warnings for discussion of mental illness, specifically depression.
Double beds are lonely things when you're the only person in them.
Whilst Freddie doesn't regret kicking Alec out of the bed and onto the couch downstairs in favour of having some space to himself for a little while, he does have to admit that the missing weight on the other side of the mattress is starting to bother him. Just a little.
He knows that Alec would come back to bed if asked, would even go as far as to make sure that they never touched whilst they slept. Freddie reaches over and grabs his phone off the nightstand, squinting as the light hits his eyes. One of these days, he swears, he's going to turn on the automatic brightness setting on the damn thing. But not today.
3:00. Two hours. Damn it. His sleep schedule is slowly getting better, but old habits die hard. Especially when said bad habits happen to be a history of insomnia.
Surprisingly, it hadn't kicked in until after the war had finished; as if the trainwreck that was his life hadn't really hit him until didn't have to actively worry about losing it.
Now, Freddie's plagued by short stretches of sleep, interrupted by long expanses of staring at the ceiling. He's talked to his therapist about it, even started imagery rehearsal therapy to try and change some of the nightmares. Like everything else, it's working, but it's working incredibly slowly. Don't take anything the wrong way; Freddie's glad that they're doing anything at all, but there are days where he feels like he's never going to get this burden off his back.
Freddie tosses the phone back onto the nightstand, spreads out like a starfish, and starts staring at the ceiling. He'll fall eventually. It may not be for a while, and it may not be for very long, but he'll fall asleep eventually. He just has to hope that the dreams don't get too shocking when he does. Even though he's safe in the knowledge that everyone he loves is safe and sound, in no risk of stepping on a landmine or getting stabbed again or whatever it is his mind decides to come up with this time, he still can't keep them away. Freddie tries not to think about too much; not whilst he's awake, anyway.
He checks his phone again sometime later.
An hour has passed.
That's the moment that Freddie knows that those two fleeting hours are all the sleep he's going to get tonight.
He tosses the covers off with one soft move of his hand, yanking himself up and around, planting his feet firmly on the floor. Grounding himself.
Breathe in. Count to seven. Hold it. Count to four. Breathe out. Count to eleven.
In. Seven. Hold. Four. Out. Eleven.
Repeat. Over and over. For as long as it takes to feel okay again.
Never mind that he'll never really be okay again, right? The years will drag on and on in front of him, and he'll go running and running after this far-off mirage until the cold sets into his bones and he collapses again under the strain of it all, and -
Fuck this. He needs a glass of water. And possibly something to eat; he's skipped dinner again.
Freddie inches out of the room and down the stairs. It's all too easy to tiptoe around; the years of training hammered into his very bones serves him well, even now. It doesn't really matter, actually. No matter how quiet he is, somebody's going to wake up. Traitors make light sleepers, and they've got three of those in the house.
Henry and Frédéric will sleep well enough, no doubt, as will the children. Amelia and Thea will fare a little worse, being on permanent standby for their children poking at the doors, seeking comfort. Freddie almost wants to laugh at the thought of it. Nightmares are for children, aren't they? Not something that a twenty-six-year-old man should still be in therapy for.
Pathetic. It's pathetic.
He's pathetic, because -
No. Bad Freddie.
That's another thing he's working on: stopping those putdowns before he reaches the point where he wants to sit on the floor and wait for the ground to just swallow him up.
Come on. Just focus on the task at hand, Freddie. Satiate your hunger. Ignore the fact that you've been doing this for the last week and you really need to stop because it's not healthy and if you keep going like this you'll throw yourself out of whack again and you remember what happened the last time you did that?
He reaches the kitchen without waking anyone up - he thinks. If he has, no one's come out to complain about it, and he counts that as some sort of victory. At this point, he'll take as many of those as he can get, even if they're only these little things.
He leaves the light off. There's an odd sort of comfort to be found in the darkness. Sure, it's always brought its own brand of terror for Freddie, but that's only when he can't do anything to stop it. He's scared of dreams because he can never change them. He was scared in the trenches because he knew that the people just beyond the hill were primed and able to kill him, just as much as he was able to kill them.
That's not the case anymore. Nothing in this room is able to hurt him, nothing able to steal him or the people he loves away.
As long as he remembers that, Freddie doesn't mind being in the dark. It's better than being exposed by the light. Goodness only knows what he'd find if he looked in the mirror.
He shuffles over to the fridge, pulling it open and blinking as the gold light assaults his eyes again. He still hates the fact that he realises that it's gold before he even realises that it's bright. The years he's spent away haven't gotten rid of that little trait at all, and Freddie's never thought it important enough to raise with Anne. It's annoying, sure, but it's not something that causes him any sort of hindrance. Freddie has far bigger fish to fry.
He pulls out the first Tupperware on the top shelf, the one specially reserved for him. Even though he's working to fix it, Alec knows that Freddie has a habit of eating dinner at 4:00 in the morning, and always leaves his portion in a Tupperware in a fridge for him to microwave later. It's not the most healthy of routines, but it's what they have to do for the time being until things look up. That's going to be a long time coming, so for now, it'll do.
He puts the Tupperware in the microwave, sets it to two minutes, and presses start. Gold again. He leans back against the stretch of counter next to the microwave and loses himself in the low hum as the turntable spins around and around, blasting radiation at the food inside. It's during those two minutes that Freddie realises that he doesn't even know what's inside. He's pretty sure that he opened the box—yes, he did, because if he reaches over just a little he can feel the lid there—but he's so used to going through the motions without paying any real attention to what it is that he's doing that the finer details have been lost on him.
It doesn't really matter, anyway. Freddie's lived in this house long enough to know that anything that Alec makes is sure to taste divine. And Freddie's not just saying that because they're getting married in three months.
The timer beeps and Freddie tenses up. Alec is on the couch two rooms over, and even though Freddie was careful enough not to wake him up with his movement through the house, he's almost certainly going to wake up with this. Freddie braces himself for the sound of shuffling footsteps inching ever closer, followed by the inevitable light. Any moment now…
It doesn't come. Freddie waits, counts to a hundred, but the footsteps never come and Freddie stays there, alone in the dark. He counts to a hundred again to make absolutely sure.
When the silence prevails, Freddie turns around and grabs a plate from one of the drawers. He makes sure to set it on the counter as quiet as he can manage, waits a few seconds to make sure the silence continues, then opens the microwave and pulls out the Tupperware, and looks down to see what it is.
The light helps somewhat, but the smell hits him immediately, bathing his nose. Spaghetti bolognese. He hasn't had that in a while.
He grabs a fork, before dumping himself down into the chair nearest to the counter. They have a dining room, a rather ornate one too, but Freddie honestly doesn't have the willpower to walk all the way there when there's a perfectly good table right there in the kitchen that he can have his dinner at; or whatever the hell this is.
He jabs his fork into the spaghetti and twirls it around, bringing it up to his mouth when he feels like it's enough.
Once the morsel is safely tucked between his cheeks, Freddie sits back, chews, and lets himself indulge in this. Like he said, anything Alec makes is divine. Even reheated spaghetti.
He's on his third mouthful when it happens.
It's not fast, or sudden, or like anything else that goes bump in the night. Somehow, that just serves to make it even more terrifying.
What it is is the fridge door opening, ever so slowly, casting a glow on the floor in front of it.
Now, Freddie's not stupid; he's not young and foolish enough anymore to believe in things without seeing them for himself. Even though his mind immediately leaps to the conclusion that there's a ghost in his house, he knows that there are probably a hundred better explanations than that one.
That being said, Freddie's seen ghosts for himself, courtesy of one Frederick Ashbridge. He wouldn't put it past the world to taunt him with a ghost of his past. He just has to hope that it's not Jack. If it's Jack, Freddie might actually have to bang the house down to get rid of him. He knows there are several people here who would be more than willing.
The fridge door continues to open, and it's near all the way when Freddie decides to dart to the doorway and turn on the light.
He braces himself for whatever the universe has to throw at him, and for the inevitable fallout when someone finally comes in and realises that he's done this for what must be the seventh night in a row.
It takes him a moment to blink light out of his eyes, but when they do decide to finally focus on whatever's there -
"Theodora?" he asks, hands against the wall as he covers his back and stares at her in confusion. He rubs his eyes; perhaps this is all just some weird happenstance.
No, that's definitely his six-year-old daughter, standing there with a carton of milk in her hands and staring at him as she's been caught red-handed.
To be entirely fair, judging by the way she shoves the carton behind her at the sight of him, she probably has.
"Darling? What are you doing down here?" Theodora just keeps staring at him, and Freddie sighs. "Do you want some milk?" Theodora shakes her head frantically. "Why have you got the milk carton, then?" Theodora goes back to looking sheepish, and they stay like that for a moment before Freddie sighs, taking a few steps towards her and holding his hand out. "Can I have the carton?"
Theodora passes the carton to him and Freddie places it onto the counter. Then he bends down so that the two of them are eye to eye. "Why did you come down, darling?" Theodora mutters something that Freddie doesn't quite catch, so he smiles and repeats the question.
Freddie can't help but laugh. "And may I ask what that has to do with the milk?"
Theodora shifts about on the spot, eyes darting around the room, looking anywhere but at him. "Mama makes hot chocolate when I can't sleep. It helps."
Freddie narrows his eyes. "So you wanted some hot chocolate to try and get to sleep then?" Theodora nods frantically, waving her hands out in front of her in an attempt to convince him that she doesn't have anything else in them. "Why didn't you ask Mama to make you some?"
"I did," she replies. "But that was a week ago, and I don't want to keep waking her up."
"What do you mean?" he asks, and Theodora's sheepish face returns. "Oh. You've had to do this more than a few times, haven't you?" Theodora nods. "Will you answer me one question, darling?" She nods again. "Why can't you sleep?"
Theodora curls herself up, coming to rest on her haunches. The movement reminds Freddie of the way he used to curl up when he was younger, doing his best to tear himself away from everything and block the world out. He remembers how he used to feel, and as he looks on helplessly at his daughter, no doubt experiencing all of the fear that he knows far too well. He wants to reach out and wrap her up, but he doesn't know if that's the best idea. Theodora takes after him in so many ways; chances are that the aversion to being touched without consent in the middle of a breakdown will only serve to make matters worse, rather than better.
"Darling," he says again, waiting for her to poke her head out from the ball she's transformed herself into. "It's alright. Nothing's going to hurt you. I won't let it."
Theodora stares at him, her eyes wide and wet with tears, before wrapping her arms around herself just a little bit tighter. She doesn't tuck her head back in, though, so Freddie waits until she's ready to talk.
Eventually, she does. "I don't want Mama to know. I don't want her to know that I'm like a little kid."
Freddie has to blink hard to rid himself of the tears that prick his eyes. Trust Theodora to have inherited the need to keep up appearances from the adults around her. "Why would she think that?" he asks. He doesn't know if that's poking too far, but he figures that he can't solve anything if he doesn't know what's wrong. He also knows that if Theodora doesn't want to tell him, she won't.
Freddie waits and watches Theodora's face contort from confusion to deep thought to determination, back to thought, back to determination, and eventually a sort of resolution that's categorised as that unmistakable glow in her beautiful brown eyes. When he stares at them, there's no mistaking the fact that she's Amelia's daughter. No doubt at all.
What she actually says, though, is something that Freddie isn't expecting in the slightest.
"Mama always tells me that I'm a big girl. Big girls don't have to get hot chocolate every day because they're too afraid of the nightmares to fall asleep."
At that, Freddie just about melts. "Oh, darling. Why didn't you say something?" Theodora scrunches her face up, and it takes a moment for Freddie to realise what's happening before it hits him. "Ah. You already told me, didn't you?" She nods frantically. "Okay. I'm gonna get you that hot chocolate now—just this once, though. Go and sit at the table."
Theodora hops up and darts past him, rubbing the tears away as she does. Freddie pulls a mug from the cupboard and heats up some milk in the microwave, before stirring in some of the hot chocolate powder that Amelia keeps tucked behind the boxes and boxes of green tea.
When he's done, he brings the cup over and places it in front of Theodora. "Be careful," he says, out of parental instinct more than anything else. "I know you like hot stuff, but we don't want you burning that little tongue of yours, do we?" Theodora shakes her head, with as much energy as he's seen her do pretty much anything. Then she brings her mouth up to the rim of the cup and blows, gentle as the wind, the way her mother does when she's sipping one of her never-ending cups of tea. Freddie has to suppress the urge to laugh at the resemblance. He's always thought the saying that children take after their parents was a load of rubbish, but perhaps that's because none of the people he knew when he was growing up who supposedly took after their parents were actually raised by their parents. It's hard to copy someone's behaviour when you never knew them.
He doesn't know if it's a good time to bring it up, but Freddie does anyway. "You know, nightmares aren't something that only little kids have."
Theodora whips around, her eyes wide again. "Really?" Freddie nods, humming in assent. "Because Kieran Taylor said that kids who still get nightmares at this age are babies."
Freddie shakes his head. "Well, he's wrong. You don't stop being scared just because you get older. That's not how it works."
She stares at him as if this is a possibility that's never entered her head before, which, knowing Theodora, means that it probably is. His blood wants to boil at the fact that someone's been making her feel less than adequate for goodness knows how long. He suppresses it, though, more easily than anything he's ever done. No use in getting angry when the poor girl's been terrified enough as it is. He refuses to be a source of terror to his own child. He knows far too well what it's like to obey out of fear, rather than respect, and he'll give everything he has to ensure that Theodora never does.
She takes a few sips of her hot chocolate, before turning back to him. "Did you have nightmares when you were my age, Papa?"
Freddie shakes his head. "Not when I was your age, no." Theodora's face falls, so he quickly follows it up with a, "No, I didn't start having nightmares until I was much older than you are now."
The wonder's back, as Freddie hoped it would be. "Really? How old were you?"
Freddie actually has to think about that one, trailing back through years of memories until he finds the right one. "Around ten years ago, I think. So about sixteen or so?" There's silence for a moment, and Freddie has to look over to see what's the matter. He smiles when he finds his daughter, still staring as if he's crash landed from some sort of alien planet. "I told you that you don't stop being scared even though you're older, didn't I?"
She nods and asks, somewhat tentatively, "How old were you when you stopped having them?"
Freddie turns a little more of his body around and leans against the back of his chair. "Oh, darling. I don't think I ever stopped."
"You mean - you mean you still have nightmares now?"
Freddie nods, smiling. "Why do you think I'm downstairs eating dinner at 4 am in the morning?" That coaxes a laugh out of her before she stops.
"Is that why you've been doing this all week?"
He narrows his eyes. "How do you know I've been doing this all week?" She stares at him again, waiting for him to put the dots together as if she's too tired to explain it to him a second time. Man, she has a habit of doing that. Just like Amelia - oh.
Freddie's put it together.
They've both been in this kitchen in the middle of the night more than they should do - and Theodora's noticed Freddie doing it. She's always been one to lurk in the shadows; he wouldn't put it past her to hide whilst he was eating. The thought is somewhat disquieting, but he supposes that he shouldn't be surprised, really.
He says as much, and Theodora nods. "Also," she adds. "You wake everyone up when you come down. They just sort of ignore you at this point."
"What?" Theodora does the thing again, and Freddie has to take a moment to digest the gravity of her declaration. "Oh, okay. Guess I'm not as inconspicuous as I thought." She laughs, and it's far too infectious this time for Freddie not to join her. "Thanks for telling me, though. Means I can stop trying to creep around from now on."
Theodora takes a few more sips from her cup, then asks, "Are your nightmares scary?"
Freddie nods. "Yup. I've been having the same ones for ten years and they're just as scary as ever. You get used to them, after a while. But it never really stops being scary, no matter how old you get. The same things that scared me a decade ago are the same things that scare me now."
"How do you deal with them?"
"Mostly by not sleeping." She laughs. "Though that's not a healthy way, mind you. I don't want you to get to this stage. Nip it in the bud before it gets bad, kiddo."
Theodora nods. "So you're just going to do that your entire life?"
Freddie scoffs. "You sound just like your mother."
"I know. You've said that a hundred times."
"Thanks, kid." He pauses, before deciding to take a more serious tone. "I'm going to talk to you about something, and I need you to listen really carefully. Are you able to do that right now?" Theodora nods so fervently, Freddie's afraid her head might just snap off. "Okay. Good."
Freddie has to take a minute to prepare himself. He's been putting this talk off for as long as he can, but this is a good time. His eyes dart around the room for anything he can use to help the process along—Theodora understands things best when she has a visual aid, as they've come to learn. He considers getting up to get some paper and pen, before realising that the perfect thing is sitting right under his nose. Quite literally.
He takes his fork and moves his spaghetti around the plate, arranging it rather crudely into the intended shape. It's bad, he knows, and Theodora giggles the entire time he's moving it. Ah, well. He can leave the works of art to Henry. This'll do for 4am.
"Do you know what this is?" he asks, waving his fork in the general direction of the plate.
Theodora considers it for a moment. "A brain?"
Freddie nods. "Right. You know where your brain is?" She nods. "Can you show me?" Theodora laughs as the points to her head. "That's right. It's a bit squishy and mushy, but it controls your entire body."
"How does it do that, Papa?"
"Through a lot of complicated stuff that you're much better off asking your mother about."
She laughs. "Okay, Papa. Is that all the brain does?"
"No, of course not. The brain does a lot more than that. The brain is where thoughts and feelings come from. Love and hope and fear—all that is controlled by the brain."
"And dreams. And here's the thing, darling. Sometimes things go a little wrong up there. The way you act, the way you think, the way you feel—all of it's just a little bit off. We call that having a mental illness."
"Illness? Like that time I got chickenpox last year?"
He nods. "Sort of. But you can see those sorts of things. When you had chickenpox, you could see those spots on your face. You can't really see mental illness. But that doesn't mean it's not there."
Theodora nods, then asks, rather hesitantly, "Do you have a mental illness, Papa?"
Freddie nods back. He's honestly glad that she put the dots together and asked him, rather than having to spring it on her out of left field. "I do."
"Is that why you have nightmares?"
"It's not why I have nightmares, but both of them come from the same place, I think."
"You mean the reason you have nightmares is the reason you have a mental illness."
She sounds so utterly flippant, Freddie can't help but laugh, even though he knows she's being deadly serious. "It's a bit more complicated than that, but basically. The nightmares and the depression come from the same place."
He's confused for a moment until the realisation hits him. "Oh. Right. Didn't explain that." He twirls a little bit of spaghetti around the fork. "Mental illness is just an umbrella term. Sort of like the word 'disease'."
Theodora cuts in before he can continue. "Mama told me this. Chickenpox is a disease, but there's lots of diseases."
"Right," he says, pausing to laugh again. "I knew Amelia would have covered this with you." More twirling of the spaghetti. "Depression is just one mental illness. There are lots of others—there are a couple of people in this house that have other ones."
"Really? I didn't know."
"You usually don't. I won't tell you about them; they might not want me to. If you ask them really nicely, they might tell you, though." Freddie makes a mental note to tell the others to prepare to be asked about their mental health, in case they're willing to share. "You musn't badger them if they don't want to tell you, though."
"I won't." Theodora nods again. "Is Uncle Henry's autism a mental illness?"
"No, darling. Mental illnesses mean that your emotions and things don't work like they normally would."
"Yeah, but Uncle Henry doesn't act like anybody else. Kieran said that he's a bit crazy."
Freddie curses internally and makes to have a note with Theodora's teacher about giving the kids a lesson in prejudice and discrimination. "Again, Kieran's wrong. Don't listen to him. I said that mental illness means you don't work like normal. Uncle Henry's normal is just a bit different from everybody else's. Autism's not an illness—it's not something that needs to be fixed; the world just needs to be adapted a little bit to help him out."
"Okay." Freddie sighs in relief; he was honestly expecting to have to answer a dozen more questions. "So if chickenpox makes you spotty and scratchy, what does depression do?"
"It's different for everybody, but for me, it just feels like I'm not really there. Like I'm just dragging myself through the day and there's a haze over me."
Freddie can practically see the thoughts behind Theodora's eyes whirring as she tries to absorb all this new information. "You said the depression and the nightmares came from the same place. Where's that from?"
Freddie winces. He's made his peace with the Victory Ground and everything that it brought with it, but remembering all of that still makes him uncomfortable. But he feels like Theodora is owed the truth. "My childhood wasn't the best, darling. I saw and did a lot of things that a kid should never do. My nightmares usually go back to those days."
"Can I ask you what they're about?" Freddie nods. He's not about to go into any sort of detail; mostly because some of those things need to stay in his mind, and his mind only. Well, apart from Anne's office. But Theodora deserves the truth, at least.
"Losing the people I love, mainly." It's one of the few times Freddie's admitted this to anyone, let alone a six-year-old who's only just learnt what mental illness is. "What about you?" he asks, but Theodora screws her face up and he continues it with a, "You don't have to tell me right now if you don't want to."
She doesn't. She takes a few more sips of her hot chocolate and loses herself in thought. "Are you doing anything about them?" she asks finally.
Freddie nods again. "You know the blackboard in the living room? With all the notes and dates and things? And the locked boxes underneath it?" Theodora nods. "That's a list of appointments."
"To go see the doctor?"
"Some of them, yeah," Freddie nods. "But some of them are a bit different. Some of them are to go see people called therapists. They're people we go to talk to in order to help us get better."
"Like I talk to Mama when something's bothering me?"
"Yeah, like that. These people are just trained to cope with people who have mental illnesses."
"Do you see a therapist?"
Freddie nods again. "My therapist is called Anne. I see her every week or so, and have done for the last couple of years. You'd surprised at how much it helps, just having someone there to talk to."
"Okay. Is there anything else I should know?"
Freddie thinks a little. "No, not really. I just want you to know that no matter what happens, I'm still your Papa and you can come to me if you need help. Just bear in mind that I might not be in the best state to help you, in which case—"
"Go to Mama," Theodora finishes.
Freddie laughs. "Yeah, you're definitely my daughter." Theodora laughs with him, and Freddie reaches over to pat her head. She squirms at the gesture, but he knows it's just for show. Amelia's already ingrained it into Theodora's head that she should say something if she's uncomfortable, and even though Freddie has had to add the caveat that sometimes that's necessary, this is most definitely not one of those occasions.
Theodora squirms a little more, rubbing her eyes, and Freddie can tell exactly what she's thinking. "You want to go back to bed, don't you?" She nods, still rubbing her eyes. "Okay. I'm gonna take you back to bed in a minute; finish your chocolate and I'm gonna finish this," he says, poking at the last scraps of spaghetti. Theodora nods, sipping her cup slowly, sneaking glances at him as she does so. "What?" he asks. "What do you want?"
She drains the last dregs of chocolate, before setting the cup down on the table. "Can I sleep with you tonight? We could fight nightmares together?" she asks, so quietly that Freddie almost misses it.
Freddie melts. Just like that. He hasn't done that for so long, and everything just falls around his little girl. "Of course, darling. Of course, you can."
"Uncle Alec won't mind?"
"Uncle Alec is next door sleeping on the sofa right now, so no."
Theodora laughs and waits for Freddie to finish his spaghetti, which he dutifully does, trying not to laugh as she pulls a variety of silly faces in order to convince him to hurry up.
Freddie and Theodora make their way up the stairs in a much louder and less careful manner than either of them did coming down.
Freddie takes his rightful place on the right side of the bed, then holds the blanket up for Theodora to crawl in once she's nipped back to her own room and grabbed her one and only pink comforter.
Freddie falls asleep at last, curled over but not curled up, with the weight of his little girl in his arms. He's far too tired to take note of it at the time, but later, he'll do his best to represent this feeling as accurately as he can, and he'll tuck in into his box of memories to look at when the world feels like it's falling apart.
He ignores the inevitable storm that'll come in the morning, when a very boisterous four-year-old comes flying down the hallway, ringing his bell as loudly as he can. He ignores the inevitable conversation he'll have to have with Amelia about their daughter's sleeping habits. He ignores the inevitable explanation he'll have to give to Anne regarding his own.
Freddie lets everything else fall away until there's nothing else but that weight in his arms and the bliss filling up his soul.
It's moments like this that make life worth living.