Saturday, 10 April, 2010
The park was bright and warm, packed with families and joggers all taking advantage of the respite from what felt like two solid months of rain. John couldn’t blame them; even without a very good excuse to be here, he might well have gone for a walk alone, despite the possible danger. He kept a wary eye out for the surveillance team he hadn’t seen for the last week (which just meant, by his way of thinking, that they’d been switched out for more skilled operatives) but most of his attention went to scanning the women and children walking toward the lake.
Right on time, he spotted Clara; she’d always been the prompt one, the only reason Harry ever made it anywhere on time. He grinned and waved in greeting, his heart leaping in excitement at the sight of the figure toddling along at her side. The little girl was in a bright yellow dress that made her fair blond hair look white by comparison. One knee was scabbed and her socks had slid down to bunch at her ankles. Her face was half-hidden behind adult-sized sunglasses with huge round lenses. When the frame slipped down her nose, she let go of her mother’s hand to shove the glasses back into place, though it was a losing battle.
Feeling like his heart was going to burst, John knelt down and opened his arms. With a squealed laugh, the little girl dropped back to hide behind Clara’s leg, and then peeked out at John again.
“Don’t be shy, little love,” Clara laughed, reaching back to fondly ruffle fair blond hair so pale it was nearly white. “That’s Uncle John.”
“Hello, Lizzie,” John said gently, overwhelmed by the need to sweep the child into his arms and hold her protectively close. He couldn’t help but feel a guilty sense of regret that there were probably pictures of Lizzie in some file cross-referenced to him, full of ugly insinuations. But he wasn’t going to let fear rule his life. He would find a way to fix all this, if for no other reason than for this little girl.
She broke from her mother’s side and ran to him, tiny shoes slapping loudly on the paved path. Perhaps it was a child’s natural curiosity or the lack of caution in her mother’s tone. Surely she didn’t remember John; she’d been barely three months old when he’d last seen her while on leave, so tiny and fragile but still just as beautiful.
Tears stung John’s eyes as he pulled her close, abandoning his cane in the dirt to lift her into his arms and stand. Absolutely trusting now, she wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed a wet kiss to his face. “Unca ’On!”
“Close enough,” he whispered, burying his face in her hair. It had started out in braids at some point, but enough strands had come free that she looked like she’d been on the losing end of a fight against a hurricane. Thinking back to the emails and letters he’d received, he wasn’t surprised. ‘Precocious’ didn’t begin to describe her.
“Hello, John,” Clara said, giving him a more civilized kiss on his other cheek. “Is she too heavy? Your shoulder —”
“God, no,” John said with a laugh, feeling like he could carry her forever. But that wasn’t going to happen; already, Lizzie was squirming to get down. “Are you sure this is Lizzie? She’s practically all grown up,” he teased, holding her back enough to look into her sunglasses, trying to see her eyes.
“Duck!” she declared in answer.
“She wants to feed them,” Clara explained, digging into a satchel that rivaled John’s old patrol rucksack. As soon as she pulled out a paper bag, Lizzie squirmed in John’s arms, leaning dangerously toward her mother to snatch at the bag.
“Easy,” John cautioned, reluctantly setting the child down, picking up his cane instead. As soon as Lizzie had her prize, she took off like a shot, limbs flailing as she ran for the lake. Her sunglasses went flying as did the ducks, though the ducks didn’t go far, perhaps sensing a generous provider.
“So much for asking if you missed her,” Clara said as she and John went to sit on the bench closest to the spot Lizzie had staked out.
“Look at her,” John said in wonder. She was utterly fearless, scolding the ducks that bullied one another as she attempted to systematically dispense the bread without favoritism. “My God, I can’t believe how she’s grown.”
“It’s been since she was... what, three, four months?”
John nodded, hiding his guilty flinch. When he’d come back from Afghanistan, he’d been trapped in a grey fog, directionless and lost. By the time he’d snapped out of it, Clara had already filed for divorce and gone back up north to spend a couple of months with her parents.
“I’m sorry,” he said sincerely, glancing at Clara for just a moment before his eyes were drawn back to the little girl. He could still hardly believe she was real. “I should have... called or come to visit or something.”
“John, don’t.” Clara’s voice was gently scolding. “Harry... she hasn’t exactly made this easy. I don’t blame her, but —”
“Why not?” John snapped. He shook his head and looked sadly at Clara. “She had everything in the world, Clara. I know all about addiction, and you can say it’s biological or not her fault or some physiological condition, but she hardly even tried.”
Clara sighed and looked down at her hands, twisting together in her lap. “Lizzie still doesn’t understand. I’m careful not to say anything — I won’t have her grow up hating Harry.”
“Has Harry even called?”
Clara bit her lip, not answering.
John let out a sigh, telling himself that anger would solve nothing. “Don’t tell me. She got drunk. Called. Begged you to come back. Wanted to talk to Lizzie,” he guessed, his voice soft and even.
“Guess you really do know her better than I do. I didn’t expect... that,” Clara admitted.
“Oh, love. God, I’m so sorry.” He reached out and gently took her hand.
They fell into silence that eased by inches, tension slow to bleed from them despite the tranquil lakeside setting. Unaware, Lizzie continued her distribution efforts with the type of self-control that John had never expected from a child.
Finally, Clara sighed and squeezed his hand, turning to smile at him. “I’m moving on. I’m looking for a job, you know, so if you hear anything...”
John couldn’t hide his frown. “What about Lizzie?”
Hesitantly, Clara shook her head, looking back at the child. “London’s expensive, John. I don’t want to take her too far away. But Harry can’t pay much —”
“Clara,” he interrupted, wishing he’d thought to do this before. He didn’t want it to seem like an impulse offer, though obviously he’d prepared things ahead of time.
Clara took the envelope with a frown and looked inside. Her eyes went wide. “John. God, John, you can’t. You don’t get much at all on a pension —”
“I have a job, remember?” he said, holding up a hand to stop her effort to return the envelope. Knowing how hard it was even for a couple to live in London, he’d cleaned out his savings for her. If she needed more, he’d find a way. He could break his lease and go back to the bedsit or take a second job — whatever was necessary to provide for Lizzie and her mother. He was resolved that at least one Watson in the family was going to be responsible.
“You said.” She faltered, looking at the check inside the envelope, and finally let him push her hand in the direction of her satchel. As she tucked the envelope deep into the recesses of the satchel, she asked, “Are you at a hospital, then? This can’t be from locum work.”
Nervously, John shook his head, looking back at Lizzie. He couldn’t help but wonder if this would be the last time he’d ever see her. Clara was open-minded — she’d been with Harry for years, after all — but as far as he knew, theirs had been a perfectly vanilla relationship.
“Remember your first Christmas with us?”
“Oh, God, that was horrid,” Clara said, wincing at the memory. “I still feel guilty for laughing, but really, love. You weren’t about to take me away from Harry, mistletoe or not.”
“Heartbreaker,” John accused, though his smile quickly faded. “Do you remember exactly what Harry said?”
Clara frowned, closing her eyes in concentration. John watched a flush creep over her cheeks as she turned away, embarrassed. “Something about, ah, her not letting you get me into your handcuffs?”
John took a deep breath, glancing at Lizzie to make certain she was still distracted by the ducks. He lowered his voice and said, “That’s sort of my thing.” He turned back to Clara.
She was still frowning when she met his eyes. “What, stealing her dates? She told me she caught you kissing her girlfriend during that trip to Brighton.”
“No, Clara,” he said gently. “The handcuffs.”
Surprise flickered in her eyes. She shrugged, looking toward the lake, buying herself a moment to consider this new facet of John’s personality. “Well. That’s... all right. It’s not my thing — a little weird, but I suppose people say that about lesbians.”
It wasn’t quite a rousing endorsement of his lifestyle, but at least she wasn’t accusing him of unnatural perversions. John tried to take heart from that, though he still hadn’t decided which was the harder admission: explaining his kinks or explaining that he got paid for applying them professionally.
“It always has been, for as long as I can remember,” he said, trying to bridge Clara’s mental image of the man she’d thought she knew with the one sitting beside her now, having this discussion. “I was just always a bit more subtle than Harry.”
Clara couldn’t help but laugh shortly at that. “A volcano is more subtle than Harry,” she said truthfully, glancing at him. “May as well get it all out, John.”
“It’s to do with my job,” he said, turning back to the lake to keep an eye on Lizzie. “I’m a professional dominant. Sort of an escort, only with less sex and more tying people up.”
He could feel her staring at him. He gave her a few seconds before he glanced back. Her eyes had gone wide, lips parted in surprise.
“That’s... There are...” she said uncertainly, blinking at him without ever looking away. “I mean, you can get paid for...”
Nervously smiling, John said, “Quite a bit, actually, with the right marketing. The woman I work for is an —”
“You work for someone?”
John bit back a laugh and nodded. “Her name’s Irene. She’s been doing this for years. She finally got too busy, and she wanted to bring in a man for clients who preferred —”
“Clients.” Clara took a deep breath, looking back at Lizzie. “My God. Of all the people...”
The fear came back in a rush. “Clara, I’m still the same man you —”
“John,” she interrupted sharply, holding up a hand, not looking at him. “Just... give me a moment. Please.”
Fuck. John nodded and fell silent, watching as Lizzie emptied the last of the crumbs out of the bag. Conscientiously, she crumpled the bag with her fists and ran it over to the bench, stuffing it into her mother’s satchel. He tried to memorize everything about her, afraid that this would be the end.
“Did you have fun with the ducks, little love?” Clara asked, a cheerful note in her voice.
“Uh huh!” Lizzie beamed up at her mother before she turned to John, giving him no warning at all before she launched herself up into his lap. He got his hands behind her back, supporting her so she wouldn’t fall.
Only then did he glance at Clara, afraid that she’d pull Lizzie away. He’d respect her decision. God, it would kill him inside, but it wasn’t his choice. Bad enough that one Watson had turned her life upside-down; he wouldn’t make it two.
But she didn’t. She looked at them both, her smile slowly turning soft. “Are you hungry, little love?”
Immediately, Lizzie nodded. “Chips, mummy!” she insisted.
“You had chips yesterday,” Clara scolded gently, giving John a somewhat guilty look. “I try to feed her right.” He heard the unspoken peace offering in her voice.
John’s smile was just a bit shaky with relief. “I said I’d take you for lunch, anywhere you’d like.”
“Chips,” Lizzie commanded firmly. John couldn’t help but laugh.
“With that attitude, she’ll either be in the military or in politics, God help us all,” Clara said, gathering up her satchel. “There’s a good Italian place not too far. Just opened a couple of months ago.”
“Sounds perfect.” John started to set Lizzie down, but she squealed a protest and clung to him, her arms wrapped tight around his neck.
“Carry!” she demanded.
“Oh, no, Lizzie. He needs his cane to walk,” Clara said.
“No.” Holding Lizzie close, he stood and said, “I can manage, if you don’t mind carrying it for me?”
“You say that now, but she’s a stone and a half,” Clara warned, reaching out to get the cane.
Lizzie leaned over precariously to watch, and her sunglasses dropped off her face. “Glasses, mummy!” she said, pointing.
“Oh, you.” Laughing, Clara retrieved the glasses. “Do you want to wear them, little love?”
“Nuh uh. Want pizza,” Lizzie said firmly, and smiled happily, turning to look at John with denim blue eyes identical to his own.
“Anything,” he promised in a whisper, and kissed his daughter’s cheek. “Anything at all.”