Author's Note: This is a sequel to my earlier one-shot, "Soon." Please read that story before reading this one (click on my username to find it fast).
He is not her husband. Not legally. They've never made any vows. There has never been a need. Everyone in the small town where they live assumes they're married. They address her by his last name. That's all right with her.
She doesn't remember much of their journey to this place. She just went along, trusting him, and he seemed to know where he was going. She still doesn't know how he found this town, or how he knew it was the right place for them, but it is. She knows that everyone here knows who they are, or who they used to be. No one has ever mentioned it. Talk is cheap here, but the people know how to keep quiet about things that are really important, and that is a blessing.
He is the local deputy to the county marshal, which makes him the only full-time law in town. She sees his contentment in the simplicity of his job. No politics, no assassins lurking, no complicated security details. Break up fights, chase away a few pickpockets, pick up the occasional drunk off the road. They live in a two-story clapboard house a block from town center, and his office is the front porch. Everyone knows where to find him if there's trouble. A local woodworker carved him a sign with his name and profession on it, and he has hung it from the porch railing, next to his rocking chair.
She sometimes fixes things for people, in exchange for whatever they want to give her. Once she received an entire wheel of aged cheese for work on a baling machine. She spends most of her time in the workshop he built for her in the barn. She forges her sculptures, standing on ladders in her welder's mask and lead-lined gloves, a torch in one hand and a spool of solder in the other. She cooks, for it is not one of his many talents, and sews their clothes. He cleans, for she has no love or inclination for it, and tends a mammoth vegetable garden, shirt off and tucked into the waistband of his pants, his gun still on his hip.
Every day, she is reassured to look at his face and feel the bedrock depth of her love for him, and to see his for her reflected back in his eyes. They don't talk a lot, not about things that are really important. Their most important conversations take place without words. She leads him upstairs every night, once their girl is tucked in with stories read and stuffed toys kissed goodnight, and they make love like it's holding them to the world. Sometimes, it is.
He walks the streets of their town. It only takes half an hour to cover all of it. He makes a patrol twice a day, returning to the porch and catching his little girl under her arms, swinging her high while she laughs. He looks toward the barn and sees the sparks flying. She is forging things, reshaping the world with her hands, wielding fire to bend even the hardest metals to her will. He knows that she does not see the symbolism in the act. It is enough that he does.
All he can do is make the world safe again. Safe for her, safe for their daughter. He sometimes carries her on his shoulders while he walks his patrols. She waves to people as they pass, and they always wave back, hailing both of them by name, sometimes bringing them lemonade or a cookie. He takes her along when he rides on his horse to the next town for his wife's metalworking supplies. She sits in front of him on the saddle and her dark hair blows back against him, and her laughter makes him remember a world that was untouched. When she looks up at him with her blue eyes that are so like her mother's but like his as well, he remembers their first few weeks here. They had arrived numb and uncertain, and he barely remembered finding the house they still lived in, providing for their basic needs. She had been blank, like someone dead. She was waiting for her cycle, waiting for the blood that would let her know she had really escaped, and when the blood came she had run to him and cried in his arms, and asked him to give her a child that was theirs.
He had feared that she would be unable to bear one. He tries not to think of that place, and of what he saw done to her, but he knows that it may have left its scars upon her. When she came to him and told him that she carried his baby in her womb, his relief and his joy fought each other before resigning themselves to co-existence. When their daughter slid from her body and wailed her first breath, he wept that such a precious thing could be theirs.
They wear rings that carry no weight save what they have imbued them with between themselves. Sometimes he yearns to stand before the local circuit judge with her and let themselves be counted with others who have cleaved to one another, but most of the time he doesn't give it much thought. They are one flesh if any two people ever were, for they were both reformed at the same moment. In that cavern, they were both undone to their cells, and from the wreckage they had rebuilt one another, leaving parts of themselves inside each other such that separation was no longer possible.
A few times a year, she vanishes for a couple of days, taking her motorcycle and a knapsack and going walkabout. He has never asked where she goes, or why she must go alone. He knows that while his peace comes from staying still, hers comes from running, so he stays behind with their child. She always returns, calm in her face, to hug her daughter and give him a kiss that holds promises for later.
The little girl knows no life but this place. She runs freely in the yard, playing with neighbor children, climbing on the jungle gym her father built for her. Sometimes she sits in the workshop and uses a cloth to shine up the sculptures while she watches her mother work, taking scraps and salvage and turning them into something new. Sometimes she imagines that her mother is a wizard from a fairy tale, shooting magic from her hands and making great twisted metal creatures spring forth from the ground.
Her father is a giant. He is a giant in disguise, who has made himself smaller to blend in with the regular people, but she can tell. His footsteps are bigger than his feet, she can hear him coming from down the street when he returns from his patrols, and she runs to meet him and his smiles make the crinkles around his eyes that are blue like the sky wishes it were.
Her mother is always dirty. Grease and oil from the engines, or dust caught in her sweat behind the big square mask with the slit. Paint sometimes from the sculptures, and metal shavings in her hair. She comes out of the shed to greet her father and they kiss, now he has a smudge on his cheek and she laughs and says you're dirty now, Daddy. Her mother laughs too, and wipes it off, and they smile at each other in a way that makes her feel safe.
Every few months her father has to ride to the big town to talk to the county marshal. He is gone all day long, and those days are Picture Days. Her mother gets out the camera from its special hiding place, but she gets to pick where they take the picture. Last time, it was out on her jungle gym, hanging upside down by her knees. Her mother laughs and takes the picture. She doesn't know where the pictures go, but she's seen her mother putting them in envelopes. She doesn't know why this makes her mother cry.
Sometimes, she is a different person. Sometimes she is fierce with him in bed in a way that both excites and worries him. What she wants sometimes surprises him, as if she's plucked secret desires from his mind, and other times he wonders if it is him she sees at all. He can't help but recall the first time they had sex, in her quarters during their recovery. It happened because they had nothing to hold to but each other, because the connection they had forged in that cavern had to be consummated, and there was no other way. It happened as something inevitable, and not only because of what they'd suffered together. It had already been inevitable. For years he had gone about his life, seeing other women, watching her see other men, content in the knowledge that someday, it would be her and him. It was okay that it wasn't, because it would be. Sometimes he would catch her eye and see the same knowledge there, and they would smile and nod and go about their business, their future secure, and their present free.
He had thought that one day, on an ordinary day like any other, he would turn to her and ask if it was time yet, and she would say yes, it was time, and he would take her in his arms and tell her he was in love with her and always had been, and she would say the same, and that would be it. Instead, those precious words he'd waited so long to say had been dragged from him while he was shackled to the pillory, while they tore her clothes and forced her down to the mattress and she had looked for escape in his eyes and he had told her, over and over again, whispered it so she could hear, and they had both found escape in each other's eyes.
They lie tightly laced together at night and when it's cold his wrists ache; she rubs them with her warm hands, her fingers tracing the rough patches on his forearms where the skin has grown back, bending to kiss them, then turning him to kiss the faint white lines on his back from the whips. He caresses her smooth, unmarked body, her skin so silky beneath his rough hands, and he wishes her scars could be soothed as easily. He knows that as she pulls him between her legs that she is banishing those men, his body is burning sage to cleanse her of the sense memory of them, and as time has moved on that memory is pushed further away and he is less her salvation and more her lover, and he knows one day there will be no thought in her mind save that she wants him, merely because he is him and she is her.
She misses her sister. He does, too. They both miss their friends, they even miss that life they once had, but it feels as remote as if he'd been reincarnated, that man he used to be seen through a veil, indistinctly. What she does not know is that someone knows where they are. He isn't sure if it's her sister, but someone knows. Once a month, the royal post passes through the town, and it shouldn't. This town is off the post route. The first time, the van drove slowly, then circled back and drove through again, just as slowly. He went and stood on the street corner and watched it pass, its windows dark, and touched the brim of his hat. It sped off and did not return. The same day the next month, on a hunch, he stood on the same corner at the same time, and the royal post van passed by again, barely slowing, and again he tipped his hat. Every month he stands on the corner as it passes, speeding by now, needing only to see him standing there, a tip of the hat, everything's okay, see you next month. He doesn't tell his wife. He isn't sure how she'd react.
The day they were taken, they had been on their way to the mountains. He'd volunteered to come along, which had pleased her. They had ridden in the royal sedan for hours, not talking much, and just before they were attacked, she had turned to ask him something, but the words had gotten stuck in her throat. She had seen him sitting there and she had known in a mad rush like being struck over the head that it was time. It was time for them. She had waited for years to be ready to love him. She'd never quite known what she was waiting for, but that she'd know when it was time, and that day, it was. She'd turned back to her window, her head spinning, not knowing what to say, or if she should wait, or just say something now. Her hand had crept across the seat toward him even while she kept her face turned away, but halfway there she had encountered his fingers on their way toward her. They had clasped hands, not speaking, not even looking.
Then, the gunshots.
Her walkabouts, as he calls them, are not searches for peace, as she knows he believes. She goes away to scream and tear things apart. She goes away to let herself go back there, back to that cavern where her worst nightmares happened. Alone, she can cry and surrender to hysterics and then work out her aggression by chopping fireword or digging random holes in the landscape. She would not do these things at home. She doesn't want to frighten him, or their daughter, who is so innocent about what her parents endured.
She heals more every day. Every time her daughter hugs her, or brings her a picture she's drawn, she heals. Every time she sees him stride up the walk carrying flowers to kiss her hello, every time she sleeps the quiet sleep of the sheltered in his arms, she heals. Everything she does that normal people do feels precious. She bakes cupcakes for the church bake sale, even though they do not attend services, and the town ladies wave to her and exclaim over her offering. She has learned to can their vegetables, and make homemade jam. She goes to the general store and gossips with the owner. She knows that there is no gossip about them. The townspeople talk, but their unstated promise not to discuss who is living in their midst extends to a gag order on idle chatter.
But it is not enough. She doesn't think it will ever be enough.
She sends the pictures because she is sorry. It couldn't be helped, but she is still sorry. They could not stay there. She had known that from the first moment she woke up in the infirmary and found in his eyes the only thing that could hold her mind together. She misses her sister. She misses her friends. At times, she even misses who she used to be. She knows that they must someday return. Her daughter deserves to know her birthright. But when they are back in that palace, back among their loved ones and the future destiny chose for them, she knows she will miss this home, this quiet corner where they have been mercifully left alone to reshape themselves. Her only concern is that their new shapes have been made to fit each other, and there can be no one for her but him. There are those in the kingdom who would see them separated.
She will never let that happen. She will leave her royal life forever before she will be parted from him. She will conjure a storm and flee with her small family to her long-ago life on the other side before she lets anyone come between them.
He senses her restlessness even before she does. She has been selling her sculptures more quickly, keeping fewer of them at home. She tells their daughter bedtime stories about Queens and palaces and princesses, about friendly furry men and funny friends. She lies awake longer, her head tucked into his neck, one finger tracing meaningless symbols on his chest.
One day he gets out the camera. She is shocked he knows where it is, and what she's been doing with it. He is equally shocked that she thinks a four year old can keep a secret, and she laughs at herself. He looks at her. "Isn't it about time for a family photo?" he asks. She looks down, wipes her eyes and nods. He puts the camera on the shelf and sets the timer. He grabs his wriggly daughter and they plop down on the couch. The shutter clicks and catches them off guard. He gets up and looks at the photo, and it is perfect.
She prints it, and he watches her get out the envelope and address it. The stand shoulder to shoulder at the desk, looking at their own image. She turns it over and takes a deep breath, and writes one word there. He nods, and squeezes her shoulders while their daughter is yanking on his pants, wanting to see, Daddy, let me see.
The day before they leave, there is a town social in the square. Everyone will be there. They would be there as well, if they were not closing up their home. She cries. He does too, but doesn't let her see. This has been a good place. He hasn't told her that he is keeping the house. They can come back when they need to get away. He suspects they will need to get away often. Their daughter is excited beyond her ability to control herself. She knows she is going away and not coming back, she knows she will see her auntie and uncles and her granddad, and she is going to live in a palace and be a princess. He dreads the day she learns what that really means, and that it is not always fun.
They are finished. They go to the town social, walking with their girl between them, each of them holding onto one of her hands. When they arrive, the Mayor is giving a speech from the gazebo. Everyone is sitting in folding chairs, listening. She picks up their daughter and they stand at the rear of the crowd.
The Mayor sees them and stops talking. She smiles at them, sees the sad looks on their faces. Everyone is turning to look. "Are you leaving us?" she asks. They walk forward to shake her hand and thank her, turn around to thank everyone for their friendship, for their peace. As they walk back to the road, everyone stands and the men bow, the women curtsy, they hear their whispered goodbyes, safe journey, Your Highness, come back and see us, Your Highness, the titles that have not been spoken in five years following them away, dissipating on the wind as if they'd never existed.
They will send back for their things, what few of them they will need where they're going. They stand at the corner, on the right day at the right time. The royal post van approaches, slowing down today, and it stops before them. The driver gets out and looks at them for a moment. They exchange nods, and the driver opens the door for them to get in. He sees that it is not a post van, never has been, for its interior contains only seats. The plush softness feels strange against his skin; he has grown accustomed to rougher surroundings. She is looking around like she's remembering something she dreamed. She watches their girl bounce on the opposite seats and squeal as they take off, the carriage turning around to hurry back the way it came, and she leans into his side. He puts his arm around her and closes his eyes, so he will not have to see this place that has been their home disappear behind them.
She awakes when they stop. All three of them have been asleep, lulled by the gentle rocking motion of the van. She isn't surprised to find that they are at Finaqua. She turns to the man she calls her husband and he is watching her; she cannot tell if he is excited or afraid.
Their daughter sits up, rubbing her eyes. "Are we at the palace, Mamma?" She reached out and gathers her up. Yes, we are, bunny. She tickles her little-girl belly and gets her to giggle.
They climb from the van into the private royal courtyard. She'd thought she'd have a moment to prepare herself, but their arrival has been announced and the first thing she sees is her sister. Her breath catches in her throat and her knees nearly buckle. He reaches out and takes their daughter from her before she drops her.
The Queen is standing by the door, both hands clutched to her chest, and so beautiful. She feels like an old shoe in comparison, wearing her denim and country clothing. Her sister's eyes are wide, her chin trembling. She chokes her name and rushes forward. They meet halfway and she lets herself be happy, clutched in the Queen's arms so tight, both of them weeping now, her sister saying her name over and over again, it is an incantation to make her real and here, finally here.
She pulls back and wipes her sister's face, smiling. There are questions for later, there are talks for the future, but now there is just this, and her hands glow where she touches her. It is a feeling she had almost forgotten and it makes her gasp to remember the power in her body, the power she has pushed away after it betrayed her by not letting her save him, and after it got away from her to finally deliver them both in a way she still can't bear to think about.
Her sister is looking now at her niece. He comes forward with the girl in his arms, a greeting in his eyes for the Queen. Her sister's tears spill afresh as she sees the girl's face in person for the first time. She approaches with caution, not wanting to be too forward with her. She smiles and wipes her tears away. "Hello, sweetheart," she says, her voice catching. "I'm your aunt. What's your name?"
The girl blushes and buries her face in her father's neck, suddenly bashful. He cajoles her and smiles an apology, she's a little shy of strangers. She steps forward and puts her hand on her daughter's mass of wavy dark hair.
"Her name is Hope."
The girl looks up at her aunt again, grins her gap-toothed smile, then suddenly she holds out her arms to her. He blinks in surprise, for he knows his daughter's reticence with new people.
Her sister laughs, then reaches out and plucks the girl from her father's arms. Her little arms go around her aunt's neck at once, her legs wrapping around her like she's done it a thousand times. The Queen holds her small niece tightly, meeting her sister's eyes over the girl's shoulder.
She sees her daughter's hands glowing where she is touching her sister, a faint dusting of what will someday be stronger, and she knows she has done right to return. His arm is around her shoulders and then the Queen is pulling them both into an embrace, Hope safely enfolded between them.