I wrote this story for the birthday of a very loyal reader of mine. She's read all of my John/Elizabeth stories, so I wanted to give something back. Happy Birthday Chiara.
Golden, red and brown leaves covered the ground as more flittered down from the branches of the large Maples like a gentle rain. The sun was out but the air was crisp. John liked the warmth of the Atlantean sun and wondered if, in getting used to the constant weather on New Lantia, he was becoming like someone who had grown up in places like California or Florida, never having seen or felt something like snow.
Pulling at his collar, John shivered a little and then hugged his jacket tighter around himself with his gloved hands tucked securely in his pockets. He'd managed to step out of the car with no great trouble, locking up the vehicle before turning to look up at the picturesque house he'd found remarkably easy, to picture Elizabeth growing up in. He'd been there once before, he knew, and that time around it had been a lot harder to even look up at the lace-framed windows without a tear coming to his eye.
This time, even though it was different, felt strange. His appearance here, wasn't official. The Air Force didn't even know and his spine tingled with the thought of what they might do to him, if they ever found out. It wasn't so much that he was visiting iher/i of all people, but the fact that he was going to have to divulge some fairly sensitive information, if she was going to believe him. Knots formed around his heart as he realised the implications of what he was about to do.
But then he saw her there, standing at the living room window with a red coffee mug held tightly between her gently weathered hands and she was smiling the very same smile that she'd gifted her daughter, her only child. The smile that brought him to his knees and opened the flood-gates on secrets better left untold.
Suddenly no longer caring about the richly coloured Autumn leaves floating past him on the breeze, John stepped up to the path and slowly made his way up towards the house, ignoring the small patches of snow caught in the cracks and groves on the front steps, as if ignoring it could somehow make the air around him just that little bit warmer.
As he took the final step, up onto her porch, he blinked as the light from the open front door hit his eyes. Looking up, he smiled faintly when she stepped out to greet him, with a thick brown knitted sweater wrapped tightly around her as she hugged herself against the cool air. She nodded towards him, saying nothing and quietly, he stepped between her and the open door and made his way into her home.
He'd noticed it last time he was there, how homely the place was. The loungeroom was bathed in the warm glow of the wood-fire, coating the deep mahogany coffee table with a rich orange hue and the lead-light lamp at the far end of the room, cast shadows the shape of dragonflies, across the bookshelves that were filled with poetry, philosophy and whimsical children's fables. He'd been surprised the first time, with tears in the corner of his eyes, when he'd heard how much Elizabeth had loved those books when she was a child, how she'd sat in her Grandfather's lap in that corner of the room, whilst he reclined in the warm brown leather armchair and read for hours on end.
"Would you like a cup of tea, John?" She asked quietly as he heard the door click closed behind them, immediately feeling the warmth of the fire reach him in the entryway.
"Yes, please," He smiled, slipping his black leather gloves from his hands and tucking them in his pocket, watching her disappear into the kitchen as he hung his coat.
Listening to the sounds of her home, he smiled tightly to himself, marvelling at the feel of it and feeling that bitter pang of anger, knowing Elizabeth could never return to it. He could hear her mother rummaging around in the kitchen, a few cups clattered together and he could hear the telltale sounds of a stove-top kettle boiling. Taking a seat on the broad leather sofa, he rested his elbows on his knees and took the silent moment alone, to study the family pictures on the end-table. There was one of an aging man with a curly haired toddler, balanced on his lap. With a whistful smile, he decided that it had to be Elizabeth. The picture was black and white, but he assumed that her little dress, with it's thick bows and tulling, was probably red. Next to it was another picture of Elizabeth, older, perhaps six or seven, wearing a Tutu and holding a small golden trophy over her head. She had ribbons in her hair and the brightest of smiles on her face. Even though the colour of the picture was faded, he could still discern the rich chocolate of her hair and the soft pink glow on her cheeks.
"I know I asked you if you wanted tea, but then I remembered that you like coffee. I hope that Moccona is alright? Elizabeth's cousin sent it from Australia and I don't really drink it."
"It's perfect," John smiled as she placed the tray on the table in front of him.
"I have to admit," She chuckled nervously. "I honestly didn't expect you to come back." When John cocked his head slightly, she smiled and dropped her chin to her chest, fiddling with an imaginary loose thread on her sweater. "It just seemed so final, you know?"
"Yeah," John rasped. The pain of that day was still fresh in his memory, despite the fact that he'd had Elizabeth back for a good few months now. It still wasn't entirely real to him. He just couldn't fight the image that came unbidden to his mind. The image of Elizabeth's mother, slumped down onto the rough wooden steps in her front yard, because the news of her Daughter's disappearance had drained the light right out of her.
"Why did you come back?" She questioned and John hesitated. Dusting imaginary lint off his trouser leg, he stalled, swallowing. He didn't know how to say it, not without divulging too much.
"I have," He stopped himself. Elizabeth had tried to tell him the best way to say it, but facing her now, he didn't quite know if their plan would work. Her eyes bore into him and he could barely hold back on telling her the entire truth, right then. "I have...news." It wasn't much, but it was a start.
"News?" She nodded, letting out a sigh. "News about Elizabeth." It was more of a statement, he knew. But with a slight nod of the head, he made sure she knew that she was right.
"Yeah," He cleared his throat. "look, there isn't all that much I can tell you. I'm not even supposed to be here."
"I was wondering where the imposing Air Force regalia had gotten to," She smirked. "I was worried for a moment that you'd been cast out," When John met her eye breifly, with a faint smile, she finished with. "I didn't want to say." And he laughed, however quietly, causing her to smile more openly.
"No," He whispered.
A silence fell over them that wasn't entirely uncomfortable. She smiled, sipping her tea and didn't make mention of the fact that he hadn't even reached for his mug yet.
"Elizabeth wanted me to tell you something," He breathed out, not sure if he'd said it loud enough for her to hear, but when he noticed her green eyes widen just a little and her breath catch in her throat, he reached up to run a hand through his hair.
"Why," Her voice cracked. "why didn't you tell me, before?"
John swallowed, scratching his chin before clasping his hands together in front of him tightly, digging at his cuticules with a ferocity that made his left thumb ache. "Because," He looked up at her then, smiling quietly and meeting her eyes. "because I didn't have the message then."
She choked back a sob, resting her tea cup on the coffee table and barely getting it there with her shaking hand as she pressed the other over her heart. Her cheeks were awash with tears and John couldn't help the slight sheen he could feel, building in his eyes. There wasn't many people he'd cry in front of, but one of the very few exceptions was this woman sitting before him. This regal woman that was responsible for the happiest aspect of his life.
"There are...rules, rules that govern our jobs and there are things that I can't tell you. Maybe I've already said too much, but I wanted you to get her message."
"Is she safe?" She blurted out, her eyes rimmed red and glistening as she clutched the front of her sweater with meticulously manicured nails.
"Yes," John breathed out deeply, letting it flow from him through a wide, glowing smile. "She's safe and she," He paused. "She wanted me to tell you that she's happy."
"I," She grinned. "That's- I'm glad." She nodded, agreeing with how the words had come out of her mouth. "I'm really glad. Can," John watched her as she desperately tugged at the ring on her left hand. "Can you give her this-" She held it out to him. "for me?"
"I, I don't know if I could-" She pressed it into his hand, silencing him as she stepped around the coffee table and took a seat just beside him, clutching his hand within the both of her small ones.
"Please. It was my mother's. If I can never see my baby girl again, at least I will know that one day, it will be my granddaughter's. Will you do this for me," She pleaded. "Will you do this, John?" John couldn't barely believe it. He couldn't fathom how she'd known, how this woman could tell by the look in his eyes or the sound of his voice or by the way he'd come here under some hidden pretense, that she was never going to see her child again. He couldn't fathom how she could not immediately beg for him to bring her back home.
"Yes," he nodded, kissing her knuckles. "yes, I'll give it to her."
John stood suddenly, stepping around her and heading for the door. She followed him, waiting patiently beside him as he reached up for his jacket, pulling his gloves from his pocket and holding them in one hand as he shrugged his jacket on. She watched him intently, and he could feel it, as he slipped on his gloves before he looked down at her with a gentle smile. "Are you going to be alright?" He asked and she nodded, waving him away.
"Yes, I'll be fine. Better than ever."
John chuckled and she frowned curiously. "It's just," He smirked. "you're so alike. She has that same, calm acceptance. She has that same optimism."
"There is no sense in looking into the darkness if you're not willing to embrace the light."
"You're a touch more philosophical though."
"Yes, well," She frowned good-naturedly. "that hard-lipped professionalism she gets from her father. Don't let her get away with it too often."
"I'll make sure I don't." With a final glance down at her, John reached for the door but was caught off-guard when she suddenly embraced him, pulling him down to her height. And all he felt he could do, was hug her back.
"You take care of her, do you hear me?"
John nodded, fighting that proverbial lump in his throat. "Don't worry, I will."
"John," She called, stopping him again, just as his foot stepped over the threshold. He turned back slightly, but not all the way. "do you love her?"
Turning his head the rest of the way, he smirked and nodded and he knew she needed no more confirmation than that, needed no more explanation. She just smiled, letting her tears continue to fall as she stood on the porch, watching him walk through the gently falling Autumn leaves, knowing that he was going back to her. And that was enough.