Note: The following story takes place between Chapters 9 and 10 of my "So I met John Porter…" fanfic. All the previous disclaimers apply.
"Porter," I answer my mobile as I get out of the car.
"It's Layla. We have a lead on who hired your little Jamaican friend."
"Let me guess. A is for American?"
"And certain national military cemeteries. I'll fill you in when you get back in town."
"And Alex?" There was some resistance when I demanded an agent to watch the house she was sharing with Dianne's mother. But even if Alex was not the target, Layla understood that I was not coming back to London until she put someone on the house. It's nice to have a C.O. that gets you.
"Eyes are in place. She'll be fine John."
"Thanks. I have some things to take care of here, but I'll be in tomorrow morning. I hear congratulations are in order, Captain."
"They are and thank you."
"Does Firm protocol allow NCOs to take their superior officer out for a celebratory drink?"
"It does in my part of the Firm."
"Friday then, if prevailing conditions permit."
"Yes well, we'll talk about that. See you tomorrow."
I turn off the phone as I walk into the churchyard. In mufti I look like another tourist, and so hopefully pass unnoticed. When they moved the barracks to Credenhill, they moved the old clock tower and created their own cemetery for the Regiment's fallen, very organized and formal and military. So I was glad to hear that Karen Andrews had honored her husband's request by burying him in the traditional plot in St. Martin's. There is something about the old stone church with its red doors surrounded by the old family graves, the wall of trees screening the yard from the suburbia that has grown up around it. I remember Steve saying when he first saw it that if it was any more picture-postcard English country-side he'd start sweating tea, but deep down he'd liked the place. It feels like a good place to have a rest, and with S.A.S' long history here they know how to take care of us…of him.
I hadn't been here since I left the Army. Steve died while I was in the field, so I was spared a funeral that could have turned very ugly if I had showed up. When I got back, I was busy debriefing and then getting ready for Greg's jaunt to the Caribbean. Alex had come down on the train…
We are the Pilgrims, master: we shall go
Always a little further: it may be
Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow,
Across that angry or that glimmering sea,
White on a throne or guarded in a cave
There lives a prophet who can understand
Why men are born: but surely we are brave,
Who make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.
Crossed the glimmering sea and a few blue mountains. And I'm still making the journey, still above ground.
Fuck it and the excuses, I didn't come because I hadn't. I saw Mike and Keith's names on the clock tower, but I hadn't felt comfortable staying long. Before I cleared my name, the looks I got from the personnel told me I was there only on sufferance. After the truth came out, after Steve had cleared it for me, I just...hadn't. But driving Alex back to her Grandmum's in Leominster, I didn't have any more excuses.
The Regimental plot stands behind the church, at the back of the gentle jumble of the family graves, standing in precise rows of uniform clean grey stones as if on parade. The shield with the winged dagger carved above the names with the cross below. I crouch down by the newest one.
Stephen L. Andrews
22 Special Air Service Regiment
6th of May, 2010. Age 38.
Beloved Husband and Father, Proud Soldier.
"How've y'been, Steve?" I reach out to touch the cool stone.
They told me at the outset you were unlikely to wake up, and as time went on I knew, logically, that you probably weren't. But there was still some part of me that hung on, that needed you to wake up, just to talk to you, see that take-on-the-world-and-then-take-the-piss-out-of-it expression again. But that got mixed up in the chance you held to clear my name. The part of me that wanted you to wake up and tell me what had happened. To tell me it wasn't my fault…To forgive me. And after a while I had wrapped my hopes in you so much, had my head jammed so far up my own arse in my misery, I forgot that I just missed you. I didn't realize that until Haiti, running the local police in circles in the middle of the night while lifting supplies from a warehouse. Christ it was easy, pack of school kids could have pulled it off. When I turned to have a laugh with you there was some Yank there instead. That moment I missed you so much it hurt.
In the hell I was living in, I'd forgotten how much I just missed having my best mate around.
But you did it in the end didn't you? You still watched my back and saved my arse. I wish I could have done the same for you.
I wish that I could at least still hang onto the hope of talking with you one more time….
"'M sorry." I wipe my face as I start to move away before it gets as ugly as it was whenever we ran into each other in Hospital.
I turn to look at the small brunette, her wide face and brown eyes. She and the tall red-head Steve always were an odd couple. She had always seemed so gentle and controlled, but before they married Steve had told me with a wicked grin there was a fire under there and I had gotten the worst of end of it when he was injured. I don't feel like getting spat on again so I stay silent, waiting to see what she does.
Her arms cross over her chest as if the August breeze coming in off the fields is cold. She looks at Steve's grave for a moment. "Claire rang me, told me you had called at the HQ to find where Steven was. She felt I should come talk to you."
"You know how much went through her desk back when you were with the Regiment, John. She's the head of the administrative staff now. She handles the personnel files."
And would have seen the inquiry decision being added to mine. Non-essential, if vital, family information being disseminated in the time-honored tradition. I suddenly realize I can breathe again and try to swallow the ache in my throat.
"It seems I owe you an apology," she continues.
"You weren't any angrier at me than I was at myself," I reply quietly. "I thought I had killed him too."
"Yes," she says, stepping forward. "But I knew how you two felt about one another. As hard as it is being an SAS wife, competing not only with the military but with the members of a patrol, with you, for his attention, the way you kept visiting him over the years, I should have known you would have taken your own life before you hurt Steve willingly. It was a mistake, a mistake I should have forgiven before now."
Easy to say now that's it's not my fault anymore. I wonder if the circumstances had not changed if she would be standing there talking instead of taking a swing at me, but it's not worth the trouble to find out and Steve deserves a little peace.
"Yeah…" She motions me over to the bench by the Falklands Wall. Poor bastards. "I heard about Dianne, I'm sorry."
"I had no idea she was even ill." It's hard to keep the weary resentment out of my voice.
"Well that's Dianne all over," Karen snorts. "I never met anyone who could harbor such a deep seated grudge and never admit it. Even when I first met you it was obvious she was unhappy, blamed you, yet determined to play the perfect, if martyred, military wife. I'll admit that when I heard she left I…but I never understood what she was always so mad at you for."
I shake my head as we sit down, "Not being there for her and Lexie, not giving her the life she wanted. I fucked up early on and tried to make up for that, but it was never enough."
"How is Lexie?"
"Dealing with it. It was a big shock of course, but she's adjusting. We just came back from a trip, I think that helped." We update each other on our kids, Alex joining OxFam and Matt making the school football team. "How is he handling it?" I nod at the graves.
She hesitates, "Steve wasn't really a part of Matt's life since he was three. When he was five he stopped wanting to go in the room with me, and when he was seven he stopped making the trip. It wasn't his father anymore, just some strange man lying in a bed that his Mummy visited. I think that was the hardest moment for me, Matt was moving on as life was, and Steve couldn't and because he couldn't I wasn't. Terrified and guilt ridden about moving forward, clinging to an impossible hope of moving back."
I look at the grass. "I was away when he passed on. Took me this long just to…."
She nods in understanding. "I started mourning him when Matt stopped coming down to Hospital. That was when I realized that for his sake, I had to…not let go, but shift the focus of our lives to the living. Steve's passing hurt but it was over at last, for him and for us."
"Yeah, I understand."
"I…I'm getting married soon."
There's a flash of rage on Steve's behalf, barely in the ground and his wife is shagging someone else. But I remind myself he hasn't been a husband to her in eight years sort of the way Dianne had not been a wife to me when I met Dani. Not that it was Steve's choice, but in the end result is the same: Loneliness.
Swallowing my anger, I cover her hand with mine, looking into eyes holding almost as much guilt as I used to see in the mirror, asking for the forgiveness I once needed. "Good. He wouldn't want you to be alone."
She breathes deeply as she grips my fingers for a moment before letting go. "As long as I did not take up with anyone in the Navy, that was the only restriction he put on me," she chuckles as she tears up.
Every couple with a spouse that goes into combat has had that discussion. "I don't think he would have been too happy with anyone in RLC either."
That one gets her laughing and soon we're swapping stories about that mad ginger bastard I served with in Kuwait, and the more tempered man I came to know during the Selection, the S.A.S. testing and training programme that turned a couple of blunt instruments into precise fighting and intelligence gathering machines. But at first it was our competitiveness with each other that really honed us, and then our friendship as we started leaning on each other to make it through. At first abusively, and then inseparably, playing Steve's straight man the whole time. All the trouble we got into and pulled each other out of over the years. My best mate. By the time I walk Karen to her car, we're cried and laughed out.
I think Steve would be happy with that.
I'm surprised when she hugs me, but I return it. I really needed this. The sadness is there, but it doesn't hurt as much. Maybe the last scraps of guilt have been cleared away. Maybe for Karen too. "I'm glad you came down. Be happy."
"You too. Thank you for being such a good friend to him, John. Take care of yourself."
As I get in my car, I look over at his headstone in the yard one last time. "…Cheers, mate."
It's three and a half hours into London. Now I wish I had taken the train. At least I could have gotten some work done or some sleep rather than face 145 miles with nothing to keep me occupied but the radio. With Alex and Steve settled, 40 minutes in I'm staring ahead into the dusk trying very hard to not wonder how dark green-blue eyes could turn as bright as spring leaves when they start to cry.
Christ. Listen to yourself, would you.
It had been a long time since I was on the dealer's end of ending a relationship. I did it for all the right reasons and handled it as well as I could. Honorably, rather than fucking her brains out as I would have killed to in that moment. Didn't even get a bloody hand-job out of it.
And I am still I walking away feeling like an utter piece of shit.
Walk out a boyscout or walk out a bastard...
The memory of Alex's voice when I told her that I would not be seeing Kip again rings clear as a bell, "You what?"
"I'm not in the right place to have a relationship right now." I tried to keep my voice down so we did not provide entertainment for the entire plane.
"Did she know this when you guys started to…"
"I didn't mean…"
"Jeezus Christ! I've thought you were many things, but a tart wasn't one of them."
"Smarmy git," she muttered, jabbing at the raw nerve again.
"Shut it!" I raised my voice at last, and then, in the ensuing silence, I wondered exactly how much of this stuff should I talk to my daughter about? This is weird, I thought before I continued quietly. "I didn't know what was going to happen. I really liked Kip and I would have…pursued things, but my work…"
"How long are you going to keep using that excuse?"
"It's not an excuse!" I growled under my breath. "You of all people know the kind of demands my work puts on me and those around me. If that wasn't bad enough, those people, like you, have now been pulled into it as well. We don't have any choice over that and I am sorry. I will do everything I can to protect you and I won't put anyone else at risk if I don't have to."
As Alex and I stiffly exchanged apologies, I remembered the cold terror that ran down my spine when Lexie was trapped below decks with the pirates in Port au Prince. It was, to my surprise, equaled by the same feeling when Kip's screams were cut off as the boat she was tied to slipped under. I'd gotten lucky that day. The pirates were incompetent and Kip's screaming, along with the floating debris from the boat she was tied to, had helped us find and reach her in time. Both my girls were safe, but the idea that they could have been killed because of me made me nauseous from the soul outwards. Still does.
Then there were David's suspicions, that a woman who had come from that proud of a military tradition was serving her government as much as I did. While I acknowledge the logic of the accusation, every instinct in me says it's ridiculous. Either she is a brilliant actress or she does not have the temperament for the work. Even in her thirties she's too headstrong and undisciplined, not to mention a bit volatile and occasionally the attention span of a five year old. God knows what she must have been like when she was younger. No wonder she did not follow in her family's footsteps. I can see her trying to take a poke at her D.I. the first time she was dressed down and feeling utterly justified as they hauled her away to the Glasshouse. How did a girl like her come out of a clan like that? A random genetic dump of "daft" every few generations?
Adorably daft. Just daft enough to keep things interesting without driving you mad.
How could a woman kiss like that if she wasn't honestly responding? If she did not actually want it? Want me? Full of warmth and sweetness, the catch in her breath, the little yearning noises in her throat, her body molded to mine as if she couldn't get close enough. Like she needed to be about seven and a half inches closer (Seven. Seven and a half!), I think to myself as the memory rises up of her writhing against me, clutching at me and moaning my name as she came under my fingers, hot and wet and so soft.
The instant I touched her, my libido reminds me with a fierce surge of pride, possessiveness, and wanting as blood starts to rush to places I can't do anything about, especially while driving at 20 miles an hour over the speed limit.
Easy on the accelerator Andretti.
Then afterward. The moonlight lying soft on her pale skin, her dark eyes, her hair like silk as she touched my face in a way that makes my chest ache remember, as if I was being…cherished….
The idea that that could be faked, that she didn't really... A cold knot forms in the pit of my stomach, dousing the heat of the memories if not the memories themselves.
It might be fun for James Bond to shag women who might kill him, but I wasn't interested in a coital knife in the back. It would definitely put a damper on foreplay.
Though Sophie Marceau might be worth it.
So would Kip.
Probably...once I got over...
Shit. I shouldn't be thinking about this. Done is done and for the best for her that it is. After leading her on and dumping her like that, she probably wouldn't have a comprehensive school, ground-pounder like me back anyway. Shove the memories back down where they came from. Just move on and focus on wrapping up complete bastard of a loose end….