Title: And Seven for a Secret
Disclaimer: Not mine, no matter how many DVDs and toys I buy! Everything here belongs to RTD and to Auntie Beeb, who already has my licence fee.
Notes: Written for the 2009 tardis_bigbang challenge on LJ. Thanks as always to Mimarie for sterling beta work, any remaining weirdnesses are all mine. Feedback of any variety is much appreciated but not compulsory - I'll post anyway! I've suffered for my art, now it's your turn....
Ben set the last page carefully aside and leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes against the tears that threatened to fall. He could hear the ticking of the carriage clock on the mantle, the wind-blown creak of the old cherry tree just beyond the leaded windows, could almost feel his grandfather's presence in the room with him, even though he knew that the old man was interred beside his Agnes in the big cemetery on the edge of town. It seemed impossible to believe that Bert Fletcher had kept this story to himself for almost sixty-five years but -
"I have got to be insane." Ben shook his head and laughed softly at himself for believing a word of it. His grandfather had always been a teller of tales and now he had to wonder how many of his other war stories had been just that, stories invented for the amusement of an eager child. Mad Nazi women, mind-eating aliens, immortal secret agents and exploding Teutonic castles - it couldn't be true, all it lacked was a cameo by Indiana Jones! And yet, and yet....
And yet, he hadn't been that eager child, hanging on his Grandda's every word, in decades. And there was such a subtle ring of truth to it all, despite the strangeness and violence, that it was hard to avoid the small and sneaking suspicion that it was all real, every last word of it.
Ben winced as he looked at the clock - 2am had come and gone far faster than it had any right to - and reached for the Tupperware boxes. The first one contained the letters and the innumerable elegantly-inscribed Christmas cards from the mysterious 'Jack'....
He paused, his heart suddenly pounding hard against his ribs... and set that one aside again. Somehow, the second box seemed safer.
He understood the significance of the plastic octopus now, with its rounded body and reaching tentacles, and it was hard not to imagine that the pieces of gravel were actually the last remnants of shattered mediaeval stonework. Other things still made no sense - half a dozen small, crystalline beads that felt oddly waxy to the touch; a slender strip of vivid blue velvet - but some held all too much meaning, the faded paper poppies taking on a sudden and visceral significance that Ben had only understood in theory before. To him, it had always just been stories, a nod to the past, but to his grandfather....
Taking a deep breath, Ben lifted the envelope of photographs, the aged cardstock stiff and heavy beneath his fingers. He had glanced briefly at the first few pictures earlier, but that was before he had had names to put to the long-dead faces, before he knew that the cheery youth with the blond curls was called Alfie Arnold; that the stocky, dark-haired man with the crooked nose and the corporal's stripes was Tom Kimber. Images of lives ended long before Ben had been born... and yet now they were real, were people in their own right, not just images on a piece of paper.
And so he sat, carefully removing the photographs one after another and weeping for the young men who had peopled his grandfather's story, for even if the tale wasn't real, they had been. And if it was real....
The last thing in the envelope wasn't a photograph, but rather a piece of cartridge paper carefully folded and taped around something small and flat and hard. There were words on the paper, his grandfather's spidery writing half-obscured by the perished sellotape: "I could never tell anyone about this. But I knew. And now you do too."
Ben's hands were shaking as he unwrapped the object, unfolding the paper to reveal the bronze cross on a wine-red ribbon, tears blurring his vision anew as he took in the crown and the lion and the two simple words, "FOR VALOUR". He sat and stared at the medal, at the highest of honours that could be awarded to a British soldier, then swallowed hard and let the tears and the acceptance come freely, the corners of his grandfather's Victoria Cross biting painfully into the skin of his palm as he closed his hand tight around it.
Somehow, he didn't think Bert Fletcher had been given it for services to fiction.
A mob of young magpies were pecking around on the grass at the cemetery's entrance, chattering and fluttering along the verge, their glossy tail feathers catching the sunlight as they went. Ben watched them for a moment, leaning on his car door and remembering the old magpie counting rhyme that his grandfather had taught him as a child. "'And seven for a secret never to be told,'" he said softly as the birds took to the air, bold black and white flashing and dipping against green. "All those years and we never knew...."
He collected the flowers he had brought from the back seat and pushed the door shut with his hip, feeling oddly at peace with the world. Becky and her family had moved into the old house and were busily making it their own, filling the empty rooms with life once more. Ben found that he was spending most of his time there now, helping them to settle in and prepare for the imminent arrival of Becky's latest child. It felt good to be a part of the family again - he had hidden himself away for too long after Colin's death, solitude becoming too easy a habit - and if there were some things that he couldn't tell them... well, he was hardly the first to keep those secrets.
An evening of creative Googling had confirmed the names of old Bert's gunnery section and their unfortunate officer, although official records seemed to indicate that all bar Albert Fletcher and Frank Milton had been killed in action. That had given Ben pause, but further searching had uncovered other stories - far less official, far more human, and each of them somehow following a familiar theme.
Connie Kimber had remarried after the war and moved to Australia with her sons and new daughter, an unexpected inheritance ensuring that she was able to settle down comfortably with her family. Her youngest son, Leo, had returned to London in the early Seventies and found fame as the drummer in a glam rock band and later as a successful music producer, now retired.
Geoff Baverstock's widow had likewise benefitted from a not inconsiderable windfall, moving out to Dorset to set up a small seaside hotel with her sons. It was still there, by all accounts, now in the hands of her granddaughter and her family.
Alfie Arnold's family had emigrated to Canada on their sudden inheritance, to set up a successful chain of restaurants. Bernie Traves's father had gone from market stallholder to the owner of a greengrocer's shop. Gordon Howcroft had had no dependents and both parents had died before the war, but his widowed sister had suddenly found herself comfortably provided for. James McCormack's wife had married an American fighter pilot and moved to Texas with her children almost as soon as the war was over, but the ever-efficient Mr Cartwright had tracked her down to pass on the good news of her unexpected inheritance even there. Ben rather suspected that the solicitor had been busy in Poland as well.
As for Burg Elsterberg itself, his research revealed that the castle had been built in 1401 to defend the estates of an archbishop and had been restored at the turn of the twentieth century to serve as a hunting lodge. It had been considered a fine example of the construction of its period before being tragically destroyed during the Second World War when an Allied air raid went off course and scored a direct hit on the castle, reducing it to rubble. There was no mention that Ben could find of it being a prisoner of war camp, nor of it having been an Ahnenerbe stronghold, but then his grandfather had noted that history was written by the victors.
Or rewritten, as the case may be.
Making his way along the path towards his grandparents' graves, Ben realised that this would probably be the last time he got to visit before Becky gave birth. He'd have to make sure that things were tidy, clear away the dead flowers from last time and -
There was someone else already there.
Ben stopped, frowning, as he realised that there was an unfamiliar figure crouched by his grandfather's grave, the man half-obscured from sight by the headstones. For a fleeting moment, Ben wondered if he might be a vandal... but it was a weekday afternoon in broad daylight and there was nothing surreptitious about the stranger's presence as he pushed himself up and stepped back from the memorial stone, his head bowed. He was tall and dark-haired, dressed in a long, blue-grey coat that had to be ridiculously hot in this weather, and Ben was certain that he wasn't family, wasn't anyone that he'd seen before, in either flesh or photo.
Because if he had... oh, if he had, he was pretty damned sure that he'd have remembered this one.
The stranger started back down the path towards Ben, striding along with his hands thrust deep into his trouser pockets, the tails of his long coat flapping at his heels. He looked almost military in his clothing and his bearing, moving with a sense of sharp and elegant purpose, and he was....
It was no good. He was stunning. Tall and movie-star handsome, with blue eyes and broad shoulders and a cleft chin that invited thoughts that were singularly inappropriate given their surroundings. Ben knew that he was staring as the man passed him with a smile and polite nod of acknowledgement... and then turned back to rather blatantly look him up and down. Ben felt himself blush and was rewarded with a broad smile and a wink before the man chuckled and continued on his way, a definite spring in his step.
Ben watched him go, feeling a strange niggling sense that he knew this man, even though he was certain that he had never laid eyes on him before. And then there was the question of what the man was doing at his -
He was in motion almost before the realisation - crazy, impossible, utterly bloody insane - hit, leaving his flowers at the side of the path as he hurried after the stranger. It couldn't be, there was no way, not after sixty-five years....
Ben slowed as he saw the man climb into the driver's seat of a gleaming black SUV of some make he couldn't recognise, smoothing his coat tails beneath him before closing the door. There was a dark-haired woman in the passenger's seat, looking out at their watcher curiously as the engine roared into life and the car started forward... and it all seemed so suddenly ridiculous that Ben laughed to himself and shook his head at his own strange notions. There had to be some other explanation, something more rational -
And then, as the car rolled past his vantage point, he saw it.
There was a single word embossed on the big car's glossy wing, black on black, barely visible in the sunlight. A single word that was utterly meaningless to any who didn't already know its significance. A single word that meant absolutely nothing.
And absolutely everything.
Ben watched, open-mouthed, as the car drove away, swiftly vanishing from sight past the trees that surrounded the cemetery gates. He stood there for long moments, then turned and ran, ran right past the flowers he had brought, not stopping until he reached Bert Fletcher's grave.
The wreath that lay propped against the headstone was a thing of beauty, all vivid green fern fronds, fine white flowers and a brilliant riot of blood-red poppies. There was a card attached to it, half-hidden behind the blooms, and Ben knelt to pull it free, instantly recognising the impossibly neat copperplate hand from all the long-hoarded Christmas cards.
"Never forgotten - J"
Ben swallowed hard and returned the card to the wreath, feeling strangely numb. He had told himself that he believed his grandfather's tale, had done all the research and held the medal in his hand, but now... now he believed, believed to his very bones that the man he had just seen was Jack Harkness, alive and well and ageless and every last bit as real as he was or Becky was or....
He was real. It was all real.
"Wow." Ben pushed himself to his feet, taking a step back from the grave and the delicate memorial propped against the engraved stone. He didn't know what to do, what to think... and then he realised that he wasn't alone in knowing what had happened to Bert Fletcher and his mates, that there was someone else who knew, who could remember it all first-hand. Someone who would remember his grandfather when Ben himself, and Becky, and everybody else who had ever known the old man, had long since gone to dust.
One of the magpies was perched on a nearby railing, a second hopping along the path, both watching with bright, interested eyes as Ben went to fetch his own flowers. He smiled at the birds, thinking of the other magpies that had just left, driving off in their huge and gleaming car to their nest in Wales or wherever. The world, it seemed, was far bigger and stranger and so much more amazing than he had ever imagined....
Ben set the blooms in the vases that sat to either side of the headstone, arranging them to flank Harkness's wreath with a contrasting splash of blues and golds. "Sleep well, Grandda'," he said softly, running his fingers over the name carved into the marble. "We'll remember them for you, me and him, and if I can't tell anybody that story, well, I think I can still remember the others."
He smiled and pushed himself up, starting back towards his car and his family and the rest of his life. Becky and Brian were going to need him to keep the children amused once the new baby arrived. Perhaps it was time to start telling them a few of their great-grandfather's tales....
~ fin ~