Author: Silver Queen
Recipient: Emmy-Loo for the 2009 Spfest
Title: In Ignorance We Suffer
Pairing(s): Helen Rider/John Rider
Summary: Helen Rider. Maybe she knew. Maybe she didn't.
Disclaimer: All Alex Rider characters herein are the property of Anthony Horowitz and the Penguin Group. No copyright infringement is intended.
Word Count: 1700
Author's Notes: This isn't exactly the story that I set out to write. But Helen is just such a tempting character - she can be anything because we know so little about her.
"But she must have known the truth."
"I can't tell you that. Maybe your dad told her. Maybe he didn't."
"John?" Helen asks, bewildered. "What's going on? Why are the police -"
"I killed a man," John says, voice flat and empty. His eyes are dark and serious, but he is looking past her. He is almost, almost standing at attention, muscles coiled like wire beneath his skin; she remembers that he was a soldier. That not too long ago, he was at war.
She has to remember to breathe. "W- what? John?" Her tone is pleading and just a touch frightened. She's torn between demanding answers and telling him to stop. Don't tell me this, she wants to say. Don't have done this terrible, awful thing.
"I killed a man," he repeats. And everything that Helen has been trying to say dies in her throat. "Tonight. In the bar."
Helen looks at him, eyes darting over his face. He looks exactly the same as he had this morning as he left for work - handsome and calm. She believes him. Doesn't want to, but she believes him.
I killed a man. Tonight.
There isn't an ounce of regret in his face.
"Oh," she says, softly, inanely, numbly. "Oh."
Wandsworth Prison is a grim, forbidding structure. The public face is stonework, built in the mid eighteen hundreds. There are certainly newer constructs around the prison, fences and living units, but it gives the impression of looming darkness.
Helen despises visiting but does so every week because she is a dutiful wife. She dresses well and holds her head high; it might be pride but it's all she has and she uses it like a shield. Holds onto it during sign in, during the body searches, during the walk around the visits hall as all eyes watch her, but most of all, she holds it tight as she speaks to John.
"Good morning," she says, smiling carefully as she slides into the seat opposite him.
"Helen," he says warmly, like this is any conversation, any meeting, and they're just choosing to have it here. Like they could get up and walk out together at any moment. His calm acceptance of the situation grates at her nerves. "How are you?"
"I'm fine," she says. "It's been busy at work. Sarah is off on holiday, so I've been given extra shifts." It feels less like conversation and more like an excuse. But he doesn't pick up on it.
"You work too hard," he says fondly. He's made the same observation ever since they met in college. Usually she reminds him that he's twice the workaholic that she is. It isn't appropriate now.
"I like my job," she says instead, smiling brightly. During these visits she always remembers her childhood dream of being an actress; it feels like she is now.
They make stilted, awkward conversation for an hour, circling around talking about where they are and why. Helen can't tell if this is for her benefit or his, but she is too grateful to question it.
She doesn't want to talk about why he is there, or about why he isn't anxious to leave.
Helen often comes back from the hospital late. She likes her job and there is so much to do, but when she is being honest with herself (not often, these days, she thinks ruefully) she will admit it is because she doesn't think of this new flat of theirs as home. Truthfully, it's a dump.
But they really can't afford anything else. Not unless John manages to get a job.
She opens the door and hears John's voice as she enters the house. "Ian! Get out!" He sounds furious.
"John…" she can barely hear Ian's voice. It's lower, calmer. "You should tell her."
"No, Ian!" John snarls. "Get out."
Ian brushes past her as he leaves. "Helen," he says. "I'm sorry." She thinks about asking what he is apologising for, but John appears in the doorway behind him, as dark and grim as a thundercloud.
Ian leaves without another word.
"Is something wrong?" she asks John.
He shakes his head. "No. Nothing's wrong. You know how much we argue."
She thinks about Ian's obvious absence from their wedding and nods. "Yes, I know. At least this one didn't end in violence." She suspects John doesn't get in as many fights with Ian as he would like her to believe - but she would like to believe because it would explain where he gets so injured.
He shrugs and smiles at her. "You know I love you," he says.
She is instantly wary, but hides it well. "Of course," she says. "And I love you." She suspects she's lying, but doesn't know about what.
"Helen," her mother says through the phone, voice crackling with distance and worry. "You… He… It might be best if you come home for a while."
Helen jerks back as though she has been slapped. Her knuckles go white as she clutches the phone. "You can't be saying - That I should -" she can't quite finish her sentence and it builds up, stabbing the inside of her throat with sharp points.
"Think of yourself," her mother pleads. "You need -"
"I love him!" Helen shouts, aware she's overreacting but not being able to stop herself. "I do!"
"Of course, sweetheart. No one's saying you don't. But -"
"No," she says. "I'm staying here."
And then she hangs up.
One day John comes home with a black eye and what looks suspiciously like a knife wound stretching from wrist to elbow. It's shallow and not worth worrying about at all, but Helen looks at it for a long time before smearing it with antiseptic cream and plasters.
John doesn't say a word. Doesn't try to explain it away. She follows his lead with lips pressed into a tight and unhappy line.
Later that night, when they're in bed, she lies with her back turned to him. This is not the man she married.
(She doesn't even think that it is; she just didn't know.)
"I've been given a job offer," John says.
Helen blinks in surprise, then beams. "That's - that's wonderful! Oh, John!" She clutches desperately to the hope that things can now go back the way they were before.
He grins back at her. "I thought you'd be pleased."
"Pleased? I'm delighted. Ecstatic. Where is it?"
He winces. "It's not local, I'm afraid. They want me to do some travelling. Internationally."
She knows that he speaks a ridiculous number of languages, but something about his answer is… vague. Evasive. "Well, that's okay. It's better than nothing, right? Who is it for?"
He waves the question off. "Just some global conglomerate. But the money's good. And I'll bring you souvenirs from wherever I go."
The bottom drops out of her stomach and all the hope fizzles away. "John, it's not -?" the word illegal is on the tip of her tongue but she can't bring herself to say it. This is what they don't talk about.
"It's not permanent," he says. "I'll be home plenty."
She smiles, as though she has been reassured.
When the money comes in (so much of it!) she doesn't touch a cent. If she stays in this dump of a flat and is careful with the groceries, she can exist on her own salary.
In three years she sees him ten times and never for more than a fortnight. She gets asked out once, by a doctor from the hospital, and almost says yes before she remembers she is married. It seems like such a far away dream.
He sends her postcards and letters, postmarked with exotic locations. (She wonders if these locations are truly where he is or if someone else has posted them for him.) The letters are short and lacking detail about his life, but they always end the same way.
I love you,
As the third year turns into the fourth, Helen thinks about the letters a lot. She rereads them all, tracing the words with her fingertips. I miss you. I love you. I wish you were here. one day we'll have to come here together.
Maybe, she thinks, maybe he will come home. If I just give him one more reason.
She stops taking her birth control pills.
On his twelfth visit, she tells him, "I'm pregnant."
During her fifth month of pregnancy, her mother dies. She flies to the funeral and sits there alone.
Halfway through, she selfishly wishes her mother were still alive to tell her one more time to come home. This time, she thinks, she would listen.
She surprises herself by bursting into tears.
Everyone looks on sympathetically but there is no one beside her to cling to, just an empty space where John should be.
I've made a mistake, she thinks desperately. I've made a mistake.
And she has no idea how to fix it.
"Please, John! Come home," she says. She is so close to begging. She can feel herself unravelling, coming apart at the seams.
"I will," he promises. "I will. Soon. I can't just leave. I need to -"
"You don't need to!" she interrupts and to her horror, Helen realises she is crying. She hadn't meant to - she is, above all else, calm and rational. This woman, pleading with her husband, is not her.
This woman is what John has made her.
"I can't," he says. "I do."
"Please," her voice cracks and breaks. Just like the rest of her. "Please. Just stop. Just come home."
His face tightens with anger. "I can't," he repeats harshly. For a second she is afraid she has gone too far. For a second she thinks he is going to hit her.
"Just trust me," he says.
But she can't.
"It's over now," John says as they board the plane. "It's over."
Helen nods quietly and takes his hand in hers. She doesn't believe him.