walked down the road paved in the graveyard, side by side, as Liesel would know the way in her sleep.

They walked through an aisle of headstones, and finally stopped at a larger one, though, for a grave that held two people, it was nothing remarkable.

HANS HUBERMANN

MAY 9 1892 - OCTOBER 5 1943

ROSA HUBERMANN

JUNE 6 1893 - OCTOBER 5 1943

There was not space for much else, though, between the space of the two names, there was a simple cross engraved into the headstone.

"Ilsa Hermann and her husband - they paid for it."

Max nodded, caught a breath in his throat, and crumpled to his knees. His wiry, pale, calloused hands covered his eyes, and Liesel knelt next to him, leaning her head against his shoulder.

The two little torn apart people stayed that way for a long time, with Max learning how to breathe again, and Liesel doing what she could to keep in her sanity.

"He was sorry," she finally said, "that he couldn't save you".

Underneath his eyes, Max smiled almost fully.

"Mama was, too."

"They did, though. They did."

They would stay at the grave, the girl with the dangerous brown eyes and the man with the feathers for hair. They talked about the basement, about books and stories, all while carefully avoiding Dachau, avoiding the bombing, avoiding the ghosts that followed them. They were careful.

Max and Liesel would leave eventually, the two of them linking arms as they walked back.

And later that night, when the two of them had made up their minds, they would return, Max with two carefully wrapped gifts in his arms.

A laundry utensil for Rosa. A box of papers and tobacco for Hans.

"Here," Max said, his voice nearly quiet as a whisper. "These are for you."

When the gravekeeper made his rounds the next morning, all bleary eyes and tired limbs, he caught himself looking twice at the odd little trinkets placed at the foot of a couple's headstone.

He recognized the names on the headstone, and the dates; the two had died in the bombing of that little street a couple years ago

He found that he didn't really want to, but, in accordance to his job, in accordance with the rules, he had no choice but to pick them up, carry them back to the small building that served as his office, and toss them in the garbage.

****

Max would stay in Molching for as long as he could afford; which wasn't as long as he would've wanted. But while Liesel was bound to Molching, by age and by circumstance, Max was free to leave, to explore and live again. Liesel understood this well; and knew why he didn't look for a job on Munich Street, where he'd been marched through and where he'd sobbed and where he'd been beaten just for being alive.

On his last morning in the town, the two found one another early, when the streets were nearly empty and their eyes were tired. Max carried his bags with him, and Liesel's scarf was wrapped around her neck more times than she could count.

The two walked through Munich Street, their eyes watching and their mouths silent, and finally, finally, walked to the gateway, to the mouth, of the rubble that was once Himmel Street.

They stood and watched in silence.

"I'll come back."

"You don't need to."

When Max's train left, Liesel chased it through the station for as long as she could and, after that, watched the space where it had been in silence.

****

February 1948

II. Oh, I've got this friend

    Holding onto her heart

     Like it's a little secret

        - The Civil Wars, I've Got This Friend.

Liesel bounded up the stairs to her room, quickly and quietly shutting the door behind her. She set down the carefully wrapped package that had escorted the letter down on her bed - another one of his books, no doubt. She laid down, hair wild about her face, and began to quickly read. He covered the usual - asking how Alex Steiner was, asking after Ilsa Hermann and the mayor, how she was, what she'd been up to, if she needed anything. This time, of course, there was a Herzlichen Glückwunsch sum Geburtstag, Liesel. Happy Birthday, Liesel.

She was nineteen, and stuck in a city of ghosts.

The letter took a turn about halfway through that she hadn't been expecting.

Come, he wrote, to Munich. The city treats me well, and you'd like it. Lots of books, lots of people, but there is lots of quiet. I am working for a Jewish newspaper here, and I'd like to see you again, if just for a visit.

Enjoy the book, Liesel.

Write me back.

I'll see you soon, and all my best.

Max.

It only took her five minutes to decide; to open up her suitcase, and to begin tossing folded clothes into the mouth of it.

 

March 1948

III. There once was a girl who had a friend that lived in the shadows.

     She would remind him of how the sun felt on his skin,

     and what the air felt like to breathe, and that reminded her that she was still alive.

        - Michael Petroni, The Book Thief (screenplay).

As soon as the conductor had announced they would be arriving at the station - München Hauptbahnhof - shortly, she had gathered her suitcase, jacket, and sat at the edge of her seat. She couldn't focus on anything, though Ilse Hermann had packed a magazine and a book for her, could only think of how she'd see Max again in mere moments.

Liesel Meminger had not seen Max for three years, though she received annual letters for her birthday, for Christmas. She wondered, briefly, if he looked the same. She tried to add up the years, to figure out how old he would be.

Her heart lurched at the thought of him with speckles of grey in his hair.

The train bumped along as it came to a full stop, nearly throwing Liesel off the seat. The moment the conductor's voice came through, announcing they had arrived, and would be unloading shortly, Liesel looked through the window of her car, trying to see if she could recognize Max among the waiting faces. She only looked for a few seconds, impatient, and instead exited her car, moving down the hall to the nearest exit, carrying her things haphazardly as she hurried.

She was met, at the stairs off the train, by one of the guards, who smiled at her as she bounced up and down on her red heels, chewing down on her red painted lips.

"Coming home to the liebhaber, hm?" he said, his old face wrinkling as he smiled. Coming home to the lover?

She shook her head, but didn't correct him further.

It did feel as though she were coming home, though who she was coming home to remained a mystery.

Liesel was allowed off rather quickly, at what time she nearly jumped down the steps, quickly turning in her effort to look for Max.

There were so many people; old people and young people, students, children and women waiting for husbands, groups waiting for loved ones to return.

And there was Max, who was waiting at the wrong steps of the train for her.

There was the corpse of a cigarette at his feet.

Wet tears bloomed in her eyes, and she began to run to him, heels loud against the brick floor, hair wild behind her head. When she was some fifteen feet from him, she dropped her things; her bag and purse and jacket, and ran faster to him.

Max's head turned, finally, and his cheeks were full and pink, his lips wet, and he ran a few steps to her, his mouth open in a smile as he shouted out her name, but she couldn't hear him, couldn't her anything but the beating of her heart, and when her and Max finally collided, the steady beating of Max's.

They clutched to one another depserately, helplessly.

Liesel was crying onto Max's tweed jacket, Max sobbing openly as he picked her up, spun her around in a circle.

When he put her down, he kissed her cheek, her forehead, her hand.

She smiled, and, through the tears, through the smile, her wet, tired, swollen face gazed up at him.

"Hi, Max."

He offered his handkerchief.

"Hello, Liesel."

****

The two of them ended up shoeless (and, in Max's case, short one sock) on the floor of Max's small, one bedroom apartment. They sat in the area designated as the living room, with a small loveseat, a chair, and a short little table, which was now home to their second bottle of wine. A cigarette still had smoke rising from it in the overcrowded ashtray.

One of Max's long, thin legs was stretched out, his sock-covered foot nearly touching Liesel's thigh. She'd stretched out on her back after her third glass, and now was enjoying the view of Max's ceiling.

"Max," Liesel said, tipping her head up to drink from the mug he'd provided her with. He'd seemed embarrassed to say that he only had money for the essentials, but, in Liesel's mind, he was with the perfect amount of luxury.

"Yes, Liesel?"

He'd been watching the line of her stomach rise and fall as she breathed.

"Are you lonely?"

Her eyes had moved from the ceiling to him, and now Liesel was watching him. He considered her face, how he saw her, and wondered how she saw him, his face.

"Sometimes."

She nodded, and then flipped onto her stomach, crawling onto the low-hanging loveseat. Liesel reached out an arm, and twirled a finger around a piece of his hair. He leaned his head toward her, and his eyes fluttered shut.

"I am, too."

Max didn't respond; instead, stood, and, over clumsy feet walked to his bedroom. He returned with a woollen blanket, and laid it over top of Liesel, who mumbled a thank you.

Minutes passed, with Max's back against the loveseat Liesel laid on, and all either of them could hear was the sound of the other's breathing.

"Max?"

"Yes, Liesel?"

She snorted, causing him to smile, and then pulled the blanket more securely over her shoulders.

"That wine was terrible."

****

Liesel's face was inches from his when she startled him awake.

"Liesel?" he questioned groggily, pushing back hair from his eyes.

Her lips were painted pink, and she was smiling.

Max noticed that he was lying on the ground beside the loveseat, and that someone had stuck a pillow carefully underneath his head, and a blanket over his body.

He rubbed at his tired eyes, and gave Liesel his best smile for her judgement.

"Well, get dressed! I've been here nearly an hour watching you sleep, that's enough of it for one day."

As Max pulled on a fresh shirt, jacket, and slacks, he tried not to think about what she'd said.

An hour? Of just watching him sleep?

He would try not to think about what she'd said too much, he resigned.

****

For March, Munich was unseasonably warm; Max was able to wear just a light jacket, while Liesel wore a light blue summer dress that tied around her waist. With it, she wore red shoes with straps and buckles, and seemed atop the world.

The two walked through the streets, with no particular aim or time constraint. Max's work came and went with the newspaper's work; he would be approached to write columns and articles, or to do editing work, a few times a week, but would often work in the early hours of the morning, or the late hours of the night.

Liesel carried a purse in one hand, while the other hand floated around Max's.

After something like two hours of wandering the streets; during which time the two stopped for a coffee at a café Max frequented when he could spare the money, Gebrannte Mandeln from a Schnellimbiss, and sat on varying benches in parks through the city.

"Wait -" Max finally said, coming to a full stop in the middle of the sidewalk. His face slowly turned to Liesel's, and he was smiling. "I have an idea."

"Oh?" Liesel murmured, sucking the remnants off the sweets she'd eaten from her thumb.

"You'll like this. Trust me."

"Trusting you," Liesel provided, adjusting Max's collar.

He offered his hand, outstretched it to her, and she took it quickly.

The two of them wove through and around people, around groups and stands and hurried, running across a street as a car blared its horn at them.

They were running, people staring at them, and Liesel's dress was flying behind her, as was her hair. Max's cheeks flushed, and Liesel was laughing wildly, her face contorted with her smile, and Max felt the urge to run with her as she laughed until the soles of his shoes were torn up, until his feet bled.

Those dreams would have to wait for another day to come true, though, as Max slowed the both of them down as they approached their destination.

Liesel's eyes narrowed as she read out the sign that hung over the entrance to the courtyard.

"Gelber Vogel?" she read out. "Is this -"

"Flea market. Or antique market. The second sounds nicer."

"And we are here to -"

"Buy things, or just look at them. Some people come and play music sometimes, too, so I thought -"

Liesel nodded, seemingly in approval, and Max trailed off.

And then remembered to release Liesel's hand from his own.

She didn't seem to notice; the moment he let her go, she was off like a bird out of a cage, head turning to look at everything she could all at once. Liesel disappeared into the halls of tents, of people and shelves and -

Max found a bench, and sat down, elbows on his knees. He watched people talk to one another, watched people bargain and say hello, and his eyes followed a group as one sat down on a stool, accordion between his hands. Another had a violin, another a viola, and one of them an instrument he couldn't have recognized.

They began to play, and all around him, the world seemed to come to life. The colours shone brighter, and with the sound of the music loud in his ears, he couldn't focus on any thoughts that swam through his head.

His hands shook, nearly vibrated, though, no matter how hard he tried to still them.

An old man, his remaining hair whiter than any paper, sat next to Max on the bench, and cleared his throat three times before speaking.

"You look lost, son."

Max had to remind himself that this man was not a threat, that he was not looking to see Max's papers, that he was in no danger. Three years on, and he still had to reassure himself of the goodness of complete strangers.

"Waiting for a friend."

Max lit a cigarette, taking the pack and the lighter from his front pocket. As he exhaled, he was able to breathe again.

The man nodded, wheezing as he leaned back, his crooked, yellowing teeth visible as he smiled. Max relaxed, leaned back with him.

The two sat in an amiable silence for a few minutes until Liesel, with a paper bag in the hand not occupied by her purse, burst into the circle that had formed around the musicians. A young couple had begun dancing, and Liesel's eyes brightened at the sight of them, smiling brightly. Her eyes followed them, and as another couple joined them, she stepped back onto her heels. She found Max, sitting with the old man on the bench, eventually, and waved at him.

"Your friend?" the man asked, his eyes on Liesel.

Max nodded.

"Your girl?"

He shook his head, but was beginning to stand up, anyway. It might've had something to do with the way Liesel was standing, the way Liesel was looking, the way Liesel was smiling.

"Go dance with her, kid."

"She's not my -"

"Max!" Liesel was flushed, pink and pretty, with her bag hung over her elbow, and had run over to where Max was now standing.

The man was smiling.

"Dance with me, Max."

Max took one last breath from the cigarette, and then let it go, stomping it out with his shoe.

He ignored the old man's laugh, and nodded, slipping his hand around Liesel's, the two of them walking to the side of the circle, where there was now a crowd of dancers.

One of his hands slipped to her waist, sitting at the slight curve there. His other hand stayed with hers, while Liesel's free hand was at the blunt edge of his shoulder.

They began to dance, rather clumsy; Max had only known dancing when he'd done it at celebrations years before, and Liesel had only ever danced on the feet of Hans Hubermann.

But they were smiling, they were laughing, and Max spun Liesel so much she nearly spun right into other couples.

Liesel was very beautiful, and Max was very handsome, and each did their best to not notice.

April 1948

IV. The girl and the ghost

     Sit in the corner

     The girl and the ghost

     Seems they have a lot to say. (Girl and the Ghost, KT Tunstall.)

        - KT Tunstall, Girl and the Ghost.

"I think we need to talk."

Max, who was by the stove in the kitchen, spatula in hand, looked over to where Liesel stood in the doorway, rainboots still dripping on the floor.

"Okay. Let's talk. What are we talking about?"

"Well," Liesel grunted, leaning against the hallway wall as she made an attempt to pull off a boot. "I've decided to stay here. In Munich, I mean."

He smiled over the latkes he was frying up; Liesel was entirely casual, even in the face of such a decision. "When did you decide that?"

"I think," she considered, before, finally succeeding in freeing herself of the first boot, smiling. "When I first got off the train."

Max nodded. "We can get a bigger apartment. If you're staying."

Liesel grinned, pink and cold and finally free of both boots, rubbing her sore feet. "I've been looking for a job."

"Oh? You have?"

"I got one - I've just come back. Her name is Frau Kauffman. She is a good woman, runs the book shop her husband started. I'll be working weekends, Mondays, and Wednesdays. It won't be much, but it's something."

"Don't say that. You don't even need to," Max offered quietly. The thought that Liesel was staying; that Liesel wanted to stay, had been planning to stay, made him nervous and thrilled all at once. "It's enough. That is more than enough."

That night, they cut out clippings from all the newspapers they could afford advertising two-bedroom apartments; some with bay windows, some with balconys. It felt like the future, and Liesel tried not to wonder if a second bedroom would be necessary for long.

They both stumbled to bed late; Max had been using the couch since Liesel had arrived, Liesel finally having given up her reluctance to take his bed, small and creaky as it was.

With a belly full of potato pancakes, wine, and the giddiness that the future brought, Max fell asleep quickly, with an undershirt and pajama pants all he wore aside from his itchy, overly warm blanket.

The scream that woke him in the middle of the night frightened him wildly, bringing him back to the days of an empty stomach and the stench of corpses, but Max pulled himself from his own nightmares, his own memories, and stumbled to his room, that was now Liesel's.

She was tangled in her blankets, legs kicking wildly as she shrieked. Her face was wet with tears, and Max didn't hesitate, was not frightened, as he sat on the bed, as he put his hands on Liesel's shoulders, steadying her as much as he could.

"Liesel."

The screams transformed into something more like sobs.

"Mama. Mama! Rudy... Papa, nein, nein -"

"Liesel, please, please."

"Don't -"

"Liesel!"

She was startled awake, her pupils dilated and her eyes wild.

"Liesel."

Liesel sat up, leaning her cheek against his shoulder. His arms wrapped around her, and he ran his wiry hands over her curly hair.

"I was hitting a paint can with a pencil."

Max nodded, though he didn't know what it was she was saying, if it was delusions of sleep or if it was an uncensored memory.

He laid himself down on her bed, pulling down Liesel to lay beside him. Immediately, her eyes were shut, and her breathing evened. They laid side by side, and woke up with their fingers entwined.

July 1948

V. so I love you because I know no other way than this:

     where I does not exist, nor you,

     so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,

     so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

        - Pablo Neruda, Sonnet XVII.

"Farewell to you, and the youth I have spent with you. It was but yesterday we met in a dream."

The two of them were sitting in their new apartment; Max on the floor, Liesel in the loveseat they had brought with them from Max's old apartment. He sat between her legs, his back to the front of her chair. His hair fell into his eyes, and through Liesel's fingers as she played with the feathery strands. They had not been twigs since she had seen him marched down Munich Street.

Her eyes watched the fire, as Max's read the last chapter of the weathered book she had brought from her work; she had piled up Neruda, Gibran, and anything else she didn't recognize, and could fit, into her arms. He'd smiled from over his typewriter when she'd come in, her hair littered with rain and her cheeks flushed with cold and with happiness. In the room where the only light was the orange and red flames of the fireplace, Liesel's mouth still tasted of wine, and there were tears in Max Vandenburg's eyes.

"You have sung to me in my aloneness, and I of your longings have built a tower in the sky. But now our sleep has fled, and our dream is over, and it is no longer dawn."

The two silently remembered the basement, the clouds, remembered the blue sky that day on Munich Street, the snowman and the memories they shared and the memories that they could only remember alone.

"If in the twilight of memory we should meet once more, we shall speak again together and you shall sing to me a deeper song. And if our hands should meet in another dream, we shall build another tower in the sky."

There were more words, but Liesel didn't absorb any more of them; all she could hear was Max's voice, low and tired and lovely as it was. I love you, she wanted to say, but the words were stuck somewhere between her heart and her throat.

When he was finished, when the words written twenty-five years before ran dry, Liesel tugged on a strand of Max's hair. His eyes shut, his head leaning back against her knee. He sighed, remembering how to breathe.

"Max," she said, her voice low and soft.

He nodded. He had no more words; he'd given her, for the night, all he could.

"Sit with me."

He did. Max climbed onto the chair, and sat shoulder-to-shoulder, thigh-to-thigh, with Liesel. He roped an arm around her shoulders, and she leaned against him.

Max thought about how he'd loved Liesel since she'd gotten off that train to Munich, since she'd hugged him so tight his knees had buckled. Liesel, with her painted pink lips and her curly blonde hair.

Before long, she was sleeping. Max watched the fire, watched the shaking of his hands, and watched Liesel.

There were no nightmares.

October 1948

VI. I find the map and draw a straight line

     Over rivers, farms, and state lines

     The distance from 'A' to where you'd be

     It's only finger-lengths that I see

     I touch the place where I'd find your face

     My fingers in creases of distant dark places

        - Snow Patrol, Set The Fire To The Third Bar.

The months passed quickly, with Liesel and Max seeing each other often, sharing dinners and sometimes breakfasts; they both worked, with shifts increasing as time went on.

Max was asked to travel to Berlin in order to complete an interview and article; he'd be interviewing a Jewish man there, and would be gone for two weeks.

Liesel and him had not been apart for so long since they'd been reunited in March, and while they approached his work trip with happiness; it meant more money, and the opportunity was a good one, they both dreaded the nights they would be alone.

The woman watched his train disappear, and then sat on a bench, her ankles crossed, and stared at her bare hands.

She wondered if it would always be Max she was waiting for, if the days his trains returned home - home, what a foreign word, what a strange word to mean again - were the ones she would wake up early, would wait for him with her lips painted and her hair pinned and curled.

Liesel walked back to their apartment, unlocking the door, and quietly saying, "I'm home". Only her own shadow was there to bear witness as she pulled off her jacket, as she boiled tea over the stove, as she accepted the loneliness, the quiet, for however long it would last.

She fell asleep on the couch, television quietly on in the background, and woke up screaming, drenched in sweat.

The dream had been nothing traditionally frightening; it had been Rosa and Hans, in the kitchen, and Rudy, taller and handsomer.

Five years on, and so much and nothing at all had changed.

Max returned with an article written and a trinket wrapped for Liesel. On his walk home, the sky outside dark and shop lights bleeding yellow against the dark streets, he stopped inside a variety.

He paid too much for a dozen flowers, but smiled as he continued home.

Max wandered in the apartment, looking for Liesel in the living room, in the kitchen, in her own room (after knocking, of course).

She must be out, he thought. He took the flowers out of their wrapping, and gathered them in an empty wine bottle, running some water through the neck.

It was when he pulled his jacket off, pulled off his shoes and wandered sleepily to his room that he found her.

Bundled in blankets, with all make-up wiped clean off her pale face, she was sleeping in his bed, curled up on her side.

Max stopped. He smiled, and watched for a moment.

He slept on the couch, and when Liesel found him in the morning, she woke him up with her scream, her tears, and her hug.

December 1948

VII. I can't say the words,

     so I wrote you into my verse.

        - Bastille, Poet.

They woke in tandem on Christmas morning; as Max exited the bathroom, his hair combed back, his eyes bright, and his face unshaven, Liesel came out of her room.

The two smiled at one another, and they were quite a sight; both with housecoats on, Liesel with a nightdress on underneath, and Max with only plain grey pajama pants.

In one year's time, they would wake up in the same bed.

In the living room, when Liesel entered, Max was sitting on the floor. On the small table were two cups of tea in saucers, and a plate of cookies and biscuits. She smiled, but left them to sit on the floor beside Max.

Their living room was bare; the only evidence of any holiday celebration was the time they had spent at the closest Synagogue, where Max had attended Hanukkah celebrations. He had brought Liesel, and was once allowed to light one of the eight candles.

As he lit the candle, match hot in his hand, and Liesel's eyes on his shoulders, on the muscles in his back and the softness of his hair, it felt like redemption and prayer and peace.

Out of her housecoat's pocket, she pulled a long, wrapped package. The paper was wrinkled, but she still handed it over proudly. Max hesitated before reaching out a weathered hand to hold it. She'd been keeping it in her suitcase since March.

"I should've given it to you a long time ago. I didn't know when to - I thought maybe during Hanukkah. But, it's yours, anyway."

Max kept his eyes on Liesel for a long moment before beginning to unwrap it. When the paper was all discarded, he smiled down at the gift from Liesel.

It was a menorah, polished and gold and kept in near-perfect condition. It seemed to burn red hot in his hands, and tears sprung to his eyes, though his smile was so wide it had begun to hurt his jaw, his cheeks.

"Liesel, thank you. Thank you."

On the floor near the fireplace there was a large, wrapped box. Max lifted it up, and presented it to Liesel proudly.

"I've been collecting it for awhile."

Liesel's eyebrows furrowed, and began to unwrap the paper. Once the paper was gone, she pulled open the box. 

It was filled to the brim with books. Old books and shiny books and books in English, in French, in Spanish.

She began to pull them out of the box. There was The Little Prince, For Whom The Bell Tolls, Neruda, Fitzgerald.

"Max," she said, her heart full to the brim, "thank you".

Max said nothing, but watched her, and smiled in time with her.

****

The two sat on the floor, on either side of their table, and drank coffee, and indulged in biscuits and cookies.

"Max," Liesel started. "Dachau - I read it was liberated in April. From - from April to October, where were you?"

She was hesitating; she was unsure of the rights she had to ask.

"I went back for my Mother, but there were no records of her. No one who could say anything. She was my only family left."

Liesel nodded, measuring Max's words as she watched his fingers fiddle with his burning cigarette.

"Stuttgart is a big city. But I know her - she wouldn't have disappeared. I just wanted to see if I could find her."

"I'm sorry," Liesel said, and then paused before speaking again. "What was her name?"

She stirred sugar into her coffee, and Max felt his heart skip.

"Riva."

He hadn't said the name in so long, it felt like a prayer to him.

"Mine was Paula," she offered to him, and he took it.

Max's lips formed the name, and, then, noticing Liesel watching him, stuck his cigarette back between his teeth.

That night, after the two had eaten and drank, Max lit all eight of the candles him and Liesel had stuck into the menorah. With the menorah on the living room table, and Liesel's face visible on the other side, through the flames, it felt like something new, something else, and something that was a long time coming.

That night, as Max slept on the floor and Liesel sat on the love seat, she read Pablo Neruda and dreamt of Barcelona, of Spain, and thought of her and Max there.

February 1949

VIII. ...and she heard her own voice fill up with familiarity, with longing. She almost turned.

     She almost called him Vanya, Ivanushka, as though they were already lovers. 

        - Catherynne M. Valente, Deathless.

The Sunday after Liesel's twentieth birthday found both Liesel and Max at home, curled up on the loveseat, wine in their bellies and Liesel's legs thrown over Max's thighs.

They were warm, and they were smiling, and they were forgetting how to be lonely.

"I've forgotten to ask, Liesel, how has work been? Frau Kauffman is well, I expect?"

"Oh -" Liesel began to laugh, covering her eyes with her thin fingers. "It's well, I enjoy it. Kauffman is... funny."

"Funny?"

"For lack of a better word."

"How so?" His fingers were on her ankles, tracing the protruding bones.

"She says you are... seducing me."

Max choked on absolutely nothing, sitting up straight, though his hands stayed at Liesel's ankles. After collecting himself, his eyes were still wide and he guffawed. "I’m not seducing you!"

Liesel peeked at him through her fingers, and her thin lips turned up into something of a smile. When she spoke, her voice was quiet, but it was loud enough that it echoed in Max's ears.

"You are, a little."

****

The book shop was not busy, even for a Monday; they'd had a student come in, early in the morning, looking for a recycled textbook on philosophy.

Liesel stood behind the counter, working on filling out orders and updating the inventory, while Frau Kauffman, the wild, funny old woman, was going through the shelves, sorting what she could.

In through the door walked Max, bag slung over his chest and his cheeks flushed pink from the cold. At the sight of him, Liesel's heart swelled in her chest, and she smiled.

"Hello, Max." Her voice betrayed her, breaking over his name.

"Liesel - hi. Sorry to interrupt -"

"- you're not -"

"But you - forgot lunch at home, and it was cold, anyhow, so I thought I'd -" from his bag, Max produced a small tin lunchbox, and passed it onto Liesel, stepping forward so she needn't reach.

She stared at him for a moment, and then flipped the switches on the lunchbox to peek inside.

"There's, um - kneidl soup, and a bagel there - I thought you liked cream cheese, so I put some on, and there's - a cookie from that batch the other night."

"Oh," Liesel nodded, and then smiled. "Max. Thank you."

"It's - don't worry, I'm glad I could help," he began to fiddle about with his hands, and Liesel frowned. "I'll - see you tonight, then, Liesel."

"Yes," she reaffirmed, clicking the lunchbox shut. "Have a nice day, Max. Be safe."

Max paused for a moment before turning, and when he smiled, just a little upturn of his lip, he seemed years younger, without such a heavy weight on his back. "And you, Liesel."

Once the door shut, Frau Kauffman peeked out her head from a row of books, her wrinkled face smiling, her grey hair tied up loosely.

"Liesel! Who was that?"

"Him?" Liesel leaned against the counter for a moment, and then smiled down at the simple little lunchbox sitting atop the counter.

"I'm going to marry him."

June 1949

X. ...And when sleep comes

     to stretch me out and take me

     to my own silence

     there is a great white wind

     that destroys my sleep

     and from it falls leaves,

     they fall like knives

     upon me, draining me of blood.

     And each wound has

     the shape of your mouth.

        - Pablo Neruda, The Earth.

The scream that woke up Max was frightening but recognized, and he walked quickly, by habit, to Liesel's room, shushing her as he held her, as he rocked her awake, trying to make her return to the present as peaceful as would be allowed.

Liesel woke up to her face on Max's chest, to his arms around her, and the screams went silent on her tongue, replaced by his name, replaced by something like peace.

He turned, releasing Liesel, and breathed evenly for a few moments. He ensured that Liesel was awake; that she was out of her nightmare, that, for the the night, she would be alright.

Max fell asleep easily, and left Liesel awake, her eyes on him.

Liesel wondered if, behind Max's heavy eyelids, he dreamed of Dacahu. If he dreamed of the months he'd survived on his own, by the outskirts of Molching, on the run, halfway to Stuttgart. If he made up new fates for his lost mother. She hoped, though, rather stubbornely, that he dreamed of peace. Maybe that basement on Himmel Street. Or of her. So many of her dreams carried him, she wondered if such a transition was mutual.

“Max?”

“Mm.” He was asleep, sleeping on his stomach, an arm over his head and one falling off her bed. He only had one sock on, and his tongue peeked out to wet his chapped lips.

Liesel turned onto her back, hands entwined on her stomach, and stared up at their ceiling.

“I love you.”

“Mm,” Max seemed to say in acknowledgement, though his only reaction was to shift his head on the pillow, closer to her.

August 1949

XI. I am not the first person you loved.

     You are not the first person I looked at

     with a mouthful of forevers. We

     have both known loss like the sharp edge

     of a knife. We have both lived with lips

     more scar tissue than skin.

        - Clementine von Radics, Mouthful of Forevers.

August, 1949 started on a Monday. Their schedules finally coordinating for what seemed like a long time - they had only seen glimpses of one another in hallways and mirrors, Liesel sometimes going to Max's door, and watching him sleep, the way she had so many years before, though now there was the way she warmed at the sight of his lean shoulders, at the fine line from his shoulders to his waist to his hips, his long hair that fell over his face - the two of them spent the day together.

Liesel wore her best shoes, Max his Synagogue jacket, and they walked for a long amount of time. They walked down the forested edge of the Würm river, sat with coffees in a café, and sat in silence, and talked as they walked side by side. Liesel's green summer dress was radiant on her, and Max told her so.

That night, they ordered dinner from a restaraunt and, after walking home with it in boxes, ate outside on their balcony.

The lights of the city were bright, and the two of them were happy, with the simplicity of the day, and with the simplicity of their lives.

They both went to bed, though while Max fell asleep quickly, easily, Liesel sat on her bed, still fully clothed, for a long time. It was after midnight when she stood up, off her bed, and began to untie her dress, letting the soft green fabric drop to the floor around her feet.

She pulled off her undergarmets, abandoning them on the floor and, for one moment, looked at herself in the mirror that hung in her room.

Her body was rather plain. She was thin, with hips that jutted out from her narrow waist. Her breasts were small, and her thighs skinny. Liesel's skin was pale, though more tanned than it ever had been before. She wondered if Max would see her the same way; if he would be so clinical, so simple in his observation of her body. Liesel thought otherwise, that Max was more romantic than that, and she thought maybe he would focus on the mole by her mouth, on the curve of her silhouette, on the freckle on her right breast.

Liesel pulled on her most expensive nightgown; it was nothing soft, but it was silky and soft on her skin, and hung well on her body.

In her mirror, without water, she washed off any remnants of remaining make-up with nothing but saliva and her own fingers, too tired and too focused on the minutes that approached her in the future.

With her narrow hips and brown eyes, Liesel Meminger stood in the doorway of Max Vandenburg's bedroom for a long while. She watched him breathe, watched the rise and fall of his chest. He would murmur every once in awhile, though his dreams seemed, for the most part, peaceful.

It was when she knocked on the doorway, stepping over the threshold into the room she'd dreamed about, with all its scattered papers and stacks of books, that Max woke up.

"Liesel?" he asked, rubbing lazily at his eyes.

"Max," Liesel said, and her voice was soft, filled with a longing she hadn't yet recognized.

"What's wrong?" Max hoisted himself onto his hands, and was observing her. "Are you alright?"

"I'm fine," she said, circling around the room before sitting on the edge of the bed.

He nodded, still exhausted, and fell back onto the bed. "I shouldn't have eaten so much," he laughed, his eyes closed. "My stomach's in knots."

Liesel nodded, smiling, and shuffled closer to Max, until she could push her legs under the blankets.

Max sat up at such time, leaning his bare back against his headboard.

She leaned toward him, and pushed some long strands of dark hair out of his eyes. "Your hair needs trimmed."

"Tommorrow?" he asked, face leaning ever so slightly toward her hand. "You could play the role of barber well, I'm sure."

Liesel smiled, and rubbed a thumb against his skin.

After outstretching another hand to cup the other side of his face, Liesel leaned forward and kissed Max, hard and long, on the mouth.

His eyes were open while hers were shut, and he hesitated for a long moment before leaning forward, before putting his hands to Liesel's shoulders, to her waist, to her hips, her hair. Max whimpered into her mouth, not out of lust or of want, but of joy and pain and the suffering both of them had known for so many years. With Liesel's mouth on his, pink and soft, all of the years past seemed to be at an end, with this something of a new beginning.

When they both pulled away, gasping, for room to breathe, Max was the first to speak.

"Liesel, what was that?" Surely it was a fluke.

She smiled, radiant, and nudged her nose against his. "Max," Liesel said finally, gathering up the warmth his name brought. "Don't you know?"

"What?"

"Oh, Max," Liesel laughed, kissing his neck, his cheek, his shoulder, his forehead, his ear, his nose. "Oh, Max." His mouth.

And he, bereft of any thought, of any meaning outside of this; of her mouth on his, of her curls hair in his hands, the calamity of her skin, kissed her.

They slept grasped to one another, Liesel's head on Max's chest, their fingers entwined as closely as their flesh would allow.

****

The next morning, the two woke early, happily ate leftovers for breakfast. Max bathed, and kept his hair wet. Liesel set up a chair and towel in the bathroom, and Max sat patiently as Liesel went to his hair, carefully as she could, with a pair of shears.

His hair was smooth as silk between her fingers, and Liesel cut carefully, her tongue between her lips as she concentrated.

When Liesel began to cut at the hairs that hung in his eyes, her face inches from Max's, he laughed at her face, covering his mouth with his hand to keep from laughing too loudly.

"Huh? Why are you laughing?" she demanded, waving the shears about.

"No reason. You're very good at this," he offered.

"You're a very bad liar."

She grinned wickedly, and Max, more in love than he'd ever been, smiled.

****

"It looks fantastic, Liesel," he complimented, combing back his hair in the mirror, leaning over the bathroom sink.

"You look fantastic," she corrected. "The haircut is lopsided."

"You did a good job. Plus, there's always next time. Maybe we could get it lopsided on the right side. Switch things up."

She flicked his ear, and he laughed as she left, over her shoulder warning him. "Don't get smart now."

He got ready for work quickly, pulling on one of his nicest suits. Liesel met him in the hall before he was set to leave; she had the day off, and her face was clean, with her hair about her shoulders and a pale yellow dress that fit her perfectly.

She checked his pants, his jacket, his tie and his shirt. Liesel didn't say much of anything, and stared at his hair, adjusting it with one of her pale hands, while Max stared at her hand.

"Come back," she finally said, fingers adjusting the tie that hung loose round his neck. "That's all I ask."

Max smiled down at her, leaning back an inch or two to grab the full effect of Miss Liesel Meminger, with her sloped nose and curly, blonde hair and eyes and those small little shoulders.

"Now," Liesel interrupted his thoughts before they could wander off too far. "Let me get a look at you."

Obediently, Max raised his arms out and turned slowly in a circle, while Liesel, who, despite having a good understanding of what looked presentable, and, more so, what looked fantastic on Max, hit her index finger to her thumb, as if considering his suit, as if she could tell him anything but how handsome he looked.

He leaned down to kiss her cheek, though Liesel adjusted his face so she could kiss him on the mouth.

October 1949

XII. "I would have written you, myself, if I could put down in words everything I want to say to you. A sea of ink would not be enough."

      "But you built me dreams instead."

        - Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus.

They'd been laying in bed all night, and for the majority of the day; Max had brought in breakfast, and they'd lazed throughout the morning and the afternoon.

Max's head was on Liesel's stomach, her fingers lazily playing with his hair. The room usually assigned to Max had become theirs.

"Max," Liesel finally said, when she could convince herself to gather up the courage, "do you think we'll get married?"

He sat up. Pushed off her hands. Ran his own hands over his head, scratching at his scalp. He left the bed, his back to her.

She pushed herself up onto her elbows. "Max, come back to bed."

"I think we should have a serious talk about our relationship."

"Max."

"Liesel."

"Don't be stupid."

"I'm being serious."

"I think you're being stupid."

"Can you please not call me stupid? I'm trying to be reasonable."

Liesel sat up, and scooted over until her legs were hanging off the bed. "Please, come back to bed."

"I could - can - be good to you, for you. But only if what I am, and what I can give, is what you want."

"Max."

"You have a choice here, Liesel. You have options." His face was red, and when he turned to face her there were tears in his eyes.

"Well, then I chose you. This it it. This is what I want." Liesel's face was set, and her arms were open. "Come back, Max. Come back to me."

Max watched her, considered her, and leaned back onto his desk. He fumbled for a moment, hands behind his back, and came up with a lighter and a cigarette, which was quickly stuck between his teeth. His hands shook as he lit it, as he inhaled, as he avoided looking at Liesel.

It was only when she was standing in front of him, when she was taking the cigarette from his teeth and putting it out in his ashtray, that he looked at her again. His heart spun round in his chest, and it was very suddenly very difficult to breathe.

And then Liesel Meminger, thief and woman and lover, terrifying as she was to him, was kissing him very hard, and was then pressing her body to his.

Which was very, very new. Unexpected enough, too, that Max whimpered into her mouth.

He responded avidly, and as she climbed to straddle him, right there on the desk, his fingertips dug into the fleshy skin of her thighs, of her hips underneath her nightgown.

"Let's go to bed," Liesel said, the words awkward in her mouth. Max was kissing her throat, and paused at he collarbone.

"What?" Her hips rolled against his, and then - "oh."

She was smiling, wicked and beautiful, and Max was lost.

"Are you sure?"

Liesel responded by climbing off of him, by kissing him hard and walking backward till her knees hit the bed, and till they both fell down.

She suddenly felt so very aware of everything; of Max’s mouth and his tongue, tracing her collarbone, his fingers wandering down her arms and above her legs, of his body over hers, near hers, of his chest pressed against her small breasts. 

Liesel felt her chest constrict, and suddenly this closeness wasn’t nearly close enough.

Max,” she groaned, hooking one of her feet around his knee. She switched their positions fairly easily, and sat atop his hips.

Max, for all he was worth, could do nothing for a long moment but stare at Liesel’s, whose curly hair was loose, and whose cheeks were flushed.

“Oh,” Max sighed, though the noise was nearly a whimper. “Look at you.”

He pressed one hand to the small of her back, and sat up, cupping her face with the other. She leaned into his palm, kissing the calloused skin, and very suddenly Max wanted to cry for this beautiful, beautiful woman that he loved, for no clear reason other than his heart felt as though it would pound out of his chest, still beating.

Liesel smiled, surveying him for a moment, before leaning forward very quickly and kissing him, her thin fingers in his hair, tugging and playing and Max sighed into her mouth, he was sure he did.

Max kissed her back, his hands climbing up her back as she arched against him.

He could do this forever, he thought. Lie here with Liesel and kiss her forever, with no want for anything else.

“Max,” she sighed, breaking his thoughts, though he simply began kissing a line down her the column of her throat. 

“Max. Please.”

“Hm?” he broke, his eyes glassy as he looked up at her, a hand rubbing back and forth on her thigh, fingertips tight against her thighs.

Max was so beautiful it hurt to look at him, a little, but she couldn't peel her eyes from him; from the hairs that fell in his face as she hovered over him, and at his thin hands that rested on her hips, on her thighs.

She needed him so much closer. She needed him everywhere; his hands on her breasts, on her thighs, between her legs, his mouth on hers, on her throat.

Liesel shivered.

Please, Max.”

“Oh. Oh.” Max made quick work of his shirt, pulling it over his shoulders and head (though this did, unfortunately, mean his hands had to leave Liesel’s warmth); it seemed more difficult more than ever to get himself out.

Liesel, meanwhile, had just pulled off her nightgown, and was left in nothing but a thin, small shift.

As Max was finally shirtless, he paused, and nipped at Liesel’s nose, reaching his face up to hers.

“Liesel.”

She sighed, smiling. “Max.”

“You look beautiful.”

Liesel could see his crooked teeth when he smiled, and dragged her shift up her thigh.

“You’re going to kill me.”

She flicked his shoulder, smiling with her lip tucked into her teeth, and slipped one of the straps of her shift down.

Max reached around Liesel as well as he could to pull off his socks, and then paused.

Liesel, who was trying to figure out how to optimize the sexiness of the removal of her shift with the least amount of awkwardness, was quickly flipped underneath him.

Max pushed her hands away, and reached underneath her back, fingers on her spine.

She began to lift her shift up, tired of planning how to remove it and becoming impatient, and Max began to laugh, holding himself up with one arm to hover above Liesel.

He helped her drag it off her body, and tossed it gleefully.

Liesel began to slip out of her undergarments, and Max paused, leaning back for just a moment. 

“Max,” Liesel finally said. He hadn’t realized, but throughout his gaining reassurance that she did want this, want him, she’d taken off the rest of whatever was on her, and was now very, very much nude.

Max observed her for just a second, and then slid himself out of his pajama pants, his boxers.

He crushed himself to her, kissing her and wrapping his arms around her, and she was so warm, so warm, so warm.

****

Later, with Liesel sweaty and blissful and Max exhausted, they laid entwined, Liesel's head on Max's chest, sheets around their hips.

He pushed some of her hair out of his eyesight, kissing strands that he held between his fingers.

Liesel turned up to face Max, kissing a patch of his skin at random before she spoke.

"What have you been doing?"

"Mm?"

"All those years. All that time… What have you been doing?"

A sleepy smile, and then - “waiting for you, I suppose”.

****

The next morning, she woke slowly, sore and exhausted and content, after having foregone waking up, even as she heard Max waking, and moving things about.

It was when the thick smell of paint hit her nostrils that Liesel really woke up - she sat up, eyes bleary and nearly shut. She scanned the room, looking for Max or an explanation, but there was just - 

Oh.

There, on the plain grey wall that sat in front of the bed, was a sun.

Thick with wet paint, it was yellow and orange and beautiful.

Max had set up a pile of newspapers on the floor below the sun.

The sight of Max's sun brought her back to the dripping sun of the basement of Himmel Street, but it wasn't traumatic; after the night she and Max had spent together, it was soothing, it was remembering, it was knowing that she didn't need to forget, that Max was there to remember with her.

It was nothing that any art critic would rate beautiful, but if Liesel could, she'd cut out that entire span of the wall and put it up in a museum, and say, here, see? My boy builds suns for me. 

Liesel's heart swelled, and she sat up, sliding off the bed entirely naked, and running to the living room where, sure enough, Max was writing. He looked up from the paper, and dropped everything he held, standing up and stepping toward Liesel. "Are you alright?"

"I love you," she said simply, as though she'd said it every day she'd known him, as if it was always there, just under her skin, waiting for her to pull it out. Her latest magic trick. "I love you."

They hugged and cried and fell to the floor.

January 1950

XIII. In the morning, through the window shade

      When the light pressed up against your shoulder blade

      I could see what you were reading.

        - Sufjan Stevens, Casimir Pulaski Day.

Max came home with a bloody mouth, a bleeding nose, ruined knuckles and the beginnings of a bruise on his jaw.

Liesel hadn't been waiting up for him on purpose; he'd had a shift at work that day, and had guessed that he'd gone to dinner and drinks with friends afterward.

But she'd been working toward the end of a new book, and as she lazed on the love seat, feet thrown over the arm, with a glass of red wine in her free hand, it wasn't as though she was exactly tired.

When Max stumbled through the door close to two in the morning, it wasn't until Liesel saw him that she noticed anything was wrong.

"I tried making those latkes, from the recipe like you showed me," she called out, using a scrap of paper to mark her place in the book as she set it down on the table, fingers still clasped around her glass.

When there wasn't an answer, just the sound of clinking keys, Liesel sat up, adjusting her hair as she set down her glass. "Max?"

She nearly screamed at the sight of him; he was a mess, and he was laughing like a madman, and Liesel wasn't sure how to react, outside of throwing him down onto one of the kitchen chairs and disinfecting whatever she could as well as she could.

When it was all done, when Max had finished with his wincing and Liesel with her anger, she sat across from him at the table.

"What happened? Did you start a fight?"

"It felt good," he finally said. "Like when I was a kid." His voice was slurred.

"I don't care how good it feels. That scares me. Dummkopf." Idiot. "You hear me? That scares me."

"I just wanted to taste blood in my mouth."

"I don't give a shit."

He pushed himself out of the seat, and discarded his jacket quickly, tossing it aside. "You think I like living like this? Having to be one of the survivors? I buried women, I buried men of my own. We've been through so much that - I don't if we - if we can - move on -"

"I'm not asking you to move on! I'm asking you to not make me -"

"I love you," he finally said, and his hands were shaking, and there were tears stinging at the blood on his face. "I'm sorry."

Liesel shook her head, and covered her face with her hands. "Max. Come," she said, standing up and walking to him. He fell into her, and she had to try to carry him, as he stumbled by her side. "You need sleep."

He was silent as Liesel walked him to the room, and could only stare at the sun he'd painted for her as she pulled off his socks, his shirt and undershirt, and his pants.

"Thank you," he said quietly, holding onto her hand as he laid down, blankets pulled up to his waist, her sitting on the edge of the bed. Liesel hadn't ever considered that the sight of Max, pale and healthier than he'd ever been, with bloodied knuckles and bruises would enthral her, but there the proof was, when she had to drag herself away from him.

"Max?" she asked from the doorway, his eyes splitting time between Liesel and her sun.

"I'm sorry I can't fix it all. But I love you."

He smiled, leaning back and closing his eyes. 

Liesel watched him from the doorway, Max with the stories of Stuttgart and the clouds and the sun, Max with the basement and the paints and the beautiful words and beautiful hands, the man with the memories and the kisses that she would marry.

"I'll see you in the morning."

"Goodnight, Liesel."

****

Max woke up with a steady headache and a cold bed. He rolled over, searching for the familiar, warm form of Liesel, but came up empty.

The memories from the night before came back to him slowly and incompletely, but there was enough that he could piece the rest together.

He sat up, ready to find Liesel and make breakfast, do what he could to make things right, make things better.

But as his eyes found Liesel's sun, his eyebrows furrowed. Then, a smile.

There, painted carefully with what looked like fingers, were yellow stars, scattered around the sun.

May 1950

XV. His love was too much for him, he felt paralyzed, he wanted to sleep inside her lungs

      and breathe her blood and be smothered.

        - Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried.

Max was sat in the steaming bath as Liesel fuddled about, rearranging her hair - it was piled atop her head, fancier than he'd ever seen, and reapplying lipstick. She was nervous, surely, for their dinner out with Max's work colleagues, while Max was relaxed, and doing everything in his power to remain as such.

He grinned, watching her as she paced and worried over nothing. "Liesel," he finally said quite loudly.

"Max," she deadpanned, unamused as he'd been bothering her from his comfortable vantage point as often as he could.

"Have I told you how beautiful you look tonight?"

"That's the fourth time."

There was a slight smile on her face, and Max winked at her; she could see his reflection in the mirror. "Really, really stupendous. Knock out." He mimed blowing smoke off a gun with his hand.

With his arms hung over the edges of the tub, Liesel watched him breathe as they fell silent, as he leaned his head against the back of the tub and shut his eyes.

She knew that Max took peace when he could.

Silently, Liesel walked to the tub and, after trying to adjust her dress so as to preserve whatever modesty she could, sat down, leaning against Max's wet shoulder.

"You'll ruin your hair," Max whispered.

"I'm so beautiful, I don't think it matters much," Liesel whispered in response.

He grinned, and Liesel began at her old habit of tracing him; his eyebrows and his nose, his jaw and his shoulders, his hands and his arms.

Her fingers curled over his wrist, his knuckles, and then began the trip up his forearm, when she stopped.

"Max - what is this?" Liesel's fingers had stopped their wandering, and had paused at the edge of black ink that lay on his arm.

Liesel had seen it before, noticed it often, but had never asked. It had never felt right, or had never been the time.

He swallowed the bile that rose in the thin column of his throat. He closed his eyes, began to shake under the soft fingers of this girl, began to remember and remember and remember.

"Max?" She had covered up the numbers with her palm, gauging if she needed to block the memories, if she could or was needed to protect him.

"Identification. At Dachau, at Auschwitz, at Warsaw. To identify the corpses."

His eyes remained shut, seemingly in an effort to block out the memories, to lead his mind astray, to remember to forget.

"Oh, Max," Liesel sighed, scooting herself closer to him. Her warm breath was on his cold cheek, and began to thaw him out. "Oh, Max."

Her voice was the quietest he'd ever heard it; if he were anyone else, he'd surely have to strain to hear the lilt in her voice, but he had known her too long to be fooled by her.

I still smell like death, he wanted to say, but he buried the words like corpses, wanting to protect the girl the way he'd always tried to. If he didn't, who else, aside from Liesel herself, would? "Don't. It's okay. I'm here."

He felt guilty. He felt cowardly. He felt very alive, and felt everything that came with such a diagnosis.

At dinner, they talked and laughed loudly and ate like they hadn't in weeks, and later, when Max and his friends went out for a cigarette, leaving Liesel with all of their respective girlfriends, fiancés, and wives, he showed them all the ring he'd been keeping in his pocket since February.

They asked him when, and he shrugged.

August 1950

XVI. [He] looks like the life that you stole from me.

        - Catherynne M. Valente, Deathless.

"Liesel."

"Yes?"

"Remind me."

"Of what?"

"That you are still alive. That I am, too."

Turning her head to look at Max, she could see his eyes were filled with tears.

Liesel smiled very suddenly, the record they'd put on before sitting down quiet in the background.

She stood up, patting down and adjusting her pretty dress, and then offered her hand to Max. "May I have this dance?"

It was no surprise to Max that he didn't actually have a choice in the matter, as Liesel grabbed his hands and pulled him to a standing position. Her head was on his chest, one hand still holding his and the other on his shoulder. His spare hand wandered to the small of her back, and he leaned his head against hers.

"C'est lui pour moi, moi pour lui dans la vie," Liesel sang off-key into Max's neck.

"Your French is terrible, Liesel," he grinned.

"Il me l'a dit, l'a juré pour la vie," she sang louder, laughing freely.

Liesel wove her fingers through his tighter, gripping him until their bones seemed to be moulding together. Her fingers hurt with the pressure of his, and she was sure the pain was mutual. Their knuckles turned bone-white, and he smiled.

Soon, he told himself.

December 1950

XVII. I will write a dictionary

        of all the words I have used trying

        to describe the way it feels to have finally,

        finally found you.

        And I will not be afraid

        of your scars.

        - Clementine von Radics, Mouthful of Forevers.

His pockets, on different occasions, carried varying multitudes of objects.

On Christmas, they had been home to a ring. A pair of tickets to a city she'd told him she dreamed about once, and to one she'd only ever heard of in his stories.

She'd said yes; to the ring, to Barcelona and Stuttgart, her pink face wet with tears, and he'd laughed, and they had hugged and kissed and cried.

****

The bathtub water had been cold for some time, but neither of them moved. Liesel's back was to the surface of the tub, her hair tied up - though odds and ends spilled out, anyway. Max's back was to her chest, her legs open so he could lean against her. There was acigarette between his fingers, and he would, every once in awhile, drag it lazily between his lips. Liesel would sometimes steal it for a taste.

She would kiss his temple, he her knee. Their fingers pruned, and the sky turned a thick purple. 

They breathed.

German and Jewish lungs.