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a ghost of you

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Paultin was dreaming.

Go figure as to why he had to be dreaming in order to feel content and happy, for once, but that was the reality of his life, and had been the reality of his life for…gods, three years. Had it only been three actual years? Time was already weird for them, and weirder since he found he could see through it (or maybe he was just certifiably crazy, who knew), but he felt at least a hundred years older than the schmuck who left his wife to die alone.

The dream was a familiar one—a seaside picnic. They hadn’t had a beach episode yet, so might as well dream one up, right? But the scene was one he’d set too often for comfort during Evelyn’s time as a construct, and especially during the nap he slid into while Omin Dran was bringing her back: him, lounging in light linen clothing with his pants rolled up to his knees and sipping some fruity tropical drink under an umbrella, watching Evelyn in a sundress play with Simon. Simon could talk again. Diath and Strix were somewhere out in the water, Strix covered in seaweed and rooting around for shells and Diath indulging her. Simple stuff, easy to get lost in. Every now and then Evelyn would look back at him and smile, and Paultin knew very well which smiles were just for him and which were for everyone. In true rom-com fashion, this one was just for him, soft and warm and loving, and he found himself smiling back, and it reached his eyes.

Lately, iterations of this dream had Evelyn giving Simon the ball they were chasing around and telling him to play nice while she talked with his father, and Simon would salute with a squeaky, “Sure, Mama Evelyn!” She would then float his way, and settle herself next to him under the umbrella, a little too close for casual conversation, and he’d lose his drink somewhere and lay his head down in her lap and listen as she chattered about something or other and stroked his hair. It was nice. It was simple. It was…it was familiar. Not that he’d ever actually planted his head in Evelyn’s lap and presented his hair for teasing, but…he’d done that to someone, once.

“I’m sorry,” Paultin found himself saying, and Evelyn blinked, surprised, her fingers still wound in his hair. “I’m…I’m sorry.”

“Oh, Paultin,” Evelyn said, her voice tenderness itself, “it’s alright.”

He let himself take a breath.

“You could never protect me, anyway.”

What.

“What,” Paultin said out loud. Evelyn smiled, but for a second it was like she flickered and was stone again, shattered stone, and then she was herself. Paultin sat up.

“I said you could never protect me, anyway,” Evelyn repeated, and this time as she flickered, she suddenly became a taller woman, long dark hair and liquid dark eyes, dusky voice breaking into Evelyn’s higher chimes and covered in blood, and Paultin’s heart stopped. Evelyn—Sandra—the flickering amalgamation of the two smiled at him, and then laughed, voices overlapping in discordance. “We were always going to die. It’s always going to be your fault. Why apologize? I thought you never did that, Paultin.”

Paultin scooted back, into the sand, and suddenly realized the sky was full of dark clouds, the sea becoming choppy. As he watched, Strix and Diath were both pulled under by something, screaming, and Simon, holding his ball, turned his head around to look at Paultin. In a blink the water rose up and crushed down on Simon in a pillar, leaving broken pieces behind, the ball bouncing away, and Paultin’s yell died in his throat. His breath was coming too fast and shallow to scream. He felt a hand on his chin, dragging his face around, and it was Sandra, her face half-collapsed, her hair knotted and slimy like she’d been dumped in a watery grave, flesh falling away in places to expose chunks of bone, and Paultin…he felt something beyond fear, beyond despair, like a lute string about to snap, his heart straining in his chest; he felt someone else at his back, someone small and with patches of crumbling stone embedded in her skin as she draped her arms around his neck and put her head close to his ear, golden curls falling over his shoulder. The wailing storm that had sprung up around him seemed to go eerily silent for a moment.

“I thought you loved me,” Sandra and Evelyn said in tandem, whispering into the silence, and Paultin finally found the lung strength to scream, to claw his way back to consciousness, fighting his sheets, tangled around him like a too-tight embrace, until he dumped himself onto his floor, his head bouncing off the wood.

He breathed hard, fighting further screaming, teeth and jaw clenched hard around the panic that had him pinned like a night hag. Why was breathing so hard? His whole body shuddered with it, struggling like a fish out of water, and speaking of water, a lot of it seemed to be leaking from his eyes as he finally freed himself from his sheets and curled into a ball, tucking his head as close to his knees as he could get and keening, trying to calm down and not wake anyone up. Simon stayed either in his rebuilt tower or with the kids these days, not with him, which was a small blessing right now; he didn’t think he could handle the questions Simon was learning to sign to him. He had a sense of Handrew perched on the bed and observing him, but he was a little busy biting down on the inside of his cheek so hard he tasted blood.

Gods. Gods. He had not been expecting that. He blamed therapy. He blamed the wine. He blamed…well, himself, but that went without saying. He finally stopped making a terrified whine that bubbled up from his chest, stopped rocking, but the tears…those stayed, those intensified, muddling up his breathing even more than trying not to scream. He was never going to complain about Strix’s night terrors again, Paultin thought, already knowing it was a lie but finding comfort in it.

His crying had gone from full-body sobs to a quiet stream after…he had no idea how long, but any amount of time felt too short when there was a quiet knock at his door. Too high up to be Simon, not firm enough to be Diath, not frantic enough to be Strix. He squeezed his eyes shut, hoping she would think he was asleep, hoping she’d go away and he wouldn’t have to answer.

“Paultin?” Evelyn’s quiet voice floated through his door, and all Paultin could think was that her voice was so much less terrifying without Sandra’s imposed over it. “I heard…I heard screaming, I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

Paultin squeezed his eyes shut and took a few deep breaths. He could do this. He could do this.

“I’m fine,” he answered, and winced at how raw and broken his voice sounded, even to himself.

“You sure?”

“Totally.”

“It’s just…well, Doctor Serenity said we should communicate better, and, um, it doesn’t sound like you’re fine, it really doesn’t. I’m worried about you.”

She just had to invoke the doc, didn’t she? Paultin would roll his eyes if he wasn’t so sure opening them right now would release the floodgates all over again. He decided to press his luck, saying, “I’m okay. Go back to bed.”

There was a pause, and Paultin thought maybe, just maybe, he’d caught a break. Then he heard his doorknob turning and swore internally. Next time he saw that so-called doctor, she would be getting an earful from him, that was for sure.

No point in trying to hide it. He didn’t so much as uncurl when Evelyn’s gently-fluttering winged boots carried her inside, or when she closed the door behind her, but he did hear her little gasp and the immediate pity and concern, and it was so much more than he could take right now, he didn’t—he couldn’t—she put a hand on his arm and he flinched away, involuntarily making a noise like a wounded animal.

“Paultin?” Evelyn murmured, and he could feel the heat of her hands fluttering around him, wanting to touch, unsure if she should. He wasn’t sure, either. “Paultin, talk to me. What happened?”

Now was the moment when he would usually get up, dust himself off, uncork a bottle, and inform her that he was fine, thanks for her concern, and stroll off into another drunken stupor. Usually. Usually he wasn’t having visceral nightmares about his dead wife and his…friend…teaming up on him to rip him apart at the seams. Those two things were normally mutually exclusive. Why wouldn’t they leave him alone, he thought, bitterness building in the back of his throat like bile, just leave him alone. But he couldn’t seem to say that. He couldn’t find it within himself to protect her from himself, to push her away. Not that he could pull her closer, either. He was just…stuck.

She continued to hover, and he continued to struggle with himself, and it seemed that they would be at an impasse forever until Evelyn sighed, taking back to the air. “Alright. I’ll leave you alone. Just…just remember that I’m here, okay?” And she was floating away, taking away the warmth that had been soaking into his back, leaving—

“Wait,” Paultin croaked, and though he wasn’t sure he’d actually said anything at all, she did, coming back down to his side. There was more silence, more of Paultin trying his best to get his breathing back under control, and he was trying so hard to find something to say to justify himself when he felt her fingers start to card through his hair.

His initial thought was to stiffen up, to push her away, to climb back into bed and tell her to leave him alone. His second thought was to freeze up and wait for her voice to go all two-toned and her face to flicker between her own and his wife’s. His third…his third thought, ultimately the winner, was just to go limp, to let it happen. Goosebumps were starting to go down his back in waves as Evelyn gently smoothed his bedhead away, her fingernails and her warrior’s calluses both scratching his scalp, and it…it felt good. It felt nice. It felt like home.

Little by little, Paultin let his body relax, unclenching his arms from around his knees, letting his knees unfold, uncoiling the arch in his back. He felt Evelyn’s fingers poking at the underside of his head, gently guiding his head up and then back down onto something soft. Her lap, his mind muzzily supplied, and he let himself breathe a little more slowly as he soaked that feeling in, cracking open his eyes and looking down the length of her legs at her booted feet, at her dimpled knees, at the inches of thigh available to him before her nightgown started. She could probably crush his skull with those, he thought, and then thought, well, if he was feeling good enough to make observations like that, he was probably fine now. He didn’t move.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Evelyn asked, and Paultin exhaled, closing his eyes. He did not. He decidedly did not.

“Nightmare,” he grunted. “’bout you. And Sandra.”

Evelyn didn’t answer, but her fingers didn’t stop caressing him, either. So she was probably processing. That’s fine. Processing is good, he’s been told. Then her fingers moved to the base of his neck, massaging there, and wow, that was certainly a feeling.

“Can you sit up and talk to me about it?”

Sitting up meant engaging his body and he was so comfortable at the moment, just letting her pet him like a poodle. But. She asked. So he sighed, and did his best, hauling himself as upright as he could get, one arm planted on the ground on the other side of her legs for balance, and he rolled his head to face her. He hadn’t realized how tired she was starting to look; there were bags under her eyes that usually weren’t there, and a careworn quality to the lines of her mouth that her smile usually masked. But right now she wasn’t smiling. She was looking at him, and waiting for him to speak. He shuffled a little more upright, but kept that hand in touch with the ground, just in case. It made him sit closer to her, almost half-wrap around her, but. Well.

“Everything was fine,” he said, his voice cracking in and out with strain, “and then it wasn’t. You…you were kinda the same person for a minute there? And you both told me I wasn’t able to save you, and then she was just—she was just there, and so dead, so very, very dead, and you were crumbling away, and it—it sucked,” he finished, feeling his eyes starting to sting and his chest seize up again. He hated this. He hated showing this side of himself, hated causing that look in her eyes, but as her arms wrapped around him and drew him a little more upright into a tight embrace…well. Kinda worth it.

“That was just a dream,” Evelym murmured. “A real nasty dream.” He realized he should probably reciprocate a little more and not just lean his full weight into her, but he couldn’t seem to do more than wrap one arm loosely around her to keep her in place and bury his face in the crook of her neck, breathing her in. Not entirely intentional, but nice. “You’re not responsible for saving people, and…neither Sandra nor I died because of anything you did. It was just bad luck, Paultin. Really rotten luck.”

What was the saying? Repetition breeds familiarity? Paultin still didn’t really believe he had nothing to do with either the death of his wife or Evelyn’s latest bout of being un-alive, but…some part of him calmed when Evelyn said that this time. Perhaps one tiny piece of his crushed heart believed her, or wanted to.

She held him for almost as long as she’d been playing with his hair, and Paultin stayed there as long as she would let him, letting that paladin aura soak in. Or—no, not a paladin aura. Just an Evelyn aura. Pure sunshine and kindness and undeserved affection. He could feel the heat of her skin through her nightgown the longer he stayed pressed up against her, and that was really bad news, he needed to back off before his exhausted brain did something stupid. He retracted his arm, and she loosened hers, but his retreat only lasted until he lifted his head and realized just how close his face was to her face, how easy it was to lean his forehead into hers and close his eyes and breathe in the same space, his hand still perched on the curve of her waist. She was so small and soft without her armor.

The notion that Things could happen if he angled his chin a certain way occurred to Paultin just slightly after his head began to move, but all thought and motion ceased when Evelyn gently put her fingertips against his lips, stopping him immediately in his tracks.

“I don’t want you doing anything you’ll regret in the morning,” she said quietly, “or anything you wouldn’t do if you hadn’t just had a scare.”

That…gave him pause. What was he doing? Why was he doing? Was he just grateful to her for bringing him down off a panic attack, or something else? Was this just easy, or real?

He wrapped his hand around hers and pressed a kiss on her fingertips, taking it away from his mouth, and when her fingers curled around his, he kissed her knuckles. Part of him was yelling for him to go on kissing, to splay open her palm and plant one in the center, one on the inside of her wrist, to taste as much of her as she would let him. He…didn’t realize how badly he was aching for physical contact until now. But she was right. He wasn’t in his right mind. It was the middle of the night. This was the time for mistakes, and the last thing Paultin wanted to do was to make a mistake with Evelyn. He wanted…whatever this was…to keep growing the way it had been, the way, a great bard once said, all great loves grow towards—the point of inevitability. He wasn’t about to let his own weakness ruin her. Not her.

So he released her hand, and let her help him to his feet, and let her tuck him back into bed. She sat down on the bed for a moment, stroking his hair back out of his face, and he wanted so badly to pull her down and hug her to him and sleep like that, but he shut the impulse down fairly easily. Not tonight.

Evelyn leaned over and kissed him on the forehead, her hand cupping his face and thumb brushing his cheek, and she murmured something while she was up there—a prayer, it sounded like, for protected rest. Whether she actually cast something on him or not, he felt the warmth settle into his bones, the fondness that made his heart contract painfully in his chest.

“Sleep well, Paultin,” she whispered, and kissed his forehead again. He reached for her hand and squeezed it.

“You, too,” he murmured, and let her slide from his grip and out of his room. When the door had opened and shut behind her and Paultin had rolled over and gotten comfortable, he sighed. “Love you,” he mumbled into his pillow, and let sleep pull him back under.