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Croix de guerre

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She looks up, trying to see the night sky, but is thwarted by the angle of the buildings around her. It's just as well -- evenings in Paris, while once beautiful, are now a shadow of their former selves. Much like the shadow that fell over all of Europe years ago, so many that she can hardly remember a time before.

Her fingers itch for a cigarette; she hasn't had a proper one in weeks, but there will be cigarettes enough when the Allied forces arrive, and she can wait. Instead, she taps her foot, a light sound against the cobblestones of the alley and drums her fingers against the crumbling plaster of the shop's wall.

Just a hard-looking woman, perhaps a prostitute, waiting in the damp midnight darkness. No one will pay her any mind. She depends on it.

*

Viviane had many happy memories of her childhood, playing with her mother in their sun dappled garden, and of other afternoons, when she watched her mother dance the ballets of her youth -- and later, as her mother taught her the same steps, always with a soft, beautiful voice and a helping hand.

The memories of her father were less distinct, and sometimes she was grateful for that. She remembered her father -- distant and almost cold, though he doted on Catherine and Viviane -- in endless meetings with his partners, Raines and the mysterious Mutumbo. They always frightened her, but Viviane felt protected by the loving embrace of her mother.

And then one day that warmth and security was gone, and Viviane was left a father she hardly knew, a kindly psychiatrist that lived on the other side of their garden wall, and the young boy she could see staring out of his window as she went to sleep every evening.

She would never feel more alone.

*

The fierce tattoo of her nails against the wall increases in tempo. He's late, this contact of hers -- an OSE agent known only as The Pretender. He is legendary among the Resistance for his brilliance and daring, for his courage and sacrifice for the people he works with. Escorting him through the city is an honor that Viviane can still scarcely believe fell in her lap. She is a good fighter, quick and ruthless, but she is one of many.

Though she might be one less if The Pretender misses the narrow window of opportunity. Soon, the doors all along this street will open, releasing German officers, businessmen, and their female companions from the pleasure of good food and wine. If they can slip away under the cover of this crowd, Viviane knows their chances of reaching the safe house intact will rise dramatically.

But precious moments are speeding by and she is growing more anxious with each.

Does the OSE not provide accurate timepieces to its officers?

And then the rusty hinges of the door at her back creak with movement, and before she can turn, there is a large, warm hand on her shoulder and a body to her right, blocking all view of who it might be. The Pretender? The Gestapo?

But she only has to wait a moment to receive an answer.

"Viviane?" says the man, voice tight and distressed, clouded with sadness.

She knows just how he feels; her throat is so tight she is scarcely able to speak, but she forces her voice out with all the strength of her body.

"Jarod."

It is acceptance. And a sentence -- of death or life, she knows not.

But of two things she is sure, feeling it through her bones and blood -- he is The Pretender and they have all been betrayed.

*

On pleasant and not so pleasant afternoons alike, Viviane often made her way through the garden behind her home, winding through the small pathways, to the rough-hewn door and rocky wall that separated her home from that of Dr Sydney Castel. Sydney was another associate of her father's, but Viviane liked him as much as she feared Raines and the other men that regularly visited her house.

Sydney spoke with a kind voice, warm and with a hint of an accent she could never place. While he worked with her father, Sydney had been very close to her mother and he had mourned with her upon Catherine's death. What work Sydney did for her father, Viviane never truly discovered, but that didn't matter to the lonely little girl. Especially as she very much wanted to meet the boy she saw from her window, the one that appeared to live on the third floor of Sydney's home.

Finally, close to a year after the death of her mother, Viviane was allowed to meet the boy from the window.

Sydney held her hand as they climbed the stairs, explaining to her for the hundredth time that Jarod was an orphan, and that Jarod was his ward; that Jarod was terribly shy and unfamiliar with other children. And that Jarod was just as lonely as she was.

What she found was a twelve year old boy, bright and energetic and so, so ready to live.

*

Her knife is to his throat before he can say another word, the point digging in at the soft spot at the corner of his jaw, making him wince. Viviane stares into the face of the boy she once knew and her stomach sinks, all her limbs feel heavy. She feels his breath on her face, her own is so close.

She doesn't know whether to kill or to cry, and that makes her hate him all the more.

"You should be dead," she hisses. "If there was any God, you'd be dead."

She'll never forget the sounds of her friends -- their friends -- being shot as they fled. Shot in the back and left to die like animals. Better than torture at the hands of the Gestapo, but a waste all the same. She watched as Jarod slipped easily into the back of an sleek black Bugatti, her father's bald pate reflecting in the moonlight as he stood by, surveying the scene with a smug smile -- never recognizing his princess face down in the mud.

She'd wanted to die that night, watching them drive away. Everything in her world destroyed beyond repair, only a faint flicker of hope surviving.

His eyes close slowly, in exhaustion, in apology, in surrender -- she's not positive of which, and she doesn't let her heart believe a one. Viviane digs the knife in a little deeper; this time the point catching, a drop of blood wells up and trickles down his neck.

Jarod hisses and Viviane smiles cruelly.

"Perhaps, but I'm as alive as you are." He speaks the next words with eyes shut tight, a grimacing sort of smile spreading across his handsome face. "There are so many things you don't know, Viviane. You think you know all the secrets," his eyes open and bore into hers, "but you don't."

"Then why don't you tell me?"

He casts his eyes to the knife still at his throat, her eyes following. Slowly she draws back, and regarding him carefully, offers her arm.

"We'll walk that way," she tells him, pointing toward the Latin Quarter; one can be easily lost in those ancient streets, and the darkness and decay will suit them well.

He is a traitor to her, to the country, to their people, but something in her heart tells her that the secrets he has to tell might be useful to the cause. Jarod can do no harm to her now, she won't let him.

Besides, he might be a traitor, but Jarod never lies.

He takes her arm, and briefly puts his hand over hers as they exit the alley, trying for all the world to look like the lovers they once were.

*

The chateau had been her home since was eleven, shipped off to the boarding school by a father too deep in his own grief and self-interests to be bothered with a high spirited daughter. Still, years later, she only sought his approval, validation for all her hard work -- her mastery of English and literature and her fondness for art.

Instead, she received letters from Sydney on her father's behalf. Letters that were clearly from Sydney and Sydney alone. But still, she could not hate her father -- he was all she had left -- though something inside her died far too young, and by the age of eighteen she had acquired the cold countenance of someone much older and world weary. And it only broke for one person.

She stayed on at the chateau through those first long months of the war that was not a war, waiting. The Germans would move across the border, it was only a question of when. So she continued there, helping to take care of the younger girls that were like her -- orphans of one kind or another with no homes to call their own.

It was a warm day, the southern countryside especially beautiful in May, when Jarod arrived at her school. She greeted him on the front steps, a quick embrace and a kiss on the cheek -- a greeting suitable for the brother he was not.

He took her away that day with an effective half-truth for the headmistress. They raced for Marseille along with so many others, for a ship that they never saw. Instead, they found a small farmhouse, recently abandoned, and settled in with a few other families. That night they read the newspapers; Jarod's voice, young and rich, gave the words of de Gaulle that April a power that thrilled Viviane and made her look upon her childhood friend with newfound warmth.

"Quoi qu'il arrive, la flamme de la résistance française ne doit pas s'éteindre et ne s'éteindra pas" -- "Whatever happens, the flame of French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished."

He looked at her as he finished reading, eyes hooded, and a shiver went up her spine. She knew, at that very moment, that there was no way she would ever leave France.

Jarod's laugh was dry when she told him of her plan later that evening. He thought her silly and oh so young, until she kissed him, willing him to understand that there were more important things in the world than her safety. "Besides", she told him, "you'll keep me safe".

And he did.

They joined first one resistance cell, then another. Jarod's brilliance garnered respect, and the strength she had always known to be inside her finally had an outlet. They had a family, and they were in love.

It had happened slowly, but it seemed inevitable. Natural.

Sleeping within the cradle of Jarod's arms, she never wondered why it seemed that her father had forgotten she existed. All she needed to know was that Jarod had been the one to find her, to keep her safe, to love her. They were the simple things to which she held fast in that world of chaos, and despite it all, she was happy.

Then one morning Jarod tried to hide the paper from her, but with a sinking feeling in her stomach, she ripped it out of his hands. Viviane quickly saw why he'd tried to hide it -- her father, tall and proud, and smiling next to the highest ranking Vichy official in the department.

It was like a knife in her heart. Her father, a traitor. A collaborator.

She cried and railed and finally, weak and hysterical, Jarod held her, gently brushing the hair from her tear-stained face.

In the end, it only made her fight harder. She started taking risks on the tasks she'd been assigned. It wasn't as though she had a death wish, but as she explained to Jarod one night as they lay in bed, she had to make up for the sins of her father.

Jarod had closed his eyes and sighed, pulled her body close against his own, and told her that he would share the burden.

 

A month later and all her friends were dead. Her family gone. And Jarod...a traitor to the cause, had willingly stepped into the arms of the Vichy and the Nazis. To her father.

She fled to Paris, fearing for her life, hoping that its ancient walls would keep her safe, and give her time to seek revenge.

*

 

"I'll start at the beginning," he says simply.

She nods, rolls her eyes. But the low resonance of Jarod's voice is like water in the desert and she aches with it. She curls into his side, sharing the heat from his body, from his heavy coat; her own is threadbare and no match for the night air, still crisp this late in the spring.

It allows him to speak more quietly, and directly to her, his breath caressing her face. It is simple, and petty, and unwise, but all of it sends shivers up and down Viviane's spine and she justifies her actions by telling herself that it'll be all the easier to kill him like this when the time comes.

But he starts to tell his story, and she listens. He told stories when they were children, locked away in Sydney's tower, but this story is far more dangerous than any of the others -- no fairies or princesses now, just evil men with wicked deeds.

First, he asks her if she ever wondered why he came to live with Sydney.

And deep down she always has wondered, but Jarod starts from there. He explains how he had been taken as a boy, how people had recognized certain gifts -- he says the word with such distaste, Viviane is surprised he doesn't spit upon the ground -- and that he had come to live with Sydney, for study. Shortly before her mother's death.

Jarod tells her of his memories of Catherine Parker, how soft and dark her hair was, how she smelled -- and with each of these recollections he focuses on her, taking a lock of her hair between his fingers, burying his nose at the crook of her neck. He tells her how Catherine Parker visited him often, how he heard her arguing with Sydney, and how she had tried to rescue him.

"That was in March.".

Viviane gasps. "That was just before we were to go to England!"

"She was taking both of us. They were --" Jarod pauses, takes a deep breath and continues in low, quavering voice. "Your father and his associates," the words sounding awful falling from his mouth, "they had plans. I was the answer to all their dreams, and to the dreams of so many more --" his eyes flick to one of the many Nazi propaganda items that have been plastered on the walls.

"But that was years before!"

"Viviane, men like your father and Mutumbo--"

It was her turn to gasp. The African had always frightened her, as though he was just too much to truly exist in this world.

" -- and others, have been dreaming of this since long before we were born. It was the discovery of people like myself, and a few others, that brought their dreams into sight."

"What exactly are you?" She clings a little tighter to his side, Jarod's arm wrapping tight around her waist. There's a large part of her that doesn't want to hear the answer.

Finally, he speaks. "I'm what they call a Pretender."

 

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