The most frustrating thing about this entire situation was that Gilbert was exactly this kind of person. That is to say, not the kind of person who would deliberately fake his own death to cause pain to his family and loved ones (although, yes, that was a side effect)— But the kind of person who absolutely didn’t do things by halves. Hodgins could go a few months or years without seeing him and then he’d turn up with a child soldier or go and win the battle to end the war, no big deal.
Which was why, when he came home one night to find Gilbert sitting at his dining room table in the dark, the first words out of his mouth were, “This is a real fucked up thing you did.”
It would be more accurate to say that he’d come home and realized there had been an intruder. He drew his gun before unlocking the door and snuck in with near-silent footsteps. What was the saying? You could take the man out of the army, but…
He rounded the corner to find himself aiming at Gilbert’s head. For a second, he’d thought he was seeing things, and then he’d thought that maybe it was Dietfried with a haircut, because there was no way.
Gilbert held up his hands with a pained expression and murmured, “Hodgins.”
Hodgins lowered his gun slowly, taking in the black patch over Gilbert’s eye, the hollowness in his cheeks he could see even in the dark, even from here. He blinked, but Gilbert remained. No fucking way. No way his friend was here, almost two years after he’d been presumed dead.
“Hodgins, it’s me. Gilbert.”
And then— “This is a real fucked up thing you did.”
“Do you? I thought you were dead— We all thought you were dead. Your parents, your brother, Violet,” he ranted, barely noticing his feet moving until he was nearly nose-to-nose with Gilbert with a firm grip on his collar. “You let us think you were dead, and I’d kill you myself right now, if I hadn’t missed you so much.”
He dragged Gilbert in for a hug, and Gilbert laughed wetly against his shoulder.
“Don’t laugh. I’m still furious,” Hodgins muttered at the air behind him.
“Sorry.” It sounded genuine.
Hodgins let go, leaving his hands on Gilbert’s arms— One of them adamant silver, like Violet’s, by the feel of it. He frowned. “What happened?”
“I can’t hide you here forever,” Hodgins said, the next night.
“I’m not asking you to. Just a few more days,” Gilbert said.
“A few more days,” Hodgins repeated. “Are you going to tell Violet?”
Gilbert fell silent at that, looking down at the table between them. Hodgins kept his mouth shut, but Gilbert had had all of two years to think about and process this moment, while he’d had less than 24 hours— It was hardly fair for Gilbert to stop answering now.
“You… told me yesterday that she’s doing well,” Gilbert said tentatively.
Hodgins nodded, feeling that familiar ache in his chest when he thought about what this was going to do to her. “She is. She’s doing wonderfully. She’s healing, and writing, and making friends and making a big difference in people’s lives— She’s worlds different from the girl she was when I brought her home two years ago. You’d be so proud of her if you could see her.”
Gilbert smiled. “You’ve taken good care of her.”
“Of course I have!” Hodgins said, a little indignant.
“Then what do you think I should do? Don’t lie, I know you’ve been thinking about it all day,” Gilbert added, when Hodgins opened his mouth.
On the one hand, Hodgins didn’t want him to tell Violet. It was selfish, he knew, but Violet had come so far. She was processing the grief, and the trauma, and she was— if not exactly accepting his death, she was at least accepting his absence. If Gilbert came back into her life now, what would happen to her progress? Violet had only just accepted her right to live, and on good days it seemed like she was getting there with her right to autonomy. Hodgins didn’t think he could stand to see her go back to completely ignoring her own needs and asking for orders. Even worse, Hodgins knew he wouldn’t be able to stand it if Violet started questioning why Gilbert hadn’t come back sooner and reached a conclusion that she wasn’t useful.
Then again, Violet obviously loved Gilbert and continued to hold onto hope that she would one day see him again.
“You should tell her,” Hodgins said. “But you have to tell her everything.”
“Not that. You have to tell her about your thoughts and your feelings. You have to help her understand, no matter how long it takes, so that she doesn’t try to become your tool again.”
Gilbert’s face fell, hurt, but Hodgins didn’t apologize.
“You really have taken good care of her,” Gilbert said.
Violet had been in Leiden for several days, currently between jobs which required travel. There was something comfortable about staying in Leiden, something familiar about coming back to the same bedroom in the attic at the post office, where she kept the small plush dog from President Hodgins on her desk.
What was unusual was how early the President was here. She heard his footsteps outside her door, and then he knocked.
“Violet-chan? Are you up?”
She opened the door and looked at him. His eyebrows were high, mouth tense— Signs of surprise and worry. “Is something wrong?” she asked.
“No, nothing’s wrong,” he said, which was at odds with what his facial expression looked like. “I’m giving you the day off work for a special assignment.”
“Is it a day off work if you still give me an assignment?” Violet asked.
The President laughed, and some of the tension around his mouth eased. “Okay, okay, you got me there. Just come straight down to my office when you’re ready, okay?”
“I’ll be right there,” she said.
His door was already closed when she arrived, and it was quiet inside. She knocked, and he was at the door promptly, opening it just a crack and then opening it wider when he saw her to let her in.
The President said something, but all she could focus on was the man in front of his desk.
He was seated with his back to the door. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with black hair and a thin black strap tied around his head at an angle. He wore a black glove on one hand, but both hands clung loosely to the armrests of his chair. Violet, who had spent years following her Major’s back, was certain that she’d know him anywhere.
And now that he seemed so near, she couldn’t bring herself to call out to him.
Her heart pounded in her ears, drowning everything else out, and her vision started to blur. She picked her way carefully around to face him. He had an eyepatch over his right eye, but his left eye was the same as she remembered, the same color as her brooch.
“Major,” she said, quietly.
“Violet.” He smiled and extended his bare hand to her. “It’s been a long time.”
She took two small steps toward him to take his hand and sunk to her knees in front of him, pressing his hand against her forehead and closing her eyes. His hand was warm, and the calluses on his palm and fingers scratched gently against her skin when he moved to cup her cheek.
“It’s you,” she murmured. “It’s really you.”
“Violet-chan,” the President’s voice came from somewhere above her. “Please take a seat.”
Gradually, the story came out. There were parts that even he had to piece together afterwards, where he could only make guesses at what had truly happened. He had been trapped under the rubble at Intense after the bomb exploded, and as a result wasn’t able to be found during the initial search and rescue. When the nuns returned to the cathedral to help with the cleanup and rebuilding efforts, one of them had found him unconscious and barely clinging to life, miraculously protected by a few larger pieces of rubble. His dogtags were gone by then, and they didn’t know if he would survive the transfer to the military hospital. For that matter, the military hospital might not accept him without any identification. They moved him to another church in Bociaccia where he was hidden from the world and gradually nursed back to health. It was too late to do anything about his eye or his arm, and he’d suffered a back injury which left him with a protracted recovery as he learned how to use all of his limbs again.
Violet sat quietly as he spoke, unable to look away from his eyes, keeping his hand clasped between hers, although she couldn’t feel it as anything more than pressure and resistance against her prosthetics.
“I tried to come back,” he said, squeezing her hands.
When he was well enough, he traveled to Enchaine to have his prosthetic made— By then, of course, Violet was long gone from Enchaine. Long weeks passed as he learned to use his prosthetic and continued relearning to walk. When one of the nurses there said he was planning to travel to Leiden, the Major had requested information. If he could find Hodgins, he could find Violet.
The nurse returned with stories of a successful postal company and a talented Auto-Memory Doll, showing him one of the CH postal company advertisements.
“I thought you would be better off without me,” the Major explained, voice cracking for the first time in his story. “Both of you were doing well, and I had taken too much from you already. I thought you were better off without me, and I knew then that I couldn’t come home again. No one could know I was alive, because that knowledge would spread, and I knew both you and Hodgins would be too smart to leave that kind of information alone.”
“Damn right,” the President muttered.
“But you did come back,” Violet said. “Why?”
“I saw the news about what you did for the peace treaty. By staying away, I almost lost you again. And I realized that even if I could only see you from afar, I had to see you again. I arrived in Leiden two nights ago. I didn’t know what to do,” he said quietly. “I didn’t know if I should see you or keep myself out of your life. But even that was about me, trying to make the best decision for you. You deserve to have a choice, Violet.”
It was easy to sort out the facts, to string together the timeline of how the Major had lived for these last two years. But it was difficult to try to fathom what he was asking of her, and it was even more difficult to try to put words to her feelings. She had written him a letter for the air show, but none of those words were coming to her now.
A letter— That wasn’t a bad idea. She was an Auto-Memory Doll now, after all.
“Major, may I write you a letter?”
Dear Major Gilbert Bougainvillea,
I’ve hoped for this day for so long. Ever since the day I woke up in the hospital without you, I’ve been hoping to see you again. I have so much to say, but it’s difficult to find the words.
Do you still remember the last orders you gave me? You told me to live and be free, and you told me that you loved me.
At the time, I didn’t understand, but I am learning now. I am starting to understand what you meant when you told me you loved me. I am starting to understand what my feelings are.
Please don’t say that I would be better off without you. Major, it is not like you to say untrue things. You’ve given me this life. You asked President Hodgins to take me in after the war, and by doing so you’ve given me the chance to learn and the chance to understand.
I may not have had a choice back then, but if I had to choose again, I would choose the way that lets me remain by your side.
It was nearly dark by the time she finished. The President stopped by her room to offer her food and ask how she was doing, but every time he came, she reassured him that she was doing well and just needed a little more time. She sealed the letter with her CH postal company wax seal and made her way back to the President’s office, where he and the Major were waiting patiently.
The Major took the letter carefully from her, as though it were a very precious object. He broke the wax seal and unfolded the paper.
“Violet, would you read it to me?”
She did. Being prosthetic, her hands themselves didn’t shake, but her whole body seemed to be shaking by the end of it. She refolded the paper, but before she could hand it back to him, he pulled her into a hug.
“Violet,” he said, voice on the verge of tears. “Violet. I only gave you those orders because I couldn’t see any other way to convince you that your life was worth living. It was the only way I knew to get through to you.”
“I understand now,” she said, through her own tears. “I was your tool—”
“Violet, no—” the Major interrupted, at the same time that the President let out a horrified, “Violet!”
The Major let go of her as if he’d been burnt, holding her at arm’s length and gripping her shoulders tightly.
She shook her head. “Please let me finish. Back then, I was your tool, and I could only ever see myself as your tool, but you never treated me like that. You treated me like I was a person. And because of that, I can now understand that…”
Her heart was pounding in her ears again, and she was gripping the letter so tightly part of it had crumpled in her hands. She was afraid to look at him, but she needed to see how he would react to her next words, so she took a deep, shaking breath and looked up at him.
“I’m not a tool. I don’t need orders anymore. But your last orders were more than just orders, they were your hopes and wishes, so I hope you don’t mind that I’ll keep following them.”
The Major let out a sound that was partly between a sigh and a sob, and crushed her to his chest in a tight hug again. Violet couldn’t tell if they were shaking because of the Major’s crying or her own, or both, but it didn’t really matter.
“That’s right, Violet. That’s right,” he said, his hands stroking up and down her back. “Thank you.”
It felt as if a great weight had been lifted off her shoulders, as if she could breathe properly for the first time since this morning. So she breathed, and breathed, and clung to him.
He just held her a little closer and whispered those words again: “I love you.”