When he first steps into the theater, he’s on guard. By the time he sits down, he’s subconsciously jotted down every potential weapon and escape route.
He wonders when he’ll stop doing that.
He wonders if he’ll ever stop doing that.
But that wondering doesn’t last long, because he hears a giggle from beside him, feels a hand digging into his popcorn, and the anxiety melts away. The lights dim, and the movie starts, and he finds himself mesmerized not long after.
There are so many things he used to dismiss without a second thought, but they’re disappearing one by one.
“So, how was that?” Maria tosses her container of popcorn over her shoulder, making the garbage can effortlessly. “You have fun?”
“Yeah!” Alyssa grins, throwing her small fist into the air. “Thank you so, so much for taking me! It was so cool, with all the fighting and the robots and stuff!”
“Right?” Maria’s face lights up as she zips her jacket. “That one was even better than the last, seriously! And the last was good.” She notices Erhard looking off to the side and elbows him, moving so that he can’t not look at her. “How ‘bout you? You’ve been really quiet.”
He takes a long time to respond. It’s only when they’ve exited the building and are making the journey through the chilly parking lot that he speaks up.
“It was interesting.” He really doesn’t know how else to describe it. It was strange, but managed to capture his interest the whole way through, so that’s probably the best word choice.
“Such high praise.” Maria rolls her eyes before grabbing for the car keys in her pocket. Her annoyance isn’t sincere; after a year, he’s become better at telling these things. “I think I looked over at you at one point, and you looked like you were about to ascend.”
He has no idea what that means, but he takes it in stride. The three of them pile into the car (rented, since Maria’s kind of adamant about her motorcycle), Alyssa still sipping on the last droplets of soda.
“Do you think Dr. Kimishima will be home when we drop her off?” Erhard tilts his head slightly towards the girl in the back seat. “I understand how inconsistent our schedules might be.”
“No idea. But if she’s not, Alyssa’s gonna be fine.” Maria shrugs, starting up the car. “You know firsthand, dude. She survived that bomb, she’s tough.”
He does know firsthand. Sometimes he sees her accompanying Naomi, and vivid memories float up to the surface of his mind. The strange feeling of sadness and terror that tore through him when he heard her EKG flatline, that which had awakened him. He knows he’s supposed to remain impartial as a doctor, but then again, doctors are only human too.
The car is quiet as they travel down the road. Maria’s tapping her foot impatiently, despite the fact that it’s past 11 and the traffic is sparse, and Erhard wonders if the only reason she’s keeping quiet is because there’s a child in the car. Knowing her, that’s probably it.
Maria Torres is a lot of things to him. He doesn’t have a singular word, since she encapsulates pretty much everything that’s become important in his life, but “partner” is probably the closest. He still remembers when she punched him over the Cumberland incident, as well as when she kissed him a month and a half after his release. When they’d first met at Resurgam and she didn’t even want to speak to him, paired with the first night that he went to her apartment and didn’t leave until the next morning. So much has changed, but he isn’t complaining.
Alyssa’s asleep by the time they arrive at Naomi’s place, but she looks cute enough that they carry her inside instead of waking her up. Naomi’s there to tuck her in, thanking the two of them for babysitting again, and Maria gives an enthusiastic declaration that she loves helping out. Erhard doesn’t have the same level of vigor in the tone of his voice as he agrees, but it’s in his heart.
He’ll do whatever it takes for the people who gave him his life.
Vera’s awake when he nudges the door open, clipboard in hand. She looks fine, a gentle smile on her face and a pile of knitting in her hands, and she looks up soon after she hears the door’s creak.
“Oh, I’m sorry for the clutter, Doctor,” she says, nudging her yarn to the side. Erhard shakes his head, closing the door behind him and pulling up a chair at her bedside.
“No, I’m the one who came unannounced.” He sets the clipboard down on a nearby table. “I just need to check on your progress.”
Vera reaches down to undo the front of her hospital gown. The four-day-old incision that bisects her chest is a slight shade of red, although that’s not really that out of the ordinary. Erhard can’t discern any signs of infection, so he nods after a few seconds, letting her close her top back up.
“When will I be able to leave?” She cuts right to the chase once she’s decent again. “My sister called me earlier, and I’m beginning to wonder if I’m missing anything.”
“Within the next few days-” He flips open her charts. “Since your heart hasn’t shown any problems thus far, you’re most likely alright. Just...avoid strenuous exercise, keep an eye out for signs of infection. I’ve probably already said that multiple times before.”
“Of course.” Vera hums to herself for a second, then turns back towards him with a faraway look on her face. “Say, Doctor, do you believe in angels?”
Erhard blinks. “Angels?”
“Yes. I know it sounds silly, but my family has always told me that I could see spirits. Angels. And…” She pauses, looking as though she doesn’t really know whether or not she should continue, but does anyway. “When you visit me, I sometimes see an angel.”
“What...do you mean?”
“A white angel. She smiles sometimes, with a beautiful flower in her hands.” Vera picks up her knitting again. “It sounds like a lie, but I really do see her. Only with you, too.”
He suddenly believes her. It’s strange, but once he hears her say that, he feels a subtle kind of warmth begin to spread through his being. He doesn’t say anything, and he’s not sure if he can. Vera clearly notices, and she giggles softly, her hand coming up to meet her mouth.
“You look so intense, hearing my silly little story. Truth be told, it’s a little embarrassing to be sitting here like this with you…”
“Embarrassing?” Her statement forces him out of it. “What about?”
“Well,” Vera replies, blushing slightly, “You are the first man who has looked into my heart.”
He steps out of the room to see Hank walking down the hall. He’s greeted with a familiar warm smile and wave once the other doctor notices him, which he tries his best to return.
“It’s good to see you, Dr. Muller.” Hank has a plain straw basket in his hand, which is delicately woven and clashes strongly with the man carrying it. He’d probably come from the courtyard, judging by the stray flower petals that had landed on his hair and clothes. “How’s your patient doing?”
“She’s alright. Recovering quickly.” Erhard moves to get out of Hank’s way, but the other doctor has already drawn nearer. He spends another few seconds trying to think of something to say, since the conversation apparently isn’t done, settling on, “Thank you for the help with that operation.”
“Of course. I’m always happy to assist,” Hank says good-naturedly. “I’m noticing how much easier all of this is for you, too. Talking with the patients really is a wonderful part of the job, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know if it’s getting easier, but…” Erhard jerks his head to the side in a mild display of indifference. He’s not entirely sure, Hank might be right; it doesn’t make much of a difference, though. He’ll be here regardless. “I guess I agree.”
“I’m glad.” And Hank shows it, with a wonderfully warm expression and a little ring to his voice. “You’ll always be a welcome part of this place, don’t ever worry about that.”
“I won’t.” Strangely enough, Erhard is telling the truth.
He’s not really sure what gave him the impulse in the first place. But once it settles itself on his shoulders, there isn’t any way to get it off, and it seems as though it just appeared overnight.
There’s a loose end, a glaring one, that’s wrapped itself around his finger.
It takes a few weeks for him to bring it up. He tries his best to push it to the back of his mind, and it works for a while, but slowly, surely, the idea begins to slide inexorably back to where it came from. He gives up on trying to forget about it, instead deciding to wait until the right moment. If it’s rejected, it’s rejected, although he can’t be faulted for a lack of trying.
It’s when he’s on Maria’s couch that he puts words to what’s been in his brain. (Well, perhaps the phrase “Maria’s couch” hasn’t been accurate since he moved in, but it’s still how he thinks of it.)
“I’ve actually been thinking about this for a while,” Erhard starts, trying his best to stay tactful. “It’s not urgent, but there’s someone I want to see.”
Maria’s leaning against the table as she looks up, tilting her head to the side and cocking a brow. “Huh? Like what, a performance or something?”
He has no idea where she got that impression, considering how little he tends to leave the house of his own volition, but he just shakes his head instead of voicing this.
“I mean...you know, someone you’d visit. Like a...friend?” It’s much harder than he thought it would be to put that idea into words, and he gives up after a few seconds of awkward silence. “No, never mind. It’s not important, really-”
“Nope, shut up.” She leans in his direction, setting one hand on her hip. “First off, stop that self-doubt shit. Second, you have really got me curious now. Do I already know this person?”
“The chances of that are astronomically low.”
“Okay, so it’s someone I don’t know.” Maria grins, putting a hand to her face. “This is pretty fun, actually. So, like, someone from college? Or some kid I never met?”
“No, I...didn’t have friends then.” And the amount of time it took him to realize that that isn’t normal was far longer than it should have been, but that’s another thought to tuck away.
The smile on Maria’s face vanishes. “I’m stumped, then. I almost never see you going off on your own, so I don’t think it’s someone you met recently, and-”
“And, the only other option is - Oh. Oh.” Her eyes widen, and she looks at him in disbelief. “Wait, you don’t mean that this friend…”
It’s surreal, being back here. Portland Prison is as cement-coated and dingy as ever, and Erhard feels a very strange kind of homesickness when he steps through the visitor’s entrance. He can feel the guards’ eyes on him, boring holes into his very being, but the fact that he’s not alone this time is an effective mitigator.
There’s a bit of paperwork and security to go through, although all of it is child’s play compared to his experience of the inside, so it’s not much of an obstacle. They’re both quiet throughout, not speaking a word to each other as the prerequisites are completed, but once an officer comes to lead them down a hallway, towards the visitation rooms, Maria speaks up.
“You know,” She pauses, her lips pursed, “I keep thinking about the fact that you used to live here. Before now, I guess it was just...some abstract concept, but it’s right in front of me now.”
“Not here, specifically. I’ve only been down this way once.” Although with the number of nights that woman’s piercing gaze kept him awake, it might as well be more. “I can’t say I’m much more familiar with this area than you are.”
“I know that. It’s just...being surrounded by armed guards? All the time? Every single second of your life being regimented and shoved into schedules?” Maria groans, shaking her head. “I couldn’t do that. I wouldn’t last a week, and I can’t believe I’m admitting that.”
“I don’t know. You really are strong, Maria. Stronger than I am.”
“That is bullshit and you know it. You broke through so many layers of garbage and bad luck to be here right now, saved more lives than I can count, and the most I’ve done is buy time for people. You. Are. A. Badass.”
“I suppose arguing wouldn’t do any good.” He disagrees with a good deal of what she said, but the overall sentiment is far too nice to pass up.
She elbows him, shooting him a little smirk. “Exactly. You can’t argue with me.” Then she smiles far more softly, whispering, “You’ll be fine.”
Erhard doesn’t know how she realized it, that he’s feeling anxious. Perhaps it’s irrational, considering that he was the one to ask, but there’s something oddly terrifying about going back to see someone that he hadn’t seen in over nine years. He’d suppressed it until now, compartmentalized it along with the rest of his baggage, but here it is, front and center.
He breathes. Oxygen and clarity make their way into him, and he tries to hold onto them.
The room they end up being ushered into is far different from what Erhard remembers. Most of his memories involve dark spaces with single panels of glass and the constant feeling of being scrutinized, but this room is more like a hospital’s waiting room than anything else. The lighting is bright, there are multiple glass panels separated by partitions, each with its own chair, and the quiet chats of the room’s few other occupants are the only source of noise.
“Get comfortable. 6T2’ll be out shortly,” the officer says, pulling a second chair from an unoccupied panel. He walks off before either of them get the chance to respond.
“Oh, real comfortable.” Maria pats the cheap plastic chair with an expression of disdain before plunking down into it. “This is just the lap of luxury, isn’t it?”
Erhard follows suit, but not without a quizzical glance in her direction. “Why do you always have to be difficult?”
“Because it’s fun.”
He’s not sure what he was expecting.
The conversation is cut short when a door behind their panel opens, and someone is ushered in by a pair of guards. Someone who hasn’t fully left a certain corner of Erhard’s mind, no matter how much time has passed.
Enrico looks terrible. It’s good to see that he’s alive (which Erhard had wondered to himself before he made up his mind), but the sheer paleness of his skin is harrowing. It takes almost half a minute for him to set himself down on the chair, and the crook of his left arm is so heavily bandaged that Erhard questions just how many things were injected into him.
But once he’s settled in, Enrico flashes a familiar lazy grin, his eyes strangely happy despite the clouds in them.
“This is new.” He chuckles to himself. “When they were sayin’ I had a visitor, I just about died. So, ‘s the Reaper finally here for me? Sorry I can’t be lookin’ my best.”
Erhard inhales before he responds. “No, it’s...that kid from the infirmary.”
The other man’s eyebrows shoot up. He opens his mouth for a few seconds, seemingly trying to figure out what to say, finally settling on a very eloquent “Holy shit.”
“Yeah. I’m here,” Erhard says, looking away as he tries to figure out how best to phrase what he wants to say. “It’s been so long, and...I didn’t know if you would still recognize me.”
“‘Course I do. Who’d forget somebody like you, a kid who kept getting fucked by his own luck?” Erhard hears Maria snicker behind him. This doesn’t go unnoticed by Enrico, who turns his head in her general direction and raises an eyebrow. “You spying?”
“No, no, she’s with me-”
“Oh. I see .” Enrico nods knowingly. “You need a best man or something?”
Erhard almost jumps to a reflexive “it’s not like that”, but at this point it would be a massive lie. Thankfully, Maria cuts in before he has to respond.
“Why, you interested?”
“I wouldn’t say no.” Enrico shrugs. “Glad to see somebody’s takin’ care of the dude, at the very least.” Then he sighs, turning his face down towards the floor. “It’s good to think about. I know I probably ain’t ever leaving this place, so seein’ someone like you living your life and being happy...it makes me happy too.”
“You aren’t leaving?” Erhard furrows his brows. “It was voluntary manslaughter. Surely you’ll be eligible for parole at some point.”
“Not the issue.” Enrico lets out a strained, heavy breath. “I’m gonna be honest with ya, I don’t got that much time left. Stage four lymphoma.”
That sentence hits the two of them like a sledgehammer. Maria lets out an odd sort of gasp, then looks away with an expression that plainly states that she has no idea what to say, and Erhard just sits there, feeling a painful lurch in his chest. It’s the type of news that he’s heard before, true, but he was never the one directly affected. Tumors can be removed without thinking too hard about the person they grow inside.
“Man.” Enrico leans against the back of the chair. “I hate that I had to tell ya that. ‘S not exactly the sort of small talk you’d have over drinks, is it?”
“God…” Maria groans, her eyes focused entirely on the floor. She pauses for several seconds, then mutters, “I can’t even respond to that.”
“I’m a doctor.” Erhard, on the other hand, manages to keep his voice calm. “If we get you transferred to Resurgam, your condition is entirely treatable. I’ll extract any tumors once they’ve shrunk, and-”
Enrico holds up his hand, and Erhard falls silent.
“I can’t tell ya how much I appreciate that, but I gotta decline.” His enduring grin has turned sardonic, and there’s suddenly something very sad in his posture. “The Reaper’s been at my door for years, and he ain’t stoppin’ anytime soon. You can’t save me. It’s that simple.”
“Your wife and daughter, they-”
“Cut off all contact. I doubt they’d get torn up over it.”
“But-” Erhard protests, cut off by Maria squeezing his shoulder hard enough to hurt. He turns to look at her, the grave expression on her face fully sinking in.
“Stop.” She shakes her head, her eyes slightly watery. “I know you want to help, I do, and it’s amazing, but...people die. And not everybody can be saved.”
Not everybody can be saved.
rosalia’s body on an evidence table the blood dried just looks like she’s sleeping but she’s not and the last time he saw her she was talking about some movie she wanted to watch but he never came home and she never saw him again and sartre sticking a needle into his neck and walking away and it’s eight years later he’s nothing but bones eaten alive by tragedy slowly consuming everything it touches and
And Maria’s there. She knows. She’s eased her hand onto his leg, murmuring something to him that he doesn’t hear. She cried when they held Rosalia’s two-years-late funeral, she helped him through every single panic attack and nightmare, she pokes fun at him but counters it with endless bear hugs and affectionate gestures. She is undoubtedly there.
Erhard takes a few seconds to center himself. He eases himself back into the world, back into the odd comfort of a dingy visitation room.
“Alright.” He can’t speak any louder than a semi-whisper. The tightness in his throat won’t allow it. “If...if there’s anything you want me to do for you, I can…”
“Just one favor.” Enrico closes his eyes, tilting his head back. “Live. ‘S all I want.”
Erhard nods, swallowing hard to try and clear the ever-growing knot. It doesn’t feel like he can say anything else.
“Shouldn’t be that hard,” Maria interjects, giving him a quick poke in the side. “I’m gonna make damn sure of it.”
Enrico opens his mouth to say something else, but a voice booms from somewhere behind him.
“Time’s up, 6T2.”
“Shit, alright.” He throws his hands up, briefly imitating the stiff posture of one of the prison guards. Then he drops his shoulders down, letting out a weak laugh. “Just...stay safe, okay? Don’t get hurt again, and don’t get caught up thinkin’ about me. I’m gonna be fine.”
Erhard suddenly remembers the conversation with his patient. Angels . Even after death, people remain. It flies in the face of every biological fact, but at the same time...that’s not an absolute.
The guards come and take Enrico, and as he’s lead back to the abyss, Erhard can swear he sees a genuine smile on the other man’s face.
They both get up not long after, Maria fidgeting with the sleeves of her jacket. It’s the thousandth time today that neither of them know what exactly to say, but Erhard doesn’t even care at this point. She’s still here. Despite every scar (including the physical one), she’s here.
And when they make their way back through the hallways and a guard they pass lets out an audible hiss, he turns around instead of walking past.
“You,” The guard growls. It’s the man with the bottles and an expression of loathing on his face, but it matters not. “Go to hell.”
Erhard looks him straight in the eye. “Sorry. I’ve already been there.”
And he walks off with Maria right behind him, an expression of sheer amazement on her face.
“I still can’t believe you said that.” Maria grabs for another few chips out of her bag, tilted over onto Erhard’s shoulder. They’re back on the couch, where this whole idea was proposed.
“I’m honestly not sure what came over me...I apologize,” Erhard says sheepishly, feeling his face flush. In hindsight, his response may not have been the best move.
“Are you kidding me? That was awesome! I wish I could have said something like that!” Maria certainly disagrees, though, as expected. “Seriously. I know it might be hard to tell, but I am absolutely not kidding in any way.”
“Saying something like that was still unpr-mmf.” He’s silenced by Maria pushing a chip into his mouth. Not one to reject a gift, he eats it.
“Professionalism is overrated,” she says.
“I don’t know if that’s true.”
“You want another chip?”
“Is that supposed to be a threat?”
“If you want it to be.”
“I don’t understand you.” He reaches over, running his fingers through her hair. Her skin is always so much softer than it looks.
“And I see you don’t have to.” Maria responds by sitting up further, pressing herself into his chest. “You still like my broken ass, after everything you’ve gone through. It’s amazing.”
“I’m not any less broken.” Erhard’s other hand finds its way to the small of her back. “And...what I do is much less amazing than you make it sound.”
“Lies,” she breathes, cupping his cheeks and pulling his lips into hers. It’s just that for a few moments, a wonderful soft, slow kind of warmth, a nonverbal assurance of security. Everything is right with the world.
When they break apart, Maria takes a few seconds to open her eyes again, not wanting the moment to end, but her heart jumps into her throat when she notices the silent tears in his eyes. He’s trying to blink them away, staring resolutely at the floor, but it doesn’t look like they want to leave.
“Wh-whoa, hey, are you okay?!”
“I don’t know.” He chokes on the words as they leave his mouth. “I don’t know. I don’t want anyone to die, I’ve never wanted anyone to die, and…I’m so sorry I did this to you. Made you love me like this.”
“You didn’t make me do anything.” She screws her eyes shut, letting out a sharp exhale. “God, it hurts when you say that. You’re not a burden on me. You’re a fucking saint.”
“I can’t see it. Whatever it is that you see,” Erhard manages to croak out. “I don’t know what I did to deserve this.”
It’s the most raw display of emotion she’s seen out of him in a long time. She knows that this conversation isn’t the catalyst; it’s several, tens, hundreds of things. They’ve probably been building up for a long time, too, suppressed under layers of stoicism and trauma.
And just for a moment, for a reason she can’t explain, she starts to cry too.
It takes a good twenty minutes for the tears to dry up completely, but the tension has evaporated completely at that point. Maria’s buried her face into the crook of his neck, and Erhard is so still underneath her that she’d probably think he’s asleep, if not for his fingers tracing gentle patterns across her back.
“Hey.” Maria’s voice is so soft that it’s almost impossible to make out. “You hungry?”
Erhard’s about to speak, but his stomach growling does it for him.
“So I just found out about this new burrito place. Apparently they’ve got a special today. I’m talking huge burritos. Burritos bigger than your head.”
“There’s no way that can be true,” Erhard mumbles.
“And that’s why we have to go there. For science, you know?”
“I see you’ve already made up your mind.”
Erhard lifts his head, letting out a tiny sigh. Maria looks back at him, the cutest of smiles on her face, her eyes bright, filled with energy. As he looks at her, something clicks into place in the back of his mind.
In that moment, he realizes that he has everything he needs. Everything up to this point was worth it, no question about it.
“That sounds perfect.”