Marie watched Nile sit at the end of the bed, his face downcast. His face twisted with all-too-familiar anguish. This was the fourth time she had seen it. This wasn't fair to him. All he had ever wanted was to start a family, and here she was, broken. Lives ran through her like water.
He stood, his face still twisted. "I have to go." His voice was hollow. "The carriage is waiting."
She couldn't ask him to stay. The two long months of officer training were something he had worked for his entire career.
She couldn't ask him to stay...
"Don't come back here when it's over."
His eyes flew open. "What? Marie-"
"I'm sorry, Nile. I can't give you what you want." She pulled off the ring he had given her, another promise she had been unable to fulfill. "Find someone who can."
She turned and closed the door. He pounded against it, shouted her name. She slumped against it, slid down, her hand resting on her forehead.
He's better without me.
He's better without me...
The pain was the worst part. She might be able to put the whole process out of her head if not for that fucking pain. It twisted at her insides, reminded her of what was draining from her.
Thankfully, it disappeared quickly this time. A small mercy.
Every day, she went to the bar and served the patrons without a word. She said nothing to her parents about what had happened. They were concerned, but what could she say? She had failed to give them grandchildren, had failed to give Nile a child. Surely there as more to life than that -- maybe she could discover it one day. That day seemed very far away.
Two weeks into her fog, a knock sounded at her door. Nile? she wondered, even though it was far too soon.
She opened the door.
He was tall, far taller than she remembered. His jaw was broad now and lined with a dark blond beard, as if he hadn't shaved in a week or two. His eyes were still as piercing as ever, but while they had once looked at her with curiosity -- almost admiration -- now they were flat.
"Come in," she said, opening the door.
She wondered if he would notice her lack of emotion, but he said nothing. She wondered why he wasn't asking about Nile, then realized she didn't have the courage to tell him Nile was never coming back.
"You look like you need a drink," she said, hurrying to the kitchen.
When she returned, he was hovering awkwardly in the living room.
"Sit." She handed him a glass.
He sat slowly, as if trapped between dream and wakefulness. He sipped the drink, his eyes travelling across the floor, the ceiling, the walls behind her, everywhere but her.
"You look like hell," she said.
The gaze finally shifted to her. "So do you."
Her eyes narrowed as she tried to read him, but Erwin was inscrutable. It had to be something major, for him to be this withdrawn. "Did you lose someone?"
"Yes." His eyes flicked down.
"Me too," she said softly. A someone, and four potential someones. She felt useless again, an empty vessel.
But here was Erwin Smith, her first real love, the man who had shattered her by leaving her behind. For the better, she had told herself. She and Nile were a much better fit. She loved Nile. She loved Nile...
But Erwin brought with him the innocence of who they had been, not who they were. He didn't know what a failure she was. He had never looked at her with the disappointment she had seen in Nile's eyes.
She moved to sit beside him. Her elbow rested on the back of the couch; she ran her fingertips across his forehead, combing stray blond hairs into place. "Why are you here, Erwin?"
He eyed her without moving his head. He reminded her of a raven, with his sharp nose, his sideways glance, his head tilting just slightly to get a better read on her.
"I'm...alone," he said, his voice cracking.
She felt that crack run through her as well, felt herself crumble. That was the thing she liked about Erwin: he was strong, so strong, but he was always fragile around her. It gave her the courage to be fragile, too.
She leaned forward and pressed a soft kiss to his jawline, feeling the beard bristle at her lips. This was so familiar and so wrong. He wasn't Nile, but he was Erwin, he was Erwin and he thought she was whole.
He turned to catch the second kiss, their lips grazing. His breath was thick with alcohol, and not just the drink she had given him.
"You're drunk," she whispered.
"It's fine," he breathed, catching her jaw and turning her to face him.
Their breaths began to hitch as the kisses deepened. Now Marie felt a completely different ache inside her, a completely different emptiness.
His hand went to her shoulder, grazed her collarbone, then dropped down to her breast. Brazen. Much more brazen than the shy, serious boy she had fallen for in the bar. Her hand closed over his as she helped him cup her breast. He groaned into her mouth.
"Erwin," she breathed into his lips, and the name felt foreign. She leaned back on the couch, and he followed her down
His weight stretched across her, barely restrained by his elbows, and oh god, it felt good, it felt so good. She ground up against the hard mass between his legs, shifting side to side, and tingling heat shot up her abdomen and down her thighs. She tried not to think of Nile, but he was here, he was in the walls of this apartment, watching her make out with the man she had left for him.
Her breath hitched, and not in a pleasant way this time.
Erwin pulled back to study her, cupping her jaw. "Are you all right?"
"Let's move to the bed."
But that was a worse idea, because the bed still smelled like Nile. She stubbornly pulled Erwin on top of her, wrapping her legs around him. Her nose nuzzled his neck. He still wore the same cologne he had worn the last time they had slept together. She kissed the flesh, breathed it in.
"Take off my shirt," she whispered, and he pulled back, unbuttoning it, then spread the fabric to either side to reveal her bare chest. He stared down with wonder, brows pinched, mouth open. It was difficult to tell herself she was worthless when he was staring at her as if she were a goddess.
She helped him unbuckle his uniform straps and they pulled off their clothes. She ran a hand down the front of his body, feeling the dark blond fur that lined his chest and coated his abdomen. He's a man. He's a man now, not the boy I loved. She looked back up at him and found him still wearing that grim expression. That boy has seen too much.
"It's okay, Erwin." She lay back down on the bed on her back and caught his hand, pulling him down. He began to kiss down her abdomen, but she caught his chin and pulled him back up.
His brows pinched with confusion.
She wasn't sure how to tell him that as good as he had been between her legs, Nile had learned to read her body over the years, knew it better than she did herself. This was his sacred ground now. No other man would be allowed to press his mouth there -- not so soon after their separation, anyway. Not even Erwin.
She guided him between her legs. He was bigger here than she remembered, too, and he moved slowly, easing in and out, giving her time to adjust. So good, it felt so good, his weight on her body, the tender look in his eyes, the slow movement. He began to thrust, and there was an authoritative nature to his movements that hadn't been there before. They had been so young when they were last together. Did he learn this from his lover? Was she the one he lost?
He kissed her hard. Yes, this was a more honest Erwin, less clumsy, more sure. Nile flashed through her mind, but no, not here. Erwin began to grind all the right places. He had been the only man who had ever brought her to climax with his body alone. She had forgotten, had forgotten, she was rising...
She shrieked and arched against him, holding him tightly to her. He groaned and picked up his pace, as if lost in the moment with her. As she was still coming down, he slammed harder and harder, then exploded with a grunt between clenched teeth.
It wasn't until several lazy seconds had passed that she realized what had happened. She was so used to trying for a child...
"Erwin," she said, "you just came inside me."
He lifted his head, his eyes slowly filling with horror. "I-" he began, then he was silent.
She considered, then decided it wasn't worth panicking about. It wasn't as if she could keep a pregnancy, anyway.
But Erwin seemed considerably shaken. He rolled off her and wiped off with a handkerchief, then began to dress, his hands trembling.
"Erwin, it's okay."
"No. I'm sorry, Marie."
She had hoped they would both feel better, not worse. "If you need to talk-"
"No." He stood tall, his face hard. "I'm sorry to have troubled you."
The he was gone, and she felt even emptier than before.
Two weeks later, she began to question if she had actually lost the pregnancy in the first place. Her breasts were getting more swollen and tender every day, and she was nauseated. She wouldn't be showing signs this quickly if it had been Erwin, would she? She knew everything about losing pregnancies, but nothing about keeping them.
She went to the doctor, who wasn't much help. "Maybe the 'miscarriage' was just random bleeding, and the baby is fine. Or maybe you're not even pregnant. It's too soon to tell."
But a month after that, she couldn't keep food down, her period still hadn't come, and maybe it was her imagination, but she swore she was beginning to show.
When a knock sounded at the door one night, she froze. Erwin?
When she opened it, Nile stood on the other side, his face drawn.
For a moment, they stared at each other.
"Marie, please," said Nile softly.
She stepped aside. He sat on the couch, as if he still lived here. Maybe he did; she wasn't sure anymore where they stood.
"I've had a lot of time to think," he said. "I don't care if we can't have a child together. We can adopt, or it can just be the two of us, I don't care. I just..." His face twisted. "Please take me back, Marie. I can't picture my life without you in it."
She knew she should tell him what happened with Erwin. But in that moment, it seemed so likely the baby could be Nile's. They had tried so hard, for so long -- it wouldn't make sense for Erwin to come in and accomplish in one night what they had been trying to accomplish for two years.
She sat beside him on the couch and pulled his hand to her stomach. "I was wrong."
"I didn't lose the baby."
His eyes widened, then began to fill with tears. "Marie..."
"We're going to be parents."
He pulled her into a tight hug and murmured that he loved her, stroking her hair. She buried her face in his neck and breathed in his scent.
This child is ours.