Time passes. Paolo eventually goes back to work.
Nothing seems to dull the pain.
He tries to lose himself in mundane tasks. He works out regularly and hard, only stopping when his muscles are straining and screaming for relief. He cooks every meal for the family and takes out the trash. He gets to work on time and does his part.
He tells everyone that it's starting to get easier, bit by bit, but it's all a lie. The platitudes don't help. The exercise doesn't work. Talking about it leads nowhere. Ignoring it does nothing.
He's just existing here. There is no escape.
Tula counts herself lucky that her homework takes up so little of her time and effort. If she actually needed help, she'd be doomed. Her dad's just been going through the motions and her grandparents are too old to keep up with two kids.
She can see right through her father's lies of improvement and fake smiles and recognize the false assurances. He's not very practiced at hiding his feelings, not like her.
Well, assuming that there is something to hide. Tula often wonders what would remain if she stopped acting.
Maybe nothing at all. Maybe she'd just be the empty shell her father is becoming.
But there's no reason to stop. Everyone pretends.
She just happens to be a very good at it.
One weekend Persis surprises the kids with a trip to the library. With Paolo barely interacting with anyone at home, the kids have been skittish and walking on eggshells around him. Persis wants them to get out a little. Do something "healthy", as Marko had put it. He would stay at home with Paolo.
The kids' reactions are mixed.
Tula's been getting bored at home, acting hesitant around her father and being the good girl who minimizes her presence around her heavily burdened grandparents. So when she cheers and laughs raucously, her vigor is genuine.
Guy's head just hurts. With all the oppressive quiet at home, the change in scenery and pace is almost overwhelming. He's not fully convinced that any of this is even happening. The real Persis likes to stay home and paint. The real Tula is reserved and polite. The real library doesn't have lights so bright that they melt his skin.
"I want to go home," he pouts, "I don't like it here."
"Maybe reading a book would make you feel better," Persis suggests, unphased by Guy's grumpiness.
He scowls, "Can I just wait outside?"
Persis sighs, "If Tula goes with you."
He turns to her. "Tag, you're it!"
"Y-you're sure? You look kinda..." his skin is clammy and his eyes a bit unfocused, "um, sick."
"It's the lights! They're getting under my skin...literally."
Guy is weird.
Persis settles in the empty library with a good book. Now this is worth getting out of the house for.
Guy's mood brightens considerably after a few rounds of tag.
Tula resolves to get better in sports. This lack of stamina is just embarrassing.
Guy glances up at the rain beginning to drizzle. "Did someone else die?" he asks innocently. He looks up at the sky with a smile, "Don't be sad! Everything'll be ok and the sun's going to come back-,"
"People die every day. The sky doesn't give a shit about that," she hisses bluntly, "It's just weather."
Predictably, his face shutters. "Oh."
Tula pushes him roughly to the side, "Don't be a baby. Go run somewhere." If she lets him, Guy can get sidetracked for hours. Besides, they're going to be teens soon. He can't keep talking like he's in elementary school. She's doing him a favor, really. Tough love, she'd say if he asked why she was being so 'mean'.
But Guy doesn't ask. He just keeps his eyes trained on the pavement as he runs. He's always saying the wrong things. Tula's a good friend for correcting him.
Just as Persis and the kids are walking through the front door, Marko feels...strange.
There aren't any words to describe Persis's horror. They just lost Krista. Does her husband have to go, too?
Marko faces death with dignity. He shakes the Reaper's hand and looks it in the...hood. He has no voice now, but they seem to exchange some kind of greeting. Marko's smile is genuine, but this goes unnoticed by his horrified family.
"Why do you keep doing this to me?" Paolo wails.
The Reaper says nothing.
With a single sweep of the Reaper's scythe, Marko is gone.
Tula feels a chill as Death hovers in the air. She has never seen so much power in a single being. Is this what awe feels like? Is this how everyone else feels when they're scared?
The reaper fades before she can ask any of these questions.
Tula's heart is beating rapidly, but she manages to carry on her performance of shock and grief. If anything, her shaking hands make it more convincing.
Just like that, Marko is gone.
Guy has had his own room for a long time now, but tonight he feels too scared to sleep alone. Tula happily permits him to share her room. It would be best if she plays along and "needs" company.
Paolo, for the first time since Krista died, reads the kids a bedtime story. They're almost too old for it now, and Tula rolls over and falls asleep quickly, but Guy eagerly listens to every word. Anything to not think about Marko being so quickly reduced to ash by that otherworldly, incomprehensible force. Just like water turning into steam. Poof. Gone.
Guy stares at Paolo's forced smile and waving hands, and can't help but think of steam being waved around. He squirms uncomfortably.
Paolo's fake smile fades. "I-I'm sorry, I guess this story is a bit boring for you, too childish..." he closes the book and sighs.
He stands up slowly. His dad would be better at this.
The thought of his father causes him to burst into tears. "I'm sorry," he breathes out in ragged sobs, "I shouldn't be crying in front of you guys..."
Guy smiles softly at him, then gets under the blankets. "It's ok. Tears evaporate, like steam."
"What does that even mean?" Paolo asks, wiping his eyes. When he turns around, Guy is already fast asleep.
And once again, Paolo is alone.
AN: They just cannot catch a break. My life span is set on 100 days, Marko died at 103.
In other news, the kids are so close to being teens. I planned on this entire arc happening earlier, but it took me longer than I planned to get Krista skilled high enough to make any money and get the ball rolling.
So not really a spoiler anymore, but Paolo's marital structure is... second chance!
I originally planned on Krista not being a criminal at all and dying in an inventing bench related accident, and almost allowed her to perish the time she caught on fire when Tula was a larva. Paolo would have then discovered that she was working for her family while taking care of her affairs after she died...
But I wanted to involve Tulip a lot more, and it felt like a waste of a story line to have Krista be a criminal...and then die before she gets in too deep.