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It is dusk when they come home for the first time.

He will remember this for the rest of his life. Petra is wearing a yellow dress, and there are white flowers in her hair. Her eyes are bright, and a little swollen because she cried when he said his vows to her. But her cheeks are flushed from laughing; she has laughed more today than he’s ever heard, and he is drunk on the sound of it.

“It’s not by a mountain,” he says by way of apology. “But there’s a river, and – and a garden, even. Like you wanted.”

She smiles, and even now it kindles something in him, something light and fierce in equal turns. “Are you going to carry me over the threshold?”

“Well I wasn’t planning on it,” he lies. “You’re heavy.”

“Yes, but I’m your wife now. You have to do what I want.”

“What about what I want? Maybe you should carry me over the threshold, how does that sound?”

“You know I could, easily.”

“So do it, you pushy nag.”

“You’re awful.” A spark of mischief in her eyes. ”You want to doom our lives together because you’re so lazy you couldn’t possibly be bothered to –”

“Fuckin’ nag me to death, already,” he gripes.

But he sweeps her up with a dashing flourish, dipping her low and planting an exaggerated kiss on her laughing mouth. She throws her arms around his neck, squealing with delight. And he has a moment of surreal disbelief, standing there with his wife in his arms, in front of their home by the river, the one she’d talked about since they were children. He has to remind himself of everything that is true; that she’s his wife and he’s her husband, and the world belongs to them now. It may not be safe yet, but it is theirs.

“You can only put me down on our bed,” she tells him seriously, her arms tightening around him. Her breath is hot and sweet against his neck. “Otherwise it’s bad luck.”

“You’re an expert on this, are you?”

“I’m an expert on everything.”

He pinches her, and she squeals again. “You’re an expert on driving me insane.”

But she doesn’t retaliate in the usual way; instead she leans close and presses her lips to his neck, slim fingers curling just below his hairline. The warmth of her lips makes him shiver. “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

It is the furthest from a bad thing he can possibly imagine. He doesn’t put her down to open the door; he kicks it open with so much force that he’ll have to fix the fucking thing tomorrow morning, but right now he couldn’t care less because she is kissing his neck, the line of his jaw, anywhere that she can reach, and he is desperate to respond in kind.

And when he reaches their bed, he does. He is caught between desire so potent that it is painful to be slow, and the impulse to savor everything, to draw it out as long as it can be borne. She shifts when he slips her dress over her head, shivers when his hands skim bare skin, sighs when he presses his mouth to her stomach. “Auruo …”

“Shh …” he breathes, grinning at the memory, years ago in a uniform closet. That old joke.

He learns her, every time. He memorizes the hitch in her breath, the moan caught at the back of her throat when he does something right, her fingers tangled in his hair. He relearns the scars from the expeditions that went south, the tight muscle of her belly and thighs, and the impossible softness of her; soft skin, soft breasts, soft lips. He is drunk on her in every way, hopelessly lost in the miracle that she loves him, that she chose him.

He is braced on his forearms above her when she stops him, holds his face between her hands, and god – that is a miracle too. “Auruo,” she says seriously.

“What?” He’s breathless. He is trying not to drown in her.

Her eyes are fierce. “You’re mine,” she says. “My husband.”

He still can’t understand this – how this satisfies her. He is the lucky one. He is a foul-mouthed and unfortunate and frequently ill-tempered. She is brighter than the sun.

But he knows saying as much will upset her – it only ever has in the past. So he winds his fingers in her hair and swallows the deflection that is still so reflexive, an old habit from when things were uncertain and he was afraid. He kisses her deeply and tries not to show how close he is to breaking. “And you’re mine,” he whispers. “My wife.”

~

He wakes to sunshine streaming in through the open window, bathing him in warmth and light. He groans indolently, flopping on his back. He still strains with desire, but this morning its tempered with scraping hunger, and eagerness to explore their new home. When he turns to kiss Petra’s shoulder, he sees that she’s gone, the rumpled depression in the space next to him the only indication that she’d been sleeping beside him. A stab of fear shoots through him for a brief second, the pull of memory threatening to drag him down into a true panic –

But her voice reaches him through the window. He peers outside and sees a flash of that bright auburn, catching the dawn light like the face of a coin.

Shaking a loose shirt over his head and pulling on a well-worn pair of trousers, he clomps down the stairs, combing his mussed hair back. The front door hangs slightly wrong on its hinge, no doubt the result of his manhandling the night before, but he can’t bring himself to care that much. He loves this little house, it’s spotless kitchenette and oversized divan, and the strange contraption the former owner called a ‘radio’ perched on the mantle above a real fireplace. He’d even shown them how to use it, to Petra’s endless delight. Now they could listen to music whenever they want, like real rich people. They are rich, endlessly rich, in ways no wealthy man could ever understand.

He finds her outside, elbows deep in the garden. It’s colder out here, but all she wears is her nightshirt and a pair of old shoes; she beams at the feel of dirt between her fingers, and the sight of him over her shoulder. “Good morning, husband.”  

“Good morning, wife.” He smirks, rubs the sleep from his eyes. “How long have you been up?”

“Oh, not too long. The sun hadn’t risen yet, but there was some light on the horizon, so I could see what I was doing.” Her nightgown is soaked through at the knees, and she’s rolled her sleeves to her elbows, proudly showing him her filthy hands. “You want to join me?”

He wants nothing more. “Well, fine. But put on a jacket, you crazy nag. You’re gonna get sick.”

He strides back inside and snags her coat from its hangar by the door. It’s just like her to forget something like this, he thinks as he steps back outside, just like her to care more about the sunrise, the feel of dew against bare feet. Gently, he drapes it around her shoulders, tucking the ends tight around her. Overcome by impulse, he plants a soft kiss on her cheek, relishing the feel of her skin against his lips. She turns with a radiant smile, bringing her hand to his face, and kisses him gently, an earnest answer to his question. “You always take such good care of me.”

“Well, someone’s gotta. Otherwise you’d forget.”

“There are more important things to do. Come on, look at this.”

He does. The land seems endless, though they still live behind the Walls, which protect them from a world not sure if their race can be trusted yet. Not everyone has adjusted to the change in perspective; his brothers especially. Christophe can hardly think about it without lapsing into a silent fury. “Pretty lucky I found this place, huh?”

“Luck had nothing to do with it, Auruo.” Slight exasperation – he fell back into his customary self-effacing dismissal, much to her annoyance. The truth was he’d scoured the country for a place like this, as close to her childhood dream as possible. One that included a garden.

“It’ll really come into its own in a year,” she tells him. “Next year you won’t even be able to see this side of the house through all the flowers.”

“Sounds like your kinda heaven.”

“It is,” she said fondly. “A garden to stick my hands in, and a wonderful husband to appreciate.”

“Appreciate, huh … could we go back to that part?”

“In good time.” Her smile grew coy, teasing. “We have plenty of it.”

~

They spend that first day outside, watching the sun slowly rise, before tromping off in the lands surrounding their new home. The river burbles merrily, as cold as winter’s touch, enough to cool the air around it. There’s a forest to the south, a small town to the north, some farms farther out. There are a few small homes lining the main road, homes much like theirs. Best of all, there’s a tree much like the one they raced to as children, and they repeat the ritual again. Petra’s not wearing any shoes, but she’s still faster than him, as always. Just before she can reach the tree he catches her around the waist, and the transfer of momentum unsteadies them both; they tumble to the ground, laughing, laughing until their ribs hurt. And he thinks that he’s never been so happy, never in his life.

“You cheated,” she says, wiping tears of laughter away.

“I don’t have to cheat to give you a run for your money.”

She silences his half-hearted retort with a kiss, pushing him back into the grass.

~

From the kitchen, Petra laughs.

She is wrapped only in a bedsheet.

“Hurry up,” she calls.

“I swear to god, Petra,” he snarls, hammering at that goddamned door. “Don’t make this harder.”

“I think I will,” she says, sliding the sheet up her leg. “It’s so lovely out. I could just walk around naked all day.”

She is an evil, evil woman, his wife. He decides he doesn’t care that the door hangs a little wrong on its hinge, at the slightest angle. He stands and pulls it shut, and she shrieks delightedly when he whips off the sheet and throws her over his shoulder.

They don’t come back for it until the middle of the night, when a cool spring breeze sweeps in through their open window, raising a chill on her arms, peaking her breasts against his chest.

~

They are deliriously, impossibly happy. Life post-truce is precarious, but they wouldn’t have noticed even if war broke out again; they live in a world populated only by each other, and by the simple trade they are allowed as honored veterans of the war. They no longer steal moments in dark corridors and closets, but whenever they want, in the open sunlight. They no longer mask adoration in fleeting glances, touches; here they are bold with affection, even defiant. Petra paints their shutters yellow, and throws them open whenever weather allows, and sometimes not even then. He acquaints himself with wet floors by the windows when it rains in the middle of the night. He grows accustomed to the sound of the river and the miracle of her laughter mingling with it.

He has known Petra since he was a boy, and has seen her in a thousand different ways, as a friend, a lover and a comrade, but Petra as his wife is something he won’t ever find words for. She is joyous, in the way she wakes him up every morning; poised above, kissing him until he stirs. She is funny and serious, generous and frustrating, constantly intense about the things she cares about. She acquaints herself with their neighbors and chats with them whenever she gets a chance. She is a creative cook, frenetic when inspired, and a field marshal when she wants something out of him.

They bicker because it’s almost another language they share at this point. And she is quick to forgive, as always.

And he is still a bastard, because even in this place he is uncomfortable with opening himself and hanging his truths out for the world to see. Even here, he can only manage it when they are in bed, or first thing in the morning, when the world is still insubstantial.

“Why’s everything got to be yellow?” he grumps at her one afternoon, watching her paint.

“It’s my favorite color,” she says, frowning. “Don’t you have one?”

He does. She is his favorite color – the colors that make her, the color of her hair, her skin, her eyes.

~

There are still nights where they are pulled down by nightmares, where they remember everything and everyone they lost, where she will wake sobbing or he will wake twisted in bedsheets, biting his fist so he doesn’t scream.

He has one, a few nights later. The worst he’s had in a long time. He dreams of Erd and Gunther, the shapes their broken bodies made on the grass, their dead, empty eyes. So much blood, more blood that he thought a person could hold. He dreams of Hange and Moblit, remembers cleaning out their rooms, how their notes and sketches were the only evidence that they’d lived at all, because there had been no bodies to bury. And Levi – Levi with the mad rictus smile, unrecognizable in death.

And he isn’t awake in his bed, with his wife at his side; he’s on the ground in his uniform, watching the enemy, the human enemy advance and knowing what they are, what they had been killing all this time, thinking themselves virtuous and brave. He is swallowing the hard block of nausea in his gut. He is standing in that corpse-filled ruin with his swords drawn, choking back the stench of blood and rot, Petra at his back. He knows that they are next, and there is nothing he can do about it.

He shudders hard – he can’t stop, he can’t breathe. There is a desperate howl building in him, a red thing that rakes through his mind with razor fingers, drawing the world down to stark lines. He is drowning, sucking breath but not air, not life. He can’t breathe, he can’t breathe –

“Auruo,” comes a voice across the world of terror he inhabits. Two warm hands on his face. “Shh…”

It’s Petra. She’s alive. She’s alive.

“Come back,” she’s saying. “Come back to me.”

Slowly, he does. The red world fades. He focuses on her breathing, the shape of her face, her eyes watching him. How beautiful she is even in darkness, how her touch contains a multitude. He wraps himself in her whispered voice, and through it crawls out of the nightmare, inch by inch.

“Come back, come back,” she’s saying when he clutches her tight to his chest. He shudders, but she holds him steady. She bears their burden.

“Petra …”he sobs.

Shh. I know.”

He wants to tell her that he loves her, he loves her more than his own life, more than anything, but the words are heavy in him. He is a soldier that managed to survive the war, stupidly, less through skill and more by the miracle of luck. And in those days, he said it all the time, every fucking time he thought it, because he knew so well that it could be the last time. Now that they’re free of the Titans, of the brutal truth they’d borne, he’s never been able to break himself of the fear that confessing was just another way of saying goodbye.

She strokes his hair, and he buries his face against her neck, breathing in the familiar scent of her skin. They are able to hold each other until tremors stop, and here they don’t have to sneak away when the sun rises.

~

He will always remember this too:

He is trying to fix something again. He’s gotten better at it after a few months of living as a husband, with a house and wife to take care of, but he’s convinced he’s still better at being a soldier than living like a civilian. Petra stands in the kitchen, in the center of the room, watching him. He doesn’t notice that she’s trembling.

“This fuckin’ thing,” he mutters.

“Auruo.”

And he knows instantly, just by the tone of her voice, that something is wrong. This is why they are alive today -- because they can read each other perfectly, because every sound and motion is in a language they alone speak.

He’s at her side before he’s properly aware of getting to his feet. “What’s wrong?” He tastes blood, realizes he bit his tongue in his clumsy haste. Of course.

Slowly, she looks up at him. “I’ve missed my bleed for the third time.”

He forgets to be embarrassed by this kind of talk because what she is saying is incredible. It’s something that he thought wouldn’t be possible because he had no business thinking about family or the future when their future was not assured. Sure, they’d talked about it occasionally, after a particularly passionate bout of lovemaking. She’d crawl into his bed, late at night, and they’d twined around each other. She’d brushed her fingers over his chest, and he’d breathed in the smell of her hair. Five kids, they said. Two, no six. Okay five. A whole fuckin’ brood. You ready for that? Just an idle fantasy, something to ease the sting of losing their friends and comrades.

He’s never wished he was an eloquent person more than this moment, because all he can manage is: “Uh – what?”

“I’m pregnant.” She has to put it in these terms, because he is stupid. He isn’t fit for anything good.

“Uh –“

Of course she is, of course – he’d have recognized it if his head hadn’t been so firmly wedged among the clouds. And he realizes too late that his total failure to react will be misconstrued as dismay, when nothing could be further from the truth. She draws away from him, hurt blossoming over her features, and this is worse than anything he’s ever said or done, worse than every shitty thing he spat in the heat of temper, every time he was impatient and snappish. “I’m sorry,” she says, wrapping her arms around her stomach, shielding herself, shielding their child –

And that’s what he remembers – that moment when it sinks in. “What’re you sorry for?” he says, and his voice is strange to his ears, like its reaches them both from across a great distance. “You got nothing to be sorry for. I’m the sorry one. Fuckin’ gaping like a – a fuckin’ moron.” He’s shaking. He can’t stop swearing, though he knows she hates it, and right now he hates it too. “I’m sorry, I’m just – fuck.”

“Are you angry?” she asks him.

“No,” he says, and it’s his desperation to show her that he is happy, so fucking happy, that breaks him out of his stupor. He pulls her roughly into his arms, buries his face in her hair. “God, no. I’m – I can’t even fuckin’ think.”

“I didn’t know if you still wanted—“ she whispers against his chest.

Yes,” he says, so desperate for her to understand. “I did. I do!” A pause, three heartbeats. “Do you?”

 

She sobs in relief. “God, yes.”

~ 

And he’s kissing her and she’s kissing him, and they’re laughing and crying, and that’s all they do for the whole night – just laugh and cry and make love, and he remembers it even today.  God, how he does.

~

 

Later she’s curled against his naked chest, and he’s stroking her hair, winding those copper strands around his fingers, and he is so deliriously happy that he forgets to be anything but himself. “How could you think I wouldn’t want this?” he murmurs.

Her shoulders lift. “Sometimes you talk big, Auruo.” She says it with such affection, though it’s a hard truth. “Sometimes you pretend.”

“Not with you.” Not anymore.

She smiles. “All right.”

And he is still so charmed by it, charmed by his wife – god, his beautiful wife. “So it’s one down, four to go,” he says, swallowing these worshipful sentiments because they are heavy to him, impossible. “I’m holding you to that.”

“We don’t even have the one, yet,” she laughs.

His fingers skim over her bare stomach. “Yeah, we do.”

~

In autumn, they take a cart east to Karanese, to visit their families. The day is crisp as an apple, golden dappled sunlight streaming down through brightly colored trees, casting bright shadows as they pass. They hadn’t seen Mr. Ral since the wedding, but Auruo’s brothers grasp for any reason they can to come out to the cottage, a place with more interesting things to do than the cramped conditions in the district will allow.

They visit Mr. Ral first, and it goes as well as can be expected. The man watches Auruo with suspicious, resentful eyes, and his bitterness is so deep that he can’t even pretend to be happy when Petra tells him the news, her hand resting on the slight curve of her belly. It’s everything Mr. Ral wanted for his daughter – marriage, children – but on her terms, with who she wants. And he’ll never forgive her for choosing Auruo when she could have had anyone else.

“We’ll visit every few months,” Petra promises as they leave. “Don’t worry.” And Auruo echoes the promise, because he has no reason to expect things would be other than how she says.

They walk through the streets of Karanese, hand in hand. They wear no uniforms, so they can be as obvious as they want; every few blocks she stops to kiss him, laughing when his ears go red. He’s never really accustomed himself to public displays of affection, secretly terrified of being seen in a state of vulnerability. But he obliges, because he’s happy, and it makes her happy too.

His parents can’t contain their joy. His father says nothing, just His mother bursts into tears the moment she hears the news, which makes Petra cry; the two of them holding each other and weeping with happiness over this mysterious shared ritual, something only women can understand. And he knows this means more to her than she could ever explain, because her own mother has been dead for over a decade, and some things you just need to share with a mother.  

~

They plan endlessly; who will do what, who will say what, who is responsible for what aspect of their child’s upbringing and education. And they speculate, every moment they are awake, who the child will take after.

“If it’s lucky, it’ll take after you,” Auruo says as he cooks. It’s the dead of night and Petra woke him up, hungry and lonely. And since she’s the pregnant one, he tries to make her life as easy as possible, though not without the grouching she’s come to expect from him.

“Don’t say that.” Petra frowns. “I want her to have your hair. And your eyes.”

“Probably not going to be a her, Petra.”

“You think so, huh.”

He shrugs, smirking. “I have brothers. My dad had only brothers. Grandad had only brothers. Just the way it works.”

“I think it’s a her,” Petra insists. “And I think I’m in a better position to tell than you.”

“We’re in equal positions.”

“Oh, are we? I had no idea! What a relief. Maybe you could take a turn carrying this load around, you slacker.”

He scowls at her. “I meant that unless you can see through your fuckin’ stomach, you’re in no better position to tell than I am.”

She shakes her head at him, as if he is woefully uninformed. “I just have a feeling. It’s going to be a her.”

~

It is winter, and Petra’s belly grows a little more every day – hardly enough to notice, but he does because he notices everything about her. She is rounder and slower, moving less, watching the season pass beyond their windows, but she glows. He catches her talking to her belly, her hands resting just below the curve, and the sight of it is so tender he can’t move or speak until she inevitably notices him standing in the doorway, mooning like some love-struck moron. Which he is.

She beckons him over. “Come here.”

He does, slowly – a little reverently, if he’s being honest with himself. “You need anything, nag?” he asks. Just to keep it balanced.

She punches him on the arm, hard. “Give me your hand.”

“Ow! Fuck!”

“Give it.”

“You are bossy as shit.”

“And you knew that going into this whole arrangement. Come on.” Her eyes dance. “Don’t be a baby.”

Grudgingly he relents, dropping to his knees at her side, and she gently places his hand on the curve of her belly. He is oddly nervous, his heart beating a strange rhythm against his chest, and he feels anxiety coiling in his gut. This is an introduction, one of many, and he is terrified that their child will sense that he’s an unworthy bastard and stay still until he goes away. As if to confirm his fears, he can feel nothing moving under his hand, and when he looks up Petra is frowning.

“She was doing it just a second ago,” she says, pressing her lips together. “Try singing.”

“Petra …”

“Trust me. She likes voices. And she likes yours especially.”

He’s about to sing something appropriate and childish when she stops him again. “Sing my song.”

“You’re in rare form today, nag.”

“Please?”

He can’t deny her anything, not when she looks at him with those big, amber eyes, batting her eyelashes because she fucking knows it works on him. He sighs and leans close:

“A la claire fontaine
M'en allant promener
J'ai trouvé l'eau si belle
Que je m'y suis baigné
Il y a longtemps que je t'aime
Jamais je ne t'oublierai.”

 

At first, he thinks that it didn’t work – that their child is as unimpressed with him as he is with himself, and he doesn’t blame it, or her, or whatever. He doesn’t like this, but he understands. He expected it. Decades of panicked extrapolation start spooling out in his mind when he feels something flutter beneath his hands, a slight shifting, and then – wham!

“Fuck!”

“You felt that?!”

“Yeah, I felt that-- she fuckin’ kicked my hand off!” He’s mostly stunned, not hurt, but he draws his hands to Petra’s stomach again, pressing his ear between them, and this time he can hear it too – that little fluttering, already so vital and strong, eager as daylight. He feels another kick against his palm.

“Oh my god,” he says through the lump in his throat.

Petra brings her hands to his face, and he wraps his arms around her.

He is not moved. He is not crying. He thinks that saying it over and over again will make it true.

 

~

He still sees the Walls in his dreams, no longer bars on a cage but a fence around a garden. Keeps them safe from a world that hates them.

“Was it a waste?” she whispers one night, her breath catching on a sob. The red place took them both this time.

“No,” he breathes, clutching her tighter. “Never.” But it’s only a little true, and they both know it.

~

It is early morning, and they are still in bed. He lies behind her, drawing her so closely he can feel her breathing, each gentle rise and fall of her shoulders. His hands wander. He has known Petra for more than half his life– how she was coltish and skinny and small when they were children; how she grew curves seemingly overnight, and then muscle when they learned how to operate 3DMG. Now, he memorizes this different curve of her belly, the shape of her hip, the new weight to her breasts. An appreciative groan fills him, and he buries his face in her hair, kissing her neck, dragging his hips against her backside.

“Auruo …” she shifts against him, teasing. “I’m asleep.”

“So am I.”

“Hm. Feels like you’re getting excited to me.”

He grins against her neck, brushing her nipple with his thumb. “I can’t help it. They’re fuckin’ huge.”

She sighs. “Just like everything else on me.”

“What are you even talking about?”

She’s quiet, and he feels her shoulders grow tight. “I can barely move these days,” she says. “I haven’t seen my feet in ages. I used to be so fast – much faster than you. Come on, don’t argue – you know I’m right. But …  god . Now I can’t do anything but be hideous.”

“What?!”

“I can’t do anything but be hideous.”

“I fuckin’ heard you,” he says, propping himself on his elbow. “I don’t even know how to tell you how wrong you are.”

“I’m not wrong.”

“You’re – fuck, Petra. You’re gorgeous and you know it.”

“I’m not,” she says, curling on her side again. “And I don’t.”

“Come on, look at me.”

Grudgingly, she does, her brows knitted low, and he sees that she’s not fishing for compliments, and she actually does feel hideous. And this is so outside of the natural order of the world; that she should feel this way when she is so obviously lovely, so heartbreakingly beautiful in every way that it often seems to him like she draws light from dark places, like she constantly is in the sight of the sun.

“What,” she says.

He doesn’t know how to put any of this into words. He is inelegant and stupid, and he doesn’t deserve her. “I don’t tell you this enough,” he mutters, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.

“Tell me what?”

He steels himself, feeling unbearably foolish. “You – fuck, Petra. I look at you and I’m just … I don’t – I just stumble along like a moron because I don’t know how to say it, how to tell you that you’re just – you’re …”

“I’m what?”

Just spit it out! “Sometimes I look at you and I can’t breathe. I just stand there gaping because you’re so beautiful, and I’m just … well, you know what I am. I can’t hear you say this stuff about yourself, because it’s so wrong. It’s just wrong.”

He expects her to flush, or maybe to continue insisting that she isn’t so beautiful that it constantly knocks him on his ass, so he’s preemptively wracking his thoughts for other ways to convince her when she stares at him hard. “What’s this ‘you know what I am’ supposed to mean?”

“Geez, Petra. That’s what you hear, out of everything I just said to you?”

“Don’t try to get out of it. Tell me what you meant.”

He flops back, burying his face in the pillows. “Forget I said anything.”

“Not even a chance. Come on.” She pinches his hip.

“Why am I the one who’s gotta make declarations all over the place?!”

“Because I don’t actually have a problem expressing how I feel, and you do.”

He’s starting to get frustrated. “I thought this was obvious. I’m an old man.”

“You’re a year older than me.”

“I look old.”

She traces the lines at the sides of his mouth. “You don’t.”

It’s a lot easier to say he’s fantastic and handsome than have to admit he thinks he’s the furthest thing from it all. “Fuck, Petra,” he mutters, humiliated.

“Stop swearing and listen to me.” She frames his face with her hands, her gaze as intense as he’s ever seen it. “I’m the one who has to look at your face all day every day. And I love it – your scowl lines.” She kisses them. “Your chin.” Kiss. “Your lips, your eyes. That freckle on the back of your neck. Your smile. Everything. So I can’t let you say this kind of negative stuff about yourself.” She smiles, and it takes the heart out of him. “It’s just so wrong.”

“I guess you think you’re fuckin’ smart or something.”

“I’m lucky,” she says, smiling. “I love my husband.”

“Ah, geez.”

“I love that, too – that you’re such a braggart, but all I have to do is tell you I love you and you turn into a pile of mush. Blushing your head off. Trying to hide your face. God, look at how adorable you are.”

“I’m not adorable.”

She peppers his face with kisses. “Yes, you are.”

Ugh.”

She’s relentless, holding him close, the curve of her belly pushing against him. “I love my adorable, handsome, sexy husband,” she whispers, pressing a kiss to the corner of his mouth, her fingers curling in his hair. “Does he love me?”

He’s quiet, wrestling with that familiar fear – that love and goodbye are the same. “More than he knows how to say,” he admits finally. “More than he even understands.”

And that’s what he remembers, to his shame – as an old young man waiting to die. That he couldn’t say it when he had the chance. That he relied on euphemisms and her complete understanding, her ability to read him through gestures. That he had his wife in his arms, her belly full with their child, every inch of her a lush curve, a smile behind hands, and he

couldn’t

say

it.

~

Instead he rolls on top of her and kisses her hard, pushing her legs apart with his knees. Her belly presses against him when he leans down to claim her mouth again, burying his fingers in the mass of bright auburn hair that’s confounded him since the day they met; a sunlight girl, blazing with inner fire. And she is his, and he is hers, and nothing will change that, nothing would dare.

She puts a hand on his chest and pushes him back, that infuriating coy smile curving her kiss-swollen mouth.

“Petra,” he gasps brokenly. And she bites her lip, and takes him in her hand, and that alone has the power to break him.

~

He is trying to fix something again -- probably that fucking door, he doesn’t remember anymore – when Petra cries out and the plate she’d been drying leaps from her hands, shattering on the floor. She clutches her stomach, and he’s at her side in half the time it takes to breathe.

“Is it-?!”

She’s bent over, hands shaking, her lips pursed so hard they’ve gone white. “Go!”

He tears out of their house, slipping on a patch of ice; running like it’s one of their races, running for the midwife.

~

 

He remembers it takes him about a minute to run a frozen mile, and then he’s yelling at that fucking midwife, who is puttering in her winter-touched garden rather than helping Petra right this fucking second. He remembers cursing her bloody, and remembers especially that she seemed to expect this kind of reaction from him.

“She’ll be all right, dear,” the midwife tells him, patting his arm. “Just calm down.”

FUCKING HURRY IT UP, WOMAN!”

He remembers that the midwife and her assistant walk too fucking slow, ambling down the road like it’s any other Sunday afternoon and not his fucking wife in labor, her body curled in a hard fist of pain, all alone.

~

He remembers that the midwife sheds her uselessness and takes charge the moment she steps in their house. She and her assistant spirit Petra upstairs, speaking to her in low, soothing voices. Petra’s breathing hard, shaking, her face red. And he follows uselessly now – he’s the useless pile of shit hovering over their shoulders, his hands clenched into anxious shapes, wishing he could do anything to make this easier.

She catches his eye before the midwife closes the door in his face, and they are wide with fear. Perfect round circles.

~

He remembers waiting.

He remembers every single one of her screams.

He remembers sitting outside their room, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes hard enough that it will take them a long time to work again. Every sensory input is whittled down to this one; the sound of the world he lives in now. He can only hear each scream rip through the closed door, tear through him. He hears the low, anxious voices of the midwife and her assistant when hours pass and there is still no child. And he hears Petra’s screams weakening.

He holds no gods, and most days he finds the institution of faith stupid. He’s seen too many good people die for it to make any sense. But outside that birthing room he prays desperately, makes a thousand bargains to some nameless, random deity. He’ll never fucking touch her again. He’ll keep his hands to himself. He’ll never swear, never snap, never say another word in anger for the rest of his pitiful, miserable life. He’ll fix that fucking door.

He is stupid, so fucking stupid. He has more brothers than he knew what to do with. He knew people died in childbirth, but it seemed distant and abstract to him, because his only experience was with his mother, who practically shrugged off the experience within weeks. But for Petra – sharp as a blade, her battle cry echoing in his ears – to be brought down in this way, by him, is a crime he will never forgive himself for.

And he remembers this:

Many hours pass. He has not slept or eaten. He waits, breathing as little as possible, oddly convinced the sound of his own breath will drown out any news. He is suspended by waiting, desperate for release.

And then.

He hears the midwife encouraging, and Petra screaming, and this is not a scream of pain, but one of will, bearing down hard. He’s heard that scream before, remembers watching her rocket forward, her blades glinting in her hands, moments before she cut out the neck of a Titan. They’re all shouting and he’s seconds away from screaming himself when he hears it – a piercing wail. And there are sounds of triumph now, mingling with that squalling child, and he thinks that he can hear Petra too – laughing a little, laughing and crying.

~

They don’t let him in right away. The assistant leaves the room first, and she tries to shield it from his eyes, but he sees; bunched in her arms are sheets drenched in blood, more blood than he knew a person could hold. The world contracts, and that old tremor starts up in his hands again. He can’t hear Petra anymore, and he’s panicking. Shuddering.

The midwife comes out next, after a long time. It takes him a minute to get to his feet. “You have a daughter,” she tells him, touching his arm.

He nods, not really comprehending. “Ha …”

“And your wife is fine.” But the midwife frowns. “It was a hard birth, and she’ll be weak. It will take her a long time to recover.”

This he understands. He will care for them both – his wife and his daughter. This is part of his bargain with god.

The midwife smiles again. “You can go seem them now, dear.”

~

He will never forget this:

Petra in their bed, a little pink bundle in her arms. She is drawn, exhausted, and impossibly pale; when he draws close enough he can see the wandering path of a vein in her temple. He is accustomed to Petra tough as steel, resilient as Titan flesh, screaming her challenges; to see her this weak is terrifying.

But she smiles when she sees him in the door way. “Auruo.”

He makes a garbled sound, a composite of all the sentiments crashing through his mind, and climbs awkwardly in bed next to her, pressing himself as closely next to her as he can.

She bites her lip. “You look terrible.”

It’s that she can still tease him, that after this crucible she is still the same, and she doesn’t hate him for putting her through it – that gets through to him. He draws a shuddering breath. “Never again,” he grinds out. “Never again.”

“What about the brood?”

“I don’t care, I don’t – I don’t fuckin’ care.”

He’s shaking, and he can see recognition in her eyes – that he’s panicking, that he’s losing himself to the red world, where there is only blood and death and loss – and he hates that she has to comfort him when she’s the one who just fucking gave birth, but it can’t be helped at this point – he is losing his grip on himself.

“Hey,” she says. “Come back. Come back to us.”

Us. Because they are no longer two, but three. “Y-yeah.” He’s breathing. He’s calm. He can do this.

She smiles, holding the pink bundle out to him. “Here.”

And he remembers this too: Petra gently passing their daughter into his arms, holding that little baby and looking at her little face, touching her little hand, god – everything about her so little and red and perfect, and realizing that the rest of his life will be tightly bound up in these two people, his wife and daughter, realizing that he belonged utterly to them, and would never belong to anyone else.

~

They name her Alaine, because Petra saw the name in his family’s records and fell in love with it, and those first months are perfect. They learn this tiny person, every inch of her – the shock of bright auburn hair that quickly replaces the baby down she was born with, in Petra’s color but Auruo’s texture. They memorize her little garbled sounds, the things that make her laugh, ward against the things that make her cry. They hardly ever put her in that awful crib he made months ago.

Auruo sings all the time, and in French, because it makes Alaine shriek with glee before trying her best to approximate the words and tune herself. And they will walk around like that, the baby on his hip, bouncing her in time to the dumb songs he’s constantly singing, and that’s how Petra finds them after her short walks around their house. And she smiles so wide that it’s almost like she’d never known sadness.

It takes many months for Petra to regain her strength, and even then it does not fully return. She is often tired. There are dark circles under her eyes, and she when they walk into town she is often so tired that they have to hire a cart back home, to the concern of their friends from the tavern. But her spirit is untouched. She loves their daughter, loves that little girl more than there are even words for.

And they bicker, of course. Mostly they squabble over who gets to hold Alaine. ‘It’s my turn,’ Petra would scowl, hands on hips. ‘You held her all fuckin’ day yesterday,’ Auruo would retort. And back and forth.

But it’s good between them. They catch what sleep they can, sprawled out on their bed, curled around each other. They kiss all the time. He feels the words growing looser in him, easier to move.  He can’t remember the last time he had a nightmare. There are none in this place.

~

One morning he finds her standing outside, as the morning mist fades into increasing, diaphanous sunlight. Alaine is on her hip, babbling happily, and before them stretches a wall of flowers, carpeted with red and yellow and purple. It was just as she said it would be, it had come into its own after a year of sleep. She turns to find him watching, and her smile lights a fire within him. His family, his beautiful family; he loves them more than words can hold.

~

He looks back on that year and rages to himself, his hands fisted in his hair, pulling hard enough to hurt. He should have known. He should have seen it coming.

~

It’s late April, and Petra is at town picking up some bread and cheese when it starts to rain. He doesn’t notice at first – he’s sitting in the middle of the living room with Alaine, trying to get her to talk. It’s a desperate competition between he and Petra at this point – he’s bet a whole month of diaper changing that she’ll say ‘Dada’ first, and he’ll be damned if he loses this bet.

“Come on, you. Say it.”

Alaine babbles delightedly, waving her fist overhead.

“Say ‘Dada.”

“Mah!” Alaine shouts gleefully.

“No, little goose. DA.”

“Mm-mmm-mm!”

It figures that ‘mah’ is an easier sound for babies to make than ‘dah’. “I’m DA,” he says, pointing at himself. “Dada.”

He hears Petra open the door just as Alaine shrieks, “Mama!”

“Just in time for my utter defeat,” he says, craning over his shoulder to get a look at Petra’s gloating face. But she is not gloating – her skin is grey, and she is shivering, soaking wet. “Petra?!”

She gives him a weak smile, and crumples to the floor.

~

He does not think, only acts. He sweeps her into his arms and brings her to bed, stripping her soaking clothes and dressing her in the warmest things she owns. She is so light, now; how did he not notice? Her skin looks like paper stretched tight over her bones. He dries her hair, brews her tea, tries to get some warmth in her, but she is so cold.

He’s about to send for the doctor when she grabs his hand. “It’s just a cold,” she tells him, shivering. “I’ll feel better in a few days.”

“I’d rather not risk it,” he says, frowning. But she won’t hear anything else.

“Don’t bother that poor man for something like this.”

So instead he sends a message to his mother and in hours she arrives, taking a sniffling Alaine away until they are sure that there is no more sickness in their house. He will stay, of course. He will stay until Petra is well. And in those early days of Petra’s illness, he forces himself to believe that she’ll get well. He’d made a bargain, after all. He’d been living it, exactly as he promised.

“Come on, nag,” he jokes, tipping tea down her throat. “Things are a mess around here.”

Petra shivers under every blanket they own. “I’m sorry.”

“Shh.” That old joke.

Even now, he’s angry about this – just a cold, she’d said, it’ll go away in a few days. He’s angry that he listened to her, when in the back of his mind he knew something worse was wrong. When he finally does send for the doctor, she is lapsing in and out of consciousness. Her fever burns under his hands. She can barely breathe.

He is desperate.

~

The doctor’s advice is useless, which he should have expected. ‘It must run its course,’ he says before shuffling away. Auruo resists the urge to throw something at the back of his head. He hasn’t slept in five days.

He goes back upstairs, climbs into bed with Petra, and wraps his arms around her. She moans in her fevered sleep. He holds her tighter, rubbing her back, trying to get her to breathe. “Come on,” he says. “Come back.”

~

He will never forget this. He wishes to god that he could.

~

It is the middle of the night. He’s pulled up a chair next to her bed, arms crossed, listening to the sound of her labored wheezing. He watches her thin chest struggle to accommodate breath. There is a fragment of memory that comes back to him – a nightmare, trying to breathe, and her voice pulling him out of the panic. He tries the same with her now – he thinks that if she can hear his voice, she’ll sit up and talk to him again. Maybe tell him to shut up. He’d like that.

“Remember that time we walked in on Levi and Hange? Levi's at his desk, right, and we can’t see what’s going on in his lap, so you’re just talking to him like normal, like ‘so I refilled the gas tanks like Erd wanted but I can’t find him, so maybe you can tell him when you see him next,’ and you just would not leave. And meanwhile Levi's just getting weirder about it, and I’m thinking to myself ‘fuck, is he--?’ and that’s when we hear Hange bust out laughing under the desk, and Levi gets so mad that the guy actually gives himself a nosebleed. I never laughed so hard in my life – their fuckin’ faces, though! Like caught red-handed. Remember?”

No response. Her chest hitches on a hard breath before slackening.

He tries again. “How about that time Moblit was trying to get us to sit still for a portrait? For the records or whatever. The four of us, Special Operations Squad. Except Erd was being a shithead and just would not shut up, and I was trying to be mad at him, but I’ve never heard him say such funny shit before. Like all leaned over, trying to get Gunther to crack a smile. And you’re getting madder and madder ‘cause we won’t shut up, and Moblit’s just so done with our crap.

“But do you remember the portrait he finished? We were all supposed to be sitting straight and serious, but instead he’s sketched us all laughing and grinning like dopes. Erd’s all squinty-eyed, that funny grin he used to do. Gunther looks kind of grudging about it, like we had to twist his arm to laugh at us. But I think about how you looked in that portrait all the time – and I can’t even explain it right. Like you smiled with your whole body. Completely lit up. You were pulling on my arm or something, and I’m kind of half falling on you. And you looked just thrilled about it.”

He sighs. “I think about those dumb bastards all the time. I don’t mention them as much as I should, because I know it just makes you sad. But I do.” He reaches out and holds her hand, stroking the back of her palm with his thumb. “I think they’d have gotten really drunk when we got married. Erd would have cried all over you, that big sap. And they’d – they’d just go over the moon about Alaine. They’d spoil her rotten. Don’t you think?”

Nothing. “Yeah, they would. Gunther’d make her a thousand of those little wood carvings he used to do, like little birds and animals. God, she’d have loved that. I’d try, but I’m shit at making things. You know that.”

He’s quiet for a long time, thinking about this other life – the four of them, and Alaine at the center. “Feels like I haven’t held her in months, you know? I know you feel the same way. I mean … fuck, Petra. Did you even hear? She just started sayin’ Mama over and over again, like she was trying to get you to come back. And I know it means I have to change diapers for the next month, but I don’t care. She was calling for you.”

He lifts Petra’s cold hand to his lips. “Come on. Come back.”

~

It is not a gentle, noble end.

It is messy.

~

She does not wake up. She goes rigid, angry splotches of red marring her skin. Each breath is a rattling gasp, tearing through her like a blade through flesh. And he’s yelling at her, screaming, fucking screaming his head off, don’t you even think about it, no no no no, open your eyes Petra, open your fucking eyes, but she is in another place, a red place, and she can’t hear him. She can’t hear anything.

~

He can’t shut up. He’s trying, fucking trying to get her to push herself upright and punch his arm for making so much noise, for swearing so much -- she fucking hates it when he swears, especially now that they have a baby together and that little baby picks up everything they say. Like Mama, how he’d say that to her too – trying to get her to say it too. Come back –

She is growing cold. She does not breathe, or blink, or grin. Her eyes are half open, and they look through him. Empty, dark windows. Fuckin’ sit up, wake up, you can’t do this to me, you can’t leave like this, not after everything we lived through, come back –

He pounds on her chest, trying to restart her heart, making so much noise that she has to hear him, wherever she is – she’ll sit up any minute, she’ll tell him to stop being so loud the baby is sleeping I’m sleeping you should be sleeping COME BACK –

-come back to me.

~

When they find him in the morning, he is raw and half-mad. He clings to her cold body, and it takes three people to pull him off.

Chapter Text

Auruo does not remember the following year. These things happen to a person he no longer recognizes, not a full man but a shell. A half person.

He sells their cottage. He keeps Petra’s things, but sells everything else. He burns the bed she died in.

He buries Petra on a hill, and marks her grave with a tall, smooth stone. His family stands behind him; his parents, his brothers, Mr. Ral. He holds their daughter in his arms while the priest intones the final blessings, and thinks to himself that if there is a god, it has utterly failed him, has betrayed him and cheated him, and even more unforgivably, cheated Petra. She was supposed to live a whole, long life. She’d earned it. She deserved it.

He’ll go to his own grave with this cold hatred in his heart.

“Mama,” Alaine whimpers when the priest flicks the gravestone with oil. “Mama?”

He holds her tighter.

~

Lacking any better options, it’s quickly decided he must move back in with his family. He wouldn’t have to work if he didn’t want to – his pension from the Internal Affairs office would have kept him and Petra comfortable for the rest of their lives – but in those first days he it’s dangerous to let him sit still, and the job provides welcome respite from the mad grief gnawing at his heart. And the extra money would help his family.

He finds them a nicer place in the central neighborhoods, only a few blocks away from the governor and his opulence. It’s not opulent here, but it’s better than anything any of his family have ever known. “Thank you,” his mother whispers when they step over the immaculate threshold, two floors and five whole rooms spreading out before them, and before long she’s breaking down into sobs. These first empty weeks, they wound her too. “If only she was …”

Auruo walks away, deeper into the cavernous duplex.

~

That was the thing, his mother always wanted to talk about Petra. What she was like, the way Auruo felt about her, the trouble they’d get into. “You wanted to marry her right away,” she says, and the memory is like a molten blade, carving him up like butter. He spent half his life with this person; he made her happiness the study of his life. He doesn’t know how to be without her.

It only takes them a few days to unpack, and then it’s as if they’d lived in this nice house their entire lives; Christophe can’t stop telling the kids at the schoolhouse that he’s too rich to bother learning anything now, he’s just there to assuage his parents’ fretting. Which earns him more than a few enemies.

“They’re just jealous,” Christophe fumed, covering his blackened eye with one shaking hand. “They don’t know how to be happy for someone.”

“You were trying to make them jealous,” Auruo pointed out, moving Christophe’s hand away and peering closer. “It’s not too bad. It’ll fade in a few days.”

Annoyed with the lecture, Christophe popped up and strode over to Alaine’s cradle, making silly faces until she shrieked with glee.

“Stop corrupting my daughter,” Auruo says, though he makes no move to intervene.

“I’m not corrupting anything,” Christophe said. “She likes me. Don’t you, Alaine?” His voice went high, sing-song, the only way you really could talk to babies. Alaine cooed, kicking out her little legs; it was a lucky baby that had five uncles to dote on her. 

~

When he was young, he thought about leaving Karanese every day. He daydreamed of his life as a soldier, with Petra at his side. They would be unstoppable, two deadly birds of prey, only a sharp streak of silver against the sky.

He is not that much older, but there is a century of bitterness and loss in him, and he thinks back to that stupid boy he’d been, that little fool trundling in the shadow of the best person ever to live, and swallows his anger. He should have known he’d end up back here. Nothing good ever lasts.

The mill no longer makes swords for the military; they make parts – for guns, for buildings, for more steel mills. He doesn’t really know, and doesn’t care to find out. The work is as familiar to him as hunger and pain, it siphons the negative edginess from his limbs, leaving him tight and exhausted, almost too exhausted to ruminate. Almost.

While he works, Alaine stays with his mother and father, and he thinks about her during his shifts – wonders what he misses while hammering slabs of molten steel. He thinks about her little laugh, and the toy his father had brought home for her the previous day – a little bird, its wings outstretched in a facsimile of flight. He remembers she hurled it across the room, and oh – for a second, it did fly.

He hated the mill when he was a teenager, but now he appreciates the outlet – the chance to channel his rage into something constructive. Making things. He was never any good at it. Maybe he needed to lose something first.

If he was stronger, he’d take advantage of his stipend to spend every minute with her, teaching her how to walk and read and write, teaching her about how the world is, but a shameful part of his heart can’t bear to look at her sometimes, this living reminder of his dead wife. He loves her, his little daughter, and in those first days it feels like pain.

But he knows this, now; if it had not been for Alaine, he would have died. He would have starved to death in darkness, or done something foolish and reckless until it killed him. He would have thrown himself into the forge and burned to ash.

~

He dreams of her, every night.

The way she had been: strong, stubborn, beautiful and tough as steel. He sees her soaring through the sky, weaving through trees, graceful and fast. He sees the bright flash of her smile, her laughter echoing through the darkness, and it is like sunlight to him, the first break of it after a long night.

He dreams of the fights they had, endless, stupid fights. Screaming in each other’s faces about meaningless nonsense, watching that little crease form between her brows. Remembers how he’d always been halfway caught between wanting to keep screaming and kiss her senseless. He dreams of the latter more often.

He dreams of her in bed, curling into him, wiggling to tease him awake, dreams of her lips, her tongue, dreams of her kissing him endlessly, trailing down his jaw to his neck, always on that spot between she found, that livewire spot that he can’t resist even when half-dead from sleep. He dreams of her laughing when he shudders, pushing him back, straddling him.

He slowly wakes, occupying that tenuous space between daylight and dreaming, and for a moment he forgets. He sees a bundle of sheets in the space next to him, and for a second he believes that it’s Petra, he knows, that sweep of fabric is her bright auburn hair spilling across the pillow, that line is the plane of her bare shoulder. He knows, suddenly, in that first moment of awareness, that it had all been a nightmare beyond his imagining. And he smiles, reaches for her –

-- and his hands pass through air.

This happens every night for a year. And every night, he remembers that she is dead, that he watched her die, that the last thing she ever said to him was I’m sorry, and the last thing he wants right now are her apologies.

~

He doesn’t know how much Alaine understands, but she does remember her mother. She misses her. She will giggle to herself over something or another, and then look up at him, the giggle fading from her lips. She will look around, as if she has forgotten something.

“Mama?” she asks him.

Every time she says the word, it’s like being run through. He swallows hard. “Mama’s not here, goose.”

“Mama?”

He can’t say anything. He clenches his fists hard enough to gouge holes in his palm. He is shaking. He can’t breathe. “She’s gone away.”

He can never bring herself to tell their daughter that it’s the permanent sort of going away, that those few shifting memories are all she’ll ever have. That none of it is right, or fair. Alaine wouldn’t understand it, anyway. He can barely understand it himself.

~

After a few months, he attempts to establish connection with Mr. Ral, ignoring the fact that it could only end in disaster. It’s the only possible outcome, yet Petra would have wanted him to try, so try he does. He is beholden to her ghost, following her through life even now, even when all that’s left is the shape of her memory.

“Why are you here?” Mr. Ral says flatly. He seems to have aged a decade in the months since Auruo returned to Karanese; his hair has gone almost completely gray, and his eyes glassy. It’s not as obvious to him, Auruo’s obligation to the dead.

“You’re my …” He can’t say family, not to this man. Not after he spent her life pressuring her to do what he wanted with it, instead of listening, heeding what she wanted, who she was. “You’re Petra’s family. I thought you’d want to see your granddaughter someday.”

“Oh, really? Are you finally lifting the ban? How magnanimous.”

Auruo gapes incredulously. There is no more unpleasant person alive. “You know it’s been –” Difficult, he almost says, though the word is laughably insubstantial, too small to hold the truth. “I’ve been busy. We’re still settling.”

“You’ve been withholding on purpose,” Mr. Ral accuses. “Anything to get back at me.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

A decade of resentment comes boiling out. Mr. Ral’s glassy eyes go sharp with old hatred.  “She couldn’t do anything without talking about you, miserable, disgusting, rude – complete lack of respect – she wouldn’t have joined the Survey Corps if not for you –”

“You don’t know anything,” Auruo said, his voice a deadly undertone. “She wanted to join before she even met me. Which you’d know if you bothered to listen to her at all.”

“How dare you? You don’t know what it’s like.”

“Are you fucking serious?” If anything, Mr. Ral should understand better than anyone else what it’s like to lose your other half, to wander through life with a hole carved out of your heart.

“It’s your fault,” Mr. Ral hisses, spittle flecking Auruo’s chin. “It’s your fault she’s dead.”

Auruo flinches; the words cut him to the quick, unearthing his deepest guilt, which roils like an untended pot. His fists clench at his sides; the days where he silently absorbed this man’s vitriol are long gone. “Like it’s your fault your wife died! Just like it, huh? You miserable piece of shit.”

Mr. Ral takes a wild swing at Auruo, his fist landing a glancing blow, but Auruo is a soldier, honed in combat, trained for years in the arts of warfare; horrible instinct takes over. He weaves back, evading another punch, and grabs Mr. Ral’s arm, flipping him over his head. The older man lands on his back with a hard oof, but his eyes are open in the next moment, burning with malevolence.  

“It’s your fault!” Mr. Ral screams. “She wouldn’t have gotten sick if it wasn’t for you and that – thing!”

It’s too much, his guilt unearthed and wielded against him by the most eager assailant, the one who has lost almost as much. But louder than his shame is fury; he can’t abide an accusation leveled at the only innocent involved. “Stay away from us,” Auruo snarls, backing away from the old man, kicking the door open with his heel. He shudders with impotent rage, the edges of his vision red and trembling. “Stay away from Alaine. If I ever see you around my home, I’ll beat your fucking face in.”

~

As he storms down the street, he can barely see more than a handspan in front of him. How could you, Petra wails in his head. How could you? She would have hated this, would have probably cried or smacked him or both. And he hates it too, that things can’t be nice for her, even now that she’s no longer with them. I tried, he tells the ghost in his head. I’m doing my fucking best. What am I supposed to do about your fucking father spoiling for a fight, looking for someone to blame? Slinging shit at our girl?

I’m sorry.

He’s sick of sorries. As far as he’s concerned that old man can go die in a ditch somewhere. He made an attempt for his wife, whom he loved more than anyone, whom he needed with desperate unbalanced fervor, but there’s only so much one person can do with an unwilling subject.

~

That night he barely sleeps. He can’t face the ghost in his head, can’t bring himself to feel her disappointment and grief, mingled heavily with his own. Some things just don’t work out, Petra, he would have told her. Sometimes you want it to be nice but it never will be. Sometimes you want people to like each other but there’s too much wrong between them, too much different, maybe too much the same. Your old man and I lost too much of the same.

Alaine doesn’t want for love. She is the bright center of their family, and the one point of light in his personal darkness. His brothers adore her; each of them jockeys for as much time spent with her as possible, especially Benoit, who spends every day teaching her shapes and letters, the secrets within the pages of his favorite books.

Thankfully, Auruo is a natural parent; years of caring for his little brothers has honed vague instinct into skill. In fact, it often seems as if he shares some preternatural connection with his daughter, for they’re able to communicate without words, and he always knows just what’s upsetting her, somehow. A pall of grief hangs over her life, an echo of a life unlived, but you’d almost never know it.

After tucking in the brats, (the five of them piled high on a full sized mattress, forming a protective ring around Alaine) he spends his evenings with his parents, nursing tea and talking in low voices about current events – the mill, the governor’s latest excesses, development in the district outskirts, where those old villages had been before the Titans destroyed them.

“I wish you’d eat more,” his mother says reproachfully. “We have so much now.”

Thanks to Benoit’s paycheck and Auruo’s pension, the Bossards are better off now than they’ve ever been, yet Auruo can’t break himself of the old habits – patching clothes beyond their lifespan, chewing a piece of food for three minutes, until all the original flavor had been lost. He knew how to really stretch it out, so it eased his worries a bit to know that his family would never have to live like that again.

Auruo shrugged. “I eat plenty, Ma. You know that. You’re just looking for something to fuss over.”

“Can’t I fuss over my handsome son?”

“I wish you wouldn’t.”

~

He remembers this: the first time he smiled since Petra died.

They are home, and it is Sunday. Alaine is standing, leaning into his mother’s hands, her little legs kicking, practicing. She’s ready. She’s going to do it.

He’s on the other side of the room, hands outstretched to her. “Come on, goose. Come here.”

“Dada!”

“Yep, that’s me. Come here, silly.”

She kicks again, testing herself. Testing that she can bear the weight.

“You got it! Come on.”

Come back.

His mother releases her arms, and Alaine stands there – unsure. Figuring out if she can do this, if she wants to. Screwing up her face, she takes a little, wobbly step. Slowly a smile tugs at her mouth, and then she’s taking another step, and another. She giggles, and that’s when he sees it, that fierce look of freedom on their daughter’s face – he sees a flash of Petra, running through a green field.

He swallows. “You got it! Look at you!”

And she does – she’s toddling completely on her own power and loving every minute of it. She’s about to fall when he catches her, swinging her up and spinning her around, and she screeches with glee, little legs kicking. He peppers her face with kisses until she shrieks delightedly, so loudly that he’s probably a little deaf in that ear now. And he doesn’t care.

Later, when Alaine is asleep and he’s nursing a cup of watered down coffee, he lets himself think that Petra should have been here for this, that she would have loved it and probably cried, and watching her cry would have probably made him cry, and it would have been a disgusting, glorious mess. God, how it would have been.

~

 

“Come on, little goose. Open up.”

“No!”

Alaine is two, and very fond of the word. He holds a spoon of carrot mush to her mouth, and she presses her lips together in a firm, angry line. “Carrots are good, see?” He takes a bite, swallows. Forces himself not to throw up. “Mmm!”

“Blech!”

It’s like she inherited both his and Petra’s stubbornness, and instead of mingling it multiplied. “Come on, goose. No stories until you eat your carrots.”

“No!”

“Really? You’re okay with no more stories ever?”

She regards him, her expression far too shrewd for a toddler. “No.”

“Then come on. Eat your carrots.”

She allows a tiny, tentative bite, before promptly spewing it out. Chunks of carrot fleck his cheek, drip down his chin. He’s tired and sore from a long shift, and his patience is dwindling. “You are a little punk, you know that?”

Do not call our daughter a punk.

>If you had a problem with it, you shouldn’t have fucking died on us.

He abruptly feels guilty for snapping at her. Then he feels stupid, because ‘her’ is a fragment that lives in his mind, made of the things he knows she’d say because he knew her so well, knew her better than he knew himself. How many times had he said that?

“Come on, Alaine,” he sighs, exhausted. “Please eat your carrots.”

“NO!”

~

The more years pass, the more insistent her voice becomes, as if he truly is haunted. Insanity was a possible option; he’d lost too much, while assuming too much responsibility. He is a failure of a father who needed his family’s help to do anything right; a failure of a husband, who failed to protect her life. He is a failure and doesn't deserve to live.

That’s not true.
>Don’t.
But it isn’t!

Who can know whether he does this to comfort himself, or if it’s done to him by supernatural means. For once he’d prefer the supernatural explanation; it meant he really was talking to her again, and he wasn’t actually crazy. Just a little mad, only a little. That was understandable.

Are you really going to keep Alaine from my father?
>He called her a thing!
He’s just hurting. He’s all alone now.
>I’m not going to take our girl over there to get traumatized.
Now that’s unfair.
>HE CALLED HER A THING.
He’s lonely.
>None of that is an excuse.

Perhaps he should be thankful, that she refuses to leave him. Even if it means he’s crazy. But she’s family, a part of his soul, and you can’t escape that so easily.