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Ever After

Chapter Text

Alfred and Aurora celebrate the liberation of Paris in the middle of crowds of strangers in the streets. After two years in the field and eleven days of fighting for the city, the euphoria is unimaginable. They stay up all night, drunk on wine carefully hidden all through the long occupation and now freely shared. Aurora doesn't let go of Alfred the whole night, her fingers twined in his, or her two hands hooked into his elbow as they jostle through the crowds. It feels as though they haven't laughed in years, and tonight they can't seem to stop.

Alfred pulls Aurora to a stop and kisses her, out in the open, in the middle of the crowd, because he can, because for the first time in two years he doesn't need to be on alert in the streets, and because tonight there is no guilt in feeling joyous.

** **

It's not the end of the war, but it's the end of their war. Sinclair allows them the night, but the next morning the orders come through summoning them home.

Aurora cries herself to sleep against Alfred's shoulder on the long plane ride across the Atlantic. Alfred isn't sure even she herself knows whether they're tears of frustration or relief.

** **

Alfred's debrief with Sinclair lasts for days. Aurora tries to insist she be allowed to sit in, but is firmly rebuffed. Her own debrief complete, she spends her days alone on the shore, staring out over the waters of Lake Ontario, trying to remember how to be still without listening for signs of an ambush.

Every afternoon she meets Alfred as he emerges from Sinclair's office, pale and wrung out from his day of forced remembering.

In the evening, they share the lounge with Krystina, and sometimes Sinclair, trading happier memories and filling in a few blanks for each other. This is possibly the last chance they will ever have to speak freely among friends.

** **

When Camp X discharges them, Alfred follows Aurora to Quebec. He hasn't had family of his own since he was twelve, and 'home' for him has meant 'Aurora', almost since he met her.
 
Aurora spends the train journey pressed up against the window. Canada is beautiful in September. And unscarred, at least on the surface.

"It doesn't feel real," she says. "I can't tell if that was the nightmare or this is the dream."

** **

Aurora's parents are waiting for them on the train platform when they arrive, and their faces are just as kind as Alfred expected they would be. Alfred hangs back during the reunion, wanting Aurora to have the room to be just a woman greeting her parents, to not have to be reminded of the sergeant. And he wants to remember the moment, both for her and for himself. He wants the memory of what a happy family looks like.

But that moment doesn't last nearly long enough. Aurora's mother blinks at Aurora in surprise when Aurora is finally able to talk. They're speaking French, but Aurora's words now hold the cadence of another continent. Aurora masks her flinch at her mother's shock, and switches back to her childhood accent, but Alfred can feel the effort it takes her to maintain it.

** **

Aurora hasn't lived at home with her parents in years, but she gave up her old apartment when she first moved to Paris before the war, so she accepts her parents' invitation to stay with them. She's returning to Québec to be near them, after all, so it seems to be the ideal solution while she and Alfred work out what comes next.

Aurora will sleep in her childhood room, Mrs. Luft tells them, and offers Alfred a guest room at the far end of the hall. Alfred agrees to the separation because Aurora's eyes ask him to. Their 'irregular status,' as Sinclair termed it, makes the situation awkward enough as it is.

At night, after the lights are out and her parents have gone to sleep, Aurora pads down the hall on silent feet to join him. When the door to his room eases open, Alfred lifts the blanket for her in invitation the way he used to do back at the beginning, and the memory buried in the gesture is both comforting and unsettling.

** **

Aurora takes Alfred on a tour of the city. She smiles more in that afternoon, he thinks, than she has in the last year. They walk the main streets and stop to take in all the sights. But the best part comes later, as they wander home through her neighbourhood. She laughs as she tells stories of childhood upsets outside her old school, and tows him down the street to show him the park where her grandmother brought her to play when she was little.

It is another perfect day, another memory to hold onto for the hard times.

** **

Aurora and René had adopted Parisian French accents when they joined the resistance. Their natural Québécois accents marked them as different, and different was memorable, so they learned to blend. It had been a matter of life and death at the time and worth the effort of policing every syllable out of their mouths, every expression, every curse word.

The process of unlearning it now is more challenging than Aurora expected. Memories of René ambush her in the middle of sentences, triggered by a word or an inflection. Memories of laughing together in bed late at night, at the absurdity of practicing the new sounds, or of waiting, tense, after a slip of the tongue from one or the other of them, to see if anyone noticed, if anyone commented.

She'd been a different person back when she spoke Québécois, and Aurora finds herself wishing that changing the accent back could mean changing the person back as well.

** **

Conversation with Aurora's parents is stilted. Alfred and Aurora can't speak about their war, and that war has stripped them of anything else to talk about.

Sinclair provided them with harmless cover stories of work in anonymous Canadian Army offices overseas, and they built the rest between them during quiet moments before they left Camp X. Lies designed to bore, to change the subject, to divert attention.

Aurora's parents want to know everything. How did you meet? Do we hear wedding bells? But, darling, what happened to René?

Aurora rattles off the dullest story of office romance imaginable, and Alfred nods along. Before long even Mrs. Luft's smile begins to fade, and eventually she stops asking.

** **

Aurora wants to want to be home. She dreamed of these streets, these people, this bed, all through the five long years she was away. She should be overjoyed.

But after four years of careful suppression, the sounds she grew up with feel foreign in her mouth. And her old friends greet her with strangers' eyes.

Even her old clothes don't fit, hanging loose on a body worn down to nothing but sinew and wiry muscle.

And when passing acquaintances ask her where's she's been, polite smiles dismiss any mention of her war work. It's not like she fought on the front lines with the men, after all.

Still, she tries to find a rhythm, to step back into old patterns. She's skilled at pretending now and maybe, eventually, this new life will start to feel normal in the way that field work came to feel normal.

She always intends to talk to Alfred about looking for an apartment, about finding new jobs, about settling down, but can never quite bring herself to speak the words.

** **

Aurora wants to tell her father. That she knew, before the world did. That she learned the truth in the damp and the dark, surrounded by long-dead bones. That they did everything they could think of to help stop it. He's the only person in her world who shares this particular grief.

His parents, his sisters, his niece.

She wants to tell him. But she is bound to silence about this, too.

** **

The enforced silence spreads, begins to infect the time Alfred and Aurora spend alone. Afraid of being overheard, afraid of falling into habits that might spill over when they're in company, they maintain their new fiction, and lose the ability to speak even to each other.

** **

"I'll go back to Toronto," Alfred offers. The hardest words he has ever spoken, but he thinks it might be the only way that Aurora will be able to stitch herself back together.

But the look she gives him at the words is stricken. Hurt. "Alfred, no."

"You should have time with your family. I shouldn't have come."

"No. I don't..." She trails off, and he can taste the conflict in her voice. "Please, no. Please don't leave."

And that is that. But Aurora hasn't joined him in the guest room in days.

** **

Alfred wakes to the sound of a door banging open in the middle of the night, footsteps running in the hall. He's on his feet, moving without thinking, fingers aching for a gun that isn't there. He yanks his door open and nearly collides with Aurora, running towards him. Her hair is mussed from sleep, her eyes wild and unseeing, streaming tears. She knocks him sideways into the wall, trying to get past, trying to get into his room.

"Aurora." He knows better than to try to take hold of her until she's fully awake. He puts his hands up between them instead, calming and unthreatening. "Aurora, it's me."

Her name in his voice is usually enough to reach her. He watches as her eyes come into focus, dares to take a step closer. "I'm right here."

"Alfred."

She grabs him then, rough and panicked, checking him for injuries. He lets her do it. "I'm here, I'm not hurt."

But she's not calming. Her breath comes in panting gasps, an awful acid green, and her eyes show white all the way around. Alfred recognizes the signals, understands the panic that's gripping her.

Another door opens, and Aurora's parents stumble into the hall, drawn by the noise. He uses his body to edge Aurora further into his room. "We're fine," he tells them, with no room for argument. "You can go back to bed." And he closes the guest room door on their worry.

"I shot you," Aurora manages between gasps. "They... made me, I... couldn't..."

"You didn't shoot me, I'm right here."

He takes hold of her arms just as her knees buckle, and he guides her down, bracing her back against the wall.

"Aurora, look at me." His voice is firm, unyielding. "Look at me." It takes a long moment, but her eyes finally focus on his face. "I'm not hurt. Do you understand?"

Still panting, she manages a nod.

"Good. Now take a deep breath for me." She does. Or, she tries to. Her body is still shaking too badly for it to be steady. He is crouched in front of her, close enough that his knees press against her bent legs. He takes hold of her hands, his thumbs sweeping a soothing rhythm across her knuckles. "Deep breaths. That's good. Do you know where you are?"

She nods again. "Québec. My... parents' house." Not 'home,' he notes.

"You had a nightmare."

Aurora closes her eyes, blows out a long, shuddering breath. "I woke up, and you weren't there. And I couldn't remember..." Tears drip from under her closed lids. "It was just like... after René... and I..." She can't finish, trails off, leaning forward to bury her face in her knees.

Alfred's throat closes around his own tears, and he shifts position to sit beside her against the wall. She turns into him, winds her arms around his chest, pulls herself close until she's clinging to him almost in his lap.

"I'm here, I'm not hurt." He murmurs the words over and over, his one hand rubbing soothing circles on her back, the other tangled in her hair, cradling her head.

When the tension finally runs out of her, he pulls the blanket, one-armed, from the bed and guides them both down until they're lying on the floor. More familiar now than a mattress. He wrestles the blanket over them both and curls around Aurora with a protectiveness he hasn't felt since the night after Tom died.

In the morning, he wires a message to Sinclair.

"We're leaving," he tells her simply, and she nods.

He sits with her in that room while she packs her bag, to help stave off the clinging nightmare. By late afternoon they're on a train back to Ontario.

Chapter Text

Alfred and Aurora arrive in Toronto long after dark. He finds them a hotel room not far from the train station, signs them in as a married couple to avoid any questions, any disapproval that might be remembered later. Mr. and Mrs. Duchêne – the first of their old aliases that comes to mind.

The return message from Sinclair arrives two days later.

"He says SOE jumped at the offer. There are desk jobs waiting for both of us in London. He says neither of us would pass the psych test to get back into the field."

That gets half a smile out of her. "He's not wrong," she says.

"We could go back to Québec," he offers. "Take a hotel room this time. Try again."

Aurora shakes her head. "I don't belong there anymore. It's too..." Her lips wobble for just a second before she shakes it off. "No. London. If you want to?"

Worry over Aurora has been holding the worst of his own troubles at bay, but being back in Toronto, and with all this time on his hands, the old fears are creeping in on him again. It's getting harder and harder to step out of the hotel and into the noise and bustle of the street. "I need something to do," he says.

Aurora grips his hand, steadying. "It's settled then."

Alfred nods. "I'll tell Sinclair."

** **

They fill the mornings while they wait for their flight back across the Atlantic with wandering around the city. They seem to share a quiet understanding that they won't be coming back. Alfred shows Aurora the small corners of his pre-war world and tries not to drown in the memories those corners bring back. An unfair trade, he thinks, for the beautiful day she gave to him.

They visit Harry every afternoon. Harry has something of the same trapped look in his eyes that Aurora had in Québec, but he insists he's happy to be home. The rowdy atmosphere in Harry's parents' home, crowded to bursting with children and life, is certainly less suffocating than Aurora's.

"You're lucky to have each other," Harry says, during the painful farewells. Alfred agrees, although he still can't help but think that maybe Aurora would have found her homecoming easier without him tying her to a past she can never speak of.

Aurora hugs Harry tight. "You'll always have a home with us," she says. "Always." And that 'us' is as comforting to Alfred as it is to Harry. "We'll write you with the address when we settle in."

Harry nods, but can't speak.

Alfred tangles his fingers with Aurora's as they walk away, shamefully grateful that he's not the one being left alone.

** **

London, when they arrive, is still a city at war. The SOE officer who meets them at the airfield hands them ration cards and identity papers and escorts them to a small unheated flat allocated for their use. No questions asked. I've regularized your status with the SOE, Sinclair had written. Just be sure to tell me when you're ready to do it for real.

The general discomfort is, at least, familiar, and the tension that wound tighter and tighter inside Aurora the longer she stayed in Canada eases almost at once. It's a relief not to be the only soiled and broken thing in the landscape.

** **

The flat is spartan, a single room with a sink and two burners in one corner for a kitchen, a small table with two chairs, a bed, and a wardrobe. Neither of them has any possessions to make it any more comfortable. But it's not a safe house, or a stranger's home, or a tent. And it's theirs together.

Alfred pulls out the picture of the two of them, a prop tucked into the wallet they handed him before his very first mission that he's managed to hold onto for two years, and tucks it into the corner of the mirror by the door.

"We'll get a frame for it," Aurora says, stepping close.

Alfred slips his arms around her, surrendering as always to the smell and the taste and the sound that washes through him at her touch. And for the very first time, there is no one to hide from, no need to be discreet.

** **

On her way to and from work, Aurora studies the women in the street like they're specimens in a laboratory. Herding children, or working in shops, hanging laundry, queuing for groceries. Civilian women. This is what she is meant to become now.

She studies the way they walk, the way they carry themselves, the set of their shoulders and the length of their stride. The women in London dress differently from the women in Paris, wear their hair differently. Fewer cosmetics. Different shoes. She studies until, if she needed to, she could disappear into this group of women and not a one of them would point to her as the odd one out.

But on the inside, the gulf that separates her from them is unbridgeable.

Aurora still wears a knife strapped to her thigh, because she can't bring herself to walk out the door without one. She still checks her reflection in shop windows to see if she's being followed. She's still hesitant to greet people out loud in the street, because she hasn't yet mastered the local accent. She still carries a cyanide pill in her compact.

She tries not to worry that, a few weeks out of the field, she can feel her edge beginning to dull. She doesn't need to be fighting fit for a desk job. But once they're settled in their flat, she starts getting up before dawn to spend twenty minutes running up and down the stairs in their building. Barefoot so no one will hear her and wonder.

Just until the war is over, she tells herself. Just in case.

** **

The SOE work is consuming, and Alfred enjoys the challenge of it. Collecting thousands of little pieces of information from dozens of disparate sources and trying to assemble them into a larger picture.

Aurora, too, settles once she's handed back a sense of purpose. She's working with the team running agents in the Netherlands, trying to shut down the new V2 rockets that have been raining terror on London for weeks. Alfred suspects she'll be in charge of the whole department by the end of the year.

But every so often, she gets a look on her face, a frustrated twist to her lips that tells him she's itching to airlift herself over to the continent so she can just get things done herself.

** **

Aurora knows Sinclair intended his 'regularization' as a favour, so that she and Alfred wouldn't have to sneak around or hide their relationship from their colleagues. It being the SOE, she imagines her superiors weren't fooled for a minute, but this way appearances have been satisfied and no one is forced to ask any uncomfortable questions.

Being addressed as 'Mrs. Graves,' however, is disconcerting. She and Alfred posed as husband and wife constantly through the war, under half a dozen different names, but this feels like lying on an entirely different scale. It's presumptuous and inappropriate. And she can't get past the feeling that it's tempting fate. As though every time anyone addresses her they're asking 'What could possibly go wrong?'

"Call me Aurora," she repeats endlessly, which earns her some odd looks, but eventually most people do.

Aurora wonders at one point if she should start wearing Helene Bauer's ring. Either no one has noticed her lack of a wedding ring yet or they just haven't commented on it, but she feels that if she's going to live with a cover story she should at least do it properly. Really, Sinclair should have organized a ring for her along with the identity papers and the ration card.

And she still does have Helene's ring, tucked in her compact with the cyanide pill. It became tangled up with her memories of René during that mission with Sabine, and she couldn't bring herself to just abandon it when that cover was blown.

She and René had talked about marriage, about children, once upon a time. Built castles in the sky together. But the war had put an end to all that. Some of their friends had rushed to get married before the men shipped out, but René and Aurora decided to wait. Their own private resistance.

"When we win," Aurora had said.

"The very next day," René promised.

Somewhere in the tangle of her grief after his death, the ring became a symbol of that promise and the quiet tragedy that it can never be kept. And it reminds her of Tom, whose idea it was in the first place.

And just the thought of mixing that fiction with her current one makes her queasy.

She and Alfred never talk about the future. Aurora had trained herself out of it by the time she met him. And it's another habit, like counting the soldiers outside public buildings, that she hasn't yet been able to break.

Chapter Text

Alfred and Aurora have been in London a little over two weeks when an air raid siren suddenly wails in the distance. A sound Aurora hasn't heard since the early years of the war. The days since their arrival have been studded with explosions – the new V2 rockets are impossible to track and fall on the city without warning – but this is the first time the sirens have gone off for incoming V1s.

Within seconds sirens across the city join in the call and the up-and-down surge of it fills the air with an almost physical presence. She hadn't remembered how loud they were. The local siren must be right outside the building.

It's squashing the urge to press her hands over her ears while she locks away the sensitive documents laid out on her desk that makes her realize.

Alfred.

Aurora sweeps the rest of the papers into her drawer, locks it clumsily behind her, and runs for the stairs.

Alfred works two floor up, and the stairwell is already full with people streaming down from the upper floors. Aurora scans the faces as they pass her, but Alfred isn't among them, so she takes hold of the banister and begins to force her way up against the flow. Hands grab for her, trying to pull her down towards the shelter, but she bats them away. As the flood of bodies starts to thin, one man grabs her around the waist to remove her forcefully to safety, but she gets a hold on him, twists, dumps him to the ground, and keeps climbing.

When she rounds the final landing, she sees one of Alfred's colleagues hovering in the doorway to the office, clearly terrified and equally clearly unwilling to leave Alfred alone. She runs up the last few stairs, empty now except for her, and grabs the man by the arm. He startles at her touch.

"Go!" She shouts in his ear, hoping he can hear her over the sirens. "I'll get him. You go!" She can see the moment he recognizes her. He squeezes her arm, nods, and takes off running down the stairs.

Alfred is standing by his desk, one hand braced on the surface, trapped and blinded by the all-encompassing noise. It's even louder up here under the roof than it is down where she works. She catches hold of Alfred's free hand, but he doesn't even register the touch. She grips it anyway, tucking it against her body with one hand while she fumbles in his pockets with the other for the ear plugs he still carries. She tamps them gently into his ears, and tries to tug him towards the stairs, but he won't move. Can't. And even if she does get him moving, she realizes, he'll never make it down the stairs.

Right. Plan B. Aurora shifts her hold to Alfred's arms, then hooks her foot behind his knee and follows him down to the ground, doing her best to slow his fall. She drags him under the big, solid map table in the middle of the room, and as far as she can get from the windows that line two of the room's walls. She pulls him up, so his head rests in her lap, presses her hands over his ears, and curls her body all the way over him, to block out as much of the rest of the world as she can.

It feels like years before the sirens wind down, and Aurora's ears ring in the in the relative silence. It's long minutes more before she hears the distinctive buzz of a V1 overhead. Alfred stirs, tries to sit up, and she releases his ears so she can hold him still. "Don't move," she says. "It's not safe."

The buzz cuts out as the rocket's engines stop and it begins its plunge towards the city. Alfred manages a nod, and clamps his own hands over his ears, waiting for the inevitable bang. Aurora grips his wrists, just to have something to hold onto, her heart thundering through the silence. The explosion, endless seconds later, is off to the east, far enough away that the windows only rattle in their frames. But before the silence has time to settle, the buzz of the next missile picks up in the distance.

Six bombs in all, and all six fall east of their position. The last three are close enough Aurora can feel the vibrations in the floor.

And then the siren winds back up for the all clear. Aurora lays her hands on top of Alfred's over his ears and they wait out the long two minutes of the signal.

When the siren finally falls away, replaced by a ringing silence, Alfred is white-pale and twisted by bone-deep shudders as his body works through its reaction to the shock of the noise. Aurora remains still under the table, cradling his head until he recovers enough to push himself up to sitting.

"Are you okay?" she asks.

His hair has been mussed in the scramble, and she reaches out to smooth it flat for him, but he catches her wrist. "I'm fine."

He doesn't look fine, but voices and footsteps echoing up from the stairwell warn them of colleagues returning to their stations, so Aurora lets it go. She helps him out from under the table and dusts herself off, straightening her clothes. Alfred leans against the map table, and she's shaky herself, but when she reaches for him, Alfred steps away.

"I'm fine," he says again. "You should go back to work."

"Are you sure?"

But people are filing in now, and they're earning disapproving looks enough as it is – this isn't Aurora's section, and she isn't permitted to be in this office. Alfred draws himself up, straightens his own hair and nods. "I'll see you at home."

** **

After the siren, Alfred's every nerve is red raw, and he spends the rest of the evening trying not to flinch every time a light flickers or a chair scrapes against the floor.

He hasn't had an episode like that since his very first mission. Maybe not even then. The roar of the plane's engine on that first parachute drop into France was close, but even the fireworks that time hadn't been this bad.

And never in front of Aurora.

He really thought he had mastered his synesthesia. Finally. When he had survived the Gestapo interrogation, he had even begun to think his condition could be its own kind of strength. The raid today had felt like plunging suddenly through sheet ice, the ground he had thought so solid giving out beneath his feet.

He tries to tell himself it was an aberration, that he can learn from it and next time he'll be quicker with the ear plugs. But he can't quite regain the confidence he'd had even this morning. And he hesitates on the threshold before stepping out into the street for the walk home.

** **

When he arrives back at the flat – without incident – Aurora is pretending nothing happened so hard she may as well be shouting. He can taste the jitters under her smile, and her determination not to show them. But turning his worry away from himself and onto her is almost a relief.

He steps up behind her where she's fiddling with something by the sink. He hesitates again before putting his arms around her, still worried about triggering his raw nerves, but the wash of sensation that is uniquely Aurora is as comforting and familiar as always. The thread of tension inside him eases and he starts to feel a bit more like himself. The rigidity across Aurora's shoulders eases as well, and she puts down whatever she's fussing with and leans back into him.

"We need to get you some better earplugs," is all she says.

** **

There's another air raid two days later. And another three days after that. Both in the middle of the night. It's not as bad when they're at home – the local siren is further away, and the volume is less overwhelming. But each one chafes nerves still bleeding from the last, and Alfred feels less and less sure of his footing.

** **

The night raids continue, and Alfred's nerves wear thinner and thinner. And soon, just the general noise and chaos of the streets becomes... problematic. Some mornings, particularly after a night-time raid, he can't bring himself to step out the door without Aurora on his arm to focus on. She doesn't say anything, just takes his elbow so that her shoulder presses against his, but he can feel her watching him. Hovering.

More than once they need to stop in the street when the combination of bustling people, voices, footsteps, petrol fumes, gusting wind, truck engines, construction noise, brick dust, bird calls, and rotting garbage becomes too much, and he can't see through the noise, can't hear through the conflicting flavours.

Aurora pulls him up against the buildings out of the way, slides her hands up over his ears and pulls his head down into her shoulder. So all he can feel is her, all he can smell is her. And it helps. It has always helped. Eventually he manages to parse all the sensations back into some order and they're able to continue on their way.

But people stare. It shouldn't bother him, but it does. And they're staring at Aurora, too. Despite the fact he and Aurora are living in relative safety now, he can't shake the belief that drawing attention is dangerous. Different is memorable.

So he starts leaving for work earlier in the morning instead, while the streets are emptier. Quieter. He feels better being able to walk on his own two feet, and he tries not to think about how much he misses Aurora.

Chapter Text

 

Aurora misses her friends from the Café de L'Azur with an ache that haunts her for days. It's an old pain, dulled by time and by the weight of other losses she has suffered in the interim, but rekindled now by her longing for someone to talk to.

Alfred is hurting, and he's withdrawing from her, and she doesn't know how to help him. He recoils even further every time she tries. And she wishes for a friend who has lived through even a part of what she has, who might at least understand her concerns.

The office where she works now is filled with other women, which Aurora finds a refreshing change. But she hasn't yet learned how to trust them. Mostly she just feels decades older than the lot of them put together.

They're all smart and serious and dedicated while they're working, and during those hours Aurora feels almost a part of the team. But she takes meals with them in the canteen sometimes, when her schedule and Alfred's don't line up, and the girls are full of chatter about men and dancing, about cinema and books. Aurora feels like she's staring at them from the shores of a whole different world.

How does she even begin to tell them that she's woken from nightmares of dead bodies and screaming friends for the last three nights, because Alfred won't curl up around her in bed anymore? How does she explain that she didn't hear the war news because she didn't want to switch the noise of the radio on in the flat?

Who will she ever be able to talk to? About how to be a wife when she can't seem to put down the fight. About how a woman who has killed men in cold blood can even dare to think of becoming a mother.

Better just to maintain her distance. So she smiles and listens and nods along. But she misses Giselle and Pauline with all her heart.

** **

The weeks wear on, and eventually, there's another evening raid that catches Alfred at work, and again he's paralysed by it. Humiliated.

** **

"So we'll leave London," Aurora says.

She's perched on the bed, but Alfred can't sit still, rattles around the flat trying to find something to distract himself.

"Not like this," he says. It feels too much like admitting defeat.

"I'm sure they could use you at that code-breaking-"

He shakes his head, cutting her off. "If it happens again, you should go down to the shelter."

"Alfred..."

He stops his pacing and turns to face her, surprised at the sallow purple taste in her voice, but he can't quite read the expression on her face.

"I can get under the table by myself." His tone is sharp, and he knows he's being defensive, but he hates the feeling of being a burden, hates that he's putting her in danger.

"I'm not leaving you up there alone."

Hates how much she has to worry about him. "I'm not a child. Just, please don't make this harder than it is."

"I said no." Aurora is shaking when she stands up. "You don't get to die without me."

The fight goes out of him on a rush of breath, and he just faces her across the width of the room for a long moment of silence. Finally, he holds his hand out to her – easier when it's offering comfort rather than seeking it – and after a moment more, she crosses the room to take it.

"I'm sorry," he says.

"I can't survive that again. Please don't ask me-"

He kisses her, because it's all he can do, all he wants to do, and he doesn't have the strength left to fight it tonight. Her hands come up to hold him in place, tangle in his hair as though she's afraid he'll pull away. But he couldn't let go now if his life depended on it. If hers did. He can only pull her closer.

She draws him back with her towards the bed, fierce and relentless, deepening the kiss, and oh god, he has missed her, missed this. The sound of her touch, the colour of her breath, crescendo in his head, and he flees headlong into the sensation of her. He can't see through the tumult, so he lets Aurora fumble with buckles and fastenings, while he focuses on her, drowns in her. His hands seek out the skin under her blouse, under her camisole, to feel the smooth muscles across her belly shiver at his touch, to draw the small sounds out of her that make the colours writhe.

And by the time they tumble together onto the bed, he has won the battle with his fear for the first time in weeks.

** **

Aurora sleeps soundly and dreamlessly, and wakes just before dawn, warm and comfortable under the blankets with Alfred pressed up against her back. His arm is slung across her waist, heavy with sleep. She traces fingers down his forearm to find his hand, then laces their fingers together and draws them up to her chest. Alfred doesn't so much as twitch at the movement. She's not sure she can remember the last time either of them slept that deeply.

She happily foregoes her morning exercise in favour of remaining cocooned in bed with him. Thinks she'll even allow them both to be late for work just to let him sleep. But when the sun finally shows itself he begins to stir beside her. For one sleepy moment, he burrows his face deeper into her neck and Aurora entertains a flash of hope that whatever it is that's been broken has somehow magically been fixed in the night.

But as he comes awake, as the heaviness lifts out of his limbs, he draws back into himself, untangles his fingers and rolls out of bed to get dressed. Aurora holds still, feigning sleepiness herself, and wants to howl at the empty, aching cold at her back.

She rolls over to smile up at him, to reach out for him the way he did for her last night. His lips twist in a fair approximation of a smile in return, but there's something new in his eyes that frightens her.

He's fragile. Brittle. In a way she hasn't seen since she first met him. Maybe not even then. He looks like if she so much as touches him, he'll shatter under her hands.

Aurora has to drop her eyes, fight down a surge of nausea that is pure fear. She puts on a face of calm and peace, for him, and gives him as much space as the small room allows. Only when he has slipped out, to walk to work before the streets fill with noise, does she allow herself the luxury of a few gasping, panicked sobs.

** **

Focus on me, Aurora had said on their very first mission together. And Alfred then hadn't taken his eyes off her for two straight months. It was disconcerting at first, the intensity of his attention, but she grew accustomed to it as the days wore on. Found it comforting, eventually.

And now the situation has reversed. She watches Alfred. Out of the corner of her eye, or reflected in surfaces, trying to give him the space he apparently needs. But she can't shake the conviction that if she relaxes her vigil he'll vanish altogether.

** **
Aurora offers to join Alfred on his early walks to the office. She tries bringing a meal up to him from the canteen, so he doesn't need to face the smell of cooking and cabbage and crowded bodies. He politely refuses all overtures.

The only thing she is able to give him is a quiet space, so she keeps the radio off, moves around the flat on silent, stockinged feet. As the winter sets in, she hides the chilblains on her toes so he doesn't worry. She keeps her voice low and gentle, and spends all of her energy holding onto her serene expression.

Because it seems to be working.

He has found a routine, and he can get to and from work on his own. He manages the nighttime raids with earplugs and sheer determination. He brings work home to have something to focus on in the evenings.

Aurora misses with an aching heart the days when he focused on her. She misses him, even though they still live in the same flat. He's stopped kissing her, stopped touching her. They sleep apart in the same bed, his back to her, resisting any comfort. Both of them are plagued by nightmares.

Aurora starts waiting until he falls asleep and then tucking herself against him. It's the only way either of them can sleep through the night.

But every morning he withdraws a little further.

** **

"I have something for you."

Aurora hands him a plain, white handkerchief. He stares down at it for a moment, clearly confused, so she gently pushes the hand holding the cloth up closer to his face.

"Your perfume," he says, understanding.

Not only that. She had spent the day with it tucked against her skin, under the strap of her camisole so that it might hold some essence of her beyond just the perfume.

"In case..." She can't finish. She doesn't know what to say, how to explain her offering without trampling all over the independence he is clearly struggling to maintain. She knows he takes comfort from her presence, from her touch, but whatever internal battle he's fighting, it won't let him accept it from her now. This was the best she could come up with.

He stares at her, and the look on his face makes her want to cry. She thinks for a moment he's going to force the gift back on her, but finally he manages a nod. "Thank you."

She nods back. "Of course."

** **

And every morning, while he's washing his face at the sink, unlikely to notice, she swaps the handkerchief in his jacket pocket for a freshly scented one.

** **

Alfred starts to look thinner, drawn. Older.

Aurora researches the names of doctors in London familiar with synesthesia. She composes a letter to Sinclair, explaining that Alfred needs to be removed from London for his health. But she holds both of those options in reserve. Still. She knows either will be taken as a betrayal so profound he will never forgive her.

She'll do it, sacrifice them to save him, but she keeps hoping there's another way to reach him.

** **

They stare at each other across the width of their silent apartment, and Aurora wants to weep.

"I'm right here," she says.

He nods, but his gaze skitters away. They undress for bed in continuing silence.

Chapter Text

 

And then one evening late in December Alfred doesn't come home.

Aurora rattles around the flat, trying not to watch the clock, for nearly two hours. She was late home herself, had expected to find him there before her. But the flat was cold and dark when she arrived.

She switches the radio on to distract herself, but doesn't hear a word of what is said. She moves around the flat, tidying, organizing, and trying to talk herself out of the worry that has lodged itself in her stomach.

Alfred must have been kept late at work himself. She hadn't even checked his office upstairs before she left, assuming he was long gone. But she knows the job – you stay until the work is done. It's only natural that the crisis that kept her late kept him as well.

But she can't convince her heart to stop pounding. For four years a missed rendezvous has meant danger, imprisonment, deportation, or death, and no matter how much she tries to tell herself that they're safe now, she can't bring herself to believe it. The Germans got an agent all the way to Camp X. How hard could it be to get one across the channel? They still hold the western half of the Netherlands, they're pushing the Allies back in the Ardennes. And they might just be desperate enough to make a grab for Alfred and his memory.

And even that is easier to contemplate than the idea that he has simply walked away. He's been distancing himself by inches for weeks. Maybe this is what he's been working up to.

Aurora grabs her coat and her purse and heads back out into the street. The thought of spending the night alone in the flat triggers the same suffocating panic she felt back in Québec, and she needs to know, for sure, where he is.

** **

The damp sinks into her bones as soon as she steps outside, and a knife-sharp wind gusts between the buildings. The blackout laws have been relaxed a little in recent weeks, but the streets are still dark enough and quiet enough at this hour that Alfred shouldn't have had trouble walking home. Still, she peers into the shadows just in case. Maybe something set him off. Maybe he can't get home.

She makes it all the way back to the street in front of the office without finding him, and the vise around her chest is so tight she can barely breathe.

Alfred exits the building just as she approaches it and Aurora stutters to a halt. He's there. He's fine. Of course. The panic drains out of her so quickly she feels lightheaded, but she refuses to let it show. Part of her wants nothing more than to fling herself at him, to feel him solid under her hands, but the walls he has spent weeks putting up fill the air between them and all she can do is stand there and stare.

"What are you doing here?" he says.

Aurora trusts the dark to hide her flush of embarrassment. "It's nearly midnight."

"I'm sorry. There was a-" He struggles for a minute, then gives up. "I can't say anything. But I had to stay."

Aurora nods. "Of course. I just-" She shakes her head. "We should get home, it's late."

Alfred falls into step beside her, but he doesn't offer his arm and she doesn't take it.

** **

Aurora's hands are shaking by the time they arrive back at the flat. She can't stop the what-ifs in her brain, can't stop imagining a whole life that feels like the last two hours. Alone with nothing but crushing memories and endless nightmares. Alfred won't even have to leave her. At this rate he'll just fade into nothingness, and the end result will be the same.

And she can't hold her terror in any longer. She can't just stand by and watch. If the choice is watching him fade, or shattering his brittle equilibrium, then she's lost either way. And she has to do something.

"Alfred... I know you're struggling, but we can't go on like this." She fights to keep her voice calm, to find a way to reach him. But she notices too late that Alfred is trembling, too.

He won't even look at her when he speaks. "You shouldn't have come out at this hour."

"You didn't come home. Please, we need to talk about-"

"I'm not an invalid! I can walk a dozen blocks without a nursemaid."

His sharp tone lands like a blow, and it stings enough to make her eyes water.

"Okay, that's enough." She doesn't shout, but then she doesn't have to. She's had years of practice at this. "It's time for you to tell me what's wrong."

"You know what's wrong. It's what's always been wrong!"

Alfred does shout, his words laced with a panic that puts him much closer to the edge than she realized. Aurora swallows bile as she understands she's been wrong. She has left this far too long.

"You have to tell me. Why won't you let me help you?"

"I can manage on my own. I have-"

She rides right over him. "No, Alfred, you can't." There's no more hiding from this. "This is not managing. It's torture. For both of us. So, you can talk to me, or you can talk to a doctor, it's your choice. But if you refuse, I write to Sinclair and we go back to Canada."

** **

Aurora's sergeant voice. Alfred's lungs twist inside his chest, wringing the breath out of him. He hasn't heard her use it since they left France. Can only imagine what it's costing her. But she doesn't understand. And he can't find the words to explain it to her; everything gets tangled in his throat, green and sour. His hand reaches for her almost of its own volition, to ground himself so he can think. But that's the whole problem. He needs to stand on his own. He used to be able to. In France he could do it, he just needs to remember how. He pulls his hand back without touching her. Turns away to build himself some space.

"Alfred."

He can taste the shift, the sudden concern in her tone. Of course, she's worried about him. She'll spend the rest of her life worrying about him.

He fights through the wave of misery, because he has to find the words that will make her understand. But she steps closer, and her presence swamps him again. Her hand slides up his back to grip his shoulder, her body presses warm against his side. "Tell me."

He doesn't want to. He's been dragging this out because he hasn't been able to face it.

"It's getting worse," he says, his chest so tight he can barely breathe.

She presses her cheek against his shoulder. "I know."

"You shouldn't have to live with this. It's not fair."

She winds her other arm around his waist, holding him, almost rocking him. He wants so desperately just to sink into that comfort.

"No," she says. "No, it's not fair. But we'll figure something out. I'm right here, Alfred. Please let me help you."

He closes his eyes. Shakes his head. "No. I put you in danger. You should... You should." Leave. He can't say it, but she hears him anyway.

She slides around to face him, her arms still holding him, her forehead pressed against his. "Never." She kisses him, and he wants to cry with how much he's missed it. "Alfred, never."

"It's too much."

"I know." She kisses him again. "I know. So you focus on me, remember?"

"But what kind of life is that for you?"

Aurora's shoulders twitch in a frustrated shrug. "It's our life. This is just what it is. And I don't..." She's fighting now, too. She takes a breath, tries again. "After René. You were the only thing that kept me human. You showed. So much kindness, so much compassion. To me, to strangers, over and over, no matter how much it hurt you. You gave me something to live up to. And I don't know how to be human without you anymore. I'm not a person without you. Do you understand that?"

His fingers knot in the fabric at the small of her back, and his whole body shudders as he wrestles with her words.

"It won't always be like this," she says. "The air raids will stop. The war will end. And we'll figure out how to live without that... that pressure all the time. We just have to... we have to learn how to be civilians again, that's all."

"What if I need it? The pressure. What if I can't-"

"You can. You have, so we know you can. We just have to find a new way to get there. A way that doesn't hurt you so much."

She makes it sound possible. And he wants to believe her, he wants to. But inside he's scrambling back from a fear so deep and so black he can't look at it. He can't look, but he can't get away, and it claws its way through him. "You can't want to do that. You can't."

His mother left.

His father.

She looks at him like she can see right inside, right into that blackness. He has to squeeze his eyes shut against the shame of it.

"Ask me," she says finally, her voice barely a whisper. "You don't believe me, so ask."

The air whistles out of his lungs, and he can't breathe, and the words come out strangled, but he can't seem to stop them. "Marry me."

"Yes." She kisses him. "Yes." Again. "Of course."

** **

Alfred manages a smile, but it's still fragile, and Aurora can still see the doubt in his face. Doubt in himself, she understands now, but she can only think of one way to convince him.

She takes his face in her hands, so he can't look away, can't miss her conviction. "Moi, Aurora, je te reçois, Alfred, comme époux, et je te promets de rester fidèle dans le bonheur et dans les épreuves, dans la santé et dans la maladie, pour t'aimer tous les jours de ma vie."

Aurora sat through endless weddings as a child, of cousins, aunts, uncles in her mother's vast French Canadian family. She has known the words by heart her entire life. The most beautiful of all promises.

Alfred is shaking under her touch, and his eyes are fixed on her in a way they haven't been since those first months, as though she is the only thing keeping him from drowning in a sea of chaos. But finally he releases his grip on her dress, and takes hold of her hands instead, his thumbs sweeping a caress across her knuckles. The way he always used to. It is the gentle touch that undoes her, and the tears she has barricaded away for months spill over as Alfred repeats the words back to her.

"Moi, Alfred, je te reçois, Aurora, comme épouse, et je te promets de rester fidèle dans le bonheur et dans les épreuves, dans la santé et dans la maladie, pour t'aimer tous les jours de ma vie."

They've been married on paper, under assumed names and real ones, so many times. It's a relief to finally make it real, to make it a promise and a future that they choose for themselves.

At some point they'll have to go through the ritual of making the marriage legal in some way – although she has no idea what that process will look like, given their official papers state they've already been married for months. She doesn't want there to be any room for doubt, for both their sakes. But whatever the form, that part will only ever be a formality.

She manages a lopsided smile. "See? You're stuck with me now."

He lets go of her hands, but only so he can fold his arms around her, pull her tight against him, bury his face in her neck. She can feel the shudders still running through him, and she herself can't seem to stop crying, but she kisses every part of him she can reach, his shoulder, his ear, his hair, and for now it's enough just to hold on.

** **

Aurora lies awake after Alfred has fallen asleep, warm under the blankets, her body tangled with his, because she wants to savour this moment of peace. Of feeling safe. As though some of the broken pieces in her world are finally beginning to knit back together. She hadn't realized how much she, too, needed this certainty. And she can't quite believe the relief she feels at no longer needing to live a pretend life. At wearing a name that is really her own.

And under that, there's a vertigo in the pit of her stomach, as the bedrock of her identity shifts to align to this new pole. Wife. She's nervous, a little, about her ability to live up to that title. But then, it's still just her and Alfred, and she has more confidence now in their ability to stumble through this together, to find a definition that works for them.

** **

The morning is a little awkward as they get ready for work. They've grown used to living apart in the same space, and this morning they trip over each other constantly in their overcompensation. But Aurora holds a giddiness beneath her ribs that might actually be happiness – certainly not something she can remember feeling in the last five years – and by the time they make it out the door they're both laughing at themselves.

They walk to work together, and Aurora feels a foot taller without the tonnage of her worry pressing her down. The streets are still dark even at this hour, the sun no more than a glow between the buildings to the east, and the wind is achingly cold. Winter is taking hold in earnest now, with Christmas only a few days away, and she's grateful for Alfred's warmth pressed against her side.

He's still too thin, but he's solid and present under her hands. He keeps his eyes fixed on her during the walk, and though he flinches several times, at loud noises, at strong smells, they make it to the office without incident.

Chapter Text

There is no holiday ceasefire, and Alfred and Aurora both get called in to work on Christmas Day.

It ends up being festive regardless, as everyone in the building chips in to bolster the communal Christmas spirit. The canteen does its best to provide a holiday meal, though it consists mainly of different forms of carrot – boiled carrot, candied carrot, carrot soup, carrot cake – the only foodstuff the country currently has in abundance. The women from the secretarial pool downstairs go from room to room carol-singing on their breaks, and the usual hum of intense focus is relaxed for the afternoon.

No bombs land on London that day, and no air raid interrupts their night. News from the wireless operators in the field is hopeful, and no one on the N section teams has been killed or arrested. It's the best they can hope for under the circumstances.

** **

Aurora's unexpected Christmas gift arrives two days later. One of the young signals women meets her as she steps into her office in the morning and hands her a slip of paper.

"It came through from Hydra overnight, ma'am."

Aurora unfolds it to find a short message. AURORA GRAVES. MERRY CHRISTMAS. AXLOH YKPIM LFQZX. She can't help but smile. Sinclair, clearly, and abusing his connections to get personal time on Hydra. She can't wait to find out what he thinks is this important.

"I'm sorry, we couldn't decode that last section," the signals woman says.

"No, of course not. Don't worry, I'll take care of it."

"You still have the one-time pad, ma'am?"

Aurora nods. "In a manner of speaking."
    
** **

Aurora waits for Alfred on the landing outside his office at lunch time. He smiles when he finds her there, and crosses to sit on the step beside her.

"I have a puzzle for you," she says, and hands him the slip of paper.

He unfolds it, and his smile shifts to something deeper when he sees her name written out in the message. He's almost shy when he meets her gaze, as though that name were as new to her as their vows, but there's real delight in his eyes. Aurora finds herself struggling not to blush like one of the eighteen-year-old girls who populate her office.

She bumps his shoulder with her own. "Stop it." But she's smiling too. It's nice to feel young for a change.

Alfred just leans into that shoulder and turns his attention back to the message. "Sinclair?"

She nods. "Do you think you can work out which key he used?"

"I have a few ideas. Give me some time?"

She shrugs. "As much as you need."

** **

He works on the puzzle at the small table in their flat through the evening, running seemingly endless permutations with a pencil and paper before emerging triumphant.

"Hatfield House."

Aurora frowns. The name means nothing to her. "Do you know what that is?"

"A country estate in Hertfordshire. Home of the fifth Marquess of Salisbury, leader of the House of Lords."

Six months ago, that might have been a signal, but Aurora shakes her head. "He can't be giving us a mission. Not like this."

"It's a country estate," Alfred says, thinking out loud. "Some of them have been commandeered for the duration of the war. They're used for refugees, schools, military operations..."

"And hospitals," Aurora finishes, her heart suddenly pounding.

Alfred meets her gaze. "Neil."

** **

There is no question about the hardest thing Aurora has ever had to do, but leaving Neil behind at an American army field hospital is certainly somewhere on the list.

He was shot in a scuffle as the team moved north through France, sabotaging train tracks and communications lines, blocking roads to prevent German reinforcements from reaching Normandy after the invasion. The Americans had been his only hope.

They jeopardized their mission in order to get him there, had to leave him and run to make it work. They weren't even certain he'd survived. There was no contact information they could leave with him, and none of them had papers to show – all their supplies had been lost days earlier when the team abandoned their safe house on the run ahead of a German raid.

Neil was unconscious by the time they'd arrived at the hospital encampment, so they told the nurses he was a downed British airman and vanished again before they could be questioned.

Aurora had tried to keep track of the hospital unit, but it had been forced to move twice in quick succession as the invasion progressed, and by the time she was able to contact them again, Neil was no longer with them. No one could tell her whether he'd died, or where he might have ended up.

Aurora had passed all the information she had along to Sinclair at the first possible opportunity. But as of her debriefing at Camp X, Sinclair hadn't yet been able to locate Neil.

** **

Aurora abuses her own connections the next day to track down what information she can.

"It is a hospital," she tells Alfred that evening. "None of Neil's aliases are on their patient list, but..."

"We should go anyway."

"I need to know for sure. And if he's not there, then maybe we can work out what Sinclair thinks is so important."

"Sunday," Alfred says. And she nods. SOE works a six-day week, but Hertfordshire is close enough they can get there and back in a day.

"I'll let the staff know we're coming."

** **

Aurora's nerves stretch tighter and tighter as the week wears towards Sunday, a combination of hope and fear and guilt that sloshes in her stomach whenever she isn't actively occupied with something else. And her nightmares are back, a parade of her failures that leaves her more exhausted in the morning than when she lay down to sleep.

The train ride on Sunday morning is almost unbearable. She tortures a handkerchief in her lap out of sheer nervous energy, twisting it around and around her fingers until Alfred scoops up her hands and holds them in his own. She lets out a breath, leans into his shoulder, immeasurably comforted at this simple touch she has missed for so long.

"We should have tried harder to find him," she says.

"Sinclair was always in the best position to track him down, and it took him this long."

Aurora shakes her head. "We should have found him."

Alfred sighs. "I know."

** **

Hatfield House is beautiful, set among manicured gardens that retain their majesty despite the dreary winter weather and the lawns dug up for vegetable gardens, but Aurora doesn't notice any of it. Her eyes flit from face to face – orderlies, patients, drivers – for the whole of the long walk up the drive. Hoping to find a set of familiar features.

When they sit down with the duty nurse, Alfred does most of the talking. It saves them trying to come up with a reason the nurse will believe why Aurora would have been anywhere near the front lines. The nurse nods along as Alfred lays out the details – as many as he is allowed to share – of how he lost contact with his friend.

"I think I know who you mean," the nurse says. "Frank. Or, well, I suppose we don't know his name. He wouldn't talk at all, at first. Still doesn't, much. A few of our boys are like that. And apparently the field hospital contacted the RAF to get his name, but we had a letter from them last week to say that there'd been a mistake and they don't know who we have here, because it turns out the real Frank Rossiter was killed in France."

"How long has he been here?" Alfred asks.

The nurse checks her records. "The 24th of October. He was in rough shape when he arrived, but he's improving." She glances down at the file again, and then up at Aurora. "Are you Aurora, by any chance?"

Aurora's heart is pounding so hard she thinks she might choke on it. All she can do is nod. Neil.

"The nurses at the field hospital made some notes when they were trying to work out who he was. He asked for you once or twice, it seems, while he was still in a bad way. I'm sure he'll be thrilled to see you."

"Did he." Aurora has to stop, swallow, try again. "Did he lose the leg?"

The nurse reaches over to pat her hand. "No, dear, although it was a near thing. Come on, I'll take you through."

** **

Neil is almost unrecognizable. Thinner, pale, hollow-cheeked, with a scruffy beard and hair in desperate need of a trim. But it's definitely him. Alive, if not perhaps entirely whole. He's half-sitting, propped up on pillows in one of the narrow cots packed into the cavernous room in neat rows.

Neil's whole body stews with a seething undertone of green shame that Alfred can taste from across the room. Alfred knows that shame, that endless whisper of failure and weakness, and has to barricade himself against the echoes of it he still struggles with himself.

He catches Aurora's hand to get her attention, leans in to murmur a warning in her ear, but she's already nodding. "I see it." She squeezes his hand, and he can feel the tremors in her grip, but she lets him go and sets off across the room with a purposeful stride. Alfred falls in behind her.

It's clear the moment Neil catches sight of them, winding their way between the beds, and the conflicting emotions that stack up behind his eyes are too tangled to read. He won't meet their eyes, though, and rolls his head to the side where he doesn't have to watch their approach.

Aurora's shoulders square as she braces herself, and Alfred takes his cue to fall back and give her space as they approach.

She steps up to Neil's cot and perches herself on its edge. It's a long moment before he turns his head in her approximate direction, though he still won't meet her gaze.

"Hey." She lays a gentle hand on his arm. "We've been looking for you."

Neil seems almost to flinch at the words, and Alfred's suspicions are confirmed. Neil didn't want to be found.

"We're working in London, now," Aurora continues. "I wish I'd known you were so close. We would have come sooner. They say you've been here since October."

Aurora's tone is friendly, but Alfred feels as though all three of them are standing around a grenade with its pin missing, waiting for it to go off. He can't see Aurora's face, but tension bunches in the muscles around Neil's jaw.

"The nurse tells me you're improving. You're certainly in better shape than the last time we saw you."

It's almost a relief when the grenade finally goes off.

"Aurora." Neil's voice is rough, but his tone is sharp. "Just stop."

** **

Neil finally meets her gaze, and Aurora has to suppress a surge of nausea at the depth of the defeat in his eyes. She tightens her grip on his arm, but steels herself. Sergeant it is.

"Okay. We don't have to chat. But I'll need to take your debrief before we go."

His face twists in scorn. "Why? You think Sinclair needs a report on the food in American hospitals?"

"No. I think you're neglecting your responsibilities. You come out of the field, you file your report. Simple as that."

"You can't be serious."

"There are soldiers in this room from every corner of the Western front. Are you trying to tell me you haven't learned anything from them while you've been here?"

The flicker of humour, snide and sour though it is, drops out of Neil's tone, leaving nothing but the anger. "Fine. You want a report? I got shot. End of report."

"I don't know about that." Aurora hardens her voice to match his. "I'd like to hear what makes you think you can lie here feeling sorry for yourself while there's a war still being fought out there."

"I can't walk, Aurora!"

"Can you sit?"

That throws him, but Aurora doesn't leave him room to back down.

"Just about," he says, finally.

"Good. So you can join me behind a desk in London. In the meantime, since you won't talk to me, I'll send someone else to take your debrief." She forces her fingers to unclench from his arm. Stands up. Tries not to feel like she's abandoning him all over again. "We'll be back next Sunday. I expect to hear you're doing better."

** **

Aurora turns and stalks back the way she came in, though as she brushes past Alfred it's clear she's got only a tenuous grip on her control.

Alfred meets Neil's eyes, reassured by the fire burning there of anger turned outwards and not in. Neil looks as though he wants to throw the blankets off and charge after Aurora for round two.

Alfred just nods and says the one thing Aurora hadn't been able to. "It's good to see you, Neil."

** **

Back in the duty nurse's office, Alfred finds Aurora's fractured composure has taken the form of a towering rage, glowing umber in every movement. She has commandeered the nurse's desk, where she's scribbling information onto a scrap of paper.

"My address in London, and a telephone number where you can reach me at work. If he needs anything, if he asks for us, please contact me immediately. I'll be sending an officer down to take a report from him at some point this week. They'll need a private room where they can talk, is that possible?"

The nurse is staring at Aurora, somewhat nonplussed, but she nods. "I'm sure we can arrange something."

"Thank you. I'll send you the details as soon as I have them. We'll be back to visit next Sunday. Are there any regulations about the kinds of items we're allowed to bring him?"

"Nothing he can use to harm himself."

Aurora doesn't even flinch. "Of course." She hands her scrap of paper to the nurse and stands to leave. "Thank you for all your help."

"You haven't told me his name yet, dear."

The hiccup in Aurora's stride is brief enough the nurse probably doesn't notice it, but Alfred does, and understands the hesitation she's fighting. They all going to need to get used to coming out of hiding eventually.

"Neil Mackay," she says finally.

The nurse nods. "We'll take good care of him."

Chapter Text

Aurora stops in at the office when they arrive back in London that afternoon to exchange a flurry of messages with Sinclair. Camp X is defunct and no longer running agents, although Hydra remains in operation, and Sinclair is working in New York. He can't give her any details, but admits he is unable to travel to London and gives her permission to bring SOE in on the debriefing, which is all she needs to hear.

On Monday morning, she blows through the SOE building like a storm, and by the end of the day she has organized not only an F section officer to go out to Hertfordshire and take Neil's debrief, but also someone from Force 136 to put Neil to work.

Force 136 runs the SOE's espionage work in South-East Asia and is already busy poaching agents coming out of the field in Europe to retrain them for new missions in the East.

"He's a skilled agent with two years' experience in France, and he worked as a police officer in Shanghai. He can't go back into the field, but surely he can be of use to you."

She doesn't have to work too hard to convince them.

** **

Alfred hasn't seen this mood on Aurora since they came out of the field. It's like living with a hurricane, all of her energy turned outwards, trying to fix everything around her because she can't fix the parts inside herself that are hurting. He has to squash the urge to assure her that it's not her fault, that it's not her job to put Neil back together. Much like Neil, she's not in any mood to listen.

So while Aurora is out rearranging the world to her liking, Alfred sits down and starts to write out the details of what happened after Neil was shot. The trainload of diesel fuel they had been charged with destroying before it could supply the Nazi forces moving towards Normandy, their detour to get Neil to the field hospital, their scramble to get back on track, Aurora's attempts to find Neil again afterwards. Word for word, moment by moment.

He's breaking a whole raft of security regulations, but there's no one to be hurt by it anymore, and Neil deserves to know. He may not have wanted to be found, but that doesn't mean he doesn't also feel forgotten.

** **

On Friday evening, Alfred sits at the small table in the flat working on his project for Neil. Aurora has been rattling around since she got home, unable to settle down to anything. Once her plans were all in motion, once the F section officer had gone to Hertfordshire to debrief Neil and returned again, she had begun to calm, to trade her rage for a grim determination, but her restlessness still sits close to the surface.

Alfred grows more and more distracted himself. He's been putting off a conversation they need to have, waiting for a time when Aurora might be receptive to hearing it. But while she is calmer than she was earlier in the week, it's only going to get worse again as she winds herself up in preparation for Sunday.

So when Aurora wanders his way, her hands fluttering out to brush through his hair as she pauses to read over his shoulder, he puts down his pen and turns to look up at her. "I need to ask you something that you're not going to like."

Her hands go still on his back. "What's wrong?"

"It's nothing bad." He reaches for her, resting a hand on her hip in reassurance. "Can I ask you to hear me out?"

"Of course."

But her hands withdraw and she backs away a step. Alfred lets his own arm fall, suppressing a sigh. He hates the guarded look on her face.

"I don't think you should come to see Neil on Sunday."

Aurora opens her mouth immediately to protest, then catches herself and scowls. He can see her discard several responses before she settles on, "Why not?"

"Because right now you and Neil are both looking for an enemy to fight, and there isn't one. And I'm worried you're going to turn it on each other instead."

Aurora shakes her head. "I can't just abandon him. Not again."

"You're not abandoning him. You gave him the shove he needed. He knows we're here for him now. But if you give him something to fight against, he's going to fight it. And it'll hurt both of you."

She hates it. Maybe more than he expected. She's clearly struggling to keep her promise to listen, but her tone is flinty. "And it's okay for you to go?"

"You're right that one of us should. And Neil doesn't need to feel strong in front of me." Alfred catches her hand to take the sting out of his words, reassured when she allows it. "He doesn't want you to see him like that. I would guess that's a big part of why he didn't try harder to be found."

"You can't think that I..." She stops, frustrated. "He has nothing to be ashamed of."

"How did you feel," he asks gently, "in Québec? When you were hurting."

She pulls her hand free and turns away. Alfred stops himself from reaching after her.

"It's not rational," he says, "but that's why you need to give him some room."

Aurora is silent, wrestling with his words, but Alfred doesn't like the colour in the set of her shoulders.

"Did you," she says, "I mean, was that a part of why you...?"

Alfred has to take a breath.

"Partly."

She turns back to face him. "Alfred..." Frustration, guilt, dismay flavour her voice. He takes her hand again and tugs her closer.

"I love you," he says simply. "And I want you to think well of me."

"Always."

But her smile is tense and she keeps her hands to herself.

"I know," he says, trying not to let her withdrawal sting. He's the one who started this. "But sometimes that's hard to remember when you don't think well of yourself."

Aurora sighs. "Okay. Okay, you made your point. Let me think about it."

** **

In the end, they reach a compromise. Aurora travels with Alfred to Hatfield, but sits in the duty nurse's office where Neil is unlikely to see her while Alfred goes into the ward.

** **

Neil is out of bed this week, sitting mostly upright in a rolling chair with his left leg stretched out in front of him. The nurses have set him up near the large windows in a comfortable sitting room with a pair of armchairs nearby for his visitors. In the weak winter sunlight Neil still doesn't look well, drawn and tired, but nor does he have that terrifying lethargy in his eyes.

"Aurora's been busy." Neil's greeting is pure challenge. He is absolutely looking for a fight, which Alfred takes as an advance over last week. "We've had a whole parade's worth of brass through up here."

"She has," Alfred agrees. He keeps his own tone friendly, not giving Neil anything to push back against.

"Too busy to visit, clearly."

"She wanted to. I asked her not to come."

"Oh? And why is that?"

"It's not going to do either of you any good to start shouting at each other."

"I dunno. It might do me some good."

"Really?" Alfred makes it an honest question. Trying to force Neil to the truth. "You blame her?"

Neil looks away, tries to cover it by rolling his eyes. "Always so quick to defend her. Nothing much has changed, I see."

Alfred can't help a smile. "Maybe one or two things."

There's a flash of curiosity in Neil's eyes, quickly suppressed. But it's progress. "Please. Spare me the details."

They lapse into silence. There's an awkward undertone to it, but Alfred lets it linger for a while, just to see if Neil will break it.

He won't.

"So," Alfred tries again. "You said the brass came through. Is 136 going to put you to work?"

"Asked you to report back, did she?"

"No, I'm capable of being nosy on my own."

That gets a grudging huff out of Neil. "They made an offer," he says. "I haven't decided anything yet."

"No?"

Neil drops his gaze again, but this time it feels more like he's reaching for words. "I don't know how much I have left to give to this war," he admits, finally.

Alfred nods. For him, the war has mostly given. It gave him self-confidence, it gave him Aurora, and it gave him a weight of gruesome, crushing, horrific memories he will carry in perfect detail until the day he dies. But from Neil, the war has done nothing but steal. Home, family, friends, faith, strength, and now his body.

"Maybe," Alfred says, "this is a chance for you to take something back. A new beginning." He shrugs. "It's something to think about."

"Maybe," Neil echoes, but the mocking tone is back, "if anything actually comes of it. Aurora can bully them into making the offer, but she can't force it to work out."

"No, but you could."

Neil shrugs and falls into silence once again, so Alfred steers the conversation back to more neutral topics, the trains and the weather and life in London. But it isn't long before a sheen of sweat begins to stand out on Neil's skin, and Alfred realizes it's time to go.

Alfred bends to collect the small package from beside his chair. "Aurora sent you these." He hands over a short stack of books, then pulls the folded papers from his jacket pocket. "And this is from me."

"What is it?"

"An explanation."

Neil takes the packet and unfolds it, studies Alfred's neat writing for a moment.

"You should know. Your cover name, 'Frank Rossiter,' that isn't the one we left with you. The 'John McKinnon' we brought to the field hospital just disappeared from all the records." Neil's face grows shuttered and angry once more, and Alfred lets it go for the moment. "It's all in there for you, when you're ready to read it."

Neil nods, but tucks the papers away. Not ready yet.

"I should go," Alfred says, "but I'll see you again next week."

"Just you?"

The challenge is back in Neil's voice, and if Alfred had any doubts, that settles them.

"Just me."

** **

Aurora sits in the duty nurse's office, sipping at a cup of weak tea with powdered milk because her hands are shaking too badly to try to set it back in its saucer. It takes all her focus in this moment just to remain seated, to keep her promise to Alfred.

And it's all pure anger. She's angry at being shut out, at being punished like a child. Angry about not being wanted, not being needed. She's angry with herself, for failing Neil. With the war. With the world. That same rage that had fuelled her earlier in the week. But she realizes, sitting no more than fifty metres away from him, that she's also angry at Neil. For disappearing, for abandoning her, for not being pleased to see her, for having given up. And it scares her how much she wants to storm back onto the ward and let some of that anger loose. Because Neil is the only target available.

She has learned, far too well, that sometimes all she can do when her heart and her soul are bleeding is to keep breathing. In and out. Until it's possible to move again, to go about the business of living.

She tries that now through her anger. Because she isn't being fair. And because Alfred was right.

** **

Aurora is quiet on the train ride back to London, manages to wait until they're back in the privacy of their own flat before she asks how the visit went.

Alfred is hesitant to repeat the whole conversation for her. He doesn't think Neil actually blames her for anything, and he doesn't want her to take words said in anger to fuel her hurt or her guilt. But if he doesn't volunteer it, she'll pry it all out of him by inches anyway, so in the end he gives her the verbatim version.

She hears him out, and sits in silence for a long moment afterwards.

"What are you thinking?" he asks her finally.

"Neil still has some family, doesn't he? A niece?"

Alfred nods. "Margaret Cleary. Mags. She was evacuated north during the blitz. She must still be there."

"Do you think she knows he's still alive?"

"I think Neil probably doesn't want her to see him like this, either," Alfred says carefully.

"No. No, of course not."

She doesn't elaborate, and Alfred doesn't push her. She's unusually subdued, but she seems to have lost her frantic edge, at least.

"What about you?" Alfred asks after a moment. "What did you learn?" Because he's known Aurora for too long to believe she sat there in silence for an hour, subdued or not.

The question brings Aurora back to herself, and she finds a smile for him. "I learned that hospital tea is terrible. And that Neil still isn't talking to anyone much, but that he's been more alert this week. That the meetings tired him out, but he refused to admit it. Apparently, he has stubborn streak."

Alfred's chest floods with relief at the hint of humour in her tone. "Should we be worried they're only discovering that now?"

"Stubborn is good. Stubborn will help him."

She falls silent again, and Alfred wants to cross to her where she's perched on the edge of the bed, but there's still something guarded in the set of her shoulders. "You okay?"

"Just thinking."

"About?"

"What would help me. If it were me in there."

Alfred can't help picturing that, and has to force down a dozen sudden memories of near misses, the choking, acid taste of fear. Comes back finally to the feeling of Aurora's fingers tangled in his own, finds that she has come to him.

"I'm sorry," she says.

Alfred shakes his head, embarrassed. "No. I'm fine. What is it that would help?"

"You." Aurora shrugs, a smile tugging at her lips. "But I'm not sure that you have quite the same effect on Neil."

"No, probably not."

"So I'm still thinking."

Alfred squeezes her hand. "Let me know what you come up with."

Chapter Text

 

Aurora has almost forgotten that she was once a journalist. It's so long ago, part of another woman's life. Her resistance, and René's, at the beginning had been through words. When the Germans muzzled the French press under the Occupation, the two of them had founded their own underground newspaper, to spread truth and hope and fight as far as they could reach. After the roundup of their fellow writers at the Café de l'Azur, after Aurora and René were forced to flee Paris, their resistance had turned from words to actions, and she hasn't ever gone back. She hasn't written anything beyond terse instructions or coded messages in years.

Those mental muscles are so atrophied it hurts her, almost, just to hold the pen, even to begin to order her feelings into words. She gets up and walks away from the table the first three times she tries. The fourth time she breaks down in tears. She stays at the table though, grateful that Alfred is not yet home from work, and cries it out. But the words come more easily after that. She wipes her eyes and is able to pick up the pen and write a letter to Harry that doesn't sound like an official report.

She walks a careful line, trying to tell Harry about Neil's condition without infecting him with her own fear. Encouraging Harry to write a letter to boost Neil's spirits. She's exhausted when she reaches the end, feels like she has just turned herself inside out, and she isn't sure whether that thought should make her laugh or cry.

She seals the letter into an envelope and flees the table before she can do either.

** **

A letter from Sinclair addressed to Neil arrives a day or two later, and Aurora is grateful he's spared her the need to write and ask him, too.

** **

It takes her two more days to work up the courage to sit down and write a letter to Mags. She doesn't know where to begin, trying to explain to a ten-year-old who has already lost her parents and her home that her uncle, too, has been injured. She doesn't feel like she has the right to dance around the subject with a child who has already suffered so much. And somehow, phrasing it in plain and simple language helps to take the fear out of the situation for Aurora herself. Neil was injured, but he's recovering, and he needs some help from his family to cheer him up. It brings the problem to a manageable size.

She asks Alfred to read the letter before she sends it, to make sure she doesn't seem hard or uncaring.

"It's a good idea," he says when he gets to the end.

"I won't scare her?"

"You're giving her the truth, and you're being gentle about it. If it were me, I'd rather know than not."

Aurora nods, although she's not entirely convinced.

"Have you thought about where this is likely to lead?"

She's been trying not to, because the idea terrifies her, but she nods again. "Do you mind?"

"No, of course not." He smiles. "You should tell her a bit more about yourself."

"Let her get used to the idea of Neil first. See if she writes back."

** **

Alfred takes Sinclair's letter with him on Sunday, but as with Alfred's papers, Neil sets it aside without reading it.

** **

A return letter from Harry arrives late the following week. It's addressed to Alfred and Aurora, so they open it together and read it before passing it along to Neil.

The letter is long and rambling, stuffed with news and questions and exuberance. There are places where the good cheer feels a little forced, but Aurora finds that almost as comforting as the parts that reflect genuine excitement with his new job, with his nieces and nephews. They're all struggling, and they're all making progress. And it feels good to have this connection with him. For once he doesn't feel so far away.

She sits down to write her reply with much less hesitation than she had felt with the first letter, then turns the pages over to Alfred so he can add his own words.

On Sunday, Alfred reports that Neil hesitated over Harry's letter, but still put it away without reading it.

** **

Alfred hands Mags' letter to Neil two weeks later.

Neil sighs with exaggerated impatience as he takes the envelope from Alfred's hands. "Is she going to get my school teachers to write me next?"

And then he sees the handwriting, the return address. "No."

"Neil..."

"How dare she? How dare she drag a child into this? Mags hasn't been through enough, she needs to hear about this, too?"

"She's just trying to-"

"I know bloody well what she's trying to do! This is none of her business. Or yours. And I think it's time for you to go."

"No, I-"

"I said, get out."

"Neil."

Alfred is almost relieved to hear Aurora's voice. He should have asked her to bring Mags' letter in herself. It's been long enough, and the distance he imposed is starting to turn septic. He turns with Neil and finds Aurora standing in the doorway to the sitting room.

"So you've come out of hiding, have you?"

Alfred can see the flash of anger blaze through her at the words, but she lets it flare and die with a rapidity that astounds him.

"I'm here," Aurora says, her voice even. "You have something you want to say?"

"I want you to stop, is what I want. Stop with the letters, stop with the meetings. Just stop."

"No." Aurora shrugs, although she looks in no way apologetic. "I'm sorry, but I can't do that."

"You had no right to drag Mags into this."

"She's your family, Neil. She loves you, and she needs to know where you are."

"You read the letter, then, did you?"

"I didn't need to." Aurora crosses the room to join them by the windows, and Alfred is surprised to find she's shaking, has to stop himself from reaching out to comfort her. "I know exactly how she feels."

The bluntness of Aurora's admission, the pain she's allowing him to see, derail Neil's anger, and the storm of emotion beneath it begins to show through the cracks. "Aurora." Neil's breath hitches, though he's clearly fighting to keep his voice steady. "I can't."

Aurora crouches down so she's not towering over him, so she can face him eye to eye, one hand on the arm of his chair. "Can't what?"

"I can't fight anymore. I can't. I can't lose anyone else."

Aurora's composure fractures along with Neil's, her voice thick with the tears she won't shed. "You don't have to, Neil. I'll fight for you. You just have to live. That's all. You and Harry and Alfred, you're all I have."

Neil is silent a long moment, struggling. Alfred steps closer, lending his support. He lets his fingertips rest on Aurora's shoulder, and she shifts instinctively to lean against his thigh.

"I didn't know who I was," Neil says, finally. "I didn't know what name you'd given, what story you'd told them. I didn't know where you were, whether you were even alive. The Americans tried to question me from the time I woke up, and I didn't know what story they had already heard. So I stopped talking. And it just got harder and harder to start again."

"I'm so sorry, Neil. There was no other way. I'm so sorry we weren't there when you woke up."

Neil closes his eyes, wrestling with his control.

"Read the letters," Aurora says. "You still have family who loves you."

Neil takes a ragged breath, and when he opens his eyes some of the anger is back. "You shouldn't have written to Mags. She'll get her hopes up."

"What's wrong with that? I'm sure she needs a bright spot in her life."

"I promised her I'd come back for her. I promised." He gestures at his leg, at the chair. "But how can I take care of her like this?"

Aurora grips Neil's hand, but flicks her gaze up to Alfred, and the question is plain on her face. Alfred raises an eyebrow, turning the question back on her. She has greater reservations about the idea than he does. But she nods, certain, and Alfred squeezes her shoulder.

Neil sighs. "It's gotten worse, I see."

Aurora and Alfred both look back to him in surprise. "What has?"

"The two of you. Talking with your eyeballs. Come on, then, let's have it in English."

"When they discharge you," Alfred says, "you're going to come to stay with us. We'll help you with Mags until you're well enough to manage on your own."

"You can't-"

Aurora rides right over his protest. "We'd offer to take her in now, but London is still under attack. She's safer where she is."

"It's not your-"

Aurora pins Neil under a disapproving gaze, and he sighs again.

"You can't take care of both of us indefinitely," he insists.

"Are you planning to remain an invalid?"

"Not if I can help it."

Aurora shrugs. "I didn't think so. And Mags is hardly an infant." She squeezes Neil's hand. "And we want to," she finishes quietly.

"It might be good for all of us," Alfred says. "To have some stability, to depend on each other even when no one's shooting at us."

"Aren't you both working?"

Alfred nods. "And living in a flat the size of a postage stamp. We'll work something out."

"Neither you nor Mags is moving anywhere immediately. Take some time. Think about it. Read your letters. But always know you have an option. Know that we want you to come."

"And you don't take no for an answer."

Aurora shrugs again. "Why would I want to do that?" She rises smoothly to her feet. "I'll ask Force 136 to back off. Until you're ready."

"No," Neil says. "No, I'll talk to them. We might be able to work something out. Just. Let me move at my own pace."

"I promise."

They linger in the sitting room longer than they should, no one quite ready to handle goodbyes, until Neil begins to fade and a nurse turns up clucking her disapproval to chase them out the door.

** **

Aurora walks out of the hospital on legs she's not convinced will hold her up all the way to the train station. She feels sick with the aftermath of her adrenaline, raw and bruised from the battle to hold her feelings in check, exhausted by the anger that has, for the moment at least, finally bled dry.

She feels as though she owes Alfred an apology, too. For pulling away, for not being willing to admit that she was angry and she was hurt. But she has no words left right now, so she concentrates on just putting one foot in front of the other and hopes she'll find strength for the rest eventually.

** **

Aurora is quiet on the walk to the train station, and Alfred recognizes the flavour of nerves chafed raw and bleeding in the set of her jaw. On the platform, while they're waiting for their train, he dares to slide a hand across her back in gentle comfort, and she turns immediately into his embrace. He pulls her closer, almost sighing with relief, and she buries her face in his shoulder, the way he often does with her, blocking out the world, and just... breathes. Her ribs rise and fall against his chest as she steadies herself, and he lets his one hand circle a slow caress against the small of her back.

"I'm sorry," he says.

She manages a watery laugh, still buried in the fabric of his coat. "That was supposed to be my line."

"I'm willing to share if you are."

She hums an affirmative against his collar bone, but doesn't say anything more. He waits for her to lift her head, to draw away and push all the bruised bits of herself back down inside. But for this once, she doesn't. She threads her arms inside his coat, around his waist, palms flat against his back, and just rests against him. He lays his cheek against her hair, resisting the urge to rock her like a child, and soaks in the quiet hum of her presence inside him. Muted colours. Quiet chords.

Not until the train pulls to a stop in front of them does she make any move to let go, and the cold that rushes in when she finally steps back prickles unpleasantly against his skin. He keeps hold of her hand as they climb the steps into the carriage, and she tucks herself back against his side when they find seats in an empty compartment.

She's still quiet, but the rawness and the hurt have eased from the line of her jaw, and when she catches him watching her, she smiles. It's small and fragile and tired, but golden too, a real smile, with no reserve in it. The first of its kind he's seen from her in weeks. He rests his fingertips on her chin, tips her face up to his. And despite the semi-public, he meets her in lingering kisses, cocooned in the lowering grey twilight that seeps in through the window.

It's long, quiet moments before they ease apart. She closes her eyes, rests her head on his shoulder. He has to resist the need to pull her closer, into his lap, right into himself. This quiet, golden Aurora, like the calm after a storm.

** **

Aurora is grateful that the usual bustle of London is absent in the dusk of a Sunday evening. They are able to preserve their small bubble of peace all the way back to the flat.

She lays a hand over Alfred's to stop him when he reaches out to flip on the lights. The darkness is soothing. Friendly. For once, even her mind is still. If they turn the lights on, she'll have to start thinking and planning. A move. And a child. And... Surely that can wait until tomorrow.

Alfred pushes the door shut behind them, abandoning the lights without protest. The dimness is broken only by the streetlights filtering through the window. He steps up close behind her, and his hands on her shoulders ease her out of her coat. She catches his fingers before he can step away to hang it up, and he turns immediately to toss his coat and hers over the back of a nearby chair instead without ever moving out of reach. And Aurora is deeply, wholly, overwhelmingly grateful that with him there is no need for words. That she can apologize without having to turn herself inside out yet again.

He kisses her, and the hum that has been vibrating between them since the train changes pitch, from soothing to fevered, from loving to hungry, from intimate to can't-get-close-enough. They stumble together to the bed, speaking only in hands and skin and heat, in fire and harmony and blue, until Aurora isn't sure where Alfred ends and she begins.

** **

When she wakes in the morning, the knot of anger and guilt that has been the gravitational centre of her world for so many weeks is absent. Unravelled. She feels almost unbalanced without it. The hurt, she knows, will take longer to heal, and there are parts of her heart that continue their dull ache, but she has her team back. Her family. And with that, everything else is manageable.

Chapter Text

 

As winter begins to turn towards spring, Alfred and Aurora settle into the rhythm of a normal life. Or, as normal as it can get given the frenetic pace at work and the continued bombing of London through February and March. But the evenings belong just to the two of them, and they both know that won't last, so they savour the quiet honeymoon of it while they can.

Neil is doing better week by week, and by March has started hobbling around with the aid of a pair of crutches. He's lost a lot of his strength after months confined to a bed, and his own frustration is the biggest obstacle he has to overcome.

Even the news from the front is optimistic, with the Allies pushing the Germans steadily back, though in the Netherlands the Canadians are still fighting for every inch of ground. Aurora's N section teams work flat-out, trying to supply them with all possible information about the German army's movements.

Aurora writes regularly back and forth with Harry, tying him into the family with a chain of letters. Neil writes to Mags in much the same spirit and gets short letters back about school and her best friend Alice and the allotment where she helps to grow vegetables. Neil shares her letters with Aurora and Alfred, so they can get to know her a little, and writes back to Mags about his own two friends that he hopes she'll get to meet soon.

Alfred takes on the project of finding them a new place to live. Unoccupied flats in London are almost nonexistent, with so many thousands bombed out of their homes, so Alfred puts in an official request with SOE, where there are strings that can be pulled, and he and Aurora spend some time looking on their own while the wheels of bureaucracy begin their slow grind.

In the end, it's word of mouth that finds them a place. A friend of a colleague who works in the Foreign Office is looking for a lodger to sublet his one-bedroom flat while he's posted to France, and they can just about afford the price he sets for them. Given that it suits their other requirements – close to street level so that Neil doesn't need to negotiate flights of stairs, and ready furnished, since they don't own a stick of furniture between them at the moment – they can't afford to be choosy.

Their little honeymoon comes to an end on a Sunday afternoon in late April, when they move from their old flat to the new one. They're still able to pack all of their belongings into two suitcases, and they can simply carry them on the tube for the short journey to their new neighbourhood. Aurora finds herself surprisingly sad to leave their small room behind. As cramped and uncomfortable as it's been, it's also the first place that has felt like a home to her since she fled Paris with René. Years ago, now.

She pulls Alfred to a stop on the threshold before they close the door behind them for the last time.

"Remember it for me?"

He smiles, but takes the request seriously, puts down the suitcase and pushes the door back wide enough to see the whole room. Aurora leans into his shoulder, takes a last look for herself as well.

"Ready?" he says finally.

She nods, and stands aside so he can lock the door behind them. "Lead on."

** **

They bring Neil home the following Sunday. He's down to a single crutch now, and though the nurse explains he will always require at least a cane, he should be able to get around quite well on his own soon enough.

Neil is exhausted by the journey, and the evening is a quiet one. Aurora turns on the radio to keep them company, so they're all together when they hear the news of Hitler's suicide.

They stare at each other in silence for a long moment, before Neil reaches out to switch the radio off.

"It's too good for him, the coward," he says. "May he rot in hell."

** **

The end of the war comes quickly after that. The Netherlands is liberated on the fifth of May, followed by Germany's complete surrender on the seventh.

The next day, declared Victory in Europe Day, Alfred, Aurora, and Neil make their way to Trafalgar Square to share in the celebration with a million other Londoners. The joy is bigger than Alfred's fear, bigger than Neil's pain, and they are all swept up in it together. Everything they suffered, everything they were forced to do, in this moment is worth it.

They won. Europe is free.

** **

And within a week Aurora is out of a job. As a married woman, regardless of her rank, she is among the first to be demobilized, and there's nothing she can do about it. For the first time in five and a half years, there is nothing to fight and no need for the weapon she has allowed herself to become, so she is politely but firmly sent home.

It feels sudden, even though she's been teetering on the edge of it for eight months. And, really, it solves a problem Neil has already raised once. If they're going to pack four people into one small flat, someone is going to have to take charge, and it may as well be her.

But every time she thinks the word 'housewife,' it feels like one of those old dresses from her closet back in Québec, awkward and ill-fitting and intended for a woman she will never be again.

** **

The first morning that Alfred steps out the door to head to the office without her is hard for both of them. No bombs have fallen on London since the end of March, and Alfred's nerves have calmed considerably, but it's one more little ritual they have to give up during weeks that have already been too full of change. And for Aurora it feels uncomfortably like being told to sit in the duty nurse's office all over again.

For one ridiculous moment, she thinks about throwing on her coat and riding the tube to the office with him, the same way she took the train out to Hatfield during those weeks. But there's no one who needs her at the end of this journey, and her pride won't quite allow the indulgence.

In the end Neil limps over to guide her away from the closed front door.

"Come on," he says. "I'll make you a cup of tea, and then you're going to help me take those blackout curtains down."

Aurora sighs, but allows herself to be coddled just this once.

** **

She helps him take the curtains down. And rearrange the furniture to better accommodate the two narrow beds she and Alfred had bought – one in the living room for Neil, and the other in the tiny alcove just off it for Mags. And then to put the curtains back up across the entrance to the alcove to give everyone the illusion of privacy.

He takes her on a hobble through their new neighbourhood to register their ration cards with the butcher and the grocer. Then, when he can't manage any more walking, sends her back out to visit the nearest school to find out what needs to be done to get Mags registered when she arrives.

"Just who's taking care of who," she grumbles, as they get in each other's way trying to put together something that resembles an edible dinner for three people.

"We take it in turns. I promise I'll make you fetch and carry for me all day tomorrow. I might even get a little bell."

** **

Neil has been in touch with the orphanage and the Ministry of Health about reclaiming Mags. Both organizations seem so overwhelmed, they would likely just turn Mags over to whoever showed up to take her, but Neil wants things to be official, so Aurora helps him make his way to the government offices and fill out the reams of necessary paperwork.

The process takes less time than Aurora would have imagined. The government is clearly eager to get as many children as possible back to their families. And within a matter of days, all that's left is for them to pick Mags up and bring her home.

** **

Neil isn't yet physically able to make the trip, and Alfred can't be spared from work, so Aurora agrees to take the train up to Northallerton to collect Mags.

The night before the journey, she wakes, thrashing, from a nightmare of guns and blood and the flaming, twisted ruins of a bridge, with Alfred's arms around her pinning her wrists, his chest pressed against her back, whispering reassurances in her ear, Aurora you're safe I'm here wake up Aurora you're okay...

"Let go."

"Aurora, it's-"

"Let me go!"

He does. He releases her wrists and his warmth disappears from her back.

She drags in a ragged breath, and another, waits for her heart to slow its pounding. Waits for the memories to recede. Waits for a second, shadowed pair of hands to release their hold as well.

At the bridge, René had gripped her wrists, pinned her arms to stop her from signalling Harry.

Finally, she lets out a watery sigh. "I'm sorry."

"It's okay."

She rolls onto her back, finds him watching her, propped up on one elbow at the edge of the bed. He offers her a hand, and when she takes it, pulls her into his arms as he lies back down. She curls into him, tucking her head against his shoulder, and he holds her close with one hand, trailing the fingers of the other through her hair in a slow, soothing rhythm.

"What was it?"

"The boys in that tank at Dieppe. Michel at the Café." She takes a steadying breath. "René on the bridge."

She still blames herself. For so much, but for that most of all. If only she'd let René blow the bridge when he wanted to. If only she'd been able to sacrifice one child to save dozens. If only she'd known she was trading Annie's life for René's. She would have made a different choice.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

She shakes her head, no. How can she admit out loud that she has wished a little girl dead in René's place a hundred times over? A little girl Mags' age.

"You only ever say my name now after a nightmare," she says instead.

He goes still, thinking about that for a second, then presses a kiss into her hair. "You're right. I'm sorry."

"I miss hearing it."

"I'll do better," he says. "Aurora."

She can hear the smile in his voice and lifts her head, reaching up to kiss him, wanting to take that smile into herself, to wash away the sick guilt and the grief and the fear.

His hands continue their soothing rhythm, and the storm inside her finally begins to calm.

"Do you want me to come with you tomorrow?" he asks when she rests her head against his shoulder once again.

Yes.

"No, I'm fine. It's all arranged."

"It's okay for you to let go of the big picture," he says, gently. "Just this once. All Mags needs tomorrow is a friendly face."

She forgets, sometimes, how good he is at putting the pieces together. Forgets, too, that he can hear when she's not telling the truth.

Aurora sighs. "I know. I just... I'm not good at this."

Alfred doesn't ask what she means by this, and Aurora is grateful. She's not sure she knows herself. Not good with children. Not good at caring for new people. Not good at being an ordinary woman. All faults in herself that trigger hot threads of shame, and she shies away, still, from confronting them.

"You are," he says. "I promise you are. So much better than you think."

Her eyes prickle at his quiet words, but she doesn't answer. Just squirms closer and tries to settle herself to go back to sleep.

"We'll be there at the station when you get back."

She nods. "I know."

He falls silent, but his hand keeps up its gentle motion through her hair, fingertips tracing patterns against her scalp, and Aurora is almost surprised to find sleep creeping up on her again.

She lets out a breath and tries to release the disquiet that lingers from her dream. She survived a train ride with a hostile Gestapo officer, she reminds herself as she closes her eyes. She isn't going to dread a train ride with one little girl.

Chapter Text


When she meets Mags, Aurora is shamefully relieved to find that she looks nothing like Annie. Mags' hair is brown, tied back in two long braids, and she has Neil's dark eyes. She's skinny and underfed, like most British children after so many years of rationing, but there's an air of sturdiness about her as well. She stares up at Aurora with a mixture of apprehension and stubbornness that Aurora finds immediately familiar.

"You must be Mags," she says, trying not to sound as awkward as she feels. "My name is Aurora."

Aurora holds out her hand and Mags shakes it, though she remains watchfully silent for the moment.

The Ministry woman in charge of the handover reaches out to prod Mags, none too gently. "Mind your manners."

The stubborn on Mags' face only gets stronger, and Aurora turns an icy glare on the Ministry woman. "Her manners are just fine." She places a hand on Mags' shoulder and shifts her gently out of the woman's reach. "Thank you for your help. I'm sure we can manage from here. You have her papers?"

The woman frowns at Aurora, but walks her through the formalities with a chilling efficiency.

And just like that Aurora finds herself alone with Mags and already wishing things could have gone better.

"I'm sorry about that," Aurora says.

Mags remains silent, but the apprehension in her eyes has shifted somewhat.

"Neil sent you this." Aurora fishes the letter out of her pocket and hands it over to Mags. Mags looks at it, but seems hesitant to open it. "I'm just going to check that we've got all your things. I won't be long."

Aurora steps away to where Mags' one small suitcase is waiting for them. Her stomach knots in a pang of sympathy, remembering her own feeling of dislocation not so long ago when she had to leave their small flat behind. And that move was a choice she had made for herself.

Behind her, she hears the rustling of paper against envelope, and takes her time in making sure that the Ministry woman has included Mags' ration book and identity papers in with the packet of paperwork she received.

Having stalled as long as she can, Aurora turns back, finds Mags tucking the letter into her pocket.

"Are you ready?"

Aurora regrets the words as soon as they leave her mouth. Of course she's not ready. She's being told to leave the only home she's known for the last five years in the company of a complete stranger.

For a moment, Mags' eyes fill with tears, and Aurora steps closer, trying to work out whether a hug might make the situation better or worse. But then Mags' chin tips up in a perfect mirror of Neil's defiance, and she nods.

"Right then," Aurora sighs. "Off we go."

** **

Aurora does her best to make the journey into an adventure. They arrive at the train station with time to spare, so she orders them both tea and biscuits in the small café. Mags perks up a little at the treats, and she watches the bustle of activity around her with growing interest.

But her eyes come back to Aurora with increasing frequency, and Aurora can tell she's working up to something. She does her best to keep her expression friendly, and to pretend she doesn't notice Mags watching her.

"Uncle Neil says you worked together in the war," Mags says finally

Aurora masks her surprise at hearing him called 'Uncle Neil.' She hadn't thought about it, really, but of course she's going to have to begin referring to him that way.

"That's right," she says.

"Did you fight?"

Aurora can't help a smile. "With Uncle Neil?"

"Did you fight the Germans," Mags says, a little frustrated.

Aurora lets the smile fall away. "I did."

"With guns?"

"Sometimes, yes."

"But girls can't fight."

Mags is scowling, and Aurora realizes that she suspects Neil's been lying to her. "You're right," she says carefully, "that most girls don't fight. And that most girls aren't allowed to. But we can. I did."

Mags is silent, clearly thinking. But the scowl is gone.

"Is there anything else you want to ask me? I'll answer if I can."

Mags takes the offer seriously, but shakes her head, no.

"That's okay. Another time, maybe."

** **

The train journey is long and uneventful. Mags is well-behaved for the most part, and watches out the window in fascination for a good hour. But eventually she begins to squirm in growing boredom, so Aurora takes her for a walk up and down the train, peers with her through the door into the first class carriages, buys them a sandwich to share for dinner from the woman with the concessions cart. Tries not to flinch at the sight of the conductor's uniform.

Mags remains mostly silent, and goes back to staring out the window as she eats her half of the sandwich. When the sun finally sets and the view beyond the windows disappears behind reflections of the light from within the carriage, Mags dozes off leaning against the glass. She looks uncomfortable, her head tipped at an odd angle, but Aurora isn't sure how to go about shifting her. She wishes she'd thought to bring a blanket or a pillow.

When the train jostles Mags and she nearly tumbles from her seat, Aurora gives in to the urge to take her by the shoulders and guide Mags' head down onto her lap. Aurora waits for her to flinch or draw away, but she's groggy and half-asleep and curls up willingly enough. Aurora isn't quite sure where to rest her hands, ends up with one gingerly on Mags' shoulder and the other on the seat beside her. She sits there, pinned awkwardly to her seat for the rest of the ride, but feels a little less like she's failing at being human.

** **

Alfred waits with Neil at the station for the train to arrive. Both of them were so restless through the evening that they arrived almost an hour early, and Alfred is convinced at this point that time has in fact broken all laws of physics and slowed to an empirically provable crawl.

He's been distracted all day with niggling worry about Aurora. He doesn't quite understand why this trip, of all things, has her so anxious, or what put that sour undertone of shame in her voice. It's connected somehow to her admission the night they got married. I don't know how to be human without you. And in any other situation he would have argued with her, because it's blatantly untrue and because he loves the human that she is already, but there was something in her tone, something beneath the words that he doesn't understand yet.

He spent most of the day trying and failing to come up with a way to share the memories of her that live in his head. To show her the compassion and the kindness he has seen her demonstrate over and over. He just can't seem to find the words that will convince her. And by the end of the day it's obvious he may as well have gone to Northallerton with her, for all the use he's been in the office.

When he and Neil finally move from the concourse down to the platform as the train pulls into the station, Neil is practically vibrating with tension, a jangling dissonance that Alfred struggles to keep from taking on himself. His own nerves are already on edge, but someone needs to remain calm and stable, and today that someone needs to be him.

Most of the train empties before Aurora finally emerges, a small suitcase in one hand, helping Mags down the steep metal steps with the other. Mags looks as though she just woke up, rumpled and grumpy and overwhelmed, and Alfred forces himself to take a steadying breath, to shift his attention to Aurora instead. He was a little older than Mags when he was orphaned, and he's been preparing for this moment since the subject of Mags first came up, but at the look on her face he still finds himself struggling to push down memories of the months after his father died. Months he tries his best never to remember at all.

Beside him, Neil's breath catches in his throat, and Alfred is almost grateful for the distraction. He reaches out to lay a quiet hand on Neil's shoulder in support.

Aurora walks Mags over to greet them, and Alfred manages a smile despite the lingering memories that are still making his heart twist. Mags looks up at Neil, who is fighting to keep his calm for her, and she bursts into tears. Clearly one emotional shock too many at the end of a long day. But it releases some of the awful pressure that surrounds them and allows the adults to move again.

Neil scoops Mags up, balancing their combined weight on his good leg, and she clings to his neck, hiding her face.

Aurora has her going-into-battle face on, and Alfred takes Mags' suitcase from her before lacing his fingers with hers, the wash of her presence soothing despite her frazzled state. She flicks her gaze up to meet his, taut and anxious, and he smiles, easier this time.

"Aurora."

To anyone listening, it sounds like a greeting.

Her face twitches in surprise, but she manages a smile and a breath, some of her tension easing out with it. She steps closer, leans into his shoulder.

Everyone is overstimulated, so when Neil loosens his hold on Mags, puts her down beside him where she clings to the hand not holding his crutch, Alfred herds them all to the taxi rank rather than trying to negotiate the tube.

It's late enough that the roads are dark and quiet, and everyone is a little calmer by the time they get out.

Neil goes straight through to the alcove to put Mags to bed, and Alfred and Aurora retreat to the kitchen to get out of the way. Alfred puts the kettle on, and Aurora drops into one of the chairs at the tiny kitchen table.

Alfred hesitates for a moment, then asks in French, "How was it?" Aurora raises an eyebrow at the switch, and he shrugs. "Less distracting for Mags if it's just sounds rather than words."

He wonders for a moment if she might resist. She hasn't spoken in French since Québec. But she follows his lead without any signs of distress, and it surprises him how much he's missed hearing it.

"It was fine." Aurora sighs. "Awkward. She's not talking much right now. But I'd lay money she has a stubborn streak to rival Neil's."

"She'll fit right in, then."

Aurora huffs a small laugh. "She might just."

"And how are you?"

A part of him hopes she might let him in to whatever it was that upset her about the trip, now that it's passed, but she shakes her head, dismissing his concern.

"I'm fine. Just tired. That was a long way to go and come back in one day."

He nods. "It was kind of you to go."

Her gaze flickers up to his in surprise, and he adds this moment to the list of others he still can't articulate for her. Whatever the reason, this journey was something she didn't want to do, but it never once occurred to her that she wouldn't do it anyway.

He pulls the kettle off the heat just as it starts to boil, silencing the building whistle before it can wake Mags. He pours three cups, carries them over to sit with Aurora. His fingers find hers across the table, and his nerves settle again at the contact, dispelling the lingering feelings of lost and alone from the memories dredged up at the train station.

They linger over their drinks, but Neil never arrives to join them in the kitchen. When they slip through to reach their bedroom at the end of the evening, they find him sitting in the living room in the dark, watching Mags sleep.

"Get some rest," Alfred murmurs as they pass.

Neil nods but doesn't answer, shows no sign of moving. Alfred and Aurora step into the bedroom, pull the door closed behind them, and leave him to it.

Chapter Text

 

 

For the next few days, while Alfred is at work, Aurora makes herself scarce around the house, to give Neil and Mags some time to get used to one another. She has more than enough errands to fill the time, since almost every purchase requires queuing for one item or another.

She is familiar with the long lines outside of grocers and bakers and butchers. They were a fact of daily life in France as well. But Aurora has relatively little experience of standing in them with any intent to actually acquire food.

In the early days of the resistance, queues were an excellent place for distributing illegal newspapers and leaflets. In later years, stepping into a queue was an easy way to become invisible on the street, or to pick up local information and gossip. But that was the extent of it. She and her team got their food from sympathetic farmers in the country, from black markets in the city, so they didn't end up taking any of what little food was legally available away from the people who needed it most.

And for their first months in London, right up until the end of the war, she and Alfred ate most of their meals at the SOE canteen. They both spent such long hours at the office that neither of them had time either to queue or to cook.

Over those days, Aurora sets herself the challenge of picking up the unspoken rules of queuing etiquette and product purchase without ever drawing attention to herself as a newcomer. And she uses the time to eavesdrop on her neighbours, to put together the lay of the land in this new world of civilian women.

She succeeds at both, but is left with the uncomfortable feeling that once again she is playing a part, inventing a character to fit the setting rather than fitting in herself.

** **

From the time that Neil joined Alfred and Aurora in London, all three of them had fallen back on their old system from safe houses and camp sites, where anyone who was present at meal times pitched in with the cooking and cleanup. And Neil makes a point of folding Mags right into the ritual of it.

From the look on her face, Mags is faintly scandalized by the whole procedure at first, though Aurora can't tell precisely what it is that she finds most objectionable – that a man is doing the cooking, that Neil is doing the cooking, or that Neil's cooking is at best mediocre. If the latter, Mags is in for another shock when she realizes that Aurora's cooking is not much better. It is entirely possible, in fact, that at ten years old Mags is the best cook in the house.

When Alfred arrives home from work, he squeezes around them in the small space to set the table while Aurora serves out portions of bread and stew. They eat together, jammed around the small table in the kitchen, and by the end of the week the sameness of it is so domestic it feels almost strange. Twice Aurora has to catch herself before she lapses into French, as though she were the child and back at the family dinner table with her parents in Québec.

** **

On Mags' fourth night in the house, Alfred manages to draw her into conversation when she perks up at an offhand comment, and he discovers her love of books.

Alfred pays special attention to Mags as much as he can. He wants her to feel comfortable and welcome, feel that this flat is her home, too. And he is discovering that the best way to counteract the memories that still threaten to swamp him is to use his own miserable experience to make hers a better one. She doesn't talk much, but he gives her his full attention when she does. And he makes a point to include her in all the conversations, whether she participates or not. And slowly the guarded look has leached out of her eyes.

One day he might tell her of his own loss, tell her he understands what she's been though, but neither of them is ready for that just now. Like him, Mags does her best to avoid extremes of emotion of any kind, and he doesn't want to make her uncomfortable while she's still finding her footing.

"I have an idea," he says instead. "There's a library on the high street. Why don't I see if there's an afternoon I can leave work early, and we can go and get lending cards together? That way, you can read as much as you want."

Mags' whole face lights up when she smiles, the first smile anyone other than Neil has teased out of her.

"Yes, please."

** **

Alfred is almost grateful when Aurora's nightmares wake him from his own. She doesn't struggle against him the way she did before, but her body is still wracked by gasping, choking sobs, and soothing her helps to calm the sucking black loneliness that haunts his own dreams.

He's glad she hasn't yet noticed that his sleep is troubled, too. She's been grim and guarded for days now, though she's trying to put a good face on it, and he doesn't want to add to her worries. At this point, it isn't even worth upsetting her. The dreams aren't as bad anymore as they were on Mags' first night. It seems that as the household settles into its new rhythm, his nerves are settling too.

** **

On Monday, Mags starts school. It's too long a route for Neil, so they agree that Aurora will walk her there in the morning and pick her up in the afternoon for the first few days, until she's ready to go by herself.

Aurora is embarrassed by how uncomfortable she still feels around Mags. She's determined she's not going to play pretend in her own home, not going to live undercover like that again, but she does allow herself to imagine what Alfred would do in her shoes. Just to give herself some idea of where to start. So, as they're heading down the sidewalk outside the flat, she offers Mags her hand.

Mags again looks somewhat overwhelmed, and again has her chin set in that familiar stubborn tilt, but she takes Aurora's hand when it's offered.

Aurora walks Mags all the way into the school's office on that first morning, to make sure the school knows who she is and that they're expecting her. The secretary who greets her hands Aurora some paperwork to take back to Neil, but otherwise Mags is registered and ready to begin.

"We can take her to her classroom from here," the secretary says. "Your niece will be just fine."

Aurora doesn't correct her. There is no quick one-word alternative she can offer in exchange, and she doesn't want to get into the whole story of their unorthodox living arrangements. She turns to Mags instead.

"Are you ready?"

Mags nods again.

"Good. I'll meet you here at the end of the day and walk you home."

Mags follows the secretary away down the hall, her chin up and narrow shoulders squared. Aurora watches, heart thudding in her chest, until Mags disappears into one of the classrooms. She wants to love this girl, who is brave and resilient and stubborn, who reminds her of Neil in so many ways, but she doesn't know how to get around the sea of terror and horror and death that stands between them. And she can't quite understand how she's the only one who still seems to be trapped by it.

** **

Aurora's nightmares continue. Invented horrors and searing memories piled one on top of the other, night after night, until she no longer wakes thrashing or crying, but still and sick and shaking.

In the daytime, she hides her exhaustion, but can't shake the dread that she's somehow waiting for the other shoe to drop.

** **

The following Monday, Neil starts work with Force 136. Only part time to begin with, and he's still resisting working directly with the agents who will be sent into the field – agents who might not come back – but there is, apparently, plenty for him to do on the consulting and operations side of things.

Neil still can't negotiate the tube, with all its stairs and long tunnels, so he and Alfred share a taxi to and from the office. Aurora has to clamp her teeth down on a spike of jealousy the first morning they leave the flat together. And this time there is no one left to distract her. Mags insists on walking herself to school now, and when she leaves, shortly after the other two, Aurora finds herself alone in the flat for the first time.

Part of her is relieved to have five minutes of quiet. The rest of her is trying hard not to feel like she's been imprisoned in her own home.

** **

Neil arrives home grey-faced and exhausted on the days that he goes into the office, still wrestling with the frustration that his body tires on him so easily.

Aurora and Mags prepare dinner on their own on those days, and Aurora does her best to keep Mags talking with questions about school and about the books she and Alfred bring home from the library.

Aurora shares a few stories from her own days at school, but keeps tripping over memories of the other children she has known – of Annie, Jacob, Martin, her cousin Lotte, the girls at the birth house, the victims of the round-ups – stories she can't ever repeat to Mags, who for all her loss has been so lucky, and the conversations remain stilted and halting.

** **

Aurora stumbles across the help wanted advertisement almost by accident. She buys a newspaper for Neil, but ends up flipping through it while queuing at the butcher's. The ad is small, tucked away in the bottom corner, but Aurora happens to see it as she struggles to turn a page without losing the whole paper to the gusting wind and finds she can't stop thinking about it.

But the whole idea is impossible. The four of them need to eat, so someone has to queue. Someone has to cook. Someone has to keep the house habitable. And this arrangement was her idea. She wanted this.

She just wishes she didn't feel so much like she was failing at it.

** **

Aurora lies awake in the middle of the night, chilled with the sweat of another nightmare. Alfred is asleep beside her, and his warmth is comforting, but she doesn't want to risk waking him by curling closer. Not again. It's not fair, not when he needs to be awake and alert for work in the morning.

So she stares instead at the streetlight seeping in through the curtains. Still so unusual after the complete dark of the blackout. Aurora can't decide whether she finds it friendly or disconcerting.

She has calmed enough that she's beginning to think of talking her brain back around to sleep when she hears something from the next room. Not movement, not snoring. And she is instantly back on the alert. She slides to the edge of the bed and slips out from beneath the covers. After weeks of nighttime disruptions, Alfred is sleeping soundly enough he doesn't wake at the movement.

She cracks the bedroom door open and listens again. Tortured gasps. Clearer now. Neil is dreaming, too. Harry and Tom often cried out if their dreams were bad enough, but Neil never did. Just the ragged panicked breaths.

Aurora slips out and closes the door behind her. Crosses the room making no effort to silence her footfalls. Sneaking will just panic him more. She crouches down outside of arm's reach, wonders if just the weight of her attention might wake him.

"Neil?"

She whispers, not wanting to wake Mags, but Neil startles anyway.

"It's me," she says. "You were dreaming."

He pushes himself up, gaze darting around the room to orient himself, before he finally sighs, scrubs his hands over his face.

"Tea?" she asks, and he nods, so she passes him his crutch and shuffles ahead of him out of the living room.

Aurora leaves the lights off, but pulls the curtain open to let in what moonlight there is. Neil limps past her and sinks into one of the kitchen chairs with another sigh.

"A bad one?" she asks in French.

Alfred's suggestion has become common practice among the adults at night after Mags has gone to bed. Aurora reminds herself again they're still going to have to be careful about what they say. If Mags is anywhere near as good with languages as Neil is, they won't get away with this for long.

Neil nods. "Fire."

"Your family?"

"No, the flat. My fault."

The look on his face makes it clear he isn't going to elaborate, but Aurora feels a strange sense of relief. She isn't the only one paralysed by the thought of accidentally destroying the only thing she has left.

"Did I wake you?" he asks.

"No, I was up already." She tries a smile, but it feels tight and forced. "Same as you."

Neil is silent a long time. Aurora fusses with mugs and spoons, catches the kettle before it whistles, sets the tea to steep. The mundanity of the actions is soothing.

"I keep waiting for someone to kick down the door," he says finally.

Aurora keeps her attention on the kettle and the mugs. "Like someone will find out what we've done and come to take us away." It's easier to say the words with her back turned.

"Like it's all a long con, and the war never really ended."

Aurora can't quite catch her breath. "How do you build a life when you can't trust?" She turns to face him then. Because she needs an answer.

But he's shaking his head. "I don't know."

Aurora nods, lets out a watery sigh. Then pulls herself back together and carries the mugs over to the table.

"I'll let you know if I figure it out," she says.

They sip their tea in silence, letting the dark and the silence ease raw nerves. As Aurora is about to gather herself to clear the tea things away, Neil reaches out and lays a hand over her wrist.

"Thank you." His voice is rough, but his meaning is clear. Thank you for everything.

Aurora shrugs, uncomfortable. "There's nothing to thank me for."

Chapter Text

 

 

Aurora sits down at the dinner table at the end of a long day with an ache in the back of her throat like she might just start to cry. As though she really is back at her parents' house in Québec and still trying to jam herself into a space that doesn't fit her anymore. Because it's becoming more obvious day by day that this space doesn't fit her either.

She reaches out under the table to grip Alfred's knee, to ground herself, to help to squash her fear back down, and to remind herself that he's right there. That she still has him and they're in this together. He turns to catch her gaze, questioning, but he's smiling. Just a small smile, one that barely flickers at the edge of his lips, but it lights up his face in a way she hasn't seen for months. Not since that first air raid, certainly.

Aurora's eyes sting at the joy in his face, her heart lurches hard against her ribs. He loves this. The domesticity. The feeling of family. Of course he does. She has heard, in broken, tortured pieces, the horror stories of his own childhood. He never had a family of his own. Not really. Not until now, as piecemeal and stitched together as this may be.

And Aurora feels as though a chasm has split the ground between them. That for the first time they're maybe not fighting the same fight. That she really is alone, trapped on the shore of that sea of fear and destruction while the others have somehow found a way to swim across.

She dredges up a smile for him and turns back to her dinner, but she can't manage to swallow anything more past the lump in her throat.

** **

Alfred knows Aurora hasn't been happy over the last few weeks. There's been a determined edge to the taste of her voice that isn't quite right, and her hands don't reach out to him in the casual touches of affection that have become a habit between them. And when Aurora keeps her hands to herself, it's a sign she's struggling with something.

He keeps meaning to talk to her, but the days seem to vanish as soon as they begin and there just hasn't been time. Mornings are busy, crowded, rushed, and in the evenings, he tries to focus on Mags. His moments with Aurora before bed feel like the first time he's seen her all day, and he can't bring himself to start a difficult conversation then. And, whatever it is, she doesn't bring it up either.

But when he catches her eye at the table, he finally sees it, sees her, and the ice gives way under his feet once again. Something is wrong. She turns away again, as though nothing has happened, but all he can see now is the misery beneath her quiet surface. And his chest swims with guilt at not having noticed it sooner.

He should have known when her nightmares didn't end after the trip to Northallerton. He should have realized she was in trouble. But he thought she was improving, just as he was. He didn't realize she'd just become more skilled at hiding her upset from him.

** **

Cleanup after dinner doesn't take long, with everyone pitching in. Aurora lingers by the sink, wiping down the surfaces, just to buy herself some space once Neil and Mags have returned to the living room. Her fear is swelling in her chest – pressing out on her ribs, pressing up into her throat – and this time she's not sure she's going to be able to contain it. She wants to hide, to lock herself in the bedroom until she feels less like she might burst, or choke, or scream, but she knows she'll only end up drawing questions and concern from the others in after her. And she can't bear the thought of having to explain her failure in front of the whole family.

She clings to the edge of the sink and tries to breathe around the pressure in her chest, but before she can manage it Alfred is beside her, with a hand on her back and concern on his face. And already, already, that light is gone from his eyes. And she has been the one to kill it. She lets go of the sink and turns to knot her fingers in his shirt instead, to bury her face in his shoulder, trying to hold onto him across that huge divide.

"I miss you," he says. "Come for a walk with me?"

All she can do is nod against him. He's right, she needs to get out of the flat. Because she's wide awake, but somehow still stuck in her nightmare, and when the bubble in her chest finally ruptures, when that other shoe finally lands, it will destroy everything.

** **

Alfred sticks his head into the living room as they pass and catches Neil's eye. "Aurora and I are going for a walk, we'll be back in a bit."

"Go," Neil says. "Take your time. Don't shock the neighbours."

Alfred forces a smile despite the worry beating in his chest but ducks out again before Mags can voice the question that is clearly building behind that expression.

** **

Outside the sky is still light with a lingering pink and purple sunset, and the air is mild and fresh. June is kind, even in London, and for a moment the pressure inside Aurora eases, and she feels like she can take a full breath for the first time in days.

They walk side by side towards the local green, a small grassy park a few blocks away. Aurora folds her arms across her chest, trying to contain the chaos inside her. She knows what's coming, can feel Alfred's worry lying thick between them. And she doesn't want to face it. She doesn't want to say the words out loud, doesn't want to admit she's failing him.

But she's equally afraid that she can't stop it. That the pressure in her chest will force the words out of her. And if she's going to break his heart, it might be easier just to get it over with.

** **

Alfred is still trying to work out how to begin when Aurora breaks the silence.

"You seemed happy. In there."

Not the words he was expecting, but he nods slowly. There is more stability and less terror now than in his life in the field, but there's something of the same responsibility, the same pressure, to be present and functional for the people around him. He knows before he even begins speaking, though, that she's looking for an answer he doesn't know how to give.

"I have people I love, who depend on me. And we're all safe. It's... difficult. Overwhelming, sometimes. But it's good."

She nods, but her arms are folded, almost hugging herself, and she tries another smile he doesn't believe for a second.

"Good," she says. "I'm glad. You should be happy."

For a moment, though, he thinks she might be about to cry. His own throat tightens just looking at her.

"You seem sad," is all he manages to get out.

She doesn't answer. Her throat is working, as though she's choking something down, and he doesn't think she's able to speak. She keeps walking, and he keeps pace at her elbow, but all the beauty is gone from the evening, and there's a ball of fear building in his chest.

"You want children," she says, finally. "Don't you."

Her tone is so flat, he can't tell what answer she's looking for, or even what question precisely she's asking, but he can feel the shiver that tells him they're edging closer to whatever it is that's tormenting her.

He brushes her arm, concerned, but she flinches away, and he stops in mid-step. "Are you pregnant?"

She stops, too, not quite facing him. Shakes her head, no, and her tears finally spill over, but he doesn't dare reach out to comfort her. She's trembling on the edge of something that's threatening to drown her, and he feels like if he even breathes too loudly she'll fall, or turn and bolt like a wild animal. And he's terrified.

She's still hugging herself, still silent, with a look in her eyes like the world is ending. And all he can think of to do is to answer her question. To hope that will help her to let him in.

"I would want." He has to stop. Try again. Because this brushes against a fear that runs deep for him too. "I imagine, sometimes, who our child might be. And I'm afraid. That it might be like me."

She squeezes her eyes shut, and he can tell that they're still, somehow, not looking at the same problem. That he has made things worse and not better.

Her tears have stopped, though, and that frightens him more than anything else.

"Tell me what's wrong. Aurora. Please."

Even at arm's length he can see the tremors that run through her as she struggles to let out whatever is trapped inside her. His own hands knot into fists with the effort of holding himself still.

"What if I'm not good for anything but war?" The words tumble out of her in a rush, barely voiced, like she can't stand even to hear them.

His heart thunders in his chest, but he keeps his tone as gentle as possible. "What makes you think that?" She needs to get this out. And he needs to understand.

"I don't know how to--" She stops, takes a breath, forces her eyes open. When she speaks again, it's as though the words are being dragged out across gravel, scraped and bleeding. "Mags is a little girl who needs us, and I can't talk to her. The only way to get through my day is to imagine the housework is some kind of mission. All you want is a family, and I." Tension ripples through her face as she fights for control. "And I'm not..." He can almost see her throat close on the rest of the words.

He risks a step closer. Aching. "Tell me."

She stares at him across the space between them, but all he can do is wait. He will wait until the end of time if that's what she needs. "I killed him," she says, finally, shuddering as though speaking the words is physically damaging her. "I loved him, and I." She closes her eyes again, her whole face contracting in pain. "With a knife. And the boys in that tank. Looked up when I opened the hatch. And I shot them."

In the face, Alfred realizes, his heart knotting with her agony. He reaches out, needs to touch her, but she backs away, desperate. Her panic is building, and she's breathing in gasps between the words.

"And the bridge. René was my fault. And The Bleeder. And Michel. And so many others. So how can I--" She stops. Swallows. "How can I ever--"

She turns away suddenly, stumbles two steps before she sinks to her knees and retches up what dinner she had managed to eat.  

Alfred approaches slowly, kneels down beside her, but doesn't touch. The barricade she's built around herself in order to get the words out still bristles between them. He feels sick himself, at the thought of all the hurt she's holding inside, at what it's taking for her to be able to speak it. But for the first time he can see all the tangled threads that make up the knot inside her, threads that are anchored in France but stretch all the way to Québec, to Northallerton, to the flat.

He waits beside her until the heaving subsides, until she catches her breath. He hands her his handkerchief and she wipes her mouth with a shaking hand.

"I love you," he says quietly. "I want you. Everything else is negotiable."

Her chest contracts on a dry sob, but she nods.

"There's nothing you could ever say that will change that. So we're going to talk about the rest of it. And we'll fix what we can. Because you should be happy, too."

She nods again and shudders, and the barriers around her finally crumble. He puts his hands on her shoulders, tugs her gently away from the mess in the grass. She sags against his chest, as though she doesn't have the energy left even to sit upright. Alfred closes his arms around her, holding her up, keeping the world at bay, and lets her take the time she needs.

** **

It's fully dark before she manages a sigh, shifts in his arms, comes at least partway back to herself. He helps her to her feet and tucks an arm around her for the slow walk back to the flat.

** **

The curtains in the living room window twitch as they approach. Alfred catches Neil's eye when he opens the door for them, shakes his head to cut off whatever teasing or tirade might be in store about how long they were gone. Neil's face falls serious and he nods, lets them pass, and closes the door behind them.

Aurora crosses immediately through the darkened living room, where Mags is already asleep, heading for the bedroom. Alfred lets her get ahead, then turns back to Neil.

"Is she okay?" Neil asks.

"She will be."

He nods. "Anything I can do?"

"Will you tell them tomorrow I'm taking the day? Family emergency."

"That bad?"

"That bad."

Neil tips his head towards the bedroom. "Go, I'll lock up."

"Thank you."

** **

When Alfred slips into the bedroom, Aurora is standing by the bed, as though she drifted to a halt and couldn't find the energy to begin undressing. He steps up behind her, lays a hand on her shoulder, and she seems to rouse herself, begins unbuttoning her blouse, steps out of her skirt. He finds her nightdress in the drawer and hands it to her, then pulls back the covers for her to climb into bed. He changes his own clothes and gets in beside her. She doesn't move at first, so he reaches out to encourage her closer, and almost like a child, she picks herself up and crawls into his arms.

And finally, finally, the tears come. She curls into a pained ball, her head on his chest, and sobs out all of the agony she has fought so hard to suppress. He cradles her close, presses kisses into the top of her head, buries his own tears in her hair, the onslaught of her misery almost overwhelming. Until finally she surrenders to exhaustion, cries herself to sleep.

** **

Alfred lies awake long into the night, listening to her breathe, standing guard to catch any sign of nightmares before they can take hold, but she sleeps soundly for the first time in weeks.

Chapter Text

 

 


Alfred wakes before Aurora does in the morning, her accumulated exhaustion taking its toll. He stays with her in bed, pinned by her sleeping weight, through what is usually the morning rush, listening to Neil and Mags shush each other as they get themselves ready and head out the door.

When quiet settles again in their wake, he considers getting up to get tea and breakfast ready for when Aurora wakes, but she's still curled up half on top of him, and he doesn't want to disturb her. More, though, he doesn't want to run the slightest risk of her waking up alone.

When she finally begins to stir, he threads his fingers through her hair, resumes a gentle caress.

"What time is it?" she mumbles, still half asleep.

"Almost ten."

She tenses under his hands, suddenly awake. "You're late."

"I'm not going in."

"Alfred." She tries to sit up, so he shifts his hand from her hair to her back, but maintains contact.

"No. Today it's just us."

She stares down at him, and something of the bleakness from last night creeps back into her eyes. "Where do we even start?"

He smiles, rasps his fingertips lightly against her back, wanting to cut off her dread before it can take hold. "Breakfast," he says firmly. "You need to eat something. Come on."

She doesn't quite manage a smile of her own, but allows herself to be bullied out of bed.

** **

Aurora fills the kettle and Alfred puts a pot on for porridge, and just the act of moving around each other in the small space settles Aurora's mood. This is, she thinks, the first time they've had the flat to themselves since Neil arrived home. And she has missed this, this quiet time with just the two of them, during the chaos of the last few weeks.

When she realizes she's looking for excuses to stay close to Alfred, to brush against him reaching for a teapot or rationing out tea leaves – an old, old habit from the months after Dieppe – she gives up the game entirely and just steps in to thread her arms around his waist, lean her head against his shoulder while they wait for the water in both pots to boil.

"We need to do this more often," she murmurs.

He hums an agreement, dips his head to nudge her until she turns her lips up to his. "We will."

The whistle of the kettle interrupts them eventually, pulls them back to their tasks. Aurora sets the tea to steep, pulls out mugs and bowls, while Alfred measures oats into the pot on the stove.

But the hum of connection between them lingers.

** **

They sit close at the table, where Aurora's thigh, her elbow, slide against his own while they eat. Her hair is loose, a tumbled mess of curls, and she's wearing his housecoat belted over her nightgown against the lingering morning chill. He has always loved her best like this, entirely herself, before she puts up her hair, puts on her makeup, settles into her armour for facing the day.

And she's smiling. That does more to enchant him in this moment than anything else.

There's a conversation that needs to happen, while they have this quiet, while they have the space, but there's still time left in the day. And they need this, too. So he feels no guilt when they abandon the empty dishes on the table, when he leads her back into the bedroom, and they take full advantage of this slice of private time.

** **

It's easier to talk, after. Their bodies still tangled together, flush with the 'us' that is just the two of them, any feeling of distance driven away by the intimate contact.

Alfred props himself up on pillows against the wall, and Aurora settles herself against his chest with her legs slung across his lap and his arm around her back. She plays idly with the fingers of his other hand in both of her own.

"Can I ask..?" he starts.

She tenses a little, but nods.

"Why didn't you look for another job, after SOE? Did you think I expected you to keep house for us?"

She shrugs, but it feels reluctant, her fingers stilling against his own, and he begins to wonder if maybe she expected it of herself. "Someone has to. And SOE discharged me, so. It seemed like the easiest solution."

"But you hate it, don't you." It isn't even a question.

Still, she hesitates a moment before she leans away far enough to meet his gaze. "I need something to do."

He hears the echo of his own words, as she intended, and nods. "Then you should find something to do."

She huffs a shallow laugh. "As easy as that."

"This is why there's three of us. Between us, we can make it work. If we need to hire someone to help with the housework, we can do that. Or if we all need to do it together on a Sunday, we can do that, too."

She looks like she doesn't quite believe him.

"You don't have to be the sergeant anymore," he says gently. "We take care of each other."

Fresh tears glitter against her eyelashes for a moment, but she nods and swipes them away with the back of her hand.

"And Mags?" she asks.

"Neil is already home two days a week. And I'm going to ask if it's possible for me to start earlier and leave earlier on the other days."

She smiles, but there's a flavour of sadness in it. "You like spending time with her."

He nods, realizes he's been wanting to share this with her, wants her to understand. "I didn't have anyone after my father died. I know what that feels like. And I'm sure Neil's injury must have scared her. I want her to know she won't be alone, no matter what happens."

Aurora leans into him, rests her forehead against the line of his jaw. "You're wrong, you know. I would hope our child would be exactly like you."

He shivers at her words, the uncomfortable shuddering flinch of fingers straying too near an open wound. Fear that her words might come true. Fear that he'll never get to find out.

"You said." He takes a steadying breath. "You don't want children?" This time it is a question, and he's not entirely sure he wants to hear the answer.

He meant what he said. So long as he has her, everything else is secondary. But there's been a small dream growing inside him since the night they got married, and he knows now he would grieve if he had to give it up.

Aurora is silent for a long moment. "No," she says finally, and again her voice is strangled down to a whisper, "I think I do." She shifts her grip on his hand, drawing it up against her chest as she curls in tighter on herself. "But how do I..." She shakes her head. "How can I..."

Her gaze meets his, stark and torn and pleading. Pleading with him to understand. Pleading with him to help. He cradles her head between his palms and kisses her, the only reassurance he is able to give, firm and urgent and insistent. He knows the depths of that kind of self-doubt, that kind of self-loathing. Knows that words can't fix it. Knows that the only way out is to believe in her until she can believe in herself. Just like she did for him.

"You can do anything," he says finally, his voice low and rough and indigo.

"I have no right."

"You have every right."

She's shivering against him despite the warmth, and he releases her face to bundle his arms around her once again.

"But, what if." Her voice gives out, and she's silent a long moment, just breathing through the storm. "What if I've burned that part of me away? The part that could ever be a normal woman."

"I don't think you have," he says slowly. Taking her fear seriously. "I think it's wounded, I think it's bleeding, and that's understandable. But you love me, you love Neil, you love Harry. That part of you isn't gone. Just give it some time to heal. We don't have to decide anything today."

She nods, but turns her face into his shoulder, taking a shuddering breath. He presses kisses against her temple, against her hair. Partly hopeful, partly aching. For her. For them both.

** **

Alfred reaches for a change of topic, hoping to ease the tension a little. "Do you know what kind of work you want to do?"

Aurora manages a sigh, and the muscles across her back relax a little as she resettles herself against him.

"Not SOE."

"There's not much of SOE left. But, I know a lot of government agencies are desperate for translators." He hesitates for a moment, knowing her conflicted feelings on the subject. "Especially to and from German."

She shakes her head, but it's not the visceral no he was half expecting.

"I saw an ad," she says slowly. "There's something called the CBF, the Central British Fund for German Jewry. They're looking for help."

He tries to mask his concern. She is... right now she is as fragile as he's ever known her. More fragile than he thought possible. He can't shake the memory of her kneeling in the grass, stomach heaving as the tries to purge the horror and fear from inside her. And the thought of watching her wade into the aftermath of hell on earth makes him ill.

But when he remains silent too long, she draws back, shifting position on the bed so she can turn and face him fully.

"That would have been me," she says, "if they'd known. Just like." She stops herself. Shakes her head. "I have to do something."

For a moment Alfred's horror is so deep he worries it might be his turn to be sick just from the weight of it. He frees his hand gently from hers and moves it to cradle her face, to force her to meet his eyes.

"Tell me. Please. Tell me you're not looking for a way to punish yourself."

But already she's shaking her head, no, against his palm. "I'm not. I'm not. It's. The survivors, they need help and care, they need new homes and new lives. I can't... offer that myself." Her lips twist with a hint of bitterness. "Not directly. But I can organize it. I can help to make it happen."

He nods, but his skin is still clammy with a sick sweat. "Just. If it's too much, promise me you'll say something. To me. To them. Don't try to hold it all inside."

"I won't."

But that's not enough. After last night, it's not enough. "Promise me."

She leans in again, winds her arms around his neck, and her grip is firm. No tremors, no doubt. "I promise."

** **

They are washed and dressed by the time Mags arrives home from school, but only just. Mags greets Alfred with a hug, delighted by the change in routine that has him home in the afternoon.

"Are we going to the library again?"

"Not today, but maybe next week. If you want?"

She nods.

Aurora makes toast with a little jam for her, as usual after school, and Mags runs back out to play until it's time to help with dinner. Mags has made friends in the neighbourhood much faster than any of the adults.

Alfred glances over at Aurora, when the door has closed behind Mags. Checking in. They still haven’t really discussed this part of Aurora's confession, and she's now even more embarrassed by her own discomfort.

But it's easier with Alfred there. Always. And knowing that he wants to take the lead on this, to help Mags feel at home, lessens somewhat Aurora's expectations of herself.

She shakes her head, trying to dismiss his concern. "I'll get better at this. I want to keep trying."

Alfred kisses her lightly as he passes in the hall. "It isn't your job to fix her, either. You're doing just fine."

** **

Alfred participates in the cooking that evening alongside Aurora and Mags, and Aurora can't help checking in over his shoulder as he works. They don't have enough of anything to throw the meal out and start over if it all goes wrong.

"You don't trust me." But he's smiling, teasing.

"Cherries," she says solemnly, "with garlic and salt."

"Would you like me to recite the recipe I'm following?"

When she pretends to consider it, he turns and shoos her away from the counter.

Aurora reaches over Mags to scoop up the dishes to set the table, and leans in conspiratorially. "Keep an eye on him," she whispers.

Mags giggles and takes a step closer to Alfred.

"One tin of pilchard, drained. Two cups of cabbage, shredded..."

** **

That night, once Mags is asleep, the adults linger around the table in the kitchen.

Neil reaches out to cover Aurora's hand with his own. "You look better," he says carefully. He's fishing, but she knows he won't push if she doesn't want to answer.

And she doesn't, in fact. But that's not fair. Because she owes him an explanation.

She promised that she'd help, that she'd take care of him and Mags. He was wounded and vulnerable, but he trusted her with that. They're only a few weeks in, now, and already she's backing out. The least she can do is admit it.

"I was thinking. I might start looking for another job."

She watches his face, trying to work out how much of the humiliating meltdown she might have to explain for him.

But Neil just nods, squeezes her hand. "About bloody time."

 

 

Chapter Text

Aurora doesn't know where to begin in terms of putting together a CV. Between the sanctioned lies to cover her time with Camp X and SOE and the fact that all her work prior to the war was in French, any attempt would create a muddled impression at best. She tries several drafts of a letter, to explain her relevant skills more precisely, but it starts to feel as though she's making excuses for herself, and that isn't the way to make a good impression either.

So, in the end, she looks up the address and goes to the office in person. She can't say half of what she wants to, about the suffering she witnessed in France, or about her own particular skills in getting results, but she is at least able to communicate her passion and her intelligence.

The receptionist is impressed enough that she manages to squeeze Aurora in for an interview with the manager, and once Aurora has direct access, the man doesn't stand a chance, really. She wields charm with a professional's skill. And it is, in fact, one of the most valuable skills she could possibly bring to the organization. By the time she leaves the office, he has all but hired her on the spot.

The official offer of the position arrives by post three days later.

** **

On Friday, Alfred again suggests a walk after dinner. They do not head towards the green this time but wander up and down the streets in the neighbourhood.

The evening is warm under a peach and ochre sky, a perfect slice of early summer. Aurora takes the arm he offers, leans into his shoulder. She can feel the warmth of him through the fabric of his shirt – neither of them is wearing a jacket for what feels like the first time all year.

Conversation remains light. Aurora gives Alfred a more detailed version of the interview than she had offered at the dinner table and her impressions of the office. Alfred shares what he can about his week, stories of colleagues she knew and of mediating cultural misunderstandings with the Americans.

The walk is nothing and it's everything all at the same time. And it gives Aurora one more support in the process of rebuilding the foundation of her world.

** **

Aurora starts work the following week.

The salary is small, but the hours are reasonable. SOE grumbled at Alfred's request to change his hours, conceded to it only one day a week. But Aurora is able to be home after school for the two days neither of the boys can cover, and between them they make it work.

By the end of the first week, Aurora feels much more herself. The scale of the tragedy she battles on a daily basis at work is overwhelming, but at least she's fighting again. Her existence has a purpose, and that makes everything else easier, somehow, even while finding time to get it all done becomes harder.

** **

Neil has been getting to know the parents of Mags' new friends on the afternoons he's home with her, and it's one of them who suggests a solution to their housekeeping dilemma. A local woman, widowed, alone, and in dire need of income, can make their grocery purchases along with her own, and stop by once a week to do a proper clean.

They agree to the plan, although none of them is comfortable with the idea of a stranger in the house. But Aurora's first week at work was a stark demonstration in how much they do, in fact, need the help.

But arriving home to find unfamiliar packages in the kitchen, or items put away in the wrong cupboards, unsettles everyone. And after a week and a half of Neil and Aurora snarling and sniping at each other, stalking the flat like caged tigers, Alfred invites the woman – Maureen – to join them for dinner on the day she's in to clean the flat. By the end of that first meal, ruffled edges have been somewhat soothed, and Maureen is, at least, no longer a stranger.

After a month, she's a friend, and they all have a little more practice at making conversation with civilians. Between Maureen and Mags, even Aurora begins to get to know some of the other families in their neighbourhood, and life begins to expand, just a little, beyond their own tight circle.

** **

Alfred finds time every day to check in with Aurora. There are times when she finds it smothering, but mostly she holds onto those moments like an anchor. She is always, always careful never to hand him details he'll have to carry in his memory forever, but she has learned to admit to her feelings on the days when she's struggling.

Because, as satisfying as the work is, there are days when it fills her with rage. Helpless, agonizing rage. Usually those are days when she has handled the photos shipped back from her colleagues on the ground at Belsen, or when she has spent too many hours translating the testimonies of the survivors. But not always. Sometimes there is no specific cause. The general is more than enough.

On those days, she reminds herself over and over that this is why she fought. To make it stop. And that what she's doing now is the best revenge she's been able to come up with. But it's never quite enough.

With Alfred's help, though, she's finding ways to deal with it. She'll walk home from work rather than taking the tube, if it's not one of her afternoons with Mags. Or she and Neil will shift the furniture while Mags is outside playing and run through old drills. Breaking holds, disarming an opponent. Neither of them is as good at it as they feel they ought to be. Aurora has gone soft and her skills are rusty. Neil is still working out how to compensate for the limited strength and mobility in his leg. At the end of the hour they're both bruised and exhausted, but Aurora is able to breathe again.

** **

Aurora is on her way to work a few weeks later when she stumbles across the poster by the door of a nightclub. Hallie DuVernay and her band, performing two nights in London.

The swirl of memories that evokes stays with her all day. Neither entirely good nor entirely bad. But more like it's a lifetime ago. All the fears and the griefs that seemed so earth shattering at the time, feelings that are braided into her memories of the events, have long since been overshadowed by the breadth and the depth of the tragedies they have survived in the years since.

How young they all were, then, in comparison. How innocent. How naïve.

On her way home from work, Aurora stops at the club to buy two tickets for the show on Friday night. That mission, with Hallie and the airman – she can't even remember the boy's name, now – that was a beginning of sorts for her and Alfred. So many firsts. Even if she didn't think of them that way at the time. He might not mind revisiting some of those memories with her, as sad as the mission's outcome was in many ways.

Mostly, though, she wants to give him this gift – that this time around he can enjoy the music he loves without fear.

But just in case, before she leaves the neighbourhood, she also makes sure to hunt up another music club with a jazz night just a few blocks away. As a backup plan. In case Alfred reacts badly to the idea. In case Hallie does.

** **

"On Friday," she says to Alfred that night, as they're getting ready for bed, "can you bring a change of clothes with you to the office? I'll meet you there after work. I want to take you out."

"Out? Where?"

His face is surprised and delighted, and it warms her heart that nowhere in his expression can she find any trace of apprehension. He trusts her, but he trusts himself, too.

And that gives her the courage to ask, "Is it okay if I surprise you?"

** **

Aurora goes back and forth a dozen times during the week about whether it might be better to warn Alfred ahead of time or not. She doesn't want to blindside him with anything he might find upsetting. But he seems to be enjoying the anticipation of it all, so she resists every time.

Mags, too, is dying of curiosity, and keeps wheedling Aurora to share in the secret. Aurora can't help laughing at her excitement, but will only promise that on Saturday she can hear all about it.

** **

On Friday afternoon, Aurora is sitting by the small mirror in the bedroom, struggling to think of a way to put her hair up that doesn't immediately make her see Helene Bauer, when she hears a rustle behind her and turns to find a small eye pressed up against the gap in the not-quite-closed door.

She smiles, actually grateful for the distraction. "Do you want to come in? I could use your help."

The door cracks a little wider and Mags nods, eyes wide.

Aurora pats the edge of the bed, and Mags slips inside and hops up to sit cross-legged. Aurora turns on her stool to face her fully, one hand still holding her hair up in a twist.

"What do you think?"

Mags' mouth bunches up in thought, but her delay in reply speaks for itself. Aurora turns back to the mirror to consider. She was aiming for elegant, but seems to have hit on severe. She releases her hold on the twist and her hair tumbles free again.

"Okay," she says, catching Mags' eye in the mirror, "up or down?"

"Up."

"You're sure?"

Mags nods again.

Aurora tries one more time, a looser chignon that allows something of the curl in her hair to show. It's a softer look, but still not quite elegant. Mags' thinking face is much more approving this time, though.

"Better?"

"Better."

"Right. Okay."

Aurora considers the mirror again. She uses a comb to tease loose a section of hair at the front, and then begins to pin the rest in place. Mags watches her every move, mesmerized.

Aurora catches her gaze in the mirror once again. "Can you help me with this next part?"

Mags slides down off the bed and steps up to Aurora's side. Aurora subdivides the unpinned hair, and working with the natural curl, twists a smaller section into loose whorls.

"Put your finger here to hold it for me?"

Mags does, and Aurora weaves the end into the larger knot and pins the result into position. Then repeats the process with the other sections, until she ends up with a fall of waves and curls that loop into the larger chignon at the nape of her neck.

"What do you think?"

Mags is rapt. "Will you show me how to do that?"

Aurora smiles, unexpectedly touched by the request. "Of course I will. We can practice on your hair another night, if you like."

"Yes, please."

Aurora squeezes Mags' hand, and Mags scrambles back up onto the bed to watch Aurora apply her makeup. She tries a slightly softer look with this as well, and is pleased with the results. None of Helene's hard edges are showing, but the effect is special enough for a night out.

** **

Aurora meets Alfred outside the SOE building after work. He has achieved elegant in a smart suit and hat, with what was probably far less effort. But she finds herself blushing like a girl half her age at the look on his face when he kisses her in greeting.

"You look stunning," he murmurs before he pulls away, and Aurora feels herself blushing again at the burr in his voice.

"Mags helped," she says, to defuse the tension a little bit.

And Alfred's smile changes shape, to a different shade of pleased, as she had hoped.

"I'll have to thank her later, then."

** **

Aurora had located a restaurant not far from the club and added it to the plan for the evening, to play into the sense of occasion. They linger over their meal, which is a delight in itself, particularly in contrast to their own miserable cooking skills. Alfred's gaze flicks up to her occasionally, clearly not certain whether this dinner is the point of the night out, or what exactly is it they might be celebrating, but he doesn't ask, and seems content to take the evening as it comes.

Aurora's stomach is knotting around that lovely dinner, though, by the time they approach the club. Keeping the details back as a surprise is seeming a worse and worse idea as the night wears on.

Aurora had realized with some shock as they entered the restaurant that this is very likely their first real date. The thought is so absurd, given the point they're now at, she almost laughs out loud. But they haven't ever gone out for the evening, just the two of them, as themselves. Not working, not undercover. And the evening has been almost magical so far. She really doesn't want it to end, now, in disaster.

She shifts her grip from Alfred's elbow to his hand as they arrive in front of the club, watches his face as his eyes land on the poster.

"Is this okay?"

Alfred is silent. His gaze is fixed on Hallie's name, but he's not seeing it. Lost in his memories. She squeezes his hand, steps in closer to rest her forehead against his temple.

"Alfred?"

He twitches under her touch, takes a breath.

"I'm sorry," she says quietly. "The surprise was a bad idea."

"No. I'm okay." And the smile that creeps across his face is genuine, if tinged with some sadness. "How did you find her?"

"I walk past the club on my way to work. I thought you might want to hear her sing again. Without a police raid this time."

He kisses her, quick but sweet in the public setting.

"We don't have to stay," Aurora murmurs. "There's another club a few blocks away. If this is going to be too much. Or we could go home."

"I'd like to stay." His thumb brushes her cheek. "Thank you."

** **

They find a seat in the back, away from the spill of the stage lights. Where Alfred can hear but they don't risk distracting Hallie during the show.

They sit side by side, Alfred's body pressed lightly the length of Aurora's own, from ankle to shoulder. And when the music starts, he takes her hand from the table, holds it in both of his, and his fingers move slowly over hers. Sometimes as though he is playing the music on her knuckles, keeping time with the musicians, but more often as though he is somehow weaving the feel of her skin, the shape of her hand into whatever symphony of colour and texture and flavour is playing in his head. Making her a part of the music itself.

She watches his hands on hers for song after song, hypnotized by the rhythm of it, before she thinks to try the same. She closes her eyes, concentrates on the movement of his fingers, their warmth and pressure, her world narrowing to just his touch and the whiskey timbre of Hallie's voice. It's a surprisingly sensual experience.

Aurora allows herself another drink, lets the alcohol add a pleasant muzz to her thoughts. Allows herself to go completely off duty and surrender to whatever magic Alfred is weaving around her fingers. It's a relief, in some ways, and a reassurance in others, that she is able to put the weight of constant watchfulness down at all. And without fear. She wasn't sure she could. Knowing it's just for one night helps. But so too does discovering for certain there's something left of her without it.

** **

They stay to the very end of the last set. Hallie finishes the night with the song from the train station, I Want to Come Home, the one Aurora thinks of as Alfred's, letting them know that she has spotted them at some point during the night. They linger after the last set for a few minutes, just in case. Not that either of them is in any particular hurry to break the spell. But Hallie doesn't come out to say hello, and Aurora doesn't blame her.

** **

It's late when they step out of the taxi in front of the flat. The windows are dark and there is no telltale twitch at the curtains to indicate Neil is watching for their return. They linger on the step, tucked into the shadows of the doorway, and Alfred meets her in the long goodnight kiss that a first date like this one deserves.

** **

If Neil wakes when they slip quietly through the darkened flat and into the bedroom, he gives no sign. And they trust to the late hour, to the sleeping weight of the house, to mask any sounds they aren't able to smother when Alfred continues his symphony of touch over wider expanses of skin.

Chapter Text

In August, the war finally ends with the surrender of Japan. SOE demobilizes Neil within the week, but Alfred is kept on, and no one will give him any kind of straight answer about when he might expect to be released.

It's a tense time at the flat, with Aurora's small salary the only one that has any guarantee of continuing. And Neil, like Aurora before him, doesn't handle unemployment particularly well. His anger at his own limitations creeps back in around the edges as he tries to work out where to turn next.

Mags, at least, joins Aurora in bullying Neil out of the worst of his self-pity, and eventually they manage to convince him to go and talk to someone at the local council. From there, he is drafted almost immediately into helping to coordinate the borough's rebuilding and rehousing effort.

He grumbles at first that it's really a job better suited to Aurora than to him, that his specialty is more knocking things down than putting them together again. But his mood improves dramatically within days of starting work, and settles further as the position begins to lace him more firmly into the fabric of the local community.

** **

Alfred comes home from work the following week with a look in his eye that Aurora finds unsettling. He catches her watching him and gives her a small headshake, his eyes flicking to Neil and Mags, bustling around them putting dinner on the table.

She nods. And when, after the dinner dishes are done, Alfred asks her to join him for a walk, it's mostly just to let the others know where they're going.

She tangles her fingers with his as they start off down the street, rattled enough to want the contact. "What's going on?"

He squeezes her hand in a brief reassurance. "SIS made me an offer today."

"Field work?"

"That would be their preference, yes."

Aurora's heart knots in her chest. Just the thought of Alfred going out undercover without her there to watch his back triggers a fear so consuming she almost can't breathe.

"What did you say?"

"I said I wasn't willing to leave my family for any length of time."

But there's something more, something he doesn't want to say. He's still watching her, weighing her reaction. And suddenly she understands.

"So they want to make me an offer, too, don't they."

He nods.

Aurora trails to a halt in the middle of the sidewalk, the riot of her conflicting reactions too overwhelming to process, and Alfred stops with her, still watching her face.

A part of her wants to leap at the opportunity - the part that still occasionally feels trapped and stifled, the part that misses using all her wits and all her skills all the time. She misses the adrenaline and the challenge and the impossibly high stakes. But another part of her doesn't want to even consider it. Wishes she had never heard the words. Burns with rage at even being presented with the possibility. Because just the thought of it threatens to shatter all the progress she has made, all the foundations she has built for a new life. Undermines all the things she has begun to want for herself. For them both.

"Tell me what you're thinking," he says quietly.

"I don't want to want it."

"But you do?"

She shakes her head. "I don't know. But you don't, do you."

"No, I don't."

It was barely a question, his answer only confirming what she can read in his face. Aurora is equally certain, though, that if she decides she wants to go, has to go, for whatever reason, he will go with her. Without question.

She spends a long moment just breathing through the temptation, giving the part of her that is howling its desperate need to be that kind of necessary again its due. But she knows what her answer has to be.

"No," she says finally. All the temptation in the world couldn't make her do that to Alfred. "I belong here. If I go out into the field again, I won't come back. One way or another."

He nods. "I'll tell them."

She takes his elbow and they start walking again. His free hand comes up to grip hers where it lies on his arm, although Aurora isn't sure whether it's to comfort her or himself.

"Do you think they'll let you take a desk job instead?" she says.

He's silent for a long moment. "I'm not sure I want that either. I don't want to spend my life keeping secrets from you. I don't want to carry any more of humanity's ugliness. But... I'm afraid to turn them down. There aren't many places that I'm suited to."

"Alfred." Aurora stops again, but this time to make sure she has all of his attention. "No one can do what you can do. If the job is going to make you unhappy, you shouldn't do it. I promise, it won't be your only option."

"You can't know that."

"I can. They won't let you go if they can help it."

** **

Aurora's words turn out to be prophetic. Alfred turns down SIS, and within hours another offer, from a different branch of the government, arrives on his desk. He puts the pieces together quickly after that, realizes SOE has put out the word, is trying to find him a new place as their operations wind down. So he begins to do his own research. If he got to choose for himself, where would he go? What would he do?

** **

"I feel... presumptuous. It's arrogant. To assume like this."

They're curled up together in bed. For this, it's easier to talk in the dark, where he can feel a little hidden.

"They'll be lucky to get you," she says, gently. "And they know it, too."
 
He hums a hesitant acknowledgement that isn't quite agreement.

Aurora's smile holds a faint tang of sadness. "If it doesn't work out, then it doesn't. But you should at least try."
 
** **

"There are a lot of people watching to see where you end up, Mr. Graves."

The visitor, introduced by Alfred's SOE superior simply as 'my friend, Sir Harold,' wears a bespoke suit and an aristocratic accent. Staged as a happy accident, Sir Harold stepping out of the colonel's office just as Alfred is waiting to go in, the whole setup is just a little too casual not to have been deliberately engineered.

"I've been hoping there might be a place in the foreign office for me," Alfred says carefully, not entirely sure for whose benefit this charade has been arranged.

"You think that's the best use of your skills?"

Sir Harold's tone is less condescending than it could have been, and he sounds honestly curious, so Alfred allows some of his conviction to show.

"I think I'd like to take part in preventing any future wars."

Sir Harold nods slowly, considering. "Are you looking for an overseas posting particularly?"

"I would prefer to stay in London, as far as that's possible."

"Then I might have a better solution for you, Mr. Graves. A position you are uniquely suited for."

** **

"The Joint Intelligence Organization." Alfred keeps his voice low, even though they're alone on the green. He hadn't wanted to risk being overheard through open windows on the street.

Aurora frowns, uncertain. "I thought you didn't want to work in intelligence?"

"This is different, I think. Like with SOE, but bigger. And not... not as mired in the darkness of it all. It's more like looking down from above, at all the little pieces, from all kinds of sources, and trying to connect the dots. Trying to get out in front of disasters before they happen." His gaze flicks up to her, and there's hesitation in his face, but there's hope, too. "I think this might be the best way for me to help."

Aurora is surprised to feel her eyes prickle with tears at the fierce pride that burns in her chest. That his superiors have, in fact, realized just how special Alfred is. And that Alfred himself can acknowledge his own value.

"It sounds perfect."

** **

And so, September brings with it a reshuffle of life in the flat. Mags starts a new year at school while Alfred and Neil settle in to their new jobs, and daily life is unsettled at first as everyone tries to work out new patterns and new routines.

And then, at the end of that first week, a letter from Harry arrives to let them know he is being sent to Vienna for a series of meetings, and to ask if he can pay them a visit on his way through. Aurora writes him back to let him know that if he doesn't, and doesn't find a way to extend his stay with them on one end of his trip or the other, he'll have Mags to answer to. And from that point on, excitement about the visit turns life completely upside down.

There isn't room to add another bed in the flat, even if they could find one, but there will be time to argue about who'll get the couch once Harry arrives. The assumption is so ingrained – that he will stay with them, that they'll all squeeze in somehow, the way they always have – that not even Harry suggests he might be more comfortable in a hotel.

** **

Harry's impending visit also puts an idea into Aurora's head, although it takes her a few days to work herself up to broaching the subject with Alfred.

"Do you think we should make this..." She waves vaguely at the space between them as she reaches for a word. "Legal? While Harry's here, I mean."

Alfred's expression tightens, unhappy. She knows exactly how he feels. Hates the idea that the vows they swore to each other somehow don't count. She can't get past the feeling that even asking about a legal ceremony is already a betrayal. But she also can't let it go.

"I don't want there to be any doubt," she says quietly. "I can't stand the thought that in some kind of crisis they could separate us on a technicality. We'll pick a day, bring Mags and Neil and Harry, and then never have to worry about it again."

He reaches out to brush her hand, a feather-light comfort. "If that's what you want."

** **

It all becomes, of course, more complicated than Aurora could ever have imagined. As promised, she wires Sinclair to let him know they're getting married 'for real,' as he had put it, and to ask him to undo whatever his regularization magic had been. Which he does. But then SOE issues them new identity papers, with their amended marital status and Aurora's maiden name. And new ration cards. And Aurora realizes that once they're legally married, they'll need new papers yet again. And those cards all need to be registered with the grocers and butchers and bakers at each step, which means endless questions and rampant gossip.

Aurora very quickly regrets ever having opened her mouth.

They decide together to wave it off in the neighbourhood as a bureaucratic error to do with their status as foreign nationals and some missing paperwork. Which is, sadly, not unheard of, given the spate of hurried cross-border marriages during the war. And once that story makes the rounds, they can at least stop answering the first wave of questions.

It doesn't do anything to slow their neighbours' increasing curiosity about the upcoming wedding, however.

** **

When Harry finally arrives in London it's... overwhelming. The team is united again, crammed together into a too-small apartment, alive and safe. For the first time since Neil was hurt. United, and yet not whole. Because standing there in the doorway with them, carried within the joy and the relief, is the aching void where Tom should be. And René.

Mags, who has been bouncing with anticipation for days, flees into Alfred and Aurora's bedroom at the sight of all the adults in tears. And when they finally negotiate the shuffle from the hall into the kitchen, picking their way through the sudden awkwardness of a year spent apart, Alfred slips away to check on her. He's gone long enough that Aurora suspects he also needed to buy some space for himself, to process the onslaught of memories.

Eventually the adults all settle around the kitchen table, despite the cramped space, with cups of tea and the treats Harry has brought from Canada. Biscuits. Chocolate. Mags eventually slips out of the bedroom to listen, so they limit their conversation to catching up on what has happened since they left the field. New jobs, new lives. Harry is no longer living with his parents, although he sees his family regularly. He lets the name Emily slip just often enough for the others to realize she might be someone special, though he won't yet admit to anything directly, for fear of merciless teasing.

Mags creeps closer and closer through the afternoon until finally she comes right up to the table, perching on Neil's good leg since none of the chairs are free.

Neil introduces her to Harry properly, his smile wobbling slightly at the edges, even after all this time. Harry leaps in to distract Mags from the new wave of impending tears with stories of his nieces and nephews, and becomes an instant favourite.

"If you teach her to take anything in this flat apart," Neil grumbles, "you had better bloody well teach her to put it back together again."

** **

After Mags is in bed, talk turns back to darker memories, to the wall that sometimes stands between them and everyone else.

"It's hard," Harry says. "I don't want to talk about it. But knowing I can't. That there isn't anyone." He cuts himself off, shakes his head. And for a moment there's a bitter undertone to his words, a jealousy, that they all have each other in a way that doesn't include him.

Alfred gets up from the table and comes back with a pen and slip of paper. He scratches out a string of nonsense letters then hands the paper to Harry.

Harry glances down and raises an eyebrow. "A one-time code?"

"Maybe not just one time. Write to us. If it's coded, there's no risk of breaking the Secrets Act by accident. I know it's not the same, but. You are a part of this family, too."

"Or, you could join us." Aurora fights to keep the hope out of her voice. Knows that's not fair.

Harry laughs, just a little. "There's no room for me, here. There's barely room for you."

Neil shrugs. "So, we'll move."

"I told you," Aurora says. "You always have a home with us."

"You could even bring Emily," Neil adds.

Harry rolls his eyes, and the sour mood falls away in the face of the inevitable teasing. But he folds Alfred's slip of paper carefully and tucks it away for safekeeping.

 

 

Chapter Text


Harry stays with them for three days before going on to Vienna, promising to return for a full week once his business is done.

And for the handful of days that he is gone, life returns to some semblance of normal, only to go completely off the rails as soon as he returns.

** **

The intention has always been that the 'wedding' should only include the five of them. But they are compelled by law to post their notice at the registry office, and between that and Mags' excitement, word of the time and place gets around fast. Maureen, when she hears, is honestly hurt at not being invited, and their protestations that it's just a small family affair and purely to clear up a tangled legal situation are then belied by Sinclair's surprise arrival on their doorstep in the middle of dinner.

Neil had started laughing when they first explained to him the questionable legality of their marriage, and basically hasn't stopped since, but Sinclair's sudden appearance sends his teasing to a whole new level.

Aurora finally storms out in disgust and shuts herself in the bedroom until she can get a handle on her temper, leaving Alfred to soothe Maureen's ruffled feathers and explain the whole fiasco to Sinclair and Harry.

When Alfred finally appears in the bedroom doorway, Aurora doesn't even look up from where she has buried her head in the pillow.

"I'm sorry." Her voice is muffled, but resigned. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

"This is all your fault," Alfred agrees, and Aurora isn't quite ready for the humour in his voice.

"I know."

"Half the neighbourhood thinks they're coming."

"I blame Neil."

Alfred sits down on the edge of the bed beside her. "And Mags."

Aurora lifts her head and rolls over enough to meet his gaze. "I'm sorry."

He lies down next to her and she squirms closer to lay her head on his shoulder.

"It could be fun," he offers.

Aurora sighs, finally defeated. "If they want to come to the ceremony, let them come. But I'm not organising a last minute wedding that I don't even want when there's no food to feed them with and no space to host them in."

"You might not need to organise anything. Maureen left here muttering about a cake and went straight to Mrs. Rossiter's door."

"Oh god."

"I suspect we're getting a reception whether we want one or not."

"We could elope."

It gets a laugh out of him, at least. "We did that already. Apparently it wasn't good enough."

"It was." She sighs. "It was so much better than this."

He kisses her forehead. "Come out and say a proper hello. Neil has promised to behave himself."

"I will."

** **

The boys at least look contrite when she comes back out. She can see how this situation will eventually be funny to her, too. But for right now the teasing brings out the fighter in her, protective of Alfred, defensive of herself. The others don't mean to be cruel, but they also can't possibly understand what that first ceremony, those vows, meant to them. She has tried every way she knows how to explain that this farce of a wedding is the joke, not the other way around, but it doesn't seem to have been enough.

Neil stands to hug her in apology, then pushes her gently down into his chair while he goes to drag another in from the living room. Mags, who has been sitting in Harry's lap, squirms free and squeezes around the table to come and lean against Aurora's shoulder instead, glaring at Sinclair. Aurora hides a smile at the fierce expression, and guides Mags around to sit on her lap instead. The unexpected affection does more to restore Aurora's spirits than all of the boys' apologies put together. Mags, who is demonstratively affectionate with the others – including Harry, who instantly became an overgrown playmate – is usually much less so with Aurora. Alfred keeps assuring her that it's because Mags is a little bit in awe of her, but Aurora is never quite sure she believes him.

"I'd offer you your wedding gift now to make up for this," Sinclair says, "but I couldn't bring it with me. It'll arrive in a few days."

Aurora is briefly horrified. "You've noticed the size of the flat, right?" With six of them, now, and the visitors' luggage, the place is bulging at the seams. If whatever it is won't fit in a suitcase, there is absolutely no room for it in the flat.

Sinclair just grins. "I've made arrangements."

"That's not actually reassuring."

** **

They allow Mags to stay up late, despite the fact that it's a school night, but when she starts drooping against Aurora's shoulder, Sinclair excuses himself and heads off to his hotel for the night.

Aurora manages to hide her relief that they're not going to have to manufacture another bed to put him in. Mags' relief at his departure is a little less subtle.

** **

Sinclair's wedding present, as it turns out, is the arrival of Aurora's parents. He brings them with him to the flat two days later and Aurora opens the door completely unprepared to find them standing on the step.

She had written to them from the hotel in Toronto to apologize for her abrupt departure from Québec. She tried to explain – without details – that she had witnessed things during the war that she still found upsetting. That she felt like she was somehow a different person, and that she was angry with herself that she couldn't be the woman she used to be, the woman she wanted to be for them.

Their understanding at the time was almost worse than recriminations would have been, because she still can't forgive herself for running away the way she did, for not saying goodbye, for not being able to explain to them what was wrong. They deserved better. She has tried to write regularly since then, giving them small slices of her life in London without the wider context. The tiny bedsit they started in, Christmas at the office, finding Neil, moving house, taking in Mags. Even their wedding, though she may have implied it had been an actual legal ceremony. And slowly, over the course of the year, they have repaired some of the broken trust between them. Slowly, Aurora's guilt has begun to recede.

But the surprise of finding them suddenly in front of her, on top of everything else, undoes her completely. Aurora presses her hand over her mouth, as though she has any chance of holding the emotions in, but the tears just spill across her knuckles instead. Her mother finally steps forward, easing Aurora out of the doorframe so they can all move inside, and gathers her into a hug, rocks her the way she hasn't done since Aurora was a little girl.

** **

Alfred finds himself on his feet without really understanding why. It's only when Neil turns towards the hall at the same moment he does that he realizes what's wrong. They heard the door open, but nothing after that. No voices. And Aurora hasn't reappeared.

He can't help the spike of fear, even though he knows it's irrational. They would have heard the sounds of a fight. He's not entirely sure what he's expecting when he and Neil step into the hall, but it is absolutely not Aurora in her parents' arms.

It takes him a moment to switch gears, even as he lays a hand on Neil's arm to hold him in place.

"Mr. and Mrs. Luft, welcome to London. Please, come inside."

Aurora's father recovers first. "Alfred. It is good to see you again."

Beside him, Neil flinches at the timbre of Mr. Luft's accent, and Alfred digs his fingers into Neil's arm.

"And you, sir," Alfred says. "May I take your coat?"

"Thank you." He begins to shrug out of his raincoat, but his gaze shifts to a point over Alfred's shoulder. "And you must be Mags."

Alfred turns to find Mags in the doorway to the living room, looking again as though she might be on the point of bolting for the bedroom.

Mr. Luft smiles, and his voice is gentle when he speaks. "My daughter has told me all about you."

Mags' expression is deeply suspicious. "You're Aurora's father?"

"That's right."

"She didn't tell us you were coming."

"She did not know."

"Yes," Neil says, laying a hand on Mags' shoulder. "And Sinclair and I will be having a chat later about how much we enjoy surprises in this household."

"A colonel's privilege." Although Sinclair does have the grace to look somewhat chagrined.

"We'll see about that."

"You must be Neil," Mr. Luft says.

"Yes, sir. It's a pleasure to meet you."

Mr. Luft steps forward to shake his hand, and together, he and Neil manage to bustle the group into the living room while Harry drags chairs in from the kitchen.

Aurora and her mother have disentangled themselves by this point, and Alfred takes Mrs. Luft's coat as well as she passes.

Aurora, though, has turned her back on the group, still battling to regain her composure.

"I'll put the kettle on," Alfred calls towards the living room. He lays a hand on Aurora's shoulder, and she leans into him for a moment before allowing him to lead her into the kitchen.

Aurora sags against the counter, still swiping at tears with the back of her hand. Alfred fishes in his pockets for a handkerchief, and passes it over. She still tucks one somewhere in his suit every morning, a ritual neither of them has been able to let go of.

"You okay?"

She sighs, and Alfred takes that as okay enough. He fills the kettle and sets it on the burner, then begins pulling down cups and saucers.

"How much do they know?" he asks.

"I told them when we got married in December."

"And this one?"

"A second ceremony they could never come to? Why make things worse than they already are? It was never supposed to mean anything."

Alfred hesitates a moment, but then moves to lean against the counter beside her. "Maybe we're just looking at it the wrong way."

"Looking at what?"

"I mean, I think you were right. To want to do this properly."

"Alfred."

"We had our ceremony. Nothing can change that. But this is for them. They want to celebrate with us, and maybe that's important too."

Aurora sighs again, but there's the hint of a smile around it. "We can't stop it, so we may as well enjoy it, is that what you're saying?"

"Something like that."

** **

With the house this full, a celebratory atmosphere is unavoidable. And Aurora, once she has gotten past the shock of their arrival, is profoundly grateful to have another chance to visit with her parents. And from a place much closer to sanity, to stability, than she was a year ago. She has roots and an identity and a family now, a whole new life that isn't locked away behind the Official Secrets Act, that isn't soaked in horror and blood. This time, she has something to talk about, and she wants to share it all with them.

They spend a long afternoon together, eight of them crammed into the small living room. Mags moves from lap to lap, as there's never a flat surface free for her to sit on. Harry is cross-legged on the floor. Aurora is squeezed in so tightly beside Alfred in an armchair really only designed for one that she's practically sitting on top of him. He keeps an arm tucked around her back, largely because there's nowhere else for his arm to go, but his fingers trace a soothing pattern against her hip out of sight of the visitors.

The conversation swirls around them in three languages at once – and, Aurora notes, Mags clearly understands every word of the French, though she isn't yet able to speak it. It's crowded and jumbled and noisy, but everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. Alfred is doing his best to charm Aurora's mother, and her initial coolness towards him has already melted away. Aurora's father dotes on Mags, and by the end of the afternoon, she's perched on his knee, telling him all about the books she's been reading. And Aurora feels like she might actually be glowing from the fierce joy that burns in her chest. It had never occurred to her that her parents could be a part of her new life. That they would accept her chosen family without question. That it doesn't have to be one or the other.

She catches Sinclair's eye and dips her head. Thank you. And he nods back. She would never have thought to ask, but this is the only wedding present she might ever have wanted.

** **

Aurora, Neil, and Alfred have all arranged time off work for Harry's visit, so they are able, at least, to properly care for their guests. And since it seems unfair that Mags should be the only one excluded, they allow her to stay home from school as well.

Sinclair has meetings during the day, but the rest of them meet Aurora's parents at their hotel, and Neil plays tour guide for them all. Even Alfred and Aurora have only seen the pockets of the city they live and work in, have never found the time to explore the rest.

Damage from the bombs is still visible everywhere, and construction is rampant. Neil keeps them away from the worst of it, mostly for Mags' sake, and they avoid any discussion of the Blitz. Nightmares aren't uncommon in the flat, and Mags has her share, though she doesn't usually remember much about them when she wakes.

Mrs. Luft brought gifts of food with her from Canada – flour, sugar, oats, jam – but even so, they aren't able to feed the crowd at the flat, so they eat dinner at a small local restaurant, and Mags looks like she might burst with delight at the unexpected treat.

Neighbours they pass on the street on the way home offer indulgent smiles, and Aurora realizes all her arguments that the wedding is nothing but a legal formality have now been thoroughly undermined. But she's finding it harder and harder to care. Beside her, Alfred and Harry are laughing together over some tale Harry has been telling. Behind them, Neil and her father are deep in conversation. And her mother and Mags have their heads bent together, whispering conspiratorially up ahead. If a wedding was what it took to bring this together, then Aurora is willing to enough suffer a little embarrassment in return.

Chapter Text


On the morning of the wedding, Aurora spends more time doing Mags' hair than her own. She and Alfred lay out the nicest of the clothes they already own to put on before they head out the door. And they all eat breakfast together in the kitchen like it's any other day.

But Mags is so excited she can't sit still at the table, and when the knock comes at the door she jumps out of her chair, very nearly sending her breakfast crashing to the floor, and flies down the hall to answer it.

"Opa, look at my hair!" she crows as soon as the door is open. "Aurora did it for me."

"You look lovely, Mausi," he tells her solemnly.

Mags beams, and does a little twirl so he can inspect it properly.

Aurora stands in the kitchen doorway watching the exchange, unsure whether she's about to laugh or cry – appalled to think it might be both at once – until Neil eases past her into the hall.

"Oi, miss. Back to the table and finish your breakfast, please. We have a lot to do today."

Mags sighs dramatically, but does as she's told, and Harry sits with her to keep her company while Alfred and Aurora head back into the bedroom to finish dressing.

As much as she loves having everyone together, Aurora is grateful to close the door on the mayhem in the rest of the flat for a minute. Nerves are beginning to flutter in her stomach, and she finds that completely ridiculous. Even if she hadn't sworn her vows once already, she has no doubts at all about doing so today. But the excitement radiating off everyone else is contagious, and despite her best efforts to dismiss it, her fingers tremble as she fastens the zipper at her hip.

** **

Alfred steps up behind her to do up the one at her back, and stays to press a kiss to the nape of her neck when he's done.

She turns in his arms, her hands coming up to rest on his chest, and he leans in, resting his forehead against hers.

"You okay?"

Her shoulders shift under his hands. "I don't like being the centre of attention."

It hadn't occurred to him, but of course she doesn't. "Just a couple of hours, and it'll all be over."

"Are you sorry? That I got us into this?"

He can't help a smile. The quiet symphony of contentment that has radiated off her over the last couple of days is more than worth the disruption in their lives. For today, at least, he is free of the gnawing worry for her that has haunted him for months. "How could I be?"

She hums an acknowledgement, closes her eyes. Her hands slide up around his shoulders, and she tucks her face into the crook of his neck. And in that moment the chaos of the morning falls away, and there's nothing in the world but her.

"Aurora," he murmurs against her skin. The only word he has to express the breadth and depth of what he feels.

"Je t'aime," she agrees quietly.

** **

A sharp knock at the door brings them back to themselves, and Alfred is briefly disoriented by the realization he has no idea how much time has passed.

"I'm not going to ask what you two are up to." Neil's voice through the door holds humour and impatience, both. "But you're in danger of being late for your own wedding, so get a bloody move on."

Aurora laughs, and Alfred reluctantly lets her go. She straightens his tie before stepping away to check her reflection one last time for smudged makeup or loose wisps of hair. Alfred shrugs into his jacket and meets her gaze in the mirror. Ready to go.

They step out of the bedroom and find the others ready and waiting for them, standing by with a handful of final surprises.

Neil has sneaked Mags out to the shop on the corner and now presents Aurora with fresh flowers for a bouquet. Mrs. Luft has laid out the family heirlooms, a delicate necklace and a pair of earrings, brought from Canada for Aurora to wear. And Harry has procured a camera from somewhere, though at the moment he's using it primarily to keep Mags distracted, explaining how it works. He even ends up promising her she can take one of the pictures herself once the ceremony is over. She stands with him and watches in fascination as Harry captures one or two candid shots of the final preparations.

They all pile into two taxis for the trip to the registry office, and to Aurora's relief, the atmosphere remains light and filled with laughter. At no point does her mother grow either weepy or sentimental, for which Aurora is profoundly grateful.

A small crowd waits for them outside the registry office when they arrive, an assortment of friends and neighbours headed up by Maureen, who greets them with hugs and more flowers.

The ceremony is simple and straightforward. Less fraught than that night in December, but suffused instead with conviction and simple joy. Alfred had, apparently, quietly bought a pair of rings and given them over to Mags to hold, and she is fairly bubbling with pride and delight when she's called upon to bring them forward.

Afterwards, they all stream back outside into the rare autumn sunshine, and Maureen leads them the few blocks down to the church hall, where a small reception is laid out. Sandwiches and punch and a small cake, with music playing on a borrowed wireless, and leftover victory bunting strung up to provide a festive atmosphere. It's a gesture of welcome and kindness, and Aurora is touched enough by it not to feel awkward at the fuss being made. And soon enough, even that fuss dissipates, and the afternoon becomes simply a gathering of friends enjoying their time together.

But even as she chats with her neighbours, laughs with her parents, Aurora can't seem to stop the fingers of her right hand straying back to touch the ring on her left. Both familiar and not. Her closest brush against tears today had come when Alfred slid it into place over her knuckle and she felt a knot of tension she hadn't even known she was carrying finally release. As though the ring is somehow a piece of him for her to carry against her skin. And there is profound comfort in the certainty that she will never be without it again.

** **

The day before her parents leave to fly back to Canada, Aurora and her father slip out of the flat together while the others are still chatting over a pot of tea. Alfred watches them go, notes the sharp green edge to the set of Aurora's shoulders, and has to battle down the surge of protectiveness that wants to spare her from what's to come.

Just before the door closes behind them, the cadence of their speech changes as they switch from English to German, and Alfred finds a small measure of relief in that. Until now, Aurora has addressed her father solely in English and French, and Alfred hopes, for Aurora's sake, that this might be a first step in reclaiming the language she learned at her father's knee. She told him once that it had felt like the very first secret code she ever learned, this language that in her childhood belonged only to the two of them, and he hates that the war has managed to taint even those memories for her.

** **
Aurora doesn't talk much about her work at the CBF. Not in specifics, not with him. She doesn't want to hand him any more horrors than he already has, and he's grateful for that, but he feels guilty, too. She hasn't spoken of her missing family directly since the day she choked down her tears in the catacombs under Paris. So in spite of the pain he knows the conversation must be causing, Alfred is glad she's able to take a step towards lancing that wound with the one person in her life who shares in the tragedy.

When she and her father arrive back, hours later, Aurora is tense and drawn, ragged with dissonant chords in a way Alfred hasn't seen on her since they left France. He suspects they've both been crying, though they cover it well enough that no one but Aurora's mother seems to notice.

Aurora tucks herself into a seat next to Alfred, but doesn't touch him, so Alfred resists the urge to slide his arm around her, not wanting to unbalance her precarious control.

It's not long before Mrs. Luft calls an early end to the evening, on the pretext of wanting a good night's sleep before their journey the next day. Alfred meets her eyes as they all bid their farewells in the hall and gives her a nod of thanks. She nods back, and leads her husband gently out the door.

Aurora, too, claims exhaustion at the end of a busy week and slips away to the bedroom while Neil is still reassuring Mags that she'll get to see everyone again at a goodbye breakfast the following morning.

Alfred helps to clear the tea things into the kitchen, but leaves Mags and Harry to wash the dishes and ducks into the bedroom after Aurora. He finds her perched on the edge of the bed, staring into nothingness. She's slow to move when he closes the door behind him, crosses to stand beside her, but when she finally turns her gaze up to his, the grief is stark on her face. Her control crumbles with the first brush of his fingers in comfort, and he guides her down onto the bed where he can hold her against him while she sobs through the pain she has been holding onto for far too long.

** **

In the days after the wedding, all their guests leave them, one by one. Sinclair was the first to go, and Harry is the last. After all the crowds and chaos, the flat seems empty and quiet in comparison. And Mags is inconsolable for days.

Aurora sits with her after school for as long as Mags' attention lasts, teaching her French grammar and spelling in the guise of writing short letters to Opa and Mémé – as her parents have somehow become. Helping her to puzzle through the letters she gets in return.

Mags exchanges letters with Harry, too, though these ones don't go through Aurora. It seems that Harry has introduced Mags to his oldest niece, who isn't much younger than she is, and these letters Mags won't show to anyone else. Aurora can't help thinking of Lotte, and the secrets they shared as girls, what it meant to have that connection with someone so like herself, so familiar, despite living an ocean away. And she aches all over again that Mags will never be able to exchange letters with Lotte's children in this way.

** **

Alfred sometimes finds them still at it when he arrives home from work, sitting together at the table with Aurora's golden head bent next to Mags' dark one, bound together in wisps of blue. Aurora has more patience in teaching her than he would have assumed, and Mags sits still longer at those lessons than she might have otherwise, because it's Aurora teaching her.

Alfred still doesn't understand how Aurora can look at Mags and miss the worship in her eyes. But then, Alfred is also willing to admit that he's biased. That worship is a feeling so familiar he would recognise it anywhere.

** **

The weeks after the wedding are punctuated by the inevitable questions, posed with varying degrees of directness, about when Alfred and Aurora plan to begin having children. Further veiled in those questions is the commentary that Aurora is no longer as young as she might once have been and time is of the essence.

Mrs. Luft is even less subtle. She knows better than to ask the question outright in her letters, but when her Christmas package arrives at the flat in late November, in with the biscuits and jams are an assortment of exquisitely hand-made baby clothes. Aurora wraps them, still folded, in the parcel paper the box arrived in and packs them away in the wardrobe without comment.

She and Alfred haven't spoken about the possibility of children since that conversation in June. The idea no longer panics Aurora in the way it did, but nor is she anxious to bring the topic up again. She knows Alfred continues to hope, and they haven't made any particular effort to be careful about preventing conception. But that's almost the point. It would have happened already, if it was going to.

** **

In early December another package arrives, full of Christmas treats from Harry, and in the bottom is a large sealed envelope with a note proclaiming it is intended to be opened on the 21st. The first anniversary of Alfred and Aurora's own private ceremony.

They wait, as instructed, and open the envelope together on the appointed day. Inside are large prints of the photos Harry took during their September wedding: Mrs. Luft fastening the necklace on Aurora, the similarity in their profiles captured by the angle of the morning light. Alfred and Aurora surrounded by their neighbours, animated in laughter and greetings outside the registry office, Alfred's fingers resting lightly in the small of Aurora's back. The two of them again, hands linked during the ceremony. And posed shots taken afterwards: the married couple, the team, the family in various combinations.

The day of the ceremony itself had been remarkably free of tears of any kind, but they spill over now, as though in payment, while Aurora looks through the assortment again and again.

A candid shot of her and Mags, where Aurora thinks she can finally see the love that Alfred has always promised her was there.

The picture taken by Mags herself, of Alfred, Neil, and Harry laughing together – candid, and probably unauthorized – that lacks Harry's artistic touch, but makes up for its odd framing by the impression it gives that someone is missing from the shot.

A photo of Mags and Neil together, taken from behind, his hand resting across her shoulders, holding her close against his side.

Aurora finally turns them over to Alfred and makes him choose which ones they'll frame and hang around the flat, because if he leaves it to her, she'll display every single one.

Chapter Text


With the wedding past, their visitors gone, and both men settled into their new jobs, life at the flat eases back into a steady rhythm. It takes the adults some time to adapt to the mundanity of it, to stop bracing themselves for the next crisis, but eventually even Neil and Aurora begin to relax.

Christmas is a quiet affair again, although at least this time none of them are called in to work. There are some small gifts and treats for Mags that came in the packages from Canada, but with rationing even tighter now than during the war, there's very little to supplement them with from London.

Neil gives Mags tickets to the pantomime instead, and makes a proper evening of it. Aurora does her hair for her, and allows her to borrow a few bits of jewellery, and Neil takes her to dinner at a real restaurant beforehand. She gets to stay out late, and ride home in a taxi, and Mags is starry-eyed for weeks afterwards about her adventure.

Alfred and Aurora give each other a night out as well. Ever since they saw Hallie sing, they have intended to go out again, though with one distraction after another they haven't yet managed it. So together they pick a band playing in the city and spend another beautiful evening, just the two of them.

And they do better after that – possibly in retaliation against the long, damp, dreary winter nights – at finding an evening every couple of weeks to go out to a music hall or a restaurant. Aurora looks forward to those nights for days in advance, as though they're doling themselves out a honeymoon one small slice at a time.

Neil, too, finds pieces of a life outside of the flat. He meets friends from work or from the neighbourhood at the pub one or two nights a week. And they all feel better for expanding their lives somewhat beyond the cramped confines of the flat.


** **

In February, Alfred comes home with the news that he is being sent to Geneva for a week to sit in on a series of meetings. The organization wants a first-hand observer, and Alfred's unique abilities make him ideally suited to judging not only the content of what is said, but the undercurrents of what is not.

Aurora hates the very thought of it. She and Alfred haven't spent a night apart since they left Québec, let alone a week. But Alfred is thriving in his new position, and this is a requirement of the job, so they both make an effort to face the separation with as much good grace as they can muster.

When Alfred steps into the taxi on Sunday afternoon, Aurora keeps the goodbye short and sweet, because anything else means acknowledging the whole of his impending absence. And the only way she knows how to deal with it is one step at a time.

And through that afternoon, with the general bustle of family life, making dinner, preparing for the week, with Neil and Mags filling the space around her, Aurora manages just fine. It's when she steps into the bedroom alone at the end of the evening that she crashes hard into the wall of his absence, and she can't seem to get warm under the sheets by herself.

It's okay to miss him, she tells herself. She just can't be debilitated by it.

But she has been too trained by their years in the field, when if ever they were apart it was because one or the other of them was on a mission. Absence means danger, means risk, means worry. And her head can't seem to convince her stomach that this time there isn't anything to be afraid of.

No matter how hard she tries, her jangling nerves won't allow her to settle into sleep. And the more she lies awake, the more aware she is of the empty space beside her. Towards dawn, when she does manage to doze off, she's plagued by unsettling dreams that are almost worse than nightmares. And by the time the sun comes up it's a relief to drag herself out of bed.

Neil takes one look at her when she steps into the kitchen and sighs.

"Mags," he says as he sets her breakfast in front of her, "how do you feel about sleeping in the big bed tonight, to keep Aurora company?"

Aurora opens her mouth to object, but Neil silences her with an eyebrow. "It's either her or me, take your pick."

It would almost be less odd with Neil – they bunked down next to each other countless times across safe houses and camp sites – but Mags seems excited by the idea, so Aurora doesn't object. And though Mags squirms in her sleep, Aurora manages a more restful night than the previous one, just from the knowledge that she's not alone in the room. She thinks that perhaps the following night she might sleep on the couch, where she'll have Neil and Mags both nearby and is less likely to get accidentally walloped in her sleep.

She never gets the chance to try, though. Tuesday morning at work, a messenger steps into the office with a telegram for her, and when she opens it, the message reads simply, BIJOU.

She gathers her things without thinking, informs her boss she's been called away for a family emergency, and heads out the door. She stops at the flat long enough to throw some clothes and necessities into a suitcase, to leave a note for Neil and Mags, and then flags a taxi to the train station.

** **

The journey feels endless. A train, a ferry, another train, and another. It's long after dark and Aurora is exhausted by the accumulated worry when she finally arrives in Geneva. She's following the signs to the taxi rank when she sees Alfred waiting for her in the concourse. She drops her suitcase as she reaches him and pulls him into her arms. He's glassy-eyed, trembling, but his arms close around her back, and she holds him tight against her until her heart finally begins to slow from its panic.

"Did something happen? What's wrong?"

He shakes his head, but doesn't manage any words. So she just lets her hands rub comforting arcs across his back, his shoulders. "It's okay. You're okay. I'm here," she murmurs over and over. "I'm here."

** **

There is no raid, no noise, no single event he can point to as a trigger. Just the general unease of being alone, away from his life and his routine, from everything he finds comforting. Staying alone in that impersonal hotel room is far too much like his life in a small apartment in Toronto before the war. When everything was a struggle, when the world was overwhelming, when he had no one who cared whether he made it out the door or not. And he can't help but realize how thin the thread he's clinging to really is. How easily he could end up right back in that nightmare.

And with that doubt gnawing in his mind, he loses what skill he has gained in managing his memories of the war.

The team had never managed to cross the border into Switzerland, never spent time in Geneva. He hadn't thought the city would be a problem for him. There's still no reason it should be. The organization had even flown him from London – he hadn't had to pass through France as Aurora had. Yet still, without the bulwark of the life he has built for himself, without Aurora's formidable presence, all the small details stack up until he's drowning in the moments they evoke.

It's the smell in the sheets that's the same sharp flavour as the safe house where they waited once, believing Harry wasn't coming back. It’s the mottled sound of other people through the walls that brings back the cell where he was tortured. The light through the curtains that has the same texture as the papered windows at the Café de L'Azur. It's the colour of the walls, and the texture of the floor, the clanking of the pipes, the smell of winter in the air. The rhythm of the French conversation around him. The precise pitch in the roar of a car engine. A dozen other tiny things he exhausts himself trying to block out, and yet still the memories keep coming.

It takes all his focus to remain aware at his meetings during the day, to serve the purpose he was sent to serve. But at night there are no distractions, there is nowhere to hide from the memories that surge up at him out of his loneliness. By Tuesday morning, the only thing that gets him out of his hotel room is the need to get a message to Aurora. And somehow he manages to force himself through the motions of his day while he waits for her.

** **

They stand entwined together for a long time in the mostly empty train station before Aurora feels Alfred has calmed enough to stand on his own.

He's had moments, wobbles, over the last year. Often triggered by something specific – nightmares, a thunderstorm, the smell of woodsmoke, the feel of a tin cup in his hand – but not always. Nothing this catastrophic, though. Not since the bombardment of London ended. And Aurora is terrified by what this upset might do to him.

She keeps hold of him with one hand as she bends to retrieve her suitcase, and he presses close against her shoulder as they make their way outside to the taxi rank.

They arrive at his hotel without incident, but once upstairs he balks at the door to his room.

"What's wrong?"

He shakes his head again. "I can't go in there."

Aurora doesn't ask why, just leads him back down to the reception desk. She puts on her sergeant voice and within twenty minutes has convinced the night receptionist to switch Alfred to a new room, on a different floor, facing a different direction, with a different layout, and all but frogmarched the young bellhop up the stairs to pack and move Alfred's belongings. She would have done the latter herself, but Alfred won't step into the room with her and she can't leave him standing alone in the hall, so she settles for tipping the boy generously for his trouble.

Alfred is still too shaken even to be embarrassed at the fuss.

When the bellhop finally leaves, Aurora has never been so pleased to close a door on the world in her life. Alfred looks like death warmed over, and she feels about the same. She doesn't even bother opening her suitcase, just strips them both down to their underwear and all but manhandles Alfred into bed under the covers. He curls into her immediately, buries his face in her hair, and she resumes her gentle caress, running her hands up and down his back until the tension runs out of him and he tips over into exhausted sleep.

She lies awake beside him long into the night, standing watch against nightmares, and allowing the rhythm of his breathing to soothe her own ragged nerves.

** **

Alfred wakes before her in the morning, and Aurora opens her eyes to find him watching her with the fixed gaze that says he's focusing on her to drown out the chaos of everything else. Her heart aches to see the lines of fragility back in his expression after so many months of quiet confidence. She lifts a hand to his face, as though just her touch can smooth that look away.

"I missed you," she says simply.

His lips twitch in a smile, there and gone again.

Her thumb ghosts across his cheek. "Do you want to talk about it?"

He's silent for a long moment, lets out a shuddering breath. "Not yet."

"Okay."

"I'm sorry-"

"No. No apologies. I'm glad you called me."

He nods, but she can read the failure he feels written across his features.

"I couldn't sleep," she tells him quietly. "Without you. Neil put Mags in with me on Monday night, just to keep me sane, I think."

Another fleeting smile. He dips his face to her shoulder again, presses a kiss against the skin there. But there's a distance behind his eyes that she hasn't seen since those miserable days last winter. So she rakes her fingers through his hair, tugs it lightly to bring his face to hers. Kisses him until she can feel him respond, until his hands slide down her back and he pulls her body closer. Shifts her thigh against his, and he presses her back into the mattress.

This time, at least, she won't let him shut her out. And when they ease apart, he's fully present with her again, for the first time since he left London.

She meets his gaze and holds it, to make sure he hears her. "You haven't failed at anything yet, other than being alone. And if that's a weakness, then you need to shame me, too."

He closes his eyes, still resting half on top of her, lowers his head to press his forehead against her collar bone. His sigh catches on the edge of tears, frustration and anger and resignation all at once.

"I just..."

He can't finish the thought, but he doesn't have to. Again she threads her fingers through his hair, but this time she simply cradles him against her. "I know."

He rests there for a long moment before he sighs again, calmer this time, and lifts his head to meet her gaze.

"My meetings start at nine." His voice is steady, but she can see what it costs him.

She manages a smile, lets her fingers brush his face as she releases him. "Okay. Then why don't we start with finding something to eat."

** **

They walk through the chill morning air to a small café not far from the hotel and linger over coffees and pastry as a thin winter sun rises outside the window. She sits close enough to him that their legs brush under the table, and he keeps the fingers of one hand tangled with hers. She fills the silence with easy talk enough that all he has to do is listen, and he's relieved to find that the sound of French in her voice now evokes mostly feelings of comfort and home.

He wonders briefly if her choice is deliberate, or whether she hasn't even realized she never switched back into English after her interaction with the cashier. Whichever it is, he's grateful for it, and the window of calm her voice builds allows him to believe he might actually be able to face the rest of the day.

** **

Shortly before nine she walks him to the conference room with promises to meet him again for lunch. His grip on her hand as they approach still holds an edge of vulnerability, but he manages to put at least the appearance of confidence into his posture, and that will have to be good enough for now. He's rattled, but it could be so much worse. She leaves him with a smile and a kiss and an iron control over her expression, to keep from him just how hard it is for her to turn and walk away.

A moment – hidden from view – to compose herself and she heads back out into the streets, armed with directions from the receptionist, to find a post office. She sends a telegram to Neil with an update so he doesn't worry, and another to her boss to apologize and to clarify that she won't be back at work until Monday. And then she heads back to Alfred's hotel room and crawls into bed to sleep until lunchtime.

Chapter Text


Alfred's morning meetings run late, so they eat lunch at the hotel rather than going in search of something off-site. Alfred shifts uncomfortably under the curious gazes of the other delegates, who are clearly wondering who Aurora is and what she's doing with him. So when the boldest of them stops at the table to greet Alfred on his way past, Aurora steps in to defuse the encounter with a shield of smooth lies.

"I'm sure it's irregular, but we never had the chance to take a honeymoon when we were married. I know it's not quite the same, but..." She shrugs a little and drops her eyes. "I hope I'm not too much of a distraction."

The man falls over himself to reassure her and offer them both his congratulations. And with the unwanted attention now fixed on Aurora, Alfred has space enough to raise an eyebrow at her performance.

The story clearly makes the rounds through the afternoon, because when she meets Alfred at the end of the day, the curiosity has been replaced by indulgent smiles, and no one comments when Alfred chooses not to join the others for dinner in the hotel's restaurant.

** **

Alfred looks pale and tired by the end of the day, but doesn't seem eager to spend the evening shut in the hotel room. So they head out into the streets instead and wander through the lingering twilight, exploring the city a little before they lose the light altogether. Aurora had passed the afternoon getting to know the area around the hotel, and she guides Alfred back to a few of the lovely corners she found.

It takes her a while to understand what feels so strange about the city, until she realizes it's the complete lack of destruction. No shattered buildings, no wholesale reconstruction. Even the church she passes still has all its windows. And when they revisit it now, the stained glass glowing low and warm from the lights inside, the complicated muddle of emotion it evokes in her is overwhelming. Envy. Bitter anger. Contempt. But hope, too. And relief, that some of the world's beauty has been spared.

When Alfred's gaze flickers over to her in concern, though, she turns her back on the church, stuffs her reaction down, shifts her focus back to him.

They find a small local restaurant, enjoy a simple dinner. Meander back to the hotel through streets that have taken on a fairytale frosting of snow, thick flakes still lending a hush to the air. She pulls him to a stop on a quiet corner a few blocks from the hotel. He looks exhausted, but when he glances over at her a delighted smile tugs unexpectedly at the corner of his mouth.

"What?" she asks.

"The snow in your hair tastes like apples."

She smiles, charmed by the image, and steps closer to loop her arms around his back.

"Why did we stop?" he asks quietly, his head bent to hers.

"When you think of this trip, I want you to remember this part, too."

He stills in her arms for a long moment before he offers a hesitant nod. "I'll try."

** **

The next day passes along similar lines. She joins Alfred when he's free, spends the rest of her time exploring the city. Not since she first arrived in Paris with René has she taken the time to play tourist, to learn the shape and rhythms and quirks of a place with no ulterior motive in mind.

But she can't seem to stop circling back to that church, to its pristine, fragile windows. Until finally she gives in and buys herself a notebook and pen, spends a couple of hours sitting in a sunny café window trying to articulate on paper some of the complicated reactions she's having to this place that is so untouched by the war that raged all around it. Its sharp contrast to the scarred and ravaged France she travelled through to get here.

She has never tried to write about the war. Not since the roundup at the Café de l'Azur shut down their underground paper. And it's a delicate dance, now, to find a way to phrase her thoughts that doesn't reveal – or even hint at – the secrets she is never allowed to share. Just in case the notebook should ever be misplaced. And she finds herself building yet another cover story for herself. This time – on paper – she plays the part of a visiting journalist who remained in France during the war because she couldn't bear to abandon her adopted home. It allows just enough context to explain her movement around the country, and retains just enough truth that it still feels worth writing.

The afternoon leaves her with a confused jumble of thoughts and scribbles, barely a beginning, if it's anything at all. But it helps to clear her head, to drain that poison out of her system, and allows her to bring a better mood back to her evening with Alfred.

** **

The week continues bumpy, with Alfred still raw and flinching. Sometimes even Aurora can't tell what it is that has triggered him. The best she can do is to put aside her worry and be a point of calm for him. To stay close to his side as much as possible and let him maintain the touch that soothes him.

In the hotel room at night, he takes the shade off the lamp to change the quality of light and leaves his shoes on until the last possible moment before he climbs into bed. Aurora offers him her bottle of perfume without comment, wishing she had thought of it sooner, and he places a few dabs around the room, one or two more on the sheets. She can almost see his shoulders unclench as the scent fills the room.

He's determined, and frustrated, and hurting, but he's not shutting down. And he doesn't miss a single meeting. By Friday afternoon, he seems to have developed a bleak kind of pride in himself for that, which Aurora takes as a good sign.

** **

But with an end to the meetings comes the larger challenge of getting home on Saturday. There is a place booked for him on a flight back to London, but not one for her. He could join her on the train, but the journey means a whole day spent travelling through France, and the minefield of memories there.

"The plane is faster," she suggests over dinner on Friday night. "At least that way you'll be home, and Neil can meet you at the other end."

"What about you?"

"I'll get there as soon as I can."

He shifts his hold on her hand, so his thumb can brush a light caress across her skin. "No, I meant, will you be okay travelling through France by yourself?"

"I've done it once already. I'll be fine."

She had been almost grateful for the pounding worry over him that distracted her on the journey out. The complicated memories had existed largely as a roiling in her stomach, and eventually she had simply turned her back on the window, avoided reading the names on the stations they passed through. She can manage that much again.

"But better together," he says.

She manages half a smile. "We're always better together. But this time it might not be practical. I need you to make it home in one piece." It's a measure of her own emotional exhaustion how hard she has to fight to keep her voice steady through that thought.

He shifts his grip again and laces their fingers together, but there's a frown building between his eyebrows. "I don't like the idea that France is... closed to me, somehow. Like I have to be protected from it. Those years are a part of who I am. A part of us. I don't want to be afraid of them."

"We could plan a visit, then. Maybe in the summer? Take some time to get ready for it."

"Maybe," he agrees.

But there's anger in the tension across his face now. Not directed at her, but still, she turns the problem over in her head one more time.

"What if we left tonight, instead?"

"What?"

"We could take a sleeper berth on the train and travel overnight. There wouldn't be much to see, and we'd sleep through most of it anyway."

A hesitant smile chases away the lines of tension on his face. "I'd prefer that to the plane, I think, if we can still get tickets."

"We'll have to change trains in Paris," she says cautiously, her tone asking the question she doesn't want to voice.

He just nods. "I know." And a warmth that's been absent for days flickers through his smile. "Not all my memories of Paris are bad ones."

"Okay," she says. "Okay. Let's try it."

** **

They head straight from the restaurant to the train station, where they find there is a sleeper berth available on the 21:40 to Paris. They take a taxi back to the hotel to pack, and Alfred leaves a message for the liaison from the organization, informing them he won't be on his flight.

His relief when they step out of the hotel for the last time and back into the waiting taxi is almost palpable.

** **

On the train, Aurora draws the curtain across the window in their tiny compartment the moment they step inside. The less the outside world intrudes on them during this journey, the easier it will be. And for the moment, just the knowledge that it will carry them out of Switzerland, back towards London and home, infuses the cabin with a feeling of safety.

Neither of them has any great desire to explore the rest of the train, so they putter about the small space stowing their suitcases and getting themselves settled until the train jostles into motion and pulls out of the station.

Alfred sinks down onto the edge of the bunk as they finally leave Geneva, as though all the force of his determination to power through the week is tethered back in the city and yanked out of him as they draw away. Aurora steps closer to him and brushes a hand through his hair. He loops an arm around her waist and leans into her, finding his new balance.

Again, they don't bother with night clothes. It's not worth the effort of wrestling with the suitcases. They just lay their clothes out on the upper bunk to keep them from wrinkling too badly and climb together into the lower one. It's a narrow fit for two – Alfred slides in first with his back against the wall, and Aurora nestles tight against his chest – but it's still a vast improvement over spending the journey apart. Alfred tucks an arm around her waist to keep her from tumbling out of bed in the night, and she laces their fingers together to pin him in place. Between their own exhaustion and the steady rhythm in the clatter of the wheels, the sway of the car, neither of them is awake when the train passes through the mountains into France.

** **

They arrive in Paris at an ungodly hour of the morning.

The metro isn't running yet, so they step out into the streets in search of a taxi to carry them from the Gare de Lyon to the Gare du Nord for the onward journey to the ferry at Calais.

Aurora keeps an eye on Alfred, keeps her hand tucked into the crook of his arm, but on the whole Paris is just Paris. Alfred was right. It's too big, too much, to be any kind of specific trigger, and he remains steady beside her.

Aurora's own feelings are messy and tangled, but in among them are joy and relief. She leans into his shoulder in the taxi and they watch the streets go by out the window, free of Nazi uniforms, free of swastikas.

"I'd like to come back," he says quietly. "Visit properly."

She nods. "In the summer. When there are flowers and sunshine. I want to remember what it feels like to love this city."

"In the summer," he agrees, almost smiling. "It's a date."

** **

Neil and Mags are both home when they let themselves into the flat on Saturday afternoon.

Neil ducks into the hall at the sound and smiles his relief as they stagger in and drop their luggage against the wall.

"All right?"

"Fine." Alfred has no reason to be embarrassed in front of Neil after all this time, but still he struggles with a wash of shame at the overdramatic results of his panic.

"Glad to be home," Aurora adds. And Alfred takes a moment to just breathe into the hand she lays on his back.

He gets only a moment, though, as Mags hurtles past Neil to fling her arms around him. "Are you okay?"

He lifts her off the ground with his hug and swings her around just to reassure her. Realizes with a start she's getting too tall for him to be able to do that for much longer. "Just fine," he repeats. "How are you? How was your week?"

"I missed you," she says. And when he puts her down, she turns immediately to launch herself at Aurora. Alfred can't help a smile when Aurora neither flinches nor stiffens, but just squeezes her back.

"Come on, then, let's let them out of the hallway, shall we?"

Mags dashes off to the kitchen to put the kettle on for them, while the adults troop into the living room. And over cups of tea Neil keeps Mags chattering with stories about their week alone, and friends, and school, and how on Thursday she had cooked dinner for Neil by herself.

Alfred is grateful for the distraction Mags provides, and that Neil is kind enough not to press for details about what happened, not to force him to relive it again so soon. And gradually his lingering uneasiness begins to calm. The memories and traumas, once stirred up, have been slow to settle, but the flat at least contains no jarring associations for him. He knows every inch of this place, every texture, every smell. He has a place and a purpose and other people who rely on him. Within these walls he feels safe, and now he knows better than to take that for granted ever again.

Chapter Text

Alfred sleeps late on Sunday morning. Late enough that Neil cracks the door open at one point just to check on them. Aurora waves him a reassurance, but makes no move to wake Alfred even then. This is the first sound sleep he's had in a week, and his body is in desperate need of it after the stresses of his time away from home. He barely moved in the night, and he's still warm and heavy against her side.

He seemed so haggard by the time they arrived home on Saturday that Aurora had been honestly scared, just looking at him. And it's the first time she has considered properly what the physical cost of his condition might be. Surely his system can't withstand assaults like that forever. Surely there will eventually be a price. And no matter how hard she tries to put that thought aside, she can't quite shake the sick fear of it. Two days alone was misery enough.

Neil reappears at the door some time later, crosses the room to deliver tea and toast for her, his footfalls still all but silent even with his bad leg. And Aurora is as grateful for the distraction as she is for the kindness. She smiles her thanks, and he nods back, brushes her shoulder with light fingers as he turns to go. And soon after, she can hear the muffled sounds of him herding Mags out the door for some kind of adventure in the centre of town.

It's almost noon before Alfred begins to shift beside her, inching his way back towards consciousness. And, no longer worried about waking him, Aurora finally gives in to the need to touch him, to reassure herself that her fears are just fears, that he's still present, still whole. She traces fingers lightly through his hair, across his cheek, down the line of his jaw, stubble rough against her fingertips. He hums low in his throat, turns into her touch, reaching for her before he's fully awake. And she goes willingly, pressing light kisses against sleepy lips. Slides her touch across his shoulders, down his chest to rest her hand against his heart, to feel its rhythm, steady and strong. His eyes blink slowly open, already crinkling into a smile.

For the first time in days, there is no tension, no fragility in his face. He looks like himself, and that more than anything else unties the knot of worry in her chest.

** **

Alfred wakes to warmth and blue and Aurora. The world is solid around him, and for the first time in days he doesn't have to spend half his attention in sorting memory from reality. He's not entirely certain what prompted the radiant smile on Aurora's face as he opens his eyes, but it's a relief not to see worry etched into her features.

"Good morning," he murmurs.

"Afternoon," she says. "Almost."

That explains why he feels halfway human again. Although he tries not to cringe at having made himself a burden again so soon.

"I'm sorry. You didn’t have to wait for me."

A flicker of sadness dims her smile, and Alfred immediately regrets his words.

"I know," she says. "I wanted to."

His hands find hers against his chest, cradling them in place before she can draw them away, his thumbs brushing a reassurance against her skin. Geneva was a harsh reminder of what his life could have been. Would have been. Without her. And it occurs to him, belatedly, that the reminder might have been just as painful for her.

And that maybe it's time to stop treating his need for her presence as a weakness to be despised.

"I'm glad you did," he says quietly. "The world doesn't make sense unless we're together."

Her eyes slide shut and she moves in to rest her forehead against his. He releases her hands to lace his fingers through her hair instead, tilts his head to find her lips in a kiss. Not the sweet, almost casual kisses he woke up to, but slower, deeper. An apology. An affirmation. She closes the last breath of space between their bodies, and they take their time in lingering, wordless assurances that for right now there's nothing to fear from could'ves and would'ves.

** **

Aurora's boss greets her when she steps into his office on Monday morning with an unexpectedly severe expression. "The wanderer returns, I see. Did you enjoy your time gallivanting off in Switzerland?"

Aurora's surprise blooms into an icy anger in her chest. She hadn't believed him to be unreasonable, and had spent the journey in to work thinking through options to discuss with him, possibilities of scheduling unpaid leave for the next time Alfred is sent away by the organization. Clearly she needn't have bothered.

"Not particularly, no. I'm sorry to have disturbed you, I'll just collect my things."

She's turning to go when he steps out from behind his desk to catch her arm, and she has to stop herself from knocking his hand aside. Notices just in time his sheepish half-smile.

"Aurora, no. I'm sorry. I was teasing. Credit me with some sense, will you? I've known you half a year, and I trust you not to disappear without a reason. Sit down and tell me what happened."

He's observant enough to release her and simply wave her into a chair as he circles back to sit behind his desk. "Was it your parents? No, wait, they're in Canada, aren't they."

Aurora's still reeling somewhat from the sudden emotional about-face as she sits down across from him. Finds herself fumbling for the words that will approximate the truth without having to lay all of Alfred's secrets out on the table between them.

"My husband was in Geneva on business and had a bad turn. He... he still suffers after effects from the war. I had to go to him. I'm sorry it was so sudden."

"Not at all. Is he recovering?"

"He is, thank you."

"I'm glad to hear that. But Aurora, if your attention is needed at home with your family, that's where you should be. I won't hold it against you if you need to resign. Though I have to say we'd be sorry to lose you."

Aurora takes a breath, trying to squash her memory of the misery she felt after leaving SOE. "I was hoping we could discuss the situation. Alfred manages well when we're at home, but the travel is hard on him. If he's sent away on business again, I have to go with him. I'll give you as much warning as I can, and make up for the lost time. I would like to stay on, if you're willing, but I'll understand if you're not."

Aurora hasn't discussed this part with Alfred. Knows he'd try to talk her out of it. But if he goes away again, she's going to go with him, without question. She never wants to have to endure a week like that again. And if she is going to be forced to choose, then it's no choice at all. She'll just have to find work somewhere else that will allow her the flexibility she needs. There must be something out there that would suit.

"How often would these trips be?"

"I'm afraid I have no idea. There's nothing currently scheduled, but the possibility is always there."

He considers her for a long moment. She's not sure entirely what he reads in her face, but his voice when he finally speaks is kind.

"Well, there's no use borrowing trouble, as my mother used to say. We'll address the issue when it comes up. I'm willing to be accommodating, but I can't make any promises. Is that good enough for now?"

"It is, thank you, sir."

He nods. "Well, back to work then. And please, give your husband my best wishes for his continued health."

Aurora smiles, relieved, and stands to go. "I will."

** **

Alfred settles back into life at the flat with a certain determination, holding tight to his routine as a kind of safety net. Aurora, though, finds it harder to ease herself back down to normal after a crisis, and spends much of the week with a sharp eye out in case anything unexpected pops up to rattle them all over again. So when, on Thursday, Neil slips into the bathroom after work, has a shave and changes his shirt before he heads back out for the evening, Aurora finally notices.

He calls no attention to the fact at all, walks out the door as though he's heading to the pub, as though nothing at all is remarkable. But, thinking back, Aurora realizes this isn't the first time. Not by a long shot. A part of her is even tempted to ask Alfred to recall the details for her, but that isn't fair to either Alfred or Neil, and she doesn't want to draw Alfred's attention to the situation if Neil is trying to keep things private. And Neil is clearly making an effort to be discreet if not even the neighbourhood gossip mill has whispers of anything yet.

It could, Aurora admits to herself, be nothing at all. Just a courtesy to his friends after a long day. But her instincts tell her Neil is seeing someone.

** **

After a week back in London, Alfred has almost regained his confidence. His superiors at the organization are happy enough with the report he gave them about the conference in Geneva, and no particularly awful rumours about his condition, or about Aurora's sudden presence, seem to have followed him home. His commute to and from work is still the least pleasant part of his day, but it's not debilitating. And life at home is comfortable in a way he continues to treasure.

But still, he's cautious. Following the pattern they had set themselves, this would have been the week for a night out with Aurora, but he's hesitant to brave any new experiences just yet, and they let the date slide in unspoken agreement.

Abandoning those plans for a week or two does feel like a failure, but only a small one. Understandable. They'd have done the same with any other kind of illness. But he also puts aside the project he had assigned himself after Christmas, and that is a breach he finds harder to justify.

In the weeks before he left for Geneva, Alfred had begun to make quiet inquiries into other flats that might be available in the neighbourhood. When he and Aurora took the flat in April, their landlord believed he would be gone about a year. And given that all the local authorities are still backed up trying to re-home those displaced by the Blitz, it didn't seem wise to leave things to the last minute.

And the problem of finding someplace new to live is a complex one – their situation is no longer what it was last April. Alfred's salary in his new job is a dramatic increase over what it had been at SOE, and Neil, too, is earning more than he was in his part time position. They have more options in terms of what they can afford, but their choices are now limited in all new ways.

When he and Aurora left their first tiny bedsit, neither of them cared where in the city they ended up, so long as there was room for Neil and Mags. Now, though, location is the driving factor. Alfred doesn't want to upset Mags' life by forcing her to change schools. Particularly not partway through the year. Nor would he want to disrupt the arrangement they have with Maureen, which seems to be working for everyone, or to leave the community where even Aurora is beginning to feel at home.

When he first began to pick the threads of the problem apart, Alfred took a quiet pleasure in trying to come up with solutions that might work, to have options that he could then present to the others for discussion.

But now the very thought of moving, of trying to build a home in a whole new place full of unknown textures and noises and smells, leaves him feeling cold and sick. He puts his plans aside. Tells himself he'll come back to them in a few days. In a week. Or two.

He's just not ready for another relapse quite so soon.

** **

Aurora continues work on the project in her notebook during the spare moments she can find in her days. It feels good to stretch those mental muscles, to spend time doing a different kind of work, applying a different kind of training.

It's often a fraught process, picking through the minefield of upsetting and uncomfortable memories, and there are some she still won't engage with at all, but she can feel something starting to take shape in amongst her scribbles and that keeps her pushing forward.

She learns quickly, though, that writing before bed is the short road to an unsettled night. Either nightmares or a churning uneasiness that keeps her from getting to sleep at all. But some days the only time she can find to write is in the late evening, after Mags is in bed and the flat has gone quiet, so occasionally she decides it's a sacrifice worth making.

She spends part of one evening trying to assemble the details of Claire and the other girls at the birth house near Saint Antoine into some kind of narrative, and then lies awake for hours afterwards wondering where those girls and their babies ended up. Wondering whether Claire survived – Claire, who was only a handful of years older than Mags is now. Understanding that she herself only has half the story, and that she has a responsibility to learn the rest.

In the end, she slides out from beside Alfred and picks her way on silent feet to the kitchen, thinking if she can't sleep anyway, she may as well sit down to write a letter to Gustave and start the process of finding out what she can.

But she finds Neil at the kitchen table before her, sitting by the window in the dimness, nursing a glass of scotch. And Aurora is almost ashamed by how relieved she is to have an excuse to put the horrors down again for a while.

He has pulled the curtains back, staring out the window into the night, and Aurora can't see enough of his face to read his expression. His silhouette seems sad, though, and she can't stop herself from laying a gentle hand on his hair as she slips past and sits down next to him.

"You can bring her home, if you want to, you know. It's okay."

He glances up at her in surprise, but then shakes his head. "It's not. I'm just." His frustrated gesture takes in the cane where it leans against the wall near his chair. "I don't know how to do this anymore. So I'm just..." He trails off, shrugs a little.

"I don't want you to feel like you have to hide anything from us, that's all. You know we'd be happy for you."

His lips twist on the edge of bitterness when he grimaces. "There's nothing to hide."

She reaches out to lay her hand over his. "I'm sorry."

He sighs, but doesn't pull away.

"Mags has lost enough family already. I wouldn't want her to get attached to someone only to have them disappear again when it doesn't work out. No one else needs to get involved until I'm sure."

Aurora nods. It sounds reasonable, but she can't help wondering if it's just one more way of protecting himself from the hurt. He talks a good game, but all his many losses are showing in his eyes tonight, and she doesn't blame him for his reluctance. "If that's what you want," she says gently. "I promise I won't pry."

He shrugs a little, takes another sip of his scotch, turning his eyes back to the window. "Speaking of prying. How's Alfred doing? I mean, really?"

Aurora smiles a little, but lets him change the subject without comment. "Better. I think the worst was realizing all his progress can be undone so easily. But it's not as bad as last time, and he feels safe here."

"Last time?"

Neil is so much a part of their lives now that it's a shock to remember he wasn't present for that. "In the months before we found you. The air raid sirens and the bombs." She shakes her head, trying not to add any more to the morass of unpleasant memories already churning in her stomach.

Neil's lips compress in an unhappy line, but he doesn't push any further.

"You two are lucky to have each other," he says finally, echoing Harry's words in Toronto. "I watched the pair of you tie yourselves in knots over each other for... it felt like years. I'm glad you've made it work."

"But it’s not easy to live with," she says, understanding finally that he hadn't been changing the subject so much as circling around it.

"No," he agrees. "Sometimes."

"I'm sorry," she says again. Because she can imagine all too easily how she'd feel, were their situations reversed.

Neil just shrugs. "Harry was right. It's hard to, to talk, when other people can't understand."

"He did find someone, though. He seems happy."

Harry's letters since his visit have lost the edge of forced cheer they once held in favour of a certain frankness that Aurora treasures. And every so often, his writing is punctuated by paragraphs rendered in Alfred's code. He's struggling, still, like the rest of them, with secrets, with nightmares, but a little less, it seems, as time goes on.

"He's young," Neil says, as though that's some kind of magic antidote. But then, "We'll see."

"All we can do is keep trying," Aurora says. "All of us."

Chapter Text

 


Aurora regrets her late night with a vengeance the next morning. She drags herself through the day at work as though she's slogging through mud and heads for bed almost as soon as dinner's done. Alfred pins her with a concerned eyebrow, but she waves it off and tries to find a smile for him.

"My own fault. I should know better than to start digging up ghosts right before bed."

His fingers reach out to brush her shoulder. "You should have woken me if you were having a bad night."

She grips his hand as it slides past hers, squeezes it in reassurance. "It wasn't that kind of bad. Just too many thoughts."

He nods, but still comes in to join her as she gets into bed, sits up against the headboard beside her with a book. She shifts closer and curls up with her head resting against his hip.

"Tell me if the light bothers you," he says.

But tired already, and with his hand moving idly through her hair, she's barely awake long enough to answer him.

** **

Aurora avoids her writing for the next few days. The early night did her good, but she's getting too old to be able to shake off a sleepless night like she used to, and the rest of the week feels like more of a struggle than it should.

She does, however, write her letter to Gustave in Saint Antoine, mails it on the way to work in the morning, in the hopes that taking action of some kind might dislodge some of the guilt that still sloshes with a lingering queasiness in the pit of her stomach.

** **

It's almost worse when she's not writing, though. The thoughts are still there, but now she has no way to get them out, and they loop around and around inside her until she's dizzy with it. So the following week she tries again, determined at least to finish what she started.

** **

Alfred tucks a cup of tea onto the side table by Aurora's elbow where she's curled up in an armchair with her writing. He resists the urge to linger at her shoulder, though, steps away again quietly, not wanting to disturb her.

She's been spending the hour or so after dinner this way more and more often lately, pushing other tasks back later into the evening instead. And he has grown to love the irregular rhythm of her pen scratching across the page, the way her thoughts flicker through the fine muscles in her face. Finds himself trying to reconstruct what her words might be from those signals alone, and has to remind himself to turn away before his staring distracts her.

He worries, though, about the memories she's digging up, after having tried so hard over the last year to let them go. And in the last couple of weeks, since she launched herself into this project, something has shifted in her that he doesn't understand. The symphony of smell and taste and sound that is her unique fingerprint has changed key somehow, and he fights a constant battle not to let himself be unsettled by that. Not to push back against it. She's working to reclaim a part of her lost self, and the satisfaction she takes from that work is clear, but he's terrified that if she keeps picking through old hurts there are going to be consequences. And he can't quite shake the image of her kneeling in the grass, retching as she tries to purge remembered horrors from her body.

So he keeps an eye on her, not wanting to miss the signs that she's taking a turn for the worse the way he did last time. And he tries to find small gestures to make her smile, to remind her she is loved.

But over the last few days she has begun to look more drawn around the eyes, begun to pick at her food. Tonight she redistributed most of her meal onto the other three plates before she carried them to the table, and when he glances her way again an hour or so later, the cup of tea is still on the table beside her, cold and untouched.

She hasn't wanted to talk about her writing. Mostly, he thinks, to avoid dredging up any of his own troubles so soon after the episode in Geneva. He's ready to force the issue if he has to, risk the unpleasant consequences. But if she's spending her evening hours already wrestling with those demons, then maybe further talking isn't the answer.

He waits until they're alone in the bedroom, moving through their nightly routine. She seems tired and withdrawn, but not suffering at least. Not like last time. Not yet. He steps up behind her, slides his arms around her waist.

"I was thinking it might be nice to go out tomorrow night."

They haven't had one of their usual nights out together since before Geneva, and he regrets now that he's been so hesitant to step outside of his comfort zone. It might do Aurora good to get away from her memories for a while.

She turns in his arms, surprised. "Are you sure?" She lays her hands on his chest. "It won't be too much?"

"We can go someplace we've been to before. Maybe the club where Hallie sang?" He can't help a smile. "I only have good memories there."

She smiles too, and for a moment it chases the shadows away. "I'd like that."

** **

Alfred meets Aurora at the flat after work, but it's not quite the start to the evening he had been imagining. Delays on the underground have him arriving home later than he'd hoped, and he's left rushing to change his clothes and get himself ready. Aurora, too, is frazzled after a busy day and getting in Mags' way trying to help with dinner while still putting herself together to go out. And Neil hasn't made it home yet at all.

After a hurried wash and a shave, Alfred steps out of the bathroom to find Aurora standing in the kitchen looking completely overwhelmed and Mags by the sink on the point of tears. The maroon threads of something scorched still hang in the air around them.

"What happened? Mags, are you hurt?"

"No, but Aurora-"

"It was my fault." Aurora runs a hand up into her hair, disarranging the neat waves she had only just pinned in place, and sighs. "But it's fine. Let's just..."

"No. It's okay." He takes her hand, brushes his thumb across her knuckles. "Why don't we forget about going out tonight. The odds are clearly stacked against us. We can try again another time."

But she shakes her head. "No, Alfred, I just..." She trails off, pulling away, and he's surprised to realize how upset she is.

"Hey," he says gently, stepping after her. "It's okay. We can-"

But he's cut off by the sound of the door banging open as Neil arrives home. "I'm sorry," he calls from the hall. "It's madness out there. The buses were so packed I had to wait for three to go by before I could get on." He limps into the kitchen. "You two should get going, you'll be late."

"We're just deciding," Alfred says quietly.

Neil pauses for a moment to take in the state of the kitchen. "Go," he says. "Whatever it is, I'll deal with it."

"You're sure?"

Neil crosses to give Mags' pigtail a gentle tug. "We can't possibly make it any worse, by the looks of things. Just stay off the buses."

Alfred smiles, grateful for Neil's effort to lighten the tone. "And the underground."

Neil snorts. "That explains it."

Aurora seems calmer now that the tension in the room has eased, and Alfred steps closer to lay a hand in the small of her back. "Shall we?"

His tone makes it an honest question, and she nods, though she looks exhausted already. "I just need to-"

"No, you don't," Neil cuts her off. "You're both beautiful without any more primping. Go. Have fun. We'll see you tomorrow." He kisses her cheek and turns both her and Alfred towards the door.

Alfred smiles, leading Aurora into the hall, and leans in to whisper, "I say we make a run for it while we still can."

** **

Outside, Aurora takes a deep breath of the damp March air and seems to finally relax. She tucks her arm through his, and when she leans into his shoulder the last of his own tension eases as well.

The weather is mild, and some light still lingers in the west. There's a smell of spring in the air, and it feels like the oppressive darkness of a long winter might finally be lifting.

"Do you mind if we walk for a bit?"

Alfred glances over at Aurora, finds the flavour of her smile matches his own. "I was just thinking the same."

They take the long way around to the high street, and by the time they're ready to hail a taxi, the evening rush has mostly abated. They find a light dinner at a small restaurant close to the music hall, and Alfred is relieved to note that Aurora eats most of what she's served.

They both make an effort to keep the tone light, and Alfred gets the impression Aurora is watching him with a shade of the same concern with which he's watching her. But since they left the house, the evening hasn't presented any trouble for him, and the longer he makes it without any kind of wobble, the brighter Aurora's mood grows. By the time they gather their coats to head down the street to the music hall, she's laughing as she explains the evening's disaster in the kitchen.

"I should have just left her to it. Mags will never trust me with a frying pan again."

"Well, neither of you was hurt, and the house is still standing, so it could have been worse."

She smiles fondly. "Always looking on the bright side."

"Neither of us had to eat the results, either."

Aurora laughs. "Poor Neil."

"I'm pretty sure we owe him one."

She nods but her smile dims and her eyes turn pensive for a moment.

"What is it?" he asks gently.

"I was just hoping he finds a reason to collect on it. He's been alone for too long."

Alfred squeezes her hand. "He'll get there."

** **

The first set is already underway when they step into the music hall, and Aurora glances to Alfred when they encounter a wave of bright sound on opening the door. He takes hold of her arm, needing a moment to adjust to the onslaught of sensations the music brings with it. None of them bad, thankfully, but most of them loud.

Aurora leads him down to an empty table near the back, away from the lights and the dancing, and shifts her chair so they can sit side by side, so he can have her presence to ground himself. And eventually he begins to acclimatize, is once again able to see through the noise.

"Is this okay?" she asks between songs. "Do you need to leave?"

He shakes his head. "I'm okay. I like it, I think."

The music is bright and fast and full. The energy of it has driven most of the audience up onto the dance floor, and even those still seated are moving with it somehow, bobbing a foot or a hand or a head. The horns in this band are laughing and delighted, so unlike the melancholy of Hallie's jazz. And the volume, the presence of the music leaves no room for unwanted thoughts and memories. It's the perfect antidote to the worries of the last few weeks.

"I've never asked you," Aurora says at the next break between songs, her voice almost surprised at the oversight. "Can you dance?"

Alfred laughs. "Not to this." The dancing on the floor has been almost acrobatic. The dancers are radiating their joy in it, but Alfred feels old just looking at them. "But if they play something slower, I can probably manage not to step on your toes."

Aurora smiles. "I'll hold you to that."

** **

They're deep into the second set before the band slides into a number that can be considered slow enough to dance to. Alfred stands, as promised, and holds his hand out to Aurora.

She takes it, delight flavouring her smile for a moment, but once she's on her feet, the colour drains suddenly from her face, and she stumbles a step or two trying to find her balance. Alfred catches her arm to steady her, but she stumbles again and he has to scramble to hook an arm around her waist when her knees give out. He eases her back into her chair, crouches down in front of her.

"Tell me what's wrong."

"Faint," she says, eyes closed, her throat working as she swallows, and swallows again.

He lays a gentle hand on the back of her neck, eases her head down to the level of her knees. Runs his other hand up and down her back. "Deep breaths."

"I need." She swallows again. "I need to step outside."

"Okay. Can you walk?"

She nods, but there's not much conviction in it.

She straightens up, and Alfred tucks his arm back around her as she stands. She's still much too pale and allows him to take most of her weight as they pick their way out of the club. Outside, she stops him with a hand on his chest and disentangles herself to lean against the wall. Sinks to her knees and retches up her dinner. Alfred crouches beside her, tucks her hair back. Waits until she sits back on her heels, panting and miserable. Gives her his handkerchief to wipe her mouth.

He should be worried. Should be terrified. But, the look on her face... She knows what's wrong. And watching her, the puzzle in his mind suddenly shifts, he realizes he's been looking at it inside out this whole time. Knows the answer now even before he counts the days back in his head.

"Aurora. Are you pregnant?"

She looks up at him, her eyes huge, filled with a colour of fear he's never seen on her before. And he almost doesn't recognize her voice when she answers.

"I think so."

It can't be good news yet, not with that fear in her eyes. Not while she's still kneeling on the pavement, sick and miserable. But it will be.

He runs a hand over her hair in a gentle caress. "Okay," he says. "It's okay."

She nods an agreement, but he's not convinced she believes it.  

"Can you stand?"

She nods again, pushes herself to her feet. Braces one hand against the wall while she straightens her dress and brushes off her knees, putting her armour back in place. But when he slides his arm around her, she leans into him and he can feel the shivers still running through her body.

In the taxi she goes pale again with the car's motion, closes her eyes and leans her head against the glass. He lays a steadying hand on her knee, and they make it back to the flat without having to pull over.

** **

The lights are still on in the kitchen when they let themselves in, and Neil comes into the hall to greet them with a raised eyebrow.

"You're home early."

Aurora just shakes her head, slides past him to step into the bathroom.

"Ended as well as it began, then, did it?" Neil asks quietly, once the door has shut behind her.

"She's sick to her stomach."

It's the only answer Alfred can come up with that isn't an outright lie. Neil deserves the whole truth, but not before he and Aurora have had a chance to talk it through.

Neil sighs, but his tone is fond. "I'm sure one day the two of you will be able to walk through that door without a disaster on your heels."

"It's not a disaster," Alfred says. "Not this time."

** **

Alfred meets Aurora in the bedroom with a glass of water and a plate of dry toast.

"See if you can eat this. You'll feel better with something in your stomach."

She pulls a face at the thought, but does at least try. And it stays down for the moment.

She's sitting up against the headboard with her legs drawn up, and Alfred perches on the edge of the bed so he can face her, his hand resting on her bent knee, thumb sweeping a reassuring caress.

"I keep thinking I must be wrong," she says. "Jumping to conclusions. I've second-guessed myself so many times I don't know anymore how long it's been since..." She shakes her head. "Before Geneva, that's all I can remember."

"A little over six weeks."

"Six weeks."

"I don't think you're wrong. You... feel different. The taste and the colours. It's just a degree of shades, really, but I didn't understand what it was. I thought your writing was upsetting you."

Her lips tug into half a smile. "Yes and no. But not like that."

"Are you okay? With this. I know you're scared, but..."

"I don't know. I think... I need to get used to the idea. I'd started to believe... I didn't think I could. It's been years."

Alfred has been hesitant to let his smile show, afraid that once he lets it out he'll never be able to contain it again. Because he had begun to believe the same, that they just couldn't, for whatever reason. And the joy at being wrong presses up inside his chest until he's sure it's leaking out around the edges.

"Well," he says, trying for a lighter tone, "we've got seven and a half months. We can take it slow for now."

But there's something about framing it in that way. All at once, it becomes real. In seven and a half months there will be a whole new member of the family. A baby. Their child. Tears glitter suddenly in Aurora's eyes, and when she leans in towards him, he shifts closer to slide his arms around her, needing the reassurance as much as she does.

"Seven and a half months." There's an edge of panic in the strength of her arms around his back, and she knots her fingers in his shirt, her grip both fierce and trembling. "November."

And he nods. "November."

"Okay," she says, and her breath shudders as she releases it. "Okay."

Chapter Text


The next morning feels strange. As though the world should have shifted in the night in some way to match the upheaval Alfred feels inside. Hope, and joy, and fear. Anticipation. Worry. Love. And yet it's just an ordinary Saturday, full of chores and errands and Mags.

Aurora seems determined to just bull through the day as usual, clinging to the normalcy of it. And Alfred follows her lead, making a concerted effort not to treat her any differently. But in the afternoon, while she's sorting through a pile of clothing in need of repair and he is trying to replace a broken latch on the bedroom window, he glances over to find all her pretense suddenly gone, her expression not afraid so much as it is just overwhelmed.

He leaves the screwdriver on the sill and crosses the room to join her.

"I don't know what to do." Her voice is twisted red with frustration. "Is there something I'm supposed to do? Women are meant to know these things. I don't know any of it."

"You've never done this before. It's okay not to know. We'll learn."

Her lips compress in defiance of his calm, but she takes a breath. Nods. And he can almost see the thought standing behind her eyes. Seven and a half months.

"We have friends here now," he says gently. "There are people you can ask."

** **

And Alfred is right. As always. Aurora cringes inwardly at the thought of having to admit this kind of ignorance out loud, particularly in front of women who seem to approach motherhood so naturally, but she needs to have some idea of what she's facing. She can't plan for this mission without the appropriate intelligence.

So on Tuesday, when Maureen is in to help with the household chores, Aurora seeks her out in the kitchen as soon as she arrives home from work. She's got a short window while Mags is out playing with friends and before the boys arrive home themselves.

Maureen turns when Aurora stops in the kitchen doorway, and her forehead creases in concern.

"Well, there's a face with a question on it, if ever I saw one. What's wrong, petal?"

Aurora manages a smile at the endearment. "Nothing's wrong. But I was hoping I could ask for your help?"

"Oh, goodness, of course you can. Just you spit out what's worrying you before you scare me."

Aurora's smile comes easier in the face of Maureen's easy warmth, but still she hesitates over her words. Has to squash a shiver of fear.

"I think I'm pregnant. And I don't. I mean, I never..."

She trails off, uncertain exactly what she's asking, but it doesn't matter. Maureen's face lights up, and she pulls Aurora into a warm hug, sits her down at the table and fusses over her with tea and biscuits. It's a gentle fuss, a happy fuss, and Aurora finds she doesn't automatically feel the need to back away from it.

"Oh, Aurora, that's wonderful news. Alfred's delighted, I bet. How far along are you?"

"Almost seven weeks."

"So, early days still," Maureen says gently. "You know these things don't always take?"

"I know."

Aurora's mother is catholic and her father Jewish. They had both wanted a big family, but Aurora remained an only child.

Maureen nods.

"And with your mother so far away, it must be hard, I'm sure. You know I'm happy to help you as much as I can, but..."

Maureen and her late husband had no children of their own, and Aurora realizes belatedly she may have stumbled into painful territory.

"I know. I'm so sorry. But I didn't know who else to ask."

"Nonsense. There's nothing to be sorry about." She rests a hand briefly on Aurora's hair. "I'm thrilled for you. But go put your coat back on, and we'll get you some expert advice. Come on."

Maureen bustles Aurora out the door and leads her down the street to Mrs. Rossiter's flat.

"May's had six of her own, and comes from a big family besides," Maureen explains as she knocks on the door. "I'm not sure she herself knows how many nieces and nephews she has."

Aurora smiles at the image. Her mother's family is about the same. "One of her daughters is friends with Mags, I think."

"That'll be Lizzie, her youngest. They're about the same age."

The door opens and Mrs. Rossiter greets them with a smile. "Mrs. Graves, how lovely to see you! Maureen, hello, come in, come in."

"Aurora has news," Maureen says, as Mrs. Rossiter leads them through into the kitchen. "She's expecting her first, and she's a little skittish about it, by the sounds of her."

Aurora tries not to flinch at Maureen's casual announcement, but Mrs. Rossiter just reaches out to squeeze Aurora's hand and waves her into a chair at the kitchen table. "I'm so pleased to hear it, love. Sit down and make yourself comfortable. I'll put the kettle on and we'll have a good chat. It won't seem so frightening when you know what's coming."

And Mrs. Rossiter, true to her word, talks Aurora through what to expect over the next few weeks and what to watch out for. She is kind and laughing and refreshingly straightforward about even sensitive subjects, and Aurora feels a little less overwhelmed by the enormity of her own ignorance by the time they reach the bottom of their teacups.

"I won't load you down with too many details all at once. We'll chat again soon, and you send someone to get me if anything feels wrong."

"I will. Thank you so much."

Once again Aurora is humbled by the capacity for kindness in the women around her. And completely unable to properly express her gratitude for it.

"I'm sure Mags is excited," Mrs. Rossiter says as she walks them to the door.

And Aurora has to shake her head. "I haven't told her yet."

Maureen turns to her, reaches out and swats her arm in friendly outrage. "Aurora! For shame. And Neil either? You take yourself home and tell them right now."

"I thought. What if..."

"Then you'll grieve together and hope for better next time. That's what families do."

Aurora's not entirely sure she agrees. They've all of them lost so much already, that, like Neil, she'd rather wait until she's more certain she's not just setting them up for heartbreak. But the news is out now, and she doesn't want Mags to hear it from Lizzie first.

Mrs. Rossiter hugs her long and hard before she lets her out the door. "If you don't come back to see me again soon, I'll just turn up on your doorstep. You need more women in your life. Then these things won't seem so frightening."

Aurora squeezes her back. "I promise," she says. "But come and visit anyway."

** **

The others have arrived home while Aurora was out, and she pauses in the kitchen doorway, just watching them go about the business of putting dinner together. Moving through the rhythms of family and familiarity. Finds herself imagining, for the first time, how those rhythms might change, what life might be like eight months from now.

Alfred catches sight of her first, that smile tugging again at the corner of his mouth. She meets his gaze, raises her eyebrows in question. His smile widens, and he nods his agreement.

But then she's confronted with Neil, who turns at the feeling of her eyes on his back. And facing him, she's not sure she can speak the words out loud, suddenly terrified of his judgement. Maureen and Mrs. Rossiter believe she's just an ordinary woman, and Alfred is blinded by his love for her. But Neil knows. Knows what she's capable of. Knows what she's done.

"What is it?" Neil is frowning at her now. "What's wrong? Aurora."

She's scaring him, she can hear it in his voice, and that's not fair. She takes a breath, has to force herself to speak the words.

"I just. I wanted to tell you. I'm pregnant."

Neil blinks in surprise for a moment, but then crosses the kitchen to sweep her into a hug. Lifts her off the ground with it, spins her around.

"Neil, stop."

"Absolutely not. This is good news. Not even you two get to turn this into a tragedy."

But she meets his gaze as he sets her back on her feet, lets him see all her doubts, all her fears.

"Are you sure?" she asks.

His face softens in understanding, and he hugs her tight, kisses her cheek before he lets her go. "Of course I am. Don't be daft."

As soon as Neil steps back, turns away to shake Alfred's hand, Mags rushes in, almost dancing in her excitement. "You're going to have a baby?"

"That's right."

"When?"

"In November."

Mags' smile falls. "But that's forever! I'll be twelve before then."

Aurora's watery laugh is more a release of the mess of emotions still churning inside her, but Mags scowls anyway, thinking she's being teased, and Aurora pulls her into a hug.

"We just all have to be patient, I guess. November will come in its own time."

** **

Maureen and Neil between them arrange for Aurora to get her new green ration book, and Maureen insists Aurora take both the extra milk and the juice rations available to pregnant women. Aurora still struggles with nausea on and off through the day, and more often than not gives her new rations to Mags rather than failing to keep them down herself.

Her clothing begins to fit her differently, tighter in the chest and the hips, though she's losing weight rather than gaining while the nausea persists. Alfred and Maureen both watch her with poorly-concealed concern, but she herself clings to the information Mrs. Rossiter provided, which so far indicates that, uncomfortable as it is, everything is progressing as expected.

And while she's beginning to feel the changes in her body, she's still reasonably certain nothing is obvious to an outside observer. So it takes her by surprise when her boss calls her into his office for an unexpected chat.

She's been trying not to think about these particular consequences to her pregnancy. With Mr. Marks having been so accepting of her sudden disappearance, willing to be accommodating of her need to travel with Alfred, she is now going to have to turn around and resign anyway. She just can't bring herself to do it until the worst of the danger of an early miscarriage is past. In the meantime, though, she wrestles with the guilt of keeping it from him. It might almost be a relief, now, to have him force the issue.

"Is something wrong?" she asks, as she takes the seat he offers by his desk.

"Wrong? No, of course not. I just wanted to ask. You mentioned when we first met that you're Jewish yourself, is that right?"

Aurora's stomach still knots in automatic fear at the question, but she fights to keep that reaction from her face.

"Yes, half Jewish. Through my father."

He nods. "I know most of your family is overseas, so my wife and I were wondering if you would like to join us for the first night of Passover? Your husband is welcome as well, of course."

The invitation is so startling, and the kindness so unexpected, Aurora is taken aback, has to swallow hard past the lump in her throat before she can answer. "I'll ask Alfred tonight, but I'd like that very much. Thank you."

"I'm glad to hear it. We'll look forward to having you both."

** **

Aurora's father's observance of his faith had always been largely solitary. He taught her Hebrew himself, and while she lived at home, they shared the ritual of Shabbos every Friday. Only for the holidays would he cross town on foot to attend shul. But Passover was always the exception.

Every year he took her to a Seder at the house of friends from his synagogue, and every year there was something magical about it. To be surrounded by other Jewish children, to feel that all across the city, across the country, around the world, people just like her were sitting down at the same time, to the same ritual. The heritage that most of the time painted her as 'other' for this one holiday created a powerful sense of belonging.

Her connection to her Jewish roots will forever, now, be complicated by shame, by grief, by anger. But she finds she wants desperately to feel that connectedness again. To celebrate her faith instead of mourning it.

She tries to articulate some of this to Alfred, even though he agreed willingly as soon as she relayed the invitation. And the next time he comes back from the library with Mags, he has a Hebrew language primer, a Haggadah, and a history of Judaism.

Aurora teases him gently. "This isn't a test you need to study for. You'll still be welcome even if you're only there to observe."

But he smiles and shakes his head. "I want to understand."

So she coaches him through the pronunciations as best she can, astounded, even knowing his memory, by how quickly he picks it up. And she outlines the shape of the Seder for him, falls into telling the story of it in the half-remembered words of her childhood, even sings the four questions for him, only realizing halfway through that Mags has crept closer to listen.

** **

Alfred sees Aurora notice Mags, follows her thoughts down the inevitable path, although he waits until they're alone at the end of the night before he asks.

"Is this something you want? When..." He trails off. Neither of them has yet been able to speak the words as a certainty. When the baby arrives. When our child is older. The spectre of tempted fate looms too large. "We haven't talked about it, but I don't mind. I don't really have a faith to pass on."

Aurora nods slowly. "Some of it, yes. The history, the culture. The holidays. But I'm not sure I have the faith left to be truly observant."

"It's up to you," he says, and smiles. "If you want to, you can teach us both."

** **

On the Tuesday that marks the beginning of Passover, Alfred and Aurora turn up on the doorstep of a stunning terraced house shortly before sunset. They're both brushed and polished to within an inch of their lives, but still Aurora struggles not to feel self-conscious as Alfred rings the bell. Has to link her hands in front of her to keep from fussing with her dress while they wait. The fit on her changing body is all wrong, and despite Alfred's reassurances, she feels she may as well have hung a sign around her neck advertising her condition.
 
Mrs. Marks greets them with a friendly warmth, though, and not even Aurora can find a trace of judgement in her tone. And once they step inside, Aurora forgets everything else as the familiarity of the scene takes her breath away. Tables pushed end to end stretch from the dining room into the living room, with a separate smaller table for the children. Place settings for easily thirty people are laid out, and wine, candles, matzoh, and a Seder plate all stand ready. Children's voices echo down from somewhere deeper in the house, and women bustle in and out from the kitchen making final preparations.

"The men should be back from synagogue any minute now. Please make yourselves comfortable. We're just finishing up in the kitchen."

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

"Oh no, don't be silly. You're our guests. But you can come into the kitchen and keep us company if you like."

Mrs. Marks leads them through and introduces them to the others in the room – two of her sisters and their oldest daughters, her husband's sister-in-law, and a family friend and her daughter. And all of them fold Alfred and Aurora both right into their chatter and laughter as they all bustle in and around each other in a space too small for this number of people.

The smells emanating from the various pots and pans take Aurora immediately back to Seders from her childhood, a combination of meats and spices she never encountered anywhere else. Her rebellious stomach sloshes a little in protest at the intensity of it, but on Mrs. Rossiter's advice she's been nibbling through the afternoon in the hopes of quelling her nausea for the evening, and it seems to be working for the most part.

She does wonder, briefly, how they managed to find these foods – and in this quantity – with rationing being what it is, but decides for tonight that she's allowed not to care.

** **

The Seder itself is sung and spoken both in Hebrew and in English, and swings wildly between moods. The singing and fun grow uproarious towards the end in reaction to a telling of the Exodus freighted with the memory of far more recent slavery and suffering. More than once, the prayers are ground out in voices rough with tears. And Elijah's cup unintentionally becomes a crushing reminder of all the family who are no longer there to celebrate with them.

Aurora feels wrung out by the end of the long evening, but a piece of her that has been aching, almost unnoticed, is now finally beginning to heal. Mrs. Marks gifts her with a parcel of matzoh to take home with her as they bid their goodbyes. And though she has no capacity to keep kosher for the week in any true sense, she resolves at least to abstain from bread now that she can.

"I'm glad we went," Alfred says quietly as they sit in the back of a taxi on their way home. "That was beautiful."

Aurora, leaning into his shoulder, simply nods. "I didn't realize how much I missed that. It would be nice to do it again."

"But?"

"I'm going to have to leave the CBF."

"And that scares you."

Aurora nods again. Because she can't bring herself to speak her fear out loud. What if I hate staying home, like I did last time?

Alfred reaches out to tangle his fingers with hers. "You don't have to give up the community, too. If you get in touch with the synagogue, I'm sure they'd be welcoming."

"Mm. Maybe."

Alfred's thumb brushes across her knuckles, but he doesn't press his point.

"I missed my father tonight," she says quietly. "I didn't realize, I've never been to a Seder without him before."

"You should tell him about it. I'm sure he'll be pleased."

Aurora nods. "I will."

She tries to keep the sudden sadness from her voice, but he hears it anyway. Nudges her gently. "What is it?"

"I hate that my parents are so far away. They're going to miss... so much."

Alfred shifts on the seat so he can see her face. "Do you want to talk about moving back to Canada? We can. If it's important to you."

Aurora hasn't even considered the possibility. Not seriously. Not until now. And there are parts of the idea that are achingly tempting. But after a long moment, she shakes her head. "Our life is here, now. There's too much that I couldn't bear to give up. For better or for worse. I just wish..."

He squeezes her hands. "I know."

** **

Mags and Neil are both still awake when they get home, and their company as everyone gets ready for bed is a comforting reminder of all the reasons that London is now their home. And by the time they all say their goodnights, Aurora feels much more herself.

But before she turns out the light, while the words are still fresh in her mind, Aurora sits down to write to her father, to share the details of the evening, the memories it brought back, the tiny hopes she is beginning to nurse.

She won't post it yet. She's not ready, and it's too soon. But when it's time to send the letter telling her parents the news, these words for her father will go as well.

Chapter Text


The long-expected letter from their landlord arrives the week after Passover, and Alfred opens it with a combination of guilt and dread. He's been searching for housing options again since he learned about the baby – and it's been a relief, almost, to have that shift in perspective, to be reminded that his own needs are secondary – but he's nowhere near as prepared as he had hoped to be. The lost weeks after Geneva are telling, now.

He passes the letter to Aurora, and she hands it quietly on to Neil, and they wait until Mags is asleep before they gather in the kitchen to talk it through.

"The end of June," Alfred says, laying the letter out in the middle of the kitchen table. "We have longer than we thought, at least."

Aurora nods slowly. "A little over two months. I don't want to move, but maybe it's for the best."

"The waiting list with the council is still at least six months long," Alfred says. "And I've put it around at the organization that we're looking, but it's unlikely they'll be able to help us with anything specific to this borough."

"I'll talk to Mrs. Rossiter. She'll know if there are rumours of anything coming available locally."

"We may need to look further afield, too. Visit the streets beyond just this neighbourhood and see if anyone has a sign posted. So long as we stay within walking distance of the school."

"You don't have to," Neil says quietly.

Aurora shakes her head. "I know the school year will be almost done, but it still doesn't seem fair to move her. Not if we can help it."

But Alfred finally notices the greenish undertone to Neil's voice, understands his meaning even before he clarifies.

"No," Neil says, "I mean, you let me worry about Mags, and you two do what's best for you."

Aurora stares at him, surprise turning to a flicker of understanding, and then to nothing at all as her expression hardens.

"Don't give me that face," Neil says, trying for a light tone that Alfred doesn't believe for a second. "Alfred has a fancy job, now. You're expecting a baby. It's time to move on."

Alfred waits for her to reject the idea outright. Every line of her body screams absolutely not. But her tone is flat and reasonable when she finally speaks. "Is that what you want?"

"You offered to help me until I got back on my feet. I'm as close to that as I'm ever going to get." Neil takes a breath. "This was never meant to be forever."

Alfred holds up a hand, needing to stop those awful green words and the sense of loss they bring with them. "Why don't we all think about this for a bit? Let's not decide anything right now."

"There's nothing to decide. I can never thank you properly for what you've done. For me. For Mags. We wouldn't have managed without you. But it's time."

** **

Aurora leaves the kitchen in silence, heads straight for the bedroom where she can find some room to wrestle with the surge of anger riding hot inside her. Neil is right that no one really intended at the beginning for this arrangement to go on forever, but now it feels as though he's just asked her to cut her own arm off and live without it. And phrased as though it's the most reasonable request in the world.

Alfred joins her in the bedroom not long after. He closes the door, but hovers just inside, watching her, his gaze considering.

"What is it you didn't want to say in there?" he asks, finally.

Aurora sighs. Doesn't even pretend to misunderstand. "He was seeing someone over the winter. I don't know who, or for how long."

She can't help feeling she's betraying a confidence, but Alfred is already nodding as she finishes speaking. "So that's what that was. I didn't want to ask at the time."

"I guessed, and he didn't deny it. He never mentioned it himself. Never brought her home." Aurora hesitates, because the question feels like cheating, but she can't keep herself from asking. "Has he been unhappy here this whole time? Can you tell?"

It's vaguely sickening to think the sense of family they've been building together all these months has been some kind of lie. Or, worse, a misunderstanding.

But Alfred shakes his head. "I don't think so. There's been a green thread in his voice over the last few weeks, but it hasn't been there from the beginning."

The last few weeks. Only one thing has changed. Aurora can't help feeling an unreasonable sense of betrayal. He promised. He promised this wouldn't end in tragedy.

"We'll talk to him again," Alfred says quietly.

But the look on his face as he gazes back at her is a perfect mirror of her own turmoil.

** **

Tired though she is, Aurora doesn't sleep well. Uneasy dreams she can't quite remember wake her over and over, leaving her with a thready nervousness or a pounding heart.

Lying awake in the darkness, she can hear Neil moving around in the next room, and part of her wants to get up and thrash it out with him. Just to crack that façade he's wearing. Just to understand why. But Alfred's sleep has been troubled, too. Not nightmares, but he's tense and twitching, and she doesn't want to leave him in bed alone.

When she eases closer to him, he rouses enough to curl around her, presses a kiss into her shoulder. And the touch calms her as much as it does him. They will have each other, no matter what Neil decides. But that only makes the impending loss a little easier to bear.

** **

The next day, Aurora carries around a watchfulness she hasn't felt since she left the field. Like she's trying to balance on quicksand, like nothing is quite safe.

She's distracted all day at work by her own circling thoughts. And by the time she arrives home, she's ready to go tear the building down in frustration. And when Neil walks in the door, he takes one look at her and sighs.

"Neil..."

"I'm not going to fight with you about this."

"I don't understand how you can just walk away."

"The war's over, Aurora. We don't need to live like this anymore. That's all it is."

His measured tone makes Aurora want to scream. Of course we don't have to. And for a moment she hovers on the edge of throwing all her hurt at him. She could so easily guilt him into changing his mind. But she can't bully him this time. As tempting as it is, browbeating him into submission defeats the entire point. If this isn't the life he wants, then he's right. There is no decision to be made.

Aurora just can't help believing he's not as sanguine about this as he's pretending to be.

"You know we don't want you to leave," she says. "Don't you?"

He nods. "I know."

She gazes back at him, frustrated, angry, stymied, devastated.

"Okay," Aurora says finally. "Okay."

** **

The days that follow are filled with awful, surreal conversations as she and Alfred begin to discuss where they're going to live. Just the two of them. And the baby. And it's too absurd to take seriously. She goes through the motions, but a part of her keeps waiting to wake up.

Because, surely, if finding one place is hard, finding two will be harder. And two close together may just be impossible.

Mags and Neil will need to stay in the neighbourhood, for Mags' sake, so she doesn't have to switch schools, so she can stay near her friends. Aurora and Alfred may have to look further afield to find anything. That will mean leaving behind Maureen, and May Rossiter. Starting over with new people, in a new neighbourhood, right around the time she will have to give up her work as well.

And without Neil. Without Mags.

And her brain just refuses to process that reality.

Alfred has taken on a grim pragmatism. He sits with Neil after dinner and they pool their resources, comparing notes to see what leads might best suit which half of the family, and searching the newspapers to find furniture for sale.

Aurora refuses to join them. She puts off going back to see Mrs. Rossiter. If she only has a few weeks left of this life that she has come to love, then she isn't going to spend all of it planning for a future she can't bring herself to want.

** **

Aurora won't throw her hurt at Neil, but she's having a harder time than she should putting it aside. They're all doing their best to keep things normal for Mags, but Alfred walks around with his shoulders braced, as though he's waiting for a blow, for an explosion, and even Neil grows gruff and withdrawn.

Neil took Mags out for a walk when he explained to her what was going on, so Aurora doesn't know exactly how he worded it. And whether it's the move, the upcoming separation, a sensitivity to the tension around her, or some combination of all three that upsets her, Mags grows quieter and quieter as the days pass, until it starts to feel like they're right back where they were around this time last year, when she had only just arrived.

Aurora makes an effort to reach out to her, to keep talking to her even when she doesn't answer, but the situation just seems to get worse instead of better.

** **

The day had begun hectic and rushed after a night where nobody slept well, and hadn't really improved from there. Aurora spends all day at work holding onto her temper with both hands, and when she arrives home again to find the sink full of dishes, the wreckage of breakfast on the counters where they all abandoned it when they ran out the door, a part of her wants to sit down and weep.

She steps back outside, and calls Mags in to help from where she's playing in the streets with her friends. But Mags, when she comes inside, has moved beyond quiet and into sullen. She clatters the dishes in the sink as she works. Won't even look at Aurora. It's a mood Aurora's never seen on her before.

Aurora squashes her frustration down, tries to find a calmer face for Mags, to keep her own bad mood from bleeding out and making things worse.

"Is something wrong?" she asks gently. "Did you have a bad day at school?"

Mags doesn't answer, just plunges her hands back into the soapy water and rattles the cutlery around against the bottom of the sink.

"Do you want to talk about the move? I know we're all unhappy about having to leave the flat."

Mags shrugs, her face turned away, but at least it's a response.

"Did Neil tell you he's looking for a new flat close by, so you can still be near your friends?"

Again, Mags doesn’t answer, but her hands slow their movements on the bowl she's washing. Aurora takes a step closer.

"You can stay at the same school. It won't be so bad."

"Yes, it will!"

Mags spins around to face her, the anger she's been trying to hide finally blooming in her expression. But her sudden movement sends the bowl flying from soapy fingers, and it smashes to pieces against the kitchen floor.

Aurora and Mags both stare down at it for a moment in surprise. But even as Aurora opens her mouth to reassure her, Mags bursts into tears and pushes past Aurora out of the kitchen.

"Mags, it's okay," Aurora calls after her.

But the front door bangs open and closed as Mags escapes back outside.

Aurora takes a breath, on the edge of tears herself, then flings her dishtowel down on the counter, crumbs and all, steps over the mess, and goes after her.

** **

Mags hasn't gone far, sits with her knees drawn up against her chest on the steps of a neighbour's house a few doors down. Aurora approaches slowly, but Mags doesn't flinch, doesn't draw away. So she sits down next to her. Lets her take the time she needs.

"Why aren't we all going to live together anymore? Is it because you're having your own baby?"

The words twist in Aurora's heart like a blade, and it takes every ounce of training she ever had to keep the surge of her anger towards Neil out of her face.

"Of course not. We're family, and nothing is going to change that. But family doesn't always live in the same house, that's all. We can still see each other all the time."

Mags is quiet, but Aurora can see the words Mags doesn't want to say still twisting into knots inside her. Aurora hesitates for a second, but then gives in to the impulse, reaches out, runs a comforting hand down Mags' back.

"Can you tell me what's making you so sad? Please?"

Mags stares down at her shoes for a long moment longer. "Mummy sent me away and then she never came back."

Aurora, throat aching, slides her arm around Mags' shoulders, and when Mags crumples into her side, Aurora wraps her up in a hug, holding her tight. Presses kisses into her hair.

"Oh, mon p'tit poussin, I'm so sorry. She sent you away to keep you safe, and I know she would have come to get you if she could. But the war's over now. And Alfred and I will always come back to see you."

"Not every day."

"No, probably not every day. And I'm sad about that, too."

"You are?"

"Of course I am."

Aurora isn't in the habit of speaking her feelings out loud. She and Alfred both communicate in touch. But Neil isn't verbal with his affection either, and it suddenly occurs to her that Mags may never hear the words. That she might not know.

"Je t'aime, ma fillette," she says quietly into Mags' hair, speaking her heart while she reaches for the words in English. "I love you, little girl, and I'm going to miss seeing you every day."

Mags is quiet a long time, sniffling as she catches her breath.

"Then why?" she asks finally.

Aurora can't help a sigh. There's no good answer that doesn't hang Neil out to dry, and she doesn't want to damage his relationship with Mags.

"Sometimes these things are complicated. I'm sorry. I wish I understood better myself."

Mags sighs, clearly disappointed, but makes no move to draw away.

"I promise we'll make a plan," Aurora says, "so we can see each other all the time. And I'm going to need your help pretty soon." She tries for a smile and nudges Mags. "I'm sure you know more about babies than I do."

Mags offers a hesitant nod, though what part of that she's agreeing to isn't clear.

"Good. Do you want to come back inside? I'll make some tea, and we'll see if the boys left us any of the biscuits from Mémé's last box. Yes?"

Mags nods again, and her mood improves slowly as they clean up the broken crockery and sit down to tea in the sun that spills through the open kitchen window. And afterwards, Aurora lets her go back out to play with her friends while she starts the dinner preparations alone.

She keeps one ear out for the door, though, and when it opens again, she steps into the hall to confront Neil, even before he gets his jacket off.

"We need to talk."

He takes one look at her face, and his expression hardens. "This, again? Aurora--"

"I need you to tell me that this is what you want. That this will make you happy."

"Aurora, it's not like one of us is moving to Canada. We won't be far apart. Let's not get dramatic."

She is silent for a long moment, and when she speaks her words are careful and measured. "What would you say if I asked Mags to come and live with us instead of you?"

Neil bristles instantly, his body shifting, eyes cold. Ready for a fight. But Aurora holds up a hand before he can speak.

"Just understand," she says quietly, and no matter how she hard she works to suppress it, she can't keep the waver out of her voice entirely, "that's what you're asking of me. So I need to know that this is really what you want."

Neil turns away from her to hang up his coat. Brushes past her into the living room. Paces to the far wall before he can turn back and face her again. And for the first time, she can see past the reasonable façade to the battle he's fighting with himself underneath.

"What happens when you have half a dozen children? When I have a wife? When Mags grows up and moves away? You and I didn't get married, Aurora. Forever is a long promise to make."

He's still fighting to keep his tone light. Still trying to brush it off.

"What happens if none of that comes true? Or during all the years until it does?"

He shakes his head. "Better to make the cut now. It's only going to get harder, more complicated."

"We're a family already, Neil. I don't know how to make that cut."

Neil reaches out to grip her hand, his voice pleading. "I know you don't. It's why I have to. What I choose for myself, for Mags, it affects your lives. You have a baby coming. That's more than enough without having to worry about the two of us."

Aurora tugs her hand away, too angry now to be reasonable anymore. "Yes, let's talk about Mags for a minute. Because if you won't explain it to me, can you at least explain it to her? She thinks Alfred and I don't want her anymore."

"Aurora, that's not fair." He advances on her, his own anger finally blazing. "I'm trying to do what's best for all of us."

"How is it best, when none of us wants it!"

He shakes his head, almost disbelieving. "If you ever want a home of your own, if you ever want to raise your children without my interference, if you ever worry you won't be comfortable sharing your house with a woman I choose to bring home, then this has to end here. Because if I don't do this now, while I still can, then it will kill me, Aurora." He turns away from her again, every line of his body rigid. "I can't. I can't lose another family."

All the anger, all the fight, goes out of Aurora on a shuddering breath. She crosses the room to lay a hand on Neil's back, to slide her arms around his shoulders, to embrace him from behind. He's still rigid in her arms, but he doesn't pull away.

"If that's all it is," she says quietly, "then it's settled. We stay together and we find a way to make it work."

"Aurora..."

"She's right," Alfred says from the doorway. "It's already too late for the rest of us, Neil."

Neil sighs, and all the struggle leaches out of him under her hands. He pulls free, and Aurora lets him go. It's a long moment more before he turns to face them, and the look on his face is shell-shocked more than anything else.

"If you're sure," he says finally.

"We're sure."

"Right. Then I guess it's settled."

Chapter Text



Neil slips out the door when Aurora and Alfred head back into the kitchen to finish making dinner, and by the time they're ready to sit down and eat he still hasn't returned. Aurora meets Alfred's eyes with a worried frown.

"Did I push him too hard?" she asks quietly, so Mags in the next room can't overhear. "Does he really want his own home?"

"I think he just needs some space. If he's still upset in the morning we can revisit it."

Aurora nods. "We shouldn't say anything to Mags, then. Just in case."

But even so, despite the lingering guilt, the lingering worry over Neil, Aurora feels as though she can take a full breath for the first time in days. Alfred, too, is far more relaxed as they move around each other in the kitchen, serving food out onto plates, pulling down glasses and cutlery.

Aurora makes a note, though, not to forget Neil's words. He didn't complain directly, but the current arrangement, while it is really the only way all four of them can fit into the flat, hasn't been fair to him.

"We should make sure, wherever we end up, that he has some space," Aurora says. "So he can bring someone home if he wants to. This was fine for the short term, but we do need to talk about how this is really going to work."

Alfred nods. "I was thinking that myself. And... there's an option we haven't considered. But I want to wait until Neil is back so we can discuss it all together."

Aurora has to throttle down her curiosity, but Alfred is right. If they are really going to be a family, Neil has to be involved in the whole discussion.

"Tomorrow," Aurora agrees. "When we're sure Neil hasn't changed his mind."

** **

Mags' mood remains cheerier over dinner than it has been, but Aurora catches the small glances Mags still darts towards her and Alfred, both. As though they might suddenly disappear. Aurora finds herself reaching out to Mags more often with small gestures of affection, the way she might with Alfred when he's rattled, with any of the boys when they were hurt. It seems to help, and with any luck, tomorrow they can put her fear to rest for good.

After dinner, Aurora suggests another letter to Mémé and Opa, something she can include with her own when it's ready to send. With all the upheaval, it's been a while since Mags has practiced her French, and it's an easy, familiar way to spend time together. Mags agrees willingly enough. Just to stay close, Aurora thinks.

Alfred joins them at the table with some work of his own, and the quiet evening does all of them good after the turbulence of the last several days.

** **

When Mags gets into bed, Alfred and Aurora retreat to the bedroom. Between Aurora's persistent tiredness and the emotional exertion of the evening, they're both about ready to fall asleep themselves.

Alfred has kept a quiet eye on Aurora all evening. It had been more than a little disconcerting to step into the house to the sound of raised voices, the dissonance dragging back unpleasant memories from his childhood, from the years before his mother left. But the troubled swirls and eddies of colour that infected the house for days have smoothed themselves out in the wake of that storm, so clearly the words needed to be said.

At some point, when tempers have calmed and wounds have healed, he'll have to ask Aurora what triggered it. Though he suspects the subtle shift in the flavour of her voice when she speaks to Mags has something to do with it.

He glances over, wanting to ask – just about Mags, just to make sure there's nothing more going on – but is immediately distracted. Aurora has stepped out of her skirt, and as she turns to hang it in the wardrobe, the lamplight shifts across the fabric of her slip. Outlining the first trace of a swell to her belly. Barely more than a thickening of her waist, but for a moment, looking at the sky-blue newness of it, Alfred can't breathe.

She turns back, catches him staring. Smiles.

"What is it?"

Follows his gaze down, and her hands come up to splay self-consciously across her stomach.

"I can feel the difference," she says, her voice a little hollow. "I wasn't sure it was noticeable."

She hesitates, then extends a hand towards him, and he crosses the room to join her. She takes his hand in both of hers, lays it against her skin just below her ribs, guides its sweep downwards over the fabric of her slip, so he can feel it, too. And for one of the few times in his life, he is wholly grateful for his memory. Grateful that he will always have access to this moment in perfect detail. The look of cautious wonder on her face. The warm silk under his hand. The first outward sign of their child.

** **

It's late when Neil arrives home. Mags is asleep and Alfred and Aurora are already in bed when they hear the door open and close. But the next morning he's back to his old self. The gruffness, the guardedness he's wrapped himself in since the letter from their landlord arrived are gone, and breakfast is its usual happy, hectic rush.

As they're all gathering their things to head out the door, Neil tells Mags he's going to walk her to school before heading to work, and Aurora feels the last of her guilt and her worry dissolve. If Neil is going to break the good news to Mags, then there's no turning back.

** **

That night, they gather at the kitchen table again after Mags has gone to sleep, and Alfred spreads a few papers out on the table.

"I spoke to the bank yesterday, just to explore another option," he says, "and we could look at buying a house rather than renting another flat. If we wanted to. They'd be willing to give us a mortgage. It might have been a stretch, for just Aurora and me, but with three of us, we could afford something that would fit us all."

Aurora feels the weight of his words settle in the room. The offer of a permanence that she hadn't even considered. And it's comforting and terrifying in about equal measure. On the one hand, they'll never have to live through another decision like the one that's been tearing them apart for days. On the other, it puts a permanent ocean between her parents and her child. Understanding that she doesn't want to move back to Canada is one thing. Having that option taken away entirely, it turns out, is something else.

Neil takes a slow breath, clearly working through the implications himself. And Aurora reaches out to brush her hand against his. It's a big choice. But how much bigger, really, than the one they made last night?

"That's a lot to consider," Neil says slowly. "And if we decide to go down that road, I want to be very clear, before we start, about the math of it all. I'm not another child for you two to take care of."

Alfred nods. "We can set it up however you feel comfortable. Either shared ownership, or Aurora and I can buy the house and you can rent rooms from us. But if you're willing, we should make another appointment with the bank this week to talk it through. We're running out of time."

Aurora glances to Neil and then back to Alfred and nods. "Make the appointment. We should talk about what's possible."

** **

Everything begins to happen quickly after that. One meeting leads to another, leads to a list of houses for sale. And the options available to them in the neighbourhood are just better if they're willing to buy rather than rent. And they can, it turns out, afford it.

Only a few streets from their current flat, there's a narrow terraced house for sale. Three stories high, it has four bedrooms on the two upper floors, a living room, dining room, and kitchen on the ground floor, and a bathroom just off the first landing. On paper, it seems ideal.

Stepping inside for the first time, Alfred can't help bracing himself. Keeps his fingers laced with Aurora's. He can't help remembering the hotel room in Geneva. Worrying what might happen if the house doesn't feel right. If he just can't live there. If his condition ends up limiting their options even further.

But on the whole he is pleasantly surprised. The house is currently unfurnished, the contents having been sold when its previous owner passed away, so only the bones of the place show through. The lack of clutter keeps the newness of it all from being overwhelming. He isn't flooded with conflicting sounds and tastes everywhere he looks, which leaves him the space to consider the building in a more thoughtful way.

The house is an average size for the neighbourhood, identical to all the others on the surrounding streets, but it feels palatial in comparison to their current living arrangements. Almost embarrassingly large. But as they walk slowly through the rooms, Alfred begins to parse the possibilities.

"You should take one of the bedrooms on the first floor," he says to Neil.

And Neil grimaces in agreement. "The fewer stairs the better."

"If you take the smaller one for a bedroom," Aurora says, "you could use the larger one for a sitting room. Have the first floor as kind of a separate flat."

"What about Mags?"

"She can have the smaller room on the second floor. And Alfred and I will take the larger one."

Neil nods slowly, considering. "We're certainly spoiled for choice."

Aurora looks around again, runs a hand up through her hair. "I don't know how we're going to furnish all of this, though."

"Start with the bare necessities," Alfred offers. "Neil and Mags have the beds we bought already. So a bed for us, and maybe a table and chairs? We can probably live without much else in the short term."

When they get home, they argue the points around and around. Trying to find the flaw in their plans that will make it impossible. Trying to account for every contingency. And no one sleeps well that night, with the decision still unmade.

They spend an entire Saturday going to look at all the other houses on the list. There are two that Alfred just can't bear to be inside, though he has trouble articulating why. He's ashamed to admit it both times, but Aurora never questions him, just moves them on to the next appointment.

In the end, though, nothing suits them quite as well as the first house they looked at. After another sleepless night of arguing it through, they make the appointment and sign the papers. The moving date is set for the end of May.

** **

Aurora passes the three month mark in her pregnancy almost without noticing in the rush of planning and preparing for the move. The nausea and the light-headedness diminish, and some of her energy returns. And, now that the worst of the danger is past, she no longer feels quite the same determination to press onward as though nothing has changed. Finally dares to trust that this idea of motherhood won't be taken from her before it has really even begun.

She bundles together the package of letters she has accumulated for her parents and mails them on her way to work, before she can second-guess herself. Once her mother gets the news, there will be no more hiding from it.

A part of her wants to put off planning for the baby until after the move is done – and much of it will have to wait, given the short timeline – but there are some things that need to be addressed.

She got away with wearing her skirt a little higher on her waist for a while, and then with not fastening the button at all, but on her next visit to Mrs. Rossiter she has to ask how to solve the problem of outgrowing everything she owns while clothing is still so strictly rationed.

The neighborhood women loan her some items they've been passing around between them. Maureen and Mrs. Rossiter – and eventually Mags, too – help her sew panels into her skirts and blouses that she can remove again once the baby's born.

And she starts spending every Saturday morning traveling across London to markets, jumble sales, and Red Cross charity shops. Not just for clothes she can fit into, but to find all the household items they don't currently own that they'll need in their new house. Cutlery, crockery, linens. Pots and pans. Kitchen implements. Household tools. Furniture. The list is endless.

Aurora brings Mags with her most weeks. To help carry, to keep her involved in planning for their new home, and to spend time with her in their increasingly chaotic weeks. And Mags, it turns out, has definite opinions about what they need and what they don't and what is just too ugly to bear.

** **

Neil spends his weekends repairing and refinishing the odd bits of furniture they track down. It's a skill Aurora didn't know he had, and the pieces, when he's done with them, are all but transformed.

He simply shrugs when she praises him, though.

"Make do and mend," he says, quoting the wartime posters. "It didn't begin with the war. Things were always tight at home, so..." He shrugs again, and then smiles. "My father taught me. He could fix just about anything, new as store-bought."

** **

Within two weeks of mailing the letter to her parents, a package arrives from her mother, stuffed with practical gifts – diapers and bottles, spit-up cloths and blankets. There's a letter from both her parents to Mags, and one from her mother for her that is almost incoherent in its joy.

Her parents are already making noises about visiting again at Christmas, once the baby has arrived, but until the more immediate chaos settles somewhat, December is much too far in the future for Aurora to deal with right now.

** **

The move itself is at least made easier by the fact they have very little to pack. Alfred has been sorting their new purchases into boxes as they arrive at the flat, which means that on the morning of the move, only the last of their clothes and food need to be dealt with.

Alfred has been very conscious over the last months not to treat Aurora differently, not to hover. But he can't stop himself from reacting with horror when Aurora tries to help with the lifting and carrying.

"I'm fine," she insists. "I'm not going to break."

But when even Mags gangs up against her, she throws her hands up in frustration and stations herself in the new house instead, to organize the mayhem and begin the unpacking.

** **

A side benefit of Alfred having been the one to pack most of the boxes is that they never have to go searching for anything. And his planning was meticulous, so by the end of their moving day, they are almost completely settled into their new home.

The sparse furniture makes the house seem even larger, and they all drift down to sit together in the dining room – the only room that currently has chairs enough for all of them – as though afraid of losing each other in all that space.

When they finally head upstairs to bed on that first night, Mags hesitates on the first floor landing for a moment, looking like she might just ask if she can climb in with Neil. And Aurora finds herself wondering if Mags has ever slept in a room alone in her life. Imagines she'd find it strange and lonely as well. But Mags' chin comes up and she hugs Neil goodnight, and trudges up the stairs after Alfred and Aurora with stubborn determination.

Aurora hugs her goodnight at the top of the stairs and whispers. "We're just on the other side of that wall. Leave the door open if you want."

She squeezes Mags' hand, and Mags squeezes back, goes into her room to undress for bed looking a little less intimidated.

Chapter Text

Only days after the move, Alfred comes home wearing an expression Aurora has learned to dread. He has news. And once dinner is done, he meets her gaze, and they head together for the front door. They could easily disappear upstairs, now, if they wanted to, but taking private conversations out for a walk has become something of a habit.

"We won't be long," Aurora calls back to the others.

Neil just raises an amused eyebrow. "Take your time."

The day has been damp and grey, but the temperature is mild at least and the fresh air is welcome.

"What's wrong?" Aurora asks, as soon as they turn down the sidewalk.

"Not wrong. But there's an opportunity. The organization is looking for someone to go to Paris. It doesn't have to be me, but it could be. And we had talked about going."

"But?"

"How do you feel? How do you feel about travelling? I don't want you to be uncomfortable."

Aurora allows herself a brief moment of relief that Alfred isn't choosing to be stubborn about travelling on his own, just to prove to himself that he can. And she can't help smiling at his concern.

"I'm fine. I feel better than I have in the last few weeks, actually. But it may depend on when you have to go."

"July. I don't have all the details yet, but it would likely be for three or four weeks."

Three or four weeks. Not a flying visit, then. Time to live with the city again. Aurora is surprised by how tempting she finds that thought. Despite all the memories that are no doubt waiting for her there, she can't bring herself to hate Paris. To fear it.

"Will you be okay with that?" she asks cautiously. "Being there for that long?"

He shrugs, but there's a self-deprecating smile playing around his lips. "I'll be fine if you're with me. But we don't have to go. I haven't told the organization about the baby yet, but I think they'd understand if I said I needed to stay in London."

"I'd like to go. But we should talk to Neil and Mags. I don't want to leave if it's going to upset Mags all over again."

"Of course."

Aurora falls silent for a moment, unsure whether she wants to bring up the other issue rattling in her brain, whether she wants to complicate a trip which will already be walking a fine emotional line. But Alfred tastes her hesitation, nudges her shoulder.

"What is it?"

"The piece I was writing when we got back from Geneva. If we’re going to France, there's some research I'd like to do while we're there. I don't want to hide it from you, but I don't want to upset you, either, while we're already away from home."

"Tell me," he prods gently, "and we'll see."

So as they walk in the gathering dusk, she begins to explain the story she's been trying to tell. The girls in the birth house, and the letter to Gustave. She watches his expression carefully as she speaks, trying to judge his reaction. There's a sadness in his face, and he reaches out to take her hand, but he's giving comfort as much as taking it – the horrors have taken on a whole new depth now that they're expecting a baby of their own. But he stays present with her. Any memories she drags up seem to be manageable, at least.

"Are you sure?" he asks quietly. "Are you sure this is something you want to work on now?"

"It's no worse than what I encounter at work," she says, her voice grim. "But I don't know. I got a letter back from Gustave just after the one from our landlord arrived, right in the middle of the mess with Neil, and I couldn't face dealing with it then." She shakes her head. "I still haven't opened it. But I can't be a coward about it forever. Those girls didn't get a choice about whether they wanted to face it or not."

He pulls her gently to a halt, turns so he can see her face. Takes hold of her other hand as well, and his lips twist in a sad smile. "You know what I'm going to say."

She nods, her throat tightening. "I don't have your memory, but I can't forget either. And this... it helps to get it out."

He nods, slowly, unconvinced. "I'll go with you to Saint Antoine, if that's what you decide to do. But it's not cowardice to be gentle with yourself. Let's not make things harder than they need to be."

** **

Neil has no objections to the idea of them being away for a few weeks. And Mags, while she clearly doesn't love the idea, isn't as upset by it as Aurora worried she might be. The security of a permanent home, where there's no question about her place, no chance of anyone suddenly disappearing on her, has done her a world of good.

There are still details to be worked out, but when Alfred heads in to work the next day, he does at least have a definitive answer for them.

** **

When Aurora steps into the doorway of Mr. Marks' office, he glances up from his work with a smile, and then does an almost perfect double take to have a closer look.

"Oh," he says. And then sighs. "I've been expecting this." He gets up from the desk and comes around to lay a warm hand on her shoulder as he waves her in. "Mazel tov! Please, sit."

"Thank you."

"I take it this is your four weeks' notice?"

"I'm afraid so." But even having prepared herself for this, Aurora has to knot her fingers together in her lap to hide their trembling. "I was hoping to stay a little longer, but Alfred's had word he has to travel again in July, so..." She shrugs. "This just seems easiest."

"Well, I'm delighted for you, of course. But we'll be sorry to see you go."

Aurora nods. "I'm sorry to leave. There's so much more still to do."

"We'll take care of it, I promise. The damage is bigger than all of us, but each small part makes a difference. It's a mitzvah, your work here. Don't forget that."

"I won't. That's kind of you to say."

"And don't you dare be a stranger. My wife and I will expect you for the high holidays."

Aurora laughs, just so she doesn't cry. "We'll be there, I promise."

** **

With the move finally behind her, and a lengthy trip upcoming, Aurora finally accepts that she is no longer able to put off planning for the baby's arrival. And the first step might actually be working out what that means in more than just a general sense.

So after work, she walks the few blocks to Mrs. Rossiter's house for another visit. She hasn't been in almost a month while the chaos around the move ate up all of her already fractured attention. But May is understanding, as always.

"Aurora, love, it's good to see you. Come in, come in!"

"I hope it's not a bad time."

"Not at all. The children are out playing." May leads her through into the kitchen again, and puts the kettle on. "I'm glad of the company, to be honest."

As they sit down, Aurora pulls a package from her bag and hands it over to Mrs. Rossiter. "My mother sent biscuits, and I thought your children might like some."

May grins. "They'll be lucky to see any of them. But are you sure? You should save them for your boys."

"My boys have had plenty. And I know I can't ever repay you for your kindness, but please let me try."

"Well, I won't argue too hard. Thank you, love, that's very generous of you. Here, we'll open them now and have a couple with our tea, before the children descend and devour them all." May fills the teapot and brings the tray to the table. "Now, tell me, how are you getting on? How's the new house? Is Mags settling in well?"

Aurora relaxes into the casual chat. May's friendliness is completely disarming, and Aurora prizes the comfort of her cozy kitchen. But when they slowly wander around to the purpose of Aurora's visit, May frowns.

"I'll help you with a list of course, dear, but that's no way to learn. Meet me again tomorrow afternoon. I have a better idea."

** **

The next day, after work, May meets Aurora and takes her on the bus to her sister's house.

"My sister's youngest is five months old," she explains on the way. "You're going to come visit her with me for an hour or so as often as we can manage it. Mothers always need the help, and you need to get your hands dirty. It's the best way to learn."

** **

When May lets them into her sister's home, it's a scene of mostly happy chaos. A pair of children, maybe three and five, come running up to them in greeting, closely followed by an older girl, who greets May with a hug, then wrangles her younger siblings back the way they came.

A woman who can only be May's sister, appears in the doorway at the end of the hall, expertly dodging the stampeding children on their way past, with the promised baby balanced on her hip.

"May! It's good to see you."

"Yes, I'm sorry to arrive unannounced. And I've brought a guest, which is doubly rude."

But she's laughing as she says it, and her sister waves it off with equal unconcern.

"Don't be ridiculous. Please, come in."

"Aurora, this is my sister Edith. Edith, my friend Aurora Graves."

Edith reaches out with her free hand to shake Aurora's, then turns to hand her son off to her sister.

"Please, come through. I'm in danger of burning dinner before it's half begun, but you can keep me company. I feel like I haven't had a real conversation in days."

May greets the baby with kisses on his chubby cheeks, then hands him on to Aurora.

"Here. This little man is Teddy, and he's yours for the next hour or so."

Aurora takes him and shifts his weight to her own hip, gazing down at her new charge. He's a charming little man, made entirely of dimples. There are certainly worse things than being asked to entertain him for an hour. And the feeling of a baby in her arms isn't entirely unfamiliar, though the memories are a little dusty.

Unlike her cousins, Aurora never had any younger siblings to take care of. It was never a part of her life like it was theirs. But whenever she went to visit, she was put to work alongside the other girls, caring for the little ones. Although the novelty of the experience made it feel more like playing with living dolls than anything else.

As they all grew older, as her cousins began to talk and think of nothing but husbands and babies of their own, the gap that stood between her experience and theirs only widened. Encouraged by her father, Aurora set her eyes on university, on independence, instead. And her cousins would laugh at her if they could see her now, having to be taught what they all knew in their bones before they were Mags' age.

"Aurora's expecting her first," May explains as they head back into the kitchen, "so I've brought her here for some practice."

Edith grins. "Congratulations! And please, I'll take all the help I can get."

"Certainly. Just tell me what you need."

"If you can keep him amused until dinner's ready, that's more than enough."

So Aurora settles herself in the chair Edith waves her to and perches the baby on her knees, gives him her fingers to play with, and he promptly stuffs them into his mouth.

Aurora catches the other women watching her out of the corner of their eyes, smothering indulgent smiles as they chat. Very like the looks her cousins would be giving her. Waiting for panic, or fumbling, or apologies. But she handled babies enough as a child to be confident she won't drop him, won't break him. The discomfort building in her chest is bubbling out of an entirely different fear.

If they knew.

If they knew what she did during the war, what she's capable of doing – to men who were once babies no different than Teddy – they wouldn't be watching her with those expressions of veiled amusement. If they knew that the hands that now cradle their child had shot boys in the head, had held a man's jaw shut on a mouth full of poison, had driven a knife up under the ribs of a man she loved, they would snatch their beloved baby back in a heartbeat.

And they should know. Someone should come and take the baby away from her.

She shouldn't be allowed to hold a baby while knowing, in practiced detail, so many different ways to kill the man he will become. It isn't right. And Aurora has to strangle the urge to press Teddy back on his mother, to get him safely out of her hands.

Because it's too late to back out of this now.

She does know, in her head, that these thoughts are her scars talking, not her sense. She knows it's not rational. But still she can't control the agonized pounding of her heart. So she scoops the baby up with her shaking hands and wanders to the window instead. To distract herself and the baby both with the antics of the birds flitting around the tiny courtyard outside, preening and squabbling. And Teddy crows in delight at the view, mercifully unaware of Aurora's distress.

"You see? You’re doing just fine," May says when she comes to carry him back to his mother at the end of the visit.

Aurora manages a nod and a smile, but she feels even less prepared for motherhood than she did when she arrived.

** **

Alfred waits until they're alone in their bedroom at the end of the evening before he asks her what's wrong. She's grateful for his restraint, but all she can do is shake her head. Even now, even here, she doesn't want to talk about it, doesn't want to think about it. Doesn't want to give the inevitable nightmares any more fuel.

She closes her eyes on the question, trying to shut down the guilt and the fear and the doubt she's been working so hard to ignore. His concern brings him closer, and she holds out her hand to bring him nearer still. Hoping he'll understand it's not him she's hiding from. He takes her fingers, closes the distance, and she leans into him, buries her face in his shoulder, threads her free hand up under his unbuttoned shirt. He releases her fingers to slide his arms around her, and she almost shudders in relief.

"Aurora."

"Tell me it's going to be okay," she says, her words muffled against him.

"It will. I promise."

And his voice believes it absolutely. She nods into his shoulder and sighs, releasing some of her doubts on a trembling breath.

"Just, keep believing that for both of us, okay?"

** **

Despite her rocky start, Aurora goes back with May to visit Edith many times over the next four weeks, as promised. Spends time with the baby in all his moods. Bathes him, dresses him, soothes him to sleep. Learns how to boil diapers, how to fold and pin them like an expert. Gives in and learns to call them 'nappies' instead.

It's a project, a mission. Information she has to acquire. And in a way, it reminds her of her early days at Camp X. Thrown in at the deep end, challenged by the sheer volume of new information, and grimly determined not to fail. It's not an association she's entirely comfortable with, but it gets her through.

Chapter Text

Aurora's last day at work is difficult. She's finishing up the process of training her replacement, and finds herself no longer entirely necessary but still not quite ready to face the thought that she's not coming back.

Her colleagues are kind, sincere in their delight for her. They present her with a card and a gift for the baby, and extract promises from her that she'll come back to visit. And Aurora plays her part well, keeps a smile on her face, never lets them see the uncertainty, the ambivalence she still has about her future.

But stepping out the door for the final time at the end of the day is made a little easier when she finds Alfred on the sidewalk waiting for her. He makes no comment, just offers his arm and his presence as support.

They set off for home on foot instead of the tube, to take advantage of the warm summer evening. Stop at a restaurant along the way for dinner. And after the unceremonious way she was let go at SOE, making an event of the evening helps to remind her that this is a choice, not a dismissal. Helps to mark the day as another point of change in her life.

And, looking at it in that light, she begins to think maybe it's okay that she doesn't feel entirely ready for it. From moving to Paris before the war, through to dropping out of a plane over occupied Europe, she hasn't felt ready for any of the others, either.

** **

Still, Aurora is grateful to have the trip to Paris to focus on, now only a few days away, just to keep her from dwelling on all the upheaval in her life.

She pulls out her notebook again, goes through what she's already written, begins to make notes on what needs to come next. And, finally, she picks up Gustave's letter and opens it.

He doesn't go into details, but Aurora can feel the weight of sadness in his words. He's still in touch with several of the girls, and is willing to relay messages to them from Aurora, willing to sit down with her and tell her what he knows of the others. He doesn't mention Claire specifically, and Aurora can't help wondering which category she might have fallen into.

Aurora writes her reply then and there to let him know she will be back in France the following week, that she'll get in touch from there to arrange a visit.

Having a project to focus on helps, too.

** **

Mags gets clingy in the days right before they leave, trailing around the house after Aurora in the afternoons rather than going out to play with her friends, curling up with her book almost on top of Alfred after dinner.

The night before they leave, Alfred and Aurora sit with Neil to talk through the final details of what he’ll need to manage around the house while they’re away. They’ve arranged for Maureen to come by more often to help out, and Neil is hardly disconnected from the running of the household in the normal course of things, but Aurora feels better for talking it through anyway.

Alfred falls quiet as the discussion progresses, though, and when they begin to wind down, he catches Aurora’s gaze with a question in his eyes.

“What is it?”

“Do you think Mags could join us in Paris? Maybe just for a few days?”

The suggestion takes Aurora by surprise. The idea never even occurred to her – she’s so used to thinking of Paris as a chance for her and Alfred to find time alone together. But as they’ve all gotten used to the space they now have in their new home, the need for that alone time is no longer quite so desperate. And as she gets over her surprise, she realizes four weeks is time enough that she’s happy to share a few days of it with Mags.

Neil, though, by the expression on his face, has some objections.

“Did she ask you?” he asks.

Alfred shakes his head. “No, but she’s having a hard time with the idea of watching us leave. It would give her something to look forward to, rather than it just being four weeks of missing us.”

“Aren’t you meant to be working while you’re there, mate?”

“I’m not,” Aurora says gently. “She could practice her French. And it would be a good experience for her.” She hesitates for a moment. “And you could bring her. Visit as well.”

But Neil is already shaking his head. “I’ve spent enough of my life in that country already, thank you very much.”

“It was just a thought,” Alfred says.

But Aurora, having come around to the idea, is a little less willing to let it go. And she suspects she knows where Neil’s reaction is coming from.

“She’ll be safe, Neil. The war’s over, and we’ll take care of her. It’s not the same as it was while we were there.”

Neil lets out a ragged breath. “I know. I just have a hard time believing it.” He huffs a laugh. “I can’t even get my head around the fact you two won’t be flinging yourselves out of a plane to get there.”

Aurora smiles. “Think about it. We’ll stay in touch while we’re gone.”

“No. You’re right. She’ll love the idea. You should tell her before you go. That way I can’t back out of it.”

“You’ll be okay here on your own?”

“A few days without the three of you? Just like being on holidays.”

** **

The next day, Aurora is grateful for Alfred’s forethought. Otherwise, she’s convinced, she would have made the suggestion herself – and without giving Neil time to adjust to the idea – in the face of Mags’ forlorn expression when Alfred carries the suitcases down the stairs.

She pulls Mags into a hug instead. “It’s only a few weeks. It’ll pass in no time at all.”

“It won’t.”

Alfred meets her gaze over Mags’ head, and Aurora nods. It was his idea. He should be the one to tell her.

He steps closer to lay a hand on Mags’ shoulder, and she looks up at him with all the dramatic misery only a twelve-year-old can muster.

“We were wondering if you might like to come and join us in Paris for a few days once school is done?”

The misery vanishes as her face falls slack in surprise, and then lights up like Christmas morning.

“Really?”

She looks to Neil for permission, and he laughs. “Yes, really.”

“Are you coming, too?”

“No. But we’ll find some way to stuff you in a parcel and post you over the channel.”

“When?”

“Near the end of July,” Alfred says. “What do you think, do you want to?”

“Yes!”

And she flings herself at him for a hug.

“Good.”

“Okay, okay,” Neil says. “If you don’t let them go, they’ll miss their train, and then none of you are going anywhere.”

Mags gives each of them a final squeeze, then steps back so Neil can bid his own goodbyes. He hugs Aurora gently, already overly cautious of her since the pregnancy began to show, and helps Alfred to carry the bags out to the waiting taxi.

“Be careful,” he can’t stop himself from saying.

“We will,” Aurora assures him. “We’ll wire you when we get there.”

“You’d better.”

He steps back to tuck an arm around Mags’ shoulder where she stands on the front walk waving mournfully, her excitement already dampened in the face of the goodbyes. Aurora’s throat is tight as she slides into the taxi beside Alfred.

“No jumping out of planes,” Neil calls, just before she pulls the door shut. “I don’t care how good you feel.”

“If you’re going to keep fussing like this,” she calls back with a laugh, “it’s going to be a very long five months.”

And with that the taxi pulls away, leaving Neil alone to explain that exchange to an astonished Mags.

** **

Aurora stays out on the deck during the ferry crossing, leans into the damp bluster of the wind watching the coastline grow along the horizon. The first time she has ever approached France without fear.

Even that very first time, arriving from Canada before the war, she had bubbled with excitement and fear in about equal measure. This time, though, there is nothing but anticipation. She’s eager to revisit, to reclaim, the city she once loved so much. Whose history and romance and mythos had lived so large in her imagination as a child. And she’s grateful for the chance to give Alfred some new memories of the city, ones not tainted by fear and horror and death.

She had believed, once upon a time, that she would return to live in Paris after the war. It seemed inevitable, somehow. The city was her chosen home, and that was part of what she had gone to war to protect. Even when she and Alfred left Canada for London and their new jobs with SOE, a part of her had believed it was just a temporary stop on their way back to France.

The dreams and plans she had once held for her life never really encompassed London. Never could she have imagined her life looking as it does now. And yet, complicated as it is, she wouldn’t trade it in. And Paris is, at least, not so far away.

** **

It’s late afternoon when they finally get off the train at the Gare du Nord. Alfred leads Aurora out to the taxi rank rather than trying to negotiate the metro with luggage at the end of what already feels like a long day.

The hotel, when they arrive, is small but comfortable and well-appointed. Arranged through the organization, it’s a little fancier than what they might have chosen for themselves, but Alfred finds he likes the sense of occasion it lends to their visit. And the understated nature of the décor makes relatively few demands on his attention.

Their room is up on the fourth floor, and affords a reasonable view out over the rooftops around them. He can feel Aurora watching him as they explore the space, and he’s relieved to discover there’s nothing immediately off-putting about it. And, unlike in Geneva, he is at least not starting from a place of sucking loneliness, not dragging around the unpleasant memories of his life before the war to add to whatever the city itself has to throw at him.

“You okay?” Aurora asks quietly after a few minutes.

And he nods. “I’m okay.”

She smiles and brushes a kiss against his cheek as she passes to begin unpacking. “I’m glad to hear it.”

** **

When they head out of the hotel in search of something to eat, though, he threads his fingers with Aurora’s rather than offering her his arm, wanting the comfort of her touch. He refuses to be afraid of Paris, but he worries it still might take some getting used to.

They don’t venture far on that first night. They find a small restaurant within a few blocks of their hotel and linger over dinner. Head back to the hotel after, both of them flagging after a long day of travel. But even in that short time, Alfred finds his experience to be the complete inverse of what happened in Geneva. With Aurora beside him, all he can see now is how far he has come since he first arrived in France, how much his life has changed. A wife, a family, a home, a community, a job he enjoys and where he can make a difference in the world. And, soon, a baby. All things that, before the war, he could barely even imagine, let alone hope for.

And Paris, in a way, was the beginning of all of that. It was in Paris that he came into his confidence, began to trust himself as an agent in the field. In Paris that he and Aurora finally came together. Her presence colours almost every single memory he has of the city, whether she was physically there beside him or simply in his thoughts.

Not that there aren’t pitfalls waiting for him. He was tortured in Paris, watched Aurora forced to her knees at gunpoint in Paris, received the news about Tom, the details of the camps. Those memories and more still have the power to hurt him. But there’s nothing in this city anymore that can take away the parts of his life that are important. So while he’s under no illusions that the trip will be without its bumps, it has at least lost the power to undo him.

And when he slides into bed, curls close around Aurora, his hand drifting to the swell of her abdomen as a sensory reminder of a future worth looking forward to, he sinks into sleep safe in the conviction that there’s no nightmare that can touch him.

** **

He wakes early the next morning, mostly out of habit, with Aurora still asleep, warm and soft beside him. And he’s happy to linger with her in a bed almost luxurious in comparison to the one they were able to buy for themselves in London. It’s rare already that they get a chance to sleep in, and soon enough they won’t be getting much sleep at all. So despite the fact this is one of the few days they’ll have free together to spend in the city, he’s in no hurry to get up and face the world.

Aurora hasn’t seemed as tired recently as she was in those first few months, but still he doesn’t want to disturb her chance to rest. It takes a conscious effort, though, to keep his hands still against her, to curb their desire to wander across her skin in exploration. Since that moment in their bedroom when the first curve of her belly took him by surprise, he has struggled with the longing to let his hands re-learn the geography of her changing body. He’s just so accustomed now to knowing every single inch of it. Its colours and harmonies, its warmth and texture, are a necessary part to the foundation of his world. And he continues to be fascinated by the way it’s changing, almost day by day. Finds he wants to learn the new curves and hollows, the new music of her, just as thoroughly at every stage along the way. Partly because it charts the slow growth of their child within her, but mostly just because it’s her.

He settles, for the moment, on a purely visual exploration, lingers on the softening lines of her face, the curve of shoulder and hip under the thin summer sheets. But she shifts against him anyway, as though just the weight of his attention has tugged her back to consciousness. So finally he sets his hands free, soothing a slow but thorough path across her skin, sensitive fingers identifying all the subtle changes as he goes. Ribs less pronounced under her skin, new angles in the expanding curve of her waist, a softer roundness to her hips.

She mumbles something incoherent, still mostly asleep and turns into his touch, pressing closer against him, tucking her face into his chest, so he continues his exploration up her back. Finds a new pattern of tension in the muscles there and pauses in his wandering to tease the knots loose again. Her limbs grow heavy as his hands work their magic, her body melting deeper against his, the curve of her belly firm and warm against his hip.

“Don’t stop,” she murmurs, her voice barely more than a vibration against his collarbone.

He dips his head to press a kiss against her hair, and she nestles even closer in response.

“You can go back to sleep if you want. I’m sorry if I woke you.”

Her hum of acknowledgement comes as another vibration against his chest. “Not sorry,” she mumbles.

He can’t help a smile. “I’m glad.”

She’s silent long enough he begins to wonder if she has drifted off again and reluctantly stills his hands on her skin. But she makes a small sound of protest at the sudden loss of his caress, and even as he smiles, resumes a slow sweep of his hands up and down her back, she shifts against him, and her own hands begin to move. Her fingers slide up his ribs, unmistakeable in their intent, their careful rasp trailing lines of fire across his skin.

She was tired and ill for so much of her early pregnancy, their touching has been largely limited to closeness, to comfort. Her response under his hands now takes him by surprise, and triggers a surge in the low hum of desire he has been trying to ignore. She slides up his body, finds his lips in hungry kisses that taste of woodsmoke and cherries. And he leans immediately into the sensation, headlong, greedy, fingers putting their new-found knowledge to work, retracing paths along her skin this time with teasing purpose.

But they fit together differently now, and when he shifts position, presses her back into the mattress, he realizes suddenly his weight is resting on her abdomen and rolls away again. She growls in wordless protest, reaches after him, with hands, with lips, her thigh hooking itself over his, but a new fear holds him apart.

“Will I hurt you?” he murmurs in her ear.

Her fingers dig into his back, insistent. “Only if you stop.” And the rough edge in her voice sends a spiral of colour shuddering through him.

He presses his forehead against hers. “You’re sure?”

She doesn’t bother with words, puts her tongue to better use against his, and simply shifts their position again so her weight rests on him instead.

He doesn’t require any further encouragement.

** **

They do still have some of the morning left when they finally leave the hotel room and begin their day. They stop into the post office to send a telegram to Neil first of all. And Alfred remembers passing a café in the next street the night before, so they head there next to find a light breakfast.

“What do you want to do with the rest of the day?” he asks as they linger over coffee.

He catches a flicker of apprehension in her eyes at the question, and wonders suddenly if she might be the one to have the most trouble with memories waiting for her in the streets. She lived here much longer than he did, after all.

“Can we just wander?” she says finally.

He nods. “Of course.”

So he follows her lead on a slow path through the city, sometimes dipping down to walk along the Seine, and at others turning back up again to linger among the shops. Taking in the sights like a pair of tourists. Like a pair of young lovers. And they both do their best to see only the present, not the past. They follow the sound of wind chimes and find a whole installation of them in an otherwise forgotten park. They take seats at a sidewalk café and wait out the heat of mid-afternoon in the shade of an umbrella watching the city walk past them. They browse the stalls of the bouquinistes along the river and find a couple of French books for Mags.

Their trade in memories on this particular day exists only in the places they choose not to go. By unspoken agreement, they avoid the western end of the city where the Gestapo headquarters was once located. And Alfred, at least, would be thoroughly content to stay clear of that area for the entirety of their visit. They avoid the Marais, which had been the Jewish quarter until the roundup. They avoid Faber’s neighbourhood and all of Helene Bauer’s old haunts.

It is a day of calm and quiet, of lazy summer heat and a lingering hum of connection between them. About as far from Alfred’s previous experience of the city as it’s possible to get. They manage to find the Paris of novels and honeymoons, and for the moment, even Aurora is wearing an easy smile.

Chapter Text


Alfred starts work the next morning, and again they take breakfast together at the café before Aurora finds herself with the rest of the day to fill on her own.

The hotel is, by chance, in a neighbourhood that Aurora doesn’t know well. So there are no lurking memories to leap out at her, and she’s able to find something of the experience she so desperately wanted, of falling in love with the city – or at least this small piece of it – the way she did when she first arrived. She sticks to this one area for the day, spends the morning exploring narrow streets, gazing into the windows of boutique shops. In the afternoon, she finds a place to sit with her writing, fleshes out some of the other sections of her project, refining structure and ideas.

The long stretch of uninterrupted time, the chance to focus, to immerse herself, is precious luxury after months of snatching what time she can around her other obligations. And by the end of the afternoon she has assembled a rough outline for what will likely become a series of interlinked articles. A plan for the work she wants to accomplish while she’s here.

She doesn’t dip into any of the details, the specifics, just yet. Doesn’t leave this small safe pocket of the city. And manages not to judge herself for that indulgence. Being gentle with herself, as Alfred put it. Just to start with. Part of the long process of bracing herself for the emotional challenges to come.

** **

By the end of their second day, Aurora is speaking almost entirely in French, a fact that Alfred actually finds comforting. Aurora’s heart is always closer to the surface when she speaks in French. And the warmth of her voice wrapped around the French words gives him a piece of home to hold onto, tied as it is now to memories of late night conversations in the kitchen of their old flat or her lessons with Mags and their letters to Canada.

Alfred himself flips back and forth between the languages. He’s happy to use French for most casual conversation, but for bigger ideas, or for more intimate words, he’s more comfortable in English. Exactly the inverse of Aurora. So that sometimes they’re holding a conversation in both languages at once and he takes a small delight in the oddity of that, in the juxtaposition of words and sounds. Tries not to care when it occasionally draws attention from passers-by. Sometimes it’s still hard to remember that they have no need to pass unnoticed in this city anymore.

** **

For Aurora, the best parts of the day by far are the mornings and evenings, the time she gets to spend with Alfred around his work schedule. They explore several of the small cafés nearby, and find a new favourite place to share breakfast before he heads to work. She gets to know the local grocers, and more often than not will pick up a few small items to improvise a picnic dinner. Sometimes they eat sitting by the Seine, taking advantage of the long summer evenings, other times up in their hotel room watching the rain across the Paris rooftops. Moments of quiet and peace and joy that go a long way towards reclaiming her experience of the city.

The daytimes, though, grow more challenging as she begins to squash down her trepidation and go in search of the various pieces of her past that still haunt the streets.

Her early experience with the resistance, with René and their friends and the underground newspaper, are not covered by the Official Secrets Act. And it becomes obvious as she charts the flow of the piece that this is the place her series of articles needs to begin.

The Café de L’Azur is gone, of course, and that’s probably for the best. There’s nothing more she needs to learn there, and she wouldn’t have the audacity to set foot inside again after last time. But she seeks out the nearby park where their group often met on sunny afternoons, the small apartment where they hid their printing press, the streets and shops where they used to distribute the papers. Goes into every one of them. Some of the old shopkeepers are still there, some even remember her and her friends. She teases out their memories of those days, their experiences of the war as they chat, then spends the afternoon furiously jotting down notes, trying to capture their words while she can still remember them.

And everywhere she goes, René’s ghost follows her, watching, his haunted eyes sunken in a bruised and haggard face.

** **

The first time she tries to revisit her old apartment, the one she shared with René, all she can do is stand in the street, rocked by wave after wave of emotion. Guilt. Grief. Anger. She hasn’t set foot here since she and René left it together, the morning of the raid at the Café de l’Azur. They abandoned everything, fled down into the catacombs and then out of the city with only the clothes they were wearing, desperate to get safely away before one of their friends broke, gave up their names, their address, their description.

She stands there for endless minutes, staring up at the window that used to be hers, used to be theirs, but she can’t force herself any closer. And in the end she retreats to a busy café, where the bustle and the noise help to drown out the turmoil inside her. She pulls out her notebook, tries to get the experience down, to get it out, but her hand shakes too badly even to hold the pen.

** **

“Come out with me tonight,” she says when she meets up with Alfred that evening.

She’s still struggling, knows he sees it instantly. Welcomes the hands that slide up her sides, grounding her.

“Where do you want to go?”

“Somewhere, anywhere, loud enough I can’t hear myself think. Please?”

He brushes her cheek. “Of course.”

They find a jazz club on the left bank with music that spills into the street even through its closed door. Alfred simply tamps his ear plugs into place before they step inside.

She presses close against his side in the dimness, uses his warmth and solidity as her anchor against the storm inside her, in much the same way he has often done with her. Tangles herself so thoroughly with him when they finally stumble into bed she can barely tell which limbs are his and which hers, but still she can’t escape the dreams that leave her weeping when she wakes.

** **

It’s days before she feels capable of going back to the apartment to try again. And she’s profoundly grateful the length of their stay allows her to face it in her own time. Had she been forced to contend with all of this in a single week, she’d probably be incapable of ever returning to Paris again.

Having had some time to prepare, on her second attempt Aurora makes it inside the building. Climbs the stairs. Knocks on the apartment door. The young woman who answers knows nothing about the previous occupants, but welcomes Aurora in to look around.

Aurora’s heart hammers in her chest as she steps through the door, and she knots her fingers together so she won’t feel the memory of a knife in her hands.

But once inside… it’s as though she’s transported in time. Their old furniture is still there, though it’s surrounded now by the flotsam of other people’s lives. And René is waiting for her everywhere she turns. Standing in the window with a bottle of wine at the end of a long night, watching the sunrise. Sitting at that table with papers strewn across the surface in front of him, scribbling madly. Rattling plates in the kitchen to the echoes of some long-forgotten argument. René as he was. Before. Young and strong and passionate. Burning with rage at the injustice around him. Determined to fight for what he felt was right. A René she hasn’t been able to see in years.

Aurora’s hands are shaking when she reaches out to brush the worn surface of the table. She’s been so afraid to remember him at all.

She moves slowly through the small apartment, and for once she thinks she might be experiencing the world as Alfred does, her memories coming with texture and depth. The sound of René’s laugh. The feel of his hands. The warmth of wine on his tongue. Every step brings a fresh assault. Every square inch of this apartment achingly familiar.

“Are you all right, madame?” the young woman asks gently. “Can I get you some water?”

The timbre of his voice when he was righteously angry. The rasp of his stubble against the back of her neck. The rhythm of his typing when the words were flowing well.

“No.” Aurora shakes her head, trying to clear it. “No, thank you. I’m fine. You were kind to let me in.”

Her younger self is here, too. Innocent. Naïve. But lit by that same fire. A small part of her remembers – she never felt more alive than in those first months of resistance. Terrified but exhilarated. Convinced they could make a difference, change the course of the war.

“Not at all.” The woman smiles at her, clearly somewhat mystified. “I’m pleased to help.”

“I’ll leave you alone now. Thank you, again.”

Aurora picks her way back out into the hallway one hand on the door frame, not entirely convinced the ground will remain solid under her feet. Feels the woman’s eyes on her back as she starts down the stairs. Has to pause, once she’s out of sight, to sit down before she stumbles. Presses her hands to the cool stone surface of the step she’s sitting on.

It was always cooler in the stairwell than in their top floor apartment during the heat of midsummer. They used to sit on the steps in the evenings, chat with their neighbours. René had once even tried to convince her they should sleep out here.

Aurora lets out a shuddering breath. There’s a whole sea of emotions sloshing somewhere deep inside her, and she can feel the wave that will drown her beginning to build. Forces herself back to her feet and starts again down the stairs. She can’t face it while she’s still in the building, still trapped between past and present. She needs to find some kind of distance, some reminder of who she is now.

She hesitates, though, at the door of the ground floor flat on her way out. Raises her hand and knocks before she can second-guess herself. She hadn’t intended to visit with her former landlady at all, but her younger self still haunts her steps and she won’t let her just walk past.

When Madame Méffèrt opens the door, she stares at Aurora in wordless shock for a long moment, then reaches out to grip Aurora’s shoulders, to press kisses of welcome to her cheeks. Aurora stiffens in surprise.

“Aurora! I had no idea you were still alive. When you never came back, I feared the worst.”

Aurora offers an apologetic smile. “Yes. The Gestapo were after us. We had to run. I’m sorry we could never send word.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m just thrilled you’re all right. Is René with you?”

Aurora aches at the question, understanding now just how much of him she left behind in Sainte Lynette.

“No,” she says finally. “He died four years ago. Fighting for the resistance.”

Madame Méffèrt’s face contracts in sadness, but she gives a firm nod. “Good for him. Then he died a hero.”

She reaches out to squeeze Aurora’s hand, and Aurora manages a nod in return.

“Have you been upstairs?” Madame Méffèrt continues. “I’m sorry about your furniture. I didn’t know what to do with it, and I couldn’t afford to let the place stand empty.”

“Of course not. Please don’t worry. It’s been such a long time.” She takes a breath. Tries to find a smile. “I’m in town with my husband, and I just. I needed to come back.”

“You’re always welcome, chérie, of course. And I see congratulations are in order. I was going to offer… But.” Madame Méffèrt stops, shakes her head.

“Offer what?”

“I did manage to keep a few of your things. Not much. In case you did come back one day. But, in your condition, I don’t want to... If it’s too upsetting, I can just get rid of it.”

For a moment, Aurora wants to tell her yes. Get rid of it. The weight of the memories already clamouring inside her is almost more than she can stand.

But, at the same time… she has nothing from that time in her life. Not a scrap of paper, not an item of clothing, not a single photo. Until today, barely even a memory. She can’t imagine what Madame Méffèrt might have kept, but the idea of it will haunt her forever if she doesn’t find out.

“Thank you,” she says finally. “I’d like to have it, if I can.”

Madame Méffèrt nods. “Come in, please. Sit down. I’ll go and find it.”

Aurora’s nerves are stretched too tight to allow her to sit, so she hovers by the offered armchair in the sitting room instead, waiting while Madame Méffèrt disappears back into the flat to search.

It’s not long before her footsteps echo down the hall again, and when she steps back into the room, Aurora’s world contracts around her until all she can see are them items in Madame Méffèrt’s hands. She doesn’t immediately recognise the shoe box, but the case… The case she would know anywhere.

“I’m sorry,” Madame Méffèrt says. “I know it’s not much.”

“No,” Aurora manages, although her voice sounds like it’s coming out of someone else. “This is a kindness I had no right to expect. Thank you.”

But Madame Méffèrt frowns. “You are upset. I’m so sorry. I should never have said anything.”

Aurora shakes her head. “No, please. I just. I wanted to say hello, that’s all. Thank you again.”

Aurora reaches out to take the items, but Madame Méffèrt resists, insists on walking Aurora to the street, hailing a taxi for her. And though a part of Aurora chafes at the fussing, the rest of her just wants to get away, to find a respite from the memories, just for a little while.

“It was lovely to see you, Aurora. Please come and visit again, if you can.”

Aurora nods her agreement. Not quite a lie. She will, one day. If she can.

Chapter Text


Alfred arrives back at their hotel room after work to find Aurora curled up on the bed. She’s on the far side, ‘his’ side, with her back to him, but she doesn’t move at the sound of the door, and he’s relieved she’s taken the opportunity to catch up on some sleep.

Her nightmares have woken them both the last few nights. She hasn’t wanted to talk about them, but it’s not hard to guess where they’re coming from. And there has been no lie in her voice in the mornings when she insists she’s dealing with it in her own way. Even so, though, he worries about the physical toll her restless nights might be taking.

He leaves his shoes by the door and pads around the room on silent feet, not wanting to disturb her. But when he bends to retrieve his book from the bedside table, thinking he’ll slide in beside her for a while before they go in search of dinner, he sees the redness around her eyes, the traces of dried tears smudging her makeup. Abandons the book and perches on the bed next to her instead.

She wakes at the dip in the mattress, and he’s almost relieved to find only sadness, not panic, not horror, in her eyes. Reaches out to brush mussed hair back from her forehead.

“What’s wrong?”

She closes her eyes again, and fresh tears spill over onto the pillow. He lets his hand linger in her hair, offering what comfort he can. And after a moment she sighs, scrubs the tears away with the heel of her hand, pushes herself up to sit against the headboard facing him. He threads his arm around her bent legs, lets his thumb sweep a reassurance against her calf.

“I visited the apartment today,” she says quietly. “Where I lived with René before the war.”

He's silent a moment. “Did you find what you were looking for?”

“What I should have been looking for, maybe.” She tries to smile. “I found René. I found the woman I used to be. I realized I’ve been hiding from them both.”

He offers a gentle smile. “They both went through a lot.”

She nods slowly. “Since Sainte Lynette, when I think about him, when I remember him, all I can see is his death. It's like... That memory is so big I can't see past it to remember anything that came before. I shut that whole part of my life away. And then today…”

“It all came back.”

He knows intimately how disconcerting that can be. Overwhelming, even without the complete sensory package his own memories provide.

“It was… a lot, all at once. And I don’t know where it fits exactly with who I am now. But I’m afraid to shut it out again. The least I can do is to remember his life as well as his death. And…”

Aurora stops, clearly struggling to find a way to express what she’s feeling. Alfred simply waits, gives her the space to sort through it all.

“Our old landlady,” Aurora begins again. “She's still there. She kept a few things for me.” She offers a small wave in the direction of two boxes stacked on the table by the window. Pauses to wipe away the tears that have escaped her control. “The one on the bottom, it’s my old typewriter. My father gave it to me when I moved to France. In a case, so I could carry it with me wherever I went. René's was worth more, so we sold his to buy supplies for the newspaper on the black market. We thought we could both work on mine.” Her lips twist in something that’s almost smile. “Not the best idea we ever had.”

She falls silent again, and Alfred shifts closer to her on the bed, tucks his arm around her hips instead. She reaches for his free hand, stares down at their joined fingers.

“All those little things. It makes me sad to remember, but I don't want to forget,” she says finally.

Alfred’s heart aches for her. For the absurdity of their situation. He has the perfect memory, but nothing from that time in his life worth remembering.

“It’s okay to feel sad,” he says quietly. “Terrible things happened to both of you. But the more you hold onto the good memories, the less sad they’ll make you feel.”

Aurora nods again, but drops her gaze as she fights against a fresh wave of tears.

“What's in the other box?” he asks finally, to draw her out again.

She sucks in a watery breath and sighs. “I don't know. I haven't been able to open it yet.”

He hesitates, not entirely certain this is a part of her life she wants him intruding into. “Do you want to go through it together?” She looks up at him in surprise, and he fights the sudden urge to shrug his suggestion off again. “You can tell me all the little things,” he says finally, “and I’ll remember them with you.”

Her breath hitches and she knots her fingers more tightly with his. “Will it hurt you, though? To talk about him?”

An image of René, tied to a chair and choking on the rag stuffed down his throat, flashes through his mind. The damp smell of concrete and mildew and unwashed bodies, excrement and gasoline fumes, the copper tang of blood in his mouth, the echoes of someone else’s screams.

But he shakes his head, determined. “He told me. In the cell, he told me he didn't want you to remember him like that. The way he was at the end. It would be a way to, to honour his last wishes. And… I didn't know him, before, but I’d like to hold some happier memories of him.”

The look in her eyes as she nods her agreement tells him his suggestion was the right one after all, and he squeezes her fingers in reassurance. “Not today. When you’re ready.”

She lets go of his hand to lean forward and slide her arms around his neck. He shifts closer again, lets his hands sweep comfort up and down her back. And eventually her breathing calms, the tension runs out of her spine, and she lets out a long, shuddering sigh.

“Are you hungry?” he asks. “It’s getting late, we should eat something.”

She takes a breath and sits back again to lean against the headboard. And he’s relieved to see a small, rueful smile in the twist of her lips. “These days, it seems like I’m always hungry.”

“Come on, then. It’s a lovely evening out there. We can go for a walk and find something.”

She runs a hand up through her sleep-mussed hair. “Just let me make myself presentable.”

He offers his hand to help her off the bed, lingers within reach while she washes her face and ties her hair up in a loose chignon.

A glorious sunset paints the sky in shades of peach and pink when they step outside, and the humidity lends the cooling air a silken presence. They don’t wander too far, stop into a small bistro that has become a favourite for its simple meals and quiet atmosphere. And Alfred does his best to distract Aurora with idle chatter and plans of what they might do with Mags when she eventually joins them.

By the time they head back to the hotel Aurora’s smile reaches up into her eyes again, and Alfred finds a small measure of relief in that.

René has represented an open wound on Aurora’s soul for so long, too infected with guilt and horror for there to be any chance of it healing clean. The best Alfred has allowed himself to hope for is that it may eventually stop bleeding, that the pain of it might one day fade to something she can live with. Because he isn’t sure even Aurora is aware of how much that wound poisons her reaction to the world. So afraid to love Mags, to love anybody new, afraid even of her own child, because she knows what it feels like to kill the thing she loves. Knows she’s capable of it. Learned from the Fabers the full horror of what parenthood can mean.

It breaks his heart to see her so freighted with sadness, but for the first time it’s a sadness without the angry red streaks of guilt nestled within it. And if she really has begun the process of being able to see past René’s death, of being able to remember all of him and not just the broken man he was at the end, then there’s a chance that the wound may eventually scar over. That she may be able to forgive herself for what was, at its heart, a terrible act of kindness and mercy.

For tonight, he settles for staying close, keeping watch against any renewed signs of red in her voice. Lies awake once she has curled up to sleep with her head on his chest, just to reassure himself no nightmares have taken hold. But for the moment, at least, she seems to have found some peace, and her body grows heavy against him with no signs of distress. Finally reassured, he closes his eyes and surrenders to the warmth and comfort of her presence beside him, and they both sleep undisturbed until morning.

** **

“What’s on the menu for today?” Alfred asks her over breakfast at the café, and Aurora hides a smile. She can feel the effort he’s making not to hover, to keep his tone casual.

“I’m going to take the day off,” she admits. “I need a break before I start to tackle the writing of this thing.”

His fingers brush the back of her hand. “I think that’s a good idea.”

And this time she lets him see her smile. “I thought you might.”

“Do you have any plans or are you just going to wander?”

“I'm going to go looking for the things in this city that bring me joy. It will make for a nice change from the last few days.”

Alfred’s smile turns wistful. “I wish I could go with you.”

“Me too.” She catches his fingers in hers. “Will you settle for hearing all about it when I see you tonight?”

“I’ll look forward to it.”

** **

Aurora walks Alfred to work, because nothing brings her more joy than him, and then wanders down to find the Seine. Sits by the river for a while, watching the people, the boats, the birds. There hadn’t been any birds in Paris during the early months of the war. The French set fire to their fuel reserves as the Germans advanced towards the city, and the toxic smoke killed most of the wildlife. She can still remember the first time she heard birdsong back in the city after that, and it continues to be a sound she treasures.

She crosses the bridge to the Île Saint-Louis and meanders through its narrow, quiet streets. Cool and peaceful despite the heat of the day. She used to dream that if ever she should become fabulously wealthy, the first thing she would do would be to buy an apartment on this island, overlooking the water. A place with high ceilings and delicate furniture and French doors out onto a shallow balcony, something out of the novels she read when she was a girl.

Across another bridge, and she follows the river downstream, stopping to chat with the bouquinistes along the way, to pick through their selections and see if there’s anything that Alfred might particularly like. Finds one or two for him, a novel for herself – something as light and frivolous as the ones she used to love – and a translation of Anne of Green Gables for Mags.

And then at one stall near the Pont Neuf, she comes across an assortment of children’s books. They’re somewhat battered, a little frayed around the edges, but she recognises some of the titles from when she was a child. Pauses there for long minutes, leafing through the worn pages of one book after another. It feels strange to consider buying gifts for a child not yet born. Even more so given the nature of the gift – it will be years before the baby is old enough to make any use of books. But until now she hasn’t really considered the challenge it might be to find French books in London. And as she turns the pages, she allows herself to imagine reading stories to her child, curled up together in an armchair they don’t yet own. The way her father did with her. The way Alfred sometimes does with Mags, though Mags has always been old enough to read for herself. Because it’s the experience, not the story, that really matters.

In the end, Aurora picks out a small handful to buy, because she can’t deny the flutter of quiet joy the idea gives her. Pays the woman running the stall and adds the books to the collection already in her satchel.

** **

In the afternoon, she gets gloriously lost in the Louvre. It had been one of her favourite things to do when she first arrived in Paris, just spend time surrounded by these treasures. Some of them familiar as old friends, and others delightful new discoveries.

Her father has always had a passion for art, a passion he shared with her as a child, talking her through the illustrations in art books brought with him from Germany. At university, she had even minored in art history, just for the love of it – one of the reasons so many of her cover stories during the war had revolved around it in some way.

She starts with her favourite gallery and then just keeps walking, sometimes stopping to admire, sometimes sitting to rest her back. And the gentle hush of the place, its distant high-ceilinged echoes of whispering voices and squeaking shoes, feels both familiar and comforting.

Towards the end of the afternoon she starts building a list for herself of works and pieces she wants to bring Alfred to see. He’s never been inside the Louvre, and for once she can have the joy of giving him something beautiful to remember. A small apology for all the sadness she somehow keeps handing him.

** **

Aurora’s grief has followed her on her wanderings throughout the day, but she hasn’t fought against it, and it hasn’t pushed back. It sat alongside her calm, her joy, her hope, and hasn’t negated any of them. She knows better than to assume it will always be so simple, but she did at least find the respite she needed from this day.

And when she meets Alfred outside his office at the end of the afternoon, she can almost taste his relief at her lightness of mood. Finds the re-telling of her meanderings for him, the smile he wears in his eyes as he listens, to be yet another joyful moment to add to her collection.

** **

She asks Alfred to go through the contents of the shoebox with her after dinner. Suspects she’s as close to feeling prepared to face it after a day like today as she’ll ever be. And the longer she leaves it, the more her dread will build.

She has an idea of what might be in the box, though she’s careful not to let herself get her hopes up. Anything of value that Madame Méffèrt couldn’t use herself was clearly sold or bartered away during the war – clothes, shoes, jewellery, cosmetics, household items. It’s something of a miracle her typewriter actually survived. Their furniture, she saw herself, has been pressed into service in the apartment, since Madame Méffèrt can charge more for a furnished flat than an unfurnished one. And any books would have been burned long ago for warmth in the frigid wartime winters when coal was in short supply. The only thing left might be personal papers that wouldn’t have value to anyone else.

And as soon as they lift the lid off the box, she can see that she is right. The box is stuffed with a hodgepodge of paper – folded and creased, some of it crumpled, but there. Preserved for her against all the odds. Photos. Letters. From her parents. From Lotte. Lotte’s final words to her, as it would turn out. Shorter notes between René and herself when one or the other of them had to travel for a story. Receipts. Grocery lists. Clippings of her writing and his from pre-war papers. René’s notebook, full of scraps and scribbles, names and addresses, ideas and references.

Nothing from their months in the resistance. Those papers either taken by the Gestapo or destroyed by Madame Méffèrt to protect herself. And Aurora regrets that loss. The pieces René wrote in the immediate aftermath of the occupation were extraordinary. Transcendent. His words were always one of the things she loved most about him, but in that fire of impassioned rage, they were glorious. He believed that words could stop wars, and when she read those articles, she believed it too.

Aurora goes through each item, hands each one on to Alfred, the memories they evoke tumbling from her mouth almost without her conscious thought. And she can let each one come in its turn, fade again to make room for the next, without any panic that she might forget it, might lose it. Because Alfred is remembering it with her. A gift she will never be able to properly thank him for.

Aurora sits against Alfred’s chest with his arms around her and the box in her lap, and from that place of safety she manages to find a sense of peace, of relief, in having these pieces of her past restored to her rather than yet more grief.

It’s late when they finish going through it all, and Alfred helps her to pack all the pieces neatly back into their box. She catches his fingers to still them as he moves to fit the lid back on, though, and he hums a quiet question in her ear.

“Thank you. That would have been… hard, to do on my own.”

He shakes his head against her and presses a kiss to her temple. “You gave me another piece of you tonight.”

She puts box and lid aside, and turns in his arms until she can reach him for a proper kiss.

“Good trade?” she says finally.

And he nods. “Good trade.”

Chapter Text


Aurora spends the bulk of the next several days finally working on a draft of the first article in her project. She hesitates at first at the idea of using her old typewriter – unsure whether it might be more of a distraction than a help – but in the end allows her fears to give way to practical necessity. She can keep up with her thoughts more easily when she’s typing than when she’s handwriting, and if that makes her sad, then so be it. Because if she can’t handle that simple level of distraction, then god help her when the baby arrives.

After five years of neglect, the machine is in need of some care and attention, but there’s nothing seriously wrong with it. And after a quick trip out into the city for paper and a fresh ribbon she sets herself up by an open window in their hotel room and settles down to work.

She is distracted at first, though less by sadness than by the strange feeling of time looping back on itself, and she has to pause every so often just to remind herself of where and when she is. Of whose footsteps she’s listening for as the afternoon gives way to evening. The material she’s working with, the memories, are still painful, still challenging at times, but the fact she’s using her typewriter actually helps with that struggle somewhat. Gives her some distance, anchors her to the unbiased journalist, the impartial observer she was once trained to be.

Now and then, though, she still has to get up from the desk to take a short walk through the neighbourhood, to read a chapter from the novel she bought. To buy herself some time to find her calm again. It’s a careful line to tread, but she doesn’t want Alfred to find her in that distraught state ever again, and for him she can make the effort not to let it overwhelm her.

** **

In and around the time she spends writing, Aurora also begins the slow process of tracking down old friends, old colleagues, from before the war. Another step in reclaiming her past from the veil of fear and pain that has been pulled across it for so long.

When she returned to Paris with the team, she avoided all contact with anyone she had known before, for security reasons. Not only was the Aurora they had known still wanted by the Gestapo for resistance activities, but neither did she want to bring all her new trouble down on anyone who might have avoided it thus far.

A handful of people from the old community of journalists are still in the city. Another handful have returned since the end of the war. And they are as happy to see her as she is to see them. An ocean of experience divides them now, from each other and from who they were before, but it feels good to reconnect, to know that she’s not the only one who survived. Not the only one who changed.

And she begins to think, if ever she’s ready to pick up the lost threads of the career she once had, there might still be a community ready to welcome her back. She might not have to start from scratch all over again.

** **

Later in the week, a message finally arrives at the hotel from Gustave in Saint Antoine. Aurora had written him to suggest a few dates when she might be able to travel from Paris to visit, and his short reply simply offers Saturday as his choice, if they can make it.

After the emotional acrobatics of the last week, she finds she doesn’t have the energy left to dread this encounter, too. She’s not naïve enough to believe the news he has to share will be anything less than tragic, but it is, at least, not her personal tragedy this time. She can dredge up her inner journalist for a few hours to protect her from the worst of it.

Her only real concern is Alfred.

“You don’t have to come with me,” she insists gently when she passes the news along that evening. But she’s hardly surprised when he shakes his head at that suggestion.

“I’d like to know what happened to them.”

Aurora takes a breath, unsure how to phrase her concern.

“It’s probably not going to be good news,” she says finally.

“I know.”

And in the silence that follows, she has to shove down the memory of his face, his body, twisted with the weight of the girls’ misery. Her own shock that he allowed himself to feel it so deeply.

She should have expected it, really, after the way Alfred behaved with Marcus, the musician in Hallie’s band. But she wrote that off at the time as a result of the connection Alfred already had to the music. So his reaction to the girls’ retelling of their experience at the birth house had still surprised her. That depth of compassion for complete strangers had seemed so impossible to her then, reeling as she still was from the news of René’s supposed death at Villemarie. So full of her own hurt, she couldn’t imagine taking on anyone else’s.

And she still lives with the knowledge that if it had been up to her, she would have left those girls behind. They weren’t a part of her mission, and the only thing keeping Aurora moving forward at the time was a singular focus on her primary objective. Because she had already learned the brutal lesson: never let your heart rule your head. Her compassion for Annie got René killed. How could she then put Alfred’s life at risk for the sake of those girls?

But Alfred showed her how. He taught her broken heart that not caring wasn’t an option, no matter how painful the alternative might be.

And so she nods her assent, though she never really believed Alfred would agree to stay behind. He’s the one with the deeper emotional investment in these girls. Were their positions reversed, she wouldn’t want to hear the news second-hand either.

** **

Saint Antoine is too far to make it there and back from Paris in one day, so they arrange to spend the whole weekend in Bordeaux. They can take a train from there to Saint Antoine on Saturday. The concierge in Paris recommends a nice hotel and offers suggestions for quiet, pleasant restaurants nearby. And Aurora does her best to come up with other little ways to make the trip as pleasant as is possible around its sad purpose.

Alfred leaves work early on Friday, and they take an afternoon train south to Bordeaux. The train isn’t too full, and they manage to find a compartment to themselves. Aurora waves Alfred towards the window seat, then settles herself beside him rather than across from him. So he’ll have to turn away from the window to face her. After two weeks in Paris, neither of them is as jumpy about confronting their wartime memories as they were when they crossed through France on their way out of Switzerland, but Aurora isn’t taking any chances. They’re going in search of misery enough without adding any accidental encounters.

Aurora put together another of her picnic dinners for them to eat on the train – a baguette from the boulangerie near the hotel, some cold meat, a little cheese, a couple of pears. More than enough food, but still she couldn’t resist adding two additional items.

And when Alfred looks inside the paper bag she presents him with and starts to laugh, she is unreasonably pleased with her own success.

“Now who’s fussing?” he says.

“It’s my turn.”

He reaches out to brush a finger against the back of her hand. “Thank you. But you really didn’t have to.”

She takes the bag back from him and rolls down the top so that the cherries are accessible. Removes the small glass bottle that’s perched atop them.

“My curiosity finally got the better of me.”

“You’re going to try some?”

“I am.”

He laughs again.

She shrugs, touched by his delight. “Well, it can’t hurt me, and you never know. You may have invented a new delicacy. Here.” She hands him the bottle. “There’s salt already in the garlic paste, I hope that’s okay.”

They unpack the other bits of their dinner, lay out what they can on the seat between them. Leave the cherries for dessert by unspoken agreement. And once they’ve finished the main meal, Aurora wipes down the knife she brought for the cheese and hands it to Alfred. He cuts a cherry in half, pries out the stone, and then spreads a small amount of the garlic paste on each half and offers her one.

She pops it in her mouth before she can think too hard about it, determined only that she’s not going to spit it out. And Alfred watches her closely, his eyes still laughing, waiting to see how she reacts.

The flavour is… deeply unusual. As though her taste buds aren’t quite sure what to do with the conflicting information they’re receiving. Which is hardly surprising. But it’s not entirely unpleasant. The sharpness of the garlic does complement the sweetness of the cherry, in roughly the same way it would with a tomato. There’s just something a little sickly sweet about the cherry-ness of it, though.

“And?”

“It’s certainly unusual, but not awful by any means. I can see how it might be an acquired taste.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really. That said, though, I think I’ll eat the rest of mine plain.”

He grins. “Fair enough.”

She watches him eat his half in turn, just to see the pleasure bloom in the lines of his face. And not for the first time, she wishes she could experience the world as he does. Just to be able to understand what moments like this, sensations like this, really mean to him. No matter how much she loves him, no matter how close they are, he will still always be isolated in that.

“What is it?” he asks when he catches her watching him.

“Tell me what you remember. When you taste that.”

“Bicycles on the road to Toulouse. Hallie’s voice. That night in London. My first paycheque.”

“Why your first paycheque?”

“I took the money and went to the grocer. It was the first time I could buy food for myself. I got a little bit of everything and spent the whole evening experimenting. To see if I could make food… feel more enjoyable.”

The memory seems to be a pleasant one for him, but under his words Aurora puts the pieces together, understands with an aching heart how he ended up so painfully thin.

She brushes away her sadness before he can catch the flavour of it, though, not wanting to ruin the light mood she has worked to create. They finish the small bag of cherries while Alfred tells horror stories of some of his other culinary experiments, and then pack the remains of their meal away. As a final surprise, Aurora presents him with one of the books she bought for him during her wander down the Seine, and they pass the rest of the journey reading and talking, with Alfred leaning against the window and Aurora curled up against his side.

** **

It’s late when the train finally pulls into Bordeaux, and they take a taxi directly to the hotel, which is exactly as lovely as the concierge promised it would be. But even so, the weight of the journey’s intended purpose seeps back in around the edges of their silence.

Aurora tangles her body with his under the sheets, guides his hand down to rest against her belly, trying to cocoon him in comfort to keep any dread at bay.

“I’m fine,” he murmurs in her ear.

And she nods, though neither of them believes it entirely. “I know.”

** **

They wake up early, and go for a walk through the city in the fresh morning air, before the heat of the day becomes oppressive. They buy rolls fresh from the boulangerie’s oven, fruit from the market, and eat breakfast by the water. Enjoy what they can of the day before it’s time to board their train.

Chapter Text

Gustave meets them at the platform in Saint Antoine, more gaunt, more stooped, walking now with the aid of a cane, but unmistakable. He greets them with a smile, but there’s wariness in his eyes as well.

“Welcome back,” he says as Aurora steps forward to shake his hand.

Aurora nods. “It’s good to see you again. We never got to thank you properly for your help last time.”

“No need, no need. You showed us what resistance could do. I was proud to be a part of that. Come, I’ll make you some coffee and we can talk.”

He leads them away from the station towards his small cottage at a somewhat shuffling pace, and Aurora takes a moment to study the town as they pass through it. To see it as something more than a map and an objective.

The empty Jewish storefronts are gone, replaced by an assortment of small French shops. There is no trace of Hebrew in any of the window displays, not a single Jewish name on any sign. The mix of contempt and pity she had for this town is still present, fed by the banked rage that has grown ever stronger over the passing years. Mellowed only a little by the overwhelming sadness, the tragedy of this war that turned so many people into the worst versions of themselves.

She’s almost grateful when Alfred breaks the silence, saving her from her thoughts for a while.

“I hear that during the invasion, resistance in this area delayed German reinforcements, kept them in the south for weeks.”

“Yes. The movement grew here after you left. A new circuit moved in to organize us. We were proud to do our part. We came into our guilt a little earlier than most.”

Alfred nods. “You made a difference. Shortened the war. You deserve to be proud.”

Gustave harrumphs a little, but the lines of tension in his craggy face ease somewhat. "I'm an old man, but I did what I could."

He lets them into his home and offers them chairs at the table while he moves around the kitchen preparing the coffee and laying out the cream and sugar.

“Thank you for taking the time to meet with us,” Aurora begins, feeling as though she needs to fill the silence. “The way we had to work during the war meant we left so many people behind, so many fights unfinished. When I started looking back over those years, I began to feel I owed it to the girls at least to learn what happened to them.”

“Yes. You said you’re a journalist now?”

“I was. Before the war.”

Gustave pauses in his preparations, turns to look her full in the face. “Forgive my saying so, but these girls deserve better than having their troubles used to sell papers.”

Aurora nods, finally understanding his reserve. His wariness. She can see how this must look.

“We visited Switzerland not long ago,” she says carefully. “It was like another world. Pristine. Untouched. And it made me angry. That anyone could look at what was happening in the world – on their doorstep – and yet not stand up to fight. That those people now benefit from a peacetime they didn’t earn. That it didn’t matter to them who won or who lost.”

She watches Gustave as she talks, and he seems to be listening. Seems willing, at least, to be convinced.

“I needed to write about why it did matter,” she continues. “Why it does. About the personal consequences of that kind of evil in the world. About students and journalists tortured to death for writing truth. About Claire, who didn’t make it out of hell because she stopped to ensure her friends were safe. If you don’t want to tell me their stories, I understand. But I had to ask. I don’t get to turn and walk away from these consequences either.”

“Will you let me read what you write before you publish it?”

Aurora considers this for a moment. “I can send you a copy to read. And I’m happy to discuss it with you, to take your thoughts under consideration. But you’re not my editor, and I can’t promise to abide by all your wishes. I have a duty to honour the truth as well.”

He turns to Alfred. “What do you think?”

“I trust her,” Alfred says simply. “She won’t sensationalize the story to draw an audience.”

Gustave nods, but remains silent, weighing their words.

“I’ll change their names,” Aurora says quietly. “Change the name of the town. I’m not interested in shaming anyone.”

From the sharp look Gustave flicks in her direction, Aurora realizes she’s hit closer to his true concern.

“It hasn’t been easy for them,” he says. “Some people still label them collaborators.”

Aurora struggles not to flinch. She read the stories that came out of France in the weeks after liberation, of women dragged into the street to have their heads shaved, to be shamed in public. As the country took out its collective guilt on them, while privileged men who hedged their bets and grew even richer off the war walked free.

“They were children,” she insists. “Nothing that happened to them is their fault.”

Gustave sighs. “No, it isn’t. Not that it seems to matter. I’ll tell you what I know. All I ask is that you don’t make their lives any harder.”

Aurora offers a sad smile. “That much I can promise.”

Gustave stands up and shuffles to the kitchen door, pushes it open. “You may as well come in,” he says gently.

A young woman steps past him into the room, and Aurora instantly recognises her as one of the girls from the birth house, though she can’t remember her name. And trailing at her heels is a little boy with a head of blonde curls and a cautious expression.

Alfred stands as the girl approaches the table. “Madeleine,” he says quietly. “It’s good to see you again.”

“You as well. I wanted a chance to thank you properly. For helping us.”

Alfred shakes his head. “No,” he says, fumbling slightly. “Of course. I just. We tried to.”

Aurora comes to her feet next to him, slides her hand into his. “We wanted to come back and make sure you were okay.”

“Come, come,” Gustave says. “Join us, Madeleine. Sit down, please.”

The adults settle back around the table, and the little boy scrambles up into Gustave’s lap. Once he has served the others, Gustave pours a cup for the boy that is mostly milk with just a splash of coffee to colour it.

“And who is the young man?” Alfred asks gently.

Madeleine smiles. “His name is François.”

Aurora can’t help a surge of admiration. The girl has a defiant spirit.

“They’re staying here with me,” Gustave adds. “Very kind of them to help out an old man without any family.”

Madeleine’s face hardens. “My parents would have taken me back, but…” She trails off with a glance at her son, and the grim message is clear.

Her second son, Aurora realizes, belatedly remembering Alfred’s recitation of what had happened to the first. Aurora puts her coffee cup down as her stomach twists.

“Did any of the other girls come back to Saint Antoine?” Alfred asks.

“Marie. She didn’t bring her child with her. We don’t talk about it, but I think she gave it to the church. For adoption.”

“Chloé stayed in the village where we hid her,” Gustave says. “After more than two years, she said it felt like home. I think it was easier for her not to have to face all her friends, her neighbours, with what had happened. Marion ran away, left her child with the family who was sheltering her. We think she might be in Toulouse, but no one has heard from her since.”

“And Claire?”

Aurora tangles her fingers with Alfred’s under the table, lets her thumb sweep a simple reassurance against the inside of his wrist. Their failure to get Claire out still troubles him, and this is the news she has been dreading on his behalf.

Her heart sinks when Gustave shakes his head. “We don’t know. After the liberation we found a nurse who said she thinks they sent Claire east after her baby was born, but we can’t find any trace of her. Or her baby.”

“There’s nothing left at the house?” Aurora asks.

“No. They took the girls who were left and moved everything to Germany ahead of the invasion. When the Allies got here, they used it as a base. They searched it for us, but didn’t find anything.”

“I have some access to the investigators going through Nazi records,” Alfred says quietly. “I’ll ask them to keep an eye out.”

Gustave nods, his face grim. “Thank you.”

Aurora keeps her hold on Alfred’s hand as they talk through the fate of the other girls they rescued, the ones not from Saint Antoine. Gustave’s information is thinner on them, more rumour than fact. But it becomes clear very quickly that Madeleine is in the minority. Only one other girl kept her child and returned home, and she, too, struggled with rejection and ostracism from her community.

Aurora asks questions, keeps Madeleine talking about her son, about her life since she left the birth house. Gets a look at the rage lurking beneath Madeleine’s determination, beneath her composure. And Aurora’s admiration for her only grows. Barely twenty-one, and the girl is already a force to be reckoned with.

“Do you think any of the other girls might be willing to speak with us?” Aurora asks eventually, though she suspects she knows the answer.

And Madeleine shakes her head. “I asked Marie to join us today, but she acted like she couldn’t remember who you were. She tries to pretend it never happened. That she never even left Saint Antoine. She still talks about finding a husband, having a home of her own one day.”

The scorn in Madeleine’s voice makes it clear what she thinks the chances are of Marie ever achieving that kind of life. What she must think her own chances are. And all the journalistic detachment in the world can’t stop Aurora’s throat from aching in empathy.

Gustave provides an address where Aurora can write to Chloé, though. And Madeleine asks for their address in London so she can keep in touch as well.

Aurora is surprised at how sad she is to say goodbye to Madeleine at the end of the visit. Finds she wants to know the woman this girl will grow into. Wishes she had even a few words of advice, of encouragement to offer as a parting gift. But Madeleine knows the world too well already. There’s nothing Aurora can say that will make the passage any easier for her.

“Please write,” is all she can think of to say. “Let us know you’re well.”

And Madeleine nods. “I will. I promise.”

“You’ve done a wonderful job with François,” Alfred adds gently. “He’s a lovely boy. You should be proud.”

And for just a moment, Madeleine’s composure cracks. Tears stand out against her lashes at the unexpected praise, and Aurora is reminded of how painfully young she is. She gives into the urge and hugs Madeleine, then steps back so Alfred can do the same.

“We’ll look forward to hearing from you,” he says. And Madeleine just nods.

** **

They’re both quiet on the walk back to the train station. Alfred looks sad and drawn, and Aurora takes his elbow with both hands, leans into his shoulder.

“We knew it wouldn’t be good news,” he says quietly, laying his other hand over hers.

“Claire?”

“I was hoping she found a way to get out.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

Alfred falls silent for a long moment. “I’m glad we came,” he says at last. “For Madeleine’s sake.” He shakes his head. “Her own parents turned her away.” He struggles for a moment and then sighs. And his voice, when he speaks again, seems tired and defeated. “It’s hard, believing that no one in the world cares whether you succeed or not, whether you survive or not.”

Aurora shifts her grip to tangle her fingers with his. “She has Gustave. And we’ll write to her.” She can’t help a smile. “They’ve got a family a lot like ours.”

He nods. “I just wish we lived a little closer.”

Aurora dips her head, presses a kiss to his shoulder. “Me too.”

** **

When they arrive back in Bordeaux in the afternoon, Alfred can’t quite handle the thought of being cooped up in the hotel. He has too many memories simmering too close to the surface. The girls, the war. But also the day his mother left, the months after his father died. Close enough he doesn’t quite trust that the sounds and flavours in the air around him are actually present and not fragments floating up from his past. And if he doesn’t find a way to distract himself, he’ll be fighting this battle against them all night long.

“Are you tired?” he asks. “Do you mind if we walk for a bit?”

Aurora shakes her head. “Of course not.”

And so Alfred leads the way on a somewhat aimless loop through the town without really seeing it, falling back on his old trick of focusing entirely on Aurora. The warmth of her body against his side, the smell of her perfume, the rhythm of her footsteps. He can feel the moment she realizes his distress. She always knows. And her fingers trace a soothing pattern on his forearm, another point of contact for him to focus on as she begins to guide him instead.

The temperature around him shifts, cooler, darker, and he realizes after a moment she has drawn him off the main street and into a gap between the buildings. She releases his arm, and he almost staggers at her sudden absence, until he feels her hands cradling his face.

“I’m right here,” she murmurs. Releases his face, to slide her arms up around his neck, pulling him closer.

He buries his face in her shoulder, gives in and allows the memories he’s been fighting to bubble up, to claim his attention. One after another. All of them tainted with the music of sadness and loneliness and loss.

But finally, finally, the terrible progression plays itself through, runs itself out, and the world starts to settle around him again. He can feel Aurora’s fingers in his hair, her hand on his back. And he sucks in a shuddering breath, full of the smell of her.

“You’re okay,” she says quietly. Presses kisses to his hair, his temple, his cheek. He turns into that affection, captures her lips with his. To ground himself firmly in the present. To thank her. To reassure them both.

“Better?” she asks when they ease apart.

And he nods. “I’m sorry.”

Her face pinches in empathy. “It’s been a difficult day. I’m sorry, too. Do you want to go back to the hotel? Find some quiet for a while?”

But he shakes his head. “I think I’d prefer some distraction.”

And she nods. “We’ll keep walking, then. See what we can find.”

They end up along the waterfront, join the loose crowd along the promenade in the late afternoon. And the water, the warmth, the easy joy in the people around them all combine to build a much-needed sense of calm.

They indulge in dinner at one of the restaurants recommended to Aurora by the concierge, and by the time they head back to the hotel room, Alfred no longer feels like he’s dragging a cloud of misery along behind him. Thinks he might actually be able to sleep through the night.

He picks up his book to keep his mind occupied, and Aurora curls up on the bed beside him with her notebook, to get her thoughts from the visit down on paper while they’re fresh.

The scratch of her pen is irregular though, falls silent for odd stretches of time. He knows she won’t ask after the scene he made this afternoon, but when he glances over to offer his help in remembering the conversation, the look on her face isn’t what he expected. Her brow is furrowed, and her eyes unfocused, as though she’s searching inside herself for something. But there’s no frustration, no irritation. She’s clearly focused on something, but it’s not the paper in front of her.

“What is it?” he asks gently.

Her gaze turns outward again to find his, and a hint of that golden wonder he sees so rarely creeps into her face.

“I think. I think it's the baby moving. It feels like, like bubbles. Or." She closes her eyes this time, concentrating. And then smiles. "Like I swallowed a butterfly."

She reaches for his hand before he can ask, slides her blouse out of the way to place his fingers directly against her skin. He watches her face for a sign that she feels it again, but has to meet her expectant look with a shake of his head.

“Soon,” she promises. And he smiles. Shifts down on the bed so he can press a kiss to the spot where his hand had been. She threads her fingers through his hair in warm affection, and he shifts again to settle more comfortably where he is. Presses his ear against her belly instead.

“What do you hear?” she asks, a hint of amusement in her tone.

He listens for a moment. Hears the occasional gurgle from her stomach, the rasp of her fingers against his scalp. The quiet symphony of texture and flavour that always accompanies her touch, its key still shifting as her body continues to change. And an occasional low, blue, liquid sound, like movement through water.

He smiles, and her fingers go still in his hair.

“E flat major,” he says simply.

She nods, and her fingers resume their idle movement. “As it should be, then.”

** **

Having identified the odd sensation within her, Aurora becomes aware of the baby’s movements more and more often. Most frequently at night, once she has settled into bed and the relative stillness around her eliminates other distractions.

And when Alfred curls up close against her back their first night back in Paris, back in the expanse of comfortable bed they have come to think of as theirs, he slides his arm around her, lets his hand drift down to her belly, brushes a caress against her skin.

“How’s our butterfly?” he murmurs in her ear. And she can hear the smile in his voice, can almost feel it against her hair.

She shifts his hand slightly, to rest more fully over the slow flutter inside her, though the sensation is still so delicate there’s no hope of his feeling it through all the layers of muscle and tissue and skin.

“Testing its wings, I think.”

He hums his delight at her answer, and she presses back against his chest, deeper into his hold.

From that night it becomes something of a ritual between them. He asks after the butterfly and she digs for words to describe what she’s feeling. Wanting so badly to bring him into this experience with her. Looking forward as much as he is to the day the baby’s movements are strong enough that he’ll be able to feel them from the outside.

Chapter Text

It is a relief for both of them to be back in Paris, to fall back into their familiar routines and favourite places. A relief, too, to spend a quiet week with no emotional turbulence, no visits to dread, no courting of unpleasant memories.

And at the end of their quiet week, Mags arrives to join them, scheduled to arrive in Paris on the Friday, so she can have the full weekend with Alfred before they lose him to his work again on Monday.

Neil rides the train with Mags from London to Dover, puts her on the ferry, stays to wave her off in proper dramatic style. And Aurora takes the train from Paris to Calais to meet her on the other end.

Standing on the docks, watching the ferry grow larger as it approaches, Aurora is overwhelmed by memories of her last journey to collect Mags. Just a little over a year ago, but it feels as though her whole world has changed since then. And this time there is no fear, no apprehension, no guilt. Just eagerness. She has missed Mags, missed Neil, missed their life in London. The time alone with Alfred has been precious, the chance to lay some of her ghosts to rest necessary. But she’s delighted now to see Mags again, and ready to head home at the end of the coming week.

When she first catches sight of Mags walking down the ramp, though, her chest knots around a sudden pang of loss. The little girl they brought into their home, the girl Aurora has grown to love is gone, replaced by a young woman now wearing her face. Mags has grown noticeably taller, all awkward arms and legs, and her body is showing signs she has begun the shift to womanhood. Whether all this happened in the last three weeks or whether the time away has just allowed her to see the results of a more gradual change Aurora can’t decide, but it’s something of a shock either way.

She is profoundly relieved, therefore, when Mags greets her with her usual childlike exuberance, dropping her suitcase to fling herself into Aurora’s arms. And Aurora enfolds her in a fierce hug, drops kisses onto her hair.

Tu m’as manqué, ma fillette,” Aurora says when Mags finally lets her go.

Mags grins. “I missed you, too.” She lays her hands on Aurora’s belly. “You got bigger!”

And Aurora laughs. “So did you. Who let you grow so tall while I was gone? Neil and I will be having words.”

“You’ve been gone forever,” Mags agrees, clearly delighted by Aurora’s fussing.

Aurora hugs her again. “I’m so glad you’re here. And Alfred can’t wait to see you. Come on, let’s get ourselves on the train, and then we can talk.”

She reaches for Mags’ suitcase, but Mags scoots around her and picks it up herself. When Aurora raises an eyebrow, Mags scowls in theatrical stubbornness.

“Neil made me promise I wouldn’t let you lift it.”

Aurora sighs. “Neil and I will definitely be having words.” But she allows Mags to carry her own case as they follow the small crowd of passengers to the station.

On the train, Mags tucks her legs up underneath her on the seat and leans into Aurora’s shoulder, chattering nonstop about her adventures over the last three weeks. All the small details of friends and school and Neil and home. And Aurora is touched by the easy unselfconsciousness in Mags’ words, in her open affection. Marvels at it all the more given the sharp contrast with their last journey together and the quiet, suspicious creature Mags had been. Wonders at this gift of trust that Mags has somehow grown to give her.

The older woman sitting opposite them watches their conversation, its wild swings back and forth between French and English, with an indulgent expression. Clearly assuming they are mother and daughter. And Aurora is selfishly grateful the woman chooses not to intrude, not to voice her assumptions out loud where they will have to be corrected. Aurora doesn’t have a word to describe what she and Mags are to each other, but in this fragile moment of reconnection, it would break her heart to have to put words to what they aren’t.

** **

Aurora scans the crowd as they step down off the train in the Gare du Nord. Alfred said he would meet them there if he could get away from work early enough, but Aurora hasn’t said anything to Mags, just in case he couldn’t. She doesn’t want to start the week off with a disappointment.

But as the other passengers stream away up the platform, Alfred steps into view, and his face lights up as he catches sight of Mags.

Aurora plucks Mags’ suitcase from her hand before it can clatter to the ground a second time – Neil’s edict be damned – and stops just to watch Mags’ reunion with Alfred. Mags is too big now for Alfred to lift her off her feet and spin her around the way he used to, but that means Aurora doesn’t lose sight of his face, gets to see the smile that crinkles all the way up into his eyes as he hugs her. Realises it’s the same one he wears when he asks after the butterfly every night, and for a moment Aurora struggles against a surge of tears.

She crosses to join them, still wrestling her face back under control, and Alfred turns that glorious smile on her. Reaches out to take the suitcase from her with one hand, tangle the fingers of the other with her now-empty ones, and leads the way down into the metro for the journey back to the hotel. Aurora has arranged with the concierge to have a foldaway cot brought up to their room for Mags, and once she’s settled into the space with them, it feels mostly like they’ve just moved back to their old flat. Close and familiar and comforting.

** **

They head out again into the early evening to find dinner. A picnic meal, they agree, rather than a restaurant. So they stop into the grocer’s just before he closes for the night to pick up a few items.

The grocer looks up from sweeping out his store with an exaggerated sigh, but waves them inside.

“We’ll be quick,” Aurora promises with a smile.

She lets Mags choose what she likes, hands her the money and nudges her forward to pay for it herself. As soon as Alfred had joined them at the train station, Mags had defaulted back to English, and Aurora is looking for ways to force her into using her fledgling French.

Mags pins her with a scowl that says she knows exactly what Aurora’s doing, but she doesn’t back down from the challenge. And she almost has the grocer smiling with her by the time he locks up on their heels.

They eat dinner by the river, watching the long summer sunset stain the water in warm colour, and Mags repeats most of her tale for Alfred’s benefit. Aurora, having heard it once, spends the time just watching Alfred and Mags together. Finds she’s imagining another child sitting with them. Perched in Alfred’s lap, grasping for Mags’ long braid.

When Mags winds down, they pack the remains of their picnic away and wander along the river a little, then loop back up towards the hotel, giving Mags a first flavour of the city. Mags gazes up at the buildings around her with interest, but has fallen mostly silent, her long day catching up with her. Alfred slides his arm around her, and she leans sleepily into his shoulder for the last few blocks of their walk.

She doesn’t even object to an early night when they arrive back in the hotel room, a sign she must be truly exhausted. And she falls asleep almost as soon as she climbs into bed.

Aurora and Alfred leave themselves one bedside light, the one furthest from Mags, and sit close enough together on the bed that they can both work from its light. Alfred brought files home with him so he could leave work early, and Aurora sorts through the contents of her notebook, marking ideas and points she needs to revisit later. They work in comfortable silence for an hour, Aurora leaning against Alfred’s shoulder, her heart fairly humming with quiet contentment.

** **

Aurora glances up from her notes when Alfred finally puts his files aside, and he kisses her lightly before he gets up to lock them back into his briefcase. She watches him cross the room, and when he pauses on his way back to gaze down at a sleeping Mags, Aurora puts her notebook aside and gets up to join him. Slides her hand into his, leans into his shoulder.

“It’s good to have her here,” she murmurs. “Thank you for suggesting it.”

“A month is a long time to be away.”

“It is.”

He squeezes her hand, and they step away from Mags to begin changing for bed.

“I realized today,” she says, “I’m already looking forward to being home.”

“You are?”

“I am. Aren’t you?”

He abandons the hanger he’d been reaching for and steps closer. “I just wondered if you ever regretted it. That we settled in London instead. Paris was your home.”

She shrugs. “So was Montréal, once. And in a perfect world I’d like to visit both occasionally. But my home is with you. And with Mags, and with Neil. You know that.”

He leans in to kiss her. “I do know that.”

“So, yes. I’m glad we came. It’s been… challenging, but good. Necessary.”

“But it’s time to go home,” Alfred finishes.

And Aurora nods. “It’s time to go home.”

** **

They spend the next two days walking what feels like every square inch of the city, climbing every single stair. Seeing all the sights that must be seen in Paris. The Eiffel tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs Elysées, the Tuileries, Sacré Coeur, Notre Dame, and on and on. Aurora plays tour guide for the others, does her best to tell the history of these landmarks like a story, with heroes and villains and gory battles and beheadings. And Alfred supplies the names and dates when her own dusty memories of her schoolroom history lessons fail her.

She and Alfred have passed some of these sights on their earlier wanderings, but they haven’t lingered to admire them. During the occupation, the major attractions had always been well-staffed with German soldiers, and until now Aurora hasn’t quite been able to shake the crawling nervousness she has come to associate with them.

But showing Mags around the city makes it a wholly new experience. It’s impossible to lose track of when in time she is, to fall back into old habits with Mags present. And Aurora is able to engage with these old buildings now as though the three of them are simply the family of tourists they appear to be. Even Alfred seems to be firmly in the present with them, his face free of any tension, his smile quick and easy.

It’s definitely a whirlwind tour, but it’s a hugely enjoyable one. They soak up the warmth of the summer sun as they walk, stop to rest at the occasional café, take the chance to introduce Mags to Parisian pastries and café au lait. And Mags seems to be as enchanted by the whole experience as Aurora was when she first arrived in Paris.

** **

By Sunday evening Aurora is exhausted, her back protesting too many hours spent on her feet. A new development of her changing body she is less than thrilled by. She has always been fit and strong, takes for granted that her body will do what she asks of it. And it’s an effort now not to get frustrated at these new limitations.

When they finally arrive back in the hotel room after dinner, Aurora gets Mags set up for her bath with towels and soap, makes sure she knows which way the taps turn, and then stretches out on the bed, the joints in her spine popping painfully at the shift in pressure.

Alfred steps over to perch on the edge next to her.

“You can’t lie on your stomach anymore, can you?”

Aurora cracks an eye open and scowls up at the gentle amusement in his tone.

“No.”

“Roll over onto your side, then, let me see if I can help.”

She does, and Alfred reaches over to hand her the pillows from the head of the bed in an effort to make her more comfortable. He arranges himself behind her, runs his hands down her back, and Aurora offers a low hum of gratitude as his thumbs begin to tease loose the knotted tension in her muscles.

“You should have said something. We could have gone slower, rested more.”

“I didn’t want to rest.”

“Your back clearly did.”

She shrugs. “You only have the two days.”

“Paris isn’t going anywhere. We can come back again someday to show Mags the rest.”

It’s a nice thought, to come back again, to bring the baby next time, too. But Alfred’s assurances only prompt a wave of guilt that she isn’t being entirely honest.

“I’m not used to being the weakest link,” she admits finally.

Alfred shifts his hand to squeeze her shoulder. “I know. But that part will only get worse before it gets better. Are you going to fight it the whole way?”

“It scares me.”

To be so physically vulnerable. Unable to run. Unable to fight. She’s a danger to the others. A burden.

“We dragged Tom halfway across France when he was wounded. And Neil. You all carried me, my first few months. It’s just your turn, that’s all. The rest of us will keep you safe.”

Aurora nods, throat aching with an unexpected press of tears. Alfred squeezes her shoulder again, then returns his fingers to their task.

Long moments later, having dealt with the worst of the tension in Aurora’s back, Alfred’s hands take on a lighter touch, smoothing a caress up and down her back, and finally withdraw completely. He leans in to press a kiss to the nape of her neck.

“Better?”

“Don’t stop.”

“Mags’ll be out soon.”

“We could lock her in there.”

He laughs. “Only if you want to try and explain why.”

Aurora sighs. “No. Not yet.”

He gives her shoulder a gentle pat. “Come on. Get up and change your clothes before you fall asleep where you are. An early night will do all of us some good.”

Chapter Text

On Monday, Mags joins them in their usual morning ritual. Breakfast at the café near the hotel before they walk Alfred to work.

They’re both still tired from their active weekend, so Aurora has a gentler day in mind for them this time. They spend the morning wandering in the smaller, quieter streets, peering into shop windows, browsing through markets.

And Aurora finds that one-on-one time with Mags holds a different tenor than the mad, joyful weekend they spent. More thoughtful, more conversational. All through those two hectic days, Mags had been most interested in the stories Aurora and Alfred had told of their own time in the city. What they had liked, where they had been. And with a quieter day, with the easy camaraderie between them, Mags starts asking the questions that Aurora and Alfred had danced carefully around in the days before.

There is so much of Aurora’s own experience, her own love of the city that she wants to share with Mags, but those memories are a minefield. Half of it locked away behind the Official Secrets Act, and the rest peppered with horrors she doesn’t want to load onto Mags’ young shoulders. She does her best to offer what pieces she can, to try to build a whole story out of fragments of the truth. It doesn’t take long, though, before Mags becomes dissatisfied with those careful answers.

“When did you move to Paris?” Mags wants to know, as they’re browsing among the bouquinistes.

“Before the war. I was a journalist, and with what was going on in Europe, I wanted to be closer to the stories. I picked Paris because I used to read about it all the time when I was your age. I always wanted to come here.”

“Was Alfred a journalist, too?”

“I didn’t meet Alfred until later. During the war.”

“In Paris?”

Aurora hesitates for just a second. It would be so much easier to lie, but she can’t bring herself to do it. She can’t betray the trust that Mags has given her.

“No, we met in Canada.”

“Why did you go back to Canada during the war? I thought you fought the Germans with Uncle Neil.”

“I did, but that was a little later.”

“But when were you here with Alfred then?”

Aurora takes a breath. She should have realized when they arranged Mags’ visit that these questions were inevitable.

“Why did you come,” Mags persists, “if there wasn’t any fighting in Paris?”

“Come on,” Aurora says, trying to keep an easy smile on her face, “the Île Saint-Louis isn’t far from here, and they have the very best ice cream in Paris. Do you want to try some?”

Mags’ face closes up then with a hurt out of all proportion to the conversation. “You don’t want to tell me anything! I could see it, yesterday. You think I don’t understand, but I do. You’re keeping secrets. All of you. Uncle Neil, too.”

Aurora’s heart sinks. It was a feeble effort on her part, and she regrets even attempting to distract Mags.

They’ve all known this day was coming. She and Neil and Alfred talked about it once, when Mags first came to live with them. What to tell her when she inevitably started asking questions. The consensus had been, ‘as little as possible,’ but Aurora realizes now that might not be as little as they had hoped.

She stops walking so she can turn to face Mags, reaches out to take her hand. It’s a long moment before Mags relents and allows the contact.

“I do want to tell you,” Aurora says gently. “But it’s more complicated than that.”

Mags stares up at her, expression wavering between mutinous and tearful, clearly unsure how to express a hurt that has been a long time growing. Aurora wants to pull her into a hug, to comfort her, but she’s not sure Mags would welcome the gesture in this moment.

At twelve, Mags is wobbling right on the cusp of adulthood, the beginnings of an independence and a grown-up understanding of the world battling against her still-childlike need for reassurance and security. Aurora has watched her swing back and forth between the two extremes since she arrived to join them in Paris, a duality Aurora finds both charming and a little heartbreaking. But whether either of them is entirely ready for it, the time has clearly come for Mags to understand at least the very basics of the baggage that all the adults in her life drag around with them.

“Let’s find somewhere to sit, and we can talk about it. Okay?

Mags hesitates for a moment, clearly sensing she has opened a much bigger can of worms than she expected. But finally she nods, fear now battling with the anger in her eyes, and she leaves her hand in Aurora’s as they set off down the street again.

They find a spot by the river, sit cross-legged on the sun-warm stone. A handful of people walk the path behind them, but none of them is close enough that Aurora worries they might be overheard.

“You’re right that we’re keeping secrets. And we forget sometimes that you’re not a little girl anymore, that you’re going to notice these things now. So the very first thing I want to tell you is that if there’s something we don’t tell you, it’s not because we don’t trust you. It’s because we’re not allowed to.”

Aurora’s serious tone makes its intended impression on Mags. Her back straightens in what might be pride at being included in this adult conversation, but her eyes are wide with fear. Aurora reaches out and takes her hand again, and Mags shifts a little closer to her where they sit.

“You’re not allowed to? How come?”

“Alfred and Neil and I, the work that we did during the war was so secret, the government made us swear an oath that we would never, ever talk about it. Not with anyone, not even the people we love. Not even you. And if Neil gets married one day, he won’t even be able to tell his wife about it. Do you understand?”

“Was it bad? What you did. Is that why you have to keep it secret?”

Yes.

The question brings all of Aurora’s own guilt and conflict roaring to the surface. Mags is looking up at her with all the trust in the world, and Aurora feels… dirty. Like the Secrets Act is just an excuse to hide her shame. Because any reassurance she offers to Mags now will be a lie. And even if she manages somehow to put Mags off with easy half-answers, one day the child that now flutters inside her will look up at her with that same trust and ask her these same questions all over again. She can’t avoid this forever.

She blows out a shaky breath, takes a long moment to think. What can she tell these children who love her? Who love Alfred and Neil. What can she tell them that has any truth in it at all? There is no excuse for some of what they did. But maybe, she realises slowly, maybe an explanation could be enough.

“Everything in war is bad,” Aurora says finally. “Every soldier who fought, every soldier on both sides, did things they wish they didn’t have to do. So, in that sense, yes, it was bad. But it was necessary. Because what the Nazis were doing was worse, and they had to be stopped.”

Mags looks like she might be on the edge of tears, and she sits quietly for a long moment after Aurora finishes speaking. Aurora holds her hand and waits while Mags thinks it through. Hoping she hasn’t destroyed Mags’ trust already, hoping she hasn’t damaged Mags’ relationship with Neil.

“The Nazis killed mummy and granny,” Mags says, and looks up to meet Aurora’s eyes.

Aurora nods. “They killed my oma and opa.”

“I’m glad you stopped them. I would have done bad things to them, too. If I was grown up.”

Oh, ma puce, I know you would, but I hope you never, ever have to.”

Mags falls silent again, and Aurora squeezes her hand.

“I don’t mean to scare you. And I think you’re old enough now to understand. But even what we’ve talked about today, you have to promise me you won’t ever repeat it. Not to your friends. Not to anyone. Like us, you have to swear an oath, okay?”

Mags meets her gaze, and her eyes are wide and nervous, but she nods.

“Do you swear?”

Mags’ voice is tiny, but she does answer. “I swear.”

“Good girl. Thank you for understanding. It’s a very grown-up thing I’m asking of you.”

Mags nods again.

“So, how about this,” Aurora says finally. “I’ll tell you as much as I can, but if I say I can’t answer something, that has to be the end of it. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“You wanted to know about when I moved to Paris?”

“Before the war. Is that okay to ask?”

“Before the war is fine.”

And so Aurora launches into a somewhat sanitized, simplified version of the story. Moving to Paris, René, the Occupation, the underground newspaper, running away from the Nazis, escaping to Spain, finding passage to the UK, and then back to Canada. Skips the part about being interviewed and then recruited by SOE when they arrived in London, about being transferred to the new program at Camp X.

“Is that when you met Alfred?”

“That’s when I met Alfred.”

“And you came back to France.”

“We did. We came to fight the Germans with Uncle Neil.”

“And Harry?” Mags asks.

Aurora hesitates for a moment, but realizes there’s no point hedging about what Mags clearly already knows.

“And Harry,” she agrees. “And Tom.”

“What about René?”

“He came back to fight the Germans, too. He was the one in charge of all of us. But he died.”

Mags just nods. For a child of the war, that part needs no explanation. And when Mags looks up again, that grown-up understanding shows in her eyes.

“I can’t ask anything else, can I.”

Aurora has to shake her head. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s not fair.”

Not whining. Just a statement of fact. And Aurora manages a smile.

“No, it’s not.”

They sit together in silence for a moment, watching a barge laden with crates make its slow way past them up the river.

“Do you think,” Mags says eventually. “Would it be okay to try that ice cream now?”

Aurora starts to laugh on a wave of relief, and Mags’ hesitant smile grows in confidence.

“That is a wonderful idea. Come on, let’s go see what we can find.”

** **

Aurora does her best that afternoon to find all the secret things she is allowed to tell Mags about Paris. About the catacombs under the city and the ossuaries they contain, and how she and René hid down there for three days when they were on the run from the Nazis. About the Opéra Garnier with its ceiling painted by Chagall, its lake full of carp deep under the building, and the ballerinas in the garrets that they call les petits rats for the sounds their toe shoes make on the wooden floors. She takes her to the Galéries Lafayette to look at the fashions and the perfumes, and then shows her up the stairs to the roof for a stunning view out over the city. She even braves her memories of the Marais to show Mags the little hidden parks tucked in behind old buildings.

And by the time they meet up with Alfred outside his work in the evening, Mags is lit up once again with excitement about all the ‘secret’ things she will be able to share with Neil and Maureen and her friends in London. Every so often, though, while she’s rattling through the retelling of their day for Alfred, she flicks a look back to Aurora – is this okay? Just to make sure. And Aurora’s heart aches to realize the Secrets Act is now a burden for Mags, too.

Alfred notices the looks, raises an eyebrow at Aurora when Mags is turned away, but she shakes her head. Later. And once Mags is asleep, they step quietly out into the hall.

“What’s going on?”

“She started asking questions today about when it was that we lived in Paris. And why.”

“What did you tell her?”

Aurora gives him a quick summary of the conversation, conscious all the while that their location is not secure, that anyone could be listening in through the other doors on the hall.

Alfred nods. “It was a nice touch to make her swear as well. She can feel some ownership of the secret too, now. Some responsibility.”

“I wish she didn’t have to. I would have spared her that, if I could. But she was so hurt that we were keeping things from her. I think she’s been putting pieces together for a while now.”

He smiles. “She’s a smart girl. But we’ve been pushing the boundaries of what’s allowed, because it’s the three of us together. We’ll have to be more careful from now on.”

“We can discuss it with Neil when we get back.” Aurora sighs. “And he might want to talk to Mags about what she knows, too.”

Alfred reaches out to brush her arm. “It sounds like you did a good job of it.”

But Aurora can’t quite shake the memory of Mags’ question. Was it bad, what you did?

“We’re going to have to do this again one day,” she says quietly.

And Alfred nods. “With the butterfly.”

“It’s not fair.” Aurora repeats Mags’ words with a sad smile. “We either hurt them with silence or burden them with knowledge. I wish there was a better way.”

“We have a few years yet. Maybe we’ll come up with something. And Mags seems to be handling it well so far.”

“So far. She’s still young. But one day she’ll start to wonder what we did. Why we can’t talk about it. Maybe I should have lied.”

“She knows us. She loves us. Aurora. We’ll find a way to help her understand. If it comes to that.”

Aurora nods, tries to find a smile for him. “We should go back in.”

But he catches her arm, holds her back. Steps in closer and kisses her. And when they part, Aurora lets the tension run out of her on a shuddering sigh.

“She’s just fine,” he murmurs. “I know it was hard, but you did well.”

She leans into him for a moment, tips her face up to kiss him again. He smiles, brings his hands up to brush her face.

“Come on,” he says finally. “Time for bed.”

Chapter Text

For all that Aurora feels she’s ready to go home, the rest of their final week in Paris flies by far too quickly.

Alfred arranges to leave work early on the day the Louvre is open late, and Aurora leads him and Mags through a tour of her favourite works. Mags’ interest lasts longer than Aurora expects it to, which lights a small flicker of pride and delight in Aurora’s chest, and she does her best to relay the love for these pieces the way her father passed it down to her.

They take an evening boat tour on the Seine, watch the sun set from the top of the Arc de Triomphe, climb a truly dizzying number of stairs to say hello to the gargoyles that perch in the heights of Notre Dame.

On Thursday night, Alfred surprises them with tickets to a ballet at the Opéra Garnier, so Mags gets to see the painted Chagall ceiling for herself. They dress in their nicest clothes, Aurora does Mags’ hair for her, and they hire a taxi rather than taking the métro. Mags’ eyes go wide at the lavish décor in the opera house, the excess of gilding and grandiosity, and she leads them up and up the wide staircase to investigate every level.

When Aurora has to explain Mags won’t be able to see either the carp or the petits rats for herself, Alfred consoles her by telling her the story of the Opéra’s phantom and his chandelier, promises to help her find the book when they’re back in London. And every so often through the production, Mags’ eyes flick up to the chandelier, or over to box five, just to check. Clearly delighted by the story.

On Friday they have their last picnic dinner by the Seine, take a last wander along the banks, and then head back to the hotel to pack their things. And on Saturday morning, they step onto the train to Calais, heading for home. Mags’ feelings seem to be almost as mixed as Aurora’s, sad to leave Paris behind, but excited for another ferry crossing, anxious to see Neil again. And as the ferry pulls away from the dock, they all stand at the railing to wave goodbye to France.

“Could we visit again, one day?” Mags asks.

“I hope so. Maybe not for a year or two, though.”

“Because of the baby?”

Aurora nods. “It’s not easy to travel with a small baby. Do you mind?”

Mags just shrugs. “When the baby’s old enough, I can help to tell the stories, about the paintings and the buildings and the Opéra.”

Aurora smiles, rests a hand on Mags' shoulder. “It’s a deal.”

** **

Neil is waiting for them at the train station when they arrive, and Mags drops her suitcase again to fling herself at him for a hug. Aurora picks up the case and she and Alfred follow at a more reasonable pace. By the time they arrive, Mags is already talking a mile a minute, filling Neil in on all the details of her trip.

There are shadows around Neil’s eyes that weren’t there four weeks ago, and Aurora’s heart twists with a combination of sympathy and guilt. She wants to ask him how he’s been sleeping, but she suspects she already knows the answer. Hopes the trouble has only been since Mags left, not the whole month she and Alfred have been away. And Aurora wishes again she could have talked him into coming to France with Mags.

She puts the suitcase down and closes the distance between them to greet him with a hug of her own. His arms close around her, but gingerly. Clearly afraid he’ll damage her somehow. She laughs and squeezes him harder, until the tension eases in the muscles under her hands and he hugs her back properly.

“Look at you,” he says, when she finally lets him go. Reaches out as though to brush the round of her stomach, but stops himself. “How do you feel?”

“I’m fine. Tired. It’s been a long trip. How are you?”

“Better for having you all home safe,” he says quietly. And then turns to Mags. “Unless this one here talks my ear right off my head.”

Mags scowls at him, and he laughs. Tucks his arm around her shoulders.

“Come on,” he says. “Maureen is cooking dinner, so you’ll actually have something edible to look forward to.”

He makes a point of picking up Mags’ case before Aurora can, and Aurora sighs but lets it pass. She’ll fight that battle with him some time when neither of them is quite so exhausted. For now, she simply takes Alfred’s elbow and follows as Neil herds everyone out of the station towards the taxi rank.

** **

Maureen greets them at the door as they stumble in, and after another round of hugs, they abandon all the luggage in the hallway and sit down with relief in the dining room. Dinner is lively and long, and Alfred and Aurora allow Mags to dominate the conversation, telling all about her adventures. The river and the gargoyles, the catacombs and the opera house. Neil and Maureen make all the right noises of appreciation, and Alfred and Aurora fill in some of the gaps that Mags skips over in her headlong excited rush.

By the time dinner winds to a close, however, it becomes clear that Mags is still all but vibrating in her seat for some reason beyond just excitement to be home. Aurora glances over at Alfred, but he gives her a small headshake, confused as well. When they all get up to clear the dishes to the kitchen, though, Aurora can’t miss the pleading look Mags turns on Neil. He, it seems, is in on whatever this is.

Neil sighs dramatically, but there’s a smile lurking underneath it.

“Go on, then,” he says finally.

Mags turns immediately to grab Aurora by the hand. “You have to come upstairs!” she announces, and practically drags Aurora out into the hall. Doubles back once Aurora is on her way up to go and get Alfred as well. Maureen and Neil follow behind as Mags leads everyone up two flights of stairs to the closed door of Alfred and Aurora’s bedroom.

Mags pauses, though, hand on the doorknob, when Neil clears his throat behind her. Turns immediately to face Alfred and Aurora.

“We have a surprise for you,” Mags says solemnly. “Is that okay?”

Aurora glances at Alfred, and he smiles at Mags. “Yes, it’s okay. Thank you for asking.”

Mags grins. “Close your eyes!”

Another throat-clear from Neil.

“Close your eyes, please?”

“Much better.”

Aurora is struggling not to laugh by this point, but does as she’s told. Hears the bedroom door open, then Mags takes her hand and tugs her forward into the room, Alfred’s shoulder bumping hers as they negotiate the door frame. Mags stops her a few paces into the room, takes her shoulders to turn her slightly.

“Okay,” says Mags, her voice a little hushed. “You can open them now.”

Aurora opens her eyes to find one corner of the bedroom has been transformed into a nursery of sorts, with a crib, a changing table, a rocking chair, and a little set of drawers. One of Harry’s photos of her and Alfred during the wedding has been framed and hung on the wall, and a homemade mobile dangles from the ceiling above the crib.

And for one long moment, Aurora can’t breathe at all.

She hadn’t yet bought any furniture for the baby before she left for France. She had come across a few pieces in the various markets and jumble sales she visited, but couldn’t bring herself to buy them. It felt like a declaration, an investment in family and future she still didn’t feel qualified to make. And she’s sure the crib in front of her is one she hesitated over in a market once, tempted in spite of herself. Beautiful, but in poor shape when she had seen it. She recognises Neil’s handiwork, now, in its repair. Mags must have told him where to find it.

She takes a step closer, finds tiny hand-stitched linens folded neatly in the crib. All the various bits and pieces she had bought in the previous months unpacked and carefully put away in the drawers and on the shelves under the changing table.

It is far, far too much. Too real. Too big a step, and one that still frightens her. Preparing herself for the work of it, the practical necessities had been one thing. But building a space, a welcome for the tiny new person who will soon be joining them is something she is only just learning to do. And this gift is an expression of such care and kindness from the people around her that her chest aches just to look at it.

Alfred reaches out, grips her hand, and Aurora finds the tremors in his fingers somehow reassuring. She isn’t the only one struggling with emotions pressing to get out.

“You did all this while we were away?” she manages finally.

“It wouldn’t be much of a surprise if we tried to do it while you were home, would it?”

And Aurora is grateful to Neil for his humour, even if her laugh has something of a desperate edge on it.

“Do you like it?” Mags asks.

Aurora turns to face Mags and manages a wobbly smile, opens her arms for a hug which Mags immediately falls into. And Alfred steps close behind her, lays a steadying hand in the small of her back.

“It’s a wonderful surprise,” Alfred says quietly. “Thank you.”

Aurora meets Neil’s eyes over Mags’ head, but can’t find the words for him. This gift is an expression of love and kindness, yes, but it’s more than that, too. It’s one of understanding. Of acceptance. That, like Alfred, the others can see all her fears and all her flaws, and they love her anyway. That there may be parts of being a civilian woman that don’t come naturally to her, but it doesn’t matter because the others will stand in that gap for her. They won’t let her fail, won’t let her fall.

Aurora shivers now to think how close they came to going their separate ways. Even if the shadows in Neil’s eyes after a month apart weren’t enough to convince her they all made the right choice, this would be the empirical proof – the very first time since war was declared that she has felt completely safe.

Neil meets her gaze and nods. Smiles. “Maureen made the linens,” he says, “and helped Mags to lay out your things.”

Maureen waves off the praise. “May and Edith loaned you some more baby clothes,” she adds. “They’re in the drawers.”

“I don’t know what to say. Thank you for this.” She hesitates. “I could never have done this on my own.”

“It was our pleasure, dear, of course. And I’m almost sorry you missed it. These two have been so excited.”

Aurora releases Mags and catches her eye as she steps back. “You did an excellent job of keeping that secret the whole week you were in France,” she says. “I didn’t suspect a thing.”

Mags nods, and again there’s the flicker of a grownup in her eyes. The weight of their own shared secret.

“Come on,” Neil says. “I think that’s enough excitement for one day. Let’s get the cases upstairs, and then we can put the kettle on.”

But the look he flicks back at Aurora as they head down the stairs again tells her he didn’t miss her little exchange with Mags.

** **

It’s much later, though, in the living room with the door closed, once Maureen has left, once Mags has gone to sleep, that they finally circle back to that part of the conversation. Just the three of them together.
 
“How was it?” Neil asks.

And Aurora’s relief at being able to take down all the careful barriers between what she is and isn’t allowed to say is almost a physical thing.

“Strange at first. Trying to remember that no one was watching, that we didn’t need to be careful. It took some getting used to.”

He nods. “It’s hard to imagine. A free France. But then, I only ever knew it under the Occupation.”

“Some days it was like I had stepped back in time. To the Paris I knew before the war. But when I went to visit the places I used to go back then, only bits and pieces of them were still there. Always something missing.”

Neil is silent for a moment before turning to Alfred. “And you? Was it okay? You didn’t…” He shrugs, a little uncomfortable. It’s rare he asks that question outright. “I was worried,” he finishes finally.

Alfred smiles at the concern, though there’s sadness in it too. Takes his cue to launch into a more detailed version of their trip for Neil. Paris without the Gestapo, René and the apartment, Saint Antoine and the girls. Alfred’s skill as a storyteller is growing, and he watches Neil as he picks through the myriad details available to him, assembling the pieces that Neil most needs to hear.

Neil couldn’t bring himself to go in person, Aurora realizes, but he needs the end of the story just as badly as she did.

When they get to Mags’ visit, though, Alfred turns the telling over to Aurora, and she stumbles through an account of Mags’ questions and her own attempts at an answer.

 “I’m sorry, Neil. I’m sure you wanted to have that talk with her. But I couldn’t put her off without hurting her more.”

But Neil shakes his head. “It’s my fault. She’s been hedging around it for a little while now, with questions and. Just, digging. You know. And I didn’t know what to say. Even if I was allowed to, how can I…” He blows out a breath. “I know it’s wrong, I know it’s my place, but. Thank you. For doing that.”

Aurora can only nod, a final piece of understanding falling into place. That she can stand in the gap for him as well.

“How have things been here?” Alfred asks after a moment, breaking the growing silence.

And Aurora shares in Neil’s obvious relief at the change of subject, relaxes against Alfred on the sofa as Neil gives them a meandering account of the house and Mags and the neighbourhood during their absence. Soaks up all the small details that reconnect her to this life. She’s glad to have gone back to France, finds she’s already hoping to return again one day. But for now, it’s good to be home.

Chapter Text


Alfred keeps a careful eye on Aurora in the days after they return from France. The last few months have been so full of activity, with the search for a new home, the move, settling in, the trip to France, that her decision to leave her job became just one more change in a much larger shuffle. But with all that upheaval behind them, with a peaceful few months ahead, he’s worried that Aurora might struggle again with the demons that overwhelmed her after the SOE let her go.

On that first Monday morning back in London, as he and Neil bustle through the house getting ready to leave for work, Aurora wears again that look of grim determination in her eyes, gearing up to face a day with no defined purpose. And Alfred very nearly surrenders on the spot, ready to send a message to the office that he isn’t coming in. Resolved to spend the day at home with Aurora instead. He still carries guilt that it took him so long to notice her suffering the last time. Refuses to allow that to happen again.

But he can’t come up with a convincing reason for the change in plans that she won’t brush off as unnecessary fussing, that won’t make the situation worse, and so he follows Neil reluctantly out the door. Spends the day with the problem niggling at the back of his mind, what to do if she remains miserably unhappy trapped in the house.

** **

Aurora holds onto the list of tasks in her head as she watches Neil and Alfred head out the door on Monday morning, a collection of items she is determined to accomplish during the day. She may not have a job to go to, but she hardly intends to sit idle, and she built something of a template for herself already during their time in France. There’s no need for it to feel any different just because she’s back in London.

Even so, though, she finds she’s grateful Mags is now on summer holidays, that she, too, doesn’t have anywhere particular to go in the morning. And though Mags spends much of the day outside playing with her friends, she’s still nearby, her voice occasionally drifting in the open windows, and for today, at least, that’s enough to keep Aurora from feeling completely isolated.

Aurora spends much of the morning catching up on the mail that has piled up for them in their absence. Letters from her mother confirming that her parents have booked passage on a ship and will be arriving in early December. Another from Harry, full of news and exuberance. A short note from Madeleine, thanking them again for their visit. And Aurora launches herself into replies to them all, picking up the threads of connection to this extended part of her family.

In the hour after lunch, though, once Mags has disappeared back outside, Aurora starts to feel the oppressive quiet once again. Unpacks her typewriter, her notebook, her papers, determined not to let it bother her. Switches on the radio to keep her company, to chase the silence out of the room. She has only just settled herself at the small desk by the living room window, though, when May Rossiter knocks at the door, and Aurora gets up to welcome her in with warm relief.

They settle themselves in the living room with cups of tea, and when May asks, Aurora does her best to retell the parts of their trip she thinks might be of interest to anyone outside the family, profoundly grateful she has already spent so much time in recent days working out what she can and cannot say about her time in France.

And eventually the conversation turns back to safer topics, to pregnancy and the nursery, Edith and her children, Maureen and her sister, all the small stories accumulated over the course of a month spent apart, and the afternoon drifts away in cheerful conversation.

** **

When Alfred arrives home in the evening, tired and wrung out after a day of quiet worry, he abandons his briefcase and coat in the hall, goes immediately in search of Aurora. Discovers her typewriter and notes laid out in the living room with some relief, and eventually finds her in the kitchen with Mags finishing up their preparations for the evening meal.

Aurora’s mood has improved since morning, and her smile comes easily when he steps in to join them, greets her with a kiss. And the knot of worry in his chest loosens somewhat over the course of the evening as she talks and laughs along with everyone else, meets his gaze with no shadows in her eyes.

He seeks her out in the living room after dinner, draws her upstairs to steal some time alone with her, just to be sure. And while there’s something hesitant, uncertain, in her assurances that she’s fine, as though she doesn’t quite trust in it herself, she remains free, for the moment at least, of any signs of the misery she struggled with last time.

** **

Tuesday is Maureen’s day to come in and help with the chores around the house. Aurora isn’t used to being home during the morning while she’s there, and finds she’s completely incapable of sitting down to her own tasks while Maureen is doing what Aurora considers to be vastly less pleasant work. So they end up doing the housework together, tackling some of the larger jobs that are made easier by having two pairs of hands.

** **

Wednesday a heavy rain keeps Mags inside all day, and once the morning tidy-up done, Mags settles down near Aurora in the living room with one of the French books they bought for her in Paris. And Aurora is pleased enough, both to have her nearby and that she’s making the attempt to read in French, that she doesn’t mind Mags’ regular interruptions asking for explanations or for help with translation.

** **

On Thursday, Maureen and May arrive together to take Aurora across town for a visit with Edith, and Aurora spends the afternoon telling her carefully edited version of their time in France all over again. Presents the other women with the gifts she has brought back with her – small bottles of perfumes and cosmetics unavailable in England – to thank them for all their kindness.

Teddy, too, has grown bigger while Aurora was away, sitting up on his own now, and beginning to babble nonsense syllables, to everyone’s great delight. Aurora holds him on her knee and watches him in fascination. Can’t help doing the math, trying to wrap her head around this glimpse into her future. Ten months from now, early next summer, her own child will be this size, chewing on her fingers, grasping for her hair, for her earrings. For a moment she can just about imagine it, but it still doesn’t feel entirely real.

** **

By Friday, Aurora finally understands that she no longer has to fear the feeling of isolation, of being trapped inside the house, that she struggled with in the weeks after leaving the SOE. Her problem might now be finding enough time to get any work done at all.

She is determined, though, to complete her articles before the baby arrives, and that will clearly require more of a plan than just assuming she’ll have the whole daytime free to work while the others are out. And so she builds herself a battle plan of sorts. She claims the mornings, first of all, for her work. From the time Alfred and Neil head out the door until the time Mags comes in for lunch, Aurora sits at her desk in the window and continues picking out the shape of each article in draft after draft.

It’s something of a challenge at first, and she has to explain to Mags and to May more than once, as kindly as she knows how, that she will not accept interruptions during that time. Afternoons she leaves open for housework and visits, friends and errands, all the other bits and pieces of life that need attending to. And by the end of that second week she has a system just about in place.

The one exception to the rule is something she and Mags build together. On rainy days when it’s too wet to go out, when Mags doesn’t feel like playing indoors at a friend’s house, she is allowed to come and pull Aurora away from her work so they can spend the morning together. There’s something illicit, stolen, in the feeling of those hours that makes them all the more enjoyable, even if all they do is curl up on the sofa with a pot of tea and their books. And Aurora is always surprisingly pleased on the rare summer mornings that dawn grey and wet.

** **

By the end of their second full week back in London, Alfred finally dares to relax into the new rhythm of their lives. Even the ghost of that grim determination has disappeared from Aurora’s face, and Alfred is able to leave the house in the morning without fear, without worry, without guilt.

Every day, usually at some point in the evening, he and Aurora find a way to steal a slice of time to spend alone together – a lesson learned from last summer, something Alfred has made an effort to maintain since they got home and which has now become a cherished part of their day.

And it’s during one of these moments, in an evening no different than any other, when Aurora’s talk of how she spent her day includes not only the progress of her work, but time with Mags, friends and neighbours, errands done and letters answered, that the depth of just how much has changed hits Alfred all at once. And, gazing at her where she stands by her desk, sorting idly through the mess of papers she has accumulated there, his chest aches with an admiration, a joy he doesn’t know how to express to her. That she has overcome so much fear, so much pain, and built herself a life that she believed herself completely incapable of even this time last year.

He doesn’t dare draw her attention to the change for fear self-consciousness might damage the fragile balance she has found, but he can’t resist revelling in the quiet contentment that surrounds her in this moment. And he steps closer, slides his arms around her, just to see her smile.

She lets the papers go and meets his gaze, with affection, with curiosity dancing in her own.

“What is it?”

He doesn’t answer, leans in to kiss her instead. Wants to remember how she feels, how she tastes, how she sounds when she’s happy. When she’s whole. He knows better than to think her war is won for good, but for now he’s willing to celebrate even this fleeting victory.

“I love you,” he murmurs against her skin as they ease apart.

They don’t often use the words. Say it instead with hands and fingers, with touch and caress, with presence and support. But those are the only words he can come up with to explain himself.

Je t’aime,” she agrees. But her fingers flutter up to brush his face. “Are you okay?”

He catches her hands, cradles them against his chest to smooth out the sudden worry in her face.

“I’m happy,” he says quietly. “That’s all.”

She nods, her expression warming into something beyond a smile, the grip of her fingers tightening on his where they’re tangled together between them.

“That’s a lot,” she says. “I’m glad.”

She doesn’t repeat the sentiment back to him, though he can see her hesitating on the verge of it. Still not quite ready to admit it out loud. To trust it fully.

Just like their admissions of love, however, the fact that the words are unspoken doesn’t make them any less true.

Chapter Text

In the third week of August, the mood around the house begins to darken. No one quite wants to bring it up, but none of them are able to ignore it either.

Mags, still sensitive to extremes of emotion, grows quiet and nervous, glances from one to the other of them each time the heavy silence falls around the dinner table until she’s on the point of tears herself. It grows worse as the week wears on, and by Thursday evening, as soon as the meal is done, Neil pushes back his chair, grabs his coat, and heads out the door.

“What’s wrong?” Mags wails finally, when she and Aurora are alone in the kitchen with the dishes. “Why is everyone so sad? Did something bad happen?”

And Aurora sighs. “Yes, but it was back during the war. Our friend Tom died in Dieppe, the day of the raid. It will be four years ago on Monday. And we miss him, that’s all.”

Last year, the anniversary had come and gone, unspoken though not unnoted. They were all too overwhelmed with just trying to manage the constant change and upheaval that had characterized that whole summer.

This year, though, there are fewer distractions, and their communal grief is beginning to fill the empty corners of the house.

“What was he like?” Mags asks, when the silence threatens to stretch out again.

Aurora glances over, then lets the dish she’s washing disappear back into the suds, leans her hip against the edge of the sink as she works out what to say.

“He was smart, and funny, and kind. He knew how to talk to people. Made friends with just about everyone.”

“Was he a soldier? Like you and Neil?”

Aurora laughs a little at Mags’ vision of her, but shakes her head. “No, not really. He never wanted to have to hurt anyone. He worked in advertising before the war, and he could change almost anybody’s mind if he tried hard enough. He was like René that way. They both believed that words could stop wars.”

“But he died?”

“He did. Protecting Harry. And together they managed to save a lot of lives.”

“Really?”  Mags asks, lighting up a little. Clearly sensing a story.

“Yes, really. But I can’t tell you any more than that.”

Mags sighs, but she doesn’t protest, and Aurora reaches out to squeeze her shoulder.

“Tom and Neil were good friends,” Aurora continues. “Like you and Lizzie. So it’s hardest for him, I think. He has a difficult time talking about the things that make him sad, and he covers it up by being angry. So don’t let it upset you if he’s in a bad mood for a few days. It’s not anything that you did.”

Mags nods, her face pensive, but she leans into Aurora for a moment where they stand side by side at the sink. And Aurora rests a gentle hand on her back, a bulwark against the ghosts of all the other people missing from their lives suddenly standing in the kitchen with them.

“Come on,” Aurora says finally. “I’ll finish up in here. Why don’t you go and see if Alfred wants some tea, and then we’ll put the radio on, see if we can’t cheer things up a bit.”

** **

It’s getting late when Neil finally comes home, lines of pain etched into his face from the abuse a walk that long has heaped on his bad leg. Aurora gets up from the couch and moves towards the hall to check on him, but it turns out she isn’t the only one who has been listening for the sound of the door. Mags comes back downstairs in her nightgown, and Aurora pauses in the doorway to the living room as Mags crosses straight to Neil, even before he can get his coat off, and wraps him in a fierce hug.

Neil stiffens at first, his struggle to contain his emotions plain on his face. Wanting to be strong for Mags. Afraid of scaring her. But she doesn’t let go, and finally he relents. Hugs her back. Allows himself to take the comfort that she’s offering.

“I’m sorry your friend died,” Mags says softly.

And Neil lets out a shaky sigh. “Me too.” He kisses the top of her head. “Thank you, Maggie.”

Neil allows Mags to help him up the stairs, and Aurora eases away from the door frame, leaving them to it.

** **

On Friday, a letter arrives from Harry, and when Aurora slits the envelope she finds the contents written almost entirely in Alfred’s code.

“Save it for Monday,” Alfred suggests quietly when she shows him. “We can read it then. It might feel more like we’re all together.”

** **

Monday morning dawns bright and cloudless. Aurora sits down at her desk when the boys leave, as usual, but can’t bring herself to get any work done. Gazes unseeing out the window instead. Allowing herself to remember. Not just Tom, but George and Conrad. Miri. The Canadian soldiers whose names she can barely recall. The boys on the beach. The sound of gunfire, of planes in the air. A muddy field. A tank, and the boys inside it. Tom tying her wrists at their last goodbye. A first kiss. Faber and Sabine. Hope. Grief. Despair. And hope again. Memories she usually does her best to avoid.

Mags offers Aurora a fierce hug, too, when she comes in from playing in the afternoon, when she sees the look on Aurora’s face. And she lingers to keep Aurora company until the boys get home from work, doing her best to carry the conversation by herself.

When Neil and Alfred finally get home, Mags is clearly relieved to escape the house, to go and spend the evening with Lizzie at the Rossiters’. And once she’s gone, Aurora and the boys take Harry’s letter and head down the street to the pub to offer Tom the toast he deserves.

It’s quiet on a Monday night, and they find a table far enough from everyone else that they won’t be overheard. Aurora orders lemonade while the boys opt for something harder, and Alfred reads Harry’s letter out loud, faltering only a little, decoding as he goes.

Harry’s grief is plain in his words, but he brings a humour to the letter, too. Finishes up with a string of do-you-remembers that has all three of them laughing. And talking becomes easier after that, reminiscences framed in half-sentences and deliberately vague nouns. Just in case. Aurora and Neil end up telling stories of their early weeks of training at the camp, their first days as a team together, pranks and competitiveness, orienteering in the snow, and being dumped out of bed at 3am.

Most of the stories are new to Alfred, who hadn’t known them then, whose own fast-track training had skipped over many of the more gruelling exercises. The team had taken some time to gel, some time before the boys had stopped underestimating Aurora for her gender, before the adults had stopped underestimating Harry for his age. Some time before Neil and Aurora and René, as scarred as they already were, had been willing to trust in each other, in the team.

But Tom, cheerful and funny and determined and driven, had made friends with them all, had become the common thread that pulled the rest of them together. And eventually they figured out how all their various pieces fit together into a working whole.

By the end of the evening, though Tom’s absence still aches, they have at least lost their fear of addressing it head on. As though, like Harry, he might be far away, but not completely out of reach. And they stagger home through the dark at the end of the evening a little lighter than they were when they set out.

** **

On Tuesday morning, Aurora puts her work aside again and instead spends the morning hours writing a long letter back to Harry. Recounts for him their evening at the pub with his letter, the stories they told, Alfred’s delight in hearing them, her own earlier conversation with Mags. All the small details that will allow him to feel a part of the remembrance.

** **

While their sadness lingers beyond the anniversary of the raid, Tom’s name begins to fall a little more easily into dinnertime conversation. Small memories that can be shared out of context. And the dark cloud that had filled the house for days slowly dissipates, allows life to ease back into its previous rhythm.

** **

So it takes Alfred by surprise a few days later when he turns to share a smile with Aurora beside him at the dinner table and finds an unsettling flavour in her expression. The general chatter around them is lively as Mags tries to explain the adventure game she and Lizzie played on the green all afternoon and Neil does his best to wind her up with deliberate misunderstanding. But Aurora is clearly distracted and the conversation washes around her without really registering.

Alfred reaches out to brush her hand under the table, and when she looks up to meet his gaze, a half-smile forms on her face, completely at odds with the disquiet it replaces.

Before he can ask, though, she catches his hand where it still hovers near hers and tugs it gently towards her. He shifts his chair fractionally closer to accommodate her, but instead of simply linking their fingers as he expected, she lays his hand against her belly, places hers over top of his and presses down lightly so his fingers dimple her skin for a moment. And from inside, the baby responds. A faint nudge against his fingers. The briefest flicker of gold and saffron. A first touch that rocks him as profoundly as the grip of Aurora’s hand on his arm had four years ago. And almost as unexpected.

He can feel Aurora watching him now, and her thumb brushes a caress where her hand still lies on top of his own. He leaves his hand in place a moment longer, but there’s no further movement under his palm. And when his awareness expands again to take in the rest of the room, he realizes that Neil, too, is watching him from across the table, eyebrow raised.

Alfred allows his hand to drop with great reluctance, gives Neil a brief headshake before turning his attention back to Mags and her story. Not ready yet to share something so raw that its colours still echo behind his eyes.

But as soon as the dinner dishes are done and the kitchen tidied, Alfred retreats upstairs to the bedroom, needing to find some space, some quiet. And to his great relief, Aurora follows not long after.

“I’m sorry,” she says, her tone quiet. “I shouldn’t have taken you by surprise like that.”

“No. Please don’t apologise. Not for that.”

“You felt it?”

And finally the smile that has been building inside, tangled though it is with the shock of it, makes its way to the surface.

“I did.”

She takes his hand again, and this time she does tangle their fingers together.

“What did it taste like?” she asks, and there’s a freight of emotion in her voice he can’t quite untangle.

“Gold,” he says quietly. “And springtime. And lightning.” He steps closer. “What’s wrong?”

Surprise flickers across her face for a moment, and her free hand drifts down to rest briefly against the curve of her stomach.

“I can feel it moving more often now.” She smiles, but there’s a tremor in it. Of her earlier fear, maybe. Or the edge of tears. And her gaze falls away from his, turns inward. “It’s a little strange. Like it’s finally real. There’s really something in there. Moving on its own. Not bubbles. Not butterflies. Not just another part of me.”

He takes her other hand, draws her closer, and she leans into his touch.

“Not long, now,” he says. “Three months. Does it still frighten you?”

She hesitates for a moment. “Sometimes,” she says finally. “But I can imagine it now, too. And we have a whole family waiting. That helps.” She takes a breath. “And Mags.”

“What about her?” he asks. Wanting to hear her say it, for her to finally accept it.

“She loves us. And we haven’t… damaged her. All the, the darkness we carry around, all three of us, it hasn’t poisoned her. That makes it easier to believe.”

She trails off, shakes her head, and he squeezes her hands in reassurance.

“What?”

She struggles with the words for a long moment before they finally make it out of her mouth. “To believe that I won’t be a danger to my own child.”

As awful as they are, it’s almost a relief to hear her speak the words out loud. A sign, at least, that the fear is losing its power over her.

“Aurora.”

She shakes her head, though, before he can do more than breathe her name. “I know,” she says.

“I trust you. With this, more than anything.”

“I know.”

“Look at me. Please.”

She sucks in a shaky breath, but lifts her eyes to his. And there’s a quiet steadiness there to balance out the doubt. She does know. And she’s starting to believe.

“Okay,” he says quietly. “Okay.”

And her sigh as she releases that breath tastes a little bit like finally letting go.

** **

Later that night, curled up in bed, Aurora goes still, suddenly, beside him. But when he rises up on his elbow to see her face, to make sure she’s okay, the expression she’s wearing is finally familiar.

“The baby?” he asks quietly.

And she nods, reaches out. “Give me your hand?”

He slides closer on the bed, and places his hand in hers. She positions his palm against her, and after a few moments he feels again a slight nudge from under her skin. And another. Faint flickers of sunflower yellow, the sound of gold under his hand.

Less surprising this time, and less public, he can devote his full attention to the sensation, has a better opportunity to savour the moment. And while that first touch had contained such emotional impact for him, these bumps and nudges hold a more simple wonder, an easy delight. They feel accidental. Incidental. The baby stretching its tiny limbs and learning the boundaries of its own small world.

And he suddenly understands a little more of Aurora’s disquiet. It is a little strange to feel movement in her body that doesn’t come from her. That doesn’t feel like her.

“Hello, in there,” he says quietly, fingers rubbing lightly over where he felt the movement. “Can you hear us yet, I wonder.”

Aurora’s breath catches at his words, and he can’t resist glancing up, wants to remember that look on her face.

“Maybe if we say hello now and then,” he suggests, “it might feel a little less strange.”

But Aurora raises an eyebrow, her expression dubious. And he can’t resist teasing her, just a little.

“Don’t worry,” he says, his voice a conspiratorial whisper. “We’ll get a hello out of her eventually. We’ve got a few months yet.”

Chapter Text


Mags goes back to school in September, and Aurora misses her during the day far more than she expected to. Misses her voice through the window on sunny days, and her companionship on rainy ones. She expects to feel the walls of the house close in around her again, now that all three of the others are heading out the door with a purpose in the mornings, but somehow that never quite happens. It takes her a few days to realize it might be because she no longer feels like she’s alone in the house.

She’s too aware, now, of the baby as a physical presence inside her, another life with its own little mind sharing the space with her. A part of her attention seems to be with it always, no matter how she tries to focus on her work, on other tasks. She still can’t bring herself to speak to it as Alfred does, but she tracks its movements, finds she’s able to picture its position inside her, knows its hands from its feet when it kicks and prods. Imagines it sleeping when it’s quiet. Notices when it begins to respond to things in the outside world. Music from the radio, Alfred’s voice, changes in her position. The food that she eats. Realizes one day she can see the movement under her skin when she’s sitting still as well as feel it.

And as the drafts of her project progress to a state approaching finished, she starts to read them aloud. Partly to check the flow of the words, the progression of the arguments, but partly also to give the baby the sound of her voice during the quiet morning hours. So it can become familiar with the cadences of French as well as English.

And she realizes after a week or two that she’s actually glad of the time alone in the house. There’s something about this thread of connection she’s building with the life inside her that feels so fragile, so personal, she’s hesitant to share the experience of it with anyone else. Even Alfred. Though she finds it both fascinating and delightful to watch him build his own ties with the baby. A communication that happens through her skin, by voice, by touch, but that is no longer necessarily mediated by her.

So it’s several weeks before it even occurs to her to share some of the experience with the other members of the family. Before the self-consciousness of this new relationship has eased enough that she’s willing to invite anyone else in.

But on one rainy Saturday late in September, when Mags is grumpy and restless because she and Lizzie can’t go out to play, Aurora finally realizes the kicks that have been distracting her all morning might just distract Mags as well.

“What is it?” Mags grumbles, when Aurora calls her over.

“Someone wants to say hello. Here, give me your hand.”

Aurora takes Mags’ palm and lays it against her side. And Mags’ eyes go wide, her bad mood instantly forgotten.

“What was that?”

Aurora can’t help a laugh at Mags’ surprise.

“That was the baby.”

“It poked me!”

“It’s learning how to move around, I think. And it’s all knees and elbows, just like you.”

Mags is still growing. Taller, almost, by the day and stuck in the middle of a clumsy phase, no longer entirely sure where her arms and legs end. Aurora, her own body growing and changing on her at a similar rate, speaks the words with all the empathy in the world, and Mags doesn’t so much as bristle at the gentle teasing.

Just kneels down beside Aurora’s chair and places her second hand next to the first, waiting for another kick.

“Does it hurt?” she asks.

And Aurora shakes her head. “You got it right, I think. It’s a little like getting poked from the inside. But it’s not uncomfortable yet.”

“Will it be?”

“Mrs. Rossiter says it can be. But I haven’t done this before. You’ll have to ask me again in a few weeks.”

She reaches out and gives Mags a playful poke of her own, and Mags squirms aside giggling. The baby, seemingly playing along, squirms too.

“That was another one,” Mags says, all focus suddenly back on her hands.

She pokes back gently in the spot the baby kicked, and the baby moves again. Aurora herself falls still, almost afraid to intrude on this basic code they’re tapping out through her skin.

“Did you feel that?” Aurora asks her.

And Mags nods. “The baby answered me.”

“I think it did.”

They repeat the poke-and-response two more times before baby seems to tire of their game and goes quiet again.

“What’s it like in there, do you think?”

Aurora glances down at Mags in surprise. It hadn’t occurred to her to wonder.

“I don’t know,” she says, considering. “Dark, probably. And warm. Alfred says he can hear swishing sounds, like when you put your head under water in the bath.”

“Could I listen, too?”

Aurora nods, lifts her blouse out of the way, so Mags can press her ear against skin. Mags listens in silence for a long moment.

“What do you hear?”

“Swishing,” Mags confirms. “And gurgles?”

“That’s probably my stomach.”

Mags giggles. “It’s noisy in there.”

“The baby can hear our voices, too. Alfred talks to it sometimes.”

Mags lifts her ear and turns her head to place her mouth close to Aurora’s belly instead.

“Hello, baby.”

She looks up at Aurora. “Can it understand us?”

Aurora shakes her head. “No. Not yet. Not until months and months after it’s born, I think. We should ask Mrs. Rossiter.”

Another item on her endless list of questions. For a moment, Aurora despairs of ever feeling ready, of ever having the answers she needs in the moment she actually needs them.

“How long is it now? Until the baby comes.”

“A little over two months. Not long, now.”

Mags scowls up at her. “Yes it is. Two months is forever.”

“It’s less than seven. You said seven was forever.”

Mags sighs. “Aurora.”

“What was that tone for, young lady?” Neil says, a teasing half-smile on his face as he steps into the living room from the hall with his coat in his hands.

“Uncle Neil! Come and feel the baby move.”

Neil lays his coat over the arm of the sofa, but hesitates before crossing to join them. Catches Aurora’s eye over Mags’ head, as though he’s waiting for her to stop him. As though he shouldn’t be trusted. And Aurora finally recognises in his fear an echo of her own.

She takes a breath and waves Neil closer. Manages a crooked smile.

He hesitates again when he reaches Mags’ side, and for a moment Aurora shares his awkwardness. There’s something uncomfortably intimate in asking him to place his hands on her skin. This is not the usual shape of their relationship. But Mags’ takes hold of his hand with no qualms at all and pulls it forward to place it where her own had been.

“It might be sleeping now,” she says, with great authority. “But it answered me earlier when I poked it.”

“You poked it?”

Neil looks faintly horrified, and Aurora finds herself struggling not to laugh.

“To be fair,” she says, “the baby started it.”

Aurora shifts position in the chair to better accommodate them, and that’s enough to start the baby moving again. Neil’s hand isn’t in quite the right position to feel it, but all three of them see her skin jump at the baby’s kick.

“Did you see that?” Mags whispers.

Neil nods. Removes his hand from Aurora’s skin to rest it on Mags’ hair instead.

“I remember when that was you,” he says quietly. “I came back from Shanghai not long before you were born.”

Mags turns her face up to stare at him. “When my daddy died?”

“That’s right. I came back to help your mum. So we could all be together. She used to say you were bound to be a happy baby, because you kicked so much you must be dancing in there.”

Neil rarely speaks of his sister, and Mags is clearly a little overwhelmed by the sudden turn in the conversation. Aurora reaches out to catch Mags’ fingers in gentle reassurance.

“And was she?” Aurora asks quietly. “A happy baby?”

Neil sucks in a rough breath, distancing himself from the memory once again.

“She was. Most of the time, anyway.” He tweaks Mags’ braid, trying for a smile. “You were certainly loud.”

Mags’ face bunches in protest. “Uncle Neil, all babies are loud.”

“I guess we’ll find out, won’t we.” He turns his attention back to Aurora. “I’m just heading out to run a few errands. I’ll be back later.”

She nods. “There’s an umbrella under the stairs.”

“Ta.” He kisses the top of Mags’ head before turning away to retrieve his coat. “Be good.”

Mags is still a little unsettled, and the idea of talking to the baby has clearly lost its charm for the moment.

“What do you think,” Aurora says. “Shall we follow him out? Brave the rain and go to see what’s playing at the cinema?”

And Mags’ eyes light up with what is at least partly relief. “Yes, please!”

“You get the coats. I’ll go and see if Alfred wants to join us.”

“Can Lizzie come too?”

“If Mrs. Rossiter says it’s okay.”

“I’ll go and ask her!”

“Coats first, please.”

“But—”

“No buts. We’ll stop at the Rossiters’ on the way.”

Mags sighs dramatically, but does as she’s told. Hands Alfred his coat when he comes down the stairs. Dashes ahead as they step out into the drizzle, her earlier upset already forgotten.

** **

Mags’ interest in the baby and its movement restores itself within a couple days, and soon she and Aurora build a new little ritual together. When Mags comes in after school for a snack before heading back out to play, she and Aurora spend a quiet half-hour together, and Mags invariably asks to listen to the baby, or to feel it move. To tell it tidbits from her day. Aurora can’t quite read what’s driving Mags’ fascination, but she seems to be building a connection of her own with the unborn child in much the same way Alfred is.

Neil is another matter, though, and Aurora begins to wonder if she should push him a little on the subject of his sister. It’s clearly on his mind, and he is gruff or pensive around the house by turns. When he’s home. He takes to disappearing out of the house in the evenings, heading either down to the pub or off for a walk.

“Do you want to talk about it?” she finally asks one night.

She’s been finding it harder to sleep as her discomfort grows, and tonight even the baby inside her is restless. She noticed the light on in Neil’s sitting room as she headed downstairs, and he waved her in when she knocked.

He shakes his head in answer to her question. “I just didn’t realize how much all of this would remind me of her.”

“I never knew that’s why you came back to England.”

“I was sending money home from Shanghai to help out. But when Bill died, it just seemed the thing to do. I was too far away.”

“You’re a good man, you know that?”

He shakes his head again. “It was selfish. I should have stayed in China. When I got the job with the Met in London, the whole family moved south with me.”

“Neil. It’s not your fault.”

“How do I explain that to Mags?”

“There’s nothing to explain. You made the choices that would keep you together as a family. She’ll understand that. She just wants to find the connection to her past, and you’re the only one who can give her that.”

“Does she, though? You saw her face. She was only five when Sophie sent her back north. I wonder sometimes if she remembers her mother at all.”

“She remembers. She’s only frightened because we never talk about it. Because it’s painful for both of you. But that will get easier the more you do it.”

Neil falls silent. Considering. Aurora fidgets with the corner of a cushion on the couch, wrestling with questions of her own. Uncertain still whether she should voice them out loud. But if ever there was a time, this is it. And she’s not sure she’ll ever get up the courage to try again.

“Does it bother you?” she manages finally.

Neil glances over at her in surprise.

“I never wanted. I’m not trying to replace your sister. You know that, don’t you?”

He takes a breath, drops his gaze.

“It’s strange sometimes. To see you with Mags. It should be her, you know?”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

He struggles for a moment with the words, and Aurora’s heart pounds into the silence, a driving rhythm of fear and guilt.

“But when I think what it would have been like to try to do this alone. Without you. Without Alfred. There are things I just. I can’t do for her.”

Aurora’s smile is sad. “Between the three of us, our broken pieces might fit together well enough to make one whole person.”

“I’m trying.” He sighs, frustrated. “It doesn’t bother me, Aurora. It hurts sometimes, but it doesn’t bother me. I’m glad she has you. That you’re willing to… to mother her. It’s not what I expected.”

Aurora laughs a little, because she doesn’t want to cry. “Me either.”

Neil falls silent again, but it’s an easier one this time, gives them both a chance to catch their breath. And finally Neil meets her eyes again, manages half a smile.

“You should go back to bed. You look tired.”

She sighs. “I am tired. The baby, unfortunately, is not.”

He stands and offers her a hand to help her to her feet. “That part is only going to get worse, you know.”

“I know.”

He reaches out a hesitant hand and taps lightly on the curve of her belly.

“Hey you,” he says gently. “It’s late. Time to let your poor mother get some sleep.”

She laughs. “The voice of authority. If it works, I’ll make you do it every night.”

“Gladly.” He follows her out the door, heading for his own bedroom. Kisses her cheek before they part on the landing. “Goodnight, Aurora.”

She squeezes his hand. Starts up the stairs. “Goodnight.”

Chapter Text


Alfred hears about Alice long before he meets her. Maureen’s sister moves back to London at the end of September from Manchester, where she’s been working since the war ended, and Maureen gives them all the details over dinner one Tuesday night, clearly thrilled at the news.

Aurora’s first reaction to meeting Alice surprises Alfred somewhat, though. Aurora is prickly and bristling when she tells him that Alice joined them on their recent visit down to see Edith. A stranger, another new person, intruding on this group where Aurora has finally become comfortable. But Aurora is also clearly struggling with her own instinctive reaction to the other woman. She wants to be welcoming, but can’t seem to work out how.

Alfred doesn’t understand it fully until he meets Alice for himself. Maureen brings her to dinner a few weeks later, and she sits uncomfortably silent through most of it. Narrow and stiff and distant. But Alfred recognises the sour green undertone to her voice in the few words she does speak over the course of the evening. Somehow, Alice carries the same demons that Aurora does, that Neil does. Too much death, and too much loss, and too much guilt. And during that dinner, Neil is clearly just as uncomfortable with her as Aurora is, this woman who embodies what they might have been if they’d had to struggle on alone.

“I want to like her,” Aurora says later, frustration laced through her voice. “But she’s just so cold.”

And Alfred hesitates to voice his comparison out loud, to point out what Aurora is trying so hard not to see.

“What did she do during the war?” he asks her finally.

And Aurora raises an eyebrow, taken aback by the seeming change of subject. “Maureen said she studied to be a nurse, but I don’t know where she worked. I don’t know anything about her at all. She won’t talk.”

“Try meeting her alone sometime,” he suggests. “Without the other women. It might be easier for her. I think the war damaged her the same way it did us. She could probably use a friend who understands.”

Aurora frowns, skeptical at best. “I’m hardly the person to help her with that. I can barely help myself.”

“I think you’re exactly the person. Try it and see. If you still don’t get along, then you can walk away at least knowing you made the effort.”

** **

For Maureen’s sake, and for Alfred, because he asked her to, Aurora makes the attempt, and it’s exactly as awkward as she expected it would be. Aurora catches Alice alone at the end of a visit to May’s house and invites her over for tea. Alice doesn’t even try to hide the surprise on her face at being asked.

And during the whole painful afternoon of Alice’s visit, Aurora finds herself falling back on her training for the first time in ages, just to manufacture enough charm to keep the conversation going in the face of such stilted silences.

But of course, Alfred is right. Now that she knows what she’s looking for, Aurora can occasionally see the flare of hurt, of bitter anger under the cold, under the stiffness, but she can’t figure out how to approach it. She knew Neil so well, his wounds, his past. More than well enough to bully him into a response. But she has no history, no trust with this woman. And not nearly as much incentive to put her heart on the line.

But still, she keeps trying. Because she promised Alfred she would. And because, buried under all the cold and the anger, Aurora begins to see flashes of wit, the spark of an intelligent mind. Even the barest hint of humour. It becomes something of a challenge to draw those moments out, and she finds she wants a chance to meet the woman who is hiding behind Alice’s rigid facade. So at the end of the afternoon, she invites Alice back to do it again the following week. Is a little bit stunned when Alice actually accepts.

** **

The second visit goes a little better. Aurora lets go of the forced charm and tries to allow some of her own broken edges show. Allows some of the silences to remain awkward, and eventually Alice begins to make her own efforts to fill them. Begins to show an interest in Aurora, too, clumsy as it is.

“What is it that brought you to England?” she asks eventually.

And Aurora smiles. “Work. Alfred and I found jobs with the Inter-Service Research Bureau.”

“You both came all the way from Canada for that?”

“No, we were in France during most of the war. I was a journalist in Paris when war was declared, and I decided to stay. When the country was finally liberated, we got out, and ended up in London.”

“You chose to stay?”

“I needed to do something. I couldn’t just let it happen without a fight. Turn my back and let it be someone else’s problem. So I stayed and wrote for an underground paper.”

“I’m amazed you survived that choice.”

Aurora takes a breath. “I’m the only one who did. All the others, all my friends, the man I loved, they all died.”

Alice flinches at the words. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have—” she shakes her head. “I’m sorry, I should go.”

Aurora stands too, reaches out, but stops short of touching Alice, who is rigid with tension. “Please don’t. Please stay.”

Alice stops in her flight, but doesn’t sit back down, doesn’t turn back to face Aurora. Clearly trapped between a need to leave and a desire to stay.

“Why are you doing this?” she asks finally, her voice strained and thin. “You don’t need to. I’m not good with. It can’t be enjoyable for you. I know what I must sound like. I just.”

“You can’t talk to new people? You have to force yourself to care? You feel like there’s a, a whole sea of horror, of misery, between you and everyone else?”

“Yes.”

“You can talk to me if you want to. I understand, like the other women can’t.”

“Mrs. Graves, you have the perfect life. A husband who loves you. A child who worships the ground you walk on. A baby on the way. Even my own sister would rather spend time with you. What is it you think you can possibly understand about me?”

“It terrifies me,” she says quietly. “All of it. It terrifies me to have it, because I know, I know, how easily I could lose it. Terrifies me to want it, because who am I to deserve any of this after the things I’ve done. Terrifies me to keep it, because I don’t know how to be good at it, and when I destroy it all, I’ll hurt them.”

Alice finally turns back to face Aurora, and her voice is unsteady when she answers. “It doesn’t change the fact that you do have it. It’s the loneliness that you can’t understand.”

“Where is it that you served? Are you allowed to talk about it?”

“Mrs. Graves, you--”

“Aurora. Please.”

Alice sighs. “Aurora, then. You don’t have to do this. I don’t need your pity.”

“Maureen says you trained as a nurse, but it isn’t just hospital work that did this to you. Were you in France? Did you end up in an aid station near the front?”

Alice goes silent again, but this time it’s not icy reserve. She looks like a trapped animal, and Aurora takes a breath, softens her tone.

“It’s not pity. Maureen is a part of my family, too, and she wants us to be friends. I’m not allowed to talk about my war, but I promise you I understand how you feel.”

Alice struggles in silence for a long moment, a look on her face Aurora has seen on Neil time after time. An internal battle between bitter anger and a desperate need for comfort.

“I never left England,” Alice says finally. “During the war. Never left London. I trained as a nurse, but hated hospital work. Drove ambulances for a while with the FANY. Ended up working with the ARP wardens in the East End. Digging people out of the rubble after the bombs hit. Survivors. Bodies. Children.”

Aurora reaches out again, this time grips Alice’s wrist in support. Alice doesn’t acknowledge the contact, but nor does she draw away.

“I’m small enough I could crawl into spaces where the men didn’t fit. Under all those tons of brick and stone. They tried to stop me, of course. One wrong move up top and I’d be crushed, too. But I’m trained as a nurse. I could get help to the wounded faster that way.”

Aurora nods. “You chose to stay and fight, too.”

“Sometimes all I could do was be there next to them while they died. Sometimes we just couldn’t get them out fast enough.” Alice’s voice remains cold, detached, but Aurora can see all the suppressed horror in her eyes. “When I dream at night, I go right back there. With the smoke and the dust, rubble shifting all around me. And they all die.”

“Stay for dinner,” Aurora says quietly.

“What?”

“All of us in this house live with nightmares of the war. We’re all… trying to re-learn how to live in the world with all these broken pieces inside us. You don’t have to talk, if you don’t want to. Just know that everyone here understands.”

“Thank you. You’re kind. But I couldn’t. I can’t.”

“It would be a favour to me. Since Pauline and Giselle died, there hasn’t been… Outside of my family, I haven’t had a friend who understood, either.”

But Alice shakes her head. “Another time, maybe.”

Aurora nods, trying not to withdraw behind coldness of her own at the rejection. “Of course. Whenever you want to. You can just show up, no questions asked. I promise.”

** **

Alfred is both surprised and not at how quickly Aurora’s reaction to Alice shifts. And he listens quietly while Aurora repeats the bare bones of Alice’s story.

“It just. It makes me sad,” she says. “To think of her alone.”

He steps closer, squeezes her hand. “She’s not alone. She has Maureen. It’s why she came back to London.”

But Aurora shakes her head. “I can’t stop thinking. If I didn’t have you. If it had been me in that hospital alone instead of Neil.”

“Don’t.”

“I wouldn’t have survived long enough for you to find me.”

“Aurora. Stop. Please.”

He slides his arms around her, and she leans into him.

“I’m sorry.”

He takes a breath. “It was kind of you to invite her.”

“What if she doesn’t come?”

“Then she doesn’t.”

And Aurora sighs. “It just. It makes me sad, that’s all.”

** **

There is no sign of Alice the following week. She keeps her distance, absent even from visits with the other women. But the following Tuesday, on Maureen’s usual day to join them for dinner, Alice comes as well.

And it’s not easy. Alice sits quiet, still cold and uncommunicative. Neil, too, gets gruff and short-tempered, clearly uncomfortable with Alice’s presence. But Alfred, Aurora, and Maureen do their best to keep the conversation flowing, and eventually Mags joins in, too.

Alice’s gaze flicks back to Neil throughout the meal, who is bristling with all of his own rough edges, and Aurora wonders briefly if that might not have been the better way to handle the evening. Remembers how isolated she herself had felt when she seemed to be the only one at the dinner table who was still broken.

Wonders again when Alice pauses in the doorway on her way out, clearly frustrated with herself.

“I’m sorry. I won’t do that to you again. I wanted.” She stops. Shakes her head. Turns to flee out into the dark of the street.

“You didn’t do anything wrong. Please come again.”

“I make the others uncomfortable. Your little girl, too. It’s not fair.”

“So come for tea on Thursday instead,” Aurora says. “We’ll leave the idea of dinner for a while.”

“Maybe,” Alice allows, but turns and disappears down the front steps without a further goodbye.

“I’m sorry,” Maureen says, moving to hurry after her.

“There’s no need. Neil and I behaved far worse when we first met you. We understand what she’s going through.”

“She never used to be like this, though. She always had friends.”

“She’s not the same person she was before the war. None of us are. You might just… need to get to know this new side of her.”

Maureen looks stricken by the thought, and Aurora grips her arm in comfort, tries to explain.

“When I visited my parents at home in Montréal right after I left France, the hardest part was seeing the woman they expected me to be, the woman I used to be, and finding her a complete stranger. I tried to fit myself back into that life, and it nearly killed me.”

“Alice is my sister. I can’t just pretend I don’t know her.”

“You said yourself she’s changed.”

Maureen shakes her head, clearly unhappy. “I should go after her.”

And Aurora forces herself to abandon the argument before she makes things worse. “You just. You never have to apologise to us, that’s all.”

** **

To Aurora’s great surprise, though, Alice does turn up for tea on Thursday. The visit is short, and they don’t talk about much beyond the weather, the current state of rationing. But Alice keeps up her end of the conversation and manages a proper goodbye when she leaves. And Aurora takes it as a hopeful sign.

She comes back again the following week, and soon they fall into the habit of meeting twice a week, although Alice studiously avoids Tuesdays when Maureen will be present as well.

“It feels too much like I’m being torn in half,” she explains. “Trying to be two people at once.”

And as the weeks pass, Aurora and Alice slowly learn how to talk to each other. The awkwardness begins to fade, and Aurora finally starts to uncover the sharp wit, the fighting spirit she had caught glimpses of early on.

Their time together becomes surprisingly precious to Aurora. It’s been so many years since she had a female friend who could possibly understand the effects of everything she has lived through. Doubly important because at the moment there is so little of her time, her attention that isn’t rooted in the family somehow. She finds she’s selfishly grateful for this one small piece of her life that is hers alone, and she clings to it through the final weeks of her pregnancy, knowing that she is on the precipice of having her world turned upside down all over again.

Chapter Text

Aurora’s energy fades again, as she moves through the last weeks of her pregnancy. She finds it difficult to sleep, difficult to move, and her frustration at her own limitations mounts in step with her discomfort.

As November begins and the weather turns foul, she catches not only Neil but Alfred as well watching her when they think she’s not looking. Neil gives up his escape outside the flat, and he and Alfred both spend their free time closer to home, closer to her. The family closing around her like a fist. Taking their duty of watching her back seriously, though she’s not sure either of them realizes they’re doing it.

Aurora finds it equal parts smothering and comforting, no longer able even to pretend that she can look out for herself, let alone anyone else. It scares her in a way she hoped she had put behind her to know that she is incapable of running, even if her life depended on it. If Mags’ did. If Alfred’s did. And it’s reassuring to have them within reach, to know they’re safe.

** **

Aurora finally completes her writing project in the second week of November, and before she can think too hard about it, she sends a copy of the first article along with a letter to one of her old contacts in Paris.

They had discussed the project briefly when they reconnected over the summer. Aurora hadn’t had anything in a state worth showing at the time, but she promised to get in touch again when the articles were readable. She is no longer conversant enough in current markets and papers even to begin to know where to pursue publication herself, and she’s hoping her friend might be able to offer some advice.

It’s a relief to have the work complete, and a boost to her confidence to know that her skills are still intact, that she accomplished what she set out to do. And she’s proud, to have captured this personal, human experience of the war, to have preserved stories that might otherwise have been lost in the greater narrative of struggle and victory.

But it’s a loss, too. This project has occupied so much of her attention for so many months, now, that she isn’t sure what to do with herself now that it’s done. Or how to fill up the morning hours she now has free. There are, of course, always endless chores to be done, but nothing that promises to engage her mind in the way her writing did. Her morning’s work on the articles had always percolated through her brain as she dealt with other tasks during the rest of the day, and she feels lost now without that anchor for her focus.

And so she ends up launching herself almost immediately into a translation of the completed articles. It was something she had always considered doing, but it was a project, she had assumed, for much further down the road. Living in London, though, it makes sense to pursue publication in this market as well, but she has never written anything beyond personal letters in English, and she isn’t entirely sure her command of the language is up to the challenge. A conversation is one thing, but crafting a well-reasoned argument or a passionate diatribe is something else entirely.

Having the template to follow from the French is a start though. And for the moment, she intends to focus only on the first article, to see what she can accomplish. Then, perhaps Alfred or Alice could read it for her and offer their opinions on whether it’s worth her pursuing the work herself, or whether she should look into engaging a professional translator.

The new project helps to distract her from her ever-increasing discomfort, her impatience to finally be done with this pregnancy, and she begins to work longer into the afternoons just to keep her mind engaged. And that compromise gets her through the last awkward weeks.

** **

It's late on a Thursday afternoon, near the end of November, when Aurora realizes she's in the early stages of labour. Possibly has been for some time. When Mags comes in from playing before dinner, Aurora sends her to fetch May Rossiter, just so there's someone present who knows what to expect, but otherwise holds on to her calm with an iron grip. Tries not to remember that what she knows about managing pain comes from training in how to withstand torture.

When Alfred and Neil arrive home soon after, she forbids any kind of fuss, any kind of panic under threat of banishment from the house until it's all over. Neil leaves again almost immediately. Alfred stays.

It's nearly midnight before the contractions take hold in earnest and Alfred summons the midwife.

Their daughter arrives with the dawn.

** **

The war taught Aurora well – falling in love means cutting off a piece of her heart and allowing it to exist outside of herself, with only another's fragile human body to protect it. She had resisted admitting her feelings for Alfred long past the point where they were obvious to everyone else, because if René hadn't been strong enough to keep his piece of her heart safe, how could Alfred with all his frailties possibly accomplish it? She hadn't yet understood Alfred was the strongest person she'd ever known.

And her connection with Alfred is so singular, it doesn't occur to her at first that he isn't the only one holding a piece of her. Neil has one, and Mags. And her daughter in the womb, it turns out, has been knitted together out of all the pieces that remain. Holding her in those first few hours is the strangest sense of cradling her own heart, her own soul in her arms, birthed from her body by accident instead of a child.

And Aurora can’t help marveling at that. She had been so afraid, early on, that at the end of these nine months she would be handed a stranger to love, another new person, and one completely dependent on her. Getting to know Mags, to love her, had been such a long process. What if, she had worried, it takes her just as long to learn to love this new child?

But it turns out that this particular thorny path, travelled once already, is far easier to navigate the second time. And that she’s been walking it for months and months already. It’s a relief, almost euphoric in its intensity, to realize she knows her daughter at first sight. This little girl has been a part of her from her very first butterfly flutterings. And though she’s now out in the world, in the tiniest and frailest of bodies, their connection remains unchanged. She couldn’t possibly be a stranger.

** **

Alfred sends a message to work that he won't be coming in, and spends the day in bed beside Aurora. Despite his sleepless night, he sits up against the headboard, cradling the baby in his arms, with Aurora curled against his hip in exhausted sleep. His one hand keeps drifting down to rest against her skin, to ground himself in the feel of her beside him.

Because the room is saturated in blue. And he's still learning the music of the baby's weight in his arms, the sound of her warmth against his skin, the flavour in the small sounds she makes when she's sleeping. He had expected her to feel more like Aurora, but she has a signature entirely her own. Even now, only hours old.

When the baby begins to fuss and squirm, he wakes Aurora with a gentle hand through her hair.

She rouses enough to nurse, and he helps her to sit up against his shoulder. Watches her face as she watches the baby, and there are no words for the music that suffuses that expression. He will never need any other memory. So long as he has this one, there is no darkness that can touch him.

** **

Alfred realizes, as he’s fighting to keep his eyes open, that he’s actually a little reluctant to go to sleep. As silly as it seems, he has been present for his daughter’s entire life thus far, he can remember her entire life, and he doesn’t want to give that up. Doesn’t want to miss a minute of it.

But despite his best efforts, his body overrules him, so eventually he shifts position to lie down beside Aurora with the baby tucked safely against his chest and dozes as well.

** **

Neither of them gets to sleep for very long, but between the intervals of feeding and changing, they manage a few hours.

At one point, late in the morning, Aurora wakes to the sound of the baby fussing beside her, happens to catch Alfred’s eye just as he struggles awake himself, the baby still tucked against his chest. He manages, somehow, to look both bleary and elated, and she can’t help the smile that takes over her face.

She shifts gingerly on the bed, trying to sit up, to find any kind of comfortable position. Her body feels like she’s been dragged behind stampeding horses, and the ache of tortured muscles is only growing worse as the hours pass. Alfred does his best to assist her one-handed, waits until she settles before he hands her the baby, and Aurora murmurs quietly to her as she cradles her close and begins to nurse.

“Do you want me to speak French to her as well?” Alfred asks, after a moment.

Aurora blinks at him for a second, only just registering what language she’s been speaking. And then smiles, a little embarrassed.

“I don’t know how to speak to babies in English,” she admits. And it occurs to her suddenly that this may be why she has always felt so awkward with Edith’s little boy, Teddy. “But you should speak to her in whatever language is comfortable for you. My parents spoke to me in two different languages. She’ll understand just fine.”

He falls silent again, watching the baby, but the joy that has been radiating from him all morning is muted now, and small furrows of concern collect around his eyes.

“What’s wrong?”

He hesitates for a long moment before he finally gets the words out. "What if she's like me?"

Aurora takes a breath. She’s been waiting for this. He hasn’t brought it up again since they first spoke about the possibility of children last June, but his fear ran even deeper than her own. And she's glad he's willing to talk about it, at least.

"What if she is?” she says gently. “Do we ask the stork to take her back?"

But Alfred clearly isn't ready to be teased out of his fear. Aurora reaches out to take his hand.

"If she is, she has you. She'll never be alone with it the way you were. And you won't be alone with it anymore either."

Aurora has to squash down a sudden surge of absurd jealousy, at the bond they will have that can't possibly include her. But Alfred's lips compress, still not comfortable with the thought.

"I don't want that for her."

"I know."

"Do you." Aurora hesitates, feeling guilty that the question hasn't ever occurred to her before. "Can you remember that too? Being this young?" Does he remember his birth? The womb? How far back does his perfect memory go? Aurora isn't sure she wants to know the answer to that.

Alfred nods, but slowly. "I try not to. Those memories are... they're different. There's no..." He shrugs, uncomfortable. "Context. No sense of time. They can be disorienting."

Aurora gazes down at the tiny girl in her arms and tries to imagine, suspects she's barely scratching the surface. Can't quite stop herself from cradling the baby closer. If her daughter will remember these moments forever, the least Aurora can do is make them moments of safety and comfort.

** **

Mags has stuck her head in the door periodically through the day, and late in the afternoon Alfred finally waves her in. He and Aurora are both awake and almost functional. Aurora pats the bed beside her and Mags hops up to sit against her hip. Gazes down at the tiny, bundled form in Aurora's arms.

"What's her name?"

Aurora smiles. "Éliane."

Alfred and Aurora both wanted her to have a name that is her own, that doesn't carry memories or baggage for either of them. Aurora had hoped for a French name, but worried there might not be many they hadn't encountered in some form during the war. Worried for his sake, he thinks, more than her own. Alfred had been the one to suggest the name they finally agree on, one that is both French and new to them. More, though, since she will carry his surname, he found a given name to tie the baby indelibly to Aurora. Éliane, daughter of the sun.

Already, though, the name carries a complex emotional weight for him, in the same way Aurora's does. Anticipation of the baby's arrival, the intensity of her birth, his joy, his fear, pride, love, all colour and flavour the sound of her name already. And he's honestly afraid of being completely unable to speak his own daughter's name in the course of casual conversation.

But Mags considers for a moment, clearly fitting the name against the tiny person in Aurora's arms, and nods. "Lily," she says. "For short."

And Alfred shifts on the bed, so he can reach across to tug Mags closer for a hug. For the gift of a name he can use. Éliane will be who she is, but Lily is something he can call her.

Mags squawks in surprise at the embrace, but clambers over Aurora's legs to hug him properly.

"Can I hold her?" Mags asks, still resting against Alfred's shoulder.

"Of course you can."

Aurora leans forward, trying to smother a grimace of pain, and transfers the baby gently into Mags' arms.

Mags stares down at the baby, strokes her tiny hands with a fingertip. "We're kind of like sisters, aren't we?" she asks, her voice suddenly small and hesitant. "Or cousins?"

Aurora reaches out to brush a caress over Mags' hair. "Closer than most cousins, I think, since you're going to grow up in the same house.” She takes a breath. “Do you want to be a sister to her? I'd like it if you did," she adds gently.

"You would?"

And when Mags looks up, there’s a doubt, a fear in her eyes that breaks Alfred’s heart. As though they might not need her, now that the baby is here. Aurora can only nod, and Alfred’s own throat aches in empathy.

"Me too," Mags says finally.

"It's settled, then," Alfred manages.

And, looking from one to the other of them, Mags’ face suddenly crumples as she starts to cry, overwhelmed by a release of emotion she clearly doesn’t fully understand. Alfred leans in a lifts the baby – lifts Lily – carefully from Mags’ grasp, and Aurora reaches out to draw Mags closer.

Mags crawls into Aurora’s arms, buries her face in Aurora’s chest, and Aurora enfolds her, bows her head over Mags’, rocks her, murmuring gentle nonsense in quiet French. Alfred lays his free hand on Mags’ back and struggles against tears of his own. Understanding that the circle of their family is now properly complete. Knowing what that kind of love would have meant to him, orphaned and alone at Mags’ age.

** **

For the first three days of her life, Lily is never put down, knows nothing but the smell and the sound and the touch of her family. If she does remember these days forever, they will be days of love and security. Alfred clings to that thought when his fear threatens to become overwhelming.


Chapter Text

Alfred postpones going back to work for as long as he can, but in the middle of the week following Éliane’s birth he does finally have to leave the house. He misses Aurora and Éliane both from the moment he steps out the door in the morning until he arrives home again after work, but there’s very little to be done about that. The family relies on his income, and the work requires his particular attention, and until Éliane’s arrival both of those facts had been sources of quiet pride for him. He tries to hold on to that thought as he puts one foot in front of the other on the way to work in the morning.

But Aurora makes a point of passing Éliane to Papa when he arrives home – a name Aurora used once without thinking, and he finds he prefers it to ‘father’ or ‘dad’ – to give him some time to spend with his daughter. Almost inevitably, Aurora ends up asleep against his side, or with her head pillowed on his thigh, and though he misses the chance to talk to her, there’s something comforting in the peace of those moments. The trust. As though it’s his turn to stand watch over the family. And he’s able to give Aurora the gift of rest.

** **

The following weeks pass in a sleepless haze, punctuated by terror and joy in about equal measure. The rhythms of the household disintegrate completely, and it takes some time before Neil and Alfred are able to work out the best ways in which to make themselves useful. Both with the baby and around the house. It is eventually Maureen, familiar as she already is with the family’s unique dynamics, who works out a system for them, and the house slowly finds a new kind of normal.

Aurora keeps Mags involved in Éliane’s care from the very first days. Partly because she welcomes both the help and the company, trapped as she is at the centre of a whirlwind she can’t possibly control, but mostly so that Mags will never be afraid of her own ignorance, of her own body, of her own child, in the way that Aurora has been over the last nine months. Although, more often than not, their time together is far less about Aurora teaching Mags anything than it is them puzzling things out together.

And Aurora hopes this involvement, this time spent together, will reassure Mags that Aurora meant it when she promised the girls would be sisters. That it will give Mags a sense of responsibility in caring for her family. And Mags does seem to be delighted to participate, proud of the trust Aurora is placing in her. She even protests when Alfred insists they move her bed downstairs to Neil’s sitting room to keep her from being woken repeatedly in the night when the baby cries.

Aurora is half waiting for the novelty to fade, for Mags to chafe at the demands now being made of her. But perhaps the miserable weather, the dark winter evenings help in this, making the thought of playing outside with her friends that much less appealing. Or perhaps she just enjoys feeling like one of the grown-ups for a change. Either way, Aurora does her best to acknowledge Mags’ contribution to raising Éliane as often as her frazzled brain remembers, and Mags thrives under the praise.

** **

Éliane is rarely put down during the hours when the rest of the family is awake, passed from one set of arms to another, and Aurora is grateful all over again that they all managed to stay together, that they chose not to go their separate ways. If she were alone with the baby and the house, and Alfred only present in the evenings, she’s not sure she would have been able to keep her sanity.

But with Mags at home after school lets out, with Neil and Alfred to help with the management of the household, with so many willing pairs of arms, Aurora feels anchored at the centre of the family in a way she finds hugely comforting. May and Maureen, too, drop by every few days to check in and, as they did for Edith, to lend a friendly pair of hands. Alice is a less frequent visitor, still somewhat intimidated by the new presence of the baby. Unlike the others, she doesn’t immediately pluck Éliane from Aurora’s arms to coo over as soon as she arrives, but she does muck in to help with the housework while they chat, and Aurora cherishes their brief conversations, the only ones in her life that have nothing whatsoever to do with children and the raising thereof.

Aurora doesn’t have the language to properly express her gratitude to those around her, though she makes a few mangled attempts. They have granted her the freedom to find joy in this new incarnation of motherhood, despite her exhaustion, and there is no way she can ever repay them for that gift.

** **

Neil deftly takes over the project of helping Aurora’s parents with the logistics of their trip, managing correspondence and questions and timetables. And on the day of their arrival, he takes Mags on the train out to Southampton and back to collect them from the ship. A quiet repayment for the trip Aurora made on his behalf.

Mags has been vibrating with excitement at the thought of seeing them again for weeks, but when the reunion finally arrives, her old shyness creeps back over her and her greetings are more reserved than her usual fling-and-hug. By the time they’re all settled on the train for the journey back to London, though, her shyness is forgotten, and she’s chattering away about the new house and the baby and school in a mixture of English and French.

Aurora knows to expect her parents this time around, but in her exhausted state she ends up in tears again anyway when she opens the door to find them on the steps. And she’s grateful that the extensive fussing over the baby followed by a grand tour of the new house give her some room to collect herself.

They install her parents in Mags’ room on the top floor next to Alfred and Aurora. Mags offers to move back upstairs so they can have Neil’s sitting room instead, but after much wrangling, it’s decided that they can nap in the daytime if the baby disturbs them in the night while Mags has to be awake for school, so Mags remains where she is.

And for Aurora, having her parents under the same roof this time, instead of dispatching them to a hotel for lack of space, is a profound comfort. With the exception of Harry, the whole family is together again. And watching her mother soothe the baby, watching Mags squish into the armchair beside her father because she’s too big now to sit on his knee, feels right in a way Aurora can’t properly articulate.

** **

Aurora’s mother again brings with her from Canada an assortment of food staples that are still rationed in England – tea, flour, oats, oil, sugar, preserves, and so on – as well as yet more items she has hand-made for the baby.

Aurora’s father brings his family’s menorah, Shabbos candlesticks, and Passover seder plate and presents them to her just before sunset on the first night of Chanukah. Aurora is overwhelmed by the gift, by her father’s kindness. But also by the realization, echoed in her father’s eyes, that hers is the last branch of their family, and that those items have no other home to go to.

Barely aware of what day it is at the best of times, Aurora hadn’t prepared any kind of celebration for the holiday. But with some of the supplies her mother brought, she makes latkes to go with dinner, and everyone stays to participate when her father lights the menorah after the table has been cleared.

Mags is fascinated by this new ritual, and Aurora’s father is thrilled to find her interested. They sit together for much of the evening, while he tells her the story behind the holiday, begins to teach her a few words of Hebrew. Aurora settles nearby with Éliane to listen. Though the baby is far too young to understand, Aurora hopes that one day the sound and rhythms of her Opa’s voice telling the stories as Aurora heard them when she was a child might be familiar to Éliane, too, imprinted on her somehow by exposure and repetition. Because with the ocean that separates them most of the time, there’s no telling how long it might be before they get this chance again.

** **

Aurora can’t bring herself to leave the baby with anyone yet, even her mother, so on Friday Alfred takes her father to the synagogue the Marks introduced them to in her place.

“It was lovely,” Alfred says to Aurora later. “When you’re ready, we should go again.”

And she nods. Stepping away from the house and leaving all those pieces of her heart unprotected is still unthinkable to her at the moment, but when Éliane is a little older, Aurora thinks she might be ready to embrace that part of her faith again.

** **

Christmas, which follows just a few days later, is a bigger affair for the family than it has been over the last two years. Aurora’s mother insists on putting together a Christmas dinner out of whatever they can assemble between their rations and her supplies from Canada. Neil and Mags make Christmas crackers and silly hats out of newspaper. And on Christmas morning there are stockings and small gifts for the children. They leave the radio on playing hymns and carols during the day, and just the fact of them all being together for the holiday makes it an occasion.

** **

Aurora seems to be doing fine as January progresses, but Alfred starts to worry about her feeling trapped in the house again. He’s reasonably certain she must go out during the day while he’s at work, but he realizes at one point it’s been weeks since he’s seen her outside in the daylight.

“How long has it been since you left the house?” he asks when he’s home on Saturday. He keeps some humour in his tone, but really he’s only half joking.

And Aurora clearly has to think about her answer for a moment. Finally, she sighs. “Honestly, I can’t remember. Not that long, I promise. I went with my mother to the grocer earlier this week. And you and I should go out some time like we used to, I know. But, I still. I don’t want to leave her.”

“You don’t have to. I thought it might be nice to go for a walk, that’s all. We can bring her with us. Between your mother and May Rossiter she has a dozen little hats and sweaters. And the sun is shining, for once.”

Aurora runs a hand up into her hair, which has been tied back in a simple bun for days. “I’m a mess.”

He smiles. He has always liked her best un-made-up, with her freckles showing, her hair unpinned. “No you’re not.”

She gives him a look. “Yes, I am. I can’t go outside like this.”

It’s almost a relief that their crisis of the day is something so manageable. He takes Lily from her arms. “That’s okay. Go and get ready, then. Take as long as you need. I mean it. Have a bath. Relax. We’ll be just fine down here. But when you’re done, we are leaving this house together for at least fifteen minutes. Deal?”

She sighs, but there’s a smile in it. “Deal.”

** **

Alfred is pleased to hear from the eventual rattle of pipes that she does run herself a bath, and when she comes back downstairs half an hour later, she is actually more relaxed, more herself.

Their departure is delayed a little longer, as Lily needs to be fed and changed before they can leave the house, but Alfred insists again, and they do eventually make it out the door into the watery winter sunlight.

The weather is mild for January and it’s a welcome change to step outside for a while with no commute ahead of him. And November and December were so unrelentingly grey, it feels as though they haven’t seen the sun in months. Aurora takes his elbow, and Lily, bundled snug in a blanket over top of her hat and sweater, falls instantly asleep in his arms. They don’t wander far, but it still prompts echoes of the days back in their tiny flat when they used to take long walks just to have the chance to be alone, to talk.

“How are you doing?” he asks quietly after a couple of blocks.

And her smile as she glances over at him is a little rueful. “We don’t really get much of a chance to talk anymore, do we.”

He shakes his head. “Things will settle down again. But I do miss it.”

“Me too.”

“You seem happy,” he says after a moment.

And he’s surprised at the prickle of sudden tears as he does. Because on the day she spoke those words to him, they both faced the possibility that they would never make it to this point. The weight of memories and trauma standing in their way had seemed insurmountable at the time.

The same understanding is reflected in her eyes, and she just nods. Leans in closer. Tucks her face against his shoulder for a moment as she sucks in a steadying breath.

“So do you,” she says finally.

“I worry about you, a little. Promise me you’ll tell me if you feel trapped.”

But she shakes her head. “It’s not like that this time. It’s just. Everyone I love is together in one place right now, and I can’t bring myself to walk away from that. I’m where I want to be for the moment. Where I need to be. That might change, but...” She shrugs a little.

“I’m glad to hear it. We should try to do this more often, though.”

“We’ll work something out. We always do.”

And her quiet confidence, in him, in them, is a comfort as well.

** **

They stay out longer than they had intended, meandering slowly through the neighbourhood, pausing in the muddy green, talking about everything and nothing. And Aurora feels more awake than she has in days. In weeks. As though the fresh breeze and the thin sunlight have cleared the cobwebs out of her brain for a while.

When Éliane starts to fuss, they head for home. And Aurora’s mother greets them at the door as they step inside, takes the baby from Alfred while they get their coats off.

“Good,” she says to Aurora. “You’ve got some colour back in your cheeks. I thought I was going to have to chase you out that door.”

And Aurora sighs. “I’m fine, Maman.”

“Of course you are. But it’s good for you to get out once in a while. And see? The house didn’t burn down.”

Aurora casts a glance back at Alfred. “A conspiracy, is it?”

He smiles. “Just a coincidence.”

Éliane picks that moment to interrupt, her fussing blooming into a full-on cry, and Aurora’s mother passes Éliane back to her with a smile.

“Here, you feed her, and I’ll finish dinner for the rest of us.” She turns to Alfred. “And you, come and help me set the table.”

He grins “Yes, ma’am.”

Alfred presses a kiss to Aurora’s temple as he passes, following her mother through the dining room and into the kitchen at the back of the house. And Aurora is surprised to find she has to stop herself from reaching after him as he goes. Offers her knuckle for Éliane to suck on instead, to sooth her crying while she carries her upstairs to be fed.

It’s absurd to miss Alfred already, when he’s only just stepped out of the room, while they’re still in the same house. But their walk, refreshing as it was, reminded her of how little time they spend alone together anymore, of how long it’s been since they’ve been able to properly talk to one another. And so once Éliane has been fed, she tucks the baby against her shoulder and heads back downstairs. Settles herself into a chair in the kitchen where she can rock the baby to sleep and hear his voice at the same time as he chats with her mother. And when his fingers brush her shoulder as he passes in and out from the dining room with plates and cups and cutlery, it’s reassurance for them both. Things will settle down again eventually. And in the meantime, at least they’re facing the chaos together.

Chapter Text

Aurora’s parents originally planned to stay only through January, but in the end they postpone their departure, and postpone it again, to stay through the end of March.

“We’ll miss the worst of the Canadian winter,” her father says. “And the crossing won’t be so rough on the way back.”

But in truth, it’s more that none of them wants to face the eventual separation. As their new departure date approaches, Aurora asks her parents to delay it again, but they have already pushed the generosity of the friends and neighbours looking after their house beyond its limits, and they have their own lives to return to.

Aurora tries to face it with good grace. It was her choice that put the distance between them, after all, not theirs. And it has been a privilege to have them here this long. They got to be present for Éliane’s first smile, her first laugh. They saw her learn to lift her head, to roll over, to start cooing and gurgling. And Éliane knows them, recognises them, by their faces, by their smell. Aurora takes comfort in the thought that her parents are a part of Éliane now, familiar to her, and Aurora hopes that when they see each other again, whenever that might eventually be, that they won’t be complete strangers, even though Éliane won’t remember why.

** **

The house feels empty after they’ve gone, and Aurora isn’t quite sure what to do with herself during the day without them. But life does slowly begin to calm down again, and she’s not quite as hamstrung without the help they provided as she expected to be. She’s more confident in her basic skills of keeping Éliane alive, and finds the rhythm of how to manage everything else around that core responsibility. And Éliane – and therefore Aurora as well – begins to sleep for more than two hours at a stretch, so Aurora feels a little less like she’s caught in a constant state of crisis.

The whole family is able to relax a little and lift their heads to take in the world around them again. By this point in the spring, the weather has improved and the sun shows itself occasionally, and Aurora begins to enjoy taking Éliane out in the morning to explore the world, to introduce her to trees and flowers and dogs, to houses and buses and people.

** **

Aurora and Alfred do better at finding small stretches of time to spend alone together. At first it’s nothing more than retreating up to their bedroom for whatever time they can steal while Éliane is asleep, but even so it takes Aurora some time to get over the feeling that she has forgotten a piece of herself downstairs. It makes a difference, though, having those moments to look each other in the eye, to remember how to talk to one another, touch one another. To refresh the connection that is unique between them.

And they gravitate back towards one another more often in the general course of things, the small gestures of touch and comfort between them suddenly rekindled. And the tension of missing each other, a tension they hadn’t even realized they were carrying, eases along with it.

** **

Aurora takes a quiet joy in watching Neil’s relationship with Éliane shift as the weeks pass by. He was hesitant to hold her at first, tiny as she was. And Aurora recognised the fear in him as one she struggled with herself around Edith’s son Teddy. Neil doesn’t quite trust that he’s not a danger to the baby. Like Aurora, he knows what he’s capable of, and worries that shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near someone so vulnerable. But as Éliane grows, learns to control her own limbs, begins to interact with the world, she seems proportionately less fragile, and Neil is more and more willing to hold her, to interact with her.

And he clearly delights in her responses, in her smiles. Almost in spite of himself. Aurora is careful never to tease him about it, and warns Mags off that as well. This budding connection between them is still too delicate to draw attention to.

But Aurora feels a profound security when she knows Éliane is with Neil, more so than with anyone other than herself and Alfred. More so even than with her parents. She knows Neil’s strength, and she knows his heart, and she trusts him absolutely to protect Éliane, should it ever come to that. And he’s the only person to whom she’ll willingly entrust the baby so that she and Alfred can leave the house, even though she still can’t bring herself to go any further than a short walk around the block.

This new awareness of Neil and his presence, though, draws her attention to his occasional absence. Since her parents left in March, Neil has started going out again for one or two evenings in the week, and Aurora is comforted to know that he’s been able to regain some measure of normal in his life. And as spring gives way to summer, she begins to see the signs once again that Neil might be going out to meet someone in particular.

Again, she doesn’t comment on it. Doesn’t pry. Holds her breath, almost, in the hopes that perhaps this time he has found someone who can recognise his worth.

** **

By the time the return letter arrives in the mail in early summer, Aurora has completely forgotten that she ever wrote to her journalist friend in France. She hasn’t touched her writing or the translation project since the week that Éliane was born. Hasn’t so much as thought about it. And so the letter sits on her desk unopened, with a pile of other correspondence she has fallen woefully behind on.

But when she grows frustrated with herself for never finding the time to deal with all the letters she means to answer, Alfred quietly takes over the duties of writing to her parents, to Harry, to Madeleine. So he is the one who eventually draws her attention to the abandoned envelope.

Aurora has to read the letter through twice before the content even begins to sink in.

“She passed my article on to her colleague, the editor at one of the French papers,” she tells Alfred. “He wants to see the rest of them.”

Alfred just smiles at her surprise. “That’s good, isn’t it?”

“I just. I haven’t looked at them in months. I believed they were ready at the time, but I don’t want to send them off without reviewing them first. And I should type out fresh copies. But I’m not sure I actually have that kind of focus right now.”

Just the thought of it is overwhelming. She doesn’t have any uninterrupted blocks of time anymore, and trying to do it in stolen minutes here and there is a recipe for disaster.

“Would you let me read them?” Alfred asks, his tone almost hesitant. “I could give you an outside perspective, and I could certainly retype them for you. But I won’t be upset if you don’t want to.”

Aurora hasn’t yet offered him any of her work to read, and he hasn’t asked. She had been embarrassed at first to expose skills gone rusty with disuse to anyone else’s eyes. Even his. And once that barrier was in place she had been a little daunted by the idea of submitting her words to his perfect memory until they were done, until they said exactly the things she intended them to. She wanted him to see her at her best, at a time when the pregnancy had left her feeling awkward and clumsy and ill-prepared.

But just the fact of having put it off for so long turned what should have been a simple request into something more momentous, and then she hadn’t wanted it to feel like a big deal, like some kind of presentation for his approval. She was far more comfortable, oddly, with the idea of asking him to read her rough English translations. Perhaps because she has no expectations of her own abilities in that area.

She can’t suppress an unreasonable flutter of nerves as she nods her agreement. “Only if you don’t mind. You’ve got a lot on your own plate just now as well.”

He catches her hand. “I’d like to.”

And so she agrees, digs the neat pages of type out of her desk and turns them over to him. But she has to leave the room as he reads his way through them. Goes instead to retrieve Éliane from Mags’ care, sends Mags outside to spend time with her friends in the sun for a while. And when Alfred eventually comes to find her, she and Éliane are sprawled on a blanket on the living room floor, in their own patch of sun, entertaining each other with a brightly coloured cloth toy.

There are shadows in Alfred’s eyes as he meets hers, ghosts and memories stirred up by the content of her work, and Aurora immediately regrets her decision to let him read it. She was too scattered to properly consider the consequences, and guilt for her oversight sloshes low and hot in her stomach. But the only thing she can do now is to help him find some distance again. So before he finds the words to start the stilted conversation they’re about to have, she holds the cloth toy out to him, inviting him to play instead. Gets the smile she was aiming for as he lets out a breath and settles down on the floor beside her. She shifts position so her shoulder brushes his where they sit, so he can lean into the contact if he needs to. And Éliane provides more than enough distraction.

Éliane is already sitting up on her own. And Aurora can see her little mind working, trying to figure out how to get herself closer to the toy Alfred is teasing her with. She almost has it, has almost worked out the coordination of hands and legs, and she’ll master the skill of crawling any day now. She’s not quite seven months old and already it feels as though time is passing too quickly, and that Alfred is absent, at work, for far too much of it.

There will be more than enough time in the evening, once Éliane is asleep, to talk about her articles, to revisit the horrors. And by then, Alfred will have the buffer of a happy afternoon to ease the upset of the memories she dredged up for him. It’s the closest thing to a solution she can come up with.

** **

When they do finally sit down to talk, Alfred’s questions and comments are detailed enough that she can see for herself how clearly, or not, she had made her arguments. And the attention he has paid, the seriousness with which he treats her work, is more reassuring than any amount of bland praise might have been. He points out three small sections that could use a little clarification and a handful of typos, but otherwise declares there’s no reason she shouldn’t pass them along to her friend’s publisher.

So the following afternoon, while Mags entertains Éliane, Aurora sits down with her articles to rework the sections that Alfred indicated. She doesn’t bother with the typewriter, just marks her changes in the margins, sometimes spilling over onto the back of the page. Maintaining her focus is exactly as challenging as she feared it would be, and trying to stretch her brain back into work mode after months away is even harder, but she tackles one small section at a time, and by the end of the week she’s ready to show the pages to Alfred for a final proof.

She only gives him the sections she reworked, to avoid his having to wade through more memories than are strictly necessary. They talk through the changes in bed that night, because it’s the only time they’re able to find. And once that work is done, Aurora slides closer to him under the sheets to provide her own kind of distraction, a buffer of touch and caress and love to stand between him and any lingering horror that might otherwise fuel his nightmares.

** **

The following evening he makes good on his promise to retype the finished articles for her. Given that he doesn’t have to read off the page as he goes, he accomplishes the task much faster, and with greater accuracy, than she could manage in her distracted state. Aurora packs the finished pages into a large envelope and mails them to the address provided, and does her best to forget about them all over again.

Chapter Text


As the summer begins, Éliane learns to crawl, and then to stand, pulling herself up on the furniture, and suddenly nothing in the house is safe. Even with three adults and Mags watching her all the time, Éliane somehow manages to get her hands on things she shouldn’t, all of which go directly into her mouth. And Aurora finds herself needing to learn a whole new set of skills in the ever changing game of keeping baby alive.

** **

Neil is definitely seeing someone, and as the weeks wear on he does a little less to conceal that fact, though he still never references it outright. Never brings her home. Never mentions her name. Even Mags has figured it out, though, and she’s clearly dying of curiosity, but she follows Aurora’s lead and allows the details to remain unspoken.

Aurora is heartened that, a few months in, things are still apparently going well for him. She tries not to wish too hard that he trusted her enough to talk about it. Understands that it’s himself he doesn’t trust, and the general unfairness of the world. That it has nothing to do with her. But she can’t help feeling protective of his heart. She knows its worth, knows how many times it has been damaged, and it’s hard to accept she has no ability to help him protect it.

But they cross paths late one night, when Aurora is pacing the living room with Éliane, who is teething and miserable and refuses to be put down. Neil slips in the front door, returning home after a late night out, and pauses to glance into the living room at the sound of Éliane’s fussing. Aurora turns to find him standing there, and despite her frustration, her exhaustion, she can’t help smiling at the look on his face.

He just ducks his head when she catches his eye, turns away and starts up the stairs to his room.

“I’d like to meet her. When you’re ready,” Aurora says quietly. “Even if it’s not a forever love. She’s always welcome here.”

Neil pauses on the stairs, but doesn’t quite look back at her.

“It’s her choice,” he says at last. “She’s not ready yet. But I’ll tell her you said so.”

And Aurora understands the unspoken folded into his words. The admission that he himself might actually be ready.

She nods. “When she’s ready, then. Sleep well.”

This time he does meet her eyes, and his smile is rueful on her behalf as he nods towards Lily. “Do you want me to take her for a while?”

But she shakes her head. “Thank you, but Alfred tried earlier. Only maman will do tonight, it seems.”

He nods. “Wake me if you want to, though, and I’ll take a shift. You need to sleep, too.”

“You’re a good man, Uncle Neil.”

He grins. “Yes, I know.”

And even Aurora manages a laugh as he heads up the stairs.

** **

The response from the newspaper editor in France arrives a few days later, only weeks after she had sent her articles off to him, and far more quickly than Aurora expected. This time she doesn’t allow the letter to linger unread on her desk, but keeps it aside to read in the evening after Éliane is asleep.

“He wants to run them as a featured series through the fall and winter,” she tells Alfred, still a little stunned.

She hands him the letter and he scans through it quickly. But it’s the way his face lights up that makes the news finally feel real.

“Aurora. That’s wonderful.”

“It’s been so many years. I wasn’t sure what to expect.”

Alfred shakes his head. “You did good work. He’d be a fool not to run it.”

“He’s asked for a couple of small revisions, but nothing substantive. I should be able to turn it around for him within the deadline.”

“We’ll help. Just let us know what kind of time you need.”

“I might need an hour just to sit down with the letter and my articles and work that out.”

“Then we’ll start with that.”

She nods. “Tomorrow, then. Once Éliane is asleep. I’ll try and come up with a schedule.”

And she can’t help the smile that takes over her face. Realizes how good it feels to rekindle that kind of purpose in her life. That kind of pride. She no longer needs it the way she used to, but it’s a welcome addition to her new life nonetheless.

Alfred smiles back, moves closer, and she steps into his embrace.

“Come on,” he says. “Let’s tell the others. We should celebrate properly.”

** **

Aurora finds herself looking forward to sharing news of the publication with Alice as well when she arrives for tea the next day. May and Maureen don’t quite understand the pride, the satisfaction that Aurora gets from her work, or even why she would want to return to it at all now that she has a child to care for. But Alice, too, is driven by a need for purpose in her life, and is far more likely to share in Aurora’s growing excitement.

Over the last few months, Alice has lost her nervousness around Éliane, and for Aurora, watching that process was sometimes uncomfortably like watching her own tortured progression over again from the outside. Her own discomfort around Mags and around the very idea of her own child is still fresh in Aurora’s memory, and it’s both strange and comforting to have Alice walking that path so close behind her.

Aurora somehow feels an odd wave of pride when Éliane finally chips through Alice’s reserve and teases a delighted smile out of her, or when Alice forgets her own awkwardness enough to babble back at Éliane for the first time. And Alice is far more willing now than she was at first to hear all the details of Éliane’s small life. But even so, Aurora is excited to have something to discuss with Alice that doesn’t revolve entirely around home and children.

** **

When Alice arrives, though, all thoughts of work go out of Aurora’s head. Alice hangs back when Aurora invites her through into the living room, her fingers knotted together, more skittish, more reserved than she has been in months.

“Did something happen?” Aurora asks her. “What’s wrong?”

“No, no. Nothing happened. Not exactly. But there’s something I should tell you.”

She trails off again, possibly hunting for the right words, but the pause gives even Aurora’s frazzled brain time to catch up, putting the pieces together with an almost audible click.

“It’s you,” she says quietly. “Isn’t it.”

Not even a question, really. It should have been obvious when Neil said it was her choice to hold back and not his.

Alice nods, and sudden tears spill over, though her voice is steady. “Are you angry?”

“No, of course not. Just a little surprised, that’s all.”

Alice brushes away the tears, trying for a laugh. “I’m too old for all this. It’s ridiculous, really.”

“No, it’s not.”

“I never intended for this to… I’d given up expecting it. When I was younger, the boys were never really interested in a girl like me. Or I was never interested in them. And then the war. Other things became more important. But I let Maureen drag me out for a drink at the pub one night and Neil was there. He said he wanted to apologise, because he felt he’d been rude that one night at dinner. I hadn’t even noticed, really, I was so uncomfortable myself. I made an effort to be friendly, though, because he’s important to you, and to Maureen. And he made me laugh. That was all at first. But I never…”

Aurora crosses to her and pulls her into a hug. They’re not usually affectionate in this way, but Aurora feels like it’s the only way to ease Alice’s building panic.

“I’m not angry. And you don’t owe me any kind of explanation. If you make each other happy, that’s all that matters.”

She’s still having trouble getting her head around the idea. Other than that one awkward dinner, Aurora doesn’t think she’s ever seen the two of them in the same room together. It’s just hard to imagine that they’ve been building a relationship all this time.

“I don’t even know what I’m doing. It’s terrifying.”

Aurora can’t help a smile. “I know. But it does get easier eventually. And then you’ll find all new things to be frightened of.”

“Like children?”

And Alice’s face looks as though she can’t quite believe she even spoke those words.

“Especially children.”

“I’ve wanted to talk to you about it. I don’t know anyone else who might understand. The other women would just laugh. And I can’t even imagine trying to explain it to my sister. She’ll tease, and I don’t think I can stand it.”

“You can talk to me about it now. Come in and sit down at least.”

Once they’re settled in with cups of tea it all feels a little less strange. And Alice begins to tell the story in halting fragments. She and Neil seem to be taking things slowly, and it’s only within the last few weeks that the timbre of their relationship has changed. It’s clear Alice’s heart is engaged, and equally clear she has almost no idea of how to negotiate that. And if her beau were anyone other than Neil, Aurora might have encouraged Alice to say more, to allow herself to feel giddy and young. After the trauma of the war years, they all deserve a chance to bask in whatever happiness they can find. But as things are, she feels a certain weight of responsibility and a fear of stepping in too far, of getting in the middle, where there’s the possibility she could disrupt the careful balance Alice and Neil have worked so hard to negotiate.

“Oh god. I’m terrified, Aurora. This is such a bad idea.”

Aurora smiles. “No, it isn’t.”

“You’re sure?”

“Just talk to each other. That’s the only lesson I’ve managed to learn, but it’s been the right one every time.”

Alice nods. “I’ll try.”

** **

The more Aurora grows used to the idea of Neil and Alice together, the more it seems as though it should have been obvious all along. She has no objections to them seeing each other, and the whole thing is really none of her business, but knowing the secret without Neil knowing she knows makes her uncomfortable. She doesn’t want to ever get in the middle of their delicate courtship, and knowing each of them separately as she does, that might prove an awkward line to walk on occasion.

She’s determined to start out on the right foot, though, so she contrives to catch Neil alone in the kitchen as they clear up after dinner.

“Alice was here today,” she says.

Neil takes a breath, releases it on a sigh.

“She told you, then?”

“She did. I just wanted you to know.”

He nods. “I don’t know how this is going to work. It’s not what I’m used to. I’m not sure how I do this with so many other people in the balance.”

“I know. In the beginning, I worried about that too, with Alfred. I worried it would disrupt the team. Make things awkward or uncomfortable.”

Neil snorts. “The rest of us knew it was coming before the pair of you figured it out. Almost from the time Alfred joined us the two of you worked best together.”

“Yours will become the new normal, too. Just give it some time.”

“Maybe she can come for dinner again some time soon.”

“When you’re ready. I think that would be lovely.”

Neil nods. “Right, then. We’ll think about it.”

Aurora squeezes his arm and turns to go, but Neil reaches out to stop her.

“Aurora… She’s your friend. If this doesn’t work out…”

“Then it doesn’t. And I’ll be sad for both of you, but you can’t worry about me on top of everything else. You have to do what’s right for you.”

“So long as we’re on the same page.”

She smiles. “Of course.”

** **

Neil, possibly out of pity for the position Aurora is now in, lets Alice’s name slip over dinner a few days later. Mags is gleeful, clearly excited by the idea. But Alfred glances sidelong at Aurora, and his expression tells her he knows the news isn’t a surprise to her.

“I’m sorry,” she says later, when they’re alone before bed. “It wasn’t my secret to share.”

He nods, lets his hand brush her arm. “I know. I’m not angry.”

“What do you think?”

“I don’t really know Alice well enough to say. But Neil has seemed lighter these last few weeks. His colours are more balanced. For that alone, I hope it works out for him.”

She nods. “Me too. He’s been alone for too long.”

** **

Aurora puts together a simple schedule that will allow her time to accomplish the revisions within the editor's deadline. And Alfred seems to enjoy this excuse to whisk Lily away for an hour as soon as he gets home from work. Aurora’s not entirely sure what they get up to – unless it’s raining, Alfred takes Lily out of the house so there’s no chance they’ll disturb Aurora at her work – but they both arrive home smiling in time to put Lily to bed, and that goes a long way towards settling the guilt Aurora feels about taking time away from them both.

Even once Aurora’s revisions are done, Alfred asks if he can keep up his little adventures with Lily a few nights a week. Phrased that way, as though it’s a favour she can do for him, Aurora couldn’t possibly deny him, so in those hours she turns her attention back to the abandoned task of translating her work. And Aurora relishes that chance to stretch her brain a little, to make progress on a new project. Though the best part is still the end of the hour when she gets up and walks away from it to welcome her wanderers home again.

Chapter Text

Alfred is secretly pleased to realize, as the summer progresses, just how much Éliane takes after Aurora. Now that she’s mobile, it becomes abundantly clear that she has a will of her own, and that she’s absolutely fearless. If the adults aren’t paying enough attention, she’ll squirm to be put down and immediately scuttle off to investigate under the furniture or to try and make a break for the stairs. She is determined to climb them on her own, and the family lives in terror of her tumbling down them again.

But in the hours that Alfred spends alone with her, he delights in letting her roam to see what she discovers. Follows close beside her on her explorations, to make sure nothing dangerous goes into her mouth and that she’s not in danger of banging her head, but otherwise lets her lead the way. The flavour of her curiosity is enchanting, and he can’t resist trying to imagine what the world looks like through her eyes.

** **

In the fall, Mags starts back at school, Alice starts joining them for dinner at the house on a regular basis, and Aurora begins to receive French newspapers in the mail – the editions containing her articles.

And one night over dinner, not long after, when Mags is out spending the evening with a friend, Aurora catches Neil’s eye over Éliane’s head.

“Mags asked if she could read the articles I wrote. I didn’t want to decide without asking you.”

Silence falls around the table as they all consider this, and Neil’s face turns mulish, his opinion clear.

“She’s thirteen,” Aurora continues, hesitant. “Not a child anymore.”

“I don’t want her to. She shouldn’t have to live with that. The whole reason we fought is so that our children would never have to know that kind of evil.”

“It’s a part of us, though. And she’ll be hurt if we say no. Even if she understands why.”

“Could we pick one or two?” Alfred asks. “And explain she can read the others when she’s older. If she wants to.”

“Not the birth house,” Neil says immediately.

And Aurora nods. “No, not that one. The first one, maybe. About the start of the war and the café. She knows most of that story anyway.”

“Maybe.”

After some wrangling, they choose two that really only brush up against the horrors of the war rather than delving into detail. Aurora gives her the copies, and Mags seems almost proud to receive them. As though they have let her sneak into a private club that exists only among the adults. Aurora is relieved they were able to come to a compromise that allows her this, though she does still carry many of the same worries as Neil.

None of which are soothed when Mags comes to find Aurora after reading them, her eyes wide.

“Did they all die?” she asks. “Your friends from the café?”

And Aurora is shocked to find herself choking up at the simple question. At the sadness in Mags’ voice.

She nods. Clears her throat. “I asked around when we were in Paris. No one has heard from them. None of them ever came back.”

“But, Rene got away with you.”

“Rene died, too,” Aurora reminds her gently. “Just a little later.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Me too.”

Aurora pulls Mags into a hug, and though these days Mags like to think she’s all grown up, she doesn’t squirm away.

“It’s okay if you don’t want to read any more,” Aurora says long moments later, when she finally lets Mags go. “It won’t hurt my feelings.”

“This is why you’re sad sometimes. All of you. Isn’t it.”

“Yes, it is. But the war is over now, and we have you and Éliane to make us happy. We have Maureen and Alice and the Rossiters. We have each other. Life is good to us now, and we don’t want you to be sad for us. That’s why we weren’t sure whether we should let you read them. Once you know something sad like that, it becomes a part of you.”

“Maybe I could read some more when I’m a little older.”

“When you’re ready, you can come and ask me, I promise. But if you never feel ready, that’s okay, too.”

** **

When each newspaper arrives in the post, Aurora clips her article out of it to store in a file on her desk, usually in among a stack of other papers awaiting her attention. She preserves the rest of the newspaper as well, and reads in in snatches of time throughout the week. Alfred watches her as she savours the experience in small bites. There’s a professional interest there, of course, but getting the news, in French, from Paris is clearly something she misses, and once the excitement of receiving her weekly articles in print has passed, he plans to gift her a subscription so she can continue to have that small pleasure.

But her filing system also needs some help. Her work has expanded rather beyond what can be easily stored in stacks on her desk. Alfred pokes around in a few shops on his lunch break, but can’t find what he’s looking for. So on Saturday morning, when Aurora is helping out at some event that May has roped her into, Alfred asks Mags to come for a wander with him and show him around a few of the markets where Aurora went in search of household items when they were trying to equip the new house.

He and Mags spend a pleasant few hours together, just the two of them. With Mags’ help, Alfred finds a small wooden filing cabinet in rather sad shape, and arranges to have it delivered to the house where Neil can work his magic on it. The other item he has in mind requires a bit more of a search, and he and Mags both pick through the selection at a number of stalls. He does finally stumble on exactly what he’s looking for, though, at a stall full of slightly dusty knick-knacks and miscellanea, tucked away in a corner. And, mission accomplished, they are then free to wander happily for the rest of the morning just browsing, delighting occasionally in a bizarre find or a useful tool for the house.

He and Mags haven’t really had much time alone together since Lily was born, and Alfred resolves to make more of an effort on that front moving forward. He’s almost surprised to find how grown up she seems now, and regrets that he allowed that to happen without paying closer attention to it.

But Mags has a new confidence, too, that makes his heart ache with a kind of pride he’s never felt before. It may be a response to the lasting stability in their lives, the security she feels about her place in the family. Or the new responsibility she has in the house as Aurora’s right hand and a guardian for Lily in her own right. But he takes a moment to admire the woman she’s becoming, bright and funny and kind. And before they step back into the house, parcels tucked under their arms, he stops her with a hand on her shoulder, presses a wordless kiss to her temple.

She grins and flings her arms around him in one of her old childlike hugs, and they head inside together to put together lunch for the family before Aurora gets home.

** **

Aurora is shuffling through papers at her desk later that evening, trying to sort them into a better kind of order when Alfred appears at her shoulder and places something on the surface beside her.

“Here, this might help, a little. I wanted to bring you something new to keep your clippings in.” He smiles. “Something a little more special than a file folder. A way to mark a fresh start.”

It’s a little larger than the shoe box of her old papers that Mme. Méffèrt gave her in Paris, but it’s sturdy and meticulously crafted. Almost too special. She runs her fingers across its wooden surface, smooth and polished.

“Thank you. It’s beautiful. But we should use it for something precious. Photographs. Or letters.”

He brushes her hair back with a light touch. “You can if you want to. But your words are precious, too.”

She nods, realizing it is that understanding Alfred is trying to gift her with more than the box itself. Takes his offered hand and stands to thank him properly.

It would never have occurred to her to buy herself something like this, but the kindness inherent in the gesture is touching. He’s treating her articles like they’re a piece of her. Which, in a way, perhaps they are. And it’s a relief, somehow, to have the opportunity to create this new collection herself, to fill this box deliberately, with documents that reflect her thoughts, her words, her work. Not just a shoebox with scraps of her life jammed into it by someone else. A step towards taking herself seriously as a journalist once again.

“There’s a filing cabinet coming for you, too. It will need a little fixing up, but it should fit in here beside your desk.”

“Alfred…”

But he shakes his head. “These are the tools you need to do your job, that’s all.”

** **

And Aurora becomes grateful for Alfred’s forethought soon enough. Her articles are well received in France, and her friend begins to send her the occasional references or responses to them that turn up in the press there.

Madeleine and Gustave both write with their thoughts about the piece on the birth house and further news of the other girls. Both ask if Alfred’s contacts have found any trace of Claire, but though he put the word through to keep watch for references to the birth houses in general and Claire’s name in particular, no information has yet come back to him.

** **

About halfway through the run of her articles, Aurora begins to receive inquiries from London papers about the possibility of printing English translations.

Alfred and Alice both encourage her in her efforts to render them into English on her own, and help her to polish away the occasional rough edges. She sends a sample back to the editor of one of the English papers, and he agrees to pick up the whole series.

With his help, Aurora is able to refine the English text even further, and she is heartened by the feeling that she is finally making a step towards building a career and a reputation in her adopted home. In her adopted language.

The translation is a challenge that takes her through the winter and into the spring, and when her first article finally appears in print in London, she is almost more proud of its success here than in Paris.

But once the effort of translating the articles is done, Aurora finds herself once again at loose ends and begins the search for a new project to occupy her mind. She is still in correspondence with her French editor, who is eager to discuss further potential assignments with her. And so, in late May, she and Alfred organize another visit to Paris. This time, Alfred takes a week’s vacation in order to accompany her, and he cares for Éliane while Aurora takes a series of meetings with her editor and various other colleagues.

It is during this trip that she becomes involved with the Association nationale des anciennes déportées et internées de la Résistance, a group formed by and advocating for women of the resistance who had survived the concentration camps. Many of these women share an extremely close bond, and most of them require ongoing medical and psychological support.

Aurora’s work with both Camp X and the CBF gives her a unique understanding of their situation, and she interviews as many of them as will talk to her as the basis of her next project. She isn’t yet sure what the exact shape of it will be, but she is drawn to these women and their strength and their stories. And it forces her to confront how close she came to being one of them, so many times over.

** **

Éliane’s first words are in French, and for a time the entire family switches into French with her as they encourage her to repeat words back to them. Alice seems a little bit lost at first, not speaking a word of the language herself, but constant exposure to these teaching moments with Lily eventually gives her, too, a firm grasp of the very basics. A fact which Neil teases her with, though gently, at every opportunity.

Her comfort around the household has grown enormously by this point, and she simply swats at him in feigned annoyance.

“Hush you. Never mock someone who’s trying to learn something new. It’s rude.”

Aurora finds she’s half waiting these days for Neil and Alice to start talking about marriage, but neither of them seems to be in any kind of hurry on that front, and she keeps her promise not to pry. Because whatever it is they’ve managed to work out, this careful balance that they've built, it seems to be working for everyone, and Aurora doesn’t want to be the person who disturbs that. So she waits and she watches and she hopes as quietly as she knows how.

Chapter Text

Éliane seems to have gone straight from crawling to running. And climbing. Her fearless streak exerts itself full force once she’s on her feet, and Aurora is more exhausted in these summer months than she has been since Éliane was newborn. Éliane requires constant stimulation, with seemingly boundless energy, but not yet verbal enough to engage with stories or quieter activities. Aurora is run ragged trying to keep up with her, spends what feel like endless hours just climbing up and down the stairs with her.

Éliane loves the stairs, seems to love the challenge they provide as a way to master her growing control over her own arms and legs. But Aurora can’t help remembering the time she herself spent running up and down stairs in the early morning dark, in a desperate attempt to keep herself fighting fit. It feels like a lifetime ago, now. And the sharp edge to her skills she had once been so proud of is long gone. But gone, too, is the fear that drove her to maintain it, which is a trade-off she’s happy enough to accept.

When Mags finishes school for the summer, Aurora almost weeps with relief. And Mags is happy to take on the challenge of running after the baby on much younger legs for an hour or so in the morning and afternoon. Aurora finally has the chance to get other tasks accomplished around the house, and the chance to take short breaks from the constant active attention that Éliane requires.

And Mags is wonderful with Lily. She doesn’t flinch, even at the messier jobs of feeding her or changing her. Narrates whole stories for the two of them as they climb the stairs over and over, tales of mountain climbing or jungle exploration or pirate treasure. All inspired by the books she still devours in her spare time, Aurora assumes. Aurora loves listening in, as she goes about her chores, to the wild adventures Mags creates, though Lily herself is probably still too young to appreciate them. And every so often, when Aurora has the luxury of time, she’ll jot down the stories as Mags tells them, wanting to preserve them for Alfred, or for Lily when she’s old enough to enjoy them. And for Mags herself, who has quite the storyteller’s gift.

** **

As the series of Aurora’s articles comes to its completion in the London papers, a publisher approaches her about collecting them into a book. Aurora had never imagined this kind of a future for the words she had struggled for so long to put to her experiences, but she is honoured to have this chance to dedicate the work to those who didn’t survive the fight.

And it serves as something of an inspiration to her in the new project she is pursuing, keeps her working to find the words even when it’s not her own story she’s telling, when she doesn’t have the same drive to get the memories out before they poison her. She can provide that service for women who suffered so much more than she did herself, and who don’t have the ability to tell the tale themselves. It makes a difference, too, that it’s work worth doing.

** **

In the fall, the organization starts talking about sending Alfred to New York for a portion of the following summer. It would be several months’ work, and the family talks it through night after night, trying to assess whether they can make it work. Whether they want to.

But when Harry writes a few weeks later with news of his impending marriage to Emily, it makes the decision for them. Alfred agrees to the posting on the condition that he is able to make time while in North America for certain family commitments, and the organization readily accepts.

They want to fly him over, and they’re willing to make arrangements for Aurora and Éliane as well, but Alfred and Aurora both refuse outright to expose Éliane to the noise and danger of an airplane. A boat crossing will take longer, but it will be more pleasant for everyone.

And so they spend the winter planning their trip in small increments, negotiating with Aurora’s parents, with Harry, and with Alfred’s work, how they can accommodate everyone, without keeping Neil away from his own job for too long, without pulling Mags out of school for more time than is necessary.

And eventually, once the plans begin to move from the realm of the theoretical into a set of concrete steps to be taken, the inevitable question arises: what about Alice? Aurora forces herself to step back, to allow Neil to field this particular issue on his own. And plans stall over a period of days while a series of private discussions take place.

“It’s complicated,” Neil says, finally. He and Aurora are sharing a drink alone in the sitting room after Mags and Éliane have gone to bed, on a night when Alfred has been kept unusually late at work.

“I didn’t ask,” Aurora protests immediately.

“Not with your mouth, no.”

“You don’t have to tell me.”

“I know.” And he sighs. “Her work won’t allow her that kind of time away. She would have to resign in order to come with us. But it’s a long time to be apart, if she doesn’t, and neither of us likes the way that idea feels. And I do want her to come, so she can meet the rest of the family. Harry. Your parents. It’s important. And…”

“And?”

“And, she’s already been thinking about resigning anyway. If we went ahead with something more permanent between us.”

Aurora has to suppress the urge to hold her breath during this admission.

“Have you asked her?”

“It’s not. It’s not like that between us. We’re both too old to make that kind of fuss. I don’t want any talk – for her sake, mostly – so we’ll do it properly, if we decide to. But that’s all.”

“You may not be able to get out of the fuss,” Aurora says, smiling, “speaking from experience. But… don’t just let the moment pass you by. When you do decide, whether it’s the way you ask her, or the way you agree between you, or some kind of private celebration, give the moment its due. One day, you’ll want to be able to look back and remember the moment you chose to be together. Alfred and I had that part first, so the rest really didn’t matter to us. But it should be important, even if it’s just between the two of you.”

They don’t often talk about matters of the heart like this. She and Neil share more of an unspoken understanding about these sorts of things most of the time, and she can tell he believes she’s trampling all over that at the moment. But she understands the feeling of not wanting to be the centre of attention, knows Neil has it even more strongly than she does, and she doesn’t want him to live with regrets because of it.

But after a moment he gives her a gruff nod. “Anyway,” he says, “we’re still talking.”

And it feels like he’s heard her, at least.

“Of course.”

“But if we went down that road. If…” He takes a breath. “She would move in with us. With me. And I know… But I’m not going to ask your permission.”

Neil’s face is set and stubborn, but his eyes aren’t as convinced. He’s clearly worried, and though he says he won’t ask permission, he may in fact need to hear it from her anyway. And she can’t help thinking, with a kind of distant humour, that they might both need her to drag the sergeant in her out of retirement for one last duty. To declare, to decide for everyone in a manner that brooks no argument, the way this is going to go. The easiest call that sergeant ever had to make.

“You don’t have to,” she says simply. “We all agreed to this when we bought the house, Neil. It’s your home. Whatever your choice is, we’ll make it work.”

Neil nods again. “Right,” he says. “Right. Well, then. I’ll let you know when we have a decision.”

** **

Neil doesn’t seek Aurora out to discuss it again, but she hears from Alfred a few days later that Alice will be joining them for their trip to Canada. And a few weeks after that, deep into December, Neil and Alice announce quietly at the dinner table that they will be getting married.

“He proposed last night,” Alice tells Aurora later in the evening, when they’re putting the tea things onto a tray to carry into the sitting room. “We had already agreed. Discussed it. Decided everything. But he bought a ring, and took me out under the stars and asked me properly. I didn’t think that kind of thing would matter. I mean, really, I’m too old to get fluttery like that. But it was lovely, Aurora. And it made a difference, somehow, like we made a real promise to each other, something serious for the rest of our lives, not just deciding what we’re going to have for tea.”

“I’m so pleased for you. For both of you.”

“We’ll have the ceremony right before we leave for Canada. Neil’s job has been a bit more forgiving of his absence now that they can think of it as a honeymoon.”

“Just make sure Neil breaks the news to Harry before you get there.”

“Yes, I’m sorry about that for Neil’s sake. I’ll offer to re-enact the whole thing for Harry when I meet him, if he wants, but we’re not going to try to steal his thunder by getting married while we’re over there. And I want to get married here in London, with Maureen beside me. Not in some far away country I’ll never see again.”

“Of course you do. Harry will just be sad to have missed it, that’s all.”

“I’m looking forward to meeting this Harry. I’ve heard so much about him.”

“He’ll like you. You’re good for Neil. You make him smile.”

“Well, if he’s anything like the rest of you, it certainly won’t be dull. You’re a characterful bunch.”

Aurora can’t help a laugh. “That’s one word for it, I suppose.”

“Well, it’s a good thing I’m going along, at any rate. Someone will need to keep an eye on poor Emily. Neil tells me none of you have met her yet.”

“No, she didn’t come with Harry when he visited. And that was a little over three years ago, now.”

Alice nods. “She won’t understand, then.”

“Understand what?”

Alice turns away from the tea tray, pins Aurora with a considering gaze. “I’m fairly confident now in my place in this little family. I know Neil loves me, and I believe that you cherish our friendship as much as I do. But I’ve also learned that there’s no getting inside of the bond that you three have. And I assume it will be the same with this Harry once he joins you. It’s a strange feeling to contend with at first, and it took me some time to get used to it. But I can see it for what it is now, and I know what I’m getting into. Emily isn’t going to have that understanding, and I may be able to help smooth the way for her.”

Aurora tries not to feel guilty at Alice’s words. The bond between them isn’t something they can help, and they’ve established several times now that it’s something none of them can live without. It’s not for lack of wanting to that they’re unable to let others in.

Aurora tries for a smile, though she suspects it’s somewhat wobbly around the edges. “Not everyone would be so understanding.”

“Of course not. It’s why you all love me so much.”

“We do, you know,” Aurora says, trying her best to make up for what she can’t help.

“I know.” And Alice grins, saving Aurora from the edge of tears. “Come on, then, I’m sure the boys are wondering where we are. And the tea’ll be cold before we even pour it.”

Aurora nods, scooping up the last bits that didn’t fit on the tray. “Lead on.”

** **

Neil and Alice do a better job of keeping the ceremony simple than Alfred and Aurora managed. They get married at the registry office in June with only the family and Maureen present, followed by a small celebration at the house.

The family sets sail for North America a week later, and Maureen kindly agrees to look after the house for them until Neil and Alice return at the end of July.

Chapter Text

Aurora is a little apprehensive about returning home to Montréal. She has long repaired her relationship with her parents, but her last visit here ended in disaster, and she can’t quite squash the fear that the city she once loved will never fit her properly again.

But at least this time when she steps down from the train after the long ride up from New York, where the ship docked, she has a whole family around her, and the weight of the war isn’t pressing so immediately at her back. She has a life, a purpose, a home to go back to. And she herself is not so completely broken.

Her reunion with her parents helps to take her mind off the city itself. It’s been a little over two years since they’ve seen each other, which feels long only as measured by the children. And for a moment, Aurora can’t help but see the changes through her parents’ eyes.

Éliane is now two and a half, walking and talking and full of curiosity, though a little shy of these new ‘strangers’ from her perch in Alfred’s arms. Mags, recently turned fifteen, is thin and coltish, and just about fully grown now, though not quite as tall as Aurora.

Her parents hesitate, just for a moment, in stunned quiet as they take in these changes, signs of all the things they have missed in the intervening years, and Aurora can’t quite hold down her own tears as she steps into her mother’s arms.

** **

After a long day of travel, everyone is ready for an early night. Mrs. Luft has tea and sandwiches waiting for them back at the house, and once they’ve eaten she shuffles everyone off to bed.

Mags and Éliane sleep in Aurora’s childhood room, and this time at least there’s no argument about Aurora and Alfred sharing the guestroom where Alfred had slept ‘alone’ on their last visit.

But up in that room Aurora’s uneasiness comes back, in among a rush of memories, and Aurora tucks herself up against Alfred under the sheets, needing his touch to calm her in a way she hasn’t for long months now. And he simply draws her closer, doesn’t even need to ask her what’s wrong.

** **

The smell in the sheets and the colour of the walls are dragging up memories for him, too. The blind panic in Aurora’s eyes that night, only half-woken from her nightmare, and the heartbreaking loss that even though she had come back in body, the woman she had once been was gone forever.

He takes her hand in his and brushes his thumb against her wedding band – narrow, delicate, etched in an intricate pattern, and deliberately nothing like Helene Bauer’s.

“I’m here this time,” he murmurs into her hair. “But if you wake up again and you can’t remember, look for this.”

She nods, turns her face into his shoulder, and he slides his hands up her back, taking comfort as much as giving it.

Because he can’t quite shake the memory of that night, either. Her body pressed against his, curled together on the floor in this room. And though this time they’re warm and comfortable in the bed, he can’t help drawing the comparison, noticing the differences. All the differences. New pillow cases, small signs of wear around the room, a shift in placement of the throw rug. Changes in Aurora’s body, from her pregnancy and nursing and motherhood, from no longer needing to drive herself to the edge of survival in the field. Changes in his own body, too. And the overwhelming, all-encompassing difference in his heart.

“It’s been almost five years,” he says after a long moment. “I didn’t know, then, that life could be like this.”

She lifts her head a little at that, and he can feel her smile. “You’re happy.”

It’s not even a question.

He pokes her lightly in the ribs. “You are, too,” he reminds her. “Your nightmares will have to work a lot harder to reach you, this time.”

She catches the offending finger and laces her hand with his. “It just feels strange to be back. I’m not as… as broken as I was the last time I was here, but I’m not the girl I was when I lived in this house, either.”

“We’ll just have to see how the person you are now fits into this place, that’s all. Are you worried?”

She seems to think about this for a moment. “I don’t think so. It’s just the place, this time. The city, the house. Not my parents and my family, too.”

“We were both lost, the last time we were here. Looking for someplace to belong, after Camp X told us we no longer belonged in the field. We’re not lost anymore. We don’t… we don’t need anything from Montréal, from this house. It doesn’t have to be anything more than the place where you grew up, the place where your parents live.”

Aurora nods slowly against his shoulder, but doesn’t seem entirely convinced. “I want to love it here, though. It’s still a part of who I am.”

Alfred nods, and the solution seems simple to him, all of a sudden. Bring into this place the love and the joy they have fought for five years to build for themselves. He doesn’t know how to articulate that without sounding pat or condescending. But it’s the memory of how it felt to exist in the world the last time they were her that is so troubling to them both. They have climbed out of that darkness step by struggling step over a period of years, but the stark contrast now with the very beginning of that journey is hard to face. It picks at scabs and scars on their souls that have begun a slow process of healing, ones they work hard not to rip open any more.

In this room where all he can see are the one-for-one contrasts with the last awful night they spent in here, they need to create memories of love and passion, warmth and contact, family and safety.

And so he draws his hands up her sides, letting his fingertips rake her skin, takes her face and tips it up to his. Sees her eyes darken in response to the intensity in his own. And for a moment, he is aware of every separate thread in the symphony of sound and colour and texture that is Aurora, richer and deeper with every passing year, with every shared experience. And when he kisses her, when she reaches for him, pressing closer into his touch, the music between them chases the awful memories back into the shadows and helps to create a little slice of home.

** **

For the first few days, while Neil and Alice are with them, Mr. and Mrs. Luft keep the reunion to just the immediate family, and Aurora is grateful for that. She is looking forward to reconnecting with her cousins, to seeing her aunts and uncles, but while she gets her feet under her, while Éliane gets used to her Opa and her Mémé again, while Neil and Mags and Alice visit Montreal for the very first time, it’s nice to have time for it to be just them.

Alice has grown used to the muddle of languages the family speaks, and her French is slowly improving, but Mr. and Mrs. Luft make the effort to speak in English in order to include her, even when they’re not speaking directly to her. And their easy warmth towards her melts through Alice’s natural reserve in record time.

** **

The days are full and busy, almost from the moment they step off the train. Aurora enjoys the chance to show everyone around the city she grew up in, and her parents are thrilled to return the favour from their first visit to London and play tour guide for Neil this time around.

They scold him gently along the way for not inviting them to his wedding, and he just shakes his head.

“I would never expect you to come all the way across the ocean just for that. We didn’t want to make a fuss.”

They brush aside apologies and explanations both, but on Neil and Alice’s last evening in Montreal, Mr. and Mrs. Luft take their revenge.

Mrs. Luft had begged off the day’s explorations, claiming exhaustion after days packed with walking and late nights and running after Éliane. Aurora, concerned, offered to stay home with her, but Mrs. Luft had all but chased her out the door with the others.

And when they arrive back in the late afternoon, a celebratory dinner is laid out for Neil and Alice, complete with wedding cake and surprise guests – Harry and Emily are in the dining room with Mrs. Luft, helping to put on the finishing touches.

Even Aurora didn’t know they were coming, and the unexpected reunion brings on another round of tears.

“I’m sure you didn’t eat properly on the day, with the rationing still,” Mrs. Luft says, when they’re all gathered around the table and Alice is still protesting the fuss. “And we wanted to do this for you.”

“It’s too much,” Neil says finally, managing words for the first time since Mrs. Luft launched her surprise. “We’re not even…”

“We always wanted a big family,” Mr. Luft stops him gently, “but it didn’t work out that way for us. And so Aurora brought us one home instead. We’re all of us missing parts of the family we should have, one way or another. And so we do for each other, yes?”

Neil is still too flustered for words, so he simply raises his glass in a silent toast.

“To family,” Alfred offers.

And Neil has the chance to compose himself while everyone else drinks the toast, and the babble of conversation rises again around them.

** **

Harry can’t seem to stop teasing Mags during dinner, as everyone speaks over one another trying to catch up on everything all at once, about how grown up she is now.

“I turned my back for five minutes, and now look at you.”

But Aurora can’t help thinking the same thing about him. She can’t put her finger on exactly what about him has changed, but he is no longer a baby-faced boy barely out of his teens. It might be a new breadth in his shoulders or a slight squareness to his jaw, but he’s very much a grown man now, and it begins to feel a little less shocking to her that he’s about to get married.

And watching him, a little bit of sadness and a little bit of pride mixes in with the delight as he claims the limelight to introduce Emily to everyone properly. In a way, he’s the very first child that she and Alfred and Neil had a hand in caring for, and now he’s all grown up.

** **

They all stay up far too late into the night talking, and even dancing a little to records on Mr. Luft’s old gramophone. And it’s hard to say goodbye in the morning when Neil and Alice, Harry and Emily board the train for Toronto, even knowing they’re all going to see each other again in a week for Harry’s wedding.

But almost as soon as that part of the family has left, Mrs. Luft loses the battle she’s been fighting to hold off the rest of it, and the onslaught of uncles and aunts, cousins and children descends on the house.

Aurora visited with some of them during her short stay five years ago, though she was barely present in spirit at the time. For most of her extended family, though, she hasn’t spent time with them since she moved to Paris before the war. And even though they all know that Mags can’t possibly be hers, more than one elderly relative leans in to tell her how much Mags is like her, or how much Mags reminds them of her at that age. Aurora just thanks them and lets it pass, saves the stories to amuse Alfred with later.

And their confusion is understandable. Subjectively, it feels as though she’s been away from home long enough to have a child twice Mags’ age by now, and it must be the same for them – there are cousins, husbands, brothers missing from this part of her family, too. The war years lasted an eternity for everyone, distorted all appropriate sense of time passing.

** **

It feels strange to Aurora to be back in Montreal as a mother and wife. To sit with her cousins and participate in the talk about husbands and children in a way she was never able to before. Was never interested in before. But it’s strange in a good way. Her family reaches out across the gap of years, of absence, to lace her back into their midst as though she never left. Their warmth and community and acceptance is unconditional, even knowing she won’t be staying long.

She had fought against this embrace as a girl. Found it limiting, stifling. But now it’s a net, a framework, a support, to show her where she belongs, and it helps her, a little, to understand how she fits back into this city. Cradles her in the cadence of accent and dialect that speaks directly to her subconscious in tones of safety and home.

And maybe if husbands and babies were all there were to her world she would find it stifling all over again, but her career is waiting for her back in London, and she has a few meetings lined up with editors when she reaches New York, and so for the moment she is content simply to rest. To watch Mags make friends with her cousins’ children, watch them care for their younger siblings the way she and her cousins did when they were young. To hear Mags’ accent shift, as her French picks up a Québecois lilt and Québecois slang. To see her girls make a place for themselves here as well.

She sits on the porch with her mother through long summer afternoons, surrounded by an ever-shifting collection of aunts and cousins, and they take the time to catch up on all the things they’ve missed over the last two years. Repeating stories told in the endless letters exchanged between them, because it’s just wasn’t the same on paper somehow.

And it’s wonderful to have that time, just the adults together, but Aurora finds herself enjoying the ends of those afternoons just as much. When Éliane reaches for her from Mags’ arms as they come trooping back from their play with the cousins down the road, and Aurora gets to spend the hour before bedtime teasing out the stories of what Éliane got up to, the unexpected things that captured her interest that day.

She sits back on the bed in the room she slept in as a girl with her baby in her arms, sleepy and soft, and finally gives up trying to tie all the contradictory threads of her life into any kind of a neat bow. Rocks her daughter to sleep to the soft buzz of summer insects through the window.

** **

Aurora, Alfred, and the girls take the train to Toronto a few days before Harry’s wedding so they can have a little time to spend with him before they lose him to wedding and honeymoon. Aurora is shamefully grateful her parents have been invited, too, and will follow them to Toronto in a few days, so she doesn’t have to face any goodbyes just yet.

Toronto is the one city in which they haven’t arranged any family outings. Neil and Aurora had a chance to look around a little during their time at Camp X, Alice fit her exploring in during the preceding week, so that now Alfred can have as little exposure to upsetting memories of his youth as possible.

Even so, he has been drawn and pale since they stepped off the train, and Aurora pulls out her arsenal of tricks to make the hotel room feel like home. She dabs her perfume around the room, put a few drops in the sheets, swaps out the soap in the bathroom for a bar she brought from her parents’ house, and she’s shameless about using Éliane to keep him distracted. And slowly the lines of tension around his eyes begin to ease. There’s no hope of reclaiming this city from the years of loneliness and isolation he suffered here, no way that a few good memories will begin to drown out the bad ones, so all that can be done is to help him endure these few days as comfortably as possible.

And at least in the lead-up to a wedding, they’re not wanting for things to do. They all pitch in during the day to help out with final wedding preparations, which keeps Alfred’s hands and his mind occupied. And they spend the long summer evenings all together, just talking, trying to cram years of stories into the few nights they have, time that feels precious enough even Alfred seems to be enjoying it.

There is enough to talk about, thankfully, that the conversation never seems to delve back into the war years, and with not only Mags, but Alice and Emily present, their avoidance of the subject is now enforced. But it does turn out to be easier an easier hurdle to accommodate than Aurora expected. Where once their talk circled regularly back to events from their past – maybe not in specifics, but in veiled references, in weighted silences, like a bad tooth they just can’t keep from probing – they are now able to let those years lie almost undisturbed. Only once do they need to silence one another with quick glances, to turn the conversation aside. And when Emily opens her mouth to pursue the abruptly unanswered question, it is Alice who steps in to distract her.

Aurora’s not sure what Alice thinks she understands about the situation, or how far Neil might have bent the rules, but she’s grateful for the support. And the two women seem to be building an unspoken language of their own, which is probably for the best. Alice has made good on her promise to befriend Emily during the week she and Neil spent in Toronto. Aurora catches them side by side in private discussions more than once over the days the spend all together, and it adds a new depth, a new dynamic to their family.

And Aurora makes her own effort to get to know Emily, this new sister of hers. Finds her to be pragmatic, insightful, quick, a woman who doesn’t miss much, doesn’t let much get past her. But she’s kind, too, and Harry brings out a softer, funnier side in her that Aurora would never have believed she had. Harry has found a partner who will keep him honest, remind him who he is, and Aurora is relieved to see the ways in which they fit together. Her boy is in good hands.

** **

Even in the chaos of preparing for the wedding, Harry takes the time to introduce Mags to his oldest niece. The two girls have been writing letters back and forth since Harry’s first visit to England back when the family was still living in the small flat, but this is their first meeting in person.

Watching the girls navigate their initial shyness reminds Aurora of her rare childhood visits with Lotte, struggling to negotiate the paradox of intimacy and strangeness in those moments of reconnection. But the girls become firm friends while the grown ups are still on their first cup of coffee, and remain inseparable for the rest of their stay in Toronto as Mags is folded into yet another collection of Canadian cousins.

** **

Harry is the only one of them to have a traditional wedding complete with a church service and a proper reception. The day is not extravagant by any means, but it does Aurora’s heart good to see the amount of family Harry and Emily have around them. A support system for them, since the team lives so far away.

And because they can’t be with him most of the time, Aurora finds the rituals of the day feel necessary here in a way they didn’t for her own wedding. She takes a comfort from them that she can’t properly articulate. And the nature of the day, as a milestone, a turning point, gives her a chance to appreciate properly how unlikely, how incredible it is that they have made it this far. The four of them who survived. Five years out of the field, and they’re all together again. Healthy. Happy. Even Alfred seems able to put aside his demons for the day, his smile easy and unshadowed.

Not every day will be like this. Their memories, their griefs, aren’t gone, merely quiet. But a day like this can exist, now. A whole string of days like this. Life can be normal, mundane, pleasant for weeks, for months at a time. And it wasn’t so long ago, sitting at the edge of Lake Ontario on the grounds of Camp X just trying to remember how to be still, that the very idea of living any kind of life at all was incomprehensible to her.

And so she holds on tight to the moments that the day provides. Harry standing at the front of the church during the ceremony, handsome in his dark suit. Neil and Alice, heads together, whispering during dinner, Neil's hand resting lightly across Alice's shoulders. Éliane's joy when the music starts playing. Mags' first dance with a boy. Harry's first dance with his wife. And the rare chance she herself gets to dance with Alfred. Memories she will hold forever alongside the photos Harry gave her from her own wedding day.


** **

coda


Aurora and Alfred have been hoping from month to month for a while now that lightning might strike a second time, though she tries not to let herself be too disappointed when, month after month, it doesn’t happen. Her mother’s inability to have the large family she wanted, not to mention the length of time it took for Éliane to come along, seem to indicate that conception is not a simple matter for them. But she’s surprised by how much she wants it. Wants the chance to experience a pregnancy without fear, without crippling doubt. Wants another little butterfly to bring into the world that holds a piece of Alfred and a piece of her.

Since they left London, she’s done her best not to think about it, though, and deflected the question whenever it came up among her cousins and her aunts. She wants to enjoy every moment of this trip, every moment with her family, particularly since she’s not sure whether she’ll ever be able to come back again.

But whether it was the magic of home, or her very inattentiveness that was the key, within a few days of arriving in New York, Aurora begins to suspect she is pregnant again. It’s all she can do not to hold her breath for fear of disrupting it. She doesn’t dare to say anything, not even to Alfred, until she’s certain. Until a few more days have passed.

But she should have known better.

Things are chaotic as they settle into a new apartment in a new city, once again trying to cram too many people into too small a space. But he takes her arm in a rare moment alone, and the look on his face is hope and fear combined in a way that makes her heart ache.

“You feel different,” he says.

She steps closer, knots her fingers in his shirt. “It’s too early to be sure. But, I think...”

He nods, not even willing to let himself smile yet, but his grip on her arm tightens, just a little, and his thumb sweeps its usual arc against her skin.

“Okay.”

They don’t mention it again, though they’re both now watching for signs, and Alfred does his best not to hover around her as though she’s made of glass. But soon enough the answer is clear to them both. Nausea and fatigue. Occasional faintness. And a slow shift in key to the sound of her movements, a subtle shift to the general flavour of her presence.

Chapter Text


Alfred and Aurora's second child is born at the end of March, a little girl they name Anaïs Claire. Her eventual nickname, the safe form for Alfred to use, comes not from Mags this time, but from Éliane, who can't quite get her little tongue around the syllables at first and calls the baby Niss, which the adults eventually adapt to Nissa.

Despite her somewhat dramatic entrance into the world – the baby arrives more than two weeks early in an almost brutally short labour – Anaïs reveals herself to be quieter and less of a daredevil than her sister, though just as determined. By the time she grows too big for the crib, she has also developed firm opinions about where she would rather sleep. No matter where they put her down, she climbs out to get into bed with her sister, so that in the end they don't even bother getting her a bed of her own.

And Éliane, who is finding a new pride, a new identity as the big girl in the house now that she has a little sister to look out for, doesn't seem to mind.

** **

Mags has always done well at school – she's a bright girl, and curious, and her enduring passion for books gives her an advantage as well – so Aurora and Neil both encourage Mags to keep on with her classes, even when some of her friends leave school to take jobs instead.

And when Mags makes the decision to go on and study nursing once she finishes secondary school, Aurora is fiercely proud of her. Even when it becomes clear that as part and parcel of her training, Mags will have to go and live in a dormitory on site with the other students. After more than eight years, a home without Mags in it is unimaginable to Aurora, but she does her best to put a good face on her heartache for Mags' sake.

Because Mags herself, though excited, grows more and more agitated as the impending goodbyes draw nearer.

"We're not going anywhere," Aurora tells her, over and over. "You can come home to see us as often as you like."

Mags nods, but Aurora can see she's not convinced. And that's understandable, though Aurora thinks her heart might tear itself to pieces in her chest. Mags left her family behind once before, and all of them but Neil died while she was gone. It's a truth none of them will speak aloud, and a fear that only time will ease. But even the return of nightmares she hasn't had since she was a child don't change Mags' mind about leaving home, and Aurora's pride in her only grows.

** **

Mags' first few weeks away from home are bumpy for everyone. Neil and Alfred are heartbroken. Anaïs is still too little to understand, upset mostly by the upset around her, but Éliane is inconsolable, asking after Mags constantly, counting the days until her first visit home. And Aurora feels as though she has to keep reminding herself that no one has died. That Mags hasn't gone that far. That they can write each other letters. Speak on the telephone. That this is a part of Mags' growing up, and Aurora will have to go through this twice more, yet. And that maybe she needs to write a letter to her own mother, begging her forgiveness.

But the tenor of homesickness does begin to fade from Mags' letters, and she writes about new friends and her new world and all the new things she's learning. And Aurora tries her best to be happy for her, though home still feels empty without her.

** **

Alfred's work and Aurora's both take the family to Paris regularly through the girls' growing-up years, a fact for which Aurora is profoundly grateful. She speaks to her children exclusively in French at home, but once both of them are in school it becomes more of a battle to get them to speak it in return.

Spending weeks or months at a time in France, however, makes some inroads into reversing that. The girls attend a French school while they're in Paris, and in addition to learning reading and spelling, math and history in French, they also make friends with the children in the neighbourhood and learn how to play in French as well.

Alfred and Aurora can't always rent the same apartment while they're in the city, but they make the effort to return to the same neighbourhood, to put the girls back into the same school, to keep the disruption to their lives as minimal as possible. And as they get older, the girls come to believe Paris is as much their home as London is.

** **

There are still parts of Paris they don't visit, particularly in the west end of the city. Alfred's bad memories don't fade with time, though he and Aurora make an effort to build up a store of good ones with the girls in other parts of the city to go alongside them, for him to lean on when he needs them.

The girls know papa sometimes has trouble with his synesthesia, know their presence helps him in the same way maman's does. And Aurora is continually moved by the devotion with which they look out for him. It never once occurs to them to ask why, to wonder about triggers, or what his trouble is exactly. That's just the way papa is. And so, unlike that first trip to Paris with Mags, neither Alfred nor Aurora has to answer uncomfortable questions about their history with the city, about why they were there, about what it is that upsets Alfred. Which is a relief, of sorts. The awful conversation about their war years can be safely put off until the girls are somewhat older.

Or perhaps for even longer than that. Because unlike Mags, who lived through those years, who was broken herself and knew too well the questions to ask, Éliane and Anaïs know nothing of war. And Aurora can't help hoping that they will never quite find the way to ask those questions that leaves her no choice but to answer them directly. She never wants to be the one to introduce war and death into her daughters' lives.

** **

Over the years, it becomes something of a running joke within the family that Alfred will always wave aside questions of gifts at birthdays and Christmas.

"I have everything I could possibly want," he says, whenever anyone asks. Though Aurora knows this is not strictly true.

But she does understand the sentiment. They lived with so little for so long, it seems silly to waste money on things just for the sake of buying them. And when family members inevitably turn to her for help with gift ideas for him, she does her best to steer them towards small items that will delight him.

The one item she does occasionally see him eyeing with any kind of longing, though, is too expensive, too extravagant, even for a communal gift, even if all the rest of them went in together. With Alfred's salary, the family could just about afford one, should they make the decision to buy it, but Alfred would never, ever raise the question of purchasing something that expensive for himself. It would just never occur to him.

Aurora decides in the end, though, this may be for the best. She wants to be the one to do this for him.

And so she begins to put small amounts of money aside from each payment that comes in. From the publication of her articles, from the royalties on her books. It’s a long-term project, one that gives her pleasure in anticipation. A secret so tiny and drawn out, she manages to keep it, even from him. She involves Neil only in the very final stages of planning, and then only to help coordinate the logistics of getting it into the house.

And so, when Alfred arrives home from work on the day of his forty-fifth birthday, there is a piano waiting for him quietly in the dining room.

It is not new, but it has been lovingly cared for by its previous owner, an older woman whose worsening arthritis means she can no longer play it herself. The wood remains carefully polished and gleams in the low lamplight. Aurora had asked Alice to take the girls out of the house for the afternoon, still wary of surprising Alfred after all this time. Not wanting the girls’ excited energy to drive up the tension of the moment. They will be able to share in the excitement once he’s used to the idea.

So she is alone to witness the perfect moment of his surprise, quiet and delighted and overwhelmed.

"You did this?" he says finally.

And Aurora thinks she might start to cry just from the look on his face.

"I know you miss having one to play."

She crosses to slide her arms around him, and while he leans into her touch, there's a tension in his body that tells her he's working himself up to some variation on 'you shouldn't have.'

"Don't say it," she interrupts him quietly. "I wanted to do this for you."

"It's too much."

"No it isn't. It's nowhere near enough."

"Aurora..."
 
"Play something for me."

It takes a little encouragement, but he finally allows himself to surrender to the pull the instrument has on him. Sits down on the bench and opens the lid. Runs his fingers across the keys in a silent caress. She drifts up behind his left shoulder, lets her hands trail lightly through his hair. Waits for the harmony of that old familiar chord.

But she should have known better. He doesn't need a piano for that anymore.

He plays music instead, a piece by Satie, then Debussy, then Bach, and she can almost feel the joy humming under his skin. She loves to watch him play. Hasn't had the chance in years, not since they visited her parents in Canada. He spent time every day of that trip noodling on the piano she learned on as a child.

He trails off sooner than she'd like, though, with a rueful grimace.

"What is it?"

"I'm rusty."

"Not for much longer. You can practice as much as you want to."

He reaches up and catches her hand. "Now you."

She laughs, but steps in to sit next to him when he makes room for her on the bench. "If you think you're rusty, I'm not sure there are words for the state I'm in."

"It doesn't matter."

"Are you sure?" she asks. Her missed notes are likely to be painful for him.

But he just nudges her. So she picks a simple piece, a folk song her mother taught her, and launches in. Manages to stumble from the beginning to the end, and the tune is recognizable at least.

He takes her hands as they fall away from the keys, shifts on the bench to face her, but doesn't speak. As though he's reading her face for clues as to how she made this magic happen.

"Happy birthday," she says quietly.

"Thank you." He releases her hand to brush fingers across her cheek. "Aurora."

She leans in and kisses him. Trusts that he will understand without words. Anything she can do to bring him joy. And this is such a little thing in the face of what he does for everyone else, every day, so quietly it almost goes unnoticed.

He's smiling like he can't quite help it when he eases back. He does understand.

He kisses her again, but the moment is somewhat trampled when the front door crashes open. Alice is back with the children, and the girls come flying into the dining room with their coats still on.

"Did you like your present, Papa?"

Alfred scoops Anaïs into his lap, and Éliane thumps against his side.

"Will you teach me?" she asks.

"Me too!"

"Can you play us a song?"

Alfred is laughing at the centre of the whirlwind of energy when Alice appears in the doorway with a rueful smile.

"I hope that was enough time, because I couldn't hold them off any longer."

Aurora offers a wry smile of her own. "Close enough."

She stands up so Éliane can have her place beside Alfred on the piano bench and follows Alice into the kitchen to put the kettle on, while Alfred struggles to play Frère Jacques for the girls around a lapful of delighted Anaïs.

** **

But it's later in the evening, when the novelty has worn off a little, when Anaïs is getting sleepy, curled up in Aurora's lap, and Éliane is doing her best to pretend she isn't, perched in one of the dining room chairs with a book, that Alfred drifts back to the piano and plays quietly just for himself. Satie again, a few classical pieces, on to jazz, and other songs Aurora couldn't even name. Ten minutes in, she's sure he's forgotten the rest of the family is even there.

And both girls go still, listening to him. It could be just that they've never heard music like that played live in front of them before. And, rusty or not, Alfred is certainly a skilled pianist. But Aurora likes to think that perhaps they can taste or smell or feel their papa's joy in the music, that maybe the music gives them a piece of Alfred they've never known before.

And so she lets bedtime come and go without comment. Lets the girls stay where they are for as long as Alfred keeps playing. Hopes that one day this will be one of their happy memories, something in Alfred's e-flat blue to get them through their own dark days.