It was all her idea, not that anyone would ever believe it. Not Jean Randall, that good girl, practical and clever and always obedient to her parents’ wishes. Jean was a regular attendant at Sacred Heart, sitting demurely beside her parents every week at mass, never a strand of hair out of place. Surely she would never do something so blasphemous.
And yet, sitting in the backseat of Christopher’s father’s car, her legs still wrapped firmly around his waist, her head pillowed on his shoulder, it was Jean who suggested they give it a try. It was her eighteenth birthday, and so far she had celebrated in a grand - if terribly naughty - fashion. She’d smoked a cigarette and drunk whiskey from Christopher’s hip flask and made love to him in the backseat of the car, nestled beneath a copse of trees on the edge of town bearing silent witness to her sins. She felt wild, and free, and alive; today was the day everything would change, and she couldn’t wait another moment longer.
Father Walker said it was a sin. According to him - and to the church - God had a plan for everyone’s life, and to put that plan to the test, to rush things along, was a direct affront to him. You must be patient, as the Lord your God is patient, Father Walker had told her Sunday School class, the morning he came to speak to them about the marking. The subject at hand was so sacrosanct that the old priest would not trust anyone else to come and speak to the young ladies of Jean’s class about it, and so he had come to tell them himself.
The marking begins for each of us on our eighteenth birthday, when we are finally mature enough to accept the plan that God has in store for our lives, he’d told them in his quivering voice. From that day forward, every wound inflicted on your body will be echoed in the body of your beloved, a symbol that we must share our burdens, and carry one another through the pains of this life. By this marking you will know your beloved, and he will know you, and you can rest assured that your union has been blessed by God. His eyes had shone, as he spoke, and for a moment Jean had wondered if Father Walker had ever experienced a marking, if he had a soulmate out there, somewhere, a woman he had forsaken in order to follow his calling as a priest. She couldn’t quite imagine it somehow, someone falling in love Father Walker, with his foggy eyes and his jowly neck and his stooped shoulders. Some of you may think to mark yourselves on purpose, as a test of your love. This is a grievous sin, my dears. You must wait, and in time your beloved will be revealed to you, when God has deemed you worthy.
Jean Randall was many things, but patient had never been one of them. Today was her eighteenth birthday, the day she entered adulthood, the day her marking would begin, and she was in love with this boy who currently rested within the cradle of her thighs, smiling his devilish smile, his dark curls tumbling all around his face. What could it hurt, she asked herself as she ran her fingers through those curls, if she decided to cut herself on purpose, just to see what happened? Some of the other girls had done it, she knew; she’d heard them whispering, sobbing when they discovered that their boyfriend wasn’t the one for them. Wouldn’t it be better, she asked herself, to know for sure, rather than waste another moment with someone who wasn’t her soulmate?
For some there is no marking, Father Walker had told them all, his voice taking a melancholy turn. Some of us are not meant to be husbands or wives, and there is no shame in this. And for some there may be more than one; a beloved found early in life, lost to death, may one day be replaced by another. And there is no shame in this, either. It is all a part of God’s plan.
There was a very small, very frightened piece of Jean’s heart that worried she might be one of those unlucky few for whom there was no other half, no joy, no love. It seemed to her to be a most dreadful fate, to know that one was doomed to live out one’s life without a partner. Jean wanted a partner, a hand to hold, strong arms to cradle her close and protect her from the darkness of the world. She wanted to love and be loved, wanted to travel the world with her soulmate by her side, and the thought of spending all her days alone was a daunting one. Yes, she decided, it would be better to know.
“Are you sure?” Christopher asked her, his blue eyes hooded and satisfied in the wake of their love making. This too was a sin, Jean knew, to give her body to a boy who was not her husband, who had not even proposed to her, but it was the best kind of sin, the kind that left her tingling and full of hope, the kind she could not help but commit time and time again. Something else to confess, the next time, wondering what Father Walker must think of her.
“I want to know,” Jean said fiercely. “I love you, but I want to know for sure.”
“All right, then,” Christopher shrugged. He shuffled around beneath her, caught his trousers with his foot and brought them up so he could root through his pockets in search of the small knife he always carried with him. He held it out to her, and her fingers trembled as she took it from him.
This was the moment when everything would change. Her whole life seemed to hang in the balance as she stared down at Christopher’s little knife. If she cut herself, and no mark appeared on his body, she knew she would be devastated; she had given everything to Christopher, spent nights dreaming about where they would go, what they would do, what sort of life they would have, far away from Ballarat. He was always talking about leaving, about taking her on a grand adventure, and Jean couldn’t wait for that adventure to start. If he was not the one for her, those plans would all be doomed. And yet, if he was the one, then she would know, would no longer worry about the sinfulness of being with him like this, when they were destined to be together. She could leave her parents’ house and their expectations far behind and join her life to Christopher’s, the way she so desperately longed to.
“Here we go,” she said, trembling just a little as she steeled herself for the pain. For a moment she considered simply pricking her finger, just a little jab; it wouldn’t take much, to make her point. But she wanted something bigger, something grander, something she and Christopher could proudly show their friends and families. She wanted proof.
She closed her eyes, and sliced the knife across her palm, hissing at the sting. It wasn’t deep, but it hurt.
For a moment she hung in suspense, her eyes still closed, her heart pounding madly in her chest. All the answers she sought were right there for the taking, but she was so frightened of losing Christopher that she could not bear to look.
“Oh, Jeannie,” Christopher breathed.
Her eyes flew open at once, and she gazed upon him in sheer terror. To her immense relief, however, Christopher was smiling. He held up his hand, and laughed when her eyes went wide as saucers.
There on his palm, fresh and bloodless and undeniable, was a small cut, matching hers exactly.
She squealed in sheer delight and flung her arms around his neck, pulling him to her for an exuberant kiss. It might have been a sin, but nothing in her life had ever felt as wonderful as this. Christopher was hers, the other half of her soul, the one she was meant to spend the rest of her life with, and she could not wait for the rest of her life to begin.
As the sun went down on Ballarat it was rising on Edinburgh, and Lucien Blake was tangled up with a local girl, seriously considering lying out of work and spending the rest of the day in her bed. Surely the hospital wouldn’t mind, he told himself as his companion absent-mindedly ran her fingertips over the back of his hand, staring up at him through thick eyelashes. They could survive a day without him. Soon they would have to survive a lot more than that; Lucien had decided to join the Army as a surgeon, and his time in Scotland was nearly through. Surely it wouldn’t make that much of a difference, if he found other, more interesting ways to entertain himself.
He opened his mouth to ask his charming bedfellow if she had a telephone he could use when she turned his hand over, and gasped.
“Oh, Lucien,” she sighed dreamily, holding up his left palm for his inspection. “Look.”
He stared at his own hand in a state of shock. Across his skin a mark had risen, a long, thin laceration that most definitely had not been there only moments before. He knew what this was, had seen it a thousand times at the hospital; it was a marking. And Lucien wasn’t entirely sure how he felt about that; he had yet to meet a woman he was interested in settling down with, and the thought that somewhere out there was a girl chosen for him by fate rankled. He would much rather have made that choice himself. In point of fact, given that he was twenty-four years old and had yet to experience a mark, he had been certain that he had dodged that particular bullet, that there was no hypothetical woman out there quietly chiding him for his carelessness. Oh, his friends had teased him, had said maybe she was a careful girl, or a young one, not yet eighteen and not yet old enough for the marking to begin, but he had not truly believed, before this moment, that he would ever tie himself to anyone. He had seen what misery love had brought his parents, and he wanted no part of it.
“How about that, eh?” he said faintly. The girl beside him flopped onto her back, misty-eyed.
“It’s so romantic,” she breathed. “You have a soulmate, Lucien. I wonder who she is?”
“I wonder where she is,” Lucien mumbled under his breath.
“Back home in Australia?” the girl suggested.
Lucien just shook his head, thinking of Monica. He had tested that relationship himself, had cut his thumb and watched her closely, and when he realized that she was not the one for him, he’d left forthwith, not even bothering to say goodbye to her. Monica would have been devastated, to learn what he’d done; she was a good girl, and she always did whatever Father Walker said. For his part, Lucien had never put much stock in the old priest’s ramblings, and he was glad he’d cut himself before he made the grievous error of proposing to her. He shuddered to think what might have happened, if he’d gone through with it.
“Well, we know it’s not me,” the girl said, laughing. Most of the girls he knew whispered about the marking in awed voices too soft for him to hear, treated it as if it were holy, the way Father Walker said it was. That this girl should be so untroubled by the fact that she shared her bed with a man who belonged to another came as a bit of a shock to him, but not an altogether unpleasant one. Wherever she was, he was certain that he hadn’t met his soulmate yet, and he didn’t feel particularly guilty about keeping company with someone else for the time being.
But even as he rolled over and began to kiss his way down his giggling lover’s body, he found his thoughts drifting back to the mark on his palm, and the woman who’d put it there. What would she be like, this girl he was meant to find? When would he find her? Where? Would they be happy together? Wherever she was, he hoped that she was well, and that she would be more careful in the future; he imagined she’d be rather disapproving of some of the choices he’d made, and he didn’t fancy the thought of carrying a constant reminder of her - and her displeasure - with him everywhere he went.
Chapter 2: Chapter 2
Eighteen months later…
Lucien woke with a start, his forehead bathed in sweat. He was alone, as he had been every night since that first mark appeared. Though he had entertained the notion a time or two of taking another girl to bed, the memory of that shining mark upon his palm taunted him, damned him for a betrayer, and he found he could not follow through on his salacious impulses. She was out there, somewhere, this girl who was meant for him, this woman who would share his bed and his life, help him carry his burdens, as Father Walker would have put it, and though he did not know her name, would not have recognized her face in a crowded room, just the thought of her was enough to make him keep his wandering hands to himself. He was at present lying in his bed in the barracks, having been awoken by a sharp, sudden pain that left him gasping for breath. It took him a moment, to isolate the cause of his distress, and when he did his heart began to pound double time.
It was a deep, clenching pain in his stomach, unlike anything he’d ever felt before. Just the once, as if he’d been struck by lightning in his sleep. He rolled onto his side with a groan, drawing his knees up to his chest and running through all the possible explanations for this sudden malady. He’d eaten nothing strange, and the water on base had all been cleared to drink. He’d had no exposure to toxic chemicals, and he wasn’t suffering from any sort of vitamin deficiency. And then it struck again, that whisper of something horrible passing through his body, faint but still detectable, quite the strangest sensation he’d experienced in his entire life. He could think of no possible reason, for him to be in such pain, and then it occurred to him; perhaps he wasn’t in pain at all. Perhaps she was.
Dimly he recalled Father Walker’s lecture on the marking; sometimes, Father Walker had said, when the love between two people is deep and strong and pure, when the pain one suffers is truly dire, the beloved will feel the pain as well. Many men have said that while their wives labored at childbirth they themselves could feel the pain. We call this an echo, and we thank God for this blessing.
“Bloody hell,” Lucien muttered, shuddering as it hit him again. If this truly was an echo, no more than a shadow of his soulmate’s pain, how much more must she be feeling?
It had started months before, the manifestation of his latest marking, his beloved’s latest agony. He woke one morning and his feet were swollen. A few weeks later, silvery stretch marks appeared like lightning strikes across the smooth, tanned skin of his abdomen. As more of them appeared his heart had sunk in his chest; somehow, though he could not say how, he was certain that she was pregnant. He’d felt the occasional twinge in his back, when he was doing nothing strenuous at all, had the seen the tiny mark of a needle appear in the crook of his elbow, as if someone had drawn her blood. And those damned stretch marks, taunting him every time he bathed.
The sight of them filled him with a rage and a sorrow he was loath to contemplate. Why should he be cross, that his beloved had given herself to another? He didn’t even know her name, and he had committed the same offense himself, more than once. Knowing that she had slept with someone and knowing that she was pregnant were altogether difference circumstances, however. Whose child was growing in her belly? Lucien had asked himself this question more than once, dragging his fingertips across those silvery lines and cursing whatever man had taken his place. Was she happy with this interloper? What hope could Lucien have of finding her, of joining his life to hers as he was meant to, if she had borne another man’s children?
And now this deep, gut wrenching pain. It was too soon for her labor to begin, he knew; he’d taken account of the days, and checked his calendar, wanting to know when he could expect the arrival of her child. Wherever she was, she was in some distress, and Lucien knew from his medical training that it was unlikely her child would survive this. His heart ached for her, even as he raged at the thought of another man’s hands upon her body. He lay curled on his side, his heart pounding feverishly, and found himself on the verge of weeping. Whoever she was, whatever she had done, she did not deserve this agony, did not deserve to suffer such pain, did not deserve to lose her child in the process. For one mad moment he contemplated sending her a message; his knife was sharp and close at hand, and it would be no difficult thing, to carve the words I’m sorry into the flesh of his thigh, to shout out across all the miles that separated them and tell her that no matter what, she was not alone, that she was not the only one feeling this pain, this grief. Somehow, though, he didn’t think she would appreciate the intrusion of a stranger while she struggled and bled, and so he kept his hands wrapped firmly around his knees, praying that it would end, praying for peace. For both of them.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Beazley,” Doctor Blake said sadly, clapping his hand on Christopher’s shoulder in a comforting sort of way. “We lost the baby. Your wife will be all right; she’s lost rather a lot of blood, but she’ll come through. She just needs to rest now.”
“Thank you, Doctor,” Christopher said feebly. They’d been married four months now; he’d already been planning to propose when Jean had told him - sobbing all the while - that she was pregnant, and her news had only sped up what he felt was an inevitable conclusion. She was his soulmate, the other half of his heart, the one person who kept him grounded, kept him sane, kept him going, and he was proud to call her wife. Even if they were much too young, even if their marriage had been predicated on sin, he loved her, and he was so grateful that he’d found her, that they’d found a way to be together.
And now this. Jean had been so excited about the arrival of their baby; she’d been knitting like mad and humming to herself everywhere she went, every inch of her glowing with that gentle joy she could not hide. She was five months gone, her belly swollen but not as heavy as it should have been, as it could have been, if only their child had survived. This loss was unlike anything Christopher had ever experienced before, a great hollow chasm opening in his chest, wide and hungry and empty. Part of him wanted to run, to leave this hospital and this town and this horror far behind him, but Jean was here, and he could not abandon her.
“The baby,” he said, choking on the words. “Was it...was it a boy? Jean will want to know.”
Doctor Blake smiled down at him sadly, his eyes warm and full of pity. “A girl,” he said softly. “A little girl.”
A girl. His daughter, his dream, taken from him far too soon. Christopher wanted to weep, but he refused to break down in front of the doctor.
“Can I see her?” he asked, hating the way his voice trembled.
“You don’t want to do that, son,” Doctor Blake said heavily. “Trust me. You don’t want to remember her that way. I’ve rung Paul Baxter, he’ll help you arrange a funeral for her, if you like.”
Christopher nodded, some small, selfish part of him grateful that Doctor Blake had denied his request. He wasn’t sure that he was strong enough, to look down on the remains of his child, to see for himself all that he had lost.
“I feel so useless,” he confessed, ashamed of himself but too angry at the world, at God, at cruel fate to keep his mouth shut. “I didn’t even feel her pain, while she was in there. No echo, no nothing. I’m supposed to be her soulmate, I’m supposed to help her through this, and I couldn’t even do that.”
Doctor Blake sat down heavily on the bench beside him, stretching out his legs with a sigh. The hospital corridor was deserted at this hour, and Christopher was grateful for it. He didn’t want anyone else to witness his unraveling.
“The echo, that shared pain, is a rare thing,” Doctor Blake told him seriously. “It doesn’t mean you love her any less. Don’t blame yourself for something you have no control over.”
“Most of the men who say they felt their wives labor pains are lying.”
Christopher gaped at him, shocked by the very idea. “But why would they lie?”
Doctor Blake shrugged. “It’s expected, isn’t it? Your wife, your beloved, suffers something horrendous, and so you think you ought to feel some of it yourself. The truth is, I’ve only seen it myself once or twice, in all the years that I’ve been practicing. The rest of the time, men just say they felt it in order to make themselves look better, make their partners feel better. There’s nothing wrong with you, Christopher. Now, I think it’s time you went to see your wife.”
Christopher nodded dumbly, rising to his feet and shaking the doctor’s hand. He had been deeply troubled by the fact that he had not felt her pain; though he had borne the marks upon his body, seeing the tiny scars each time she pricked herself with the sewing needle or sliced a finger while preparing dinner, he had not experienced the sensation of her pain, and he felt less of a man because of it. Surely, he’d thought, if he truly loved her, she would have taken over all of him. Doctor Blake’s words lessened the blow, however, and gave him much to think about.
But he would have to think about it later, because right now, Jean needed him, and much as he might dread it, he knew he had to go to her. He slipped through the door and into her room, swearing softly as he caught his hip on the edge of a table on his way to her bedside. That would leave a mark, a deep, dark bruise, but Christopher was so lost in his own grief that he forgot his pain immediately, and never noticed that his bruise did not appear upon the body of his beloved wife.
One year later…
Lucien had been very careful, since the day his soulmate lost her child, not to hurt himself. Somehow he thought it would be rather unfair to intrude upon her grief with the marks of his own injury, and so he had abstained from bar fights and the sometimes childish games his compatriots engaged in to pass the time when things were slow on base. Oh, the occasional scrape or bruise was inevitable, for a soldier, but for the most part he succeeded. Thoughts of her were never far from his mind though she was careful, too, leaving no more than the occasional small prick on his thumb, no doubt the result of sewing needle. His beloved did like her sewing, and he filed that information away, adding it to the very short list of things he knew about her.
While she was careful, it was patently, painfully obvious that the man who shared her bed was not. Lucien had woken more than once to a darkening bruise on his pectoral, the faint outline of teeth marks around his nipple, the imprint of a man’s hand around his thigh, and each time it happened he sank further into a quiet, seething rage. It was possible, of course, that his beloved was complicit in these activities, that, like some women he had known, she took pride in seeing the marks of her lover upon her skin, but Lucien hated it with everything he had. Though he did not go quite so far as to hate her, he did curse his fate; how could it be, that God, or the universe, or some force beyond his understanding had decided that he should be forever tied to this woman, and yet kept her from him, tied her to another?
It was only a few months after the loss of her child that the whole bloody thing started up again; the swollen feet and the aching back and the tender nipples and the silvery stretch marks across his belly. The day he saw found those stretch marks Lucien’s stomach churned, nauseous and furious by turns, and he set out that very night in search of a willing woman to distract him from his beloved’s infidelities, and his own heartbreak. The day he discovered his beloved was pregnant for the second time was the day he met Mei Lin.
She fascinated him, gave him something more interesting to dwell upon than his fate and the war that loomed over his head. Mei Lin was clever, and kind, articulate and somewhat of a snob, and, perhaps most interesting of all, she had never been marked. She had told him straight out, the day they met, that she had no soulmate. A local woman, part witch, part nurse, part priestess had told Mei Lin’s parents that she would never be marked, and apparently, that foretelling had come true. This suited Lucien just fine; at least while he was with her he didn’t have to worry about inflicting the same agony upon another man that he himself suffered.
He’d been seeing her for a few months when it happened for the second time. He was lying in her bed, Mei Lin’s head pillowed on his chest, when the whisper of that familiar pain rippled through his abdomen and sent him hurtling upright, swearing.
“Lucien!” she exclaimed, looking shocked and distinctly ruffled, her long dark hair spilling across her slender shoulders in wild disarray. “What is it? Are you all right?”
“Fine,” he grunted, trembling in the aftermath of what was undoubtedly a contraction. At least she made it to term this time, he thought grimly, trying to catch his breath as he waited for the next wave to wash over him. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed, planted his feet on the floor and rested his hands on his knees, tucked his chin against his chest and tried not to swear again.
“No, you’re not,” Mei Lin said stubbornly. She slipped up behind him, her legs stretching out on either side of his hips, her arms wrapping around his chest. He felt the brush of her lips against his shoulder blade, and let loose a weary sigh. Mei Lin had been honest with him about her fate; perhaps it was time he returned the favor.
“I should have told you,” he confessed at last. “I have a soulmate out there somewhere. I have no idea who she is,” he added quickly, as if that might soften the blow. “But I can tell you that she’s having a baby right now.”
“Oh, Lucien,” Mei Lin sighed, burying her face against his shoulder and drawing in a ragged breath. “I’m so sorry.”
He gritted his teeth at another contraction; this echo was only a fraction of the pain his beloved was feeling, but it was enough to shock him out of bed, and he dreaded to think how terrible this must be for her. Was she frightened? He wondered. After all, it had not been so very long since she’d lost her first child. His heart broke, at the thought of her frightened and alone in some hospital bed, surrounded by nurses. Maybe she’s not alone, he thought grimly. Maybe her man is with her.
“I’m so angry,” he whispered into the darkness. Somehow it was easier to tell the truth, when he couldn’t see Mei Lin’s face. “She’s supposed to be mine, but she’s having another man’s child, and I’m furious with her. But I don’t even know her! What sort of a man does that make me?”
“A very good sort,” Mei Lin murmured. Lucien opened his mouth to protest, but she cut him off before he had the chance. “You love this woman, Lucien, so much that not only do you bear her marks but you feel her pain. You love her this much, and you haven’t even met her yet. It’s only natural that you would be jealous, hurt by this. And yet, you are still trying to see things from her perspective. You feel guilty because of your anger, because you do not want to hurt her. I think this makes you the best of men.”
Touched by the passion in her voice Lucien reached up and covered her hands with his own, squeezing gently.
“Has it occurred to you that this may not have been her choice?” Mei Lin asked delicately.
A red haze of fury rose up before Lucien’s eyes; yes , it had occurred to him, when he saw the bruises that marred his thighs - her thighs. It didn’t bear thinking about, and the guilt came roaring back with a vengeance. He would never forgive himself, if he had been lying in a comfortable bed cursing her for sleeping with another, only to discover that she had been taken against her will, forced to bear these children as a result of some terrible violence.
“It has,” he said grimly. “And if someone has done this to her, if someone has hurt her, I’ll kill him myself.”
“A healthy baby boy,” Doctor Blake declared, smiling.
Christopher breathed a sigh of relief, rising on trembling legs to shake the doctor’s hand. He had been so bloody terrified, convinced that history would repeat itself, that they would lose this baby just as they’d lost the last. Jean had been devastated in the wake of her miscarriage; she had started going to Sacred Heart every day, had told him that she was sure the death of their child was punishment for her sins, for sleeping with him before they were wed and for testing their marking on her birthday. As far as Christopher was concerned that was nonsense, and he tried to tell her so, but Jean would not be deterred. Perhaps now that their son was born, now that they had a healthy, living child to cradle in their arms, Jean could begin to forgive herself.
“Thank you, Doctor Blake,” Christopher told him earnestly, unable to keep the smile from his face. A boy! A son, someone he could kick the football with, someone he could teach all about the ways of the farm; already Christopher’s mind was running wild with visions of a curly-haired little boy tromping merrily through their fields while Christopher and Jean looked on, smiling and happy once again.
He started to walk away but Doctor Blake did not release his grip on Christopher’s hand, using it instead to pull him back.
“Wait,” the doctor said, his eyes narrowed as they stared down at Christopher’s hand.
“What is it, doc?” Christopher’s heart sank in his chest, wondering what fresh hell awaited him. This was supposed to be a happy day, but he didn’t like the way the doctor was staring at him now; there was something foreboding in his expression that set Christopher’s heart to racing.
“Has someone seen to that cut on your hand?” Blake asked, gesturing to the ugly red scrape across the back of Christopher’s knuckles.
“No,” Christopher answered slowly. “I banged it on the harvester yesterday, but then Jean went into labor, and I haven’t had time.”
“You may want to have a seat, son,” Doctor Blake said grimly.
What’s all this, then? Christopher wondered as he sank back down onto the bench. His hand smarted a bit, but it really wasn’t a significant wound, and he was itching to see his wife and child.
“It’s really none of my business,” Doctor Blake continued, “but I think you ought to hear it from me, instead of finding out for yourself a few minutes from now and causing a scene. I don’t want you to be alarmed, son, but Jean doesn’t have a mark on her hand.”
The world seemed to stutter to a halt just then, his vision going hazy and the doctor’s words echoing in his mind like some ghastly, terrible bell. The breath seemed to freeze in his chest, his heart seeming to skip a beat from sheer terror before it kicked into action once more. Christopher stared up at the doctor in disbelief, and then let loose an incredulous scoff.
“Of course she does,” he said slowly. “It’s happened yesterday, of course she’ll have a mark. Doc, I know Jean is my soulmate. Please, don’t tell anyone, but she cut her hand on her birthday, and the mark showed up on my hand immediately. Every scrape she’s ever had, I’ve had it, too.”
“And did you cut your hand, as well, Mr. Beazley?” Doctor Blake asked him sadly. “Has she ever had one of your marks?”
Of course they hadn’t cut his hand as well; there was no point. Jean was his soulmate, and that had been proof enough for Christopher. He opened his mouth, determined to set the doctor straight, but then fear began to wash over him in waves. Farming was dangerous work, and he had suffered more than his fair share of bruises and cuts over the years. Try though he might, however, he could not think of a single time when one of his injuries had appeared on Jean’s skin. How had he never noticed this before?
“It’s not possible,” he breathed in horror.
“It’s very possible, Mr. Beazley,” Doctor Blake said, not unkindly. “I’ve only seen it once before myself, but it happens. She’s your soulmate, I’m sure of it, but you aren’t hers.”
Nothing Christopher had ever heard about the marking had prepared him for this. He leapt to his feet, pacing the corridor while anger burned hot as bile in the back of his throat. He had given up everything for Jean, had put aside his plans to travel when she fell pregnant, worked his fingers to the bone on the farm to make sure she was fed and cared for, carried the marks of each of her wounds, minor and significant, upon his flesh. How could it be that she was his one and only, the one person he loved best in all the world, and he wasn’t hers? Fear simmered through his rage; what if she was meant to find someone else? What if he lost her? What if they were headed for some terrible, tragic end, and no way to stop it?
“What does this mean?” he demanded. “What? Am I….am I going to die? And she’ll find someone else later? Is that the way of it?”
“Mr. Beazley, please, remain calm. There’s no way to know what the future holds.” Doctor Blake spread his hands in a placating sort of gesture. “As I’ve said, I’ve seen this before. One of my patients. This man, he loved his wife to distraction, and her marks appeared on his body. But she bore the marks of another.”
If Christopher had not been so consumed by his own roiling emotions, he might have noticed the sadness in the doctor’s eyes, and he might have wondered at it.
“What no one tells you, Mr. Beazley, is that sometimes, love alone is not enough. Sometimes a soulmate is the person who understands you better than anyone in this world, and sometimes circumstances prevent you being together. It can’t be helped.”
“What happened to them? That patient of yours?” He was terrified of the answer, but he had to ask anyway, had to know if there was any hope for him.
“They were happy, for a time. The wife knew she could not leave her husband for the man whose marks she bore; they would have destroyed one another utterly. She stayed with her husband, and bore him a son. And her husband cared for her, until her dying day.”
Christopher turned on his heel and fled at those words, the doctor’s shouts echoing loud and useless in his ears. He ran out of the hospital and down the street, ran until he reached a thicket of trees, and collapsed beneath their branches. Jean loved him, he knew, but it was the marking that bound her to him, that had convinced her they were meant to be. Would he lose her now, now that it was so patently obvious that he was not the one for her? Or worse, what if the marks of another began to manifest on her skin, and she slipped away from him slowly, fading into shadows? He thought about what Doctor Blake had said, thought about that man, who knew the depth of his love was not returned, and yet dutifully cared for his wife anyway. He didn’t think he could bear that sort of shame, that sort of sorrow. He was only twenty-one, young still; he could flee, this very moment, could leave Jean to find her mystery man and be happy.
But they had a son, now, a healthy little boy, a child on whom Christopher had pinned all his dreams. Could he really stand to do that to his child, and to Jean?
She was sleeping, when he finally made his way into her room. He had looked in on the baby, counted fingers and toes and run his hands over the smattering of soft dark hair that covered his son’s head. Beneath the trees he had reached a decision; it did not sit easily with him, but he could see no other choice. Jean was his , and he would not share her with another.
Sleep was the only time when Jean was still. During the daylight hours she was constantly moving; cooking, cleaning, dancing, laughing, knitting, sewing, her hands were always busy, and a smile was never far from her lips. He loved this woman, with her sharp tongue and her sparkling grey eyes, and he was determined to do whatever it took to keep her with him, for as long as he could. He looked her over carefully, feathering his fingertips across her arms, over her legs, checking her for any marks that might have been left by her beloved, this stranger who would haunt Christopher’s dreams for all the rest of his days. Checking for any marks he had not seen mirrored on his skin, any signs of this interloper Christopher already despised with everything he had. He found a scrape, on the heel of her hand, and a bruise on her knee, marks she had not gotten on her own. She hadn’t mentioned either of them, and Christopher took comfort from this fact, certain that she must have assumed they belonged to him. He gritted his teeth, and carefully replicated those marks on himself. To keep her with him, he would do whatever it took to make sure she never discovered the awful truth. Jean was his.
One year later…
Lucien paced back and forth across the room he used for an office, a small space hardly more than a cupboard and yet more than suitable for his purposes. It was the one place in his home safe from servants and the prying eyes of the revolving door of guests he hosted at the Army’s behest. They had discovered rather early on that his university education and ear for languages could benefit them in their relationships with the locals, and he had been given the role of an emissary of sorts, afforded the opportunity to live in an upscale home away from his fellow soldiers on the understanding that in turn he would provide the information his commanding officers so dearly sought about the machinations of the world at large. War was coming, and everyone seemed to know it. Lucien’s job, then, was to do whatever he could to ensure that when it did, Australia was in a position to protect her own interests, at home and abroad.
There were whispers, about his having taken a local girl into his bed, about the way she flounced through his house, the way she stood proudly beside him each time he opened his door to visiting dignitaries and the local elite, as if she were his equal. Lucien didn’t particularly mind; Mei Lin made a fine hostess, and the private tutoring he received at her hands ranged from languages to local customs to the finer arts of love making, and he enjoyed every moment of it. Let the rabble gossip amongst themselves to their hearts’ content, he thought, for she had made him a truly happy man, for the first time in a very long while. When he was with her, thoughts of his soulmate and her betrayal and his own uncertain fate faded from his mind, replaced by more immediate pleasures.
It would not do however, he knew, to keep her as a lover indefinitely. Being seen on the arm of a white soldier, a man to whom she was not married, had resulted in a certain loss of social status for Mei Lin, though she bore this indignity with good grace. She bore everything with good grace, did Mei Lin, kept her chin held high and her voice low and measured no matter what obstacle was thrown up before her, and Lucien loved her for it. That was the realization that had him pacing in his study, his hands anxiously turning over and over the small, sharp knife he was meant to be cleaning. He toyed with it, running his fingertips along the blade, tossing it into the air and catching it by the hilt over and over as he pondered what to do about his rather unusual circumstance. Somewhere out there was a woman whose every injury appeared tattooed upon his flesh, a woman set aside for him by God or fate or the cruel machinations of some force he could not fathom, a woman who had borne another man’s child and remained as distant to him as the sun from the moon, and yet he loved Mei Lin. His soulmate tortured him; Mei Lin knit him back together. And faced with such a dichotomy in his heart, he was paralyzed with indecision. Were it not for the marks upon his skin he would have asked Mei Lin to marry him months before, to be his wife, to stand beside him for all the rest of his days, and he would have been glad of it. Yet he hesitated, for the sake of this woman he did not know, this woman who seemed to haunt his every step.
Lucien had never been one much constrained by propriety. In the past he had indulged in a fair number of dubious activities; he’d spent months playing drums in Berlin and drinking himself into a stupor, had taken nearly every girl he fancied to bed - at least until he discovered the existence of his mysterious beloved, and curbed his lascivious impulses - had imbibed a variety of substances considered dangerous and devilish by civilized society and developed a series of political sympathies considered damn near treasonous by his superiors. Yet he could not shake the feeling that in continuing his current relationship with Mei Lin, in denying her the comfort and stability that would be afforded an officer’s wife, he was doing her a great disservice. She was not his soulmate, true enough, but his beloved had found another, and with each passing day Lucien became more and more convinced that regardless of the invisible ties that bound them one to the other he would never find her, or if he did, that she would never truly be his. Why, then, should he hesitate? She was happy, out there somewhere; there had been no marks of late, no sign of any great calamity, and Lucien desperately wanted a piece of that happiness for himself.
“Damn!” he swore loudly as the knife sliced through his thumb, deep and painful. He had been so lost in his own troubles he had lost focus on the danger at hand, and cut himself rather severely. The knife clattered to the floor and he spun on his heel, searching for something he could use to stem the sudden flow of blood, and as he did there came a gentle knock upon the door.
“Lucien?” Mei Lin called softly. She did not live with him permanently, but she was with him more often than not, fulfilling all the functions that would be expected of the lady of the house, tending to the day-to-day business of organizing the food, the cleaning, the staff, even the decor. Everywhere he went in this place he could sense the delicate touch of her hand, fancied he could smell her perfume on the air long after she’d gone. This house was as much hers as it was his, and even as he spun once more, preparing himself to face her chastisement for having injured himself in such a foolish way, he found his mind was made up. This was their place, not his, and Mei Lin deserved recognition and affection in spades for all that she had done to build it up alongside him.
“I’m fine,” he responded sheepishly. In the absence of a bandage he made do with cradling his thumb in the crook of his elbow, the blood seeping through to stain his starched white shirt. He shuffled across the room and opened the door to face her. Though his thumb was throbbing and he knew he was in for a bit of good-natured teasing, he could not help but grin at her, a wide, radiant smile that must have looked quite mad, given the state of him. He had made up his mind, and that certainty had blessed him with a boundless sense of joy.
“What have you done?” she asked, raising her eyebrow at him incredulously, even as she reached for his hand. “Oh, Lucien,” she sighed, upon seeing the damage. “Come on. Let’s clean you up.”
She led him down the corridor, her tiny fingers wrapped around his wrist, and he followed along, docile as a chastised puppy in her wake. “I can’t leave you alone for five minutes, can I?” she teased him gently as they reached his room. With all the bustling efficiency of a nurse she deposited him on the side of the bed and went to fetch his medical bag, returning to him at once and tutting over the state of him. For his part Lucien could only watch her, entranced by each of her sinuous, graceful movements, his mind racing with visions of their life together, of all that they could be, once they were wed.
“Let’s get that shirt off you,” she said, fussing over the state of his ruined shirt and muttering about what the servants would think when they saw the bloodstains.
Lucien just grinned and did as he was bid.
As he watched she took his hand in her own, the contrast between the two of them stark and undeniable and endlessly appealing. Her skin was soft and smooth and unblemished, her fingers small and fine and delicately made; his own hands were crisscrossed with thick veins and the silvery white remnants of old scars, roughened with callouses from his Army training despite the relative luxury of his current posting, his fingers longer, wider, thicker than her own, and infinitely less attractive to his own eye. Mei Lin had a pianist’s hands, and he had delighted in teaching her, watching as her skill in that medium quickly outstripped his own. The house was full of music, much to his delight, and for a moment he was nearly bowled over by a sudden desire to take her in his arms and dance her round and round the room until they collapsed into bed and into one another. His mind had dashed ahead of his mouth, however, and he knew that before they celebrated their engagement, he would have to actually propose to her.
“Mei Lin, I’ve been thinking,” he started, his voice failing him as he watched her tenderly clean his wound, her bottom lip caught between her teeth as she concentrated.
When he did not continue she hummed softly, inquisitively, and he steeled himself, praying that her answer would be the one he sought.
“Marry me,” he blurted out.
Damn. It wasn’t quite the charming, eloquent proposal he’d intended, and as he watched a wry grin stretched across his lover’s face. She did not pause in her ministrations, holding his hand aloft in her left while with her right she prepared to begin stitching his wound back together. The cut was deep, and Lucien could not help but feel a sudden wave of pride, that she had retained all that he had taught her, that she knew without asking what was needed in this moment. That pride was not enough to banish his fear, however, and he waited with bated breath for her answer.
“You know I have no soulmate, Lucien,” she told him softly as she worked. “Why would you tie yourself to me, when there is a woman waiting out there for you, and you know for a fact that I’m not her?”
“She’s made her choice,” Lucien answered, trying to calm the feverish calculations of his mind, to speak slowly and from the heart. “I think it’s time I made my own. Why should I be a slave to something I don’t even understand? I love you , Mei Lin. You make me happy, and I like to think I make you rather happy, too. You have no soulmate, and my soulmate has chosen another. Why shouldn’t we be together? Why shouldn’t we make one another happy, for as long as we possibly can?”
“And what happens when you finally meet her, Lucien?” Mei Lin countered. He winced, half from the sting of her words, and half from the sting of the needle she was using to stitch him up.
“You will be my wife, Mei Lin. You will have me, body and soul, and we will have built a life together. I will not abandon you, not for anyone or anything.”
“Says the soldier,” she chided him lightly.
She was right, he knew; he could not promise that he would never abandon her, not when the Army owned him, when he knew as well as she that he could be sent anywhere at any time with no recourse.
“All the more reason for us to marry,” he said. “As my wife, you will be cared for, looked after no matter what happens to me. This house will truly be yours. As I will be yours.”
Mei Lin sighed as she finished her work, carefully setting aside her needle and reaching out to cradle his face in her hands. She really was quite short; even seated upon the bed he was taller than she, and she was gazing up at him now, her eyes wide and searching and somehow sad.
“Are you sure this what you want, Lucien?” she asked him, her gaze locked upon his own. He reached up and wrapped his hands around her wrists, holding on to whatever piece of her he could reach.
“It is,” he said simply. “ You are what I want. Marry me, Mei Lin.”
Her shoulders sagged slightly.
“I will,” came her answer.
As he did most every morning, Christopher turned to his wife, sleeping peacefully beside him, and let his gaze roam over her, taking in every exquisite inch of her body. Sleepless nights and work around the farm had resulted in the rather rapid loss of the pregnancy weight she’d carried; the biddies in town had whispered, about how thin she was, but Christopher didn’t care. She could be skinny as a post or fat as a whale, and he would love her, regardless. She was still the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen, made all the more lovely by all the days she’d spent caring for their child. Her hips were wider, her breasts rounder, her face fuller than they had been before, and he rejoiced in it, in these signs that she had borne their son inside her, despite the flatness of her belly. His morning examination of her was not entirely a result of his adoration of her, however; he was looking, as he did every morning before she woke, for the marks of her beloved upon her skin.
This system had served him well so far; over the year since young Christopher’s birth, he had found more than one damning mark upon her skin, but each time he had found it first, had been able to replicate those marks upon himself before she noticed and avoid drawing her suspicion. Each time she discovered a mark upon her hand or her shoulder or her thigh she had looked to him and found the same, and chided him for his carelessness even as she smiled at him, delighted by this evidence of their regard for one another. Each time it happened, his heart sank further in his chest, but he was determined to do whatever it took to keep her with him.
The other side of the coin, of course, was that he had become vigilant in his own work, doing his best to avoid injury out on the farm and, when the inevitable happened, to hide his wounds from his wife, so that she would not question why they were not mirrored on her skin. It was a delicate dance, and each day his fear mounted, certain that he could not continue in this way indefinitely. It was exhausting, but having begun this charade he could see no other alternative. He had chosen his path, and he knew that he must follow it, to whatever end.
His initial exploration of her on this particular morning revealed a long, silvery cut wrapping around her right thumb. Christopher sighed, grumbling to himself, and slipped out of bed, snatching up the little knife he kept in the drawer of his bedside table. This was the worst part about mornings, as far as he was concerned, but he had nowhere to air his grievances, and so nursed his bitter pain deep in his heart, where no one else could see.
In the bathroom he sliced his thumb, standing over the sink, careful to replicate the exact shape and placement of his wife’s mark. He was careful not to cut too deep; he couldn’t bear the pain, and he didn’t want to waste any more time than he had to standing around bleeding. As soon as the deed was done he wrapped his thumb in a hand towel, and stood still as a statue, listening for any sign that his wife was waking and concocting a story in his mind to explain away this laceration. That was always the easy part; farming was dangerous work, and there were a million different ways he could injure himself on any given day. At least it would appear that wherever Jean’s beloved was he was not a great risk-taker; his wounds were small and few and far between, and Christopher forced himself to be grateful for this meager blessing, even as he feared that the day might soon come when a wound too grievous to be explained would appear and tear apart the life he had built for his family.
Finally his hand stopped bleeding and he made his way back to his bed, stopping along the hall to check in on his sleeping son. They had moved young Christopher into his own room shortly after his first birthday, letting him sleep in a little bed tucked into the corner. The farmhouse only had the two bedrooms, and as Christopher smiled at his sleeping child this morning, he found himself seriously considering making an addition. He loved being a father, loved playing with his son, loved watching Jean cradling their boy in her arms, but young Christopher was growing up. It might be nice, he thought, to expand their little family. Somewhere in the corner of his heart a bitter little voice whispered that he only wanted another child to strengthen the bond between himself and Jean, to ensure that when she did eventually discover the existence of her soulmate - a dreadful fate he knew was all but inevitable - her life would be too inextricably linked to his own for her to abandon him. He silenced that voice with thoughts of young Christopher playing with a little brother or sister, thoughts of a house full of the laughter of children, a life with less pain. It was a dream, and one he wanted so badly he felt he could weep from sheer desperation.
With those thoughts dancing through his mind he slipped back between the sheets, wrapping his wife in his arms and waking her with a gentle kiss pressed against her shoulder.
“Good morning,” he murmured.
Jean hummed happily, her eyes still closed though she turned her face up to his in a silent plea for kisses. He chuckled as he indulged her, brushing his lips over her own until she was smiling.
“Good morning,” she answered, stretching catlike beneath the sheets and drawing his attention and his arousal at once. One simple movement from her was all it took, all it had ever taken, for him to want her, though they had slowed down somewhat in the bedroom of late as they were both exhausted from the toils of their daily lives. That was a problem he hoped to remedy forthwith.
“He’s still asleep,” Christopher told her, pressing gentle kisses to her temple, her cheek, the tip of her nose. “Slept all the way through the night, and not a sound.”
“Oh, thank God,” Jean sighed, her eyes flickering open at last, gazing up at him fondly. “I was beginning to think I would be tired for the rest of my life.”
Christopher laughed and rolled her under him, delighting in the little sound of shock that escaped her. On reflex her legs lifted up and locked around his hips, drawing him down against her and pulling hums of contentment from both of them. He liked her best like this, soft and sleepy and affectionate first thing in the morning, when everything between them was open and full of boundless possibility, before the drudgery of the world outside that room invaded their fragile haven and wounded them both.
“I’ve been thinking,” he confessed, mapping the smooth column of her neck with tender kisses while she ran her hands across his back. “Could we...I mean, would you like...what do you think about having another?” he stumbled over his words, unable to articulate everything he felt when he considered the possibility of their having a second child, all the hope and all the fear that thought instilled in him.
“Another baby?” she asked him, canting her head back on the pillows so she could look into his eyes. He gazed down at her, utterly lost; her eyes were the second thing he’d noticed about her when they’d met all those many years before. The first thing he’d noticed was the challenging, tantalizing swing of her hips, but the second thing was those eyes, grey and clear and sharp as glass, eyes that held him, consumed him, devoured him whole and left him utterly enraptured by her.
“Well, yeah,” he answered lamely.
Beneath him Jean huffed a little laugh, the corners of her eyes crinkling as she smiled. “It might be nice,” she conceded. “A little friend for young Christopher,” she mused, “someone he could play with, someone to keep him company.”
“It’s no good for kids to grow up without siblings,” Christopher told her sagely, his hands wandering down her body as his arousal began to overtake his rational mind, the threads of their conversation slowly slipping away. “He needs to learn to share.”
“Did you share with your brothers?” Jean asked him. It was meant playfully, he knew, but then the reality of what she’d asked him sank him, and her expression grew contrite. “Chris, I’m sorry, I didn’t -”
“It’s all right, love,” he told her, stopping her apology with kisses. He didn’t like to be reminded of his brothers, one in jail and the other gone off to Adelaide, both of them pricks who didn’t hesitate to berate him for getting Jean in the family way before they were wed, didn’t hesitate to tell him that he was useless and she deserved better than an uneducated dreamer who’d never succeeded at anything. “Maybe a little sister,” he said, wanting to change the topic.
This too was a misstep; Jean’s eyes grew misty and far away, and he knew where she had gone. Jean was certain she’d never have a daughter, that she would spend the rest of her life atoning for the sins of her youth, and Christopher was kicking himself for bringing it up.
“It would be nice, for young Christopher to have a little brother,” Jean told him firmly, shaking her head as if to ward off the demons that haunted her, clearly forcing herself back into the moment. She brushed her toes against the backs of his calves and grinned when he shivered in her embrace. “And we could have fun trying,” she added, a naughty glint in her eyes.
Yes, Christopher thought as he bowed his head to kiss her, as his hands set about divesting her of her nightgown; they would have rather a lot of fun trying, and maybe one day soon there would be another child romping merrily through their house, another reason for them to smile. Another link in the chain binding Jean to him forever.
One year later…
Lucien couldn’t sleep. There was nothing new about that; sleep hadn’t come easily to him for months now. The entire world seemed to be in a state of upheaval, and he knew no good could come from it. China and Japan were at each other’s throats, Il Duce had solidified his dictatorship in Italy, Hitler was working himself to a frenzy in Germany, and the Soviets were creeping around at the edges like a wolf sniffing around a wounded deer. The stillness of his home in Singapore in the long dark hours of the night seemed to him to be the calm before the storm, and he could not quiet his racing mind. Something dark was coming, some unavoidable terror, and Lucien was consumed with fear for his family.
For they were a family now; Mei Lin was six months gone, her belly swollen as their child grew with each passing day. She wore her pregnancy with pride, making imperious demands of the servants at every turn and smiling a beatific smile all the while. Luckily she had not been terribly ill; work was keeping Lucien away from home more and more with each passing day, and he would not have forgiven himself for abandoning her if she had not been well. He knew he should be grateful for the health of his wife and his unborn child, but their uncertain future weighed heavily upon him. It had been in his mind to suggest that Mei Lin travel to Australia, that she seek shelter with his father until Lucien could be certain that their home was safe, but he did not know what sort of welcome she might receive at the home of the elder Blake, and besides, he knew she would not go willingly. And now it seemed too late; he did not want her to risk the long journey, not now. Maybe once their child was born she would see sense, he told himself; maybe holding their baby in her arms would be the awakening she needed to put her pride and her selfishness aside, to do what was best for all of them.
She was not the only selfish one; there was a piece of Lucien’s heart that could not bear the thought of being separated from her. He had come to rely on her, on her gentle guidance, her warmth beside him as he slept - or tried to - and he enjoyed having her near too much to seriously consider sending her away. Perhaps Europe would sort itself out, perhaps the Japanese would put an end to their northward expansion and ease tensions in the east. It was a feeble hope, but it was all he had to cling to, at present.
There were other worries troubling him, other disasters even murkier than the current state of international relations. He had been happy in his marriage, happy with his wife, content to carry on with Mei Lin by his side, but then one day he had woken to find those silvery stretch marks across his belly for the third time. It had been months since he had spared a thought for his beloved, hidden from him somewhere on the other side of the world, and then all at once he found himself consumed by her once again. She was pregnant, for the third time. Somewhere, in some far flung corner of the globe or perhaps even right around the corner from his own home in Singapore, his soulmate was about to have another baby. It was a heavy blow, though he could not say why exactly it bothered him so, did not want to spend too long examining the selfish, almost childish piece of his heart that railed against her for her continued betrayal.
Who is she?
The thought taunted him, came to him at the most inopportune moments, left him waspish with his colleagues and distant from his wife.
Does she know about me? He asked himself in the stillness, dragging his fingertips across those silvery marks. Does she know what she’s done? Does she care? He could not imagine that his own injuries had escaped her notice; he was a soldier, after all, his hands and arms and thighs marred by a variety of cuts and bruises and old scars. Surely by now she would have noticed the marks. It had been four years since he had discovered the first mark of hers upon his skin, and in that time he felt certain that she must have seen some of her own. He tried to consider the problem from all angles, to come up with some explanation that did not paint his beloved as cold and cruel; perhaps, he told himself, it was already too late when she discovered his existence. After all, she had fallen pregnant not long after he first became aware of her; perhaps she had already been tied to another, and had placed propriety and decency above the desires of her own heart.
Does she think of me? He wondered. Each mark of hers set his mind to racing with thoughts of her, questions and grievances and a deep, bitter sense of injustice. Wherever she was, whoever she was, did she feel the same? Lucien hoped that she felt something, at least, that she saw the marks upon her skin and sighed, thinking of the man who put them there, and all that could have been, if only their circumstances were different.
It was unkind, he knew, to spend so much time thinking about her when his wife was lying beside him, heavy with child. He had made his choice, as his beloved had made hers, and he had to stay the course he had set for himself. Mei Lin deserved better than a husband distracted by thoughts of another woman, and he was determined to be there for her and their child in every way, until his dying day.
“You’re thinking very loudly,” his wife murmured beside him.
“I’m sorry,” he answered contritely, but Mei Lin just smiled in the darkness, shuffling closer to him so that her head rested upon his shoulder while his arm wrapped around her, drawing her closer.
“You can talk to me, you know,” she chided him, one hand trailing across the smooth skin of his bare chest. He hummed and kissed her forehead, desperate to avoid sharing the brooding thoughts that had kept him from his sleep.
When he did not answer her fingertips continued their gentle exploration, drifting down and down until she reached the marks on his abdomen, honing in on the very thing that was troubling him, no matter how he wished to avoid the topic. This was a skill of hers, this ability to know, somehow, without being told, exactly what he was thinking at any given moment. She could read him like a book, and though she occasionally used this talent for her own selfish gain, mostly it was a comfort to him, this certainty that he shared his life with another, that no matter what happened, he was not alone.
“She’s pregnant,” Mei Lin said, a quiet observation that cut Lucien to the quick.
“She is,” he answered stiffly. He could not deny it, but likewise he was unwilling to admit to the torrent of emotions this reality had loosed within him.
“It’s strange,” his wife continued, her voice soft and sad and thoughtful. “I don’t know her, and I should probably hate her for this connection she shares with you, but I don’t. I feel a certain kinship with her. We both love you,” here she turned her head and pressed a tender kiss to his shoulder. “And now our children will be the same age. They’ll be like siblings, almost, separated by a great distance but bound together just the same. I hope that she is well, and that she is happy.”
Tears pricked at the corners of Lucien’s eyes and he batted them away with the back of his hand, knowing that Mei Lin had seen them and yet unable to feel ashamed for his weakness. She could be so haughty, so concerned with her own needs, and yet every now and then she spoke to him as she was now, revealed the depth of compassion and empathy hidden beneath her high society facade, and he loved her for it, felt himself overwhelmed with gratitude that he had found her, that he could share his life with her. That she could possibly feel so warmly towards his beloved stunned him, awed him, left him quietly worshipping her once again.
“I hope that you are happy, Mei Lin,” he whispered.
“I am,” she told him simply. “I have you, and our beautiful home, and our baby will be here in just a few months. I have everything that I need. I cannot fault her, Lucien, for marking your skin. You cannot control it, nor can she. It is the way things are, and we must all of us find a way to live our lives.”
He kissed her again, brushing his lips softly against her temple in a feeble attempt to let her know how her words had moved him, how much she meant to him. And for a moment he imagined his beloved, lying in her bed just as he was now, her hand resting gently on the swell of her belly just as Mei Lin’s was, imagined her thinking of him, as he thought of her, and in that moment he wished her all the happiness, all the joy, all the peace in the world. He had found his comfort in the darkness, and much as it stung his pride and wounded his heart, he hoped that she had found comfort as well, that the man who shared her bed was kind to her, that she could find some solace in his arms, as Lucien had done with Mei Lin. Life, he knew, was an unpredictable thing, a journey without an itinerary, and he did not want to miss out on the present for worrying about the future. Let it come; he would be content for now.
Apologies for the short-ish chapter, and the lack of Jean. The next installment is all about her, so stay tuned!
One year later…
Jean was preparing their dinner when it happened. Young Christopher was sitting on the floor at her feet, playing intently with his favorite toy, and Jack was for once asleep, tucked away in a little crate in the corner of the kitchen that served as a makeshift crib. She was humming softly to herself as she diced the vegetables, keeping one eye on the little window over the sink, waiting for Christopher to come home and into her arms. As she lowered her knife again and again, lulled into near insensibility by the familiar, repetitive nature of her task, a sudden pain, hot as fire and sharp as a shard of glass, tore through her right shoulder. The force of it sent her reeling; her little knife clattered down onto the side and she braced herself against the counter, gasping for breath. It was gone again as quickly as it had arrived, but her heart was pounding in her chest, fear churning in her gut.
Somehow, though she could not say how, she knew this pain was not her own. It did not belong to her, was not the result of anything she’d done, could not be explained away by any recent events. The sudden flash of it, the strangely removed nature of the sensation, was quite unlike anything she’d ever felt before, but she’d heard all the stories. How in times of great calamity, one lover, bound to another by the mysterious ways of the marking, could feel another’s pain.
She had to find him. She spared a glance at Jack, but he was still sleeping peacefully, and so she reached down and gathered young Christopher into her arms. He was getting bigger every day, walking and talking and frowning that serious little frown of his, but she could still carry him on her hip, and so she did, wrapping her arms around him and rushing from the kitchen as fast as she could manage. Her husband was out there, somewhere, in grave pain, perhaps in danger, and she had to find him. The farm was large - larger than they could afford, in all honesty - and remote, and she knew that whatever had befallen Christopher there would not be time enough to go for help. Whatever had happened, it was up to Jean to find him, to save him, and so she raced across the grass, desperately trying not to cry.
You must be brave Jean Beazley, she told herself sternly as she went. For his sake, you must be brave. It was hard to be brave, though, when her whole body was shaking, when fear sharp as knives brought the sting of tears to her eyes. Jean was only 23 years old, much too young to find herself alone with two small children to provide for, and Christopher had become the very center of her world. She didn’t know how she’d carry on, if she lost him.
Before she had traveled more than twenty yards she stumbled across a sight that drew her up short; Christopher was sauntering along, spade flung over his shoulder, looking as if he didn’t have a care in the world. The relief that washed over her at the sight of him was so strong she nearly dropped her son, though she managed to cling to him, coming to a stop right where she was and waiting for her husband to make his way to her.
“Jean?” he called, breaking out into a trot as he caught sight of her and her obvious distress. “All you all right, love? What’s happened?”
He was by her side in an instant, dropping his spade and wrapping his arm around her waist, enveloping her in the scent of sweat and soil that clung to him at the end of his working day. For a moment she sagged against him, her terror forgotten for the briefest of moments now that she could see for herself that her husband was well. A ragged sob escaped her as she buried her face in his neck, breathing him in as her tears stained his tanned skin.
“What is it, love?” he asked her in a gentle voice, running one hand up and down her back to soothe her, to calm her, to reassure her.
He’s all right, she thought dazedly. He’s all right.
But how could that be? If he was well and whole and mercifully uninjured, then what had caused the pain in her shoulder?
“Are you hurt?” she asked, drawing back from his embrace and taking a deep, shuddering breath, reaching out to press her free hand against the front of his filthy shirt, searching for the reassuring pounding of his heart beneath her fingertips.
“I’m fine, Jeannie,” he answered, his brow furrowed with worry. “What-”
“Let’s get inside,” she cut him off, turning back for the house. Now that it was obvious Christopher was well her mind was racing; she needed to see her for herself that there was nothing wrong with her shoulder, needed to strip out of her blouse and run her fingers over her skin and comfort herself in the knowledge that her family was safe, and that whatever had happened in the kitchen had been nothing, a twinge of tired muscles perhaps, or even a figment of her imagination. Not that Jean indulged in many daydreams, of late; she was far too busy caring for her boys to chase after fantasies.
Christopher retrieved his spade and followed along behind her in silence, stopping at the door to kick off his muddy boots; Jean kept a clean house, and had browbeat him into the habit of removing his shoes at the door for the sake of her floors. It wasn’t much, as far as houses went, long and low and a bit cramped at present, but it was theirs, and Jean took pride in looking after it. Once inside Jean didn’t stop; she deposited young Christopher back on the floor in the kitchen where he promptly retrieved his toy, though his blue eyes, dark and stormy as his father’s, followed her progress with a seriousness that Jean found somewhat disturbing in one so young. She checked that Jack was still sleeping, and then made her way back down the short hall to the bedroom, slipping inside at once and very nearly smacking Christopher in the face with the closing door.
“Jeannie,” he grumbled as he stepped up close to her, his face grim, “what the hell’s gotten into you?”
“I thought you were hurt,” she answered tersely, already unbuttoning her blouse. His eyes grew wide with comprehension, and something that looked rather a lot like fear. “Have you done anything to your shoulder today?” Jean pressed him, desperate for answers, desperate for some piece of consolation. The fear was still with her, lingering around the edges of her relief; she could not say why, exactly, but she felt rather as if that pain had been a sign of something terrible, the first flash of lightning heralding an oncoming storm.
Slowly he shook his head, watching spellbound as she shrugged out of her blouse and turned to face the mirror.
“ Christ ,” Christopher swore, burying his face in his hands.
Horror rose in her chest as she stared at herself, the taste of bile flooding her mouth, her eyes clouding over beneath a sudden rush of tears. The mark was there, huge and red and undeniable in the late afternoon sun streaming in through the curtains on their bedroom window. It was round, but jagged, more than an inch across, blazened across her skin like some terrible omen. She had been marked often enough in the past to know what this was, where it had come from, if not what had caused it; what she could not understand was how she could bear a mark, when Christopher was uninjured.
“I don’t…” the words escaped her in a reedy whisper, her voice failing her altogether as she remained rooted to the spot, her eyes glued to the image of herself in the mirror, fingertips trailing lightly around the edges of that damning mark. “But you’re not hurt,” she gasped, every breath a struggle now as her whole world began to crumble around her.
“No,” Christopher sighed, collapsing onto the end of the bed and hanging his head as if in shame. “I’m not.”
What frightened Jean more than anything in that moment was the fact that Christopher didn’t seem at all surprised.
He’d known this moment was coming. It had been looming over his head since the day of young Christopher’s birth, the day he had looked down at his sleeping wife and seen the marks of another man upon her skin. Though he had tried his best, had loved her with everything he had and provided for her every need and covered his tracks in the only way he knew how, it had always seemed inevitable, that this house of cards he’d constructed for himself must surely come tumbling down. He’d always known, in the back of his mind, that one day there would come a mark he could not hide, a pain too grievous for him to inflict upon himself. And now it had.
Jean was staring at him in wild-eyed horror, tears sparkling bright as diamonds on her eyelashes, and he knew he owed her an explanation. He knew he had to tell her, about the lies, about this mysterious man out there, somewhere, waiting to take her away. And yet in that moment he did not feel guilt, or sorrow; what he felt was an overwhelming sense of rage. It wasn’t enough, that this bastard had to mark her skin, had inflicted a dozen bitter pains upon Christopher over the years; no, it would seem that whatever had happened to her soulmate - and based on the size and shape of that mark, Christopher had a pretty good idea what that was - Jean had felt his pain. She had felt it, that echo that Christopher had so dearly wished for, that undeniable physical evidence of her regard for another man slicing through her flesh. Whoever this man was, their souls were bound together in the way that Christopher had always prayed to find for himself and Jean. That bastard had taken everything from him, and Christopher hated him for it.
“Christopher.” The sound of his name falling from her lips in that accusatory tone cut him to the quick, and he raised his gaze to her face, those brilliant eyes he loved so well hardened now by fear and pain.
“I’m sorry, love,” he said simply. He could think of no other words to say. A strangled, choking sound of distress left her and she spun away from him, reaching for her discarded blouse. As she did he saw clearly the corresponding mark on her back, bigger and less defined than the other, and that solidified his suspicions, regarding what had befallen her soulmate. Through and through, Christopher thought numbly. It would appear the bastard had gone and gotten himself shot, but he didn’t even have the decency to attain a mortal injury; based on its placement, he would likely survive this wound, if he was sought medical care quickly enough. A small, bitter piece of Christopher’s heart dearly hoped he wouldn’t, hoped the bastard would die, and put an end to Christopher’s pain.
“I don’t understand.” Jean’s voice was soft, low and terrible, her whole body trembling. Though her back was turned to him he could sense her fear, and her pain, and her anger, too; no doubt she was already piecing it together, had already realized her husband had been lying to her, and he wondered distantly if she would ever find it in her heart to forgive him. How did it come to this? He wondered. I did everything right. We did everything right. Why did that bastard have to ruin it all? “You’re my soulmate, Christopher.” Those quiet words had once filled him full of joy, but now they left the taste of ashes in his mouth.
“No, Jeannie. I’m not.” He sighed, clasping his hands together and trying to organize his thoughts. As angry, as miserable, as devastated as he was, he knew it wasn’t Jean’s fault, and he had no desire to hurt her. The problem was, he couldn’t see a way for them to get through this conversation without breaking one another in half. “You’re my soulmate, but I’m not yours.”
She spun around then, her blouse hanging off her shoulders still unbuttoned, her pale skin glowing, taunting him from a distance. Even now, in this moment of utter devastation, he wanted her; she was still the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen.
“How...but that’s...when? When did you know?”
It wasn’t like Jean, to stumble over her words; she had always been clever and sharp-tongued, always had the perfect comeback, the perfect logic to tackle any of his problems. Now she just looked lost, trembling and afraid. He wanted to comfort her, to reach out and wrap her in his arms and hide in the shelter of their bed, far away from the nightmare world beyond this room, but he’d knew she would not welcome his embrace just now. For a moment he hesitated; he knew the answer to her question, but he feared that once spoken those words would cleave them in two, that he had through his deceit planted the seeds of their undoing, made it easy for her mysterious beloved to come in and sweep her away. She would hate him for what he’d done; how could she not? She was a good girl, his Jean. A good girl who said her prayers and went to confession and did her penance and looked after their boys and cooked his meals and washed his clothes and cradled him in the shelter of her thighs, and he had ruined her life.
“The day little Chris was born.”
A stifled sob escaped her, one of her hands rising to cover her mouth as she began to cry in earnest. Now that he had begun Christopher felt he had no choice but to continue, to give her the truth, every last damning bit of it, and so he carried on, steeling himself against the sight of his wife, this woman he loved better than anyone else in the world, slowly collapsing in on herself.
“Doctor Blake is the one who noticed. He told me he’s seen it before. I have your marks...but you don’t have mine. I love you so much, Jeannie,” he added, pleading with her. He rose from his perch on the end of the bed but Jean stumbled away from him, retreating to stand by the window, refusing to look at him. “I couldn’t let someone else take you away. So I lied.”
“Oh, Christopher, no,” she breathed in horror. “You didn’t. Tell me you didn’t.”
“I couldn’t let you see that those marks weren’t mine,” he answered. “So I did. I’m sorry, Jeannie. I cut myself.”
“But that’s a mortal sin, Christopher,” she told him, as if he didn’t already know. “You’ll be damned for this.” Oh, Jean, he thought sadly. When they met she had been wild, in a way, all unbridled passion hidden beneath a thin facade of respectability, but time had changed her. Those priests had got to her, somehow, had convinced her that living her life as she pleased wasn’t worth the cost to her immortal soul, had clipped her wings and turned his bright-eyed, rebellious girl into a restrained, tired woman. Sometimes, he hardly recognized her, and yet, he loved her still.
“Maybe so. It was worth it, though. You were worth it.”
Jean’s head was spinning. It was too much for her to process all at once; not only had Christopher been lying - been cutting himself, deliberately - for years, but now there was this new man to worry about, out there, somewhere, this man set aside for her by God, this man she had been betraying, for years, without even knowing it. If losing her little girl was the price she’d paid for cutting herself, for giving herself to Christopher before they were wed, what horror would be brought down upon as retribution for this…she could think of no other word for her sin save adultery. And then there was her heart, recoiling in disgust from the thought of this stranger, this man she did not know, did not want. It was Christopher she loved, Christopher she longed for; how could it be, that he was not the one meant for her? After everything they had endured, the gossip about their whirlwind marriage and the struggles of life on the farm and the fights and the love that they had made, how could it be that she was destined for another?
It was not often, that Jean Beazley worked herself up to the point of hysteria, but she was dangerously close to it at present. Though marriage and children had forced her to grow up rather quickly she was still the same girl at heart, with hopes and dreams and fears that could not be silenced. And she had never been as lost, as confused, as angry, as devastated as she was in this moment, the damning mark upon her shoulder naming her a betrayer, taunting her even when she couldn’t see it. She gasped for breath, her mouth open to speak, though she did not know what to say, but then their bedroom door swung open, and she spun on her heel, whisking away her tears with the back of her hand.
Young Christopher was there, standing in the doorway, and from the kitchen there came the thin wailing of her youngest child. Pull yourself together, she thought sternly, rushing to do up the buttons of her blouse.
“Jack is crying,” her son told her seriously. He was not quite three, but he was already strangely self-sufficient, and he worried over his little brother. However much Jean’s heart might have been broken, she knew that she had to put her boys first; she and Christopher could sort themselves out later, but she would not - could not - let young Christopher see how troubled she truly was.
“We can’t have that, can we, love?” she said, taking a deep breath as she abandoned her husband, still sitting on the end of the bed and watching her with pleading eyes. She crossed the room and took her son by the hand, pausing in the doorway long enough to speak to her husband one last time.
“Supper’s nearly ready,” she told him, though she could not bear to look at him. “Go get cleaned up, and then come and eat.”
With those words she left him, forcing her mind onto the task at hand, to comfort her screaming baby and finish preparing their meal. She didn’t have the luxury of wallowing in self-pity, not when there were nappies to change and mouths to feed. Later, when the boys were asleep, she and Christopher would talk, no matter how much she dreaded it.
Don’t worry, we’ll check in with Lucien next chapter, and see how he’s faring. My heartfelt thanks, to those of you who have taken the time to comment on this story, here and on tumblr. Your comments keep me going!
Dinner was a quiet, stilted affair; Jack had woken in a foul mood, and would not consent to be anywhere other than in his mother's arms, and so she held him cradled against her chest with one hand while with the other she pushed her food around her plate disinterestedly. Christopher poured himself a rather large glass of whiskey - an uncommon indulgence for him - and refused to look at her, while young Christopher sat still and watchful, sensitive as ever to the moods of those around him and abstaining from his usual dinner table antics. Still, the ritual of feeding her family calmed her somewhat, and though her heart was aching, the silence and Christopher's dogged avoidance of her gave her the space she needed to contemplate her predicament.
I will have to speak to Father Morton, she thought bleakley. What Jean needed now was guidance; she was determined not to act rashly, not to repeat the mistakes of her past. Father Morton was a stern but comforting figure who'd arrived some years before to replace Father Walker, so that the old man might live out his final days in peace. Father Morton had christened both of her children, and heard her confession once a week. He'll know what to do. The church's stance on divorce was plain; marriage was for life, and that was all there was to it. On the other side of the coin, however, were the teachings Jean had heard all her life about the sanctity of the marking. It was a sign, clear and undeniable, of God's plan for two people, and to deny it, to set oneself up with a lover or a spouse who was not the beloved chosen by God, was a sin, a deliberate betrayal of God's own orders. The way Jean saw it, she had no choice; she could not leave Christopher, but likewise she could not stay. Damned if I do, and damned if I don't.
And beneath her fears of divine retribution there came the insidious whispering of her heart; she loved her husband. Yes, he had lied to her, had betrayed her trust, had committed an unconscionable sin, more than once, in the name of deceiving her for his own selfish purposes. Jean wasn't sure she could ever forgive that transgression, that she could ever look at him and not see the grief he had brought to her. And yet, he was the father of her children, the only man she'd ever been with, the only man she'd ever wanted. He was her partner, in strife and in joy, the man who would take her in his arms and dance her round the kitchen while some scratchy song poured out of the wireless and their son looked on, clapping his little hands in glee. Her parents had scorned her, upon discovering that she was pregnant before they were wed, had up and moved to a new city and left her all alone, nineteen and terrified. Abandoned by her family, whispered about by her friends, Jean had forged a new life, a small life that centered on her home and her husband and her children and her church. She wasn't sure she could bear it, to start anew once more, wasn't sure she'd be able to keep her head held high, once people learned what she had done, what Christopher had done.
Jack's little face bumped against her shoulder, and dragged her brooding thoughts back once more to the man who had marked her. How many times, over the last three years, had Christopher seen a mark upon her skin and carved it into his own flesh? How many times had her beloved been wounded, in need of comfort, and been denied the presence of his soulmate? And who the bloody hell was he?
Jean wasn't entirely sure she wanted to know. No other man had ever caught her eye; she and Christopher had known one another since they were children, had danced around the edges of flirtation throughout their teenage years until she reached her eighteenth birthday and fell headlong into his arms at last. Would she have met her soulmate, if she had not cut herself that day, if she had not been certain that Christopher was the one ordained for her by God? Would she even like this man, this stranger, whose marks she bore?
The size and shape of the mark upon her skin gave her pause. Two of them had risen up, matching jagged holes on the front and back of her shoulder. Her very first thought, once the veil of tears had parted long enough for her to study the wound, was that it must have been a bullet. What sort of man, she asked herself, gets himself shot in the shoulder? She was terrified of him, in truth; she didn't know anyone who'd ever suffered such an injury, save for a few old timers who'd fought in the Great War. It seemed to Jean that her beloved must be a dangerous man, and she wanted nothing to do with him. She didn't want that adventure, didn't want to stumble through life blindly searching for him, only to discover that he was violent or cruel or a brawling drunkard. She wanted Christopher, their farm and their boys and the grand trip they planned for themselves in the still of many a long night, saving their shillings and dreaming of sailing off to see the world once the boys were grown.
She chanced a glance across the table, taking in the devastated visage of her husband. Christopher could be impulsive, and rash, passionate in everything he did, made love to her as if the world was ending and cradled their children in his arms so gently. Sometimes she had to chide him, for acting without thought, had to remind him that there were consequences for his choices, sometimes wryly told her friends that there were moments when she rather felt as if she had three children to look after, but she adored him, heart and soul. What will I do, she asked herself, if Father Morton says I have to leave him?
A life without Christopher didn't bear thinking about; it was all she ever wanted, for as long as she could remember. As she sat there, lost in misery, staring at the one man she loved best in all the world, he raised his eyes at last, and she saw the ravages of heartbreak writ large across his face. Much as his betrayal wounded her, much as her very soul cried out in distress at the thought that he could do such a thing to her, lie to her about something so important, she could not help but wonder how terrible this must be for him. He had known, since the day their oldest son was born, a day that should have been a happy one and yet had turned to ashes in his hands, that the woman he loved was destined for another. What would you have done, she wondered, if you were in his shoes?
Jean knew she would have told him; she never kept secrets from her husband. But Christopher was a tempestuous sort, never one to gracefully accept a refusal. How devastated must he be, to see the marks of another man upon her skin while she slept peacefully beside him, blissfully unaware of the torment he endured? Though she knew it was nothing she had done Jean couldn't help but feel guilty, dirty, as if she had betrayed him, as if she had somehow already given herself to this man she had never met. It isn't fair, she thought, tears pricking the corners of her eyes as her gaze caught Christopher's and held, the pain they both felt magnified between them.
Christopher took a deep breath, as though steeling himself for some great calamity, and then he reached across the table, his fingertips ghosting across of the back of her hand where it had come to rest upon the table top. A watery smile danced across Jean's face as she dropped her fork and gave into the gentle insistence of his hand, entwining their fingers together, clutching him fiercely. It would take time, she knew, for her to come to terms with this, to reconcile her love of him with his deceit, but he was her husband, and she loved him. Whoever her soulmate was, she had already made her choice, and whatever Father Morton might have to say on the subject she knew in her heart she would never leave Christopher. Perhaps it had been wrong, to say her vows to Christopher instead of this shadowy man waiting for her out there somewhere, but she had done it with her whole heart, had meant every word, and she would not break those vows now. They would find a way through this, together, the way they always did.
"I love you, Jeannie," Christopher whispered in a broken little voice.
Jean squeezed his hand lightly in response. "Eat your dinner," she told him softly. No, she had not forgiven him yet, but that forgiveness would come, in time.
Through the haze of emotions that swirled around and amongst her little family the sound of the wireless broke in like some unwanted house guest come to call with no warning. The little radio had been playing some simple, unremarkable tune, but now the Prime Minister's voice droned loud and grim.
"Fellow Australians," Robert Menzies said in a terrible voice, "It is my melancholy duty to inform you officially, that in consequence of persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her and that, as a result, Australia is also at war."
Dear God, Jean thought grimly.
Lucien groaned as the haze of dreams faded, and he found himself lying in a narrow bed in the base hospital, his shoulder pierced with a deep, throbbing, endless pain. At the sound of his distress a gentle hand reached out to smooth his furrowed brow, and he turned his head to find his wife standing by his side, their daughter sleeping peacefully in a little sling around her chest.
"Mei Lin," he breathed, his voice scratchy and hoarse.
She smiled at him softly, sadly, and reached down to squeeze his hand.
"You gave us quite a scare, shagua," she said, trying and failing to sound lighthearted. Lucien smiled at her tiredly; he couldn't help it, every time she used that word with him, every time she called him silly melon, he smiled, to think that this woman loved him enough to tease him.
"It wasn't intentional, I can assure you." He and Derek had been set upon as they walked back to his home the night before, a group of men with their faces covered descending upon the two uniformed soldiers amidst a hail of gunfire. The British naval base had just been completed, and some of the local factions were seething about it; no doubt the ruffians who had attacked him were part of one of the many militant anti-British groups that had sprung up in recent days, deciding to take out their hostilities on the first white soldiers they saw. The lads hadn't been particularly well-trained, despite the weapons they carried, and he and Derek had come away relatively unscathed, though they had left three of their attackers in a bloody heap on the street corner before Derek lifted Lucien to his feet and all but dragged him back to the base. There would be an inquiry into this mess, he knew, and he was already dreading it, but for now he decided to be grateful that he was still alive, that his wife and daughter were safe and well.
"You should know, Lucien," his wife told him, her face taking on an expression of grave concern. "Australia has officially declared war on Germany."
Lucien heaved a great sigh and squeezed his wife's hand, closing his eyes for a moment as fear tore through him, sharper than the pain in his shoulder. He had suspected this was coming, had in fact been discussing it with Derek when they were attacked. Germany's invasion of Poland would not go unanswered, and war had seemed inevitable, though the events in Europe seemed far removed from him, hidden away on the other end of the world as he was. Would he be sent away from his wife and child? That was what worried him more than anything else; he was a soldier, had sworn to serve his country, and he would happily do that here in Singapore, where Mei Lin could share his bed, where he could watch his daughter grow. To be sent back to trudge through some terrible field in Europe, far from the ones he loved, was a fate he could not resign himself to.
Still, though, he didn't think it was likely he would be sent away. The Japanese were continuing their expansion, and Great Britain - and Australia - would want to protect her interests on this continent. Surely he would be allowed to say.
"We knew this day might come," he told his wife. "But it will be some time before I'm back in fighting form, love. I don't think we have anything to worry about."
"I always worry about you," Mei Lin answered sadly.
As her eyes flickered over him he found himself quite suddenly wondering about his soulmate, the faceless woman who taunted him sometimes in the small hours of the night. She must have gotten quite a shock, to discover the mark of a bullet upon her skin. Was she worried about him? Did she say a little prayer for him, clutching a rosary between slender fingers, or did she curse him, for being so foolish, for interrupting her daily life with his injury?
"I'm sorry," he apologized to Mei Lin contritely, though a small piece of his heart whispered those words to his beloved as well. "I never meant to upset you."
Carefully cradling their child against her chest Mei Lin leaned over and brushed a gentle kiss against his temple. "You just focus on getting better, yes? Whatever happens next, we will face it together."
Yes, he thought. We will.
A/N: For those of you keeping score at home, Great Britain (and France, Australia, and New Zealand) declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939. On 27 September 1940, Japan, Germany, and Italy signed the Tripartite Pact, or the Berlin Pact, formalizing their alliance and declaring that an enemy of any one of their nations was an enemy to them all.
One year later…
"Listen to this," Derek said tersely, his jaw clenched and his eyes narrowed as he studied the paper he held in his trembling fist. "Wherein it is their prime purpose to establish and maintain a new order of things, calculated to promote the mutual prosperity and welfare of the peoples concerned-"
"Bloody hell," Lucien swore softly. "A new order of things?" he repeated incredulously. Just the sound of those words struck him to his very core, filled him with anger, and with fear. It had been a long and bloody year, as the Germans expanded across Europe; only three weeks before, they'd begun dropping bombs on England itself. One week earlier, Japan had invaded French Indochina. The noose was tightening, in every theater, and Lucien spent every waking moment in his cramped office on base, shoulder-to-shoulder with Derek, shifting through intelligence and trying to plan for the now-inevitable invasion of Singapore. Perhaps it had been foolish of him, to think that he might ride out the war safe and secure in his comfortable corner of the globe, but he had for a time managed to delude himself into thinking his family would be protected here. No longer; the time had come for Lucien to face facts, and he knew it. A terrible storm was brewing, and there would be no stopping it.
"This changes things a bit," Derek grumbled, letting the paper float down to his cluttered desktop while he shuffled around in search of a cigar.
"It's only confirmation of what we already suspected," Lucien disagreed. "Not that it matters, really." The Japanese were waiting, a few hundred miles to the north, looking hungrily down at the sparkling British prize dangling at the base of the Malay peninsula. And now they had the undisputed support of their European brethren, while the Soviets watched and waited in the wings. For a moment Lucien fancied he could almost hear the screaming of plane engines whirring overhead.
"You have to get your family out of here, Lucien," Derek said seriously, his face drawn and dark as he hid behind his cigar. "Now. Before it's too late."
Lucien sighed and scrubbed his hands across his face. Much as he was loath to admit it, he knew his friend was right. Mei Lin's family had taken shelter in Hong Kong; sending his girls to join them there wasn't ideal, but he didn't know what else to do. He hadn't spoken to his father for more than five years, not so much as a letter, and the thought of forcing his wife and daughter to undertake the long sea voyage to Australia alone at this time, when international waters were crawling with warships and no harbor was safe, was unconscionable. Not to mention the fact that once they landed in Australia they'd have to somehow traverse the content to reach the relative safety of Ballarat, in a foreign country where their very faces would make them targets for the locals' pent-up hostilities. Then again, the trip to Hong Kong was no less fraught; they'd have to pass straight by French Indochina, and the Japanese fleet anchored there.
"I know," he said at last. "But-"
"There's another passenger ship leaving on Monday," Derek mused, puffing on his cigar in earnest now. "Bound straight for Hong Kong. You and I had discussed the possibility of sneaking a few agents on, letting them slip ashore under cover of darkness when the ship came near Saigon. They could keep an eye on your girls during the most dangerous part of the journey."
"That's incredibly risky," Lucien objected at once. The very thought of it was intolerable, no matter how reasonable Derek tried to make it sound.
"Do you have any better ideas?"
Lucien turned away, frustration rising like bile in the back of his throat. No, he didn't have any better ideas. One ship full of refugees fleeing Singapore ahead of the inevitable Japanese invasion had already been captured, the fate of the passengers unknown. At least under Derek's plan Mei Lin and Li would be protected by armed soldiers, instead of being trapped alone with no one to turn to for help save a horde of untrained civilians.
"Mei Lin will never agree to it," he grumbled. When her family left, she and Lucien had argued about it, about whether it would have been wiser for her to go with them. She had stood her ground, insisted that Singapore was her home and she would not abandon it, not until she had no other choice. Lucien heard the words she did not say, saw the fear in her eyes, the same fear that echoed loud as a drum within the chambers of his own heart. In Singapore Mei Lin was not alone, and Lucien could protect her. Out there in the world, having to look after their child entirely on her own, she would be vulnerable, and he shuddered to think what would happen, should his family fall into enemy hands. Li favored her mother, but she bore enough resemblance to Lucien for anyone who saw her to recognize at once that she had a white father. The Japanese didn't take kindly to that sort of thing.
"Then make her agree to it, Lucien," Derek said, his voice flooded with a sudden heat. "This is no place for women and children. We can't save them all, but we can save your family. You have no other choice, Lucien. You know it."
He did know, and so Lucien bowed his head, and bid his friend a curt farewell, making his way home at once. It was not going to be a pleasant evening.
"Remember," Jean told her husband as she placed his breakfast in front of him, stopping long enough to drop a gentle kiss against the top of his head, "David Rutledge is shipping out this week and he won't be able to help you with the cattle." She spun away, crossing the kitchen on a quest to pour herself some tea. "Have you rung Peter, to see if he has time?"
"Peter leaves tomorrow," Christopher grumbled around a mouthful of toast.
Jean frowned at the kettle; of late Christopher's mood had grown more and more gloomy, as one by one his friends volunteered for the army. In truth Jean had no desire to see her husband go; though she would respect his choice, whatever that might be, they had spent the last year slowly patching up the holes his deception had torn in their relationship, and she wanted him here, with her, where he belonged. After so many arguments, so many sleepless nights, the hard-won love they'd nurtured between them deserved a chance to grow in peace, and she couldn't help but worry that a long separation would only wound them both, in the end. Christopher, though, grew more bristly each time a new name was added to the list of volunteers, as the crowd gathering in the pub on Friday nights grew smaller and smaller. He had become convinced that people were whispering behind their hands about him, that others saw him as weak for not going when so many other brave souls had already stepped up to the call. Try though she might, Jean could not put those fears to rest.
"Bloody Howard's gone as well. I can handle the cattle myself, we'll be fine."
There was a ring of finality to his words, and it was Jean's turn to bristle. As far as she was concerned, of the pair of them she was the only one with cause to be grumpy. She had offered her husband understanding, rather than scorn, no matter how his actions wounded her, tended to him and his children without complaint, kept them all fed and brought extra money into the house doing work as a seamstress. And yet it was Christopher who seemed so angry of late, who pulled away when she reached for him in the dark of the night, whose eyes clouded over with anger each time a new mark, however small, appeared upon her skin.
"Christopher," she spoke his name softly, abandoning her tea so that she could return once more to his side, resting her hands gently on his shoulders. "It's all right. I understand why you want to stay in Ballarat-"
"Is that what you think this is?" he snapped, rising suddenly to his feet, his chair scraping loudly across the tiled floor and drawing the attention of their two sons, who had up until now been playing quietly in the corner. "You think I'm too scared to go?"
"That isn't what I said," Jean protested, her heart breaking at the look of agony upon her husband's face. It was his own insecurity, she knew, that made him lash out like this; no one had accused him of cowardice, and no one ever would. He had accused himself.
"Bet you're wishing you'd married someone braver, like your soldier," he snarled, gesturing towards her hand and the latest mark she bore, her knuckles scraped and bruised. In the beginning, before Christopher's mood turned dark, before his friends started enlisting, they had spoken quietly of the man who marked her skin. It was Christopher who suggested he might be a soldier, that perhaps that was the explanation for the bullet that had torn a hole through his shoulder, and through their marriage. He had only said it to set Jean's mind at rest, to assure her that her soulmate was not an evil man, and yet it was Christopher who had latched on to the idea, who seemed to constantly be comparing himself to this distant stranger, while Jean dearly wished to pretend the man didn't exist at all.
"I married you because I love you," she told him quietly, hoping he would regulate his tone to match her own, for the sake of the boys if nothing else.
"You married me because you were nineteen and pregnant and now you're wishing you weren't stuck with me."
The words struck Jean's heart sharp as knives, and she could not help but take a step back, terrified by the anger in his voice. She had thought that perhaps they had come through this, that perhaps they had found some way to carry on together despite the fact that he wasn't her soulmate, but Christopher wouldn't let it go.
"Christopher, please," she begged him quietly, but he just turned away, and stormed out the door without another word.
"So you're just going to send me away?"
The accusation in Mei Lin's voice stung, but Lucien held his ground. He had to protect their family, and war was coming.
"It's better to go now, while you still can. The Japanese will be here soon enough, and once their invasion starts, I can't guarantee that you'll be able to escape. It's going to be a bloodbath, love. Please -"
"And what about you? Even if I go, you'll still be here, you'll still be in danger." Mei Lin protested stubbornly, though she kept her voice low so as not to wake their daughter, sleeping peacefully in the next room.
"I'm a soldier, Mei Lin," he said wearily. "That's my job. You have a choice, though. Please, if you won't do it for my sake, do it for Li. She's not even two, she doesn't deserve to be trapped in a war zone."
With a sigh his wife sank down onto the bed beside him, and he lifted his arm so that she could slide beneath it, her head coming to rest against his shoulder.
"I'm scared, Lucien," she whispered into the darkness.
Blinking back tears, Lucien kissed her temple gently.
"So am I," he confessed. "I love you, and I love our daughter. Watching her grow is the single greatest joy of my life. But you cannot stay here." He stressed each word, hoping the fact that she was allowing him to hold her was a sign that she had already accepted what they both knew was the only possible course of action.
"I don't want to leave you."
With every word she spoke, Lucien's heart shattered just a little bit more. They were the light of his life, his two girls, a redemption he had not hoped to find. Sometimes he felt as if he'd been alone for his entire life, sent off to boarding school days after his mother's death, only seeing his father on holidays, and even then receiving very little affection from the man. But now he had a family, a proper family; his wife was calm and kind, a warm body to cling to in the darkness, and his daughter was a beautiful little girl with sparkling eyes and a child's boundless love for everyone and everything around her. They comforted him, soothed him, revived him, and he did not know how he was supposed to carry on without them. The alternative, however, was almost certain calamity, and he knew he would never forgive himself, if they stayed and were doomed for his sake.
"I don't want you to go," he choked out at last. "But we have to think about what's best for Li. You'll be safe, with your family, and when this bloody war is done, I will find you, and we will be a family again."
In his arms Mei Lin began to weep, and so he turned, gathered her in closer, and lowered them both down amongst the pillows where they lost themselves in tears and one another until they were both too exhausted to keep their eyes open.
It was lunchtime when Christopher returned; Jean had been preparing a meal, silently stewing over the argument that had disrupted their breakfast, but the sight of him leaning in the doorway brought her up short. There was no trace of the dirt and grass that should have clung to him after spending the morning working on the farm, and his eyes were glassy and haunted as they gazed at her from across the kitchen.
"Come and have a seat," she told him warily. "Lunch is nearly ready."
"I've done it, Jeannie," he said in a tired little voice, taking one halting step and then another until he was by her side, reaching out to take hold of her hand. A hand that started to shake, as the implications of his words slowly began to sink in.
"Done what, Christopher?" she asked him, choking on every word. "Please, God, tell me you haven't-"
"I've enlisted. I'm leaving next week."
The spoon Jean had been clutching in her free hand clattered to the floor, and she sagged against the countertop, her eyes filling with tears unbidden.
"I had to, Jeannie," he told her, pleading with her to understand. "I couldn't live with myself, knowing everyone else has gone and I've stayed behind. It wouldn't be right. What kind of example would that set for our boys?"
"So you're just going to abandon them instead?"
Christopher flinched as if she'd struck him, but Jean would not apologize for the harshness of her words. The world seemed to spin around her; it was spring, and there was so much work to be done on the farm, and Jack was walking and getting into trouble and needed watching every second, and young Christopher was growing up much too fast for her liking. How could she possibly carry on without him?
"I've hurt you," he said, drawing still closer to her; Jean went a bit limp, as he pulled her into his arms. She fisted her hands in his shirt and clung to him, too terrified to speak. "I lied to you and I never should have done that. But you stayed with me, Jeannie. You never gave up on me. I need to be the kind of man who deserves a wife like you. I need to be brave, for once. I have to do this, love."
"No, you don't," she breathed against his neck, her tears staining his skin as she trembled against him. "You don't have to prove anything to me-"
"I have to prove it to myself."
Jean leaned back in his arms, staring into his dark blue eyes, more familiar and dear to her than any others in the world. With a shaking hand she reached up and cupped his cheek, feeling the warmth of his skin beneath her palm. How long, she wondered, how long will it be, before I can touch him again?
"You're sure about this?" she asked him. She'd never been more frightened in her entire life, but he had already signed the papers. It was already done, and there was nothing to do but count down the few precious minutes they had left until he would be torn away from her side.
And he was; she could see it in his face, in the set of his jaw. Maybe this is what he needs, she tried to tell herself, tried to silence the frantic voice screaming somewhere deep inside her chest but what about what I need?
"Chris," she called, turning her attention away from her husband for a moment and seeking out their eldest son across the room. "Take Jack into the sitting room and read him a book, will you, love? Mummy will be back in just a few minutes."
Young Christopher nodded solemnly and took his little brother by the hand, leading him away without a word of protest.
In silence Jean turned off the heat beneath the pot that held their lunch, and led her husband back down the short hall to their bedroom, her heart breaking with every step she took.
For the sake of my own sanity, I am changing the chapter headings to make the dates clearer. Also, I will be traveling for the holiday, and likely will not be able to post again until Sunday at the earliest. To the Americans in the crowd - Happy Thanksgiving! To the rest of you, I wish a very happy Thursday.
8 December 1941
Lucien had not slept; all through the night shells had burst in the air overhead, air raid sirens blaring through the base and the whir of engines drowning out all conscious thought. His office was a sea of paperwork, communiques coming in from all corners of the globe with dire reports of chaos and calamity. Pearl Harbor, Thailand, the Philippines, Shanghai, Guam, Wake Island, and Singapore had all been targets of a massive operation mounted by the Japanese, and all around the globe men like Lucien were scrambling to mount a defensive. The attack upon Singapore was not entirely unexpected; they had known for months now that it was only a matter of time before the army breathing down their necks turned its eyes southward, though they had not known the day or the hour. Through the long dark hours of the night, the walls of the long, low building that housed the intelligence offices shaking with each detonation, Lucien gave thanks that his family had long since left the city. Just a few hours before Lucien himself had been struck by a piece of shrapnel as he ran across the yard, had been forced to dig it out of his own thigh while shouting orders to the bevy of scared young men who looked to him for guidance. This was no place for women and children, Derek had been right about that.
The door to Lucien's office banged open smartly, causing him to jump and promptly swear in pain as he ripped the hasty stitches he'd sewn into his own skin. Ashen-faced and gasping, Derek stood in the doorway, a piece of paper clutched in his trembling hands.
"What is it now?" Lucien asked, his gut clenching in fear.
Derek was not the sort of man who was easily rattled, and to see him so obviously distressed filled Lucien with dread. Unlike Lucien, Derek had joined the army intent on reaching the exact post he now held, serving in administration - spying and diplomacy and the occasional assassination, as needed. They couldn't have been more different; Lucien knew himself, knew his tendency towards insubordination, his glib turn of phrase in the face of chastisement, his deeply held convictions about the value of all human life had no place in the Army's ranks. He'd signed up intending to be surgeon, to help people, but the Army had other uses for him, and his life was not his own. Derek, on the other hand, was just as good at taking orders as he was at delivering them, and he had no qualms about annihilating his enemies. Still, though, they were friends, had come to trust and rely upon one another, had found a certain balance in working together, and now, after all these years, Lucien rather felt he knew Derek as well as he knew himself. Well enough to know that whatever news he brought was likely to be disastrous.
"Word's just come in," Derek said, unwilling to meet Lucien's gaze. "Lucien, I'm so sorry."
"For what?" Lucien demanded, rising to his feet and limping across the room, snatching the paper from Derek's hands.
Derek just sighed, and let Lucien see for himself.
Aerial attack...bombs...Hong Kong.
The words swam before his eyes, and he had to reach out and catch himself against the wall to keep from collapsing on the floor. Mei Lin and Li had been there just over a year; only a week or so before he'd received a letter from his wife assuring him they were well. She had enclosed a small photograph of Li, growing up so fast, three years old and already a proper little lady. They were supposed to be safe, Lucien thought, fighting a sudden rush of tears. It was all too much; the exhaustion, the fear, and now this overwhelming sense of guilt. His pride had stopped him reaching out to his father, from sending his wife and daughter to the shelter of Australia, and now they may well have paid the price for his stubbornness with their lives. Yes, Singapore was no place for them, but in sending them to Hong Kong, he had as good as killed them himself.
"It isn't your fault, Lucien," Derek said fimly, reaching out to squeeze his shoulder in a gesture of solidarity. "You had no way to know-"
"I knew it was dangerous and I sent them anyway," Lucien choked out.
"We're still getting reports about the extent of the damage, they might be fine. When the dust settles I can have our men on the ground investigate, find out if they're safe. For God's sake, Lucien, the Gerries have been dropping bombs on London for months now, and the city's still standing. Don't lose hope."
Lucien just shook his head and turned away. What hope could there be, in this war that refused to end? All over the world men were tearing each other to pieces, bombing civilians and capturing prisoners and committing atrocities, rivers running red with blood in Asia, and Africa, and Europe. His countrymen were dying in fields outside cities whose names they could not pronounce, and here in Singapore, in his home, civilians lay in heaps in the street, killed by men who never even saw their faces. Lucien had always been a great student of history, devouring stories from all corners of the earth, and in that moment he was reminded of words he had read in a book during the gray, foggy days of his youth in Scotland; it is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.
His legs refused to hold him any longer and so he sank onto the nearest chair, his head spinning while the telegraph machine in the corner clicked away like gunfire and the wireless hissed and spit and droned on and on about the latest catastrophe. He rested his elbows on his knees and hung his head, and as he did his eyes were drawn to a long, silvery mark on the back of his left hand. He could not recall having seen it before, and it was not red or bloody like any of the other recent scrapes he bore. This was hers, then, a gift from his soulmate.
He studied that mark, and as he did he felt a great lassitude overtake him. His very bones were weary, his heart aching, but somewhere out there, safe in her home in Australia, or in America, or Canada, or even England, his beloved had cut her hand. Perhaps she had scraped it against a fence or the corner of a door, caught herself on a piece of farm equipment or endured some hapless calamity in the kitchen. For a moment he tried to picture her, imagined a slight young woman with an angel's face and a tumble of dark hair, her eyes soft and kind, her smile gentle and sweet. She was a mother; he closed his eyes, and imagined her rocking her child, a little girl the same age as Li, and a sense of warmth flooded his chest. Yes, he thought, war is hell. But there was still some goodness in the world, some piece of hope for him to cling to. She was beauty itself, a dream of peace in the darkest hour of his life.
But then the vision he had conjured for himself faded, replaced by thoughts of Mei Lin and Li cowering in fear as bombs rained down around them. Terror sharp as bile filled his throat and before he could stop himself he heaved and emptied the pitiful contents of his stomach upon the floor while Derek looked on in a stricken, helpless silence.
The house was still and quiet in the pre-dawn darkness. It was a warm night, and a slight breeze ruffled the lacy curtains on the open bedroom window, curtains Jean herself had made. The boys were still asleep, but sleep didn't come easily for their mother these days. Jean was splayed across the bedsheets wearing nothing but one of Christopher's old workshirts; his smell had long since faded, but she clung to this piece of him still, sleeping in his clothes as if that could somehow soothe the ache that filled her each time she laid down in their bed without him there beside her.
He'd been gone just over a year now, and the many long days of his absence had sunk Jean into her own private hell. The farm was failing; he'd taken out loans for equipment and livestock she'd known nothing about, and between those and the mortgage creditors were banging down her door. There was a shortage of manpower in the town, and the able-bodied men who remained sought work on the bigger farms, leaving Jean to fend for herself. She'd sold the cattle and the sheep and did the best she could with the chickens and the fields, but it was not enough. The numbers taunted her each time she closed her eyes; Christmas was coming, and she could not afford gifts for her sons, could barely afford to feed them. A friend from Sacred Heart had taken her aside - no doubt having noticed the way her handmade clothes which had once fit her so well now hung baggy and loose on her slim frame - and suggested she might try for a job at the school tuck shop; they were shorthanded, and they would pay, and everyone knew that Jean Beazley was the best cook in town, young though she might have been. The thought of going to work outside her home filled Jean with dread; it felt like admitting defeat, felt like a disgrace, and besides, she didn't know what she'd do with the boys. Jack was only three, and she couldn't bear the thought of handing him off to someone else during the days, shirking her responsibilities as his mother. But the bills were piling up, and Jean had mouths to feed.
She heaved a great sigh and rolled onto her side, and as she did she felt a flash of pain coursing through her right thigh. Troubled, she dragged her fingertips across her skin, and discovered the cause of her distress; a great silvery mark had appeared along her flesh, the mirror image of a jagged, terrible wound.
What have you done this time? She wondered, feeling an unwelcome surge of fondness for her soldier, hidden from her on the other side of the world. He was still alive, then, still fighting whatever battle claimed his attention at the moment, and though she knew it was wrong, she could not stop herself from sending up a quiet prayer. Holy Mary, mother of God, watch over him. He is someone's child, and he is danger. Keep him safe, if not for my sake than for the sake of the woman who bore him. And watch over my Christopher, bring him home to our children.
Though Jean hated herself for it, her soldier had taken up residence somewhere deep inside her heart. He left his marks upon her skin, love letters she could not decipher, unwanted reminders of the man to whom she belonged, the man she had betrayed for the sake of the love she bore her husband. She tried to picture him, but each time she did she saw only her husband's face, scared and alone on an island thousands of miles from home, and the weight of the guilt she carried deep in her chest only grew heavier. Christopher wrote his letters on pencil and paper, assured her that he was well, that he had not seen combat, that he thought often of her and the boys. And Jean responded to each of them in kind. To Christopher she wrote with ink, telling him how she loved him, how she missed him, how she could not wait to see him, to hold him once again. To her beloved she wrote with blood and pain, the cut on the back of her hand where she'd caught herself while mending the wire on the chicken coop, the bruise on her hip from the day she'd spent fixing the harvester, determined to do the work herself.
Every moment that Jean was not occupied with her sons, her thoughts were with these two young men, wondering if cruel fate would introduce them out there in the world while she was trapped at home, perishing for want of them both. In a way she rather hoped they would meet, that they would hold each other up when the war caught up with them, that they might forge a bond of brotherhood all their own, but then she thought of the wretched look upon Christopher's face, they morning they'd argued in the kitchen, and that hope withered in her chest. Better they never meet, she decided. Better she stay at home, waiting for Christopher, welcome him with open arms, carry on with the life she had chosen for herself.
Outside the rooster crowed, heralding the coming of a new day.
Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of death. Pray for my soldiers, Holy Mother, and keep them safe. Amen.
This chapter comes with a warning for character death, and some imagery from Lucien's time in the POW camp. The events described below really did take place in the Selarang Camp in August of 1942.
11 November 1942
Jack drifted straight off to sleep, the way he always did, but young Christopher required a bit more attention before he was ready to give himself over to dreams. Though Jean was bone weary and ready to seek her own bed she still cherished these times with her oldest son, sitting on the edge of his bed and singing to him softly, running her hand over those soft dark curls so reminiscent of his father's. She tried her best, to play games with her children and keep them fed and smiling no matter how dire their circumstances became, but young Christopher possessed an otherworldly sort of sadness, his eyes dark and knowing despite the fact that he was only six. It troubled her sometimes, that he should seem so wise, so aware of the strife all around him, when he ought to have been romping through the grass without a care in the world. And so she sang to him gently, sweet songs about little boys and dogs and grand adventures where no one died and everyone lived happily ever after. She sang, and treasured every moment of his rapidly dwindling childhood, trying not to wonder what fate had in store for her little boy, what sort of life he might lead once he grew too big for her to cradle him in her arms.
His eyelids were heavy, sleep not far off, and so Jean finished her song, reaching out to tug the blankets up to his chin, smiling tenderly down at her son, this little boy with an angel's face, this child she loved more than her own life. To her surprise young Christopher lifted his hand and caught her by the wrist, his little fingertips dragging against the silvery mark that scored the back of her hand. It was a mark, a gift from her far-off beloved; no doubt it had drawn her son's attention because Father Walker's homily on Sunday had been centered on the marking, and the importance of faith and patience. In the days since young Christopher had been full of questions about it, and Jean dreaded each inquiry, unwilling to speak the horrible truth to her son just yet, when he was far too young to be troubled by such things.
"Is that daddy's mark?" he asked, his eyes bright and hopeful, the spell Jean's song had cast upon him breaking as excitement bubbled up within him.
"It is," Jean lied, offering him a weak smile. "Daddy's all right, love. Remember what Father Walker said?" She once more reached out, smoothly removing her hand from his grip - and his line of sight - and gently brushed his hair back from his brow. "No matter how far apart we are from the ones we love, we have these marks to tell us that they're still with us. Everything is going to be fine, Christopher, and daddy will be home again before you know it."
Her son smiled, snuggling back down beneath his blankets. With a heavy heart Jean kissed his forehead and left him to his dreams, praying they would be happier than her own.
As she slipped from the room where her children slept and readied herself for bed, she found herself brooding on the marking, and the cruel turn of fate. Several of her friends from the church had also sent their husbands off to war, and they poured over their own marks, reassuring one another that as long as those silvery lines appeared on their skin, their men were still breathing, still fighting, still out there somewhere. Jean would smile and nod and make all the right noises in all the right places, but inside her heart was aching. It was Christopher she loved, Christopher she prayed would be returned to her, but the marks upon her skin did not belong to him, and they brought her no comfort. It had been months since Christopher's last letter, and fear hung heavy as a stone about her neck, yet she had no one to confide in. She could hardly confess to her friends - or to her son - that her husband was not her soulmate, that it was not his pain etched into her flesh. There was no reassurance for Jean, no grace. She could do nothing save weep, when the boys were asleep and the sun had sunk below the horizon, and then rise to face each new day, her heart full of dread. Lies upon lies; Christopher had lied to Jean, and now she lied to everyone she knew, trying to keep his secret, trying to keep her boys' spirits up, trying to convince herself that the words she'd spoken to young Christopher were true. Please, God, she prayed, bring my husband home soon.
"These men are starving, Derek," Lucien hissed. Still his friend did not relent; Derek had discovered him just as he slipped out of the barracks house that had become their prison cell, and in a desperate attempt to stop him had slammed him against the wall, one thick forearm pressed hard across Lucien's throat, holding him in place.
"So you're going to get yourself killed, and speed up the process?" Derek demanded in a harsh whisper. "Lucien, you're doing the best you can and I admire you for it but even you have to admit that some of those men aren't going to make it, no matter how much you feed them. This is war. The strong survive. Better to let the weak go quickly than prolong their agony."
Beneath the weight of his friend's diatribe Lucien slumped in a gesture of defeat. In some ways, he knew that Derek was right. They had been in the camp for nine long months now, captured when Singapore fell to the invading hordes, and the Japanese shipped the survivors off to Selarang. It was hell on earth, trapped there in that place that had once been home to the British soldiers dying in their midst. Beatings were a daily occurrence, random and brutal as their captors sought to break their spirits. Oh, men had tried to escape; in August, four brave souls had fled the camp, and very nearly reached freedom. Only nearly, though. They'd been dragged back, and the resultant chaos had very nearly been the end of every single one of the 17,000 men trapped in the barracks. For five long days they'd been held in the square, no shelter, no sanitation, hardly enough room to sit upon the ground, and one by one men began to drop from thirst, from dysentery, from sheer exhaustion. The Japanese insisted that every man among them sign a pledge stating they would not try to escape before they would be allowed back to the relative safety of the barracks. For five long days the Allied troops had held out, but as their men began to die, Lucien, Derek, and the other commanders had been forced to concede defeat. Sign the damn pledge, Lucien had implored them. There is no honor among thieves. Our signature on that page is less than worthless. Sign it, and live to fight another day.
And so they did. Many of the Australians, knowing that their captors could not read English, signed the name Ned Kelly in place of their own, thumbing their noses at the brutal bastards who starved them, beat them, botched the executions of the would-be escapees so badly those poor men cried out for death.
They had survived, though, as Lucien intended. As far as he was concerned, it was his duty to try to escape, and he would, but first he wanted to tend to the sick and wounded among them. He had been a soldier for years but he was a doctor first and foremost, and he could not abandon those men, his comrades in arms, to die, not if there was something he could do to stop it.
Which is why he hatched the scheme Derek had so neatly interrupted. There were twenty men under his charge at present; a few other doctors had been captured, and they had divided the invalids amongst themselves in an effort to help as many as they could. Lucien's men survived on a single bowl of rice and two pieces of stale bread a day, but that was not enough for men recovering from severe injuries. They needed food, real food, and there was food aplenty in the kitchens set aside to feed the Japanese officers. It was late, and Lucien was determined to do whatever he could to help as many as he could before the Japanese took his life as well.
"Maybe you're right, Derek," he lied through his teeth. Lucien didn't believe it, not for one second. He was an old hand at triage by now, but these men would live, if only he could feed them. The cause was not lost, as far as he was concerned, and he would not go down without a fight.
His words had the intended effect; Derek lowered his arm and the moment Lucien was free he punched his friend, hard, in the gut, and took off running into the night. For a moment he felt a pang of regret, for having handled Derek so roughly after all they'd been through, but he could see no other way. Major Alderton was content to accept the loss of those men, but Lucien never could be.
They came for her the next day. It was a Thursday; Jean spent the day in the school tuck shop, making up meals for students and teachers alike, keeping a close eye on Jack all the while. She wasn't the only young mother working there, and those children too young to go to school were allowed to join their mothers in the kitchen, provided they stayed out of the way. The girls were all quite used to cooking with their little ones underfoot, and they managed well enough, though it made for a long, exhausting day, and the pay hardly covered Jean's expenses. When classes were through she collected young Christopher and set off for home with her boys in tow.
Less than an hour after she arrived home, there came a knock upon her door. Jack was causing some mischief in the sitting room and young Christopher was sitting at the table diligently working on his maths, and Jean was trying her best to prepare their supper despite her flagging energy and her growing distaste for cooking in general. She called out a warning to Jack and the clamour from the sitting room ceased - however briefly. Wiping her hands on her apron, she made her way to the front door, swinging it open and wondering who on earth would come to call right at supper time, without any warning.
The moment she saw them, she knew. Two grim faced men in dark uniforms who doffed their caps when she opened the door to them; there was only one possible explanation. Fear consumed her; her hands began to shake, and tears pricked at the corners of her eyes, but she held firm. She was Jean Beazley, and she did not weep in front of strangers.
"Mrs. Beazley?" the first one asked, taking a step towards her. Jean's lower lip trembled.
"Christopher," she called over her shoulder. "Go see to your brother, love."
The men's eyes filled with pity as the three of them lingered there on the doorstep. Jean knew how she must look to them, pale faced and much too young in her dirty apron, with two little boys to look after. If she could have found the strength she would have cursed them for their pity; they were the ones bringing calamity to her doorstep, tearing her family in two. She waited until she was certain that the boys were tucked away safely out of sight, and then she stepped aside, wordlessly allowing the harbingers of doom into her home.
The door closed smartly behind them and Jean spun on her heel, leading them back to the kitchen and scrubbing her cheeks with her hands as she went. Her mind was strangely blank, so overwhelmed by fear and impending grief that all conscious thought deserted her.
"Mrs. Beazley," the older man said, his voice kindly and sad.
"Would you like some tea?" Jean cut him off, reaching for the kettle with trembling hands.
"Perhaps you'd like to have a seat, Mrs. Beazley," the young one suggested.
Oh bugger you and your seat, Jean thought.
"You'll want some tea," Jean insisted. She needed to keep busy, needed to put off the moment of her own heartbreak as long as possible. "You've had a long journey, I'm sure."
"Please, Mrs. Beazley," the kindly man implored her. "Please have a seat." He rested a gentle hand on her shoulder and all the fight seemed to leave her at once. Jean slumped beneath his touch, and allowed him to guide her to a chair. Once she was settled, hands clasped tightly together in her lap, the younger man spoke up again.
"I'm Sergeant Lawrence, and then his Father Dawson. I apologize for the intrusion." He sounded as if he were reading from a script, and doing a poor job of it. "You are Jean Beazley, wife of Christopher Beazley?"
Jean wanted to scream, wanted to rend her hair, wanted to spit in his face, but all she could manage was a very weak nod. Hell was coming for her, and there would be no stopping it.
"I'm sorry to inform you, Mrs. Beazley, that your husband was killed on the third of May during the invasion of Tulagi."
The breath seemed to vanish from her lungs and dark spots swam before her eyes; Jean swayed slightly on her chair, a roaring louder than thunder echoing in her ears. The third of May. Christopher had been dead for six months, and she'd had no absolutely no idea, no inkling of the horror that lay in store for her. Six months she'd been assuring her sons that he was well, letting her friends point to the marks on her skin and remark that her husband must still be alive while she smiled and nodded and died a little inside. Six months she'd been busy living, not grieving him as she should have done. Six months.
"I don't understand," she breathed. "Why are you just telling me now?" the words came out harsh and accusatory, but Jean could not feel remorse for directing her ire at these hapless messengers. The chaplain reached out and silenced his companion with a gentle hand on his arm, taking over this part of the play.
"It took some time for the Army to determine the extent of our losses. There were battles all over the Solomons-"
"So maybe he isn't dead, at all!" Jean exclaimed, the doldrums of fear blown away by the hysterical howling winds of hope. Father Dawson just shook his sadly.
"I am sorry, Mrs. Beazley. Sergeant Beazley was lost, along with the rest of his unit. They've all been buried together on the island."
"No," Jean breathed, her emotions whipping from one extreme to another so quickly she could hardly breathe, could hardly think, could hardly embrace her sorrow before rage took its place. "No, that isn't right. He shouldn't be there, he should be here, in consecrated ground with the rest of his family. You can't keep him there, you have to bring him home-"
"Mrs. Beazley," the chaplain cut across her growing desperation, reaching out to touch her arm gently, drawing her back from the brink of utter collapse. "I'm sorry, I know how difficult this must be for you-"
"Do you?" Jean spat, the tears she'd tried so long to hold at bay finally breaking lose. Christopher was gone; she'd never see him smile again, never hear his laugh, never feel the warmth of his arms around her, ever again. For months now she had been dreaming of how she would greet him when he came home, how she would wear a beautiful dress made just for him in his favorite shade of blue, how she'd cook him his favorite meal and drag him off to their bed and love him with everything she had, how she'd tell him, over and over, that no matter whose marks she bore she belonged to him, and only him, always. Christopher was gone, her hope, her life, her love, her heart, perished cold and lonely amidst terror and darkness on some far-flung island, and she would never even have a grave to visit.
The sound of her sons' laughter drifted in from the sitting room and the gaunt faces of the two men who'd come to shatter her world grew paler still. No doubt they were thinking, even as she was, about those little boys who seemed so happy, so carefree now, whose hearts would be broken, never to be mended, in just a matter of minutes. How do I tell them? Jean wondered in despair. How can I tell my sons their father is never coming home?
"Father Dawson can stay with you awhile, Mrs. Beazley, if you would like to pray, if you need any...assistance."
Jean just shook her head, rising from her chair to stand on unsteady legs. She wanted these monsters gone from her home as quickly as possible, did not want their shadows to linger here in this place that now felt dark and empty in the absence of all hope. She wanted to weep, wanted to hold her sons and never let them go.
"You can show yourselves out," she said, wrapping her arms around herself, holding on tightly and refusing to shake the hand the young Sergeant offered her. He left her without a word; the chaplain lingered for a moment, but he must have seen her resolve written all over her face, for in the end he only smiled at her sadly, and then followed his compatriot out the door.
In the resultant silence what little self-control Jean possessed deserted her, and she sank to the floor, burying her face in her hands and weeping as quietly as she could, determined not to let her sons hear her, determined to let them enjoy their happiness, just a little while longer. Christopher was gone, ripped away from her, and though he had been killed by some terrible, faceless enemy, Jean could not help but feel the weight of guilt settling heavy as lead in her chest. It was their row that had led him to volunteering, the knowledge that her beloved was a soldier spurring him to take up arms, and in that moment Jean was certain she had as good as killed him herself. She cursed her beloved, cursed herself, and as she wept she swore that she would remain true to Christopher's memory for all the rest of her days. He had gone off to war to prove himself worthy of her love, and she would never cast him aside, not for anyone or anything.
25 March 1943
Nineteen days he'd been in the hole. Nineteen wet, hot, miserable days. Nineteen days alone, with nothing but a bucket and the endless wave of midges for company. They came for him, once a day; they raised the grate above him, and lowered down a rope. He fastened it to the bucket, and up it rose, propelled by unseen hands. Once it was emptied, the rope came down again, a plate of food - if the refuse they gave him could be called food at all - balanced precariously on top. As soon as he took it the rope drifted away again, disappearing into the blinding brightness of the world above, and then the grate closed again, and he was swept into darkness once more. Each time they opened the grate, he used the edge of his fingernail to etch a small mark onto the wall, a calendar of sorts, to keep him rooted in the flow of time, to keep him sane. He hoped.
The first day, he'd taken stock of his surroundings. He was in a hole, perhaps fifteen feet deep, the packed-dirt walls sheer and smooth. The hole was just wide enough for him to sit with his back against one wall and stretch his feet out in front of him; there wasn't enough room for him to lay down properly, but he found that once he was tired enough, he could sleep sitting up, dirt and mud and worse sifting through his hair. The grate above kept the worst of the rain off him, and while he cursed that foul grate, for keeping him in darkness, he gave thanks for it as well; March was still the rainy season, and if he had been left exposed he was certain he would have perished already. He felt much the same way about the bucket; it was dehumanizing and hardly sanitary, but at least he was not forced to empty his waste onto the floor.
That first day, he had stared at the dirt walls, the dirt floor, and told himself it would be no difficult thing, to dig a few handholds and scale his way up the wall. It was only fifteen feet. He was rather quickly disabused of that notion; they'd broken the fingers of his right hand, and a year of starvation and fear had left him weak, and his attempts to escape were less than useless. Not that it mattered; even if he had the strength to climb to the very top of his hole, he was certain that his captors locked the grate, that he would not make it past that final obstacle. Better to conserve his strength, he told himself. Better to wait, and pray in the darkness, and eat every last scrap they tossed down to him, better to do whatever he could to stay alive for as long as he could.
If nothing else, Lucien Blake was determined to live.
It was that determination that had brought him to this foul hole in the first place; for months now he had been stealing food on the sly, sneaking out at night, avoiding Derek and the guards, and stealing sustenance for his men, one can at a time. Nineteen days before, however, he had been discovered in the galley, his hands wrapped tight around a can of pineapple, of all things. They had beaten him, broken his nose and the fingers of his right hand and perhaps a rib or two as well, and quite literally thrown him in this hole, left to rot, for how long he could not say. Over a can of pineapple.
Was it worth it? He could almost hear Derek asking him.
"Well, perhaps not worth one can of pineapple," he answered the phantom in his own mind, speaking aloud though he knew it was folly, his voice low and hoarse from disuse. "It was worth it, though, for everything else I stole, for all the men who are still alive because I fed them. Dying here is worth it, if in the end I saved even one life."
The image of Derek he'd conjured in his mind shook his head and faded away, leaving Lucien alone in the darkness.
"You're going mad, old son," he grumbled to himself.
It was inevitable, he knew. Left utterly alone, with barely enough room to move, with no sunlight, no way to tend to his injuries, it was only a matter of time before he went completely stark raving bonkers. He was already talking to Derek; how long would it be, he wondered, before the other ghosts came to visit, his mother, his wife, his child? When - if - they finally dragged him out of his own private hell and into the world of the living once more, how much of his consciousness would remain? How long, he asked himself, could he hold onto his mind, before it fled him completely in search of safer pastures?
In the darkness he prayed. It had been a long time, but he remembered the words from his childhood, from the endless homilies he was forced to endure during his time at boarding school.
Hail Mary, full of grace…
Though his path had wandered far from the church, Lucien had always believed, somewhere in the back of his mind, in a just and benevolent god, listening to his prayers. He could not quite bring himself to believe in the church's rules, in its rituals, but he retained that one residual tenant of faith.
Blessed art thou among women…
But there was very little justice, and precious little benevolence in the world he saw now. Where was the justice for Mei Lin, for Li? For the men who had died in the camp, and the thousands more who were sure to follow, beaten and starved and mocked by pitiless, dead-eyed officers who treated them as if they were less than human? For himself, for a man who had stolen a single can of pineapple in a bid to save the lives of those poor souls he had assumed responsibility for?
Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.
Jean tried her best to hide it. A bit of powder, a bit more rouge, precious items she hardly used now as she could not afford to buy replacements, had covered the worst of the markings on her face, long sleeves and long skirts despite the summer heat had disguised the marks on her arms and legs, and keeping her hands constantly busy, constantly moving, was sufficient to keep from drawing attention to her bruised fingers. It had been nearly three weeks, since she'd woken to find her whole body black and blue, her chest aching as if she'd just been struck by a car. Nearly three weeks of hiding, not venturing from house unless she absolutely had to, doing everything she could to keep her secret. Her husband was dead; the whole town knew it, ducked their heads and smiled at her sadly as she passed, her chin held high though her heart was aching. It would not do, for anyone to note that she still bore a soldier's marks upon her skin. There were some questions she could not bear to answer.
But in the darkness of her bedroom late at night, after the sun had disappeared beyond the horizon and her boys had gone to sleep, Jean stripped bare and stared at herself in the foggy mirror above her dresser, twisting this way and that, trying to see the full picture of horror painted on her flesh.
What have they done to you? She wondered, full of shame, of fear, of pity, guilt and grief. Her soldier tormented her, distracted her from thoughts of Christopher and left her feeling weak and traitorous, whenever she caught herself thinking of anything save her mourning. Her husband was dead, ripped away from her, and her heart ached with each breath she took. No matter what the wise old ladies liked to say, time was no great healer for Jean. She found no comfort, in the passing of the days. If anything, time only seemed to make things worse. The bills piled up, higher and higher, young Christopher barely spoke a word, Jack was foul-tempered and out of sorts, and all of her friends, from her school days, from church and the tuck shop and the sewing circle, seemed to avoid her, unsure how to speak to her now that she was widowed, broken, destroyed. They looked at her, and they saw their own fate, and they turned their backs on her, unwilling to face such sorrow. Each day brought with it some fresh calamity, and each mark of her beloved upon her skin struck her heavy as a hammer blow.
Jean was at war with herself, and she could not tell which side was winning. The piece of her heart that belonged to Christopher, that ached for him, that cried out for him in the darkness wrangled with that insidious voice in the back of her mind, asking about her soldier, wondering if he would survive his torment, if he would come to her and she would one day feel the light of love upon her face once more. She wanted him and she loathed him in equal measure, this man she did not know, and yet to whom she was bound so irrevocably.
It isn't his fault, she told herself sternly. He didn't ask for this. He was someone's son, a brother perhaps, a friend most assuredly, maybe even a lover. There were people who cared for him, who must be wondering what had befallen him, and yet it was Jean, Jean who did not know him, who wanted nothing to do with him, who received these visitations of his pain. He was still alive; if only she'd known who he was, she would have written to his family, would have offered them what assurance she could, but she was left in darkness, confused and alone and desperately frightened for him. This latest injury was appalling in its scope and severity, and she could not help but worry that he would not survive it. How much could one person endure?
She pulled her robe tightly around herself and crumpled into bed, tears pricking at the corners of his eyes.
Dear God, she prayed. I don't understand. Scripture tells us you have a plan for us, and yet I can see no sense in this. He is hurting, and I can't help him.
She wanted to help, though she hated herself for it, couldn't help but feel that her fondness for her soldier was a betrayal of her husband, the man she loved, the man whose bed she'd shared. No amount of grief or shame could quiet her feelings for her beloved, and so she was left tormented by her own desires. She wished there was some way she could comfort him, some way she could lesson his pain, but they were separated by a chasm too wide for her to cross. She had no way to reach him, and in turn he had no way to reach her. They were both of them floating on an endless sea of despair, with nothing but the marks upon their skin to reassure them that the other was still living. It was enough, and yet it was all she had.
An idea came to him as he lingered there in the darkness. There was a man called Paul Hogan, executed by the Japanese for trying to escape; Lucien had tended to his injuries, the night before he'd been taken to stand in front of the firing squad. Paul had found a sharp stick somewhere, and used it to carve the words love you into the flesh of his thigh. Lucien had recoiled at the sight of those scratches in his flesh, but Paul had explained to him in a quiet voice.
I'm a dead man walking, Blake. I don't mind, I'd rather be dead than here. But I would like to see my wife again. Since I can't speak to her, I wrote to her, see? She'll see those marks, and she'll know I love her. It's almost as good as the real thing.
Paul had smiled a soft, beatific smile as he spoke those words, at peace with his own end, once he could assure himself that his final message had been delivered.
Though Lucien had no such connection to his own wife - indeed, did not even know if she were still living - there was someone he could call out to. There was a woman, a faceless angel who haunted his dreams, who could receive his message. With nothing else to occupy him there in the hole he thought of her often, conjured visions of her dancing at fine parties or cradling her sleeping child in her arms, and he drew comfort from thoughts of her. As long as she was with him, he would never truly be alone. What he needed, almost more than food or water, was human contact, was some reassurance that there was a world beyond his own private hell, and she was there, just there, buried beneath his skin.
You've finally lost it, Blake, he told himself, even as he shimmied free from his filthy trousers.
A sting sharp as a knife had Jean sitting bolt upright in her bed, her heart hammering in her chest, her tears drying on her cheeks.
What is it now? She wondered, carefully unfastening her robe and taking stock of her battered body. The pain came from her thigh; she glanced down, and her breath caught in her throat, her heart skipping a beat.
There was no denying it; the marking this time was no random act of violence. Scrawled across her skin, untidy and no doubt written by a trembling hand, was a single word.
The tears came so hot and fast that Jean all but choked on them, her vision clouded and her whole body shaking. That one word, blazened on her skin in fine red lines, was the answer to her every question. Yes, he was alive, and yes he thought of her, and yes she loved him, though she could not even picture his face. He was out there somewhere, terribly injured, cold, and lonely. Thinking of her, even as she thought of him, his heart crying out for her, even as her own echoed that eerie call. It was too much, the emotions swirling through her so strong, so jumbled she felt like to burst from the strain of keeping it all inside. She wanted to throw something, wanted to scream, wanted to reach out across all the miles that separated them and take this stranger into her arms, smooth his hair the way she would her own sons and whisper to him that everything was all right, that she was here, that she was lonely, too, and thinking of him.
How desperate must he be, she wondered, to do such a thing to himself?
Jean had never heard of any such thing happening before, a man writing a message in blood to send to his beloved no matter the distance between them. She couldn't decide if it was terribly romantic, or just plain terrible. Marking yourself was a sin, Father Walker had taught her when she was a child, but surely this was different. Her beloved had not cut himself to prove a point, to test a theory, to push back against God's plan for him; he had done it out of sheer human need, clinging to the only piece of comfort he could find.
Without even realizing it she reached into the bedside table, and withdrew the small knife Christopher had always kept tucked in the top drawer. The sight of it brought her back to herself; this was Christopher's knife, a pearlhandled pocket knife given to him by his grandfather, the same knife Jean had used to cut herself on her eighteenth birthday, no doubt the same knife Christopher had used to replicate her beloved's marks on his skin, to maintain the facade of their connection. This was a piece of him, her husband, the man she loved; would she really dare use it to bind herself to another?
Christopher is dead, and your soldier needs you, a terrible, traitorous voice whispered in the back of her mind.
It hurt like hell, using the jagged edge of his thumbnail to carve that word into his skin, but the pain brought with a certain amount of relief, as well. He had tossed the dice, had cast this piece of his soul out into the world, had done the thing he had always sworn he never would, and reached out with both hands to cling to his beloved. The word was simple enough; he was so lonely that he ached with it, and all he wanted, all he could think of, was her. She was the only light in the eternal darkness of his life. He hoped that the mark would not bring her trouble, that the father of her children would not see it and grow cross with her; Lucien knew nothing at all about her, about her circumstances, about how she might react to seeing that word carved into her flesh, but he had done it anyway, desperate for her.
Thoughts of his wife, of his beautiful little girl, brought him only torment. Thoughts of his soulmate brought him hope, and it was that hope that kept him breathing, kept him determined to live. She was out there, somewhere, and though he feared he would never see her face, he would live for her regardless, would try his best to make her proud.
There was just enough light seeping in through the grate overhead, and he had been long enough entombed in shadow, for him to see the marks on his leg clear as day. And as he stared at that word lonely there came a sharp, inexplicable pain, as if a knife has sliced through the flesh of his thigh. As he watched, bemused and elated, faint lines appeared on his skin.
The sound that escaped him was neither a laugh nor a sob but somehow both; he threw back his head and all but howled, tracing his palm over those words, again and again, blinded by tears, his throat constricted by joy and grief in equal measure. He was quite literally buried in a hole in the ground, beaten and bruised and starving and half-mad, but she was there. He could almost feel her presence in the room with him, could almost imagine that the brush of his own hand against his skin was her tender touch, soothing the ache in his body, in his heart, in his soul. She was out there, somewhere, this woman who loved him, and she was lonely, too. Though the manner of his confession had likely frightened her she had not balked; she had found within her the strength to return the gesture, to reach for the hand he'd offered her and take it in her own, and he felt her touch as a balm to his weary soul.
There were no words for this, for the wild pounding of his heart, for the feverish twisting in his mind, for the grace and the beauty and the staggering resilience of her. He had thought he loved Mei Lin, had thought that in her embrace he had found peace, but it was nothing compared to this. This woman was a stranger to him, her face, her voice, her thoughts unknown to him, and yet she had with two simple words saved his very life.
"Thank you," he breathed.
Let the Japanese keep him there in the darkness for as long as they wished, he told himself. He would live, for he was not alone. She was there, holding him, and he would not, could not let her go.
13 December 1943
Time was the only thing they had in abundance in the camp. No wireless, no books, no music, no playing cards; there was precious little to occupy Lucien and the other weary souls trapped with him in the endless doldrums of their imprisonment. Each day followed the same routine, broken here and there by the unwelcome intrusion of a beating or an execution. Each morning they rose, and slumped off to wait in the extensive queue for water, then shuffled off to the cookpot for a bite of what passed for food. Spend what remained of the morning at their appointed tasks - every man in the camp had been assigned some duty, some way of contributing to the continuation of their internment - then afternoons, slow and languorous. Perhaps they would be given some dinner, perhaps not, and then came the interminable night. The night was the worst time for Lucien; the ghosts of his family came to visit in his dreams, blackened and burned and bloody and accusatory. He could not recall, when last he'd slept the whole night through, though he supposed he must have done at least once during his forty day sojourn in the hole.
The time spent in solitary confinement, there in the darkness, had changed him. He could feel the shift within himself. He was quieter, now, and he had not once ventured into the officer's galley late at night in search of sustenance. Despite his newfound reticence his brief foray into theft had marked him as a troublemaker, as far as his captors were concerned, and they took every opportunity to torment him. Frustrated by the endless slog of their campaign against the Allied forces the Japanese had taken to torturing the captured officers held there at Selarang, despite the fact that Lucien and all the men held with him had been cut off from the outside world for nearly two years. Any intelligence as regarded Allied strategies and troop deployment that they might once have possessed was now long past useless, and yet the torture continued, as commanders disappeared, one by one, some never to be seen again, some returned hardly more than hollow shells of their former selves. Lucien's time would come; he could almost sense it.
But before they tortured him in earnest, led him to the shack on the far edge of the base where so many of his comrades had vanished, they seemed determined to break him.
The whip was a particular favorite. They would find some infraction, however minuscule, and drag the offender into the square, tie his hands to a post and whip him bloody. Over the course of the many months since his return to the land of the living, Lucien had enjoyed such treatment twice. Each time they had struck him to humiliate him, not to kill him, and so while the pain was grievous, it was not as much as others had endured. The third time, however, was very nearly the end of him.
It was a warm, dry December day - or at least, the crude calendar Derek kept on the wall behind his makeshift bunk told them it was December. Lucien was crossing the yard, his head down as ever, making his way back to their barracks for the afternoon when he crossed paths with a particularly malicious Japanese officer. Lucien never even saw the man; one moment he was walking along, and the next he was sprawled in the dust, unseen hands pummeling him mercilessly, shouting curses in Japanese. It would seem he had brushed against the officer, and the officer decided that such insolence must be met with swift vengeance. Before Lucien could defend himself he was dragged bodily to the post, and then pain the likes of which he had never known seared him to the core.
For five long days Jean struggled with herself. The latest markings upon her skin terrified her, and she longed for answers. What could have caused such a wound, she asked herself, and what were the chances that he would survive? She was terrified, completely and utterly, that this latest injury would be more than he could bear. Though she did not know him, she felt her soul bound to his, and in her darkest moments, she took solace in the fact that she was not alone. Somewhere out there was a man, lonely and troubled, in grave pain, a man who belonged to her, who sought shelter in their connection to one another. A man who needed her.
Though he had not written to her again, Jean had carried her knowledge of him like a talisman in the dark, comforted and shamed by him in equal measure. She grieved for her husband, still wept for him in the night, though it had been over a year since she'd learned of his death, though she was preparing for her second Christmas without him. Thoughts of Christopher, and the anger that had bubbled up inside him, and the discord her beloved had sewn between them tormented her. She had as good as killed her husband, as far as she was concerned, and that guilt hung heavy around her neck, compounded by the incessant, intrusive thoughts of her beloved.
Where are you today? She would sometime ask her beloved as she dressed in the morning. Are you thinking of me? Will you write to me today?
And then she would berate herself, for wishing for such a thing. She was a widow, and a mother, and she did not have time to indulge in anything else. Not when the bank was threatening to foreclose on the farm and Christmas was coming and Jack was in need of new shoes. There was no end to the turmoil that gripped her, and no one she could turn to for guidance, no one to whom she could unburden the heavy weight that rested on her heart.
There is someone, though, a little voice had whispered in the back of her mind late one night. Someone who knows that Christopher was not your soulmate, someone who may have the answers you need, about the marks on your back.
It was foolish, she knew. She had always been possessed of an inquisitive spirit, and it had brought her more than her fair share of trouble. It would be better, she knew, to set aside this childish fascination with her beloved, to focus on her sons, those two little boys who needed her now more than ever. It would be better to mourn her husband in silence, do her work at the tuck shop, arrange the flowers at Sacred Heart and live out her life in penitence for her sins, rather than dwell on dreams of a man she had never met. Try though she might, however, she could not quell the insistence of the little voice, deep in her heart, that worried for her beloved.
For all her responsibilities, for all her grief, Jean was in many ways still just a girl, not yet thirty, stumbling through life blind. And in the end the clamoring of her heart grew too loud to be ignored.
She rang Doctor Blake, and arranged to meet him.
Doctor Blake had always been a kindly presence in Jean's life; he'd delivered all three of her children, been by her side through heartbreak and joy. He tended the boys, when they took ill, and waved her off when she tried to pay him, making some excuse though his soft eyes told her all too plainly that he knew just how dire her circumstances had become. There was something fatherly, gentle and wise about him, though Jean recalled that her mother bore a grudge against him; apparently in his younger days Doctor Blake had been quite different, curt and gruff and judgmental. Time had mellowed him, it would seem, and Jean was grateful for it. She had no one else to turn to, at present.
It was a weekday, and in addition to her boys Jean had her nephew Danny to look after as well. Her sister Eadie had lost her husband in the war, and was that very day viewing several properties in Ballarat, having decided to move back home from Melbourne. Jean would be glad of the company once the move was finished, but herding three little boys from the school to the doctor's house after a long day of work was almost more than she could handle, at present. With some degree of relief, she passed the rambunctious little ones off to Margie, the doctor's receptionist.
"Go on back, Mrs. Beazley," Margie told her with a haggard air. "I'll take the boys to play in the garden."
"Thank you, Margie," Jean responded earnestly. In the shattering stillness left by the boys' departure Jean took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and marched into the surgery.
As ever Doctor Blake sat enthroned behind his desk, his hair gray at the temples but as impeccably neat as ever. He smiled softly when he saw her, and rose to shake her hand.
"Mrs. Beazley," he said, gesturing for her to take a seat. "Was that your boys I heard?"
Jean nodded. "I'm terribly sorry, I know it's an inconvenience, but I just didn't know what else to do with them-"
"It's no trouble," Doctor Blake assured her. "They'll give Margie a bit of exercise, if nothing else."
Jean tried to hide a little smile at those words; Margie was looking a bit rounder than usual, these days.
"Now, what's troubling you, Mrs. Beazley?"
He sat very still, his hands folded in front him, his whole demeanor attentive and focused entirely on her. A spike of doubt shot through Jean as she braced herself to speak. What she was about to reveal to him was such a personal thing, a secret she kept hidden from everyone, including her sister, a horror she had never spoken aloud. And yet, she had to know.
"I believe you're aware, Doctor Blake, that Christopher was not my soulmate," she began, ducking her head, unwilling to look him in the eye as she spoke those words. It was the truth, but even so admitting it felt like a betrayal of the man she'd loved, the man she'd lost.
There was no recrimination from Doctor Blake, however. He had known, for seven long years, the truth of Jean's heart, but he had never spoken a word about it.
"I am," he said slowly, as if he couldn't quite work out why she'd mentioned it, as if she'd just presented him with a riddle he needed to solve.
"I do have a soulmate, out there somewhere," Jean continued. It was one thing to know, and quite another to say it out loud, she found in the moment. Saying it somehow made it true, confirmed that the marks upon her skin were not some devilish delusion, but the echo of a living, breathing man. "I think he must be a soldier, based on the marks I've seen."
"And I'm worried," she cut him off, warming to the topic now. She could not bear to stop, to hear his kindly questions. She needed to speak her piece, to unload her fears, and only then could she raise her head and face him. "I don't know what's happened to him, but it's terrible. I was hoping you could...look at the marks, and tell me what they mean."
A long, pointed silence greeted her request. At last Jean raised her gaze, and found the doctor watching her sadly. "I could certainly try, Mrs. Beazley," he told her. Jean nodded, blinking back tears. It was as if a part of her heart had expected him to admonish her, for thinking of her soldier when she should have been in mourning, but he had done no such thing, and she was touched by the tenderness with which he treated her.
"They're on my back," she said.
Doctor Blake rose from his chair, and so Jean did the same, crossing the room to the examination table in the corner.
"Let's have a look then, shall we?" the doctor prodded her gently.
Jean turned her back on him and began carefully unbuttoning her blouse. She felt a fluttering of unease; it had been three long years, since anyone else had laid eyes upon her naked back. Three years since last she'd felt the brush of her husband's hands upon her skin, three years since she'd last had anyone to speak to, about the bruises that marred her flesh. It was not prudence, that caused her such discomfort; Doctor Blake had seen all there was to see, delivering her children, and he had always been a consummate professional. This trepidation was something deeper; in uncovering her skin, she was revealing her sin in all its glory, this proof that she had defied God's plan for her life, and settled down with the wrong man.
It took some doing, to slip out of all her many layers, but in the end she stood bared before him, clutching her shirt to her chest and trembling, just a little.
Behind her there came a sharp intake of breath, as her wounds came into focus and Doctor Blake took stock of what he saw. It was horrific, Jean knew; thick ropes of scar tissue crisscrossed her back, from her shoulders to the rise of her buttocks, myriad and senseless. She felt them beneath her clothes, had felt the sharp sting of each of them rising across her skin the day her beloved was stricken.
"I felt it," she whispered into the silence. "It hurt, Doctor Blake. It hurt so much. What could have caused it?"
"I can't say for certain, Jean," he answered. He did not touch her, but he had drawn closer; his voice, though soft, was loud near her ear. "If I had to guess, I'd say it was a whip, or perhaps a very thin stick."
"They whipped him?"
It was too horrible to even consider; who could do such a thing, tear the flesh from a man's back? Whippings this severe belonged to another time and place; Jean had never heard of man enduring such, in their modern world.
"Reports have come in from overseas," Doctor Blake said with a heavy sigh. "Of prisoners in Japanese camps being whipped, beaten, tortured. If I had to guess, I'd say your soldier has been captured."
Silent tears coursed down Jean's cheeks; it was exactly as she'd feared. No wonder he was lonely, held prisoner on some distant shore. In that moment she was suddenly rather grateful that she'd found the courage to respond to his message with words of her own. His circumstances were dire, and she needed him to know that she was there, with him, thinking of him, praying for his safe return.
"Why don't you get dressed, Jean?"
It did not escape her notice that he'd called her Jean. In sharing this terrible secret, something had passed between them, some bond had been formed. He knew her pain, now, her doubts, her fears, and he was, in his own way, offering her comfort. Jean dressed in silence, and then turned around to find him once more behind his desk.
"He may yet survive this, Jean," Doctor Blake assured her. "This is a terrible injury, perhaps the worst example I've ever seen, but it doesn't have to be mortal. And as long as you can see those marks, you'll know he's still alive." Jean's legs began to tremble, and so she crumpled once more into the chair across from him. "Research has been done, into the ends and outs of the marking. Each example is as varied as one couple from another, but there are some common themes. When one partner dies, their marks immediately disappear. These scars are terrible to see, but they mean he's still living, and that means there's still a chance."
"He must be in so much pain," Jean whispered. She buried her face in her hands, embarrassed by her own weakness in speaking such a thought aloud, but Doctor Blake saw her tears just the same.
"Do you know," he said slowly. "They think my son may have been captured."
Despite herself Jean raised her head to stare at him in horror. She had never met Lucien Blake; he was several years older than she, and had not attended the local school. There were stories about him, of course; that he was a rake, a cad, devilishly handsome and charming and not above relieving a girl of her virtue. That he was brilliant, and fiery, and that he'd turned his back on his father and his home the moment he was of age, and never looked back. Doctor Blake had never spoken of his wayward son, but when Jean looked at him now, she saw the grief of a worried father etched in every line of his face. Her heart went out to him; she knew what it was, to love a son.
"He was in Singapore when it fell, but his body hasn't been discovered. Thousands of soldiers were captured by the Japanese, and the Army tells me they think Lucien is one of them. We can't know for sure, of course. And sometimes I wonder, what would be worse; to know he was dead, or to know that he was alive, and in agony."
A strangled sob escaped Jean's throat, tears clouding her vision. The same thought had crossed her mind, as she stared at the scars upon her back. A selfish piece of her desperately wanted him to live, to survive his torment and find his way to her, and yet when she thought about his pain, about all that he must be suffering, she couldn't help but wonder if would be better for him, in the end, to leave behind the grief of this world.
"We cannot save them, Jean," Doctor Blake said, leaning back in his chair and folding his hands together in his lap. "We can only pray. And if one day, by God's mercy, they come back to us, we can only do our best to help them put this behind them."
Jean nodded, scrubbing at her cheeks with the palms of her hands. For a long moment they sat in silence, Jean slowly bringing the riot of her emotions back under control, the good doctor allowing her the space she needed to come to grips with this revelation.
"Thank you, Doctor Blake," she said at last, rising from her chair.
"It's my pleasure," he answered. She reached out to shake his hand, and he caught her with both of his, clasping her hand and looking into her eyes. "Please, feel free to come back, any time."
Jean ducked her head and stepped away, and the doctor watched her go, a contemplative look on his face all the while.
11 June 1944
It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Though the weather was not quite warm Jean and Eadie were comfortable enough, sitting on the bench at the edge of their little garden bundled up in their jumpers and cradling cups of tea in their hands.
Moving in together had been Eadie's idea; they were both widowed, with their sons to look after, the bank wouldn't give either of them a loan to buy a property, and Jean could no longer keep up with the rising tide of bills at the farm, much as it shamed her to admit it. An offer had come in on the farm, enough to get Jean out from underneath the debt her husband had bequeathed to her with a little left over, and Eadie had a nest egg of her own. They pooled their resources, sold Christopher's car, and purchased a small house in town. Parting with that car had seared Jean to the core, though she didn't confide in her sister, didn't tell her that the backseat of that car - which had belonged to Christopher's father - was the first place she'd ever made love to him, the place where she'd straddled his lap and cut her hand and changed the course of her life forever. It had to be sold, and she knew it, but still, losing that piece of him, of them, felt like nothing so much as a betrayal, taking yet another step away from the treasured memory of her husband. The boys needed to eat, though, needed a roof over their heads, and Jean hoped that Christopher would have understood why she'd done it, would have been proud of her, for taking care of their family. The little house wasn't much - Jean and Eadie shared one bedroom, with all three boys in the other - but it was theirs.
At first Jean had been concerned about living with her older sister - after all, Eadie had been off in Melbourne with her husband when Jean had fallen pregnant that first time, when their parents had scorned her and turned their backs on her, and her sister had offered her little comfort. To her very great relief, however, the arrangement seemed to suit them both just fine; Jean had her work at the tuck shop, and Eadie had found employment as a housekeeper for Patrick Tyneman, and the boys got on well enough. They were little stairsteps, the three of them; young Christopher was eight, and Danny was seven, and Jack was six. Close enough in age to play well together, and if sometimes Christopher grew tired of constantly entertaining his little brother, he never spoke a single harsh word against him.
On this particular afternoon the boys were romping merrily through the garden, kicking a football back and forth and shouting with the sort of childlike exuberance that filled Jean's heart with joy. They had endured too much sorrow in their short lives, and nothing pleased her so much as to see the smiles on their little faces. The world beyond their garden hedge was dark and full of horror, but here in this place they were protected, sheltered by their mothers' love, and Jean gave thanks to God for the blessings that had enabled her and Eadie to build such a life for them.
"Do you think this will be the end of it, then?" Eadie asked as she took a sip of her tea, her eyes fixed firmly on the boys racing through the grass.
Jean heaved a great sigh, and ducked her gaze down to her teacup, feeling as if a shadow had fallen over the weak winter sun. She had no need to ask for further clarification of her sister's question; for the last five days, the invasion of Normandy was all anyone could talk about. The undertaking was mind boggling in its scope and sheer audacity, and each morning the paper Jean found on their doorstep carried with it news from that front, wild speculation and recounting of the bravery of the Allied troops in that field. She had heard the girls at the tuck shop whispering excitedly about it, saying at this rate their soldiers might be home for Christmas. Jean did not share their optimism.
Five long years the world had been at war, and somehow Jean didn't think that one audacious offensive on one stretch of coastline would be sufficient to put an end to the parade of grief and destruction. And besides, as terrible as the news out of the European theater was, her heart was anchored rather closer to home; Doctor Blake was certain that her soldier had been captured by the Japanese, a theory that made sense, given the number of troops committed to battles in the Pacific. He could be anywhere in the world, but she felt certain that Doctor Blake had it right, that he was being held on one of those many islands she'd never heard of before the war, or maybe Malaya, or maybe Japan or China. She could hardly tell her sister why she was more concerned with news from the East than with France, however, and so she bit her tongue. Eadie liked to talk; she probably hadn't intended for Jean to answer, anyway.
"Mr. Tyneman swears it will be, that's why it's all over his papers."
And I'm sure Patrick Tyneman's never been wrong about anything in his life, Jean thought, trying to hide a wry smile.
"And maybe when this war is done," Eadie continued, shooting Jean a furtive look out of the corner of her eye, "your soldier will come home."
Jean very nearly dropped her teacup; her hands began to tremble, and the breath seemed to freeze in her chest. The boys were too far away to hear, and too occupied with their frivolity to listen to the mutterings of their mothers anyway, but still, she could not help looking around to confirm that they were unobserved, that no one else had heard her sister's words. In that moment Jean rather felt as if she'd been struck by lightning, as if some great calamity had fallen out of the sky and smote her into the dirt.
"Don't look so surprised, Jeannie," her sister said, not unkindly. "You've tried very hard to hide it, but we've been sharing a room for months. I've seen his marks. You've nothing to be ashamed of." The look in her eyes was gentle, curious, but it did little to soothe Jean's nerves. Eadie thought the marking a sweet thing, had often commented on the comfort it had brought her, while he husband was still alive. Likely she thought that Jean felt the same about her own marks.
If only you knew, Jean thought sadly, panic and sorrow gripping her heart. She clutched her teacup as if it were a life raft, her pulse thundering so rapidly she thought it was a wonder she had not collapsed on the spot.
Beside her Eadie huffed an impatient sigh. "You can tell me, Jean," she implored. "I am your sister. And it's not as if we have anything else to be happy about right now. Who is he?"
"I don't know," Jean breathed. Until that very moment Jean had been determined to take the secret of her soldier with her to the grave. Doctor Blake knew, but he kept his silence, and she did not want to tell anyone else, did not want to reveal her deepest shame. It was Christopher she loved, Christopher she wanted, Christopher she missed so much her grief manifested as a physical pain in her chest. Much as she was intrigued by her beloved, much as she wanted to see him returned to his home - wherever that was - happy and healthy and free from the torment he had endured these last few years, she had decided long before that she would not ever take another lover, would not wed another man, would not ever betray the memory of her husband, the father of her children. Her beloved might well be the most perfect man alive, but Jean knew that this was to be her penitence, that the price she must pay for having given herself to the wrong man was to spend the rest of her life alone, and she had resolved herself to that fate.
Eadie wouldn't let it go, however, and so Jean haltingly, reluctantly unburdened herself, telling her sister the whole sorry story as they sipped their tea bathed in the glow of a winter afternoon. It took quite some time, to explain everything, Christopher's marking and subsequent betrayal, the gunshots and the whippings, but she did, pouring out her heart and soul. There was one thing she kept to herself, though, one secret that would remain hers, and hers alone. She did not tell her sister of the word her soulmate had written to her, the night they had comforted one another, trapped in their own private miseries. It was too raw, too honest, too beautiful a moment, for all the sorrow that surrounded it, and Jean treasured it in her heart.
"Wow," Eadie said softly when Jean's tale was done. "That's so romantic, Jean."
Jean very nearly laughed aloud at that. Of all the words that could be used to describe her situation, romantic wasn't the one she would have chosen. Tragic and doomed and sinful and hopeless, yes. Romantic - not in the least.
Before she could correct her sister, however, a voice called out from the other side of their garden gate.
"Good afternoon Mrs. Beazley, Mrs. Parks."
As one they turned and stared; there stood Thomas Blake, impeccable in his three piece suit and his fine hat, leaning on the gate and smiling at them both.
"Good afternoon, Doctor Blake," Jean answered, offering him a small smile in return. She quite liked the good doctor; he could be a bit prickly at times, but he had always been kind to her, and she was grateful for his discretion.
"Would you like a cup of tea?" Eadie asked, ever the housekeeper, already rising from her seat on the bench.
"Thank you, Mrs. Parks," Doctor Blake said politely, "but I won't be staying long. I was wondering if I could have a chat with you, Mrs. Beazely."
Jean frowned at him; she could think of no reason why Doctor Blake should seek her out this way. The boys were all in fine health, as were she and Eadie, and he wasn't in the habit of stopping in just for conversation.
"Of course," she said warily.
"I'll take the boys inside," Eadie volunteered. "It's time to start working on dinner anyway, and they need to get cleaned up."
Before Jean could protest her sister had ushered the three grass-stained little ones into the house, and Doctor Blake had slipped through the gate and eased himself onto the bench beside her.
"Beautiful day, isn't it?" he said, closing his eyes and turning his face up to the sky.
"What can I do for you, Doctor Blake?" Jean asked, a bit tartly. His visit had put her on edge, and she was in no mood for small talk at present. Her heart was still racing from the confession she'd made to her sister, and she wanted nothing more than to go inside and hug her sons tight, to forget for a moment about her soldier and everything else that came along with him. Doctor Blake's arrival was an unpleasant reminder that he knew her secret as well, that the circle of people who were aware of her shame was slowly growing.
"I understand you've been working at the school tuck shop," he said.
Jean stared at him blankly. What on earth does that have to do with anything?
Perhaps he recognized the confusion on her face, for he hurried to explain himself. "I don't know what they're paying you," he continued, "but I imagine it can't be very much."
"We manage perfectly well," Jean said stiffly. Really, who did he think he was, turning up in her garden unannounced to talk about her finances?
"I'm sure you do," he said quickly, shooting her an apologetic look. "The thing is, Jean, Margie's pregnant, and she's decided she doesn't want to continue on working any longer. I'm in rather desperate need of some assistance. Now, Margie is my housekeeper, but she is also my receptionist. She takes calls and makes appointments, and to be frank, she's never been very good at it. I need someone clever, and discrete, who can assist me with patients as needed, not just someone who can roast a chicken. I was sitting at home just now, trying to think of someone who could do all that, and your name was the first one that came to mind. What do you say?"
As he spoke Jean's jaw dropped open; somehow she couldn't quite believe that he was really there, sitting on her garden bench and offering her a job. If she were being honest with herself, it sounded like a golden opportunity; work at the tuck shop was dull, and not particularly profitable, and the position he described sounded as if it would carry a great deal more responsibility. Jean had always loved a challenge, and the chance to help him in his surgery - as well as cook his meals and tend to his beautiful house - was just the sort of work she'd like to undertake.
"As I said, I don't know what they're paying you at the school," somehow he sounded almost shy as he spoke, as if he was well aware that he was trodding on dangerous ground, but too anxious for her help to keep quiet. "But I can assure you, Jean, whatever is, I'll double it. After all, you'd be filling two different positions, and you should be compensated accordingly."
Though her pride told her she ought to take a moment, seriously consider his offer and perhaps let him sweat for a bit as payback for his impropriety in discussing her salary, Jean's heart spoke for her before she could think better of it.
"I think that would be wonderful, Doctor Blake," she said.
His answering smile was brighter than the sun overhead.
"Who is she, then?" Derek asked, passing Lucien the dirty tin cup.
Lucien took a deep breath and then drank from the cup as quickly as he could, trying not smell the vile concoction inside, trying to swallow it before the taste of it overwhelmed him utterly. There was something to be said, he thought as he passed the cup back to Derek, for the ingenuity of man. For two long years they'd been held prisoner here, starved and beaten and lacking proper sanitation, and yet somehow, some of his compatriots had worked out a system for making bootleg liquor. It was foul and strong enough to strip the paint from the walls - and, Lucien suspected, hardly safe for consumption - but that one luxury had restored some sense of normalcy to them. In the dark and quiet of the barracks late at night they could sit together, these men who had become brothers, bound by blood and terror, and drink until they couldn't stand, talking of women and football as if they were sitting in their local back home. The positive effect that hooch had on moral could not be overstated.
"Honestly, Derek, I've no idea," Lucien confessed.
He wasn't entirely sure how they'd gotten on this subject, but now that they had started, he found he wanted to talk about her. Talking about his wife or his daughter or the war brought him only grief, but this woman, this stranger, was a welcome respite from the tragic reality of his life. Derek had no soulmate of his own - a fact that struck Lucien as rather strange, given that Mei Lin had been similarly cursed. All his life he had been told that such lonesome souls were few and far between, and yet somehow two of them had become the most important people in his world. He wasn't entirely sure what that meant, but it seemed significant to him somehow.
"I've never met her, or if I have, I had no idea who she was."
"And she has children?" Derek asked, choking just a little as the contraband liquor burned his throat.
Lucien nodded. "Two," he answered, though in his mind he paused for a moment, remembering that it could have been, should have been three. Wherever she was, he hoped that she delighted in her children, that she loved them with all she had and held them close, as he longed to cradle his own child. Li would be six now; walking and talking, and, if she were safe, learning to read and write, and shining with the glow of gentle curiosity that had filled her almost from the moment of her birth. In that moment he almost paused and sent up a prayer for her, his darling little girl, but then he shook his head at his own foolishness. He'd given up on his just and merciful god right around the same time that god had given up on him, had allowed him to be tortured - whipped, and worse - had allowed the men under his care to waste away from dysentery and darker things, had allowed his friends to be beheaded and shot and some of them marched away to work on the railroad until they dropped dead from sheer exhaustion. What kind of a god, he had asked himself, would allow such things to happen? The kind of god, he decided, that he did not want to worship.
"Do you think she knows about you?"
Lucien smiled softly to himself. Aloud he said, "At this point, Derek, I think she'd have to be dead not to notice the marks I've given her." In his mind, however, in that private place where he kept all his hopes and dreams for a life beyond this hell, he remembered the words she'd written to him, the strength and the grace she had bestowed upon him in the darkest hour of his life. He might not believe in god, but he believed in her.
Derek gave a short, mirthless bark of laughter. "You're probably right," he conceded. "I bet you've absolutely terrified her, mate."
"Without a doubt," Lucien said.
"When this is over," Derek said slowly, stretching his legs out in front of him, "if this is ever over, if we ever make it out of here, do you think you'll go out and find her?"
They were sitting on the floor in a corner of the barracks house, their backs against the wall, speaking quietly so as not to wake the men who slept a few feet away. For a moment Lucien could almost imagine he was back in his first posting with the Army, that when the sun rose the garrulous old sergeant who had been the bane of his existence during his training days would come storming in shouting curses at them, driving them all out for a six mile run before allowing them to return to base for a hot breakfast. For a moment, he felt almost human. And then he pondered Derek's question for a moment, and the darkness returned.
"I made a promise to Mei Lin," he said, running a weary hand over his face. "That no matter what, when this war is over, I would come to find her. My soulmate is out there, somewhere, but she's safe. I'm sure of it. I'm not so sure about my wife. I have to find her, Derek. I have to save my family."
Derek nodded, and passed the cup back. "When we're free," he said, "I'll go with you. I'll help you. Whatever it takes."
As Lucien threw back the last of the liquor Derek extended his hand, and they shook firmly, sealing that oath. And for once, knowing that his beloved was safe, knowing that Derek was standing by his side, Lucien slept peacefully all through the night.
5 September 1945
Somehow, they made it. Through three and a half years of horror and calamity, starvation and torture, grief and pain and impotent rage, Lucien and Derek had survived. For the rest of his life, Lucien would never forget the day the Poms came marching through the gates of Selarang, reclaiming their barracks and promptly removing the Japanese flag that had fluttered over their heads for days without end. One of them pulled a cigarette lighter from his trouser pocket and burned the flag on the spot, but Lucien had not stayed to watch the festivities. Though his relief at finally being released from captivity was boundless, he could not stretch his enthusiasm far enough to celebrate. The war had been long and bloody, and Lucien's internment had been a trial from which he feared he'd never recover. He was surrounded by the jubilant, well-fed faces of his liberators, but in the shadows the hollowed out cheeks of his brothers were not smiling. There were some things which could not be unseen, and as he walked through the barracks, his head held high for once, his steps unguarded, he could not help but wonder if he would ever be fit for polite company, could not help but wonder if the horror he had endured would mar his visage for the rest of his days, set him apart from his fellow man, broken and battered and incurably changed.
His steps took him to the infirmary; during the long years of the Japanese occupation the infirmary had been devoted solely to treating the Japanese officers. Lucien had to struggle to tend to his own sick and wounded in their beds in the barracks, without instruments, without proper sanitation, and men had died as a result. Now that they were free, however, the infirmary was full to bursting with Allied soldiers, Australian, British, Dutch, all in need of proper care. There were Pommy medics aplenty, and Lucien's services were not needed; in fact, he had been treated as a patient, the final wound he'd received at the heavy hand of a Japanese captain artfully stitched by a tutting doctor in a crisp white coat. No, he was not approaching the infirmary as a doctor, but rather as a visitor, hoping he would be allowed to spend a few moments with Derek.
If captivity had indelibly changed Lucien Blake, it was nothing compared to the havoc the war had wrought in Derek Alderton. For quite some time they had carried on together, holding one another up, conspiring against their enemies, tending to the needs of their friends, trying to survive. But a few months before the Japanese surrender Derek had gone a bit wild around the eyes. He had started to talk in harsh whispers about the need to escape, and barring that, the need to kill as many of those Japanese bastards as they could. At first Lucien had agreed with him, and even helped him plan an insurgency or two, resorting to his old ways of stealing food, but then the plans Derek laid out grew more and more ambitious. Derek didn't want sustenance or medicine for the men, didn't want to make a break for safety in hopes of rescuing their brothers from the confines of their prison; Derek wanted blood. And for all that he was a soldier, that he had killed men in battle, had seen them flinch at the impact of a bullet or a bayonet, their blood spraying across his face, somehow Lucien could not quite bring himself to so willfully, wantonly butcher his enemy. Lucien preferred a fair fight, and to catch a man unawares, no matter how dreadful a man he was, and sink a knife into his back while he stood defenseless seemed to Lucien to be the height of folly. What are we fighting for, he had asked himself, if we become just like them?
But Derek would not listen, and in the end, it was nearly his undoing. Without Lucien's help he hatched a scheme to to set fire to the officer's barracks, hoping to murder every last one of them in their beds, and liberate the camp in one fell swoop. It was madness, and of course without Lucien to guide him, Derek was caught. He'd been stabbed through the gut by a bayonet, the Japanese officers laughing as they abandoned him, certain that he would die from such a grievous wound. What they had not counted on, of course, was Lucien's sheer bloody mindedness. Though Derek had begged for death Lucien had stitched him with thread pulled from his own trouser cuffs, had cleaned and treated the wound as best he could, and by September Derek was still alive, but staunchly refusing to speak to the man who'd saved his life, his eyes strangely vacant. If Derek never spoke to him again, forgot every promise they had made to one another and cursed him for all the rest of his days, Lucien reckoned it would have been worth it, to save the life of the man who'd stood by his side during the darkest period of his life.
When he arrived at the infirmary he made his way through the corridors to the room where those men whose injuries were deemed less severe were being housed, their beds crammed so close together they could nearly touch one another. Derek was at the end of the row, and Lucien approached him with some trepidation, uncertain what sort of welcome he could hope to receive.
Tall, broad-shoulders, possessed of a deep, steely-eyed stare, Derek had always been a presence, a force to be reckoned with. To see him as he was now, emaciated and curled beneath a ragged blanket too short for his body, was almost more than Lucien could bear. It had been three and a half years, since Lucien had last seen his own reflection in a mirror, but when he looked at Derek, he could not help but see himself. This is who we are now, Lucien thought as he came to a stop beside his friend's bed. Like Lucien, Derek's hair was long and untrimmed, his beard wild and hopelessly matted. They had been denied razors in the camp, and lice were rampant; Lucien had heard whispers that the Poms were systematically shaving each man they came across in the hopes of curtailing the spread of the little bugs. It would only be a matter of time, Lucien supposed, before it was his own turn to go under the knife. Strangely, he did not want to part with his beard; he felt he needed something to hide the ravages of captivity upon his face.
Derek was sleeping - or perhaps pretending to be - and so Lucien left him to it, wandering back out into the sunlight. It would take some time, he knew, for the Army to work out which troops would be shipped to other posts, which would be left behind to restore Selarang to its former glory, and which were too battered to carry on. His own fate was as yet undecided; now that the Japanese had surrendered to the Allies and were preparing to lay down arms in China, his thoughts flowed in one inevitable direction. He had to get to Mei Lin; she was out there, somewhere, and he had to find her, had to find his baby girl - a baby no longer - and cradle them both in his arms, had to know for once and for all what they had endured in his absence. Would the army let him go? That was a question without answer, at present, one which troubled him a great deal.
Though around him men were gorging themselves on fresh fruit for the first time since Singapore had fallen, basking in the sun and kicking a dilapidated football someone had unearthed and generally behaving as if they were on holiday, Lucien had no desire to speak to anyone. Quite without realizing it, his feet carried him back to his barracks where he collapsed onto his bed, thinking dark thoughts about his future. Perhaps Mei Lin was dead already, and Li with her, perhaps they had been for years. Lucien wasn't sure what would become of him, if his family were lost. Who would he be without them, this woman he had chosen, this child he loved better than his own life?
You could go and find her, an insidious voice whispered in the back of his mind. If his family were truly dead, if there was no salvation to be found for him in Hong Kong, perhaps there was hope, still, for his beloved, his guardian angel, was out there, somewhere. Had she seen the marks upon his back, and guessed what fate had befallen him? Had she heard the news of the Japanese surrender and sent up a prayer of gratitude, to know that he was well? Or was she still consumed with worry for him, still lonely as she had been when he had cried out to her from the depths of his despair, and she had responded with her own?
Where are you? He wondered as he lay there in his bed, alone in the barracks as the rest of his brothers made the most of their freedom. What do you think of me? Do you want me? Do you think of me, as I think of you?
Suddenly, it seemed terribly important to him that she know he was well.
Jean was preparing for bed when it happened. She was standing in their cramped bathroom, carefully applying lotion to her legs, when a sharp pain sliced through her thigh. Under the careful circles of her palms faint red lines began to appear, and after a moment, they resolved themselves into a single word.
With a gasp Jean collapsed, her knees buckling and giving way beneath her so that she slid to the floor, running the tips of her fingers over and over the mark. Tears clouded her vision; she had prayed, from the moment she heard of the Japanese surrender, that her beloved was well. Information about the release of the POWs was hard to come by, and she did not know where he'd been held, but she had devoured the paper each morning, hungry for news of her soldier. She drew her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around herself, her whole body shaking with wracking sobs. Wherever he was, whatever horror he had endured, he was safe, and he was thinking of her, had taken the time to reach out across the void that separated them and offer her reassurance, comfort in this moment of doubt. What sort of a man, she asked herself, would do such a thing? What sort of a man, set free from hell, thought first of a woman he'd never met, put himself through one final moment of pain just to set her mind at rest?
Jean knew nothing at all about him, but this seemed to her to be the greatest measure of his character she had so far received. He was thoughtful, it seemed to her, and willing to face his own emotions, whatever those might be; he had, after all, willingly confessed his loneliness to her, not knowing how she might respond. For one mad moment Jean almost felt as if he were there in the room with her, as if the thigh she caressed with her right hand was not her own, but his, as if she could feel the heat of him beneath her fingertips.
The last year she'd spent living with her sister, confiding at last the troubles of her heart to another living soul, had brought her a certain sense of clarity, where her beloved was concerned. It was Eadie who had made her see just how foolish she had been, in determining to keep herself apart from him.
"But Jeannie," she'd said exasperatedly one night as they lay awake whispering to one another as if they were girls again, sharing their secrets under the cover of darkness. "Don't you see? Christopher wasn't your soulmate, but you were his. You were meant to be with him, to be there for him, as long as he was alive. And you were. You fulfilled your promise to God and to him, by loving him as best you could. And now he's gone-"
Jean had tried to cover the sound of her little gasp, as the tears came to her eyes the way they always did when she thought of Christopher's passing, but Eadie carried on, relentless.
"I'm sorry, but it's the truth, Jean. He's gone. He's gone, and your soldier is still out there. Maybe you were meant to be with Christopher, and then meant to find this man, too. The Lord works in mysterious ways."
The words her sister had spoken that night had revived something deep inside Jean's heart. She had been so lost in her own grief, so troubled by Christopher's lies and the knowledge that he was not meant for her, that she had overlooked the one central fact that had shaped the course of her very life. Christopher had always borne her marks, she'd witnessed it herself more times than she could count. Whoever she was meant to love, Christopher was meant to love her. His love of her had never been a lie, and she had been his wife, had given him everything she had. But now that he was gone, her soldier remained. Jean was only thirty, the many long years of her life still stretching out before her. Perhaps, she'd told herself, perhaps when the boys were a bit older, when this miserable war was done, perhaps her soldier would come home, and she would learn to smile again.
And now here he was, writing to her with his own blood for ink. Hope blossomed in her chest, and through her tears a single, wild laugh escaped her. He was safe.
Lucien hadn't really expected her to answer, but he had no sooner closed his eyes than he felt the sharp sting of a knife upon his thigh. He sat bolt upright, quickly sliding out of his trousers, and gazed down in wonder upon his leg.
Good, she'd said.
For the first time in a year, Lucien smiled. He did not know what had become of his family, did not know what would become of him in the days ahead, but at least he had this one truth to cling to. His beloved was out there, somewhere, safe and well, and she had heard his message, and deemed it good. Whatever happened next, she had given him hope, had restored his battered soul with this knowledge that no matter where he went, no matter what calamity befell him, his beloved would always be there for him, a rock he could cling to, and in that moment, he loved her for it.
12 October 1946
"I apologize, Doctor Blake," Jean said sincerely as a whirlwind in the shape of three young boys went tearing through the house amidst a rousing chorus of G'day Doctor Blake!
To his credit Thomas just waved his hand, dismissing the disturbance caused by the rambunctious youngsters racing towards the back garden and the glow of the afternoon sun."Really, Jean, I'm the one who asked you to come round on a Saturday, I know you could hardly leave the three of them unattended." This was true enough; Eadie worked at the Tynemans' house on Saturdays, and though Jean had willingly agreed when Thomas asked her to work for an extra day's pay, she had little choice when it came to childcare. "I'm grateful for the help," he continued as together they made their way back to the kitchen. "And to tell you the truth, I quite like having them around. It's been far too long since this house was full of the laughter of children."
There was something wistful in his gaze, and Jean knew his thoughts had drifted towards his wayward son. A few months after the Japanese surrender, Thomas had received word that Lucien had indeed been held in a prisoner of war camp outside Singapore, but he was mercifully alive, and continuing on in his duties with the Army. That this notice had come from the Army itself, and not from Doctor's Blake son, struck Jean as rather discourteous. What sort of son, having been held prisoner for three and a half bloody years, couldn't be bothered to write a brief letter of reassurance to his own father? Doctor Blake had never been anything but kind to Jean, and privately she thought that perhaps his Lucien could do with a good talking to. As far as she was concerned, the younger Blake was a lucky man indeed, to have such a father, and he ought to appreciate that blessing. She held her tongue, however; she was only the housekeeper, and it wasn't her place to comment on Thomas's relationship with his son.
As they entered the kitchen instinct took over; quite before she realized it Jean had retrieved her apron from its little hook behind the door and started up the kettle. Thomas settled into a seat at the table and lifted the day's newspaper, smiling at her over the top of it all the while. There was a certain comfort in their routine, the familiarity they had built with one another over the last two years. Jean cooked his meals and took his appointments and helped with his patients, drawing up syringes and taking temperatures and listening with rapt attention each time Thomas taught her something new about his profession. They chatted to one another, in quiet moments, and on the days when Eadie couldn't watch the boys after school, Doctor Blake did not complain about them running wild through his garden, so long as they stayed clear of the sunroom and his surgery.
"How many guests are you expecting, then?" Jean asked as she took stock of the contents of the cupboards. Thomas was hosting a dinner party, and had asked her round to make their meal.
"Just three," he answered. "Doug Ashby, and his new constable Lawson, and Doctor Henderson from the hospital. Of course, you and the boys are welcome to stay, if you don't have any plans for dinner."
Jean smiled as she retrieved the roast from the refrigerator. She would never accept such an invitation, and Doctor Blake knew it, and yet he had extended the offer nonetheless. That was just the way of things between them; they both understood their prescribed roles and played them perfectly, always courteous and never stepping over the line that decorum dictated must keep them separate one from the other. "It's very kind of you to offer," she said lightly, "but I'm afraid I'll have to decline."
"Another time, then," Doctor Blake said, offering her a gentle smile as she carefully placed his teacup in front of him.
"Perhaps," she agreed before twirling away, intent on making his dinner.
"At some point, Lucien, you're going to have to face facts," Derek grumbled as they meandered through the twisting city streets. "It's been two years since anyone saw them last. I know you don't want to hear it-"
"Then don't bloody say it," Lucien grumbled. He knew Derek meant well, was only concerned with his own well-being, but still, he drew little comfort from his friend's bleak counsel. They had spent the last year in Hong Kong, quietly dispatched to gather intelligence for Australia as the world around them settled into a new shape in the wake of the war. In between covert assignations for his government Lucien had found time here and there to continue the hunt for his missing wife and child, though his most recent contact had no news of any substance, and he and Derek were walking away from yet another meeting empty handed. At first, Lucien had been full of fire and certainty; he found people who had known his wife, who recalled his daughter as a beautiful, wide-eyed child. But then the well had run dry; they had disappeared, sometime in 1944, and no one had seen them since. They weren't the only ones missing, of course; throughout the course of the war civilians had vanished at an alarming rate, and though the streets were rife with whispers, no one could say with any confidence what had become of them. Each time Lucien made a new contact his heart leapt with hope, and each time those dreams were dashed to pieces.
Where are you, my darling? He wondered as he walked, unwilling to continue his discussion with Derek. There might well come a day when he would give up his search for his wife and child, but that time had yet to come. It had only been such a little while; Hong Kong was a big city, China itself bigger still, and Mei Lin and Li could be anywhere. So long as his legs would hold him, so long as there was a village as yet unexplored, Lucien would carry on. He could see no other choice. He had promised Mei Lin that he would find her, that they would be a family again, and that was one promise he was determined to keep. The day he married Mei Lin he had sworn to love her, to protect her, to cherish her above all others - even his mysterious beloved - and he had repeated those same vows in the sanctuary of his own mind the day Li was born. They were everything to him, this woman he had chosen, this child they had created together, and he could not, would not, give up on them.
It was a bright, beautiful afternoon, and as such the attack upon their persons was entirely unexpected. One second they were walking, and the next a stocky fist collided with Lucien's nose. He buckled at the pain but righted himself in an instant, pummeling his attacker even as Derek grappled with a second. Such attacks on strangers in the city weren't uncommon, and ordinarily Lucien would have been on his guard, but he had been so distracted by thoughts of his missing wife and child he had quite lost sight of his surroundings, and the inherent danger.
It wasn't much of a fight, in the end; that first blow had been grievous, but not sufficient to break his nose, and under the furious onset of his defense his attacker had quickly realized there was no victory to be gained, and turned tail and run. Derek had fared somewhat better, in that he had managed to knock his man into a bloody, unmoving heap upon the ground. They stood for a moment, gasping and staring at one another, but time was against them. They were supposed to be shadows in this place, quiet and unseen, and brawling in broad daylight would only serve to draw unwanted attention to them. Without a single word, they fled the scene, their feet slapping loudly on the pavement as they went.
Say what you will about army life, Lucien thought as he ran. At least it's never dull.
Jean gasped as the full force of an unseen blow struck her square in the face; the sudden shock of the pain caught her off guard, and the plate she'd been holding tumbled from her grip, shattering into pieces on the floor. Thomas was by her side in an instant, ever the caring country doctor, his hand resting gently on the small of her back.
"Everything all right, Jean?" he asked, his face the very picture of concern.
"I'm fine," Jean said, waving him away as she bent to retrieve the shattered remains of the plate, her cheeks coloring with embarrassment. She knew what this was; the familiar sting of someone else's pain had become a part of her daily routine. I do wish you'd be more careful, she thought, though she knew her beloved could not hear her. "I think it's just him." As she knelt on the floor she turned her face up to Thomas, trying to offer him a reassuring smile, but his eyes grew dark as he took in the sight of her.
"Quite a brawler, your soldier," Thomas grumbled, relieving her of the broken shards of crockery and awkwardly helping her to her feet. "I don't mean to alarm you, Jean, but you've got quite the bruise there. You might want to stay home from church tomorrow."
Jean sighed, running the tips of her fingers across her nose.
"One of these days, you'll have to have a talk with him about that," Thomas continued as he disposed of the ruined plate in the bin.
Jean fought the urge to sigh again. Though she had reconciled herself to her love of this stranger, had found some way to accept that perhaps some day she might be willing to open her arms to another man, she had all but given up hope of ever finding him. The war had ended, but no dashing soldier had come to sweep her off her feet; instead he continued on, out there somewhere far beyond her grasp, constantly scraped and bruised and bloody, though she could not say how or why. These days each mark brought with it the resurgence of her old worries, that her beloved was a hard man, or a violent one. After all, the war was through; why then was he still in such danger? Why hadn't he come home to her?
"Do you feel the echo every time he's hurt, Jean?" Thomas asked her curiously as he resumed his seat at the table. He often sat with her while she worked in the kitchen, and he would occasionally pepper her with questions about her beloved and his wounds. Thomas had made something of a study of the marking, taking diligent notes of each case he encountered and reading all the latest research, as doctors and scientists struggled to understand this most personal, most inexplicable of phenomena.
"I do," Jean answered as she returned to her work. That fact troubled her somewhat; she'd always been taught that the echo was a rare thing, that one lover only felt the other's pain in times of great calamity, and yet every scratch, every bruise brought with it that physical shock for her.
"That's curious," Thomas mused, echoing her unspoken thoughts. "You know, Jean, the church tells us that it is the depth of love between two people that determines whether or not they feel the echo. I'm beginning to believe that isn't the case."
"Oh?" Jean prompted him when he fell silent. Though she was hardly knowledgeable on the subject Jean always indulged Thomas when he went off on one of these little tangents of his; he was a fascinating man, with a fascinating intellect, and she devoured every morsel he cast her way.
"Love is hardly a measurable thing," Thomas continued. "Who's to say, what makes one love deeper than another? I have a theory-" of course you do, Jean thought fondly, hiding her smile, "that it's less to do with love, as such, and more to do with empathy. You see, that can be measured, to a certain extent, one person's capability for understanding another. Some men are simply incapable of seeing life from another's perspective, and yet others are more sensitive, more open. Perhaps suffering itself plays a role; the more you have suffered, the more compassion, the more understanding you have for others who are enduring pain. And it seems to me, Jean, that you possess that empathy in spades. You do not know your beloved, cannot comprehend the attractiveness of his face or the sound of his voice or his mannerisms, you know nothing of the way he treats others or how he comports himself, but you do understand pain, and you are, at your very core, a nurturer. You long to comfort him, and I believe that it is this longing which has strengthened the bond between you."
Jean was thankful that her back was turned towards the good doctor, for her cheeks were blushing scarlet at his words. Though they were quite friendly with one another, Jean hadn't realized just how much time Thomas had spent ruminating on the nature of her character, and this insight into his understanding of her was both touching and confronting. In a way she could understand what he was saying; though it was true enough that she did not know her beloved personally, each time he was wounded she could not help but think of him, out there somewhere in pain, and grieve for him. For a moment she wondered wryly if there were any way she could turn it off, could receive his marks without the accompanying agony of the echo, but only for a moment. In truth she treasured her connection to this man, whoever he was, wherever he was, and she gave thanks to God for this blessing, difficult though it was to bear.
"Your dinner's nearly ready, Thomas," she said, choosing to direct their conversation away from her beloved, and the nature of her own heart. She had more immediate tasks to tend to, her boys and Thomas's house and the upkeep of her own, and wherever he was, her beloved seemed to be hellbent on continuing on his own path.
1 September 1947
"I'm so sorry to ring you at work, Mrs. Beazley," Judith said apologetically as Jean came rushing into the school. Jean tried not to scowl; in truth she had been mortified to receive a personal call on Doctor Blake's office telephone, but she and Eadie had no such extravagance in their little house, and the Doctor had been the soul of concern, telling her that if the school was ringing of course she could have the afternoon off, and he hoped that the boys were well. Jean didn't have the heart to tell him why the school had rung her; her cheeks flamed just thinking about it.
"What exactly happened?" she asked, peering around the formidable Judith to catch a glimpse of her three boys, splattered with mud, sitting forlornly in the headteacher's office.
Judith sighed, looking genuinely unhappy about the situation, and so Jean crossed her arms over her chest and braced herself for the worst.
"As I understand it," Judith began, "it all started when that Bill Hobart took something from Danny. Jack tried to defend him, and then Christopher stepped in."
How very like them, Jean thought, feeling a rush of fondness for all three of them, despite her displeasure at having been called out to the school. Danny was ten, and small for his age; Bill Hobart, who was a good five years older, often gave him trouble. And Jack was Jack, always looking for a fight, always sticking his nose in where it didn't belong, always on the defensive. And Christopher would do anything for his little brother; of course he'd rushed to help him, once the fight got going.
"I have to give Jack credit," Judith said wryly, "Bill Hobart is twice the size of him but Jack managed to get a swing in before things got out of hand. I know your boys didn't start the fight, Jean, but the school has a strict policy about this sort of thing. If any one of them gets into trouble again, they'll be expelled, and there's nothing I can do to stop it."
"I understand," Jean said, her eyes still fixed on those three pitiful looking souls. They were so young, still, with so much yet to learn about the ways of the world, and while she knew that giving them a bollocking now, when Jack's face was bloody and they had all of them been scared witless by the school head, would be all but useless, so too she knew that she would have to impress upon them how dire their circumstances had become. She couldn't bear to think what would happen to them, should they be expelled from school so young.
"Can I take them home now?" she asked.
"Of course, Mrs. Beazley."
"I don't give a damn about India," Lucien grumbled as Derek tried to rouse him from his bed.
"Well the Army does," Derek said firmly, ripping the blankets away from him and grabbing him by the shoulders, hauling him upright.
At that very moment, Lucien didn't give a damn about much of anything. He was, as his father would have put it, drunk as a skunk, and reclining in a filthy bedsit in Pakistan. He and Derek were making their way towards the newly independent India, to do a bit of reconnaissance for Mother England. If he'd been sober, Lucien would have been forced to admit that he owed his friend a great debt; Lucien had spent the better part of the last six months roaring drunk, had taken to carrying a hip flask with him everywhere he went, and brawling more than was wise for a man who was supposed to be a spy. And through it all, through every seedy pub, every night he'd gotten his hands on some illicit substance or other and very nearly done himself in, every punch and every questionable liaison with a local girl, Derek had been there. Catching him before he did himself irreparable harm, smoothing ruffled feathers, outright lying to the brass, Derek had saved his neck in more ways than he could count. On some level, Lucien appreciated his friend's efforts to keep him alive and well and whole, but there was a much larger piece of his heart that railed against Derek, furious that he had not been allowed the chance to end his misery.
Mei Lin and Li were dead, he was certain. Oh, no one had confirmed it, no one had seen it happen, but likewise they had been missing for years now, vanished without a trace, and Lucien knew what happened to the other pretty women and little girls who went missing during the war. Horror and violence and a bloody end, that was what had befallen his family, and he recoiled from the sheer devastation that knowledge wrought, seeking to silence the screaming of his fractured heart in any way he could. Derek seemed to understand his desolation, having known Mei Lin, having watched Li grow from an infant to a toddler, and in honor of their memory he seemed determined to keep Lucien alive.
There had been whispers, when he first began to unravel, of the Army sending him back to Australia in disgrace. Lucien would rather be dead than face such a fate, than be forced to speak to his father again. Thomas Blake had been cold and formidable, more prone to ignoring his son than hugging him; Lucien's strongest memory of his father was of a stern, unhappy looking man sitting behind his desk in the surgery, shouting for Genevieve to come and collect the boy Lucien, who had been playing nearby, curious about his father's work, enchanted at the thought of being a doctor. Young Lucien had hung his head in shame and slunk away, but he had never forgotten it. He wondered if his father had.
Thankfully Lucien had been spared such an ignoble fate, and now they were off to India, to get a feel for the structure of the new government, just as soon as Derek could get him on his feet, which did not seem to be happening any time soon; though Lucien tried to rally, he couldn't seem to coordinate his limbs.
"For God's sake, Lucien," Derek sighed exasperatedly. "What the bloody hell is wrong with you?"
"Just leave me here," Lucien whined, knowing he sounded absolutely pitiful and yet lacking the sense to be ashamed of himself. "There's no point, Derek. I've got nothing left."
With surprising dexterity Derek reeled back and struck him hard across the face, leaving his ears ringing and his cheek stinging beneath the blow. It didn't quite sober him up, but it helped.
"Ow," he said forlornly.
"You have a job to do," Derek hissed. "There is honor in that, if you can find a way to go five minutes without having a drink. And you've got her, don't you? What would she say, if she could see you like this?"
Lucien stared up at him, bleary eyed and miserable. Derek was right, of course; his family was gone, but out there somewhere was a woman, a woman who loved him, who had been there for him in his darkest hour. He might not know her name, might not recognize her face, but fate had chosen her for him, and he knew that surely somehow, someday, they were bound to meet. How would he explain this to her, explain how he had let himself go from a dedicated soldier to a simpering, whiskey-soaked shell of a man?
"You're right," he grumbled, scrubbing his hands over his face. "Where are my bloody trousers?"
"You lot look like you've been in the wars," Doctor Blake said, not unkindly, as Jean ushered her three hooligans into his surgery. Jack had a nasty cut above his brow and Jean wanted the doctor to have a look at it; she needed to finish cooking his dinner anyway, and Doctor Blake never seemed to mind having the boys around.
"Come on then, young Master Beazley, let's have a look at you," he continued, clapping Jack on the shoulder and leading him to the examination table. Jack clambered up on it, a belligerent expression on his face, but his mother's presence stayed his tongue, and he voiced no word of protest.
"Tell me then, what's happened?" Doctor Blake asked as he gathered his supplies.
"Bill Hobart stole Danny's book, sir," young Christopher explained.
Jean smiled softly at the sight before her; Jack's legs swung merrily off the end of the table, and his brother and cousin crowded around him, eager to watch the doctor at work. When she looked at Jack, she couldn't help but see her husband, all fire and rash impulsivity, quick to anger, quick to laugh. She loved him for it, but she worried for him, too; Christopher had borrowed more money than was wise, had rushed off to war on a lark, had started more projects than he'd ever finished. She wanted better for her son than what Christopher had achieved, much as it shamed her to think of her husband in such a way. Truly she had loved Christopher with everything she had but she had known, deep in the darkest corners of her heart, that his passion was not always a good thing. And then there was young Christopher, who troubled her for an entirely different reason. Though he favored his father in looks he took more after Jean; he had big dreams, but he understood the world too well for an eleven year old boy, and there was a sadness in him that she knew reflected the sorrow of her own heart. There were burdens she did not want her son to bear, and yet she was finding it harder and harder to make him smile.
"And then what happened, Mr. Beazley?" Doctor Blake prompted.
"And then Jack hit him, sir. And then Bill hit Jack, and I tried to stop him." Young Christopher hung his head in shame, and it was all Jean could do to stop herself going to him, wrapping him in her arms and kissing his little forehead. He was growing up much too fast for her liking.
"I see," Doctor Blake murmured, carefully cleaning the cut above Jack's eye. "So you were just trying to help Danny. Tell me, gentlemen, what do you want to be when you grow up?"
Three little boys turned to him with wide eyes, and Jean raised a hand to her mouth to cover her smile. Doctor Blake was always so good to the children, always firm but kind, and as she watched him speaking to the boys now she couldn't help but wonder if he had been much the same with his own son, warm and compassionate. Not for the first time she found herself wondering about Lucien Blake, wondering why the man couldn't spare a moment for his aging father.
"I'm going to be a soldier like my father, sir," Christopher said, puffing his little chest out proudly.
Jean couldn't help the small sound of dismay that escaped her; the doctor raised his head and caught her eye over Jack's shoulder, offering her a reassuring, sympathetic sort of glance. It was the first time Jean had ever heard her son voice such a thought aloud, and it chilled her to the bone. She would give anything, anything, to keep her boys safe and well, and she could think of no fate crueler than to lose them in the same way she lost their father. She wanted Christopher to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a teacher, anything but a soldier. She wanted him safe, and close, where she could protect him, watch over him, for all of her days.
"That's a fine aspiration, Mr. Beazley," Doctor Blake said slowly. "But your mother tells me you're doing well in school. Have you thought of going to university instead? If you keep getting good marks, you could become a doctor, like my Lucien."
"No, sir," Christopher said firmly. "I'm going to be a soldier."
"And what about you, Mr. Parks?" Doctor Blake asked quickly, no doubt sensing Jean's distress from across the room.
"I don't know, sir," Danny said, his eyes wide and confused. Jean had a fair idea what Doctor Blake was getting at with his line of questioning, and in that moment she gave thanks to God for putting her in this man's path. She'd had no idea how to address the situation with the boys, how to counsel them without raising their stubborn, oppositional ire, but Doctor Blake had solved that dilemma neatly.
"Well, think about this, Mr. Parks. And you as well, Mr. Beazley," he said, giving Jack a stern look. "You fought with Bill Hobart today because you were trying to stand up for what was right, to help a friend in need. Those are admirable qualities in any man. And if you behave yourselves, and work hard at school, maybe one day you could become policemen, or doctors, or soldiers, and help people every day. Now, what do you think about that?"
He had caught Danny's attention, Jean could see. From across the room she could almost sense the wheels in his mind turning, see him picturing himself in a policeman's uniform, and then he spoke, and confirmed her suspicions.
"Do you really think we could be policemen?" Danny asked hopefully.
"Only if you stay out of trouble, young man," Doctor Blake told him. While he had been talking he'd finished patching Jack up, and he gave his shoulder a little pat.
"What do you think about that Mr. Beazley?"
"I'll never be a copper!" Jack said pugnaciously, thrusting out his jaw exactly the way Christopher did when he got his heels dug in about something. "I'm going to be a bank robber!"
And then, before Jean could stop him, he jumped down off the table, and took off running, heading for the garden. Jean let him go; sometimes he needed a moment to himself, and she knew that if she raced after him now, they'd only end up shouting at each other. Better to give them both a chance to breathe, and try to reach him some other way once he'd calmed down.
"Mum? Can we go play?" Christopher asked her; he and Danny were already inching toward the door, their eyes fixed on the last of the afternoon sunshine streaming in through the window.
Jean exchanged a ruefull glance with Doctor Blake, but the old man just smiled, and so Jean nodded, and Christopher and Danny rushed off to join Jack in the green grass outside.
"Thank you, Doctor Blake," Jean said in the sudden stillness that accompanied their absence, crossing the room to help him put away his things. "That was very kind of you."
"If only they stayed young forever," he answered, smiling a sad little smile. "You know I'm very fond of them, Jean."
As always when they spoke of the boys Jean detected a hint of melancholy in Doctor Blake; no doubt his thoughts had traveled to his wayward son, just as her own had done. Jean knew what it was, to worry about a child, and impulsively she reached out, and gave his arm a gentle squeeze.
"And they're fond of you," she said firmly.
Updates will come at irregular intervals until after Christmas, but I'll do my best to keep them coming!
21 April 1952
Jean sat on a hard bench in the corridor of the police station, worrying the worn leather strap of her handbag between trembling fingertips. How did it come to this? She asked herself, trying valiantly not to cry. Officers and civilians alike were wandering through, casting her curious glances as they went, and she refused to give them the satisfaction of seeing her weep. Let them wonder what she was doing here, why Doctor Blake's formidable housekeeper was loitering in the corridor when she should have been off tending to his house or seeing to the flowers at the church; she would give nothing away. She'd been a widow for ten long years now, and she understood all too well the importance of keeping up her spotless reputation. Whatever she did, whoever she spoke to, however she spent her time, a single woman was always prime fodder for gossip, and the tone of that gossip reflected also on her children, her sister, her employer. Not once in ten years had she accepted a man's invitation to dinner- though, in the days following the end of the war when the soldiers had come home, there had been no shortage of them - and though she made her own clothes she was always careful that they should be neat, and pressed, with respectable hemlines. Living with her sister afforded her some protection, though Eadie had recently begun spending time with a fine man called James, and there were whispers that he was considering proposing to her. Jean did not know what would become of her, should she find herself on her own once more, and she shuddered to think what people would say when that time came.
And now this. She couldn't believe it somehow, when Matthew Lawson had run her on Doctor Blake's phone in the surgery, his voice grave and somehow pitying. This is serious, Jean, he had told her. His familiarity had not bothered her as much as his tone; he often came round for dinner and drinks with Doctor Blake, the pair of them friendly as a result of Doctor Blake's work as police surgeon. Matthew had even asked her once, rather shyly, if she would like to join him for an afternoon in the park, but as kind, as earnest as he was, Jean had delicately turned him down. He was a good man, Matthew Lawson, and might have made a fine match, but it was not his mark upon her skin, and she would not torture either of them with false hopes. Now he had rung her for an entirely different reason, and though she knew it was not his fault, though she knew he was doing everything he could to save her from this calamity, she couldn't help but blame him, just a bit, for bringing this horror to her doorstep.
It can't be, she thought faintly, but then her worrying was interrupted by the arrival of Thomas Blake, sharp as ever in his three piece suit and his fine hat. Thomas had been sitting with a patient when Jean was called away, but he must have come as soon as the appointment was finished, and through her misery Jean felt a surge of fondness for the old man. He was not a father-figure to her as such - they got on far too well for her to equate her with the hard, brittle man who'd abandoned her when she fell pregnant - but he was rather like a kindly uncle, protecting her and offering her guidance, reassurance when she needed it. The moment his eyes locked upon her face he offered her a weak little smile, and settled himself on the bench beside her.
"Have they let you see him?" he asked, his voice thick with concern.
Jean shook her head, blinking back tears.
"Doug Ashby is talking to him now," she said, willing her voice not to tremble.
"He's only fourteen, Jean. Surely Doug will be lenient, all things considered."
Jean let loose a choked, miserable laugh. "Not this time," she said. "Matthew told me I need to...prepare myself for the worst. He says Jack has gone too far this time. He'll be held accountable."
Her distress had been so great that when she rushed into Doctor Blake's surgery to inform him she was leaving she had provided few details, telling him only that Lawson had rung her, and she was going into town. She hadn't even bothered to remove her apron; after she spoke to Matthew she had taken herself off to the ladies, baling her apron up and tucking it in her bag, fighting back great, choking sobs. There had been no need for her to explain to Thomas what had happened, however. If the police had rung her, there could only be one reason; Jack was a trouble making sort, and the good doctor was all too aware of it.
"What's happened, Jean?" he prompted her gently.
She took a deep breath, and closed her eyes. "He took Christopher's pistol from my room, and then he got into a scuffle with Bill Hobart. He wasn't going to shoot him, Doctor Blake, I know he wasn't," she added quickly, a few damnable tears leaking out from behind her tightly closed eyelids. "He's just tired of Bill picking on him all the time. But Doug says-"
"I think I can guess what Doug has said," Doctor Blake said heavily.
For a long moment there was only silence between them, while Jean cursed herself for failing her son so egregiously. She worked long hours for Doctor Blake, arriving in the morning to make his breakfast, tending the house and keeping his schedule, assisting with patients and staying long enough to lay his supper on the table. Perhaps she should have spent more time with her sons; Christopher was studious and quiet and never gave her cause for concern, but Jack was always in some mischief or other. He had become rather well acquainted with the police, though more often than not the officers just dragged him home by his ear, foregoing any official proceedings out of respect for his mother. This time, though, Jean feared that there was nothing she could do for him. A firearms offense was far more serious than a bit of petty theft or rambunctiousness outside the picture show, and Doug Ashby was not the sort to turn a blind eye to it.
"How could he have done this?" Jean breathed, terrified and ashamed in equal measure. Jack had always been a sweet boy, with his wild smile and his exuberant nature. He brought her flowers, sometimes - though he never said where they came from - and loved to make his mother laugh. But, like his father, he was so quick to anger; that angel's smile could turn to rage in an instant. And though Jean had prayed, and chastised him, and tried to discipline him, it seemed that nothing she said could get through to him. I've failed him, she thought morosely. It was my job to teach him how to be a good man, and I've failed.
"I'm sure he didn't mean any harm, Jean," Doctor Blake told her, though his voice betrayed his doubt. The good doctor had always been fond of Jean's boys, had always welcomed them in his home, but where young Christopher came round to help with chopping wood and tending the garden and occasionally stayed for supper, Jack had long since stopped accepting the doctor's invitations, or his counsel. Jean had always worried that her boys needed a father, and in his absence Doctor Blake had done a fine job, but Jack remained lost to them both. What more could I have done? She asked herself. Perhaps she should have taken Matthew Lawson up on his invitation, should have settled down with a good, kind man, a man who could have instilled some order in the chaos of her life, a man who could have helped her wayward son find direction, but thoughts of her soulmate had given her pause, and now she worried that her children were paying the price. Where are you? She wondered, thinking of the man she was bound to, the man who should have been there for her, to support her, to love her through this grief. Then again, she supposed, given what little she knew about him, perhaps it was for the best that her soulmate was nowhere in sight. A soldier and a brawler, the story of his dangerous life had been written upon her skin, and somewhere in her heart she knew that such a man would not have been a good influence on her son.
Doug Ashby rounded the corner, and as one Jean and Doctor Blake rose to their feet. In a show of support the doctor reached out and placed his hand upon her shoulder, and Jean gave thanks for this one small mercy, for this man who willingly stood beside her as her world crumbled into pieces.
"But you can't leave," Derek said, his eyes wide with shock. They were sitting together in a little office just outside Sunchon, enjoying a rare moment of peace. The war in Korea was rolling inexorably on, though the United Nations seemed to believe that the end was in sight. Lucien wasn't particularly interested in their prognostications, however; he had enough of war, of bloodshed, of horror. The end of his contract was coming up, and he was determined not to spend another moment longer at the beck and call of the Army.
"I'm a doctor, Derek," he explained, feeling a twinge of sadness when he noted the look of betrayal upon his friend's face. They had been through so much together, the pair of them made brothers by choice and circumstance, watching one another's backs, comforting one another through grief and calamity. It was Lucien who had saved Derek's life in Selarang, and it was Derek who had saved Lucien after, when the devastation caused by the loss of his family had nearly undone him. They made a fine team, and until this very moment Lucien had not truly allowed himself to consider what it would be like to carry on without Derek by his side, certain that such a loss would be too grievous to bear, would be enough to make him change his mind about going turning his back on the Army. "I want to help people," he continued, "to make things better, but for the last twenty years all I have done is cause more damage. I won't fight any more, Derek. I can't."
"But where will you go?" Derek asked, running a weary hand across his face. It was a fair question; their friends were dead, his family, too, his home in Singapore burned to the ground, and his father hardly more than a bitter memory. He had no roots, no proper ties to anyone or anything save for this man who sat before him, this man he was determined to abandon.
"I've had an offer, from a hospital in London. They're in need of a surgeon. I'll fly out at the end of next month."
Though it pained him to think of leaving Derek, though he was full of doubts about starting his life over as a civilian, there was a piece of his heart that rejoiced at the thought of moving to London. He had always loved that city, loved walking along the river, loved the people and the history and the sense of life he found there. It would do his heart good to walk along those streets once again, to turn his hand once more to healing, rather than violence. And maybe, a little voice whispered in the back of his mind, maybe she'll be waiting for me there.
Though he continued to engage in the search for his wife and child, writing letters to contacts throughout Asia and retaining the services of a private investigator, Lucien could not bring himself to believe that they were still alive. Oh, his heart jumped with hope each time he received a new letter, but each time those hopes were dashed, and he was forced to remind himself that if word of them ever reached him, it would more than likely be news of their deaths, and he ought to prepare himself for the eventuality. And so, in the still of the night, his thoughts did not linger on Mei Lin, the smooth curve of her cheek or the brilliance of his daughter's eyes. Instead he thought of her, his mysterious beloved. Where was she? Who was she? When would their paths cross? She had been a part of his life for nearly two decades, and yet still he had no answers to those nagging questions. But surely, he told himself, their paths must cross at some point; if she was truly his, as the words she'd carved into his skin told him she was, then fate must intend for them to meet. He doubted somehow that he would find her in Korea, and he hoped his chances would be better in London. From the day he'd learned of her existence he had conjured a picture of her in his mind, a slight, beautiful woman with sparkling eyes and soft dark hair. He longed for her, for her gentle touch, for a body he could cling to in the darkness, for a soul that knew him better than he knew himself. For she did, he was certain; the way she had spoken to him in the direst moments of his life, the strength, the compassion she had shown him soothed his aching heart and left him desperate for her. She was a mother, yes, but her children would be teenagers now; perhaps when they found one another they would both of them have reached a stage of their lives where they were ready and willing to fall together at last. For her sake he prayed it was so, though he no longer believed that God was listening, and set his path towards London, towards peace and hope and rest.
"Is there nothing I can say to change your mind?" Derek asked, though the tone of his voice seemed to indicate that he had already resigned himself to Lucien's departure.
"I'm afraid not," Lucien answered, as kindly as he could. "Now come on. Let's have a drink."
2 May 1954
"You be careful, yes?" Jean said a little tremulously as she reached out to fuss with the lapels of young Christopher's jacket. It was a balmy day, not too chilly, for which Jean was thankful; she hated the thought of Christopher riding all that way on a freezing bus. Her son submitted to her attentions with all the good-natured grace she had come to expect from him, not withdrawing from her casual affection, much as he might have liked to.
"It'll be fine, mum," he assured her, catching her hands and gently removing them from his shoulders. Foolishly, Jean felt a sudden urge to chide him, to fling her arms around him and hold him close, to make him promise never to leave her. He was her son, a child she had sheltered within her own body, a child she had raised almost entirely on her own, a child she loved more than life. It didn't seem real, somehow, that he was leaving her, that both her boys were gone, that there was nothing she could do to stop the madly spinning wheel of time.
For his sake Jean tried to smile, but it was a weak, pitiful attempt, and she did not try again. Her vision was blurred by unshed tears, gathering at the corners of her eyes as she stared at her son, and tried not to remember standing in this very spot, listening to his father say the same words. It'll be fine, Jeannie, he'd promised her. And he had never come home, and nothing had really been fine since.
They would take that jacket from him, Jean thought. When he arrived for his training they would take his clothes, and shave his head, and her sweet boy would be gone, broken down and reassembled into a man she did not recognize. How cruel it was, to lose her son to the same army that had taken her husband, the same army that had sent her beloved into hell and left her with no more than grief and the fleeting marks of agony upon her skin. For the last eighteen years she had prayed for young Christopher, had prayed that he might find direction, that he might build a fine life for himself, that he would never be taken from her. And now he had found his path, had chosen to travel far from her side, where her love could not protect him. Yes, it was cruel, but his mind was made up, his chin jutting out fiercely the way his father's had done, the day he decided to enlist. Our lives are made of such moments, Jean thought, her fingers itching to reach out to her son, to hold him one last time, though he would not welcome such an embrace, here, in public, when he was trying so very hard to be strong. A single decision, and everything changes, and we have no idea the consequences until it's far too late. Dimly she recalled a quiet conversation with the boys in the doctor's surgery, so many years before, each of them proudly proclaiming their dreams for their lives. Well, Danny had joined the police force, just as he said he would, and Christopher had joined the army, and Jack…
"Write to us, when you can," Doctor Blake said gruffly from his station at Jean's elbow, reaching out to shake Christopher's hand, a gesture of respect, a sign that he was acknowledging what Jean could not, that he recognized her boy was a boy no longer.
"I will," Christopher promised. "Thank you, Doctor Blake. For everything."
The doctor grumbled good-naturedly, downplaying as ever the role he had played in her children's lives. He had bought them Christmas presents and attended football matches, had paid Christopher for clearing away the brush from the garden with wads of bills he thought Jean knew nothing about, had visited Jack in Melbourne - once - and had even, for Jean's sake, offered to pay for Christopher to go to university, tried to steer him away from this fate his mother dreaded. Christopher had refused him - politely, of course - had insisted that his mind was made up, but for a moment he had truly considered it, and for that Jean felt herself deeply in the doctor's debt. Though her boys had grown up without father, they had grown up with a kindly grandfather of sorts, and for that Jean was truly grateful. Now he had come with her, to say goodbye to this boy they both loved, this boy they both feared for so deeply.
"Look after mum," Christopher added.
"Oh, Christopher," Jean blustered, pressing her hand against his shoulder in a gesture of protest, blushing despite herself. How could it be, she wondered, that she was sending her boy off to the army, and he was worried about her?
"I will," the good doctor said solemnly.
Behind them the bus driver called out a warning, and Christopher took an involuntary step back. Jean could not bear to let him go, not now, not yet, and so she threw propriety to the wind and flung her arms around her son, clutching him in a fierce embrace.
"I love you," she whispered in his ear. "You come home, as often as you can. There will always be a place for you here."
Beneath the sudden outpouring of her emotion her son shifted uneasily, blushing slightly, though he did linger long enough to brush a kiss against her cheek.
"It'll be all right, mum," he told her, and then the next thing she knew he was walking away, back straight, chin held high. She watched him go, one hand rising to cover her mouth, to stifle the sorrow that threatened to drown her. Please, God, she prayed. Keep my boy safe.
The doctor stood beside her, not touching her, not speaking, simply offering her the comfort of his presence as they watched Christopher take his seat on the bus. Her boy kept his eyes straight ahead, sitting tall and proud, and for just a moment, Jean saw the echo of his father in him. Jack favored Christopher more in looks and temperament, all dark curls and fiery eyes and wild impulse, while their eldest son took after his mother, with his grey eyes and his wary nature. In that instant, though, as Jean watched the bus pull away, her eyes never wavering from her son, she saw all the best parts of her husband in him, her heart breaking even as she thought how proud Christopher would have been, if only he'd lived to see this day.
She was brought back to her senses by the gentle touch of the doctor's hand upon her elbow.
"Come now, Jean," he said gently. "Let's go home."
She nodded, not trusting herself to speak, and followed him back to the car.
It was dreadfully early; the sun had not yet risen over London, but Lucien and his companion had been late falling into bed, and then they had been otherwise occupied, and now they rested, their bodies sated but not yet ready for sleep. It was a cliche, he knew, a doctor taking up with a nurse, but Lizzie was kind, and gentle, and she'd lost her soulmate in the war, and so she made no great demands of him, did not harbor dreams of marriage and babies. She was not the first woman Lucien had gone to bed with since he'd lost his wife, but she was the first one he'd gone to bed with sober, and he rather thought that ought to count for something.
"You won't find her here, Lucien," Lizzie told him quietly, her palm resting over his heart, fingertips pressing lightly against his skin. "You can't keep coming back like this."
He had confessed the truth to her weeks before, the first time they had fallen together like this, had told her of his missing wife, his child, his beloved, lost to him somewhere out there in the world. It seemed the thing to do; there was a part of him that cared for her, truly, and it would not have been right, to keep secrets from her when she had been so honest with him. For her part Lizzie had not judged him for it, but every now then she would speak up, would remind him that she was not the one for him, that there was someone out there waiting for him. It didn't stop her welcoming him into the shelter of her thighs, but it did seem to trouble her, the thought that she was keeping company with another woman's beloved.
Lucien shifted slightly, pressing a kiss against her soft blonde hair. "I know," he confessed. "But I am forty-five years old, and I've yet to meet her. I'm starting to think I never will."
His candor shocked them both; he clamped his lips shut, berating himself for speaking such a maudlin thought aloud, while Lizzie rolled over, propping herself up on her elbows and staring across at him with a reproachful look on her face.
"You can't give up, Lucien," she said seriously. "You're meant to be together. You will find her, you just have to keep your heart open."
Easier said than done, he thought grimly. He had been in London for two long years, and in that time he had met scores of women, but none of them had been her. Fear had begun to simmer in his chest; he had never heard of a person finding their soulmate so late in life. Oh, there were stories of people with more than one soulmate, who had lost one beloved only to find marks of a second appearing on their skin. But this, to go forty-five years with no sighting of the one he was destined to be with, was unheard of. What would be left of him, if ever they did meet? What would he have to offer a woman now, he asked himself, with a body battered and weary, a heart that could not bear the thought of starting a new family while he still grieved for the one he'd lost? And what about her? he asked himself. Where had she been, what had she endured? Would she welcome him now, when she was already settled into a life all her own?
For a moment he wished he could share Lizzie's sure and certain trust in fate. She had told him of her soulmate, of the day they met, the day they discovered their connection, the day they wed, the day he died. And as she spoke her eyes had shone with the light of a heart that had known true love, not just comfort, not just companionship, not just the understanding he had shared with Mei Lin, but love, the kind of love he had felt stirring in his chest twice before, when he had carved a message into his flesh and received his beloved's answer. What would it be like, he wondered, to feel that love every day, to wake with his beloved in his arms, to hold her, to know that he had, at last, found peace? It seemed a dream too beautiful to be real.
"All right," he said slowly, smiling down at her because he knew it was what she wanted, what she needed, regardless of the doubts that plagued him. "I won't give up," he promised. In his heart, however, he knew that those words were a lie; he had given up long ago.
"I'll just say good night, then," Jean said, feeling a bit out of sorts as she lingered by the stairs with her knitting in hand.
With Jack still in custody in Melbourne and Christopher off to war, the doctor had suggested that perhaps it might be best for them both if she moved into one of his spare rooms. He was getting on in years, and the house needed looking after. Jean had prevaricated, not wanting to leave the house she shared with her sister, but then Eadie had come to her with a smile brighter than the sun, telling her that James had at long last proposed. It all came spilling out then; James and Eadie wanted to buy Jean out of the house, wanted to set up on their own, without having to worry about Jean just down the hall. Though it stung, to be separated from her sister after so many years of leaning upon one another, Jean knew when she'd been beaten. She'd stood beside Eadie at the wedding, accepted the cheque they offered her for the house, and moved her things into the pink wallpapered room at the top of Doctor Blake's stairs.
And on this, her first night in his home, Jean found herself at a loss for what to do. The doctor had taken her home and she had made his supper and cleaned up after while he lingered at the table, watching her over a glass of scotch and the day's newspaper, saying nothing. Sleep would not come for hours yet, if it came at all, but Jean didn't know what else to do, and so she made to leave him, not wanting to be a nuisance in this house that did not belong to her.
The doctor, however, had other plans.
"Nonsense," he said gruffly. "Come, sit with me."
And with that he turned and led the way toward the sitting room, and Jean was left with no choice but to follow him. The doctor turned on the wireless, smiling softly as the sound of a gentle piano filled the room, and then he settled himself upon the sofa with his whiskey and a book close to hand.
You can do this, Jean told herself sternly. It was strange, to be alone with the doctor without work to discuss, without a dish to watch or a meal to prepare, just two rather lonely people sitting together of an evening. It was strange, but somehow the longer the moment stretched on, the more comfortable Jean became. She lowered herself into an armchair, folding her legs primly and sorting out her knitting while the radio continued to play.
They sat in silence for several minutes, he reading, she knitting, both of them relaxing into this new level of familiarity they could never have imagined, only a month before. There was a part of Jean that worried it was perhaps too familiar, for her to sit so boldly in the doctor's sitting room, as if they were equals, as if they were friends, but it didn't seem to bother him in the slightest, and she took comfort from his confidence.
"Tell me, Jean," the doctor said finally, not looking up from his book. "If Mrs. Howard -" for Eadie was Mrs. Howard now, Mrs. Parks no longer - "has reimbursed you for your half of the house, why didn't you want to find your own place?"
It struck Jean as an odd question, particularly given the fact that it was the doctor who had asked her to come and stay in the first place, and she opened her mouth to tell him so, but the sharp words died on her tongue. His face was half-hidden in his book, but he was clearly not reading, and a soft, rather pleased smile seemed to hover over his lips. He wasn't reprimanding her then, or questioning the ethics of her decision; he was genuinely curious as to why she had so suddenly warmed to the idea of moving into his house. And because he had been so kind to her, for so many years, because he had opened his home to her and shared in her grief and never once judged her for it, she told him the truth.
"I set some of the money aside for the boys," she said slowly, keeping her eyes fixed on the darting of her knitting needles. "To help them set up house, when they're ready."
"And the rest?" Doctor Blake prompted her when she faltered. Jean chanced a glance at him, but he was still ostensibly engaged in his book.
Oh, don't be silly, she told herself as she hesitated. Just tell him.
"I want to take a trip," she confessed.
That got his attention; Doctor Blake closed his book with a snap, and regarded her warmly from across the room.
"To Paris," she said softly, answering his unspoken question. "In a year or two, once I know Jack is settled, once I have a bit more saved up."
"Paris," Doctor Blake repeated, smiling at her fondly. For a moment he closed his eyes, as if the word itself were enough to transport him to another time and place. "Paris is a beautiful city," he said. "I think you'll enjoy it. You'd fit in well there, Jean, there's something very...French, about you."
And what on earth does that mean? Jean wondered, staring at him incredulously.
He hastened to explain himself. "I met Genevieve in Paris," he continued. "A lifetime ago. I was walking along the river, and she was there, painting. I thought she was the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen."
Jean ducked her head, trying to hide her blush. The doctor did not often speak of his dear departed wife, lost so many years before, but when he did his voice was always low and full of grief, of longing, a longing Jean understood all too well. She knew what it was, to lose a lover too soon, and she knew what it was to be separated from the one she desired above all others. He was still out there, her soldier, though it had been months since she'd seen any sign of him, and her heart still ached with want of him; some nights thoughts of him still kept her awake, dreams and fears and hopes and doubts churning within her. She was thirty-nine, and she had yet to meet him, and with each day that passed, she grew more concerned that she never would. Yet still, hope lingered. She was not too old, yet. There was still time.
"You remind me of her sometimes, you know," Doctor Blake continued, causing her to look up at him sharply. "She was fierce, and independent; no one told Genevieve what to do, and no one could change her mind, once she'd settled on something. But she was gentle, too. She was full of wonder, for this world and all the beautiful things in it. I think she would have liked you, Jean, very much."
For the second time that day tears threatened to spill from Jean's eyes; she looked away, unsure how to respond to such candor, such kindness, from those soft blue eyes watching her across the room. There was something knowing in his gaze, some...something that left her wondering what on earth he was trying to tell her.
"Tell me, Jean, do you speak French?" he asked after a moment, when it became apparent that Jean had no reply for him.
"I don't," she confessed, turning her attention back to her knitting. Jean wasn't like Doctor Blake and his son, she'd had no advanced education, had left school to help around her parents' farm and then rushed straight into marriage and children. Sometimes she regretted that, regretted the lost opportunities; there was so much to do, so much to see, so much to learn, and yet she had never left Ballarat. But then she would look at her sons, and think how much she loved them, and she knew in her heart she would not change a moment of it, would not trade an ounce of the pain she had endured if it meant losing a single second she had spent with her boys.
"Well, that won't do," the doctor said, still smiling.
Despite herself Jean blushed again, those old feelings of inadequacy that had filled her when she had first come to the doctor's fine house rising to the surface once again. This was a world so different from her own, and it seemed she was reminded at every turn that Doctor Blake had everything - money, respect, prestige, power, knowledge, and books, books upon books - while she had nothing, nothing but homemade dresses and a few sticks of secondhand furniture. Usually the doctor was not so crass as to bring up the differences in their circumstances, and it hurt, a little, to hear him so blatantly dismiss her lack of education.
"I shall have to teach you," he told her.
Jean's hands stilled for a moment, hurt replaced by affection so quickly it nearly left her dizzy.
"Genevieve taught me, you see," the doctor explained, "and our Lucien spoke French before he could speak English. My wife was rather proud of that, as I recall."
Jean smiled, thinking that what he said was true; it seemed to her that she and the late Mrs. Blake probably would have gotten on quite well.
"If you don't mind," she said slowly, "I would like that very much."
"I don't mind at all," the doctor declared.
"When would you like to start?" Her needles were moving again, darting and turning as the jumper she was knitting for Jack slowly began to take shape.
"No time like the present," Doctor Blake said authoritatively, taking on the air of a lecturer as he leaned towards her. "We'll start at the beginning. Bonjour, madame."
2 October 1956
The letter was innocuous enough. A plain white envelope bearing stamps and markings to indicate that it had travelled all the way from Australia, Lucien's home address and the return address both written in a gentle, sloping hand. It was not the envelope itself that gave him pause, nor the name of the sender, looping across the top corner. He did not know a Mrs. J. Beazley, and in truth he felt a surge of curiosity at the sight of her name inscribed in a trail of thick, shiny black ink; for a moment he lost himself in wondering if she was some previous conquest, some old flame turning to him in a moment of longing. There had been a Juliet, in Berlin, and a Joanna, in London, but upon closer inspection his heart sank in his chest and that cautious optimism faded at once to be replaced with something altogether more insidious. Whoever Mrs. J. Beazely was, the return address she had so painstakingly written beneath her name was the very same address as Lucien's childhood home.
This is it, he thought, the letter suddenly heavy as a gun in his hand. In that moment he was certain that the time had come, that his father had passed away and this Mrs. Beazley was writing to impart the news, to tell him that he needed to come home at once to sort out his father's affairs. Or worse, that he had been written out of his father's will entirely, and the Beazleys had purchased his home and would thank Lucien not to visit. He could not face such a letter without some sort of fortitude, and so he clutched it in his fist as he slowly made his way to the kitchen of his little rented flat, retrieving the bottle of scotch he kept beneath the sink and pouring himself a healthy measure. He downed that glass in one big gulp and then refilled it. The warmth of the drink slipped through his veins, heady, relaxing, familiar, and with the reassuring weight of the glass in hand, Lucien felt as if he could face almost anything.
With the scotch and the letter he retreated from the kitchen to the small area that served as a sitting room, sliding into his favorite armchair and pondering how his life might change, once he opened that letter. It had not been so very long, since Lucien had last received a letter from his father. Somehow, though Lucien could not say how, the old man always seemed to find him; Lucien had never once passed his contact details along to his father, and yet each time he settled in a new place, a month or so later a letter from his father had followed. And though he knew that it was petty, spiteful, and perhaps a bit childish, he staunchly refused to open a single one, sending them all back marked return to sender. Now, it seemed, he had already missed his last chance to speak with his father, and though bitter enmity still raged through his gut at the thought of the man, there was a piece of him, however small, that would always be Thomas Blake's son, and that piece of him lamented for the lost opportunity.
Their relationship had always been strained. The father Lucien recalled was a busy, serious sort of man, and he had no time to indulge Lucien's fantastical imagination, the games he loved to play, the stories he loved to hear. Maman was always there for the boy Lucien, however, and when he began to tax his father she would take him by the hand, lead him to her studio and entertain him for hours on end with her paints and her songs and her gently floating flecks of gold. Losing her so young had ripped a hole through Lucien's heart, his grief compounded by his father sending him to boarding school mere days later. It's for your own good, his father told him, but somehow, even as a boy, Lucien knew the truth. It was best for Thomas that he not have a child underfoot, that he be allowed to live his life in peace, and Lucien was the one who had to suffer for it. Things had not improved, over the years; the brief periods Lucien spent at home, on school holidays and the like, were alternately composed of stony silences and terrible rows. It seemed that Lucien could do nothing right; from the cut of his hair to the music he played on the wireless to his political opinions, everything about the younger Blake seemed to offend the elder. By the time Lucien left home to study in Scotland, the rift between them had grown so very wide that he gave up any pretense of trying to breach it. Let the old man send his missives full of invective and unlooked for advice; Lucien was forty-seven years old, had endured war and imprisonment and the loss of his family, had taken lives and saved them, had bled and wept and burned and fought, and he felt that at this point in his life there was very little left for his father to teach him.
And now, this. Halfway across the world in that fine house Lucien recalled so fondly his father had died, and a woman named Mrs. J. Beazley had taken the time to write him a letter about it. No more second chances for Thomas and Lucien, then, no more arguments, no more strained conversations over tea. There would be no chance for Lucien to tell his father the truth of his life, the time he'd spent in the camp, the way he'd fallen for Mei Lin, the way he worried, still, for the soulmate he'd never met. A sudden pang of sorrow struck him at that thought; dimly Lucien recalled that his father had been an expert of sorts when it came to the marking, and perhaps if only they had been able to come to terms with one another, to speak to one another civilly, perhaps then his father might have been able to offer some of the answers he sought, where his beloved was concerned. Too late for that now, he thought grimly.
With one last sip of his scotch Lucien squared his shoulders, and opened the letter.
Dear Doctor Blake, it began. More of the same, that fine, damn near beautiful penmanship spilling across the page. For a moment Lucien simply looked at the salutation, noting the way she'd shaped her B, a letter Mrs. Beazley was no doubt used to scrawling in all manner of places. She had proper handwriting, he thought, a woman's handwriting, lovely and soft, the curve of the letters somehow intimate and alluring. Nothing like his own indecipherable scratchings. An older woman, then, he decided as he stared at that great big looping B. From another time, another world, refined and poised and everything that Lucien himself was not. He took another sip, and read on.
My name is Jean Beazley, and for the last twelve years I have been employed as your father's housekeeper.
There it was, he supposed, the reason for the address on the front of the envelope neatly given. He tried to picture her, this Mrs. Jean Beazley, a woman who had served his father for such a very long time, had somehow found Lucien's details in the mess of his father's study and taken the time to write to him directly. He conjured the image of a matronly woman, with wide hips and wiry, steel grey curls set perfectly around a face that had been beautiful in youth but had grown wrinkled and slack with age. Lucien's mind did that, sometimes, ran away with him, picked over and over the smallest riddle until he found the answer. It didn't matter, after all, what this Jean Beazley looked like, but if she was about to tell him that his father had died, he wanted an image of her fixed in his mind.
It is my sad duty to inform you that your father has suffered a heart attack.
So plain, her words, so simple, and yet they struck Lucien to the quick. He read on, the doctor in him hungry for answers.
Though his heart has been greatly weakened by this event, his doctors assure me that with proper care and a good diet he can be expected to make a full recovery, provided, of course, that he does not exert himself too much.
A strangled sound escaped Lucien as he read those words, his heart pounding quite suddenly in his chest. He downed the rest of his scotch, the words on the page blurring before his eyes. He had been wrong, then, in assuming that his father was dead. The old man was still alive, still prowling around his house in Ballarat with a scowl on his face, and the thought filled him with a sudden, sharp sense of relief he did not want to consider for too long lest he should find himself suddenly making some great discovery about the nature of his own heart.
Though of course we are delighted to know that he will be with us for a good many years yet, I think it is high time for you and he to face the fact that he will not live forever. It's time to set aside this silly feud, Doctor Blake.
A sneer curled the corner of Lucien's lips as he read those words, the warmth he had felt for her at the beginning of the letter fading at once into a harsh sort of anger. Who did she think she was, this housekeeper, to rebuke him thus? She knew nothing of his life, knew nothing of the way his father had neglected him, scorned him, betrayed him. She probably thought he was just a helpless pensioner; Lucien could practically hear her calling him an old dear. Damn her, for her meddling and her assumptions and her beautiful penmanship. Still, though, he was determined to finish the letter.
I know that something must have happened, something terrible, to have caused such a rift between you. But I know something about being estranged from one's parents, and from one's children. Please, Doctor Blake, don't wait too late. Your father is still here, and there's still time. Reach out to him, while you still can.
Mrs. Jean Beazley
The letter fluttered from his grasp, landing without a sound on the smooth hardwood floor beneath his feet. When he had begun to read it he had been full of a weary sort of melancholy, the pangs of regret tugging on his heartstrings. Now, now he did not know what to feel. His father was still alive - the bastard - and this stranger had presumed to chide Lucien about it, had made assumptions about the pair of them and with a haughty hand made him feel as small as a schoolboy again.
Then again, he mused as he stared into his empty glass, perhaps she hadn't been so terribly haughty after all. Though his first impulse was to hate her, was to assume that she had sided with his father and would share the old man's generally sour disposition where Lucien himself was concerned, he could not help but recall the rather personal note she'd included. I know something about being estranged from one's parents, and one's children.
And, she'd said, not or. As if she had experienced both sorts of estrangement, endured it from each perspective. What sort of woman was tending his father's house? What had she done, this Mrs. Beazley, to so offend her entire family? For a moment dark thoughts swirled through his mind; she had written his father's address across the front of the envelope as if it were her own. What if, he wondered, Mrs. Bealzey's sin was somehow tied to his father? What if there were something unseemly happening in that house that had caused a rift between her and her family?
Somehow he couldn't quite bring himself to believe it. Thomas Blake had always been a man much concerned with propriety, and no matter how lovely this Mrs. Beazley was, Lucien couldn't see his father risking his standing in the community for her sake, particularly considering the fact that she was not his soulmate. Of that one thing Lucien was certain; it was Genevieve Etienne's marking Thomas Blake had borne upon his skin until the day that she died.
Of course it didn't matter in the end, really, what Mrs. Beazley's cryptic words meant. Lucien had no intention of following through on her advice. Somehow, though, he could not bring himself to let her letter go unanswered and so he dragged himself from his chair, refilling his scotch and gathering together pen and paper.
The letter bore no return address, which immediately set alarm bells to ringing in Jean's head. She received very little personal mail at the doctor's home, and certainly not from people who did not identify themselves. She tucked the letter into her apron pocket, determined to wait to read it until much later that night, after the doctor had gone to bed and Jean herself was safely locked in her room. Throughout the long hours of the afternoon and evening, however, the letter weighed heavy on her mind. Perhaps it was about Jack, she thought as she went about her work; perhaps her darling boy had decided to put aside his pride and come home, as she had begged him to each time she visited him in Melbourne. Then again, perhaps it was about young Christopher; he was doing quite well, settling into army life, keeping company with a sweet - if tightly wound - girl called Ruby. Either scenario seemed just as likely.
If Doctor Blake noticed her distraction he said not a word; he had been rather subdued, since returning from the hospital in the wake of his heart attack. He walked with the aid of a cane and he tired easily, and Jean had taken it upon herself to allow him more time between appointments, giving him afternoons off on different days each week in the hope that he would not notice her manipulation of his calendar. Doctor Blake would not tolerate any suggestion that he was not fit as a fiddle, and likely would have taken Jean's meddling as a blow to his ego, but the old man needed to rest, and if he would not do it of his own accord, then by God Jean was going to do whatever it took to make sure he did not run himself into the ground.
Upstairs in the room that had become her home after so many years in Doctor Blakes employ, the only room in the house that bore any trace of femininity - save for the basket of knitting in the sitting room and the apron hanging on its hook behind the kitchen door- Jean perched on her bed and opened the letter with trembling fingers.
Dear Mrs. Beazley, the letter began in a barely legible, distinctly masculine sort of scrawl.
I do appreciate your taking the time to inform me of my father's condition.
Jean gave a little gasp, very nearly dropping the letter as one hand rose up to cover her mouth in surprise. No wonder the letter had borne no return address; likely the younger Blake knew that Jean would have felt compelled to share this letter with his father, had she known who it was from, and he had cut her off, forced her to read it on her own before she spoke to Thomas about it.
I regret to inform you, however, that I have no intention of writing to my father directly. You are very kind to be so concerned about him, and no doubt he has treated you well over the years of your service, but I fear that too much has passed between us. We are two very different men, my father and I, and it's best for both of us that things remain as they are. I am sure that my father would agree, should you ask him.
Here Jean paused for a moment; how did he know? she wondered glumly. In truth she had not spoken to Thomas before writing to his wayward son. Months before she had looked at Thomas Blake, small and pale in his hospital bed, and thought of the day she learned of her own father's passing. Her father had disowned her when she fell pregnant that first time, and they had not spoken since, and though her heart still ached at the way he had turned his back on her, she could not help but regret that she had not tried to make amends. And now Jack had grown distant and cold and stubborn, and she felt him slipping from her grasp. Jean could see no way to repair her own fractured family, but she knew where Thomas kept the letters his son returned to him, and determined to do what she could for this man she regarded so fondly.
I know you disagree with me, the younger Doctor Blake continued, and Jean blushed, feeling strangely as if he could read her mind. But there are some things that cannot be understood from the outside. All the same, I thank you for your concern, and I am grateful to know that my father is in good hands. I hope he does not trouble you too much. If there is anything you need of me, please ask, but I do not intend to return to Australia any time soon.
Doctor L. Blake
For a long time Jean simply sat, staring at this letter, this solid, irrefutable proof that after all these many years, after surviving the POW camp and his time in the army and everything that had come after Lucien Blake was still alive. There were moments when Thomas doubted, she knew, when he wondered if his child was long dead and the letters he sent were folly. Now Jean knew, but she could not bring herself to tell him. How could she? How could she reveal, not just her own duplicitousness in digging through Doctor Blake's things in search of his son's address, but also the cruel certainty of Lucien's words, his determination not to reconcile himself to his father? Jean could not bear the thought of what that knowledge might do to Thomas, and so she resolved to keep her peace.
Jean tucked the letter into the little box where she kept the letters Christopher had sent her during the war, a little box she kept under her bed but looked through often, remembering her husband with sorrow in her heart. Somehow it seemed right, that Thomas Blake's grief should rest alongside her own. With that task accomplished she curled up beneath her duvet, her mind consumed with thoughts of Lucien Blake. There were no recent photos of him in the house; Jean had no notion what he looked liked. And before this day she had always assumed that he was wild, that he was selfish, that he was perhaps a bit cruel, given the way he had so ignored his father. Now, though, she was less certain. He had taken the time to respond to her letter, after all, and though he had refused to speak to Thomas he had done so kindly. The mystery of Lucien Blake distracted her until her eyelids grew too heavy, and she slipped at last into dreams.
4 October 1958
Jean rose early, the way she always did, and went through her morning routine well before sunrise, washing her face and dressing carefully in a neat skirt and freshly ironed blouse, pinning back her curls and applying her make-up just so. It had been four weeks since Thomas Blake had suffered a catastrophic stroke, and so there would be no appointments today, no patients to look after, but the house would need tending, and likely there would be at least one or two unannounced well-wishers stopping in to pay their respects to the good doctor. The district nurse was due to arrive just before lunch, and when she did, Jean was determined that Mattie would find the house in good order, the doctor clean and fed, though he lacked the strength to speak, to move his head or raise his hand.
Perhaps he would have been better off in hospital, but he had once confided to Jean that given the option he would much prefer to die in his own bed, that the thought of spending his last days in care had filled him with dread, and so she had insisted that she could look after him. She did her best, checking in on him several times throughout the night, sitting by his side for hours each day, following every instruction she'd received from his physician - and from Mattie - to the letter. Jean had been in the doctor's employ for fourteen long years, had helped him with his work and learned a great deal under his gentle tutelage, and she was certain that she possessed enough skill to keep him comfortable. She could not hope for more; Thomas's body was weary, and there would be no recovering from this. Death hung heavy in the air, stealing through each room of that house she loved so well, no matter that she flung the windows open and let in the brisk springtime breeze, that she placed vases full of her own fresh flowers on every available surface and aired Thomas's linens each and every day; he was not long for this world, and a shadow had settled over Jean's heart.
Still, though she was devastated, though sorrow nipped at her heels like a troublesome dog, Jean persevered. Thomas Blake had been a guardian angel of sorts, had helped her through grief and calamity, had taken her into his home, and in the absence of her sons he had become as good as family to her. He deserved more from her than desolation or pity, and so she did her best, for his sake, to smile each time his bleary eyes settled upon her face, to sing his favorite songs and read aloud from The Courier, to comfort him in his final days.
To that end she had once more written to his son, and this time she had not appealed to his emotions, but rather to his practicality; your father is dying, she'd told him, and you will need to be here when he does, to settle his estate. The house will need to be dealt with. I can find work elsewhere, but I will continue to look after him, until the very end. That letter had received no answer, and so, at Jean's request, Thomas's solicitor had joined his voice to hers, writing to Lucien and imploring him to return. Still they had no word from the younger Blake, and Jean had all but given hope of seeing him.
Once she was ready she made her way downstairs, stopping to check in on Thomas first thing. He was sleeping peacefully, and she could not help but smile at him sadly as she reached out to smooth the coverlet over his chest. It was strange, really, how small he had become, this man who had loomed so large in life; each morning Jean took care to shave his face, though she left his mustache in place, knowing how he'd taken pride in it. It was hardly practical, but it helped, somehow, served as a reminder of who he had been, before illness had stolen his voice and left him a shell of his former self. Jean did not speak to him, did not wake him, only reached for his wrist, measuring his pulse the way she did each time she looked in on him, just as the doctors had told her to. It was weak, this morning, but there, and so, satisfied that he was as well as could be expected, she left him behind, mentally preparing the list of tasks she would need to accomplish that day.
When Lucien arrived at his father's house it was dreadfully early; having flown all the way from London to Sydney and then again from Sydney to Melbourne, he was in no particular mood to prolong his travels with a night spent in a hotel and then a bus ride, and so he had paid for the extravagance of a hired car to drive him to his father's house. As he approached he wondered for a moment if it had been foolish not to warn the inestimable Mrs. Beazley of his imminent arrival, but he supposed it was too late to change that now. The front door was locked when he reached it, and so Lucien reasoned that if his father were as poorly as the housekeeper's letter had indicated the old man was likely in hospital, and so it stood to reason that the house should be empty at this hour. A locked door was no obstacle for Lucien Blake, who had taken to carrying a small lockpick in his pocket during his army days; a few subtle twists and the door was open.
He took a deep, steadying breath, hefted his suitcase in his hand, and stepped into his childhood home for the first time in over twenty-five years.
The first thing he noticed was the smell; a vase of fresh white gardenias sat on a small table in the entryway. He closed the door behind him and propped his suitcase against the wall, staring at those delicate flowers all the while. This will be her work, then, he thought, and he found himself quite suddenly overcome with a surprising rush of fondness for Mrs. Beazley, who had so earnestly promised to look after his father, who kept the house neat and tidy and free from dust, who was thoughtful enough to place fresh flowers in the foyer, even when Thomas Blake was dying, and no one was likely to notice. Though Lucien had not yet had a chance to speak to the solicitor, he found himself rather hoping that Thomas had left a little something for the woman in his will; it seemed to Lucien that she deserved it, after putting up with his father for so long, after going to all the trouble of reaching out to him and keeping the house tidy regardless of the circumstances.
Before he visited his father in hospital Lucien was determined to make himself a cup of tea and perhaps a bit of toast, if indeed there was any bread or tea to be found in the kitchen, but before he did he reasoned that a quick trip to the loo was in order. He set off down the corridor, his thoughts muddled by the smell of the gardenias and the assault of the memories that danced at him from the shadows of every corner of this place. So distracted was he that he did not notice the door to his father's bedroom opening until a soft, warm body collided with his own.
"Bloody hell!" he cried, his hands rising up reflexively to catch this intruder by the arms, his fingers digging in hard, though he released his hold at once when his captive let out a distinctly feminine sort of gasp. It all happened so quickly; Lucien took a step back, smoothing his hand over his hair and breathing like a bellows, his heart pounding from the shock. There in front of him stood a woman, a woman who would have been distractingly beautiful had she not been scowling at him darkly, had she not immediately struck him hard across the face for his impropriety in placing his hands upon her person and startling her so severely.
"What on earth do you think you're doing?" the woman cried, her voice reaching an octave that had Lucien's ears ringing in an instant.
"I'm terribly sorry," he said, though in truth he was no such thing. His cheek was stinging from her slap, and he still rather desperately needed the loo, but he tried hard to remain civil, or at least as civil as he could be when it came to strange women he'd accosted in his father's house before breakfast. "I'm Lucien Blake."
"Oh," she said, the fight leaving her all at once. Her shoulders relaxed, though her back was still straight as a post, her grey eyes still bright and fierce as they regarded him beneath the thick fan of her dark eyelashes. She really was lovely, this strange creature he had discovered so unexpectedly, slim and poised, her clothes well-tailored if not particularly glamorous. Her lips were set in a thin line, but he could see the wrinkles at the corners of her mouth and eyes, little reminders of a thousand brilliant smiles, and he quite suddenly found himself wondering how her face might change, should she choose to bestow one of those smiles upon him. "I wasn't expecting you," she carried on, and then, quite suddenly, Lucien realized who she was.
"You're Mrs. Beazley?" he exclaimed, completely flabbergasted by just how wrong his suspicions had been. The Mrs. Beazley of his imaginings was matronly and plump and getting on in years, but this woman in front of him was something else entirely, lithe and graceful as a dancer, and far too young to have spent so many years in service to his father.
"I am," she told him primly, her chin lifting fiercely as if she had read his very thoughts and was daring him to speak them aloud. Wisely, Lucien chose not to comment. For a moment they simply stared at one another, neither of them certain how best to proceed, but in the end it was Mrs. Beazley who saved them both, who spared him the indignity of having to announce his rather urgent need to carry on down the corridor. "Will you be wanting breakfast, then?"
"Yes, please," Lucien responded at once. "I'll just go freshen up, shall I?"
For a moment it looked as if she was going to say something else, but then she just gave him a terse little nod and set off for the kitchen, leaving Lucien to his own devices. He made his way down the corridor as quickly as decorum would allow, his thoughts racing all the while. Though he had spent rather a lot of time imagining what it might be like when he returned to this house, he had never for a moment considered the possibility of running into a beautiful woman in the very act of leaving his father's bedroom so early in the morning, when the sun had only just begun to peek above the horizon and the dawn birds were still trilling merrily in the trees. Likely there was nothing salacious about her having been in that particular room; the letters he'd received from Mrs. Beazley and from the solicitor had both indicated that his father was all but paralyzed, and Lucien inferred that the old man could not have been… getting into mischief with his lovely housekeeper. Still, though, there was something strange about this, about her, and Lucien felt himself rather on the back foot. He had not made the best impression on the woman who ran his father's life, and he was not entirely sure how he ought to proceed with her.
As soon as he had attended to his business Lucien set off for the kitchen, pausing for a moment in the doorway to take in the sight that waited for him inside.
Mrs. Beazley had been busy; the kettle was on, three places were set at the table, and she was standing by the stovetop, an apron tied around her waist while she set about cooking breakfast, humming softly to herself all the while. Lucien's breath caught in his throat as he looked at her; the view of Mrs. Beazley from behind was every bit as enchanting as the view of her from the front. Her soft hair, the slope of her neck, the curve of her bum, the apron strings highlighting the slimness of her waist; she was beautiful, but he had sensed a hardness in her eyes, and Lucien knew better than to let himself get too carried away with her. He had seen many beautiful women in his lifetime, but two years before he had forsworn them all, had made a silent promise to himself that he would not waste another moment on a woman who was not his soulmate. He had spent twenty-five years without her, twenty-five years enjoying the company of other women, had married Mei Lin despite the fact that she was not the one meant for him, and in all that time, women had only brought him sorrow. Yes, he could enjoy looking at Mrs. Beazley, but he could not love her, and so he counseled himself to prudence, reminding himself that he was only here to sort out his father's will and then he would return to London, and go back to waiting, not so patiently, for his beloved to make her appearance at long last.
"My apologies again, Mrs. Beazely," he said as he made his way into the kitchen.
She turned to him sharply, surprised by the sudden sound of his voice, but as she looked at him her face softened somewhat. "It's all right," she assured him. "I'm glad you're here. Doctor Blake will be so pleased to see you."
When it became rather obvious that Lucien didn't know what to do with himself, she took pity on him.
"Have a seat, Doctor Blake," she told him gently, using her wooden spoon to indicate the chair at the head of the table.
He had no sooner uttered the words, "Please, call me Lucien," than she had delivered a steaming cup of tea and the morning's edition of The Courier to him.
"I wouldn't, ordinarily," she told him as she resumed her post by the stove, "but I suppose it might be confusing have two Doctor Blakes in the house."
Lucien just grunted in the affirmative, feeling rather unprepared to face any discussion of his father before he'd had his breakfast. He added milk and sugar to his tea and then opened the paper, not because he wanted to read it, but because he felt as if it were the thing to do; the moment he propped the paper against the milk jug and lifted his cup to his lips, however, he was overcome with the memory of his father, sitting silently at the table in the mornings doing precisely the same thing, and he put his cup down and abandoned the paper at once. He might be sitting at the head of the table in a wrinkled three-piece suit, but he was not his father, and he was damned if he was going to ignore the people around him the way Thomas Blake had so often done. For a moment he fished about for a topic of conversation, some way to engage the busy housekeeper, and at last he decided on a course of action that might both get her talking and assuage some of his curiosity about her.
"Mr. Beazley must be very understanding," he said, "for you to be here so early in the morning."
The moment he spoke the words he realized he'd made a terrible mistake; Mrs. Beazley froze, suddenly tense and taut as a bowstring. It seemed for a moment as if all the air had been sucked from the room, as if he had just sworn at her, rather than casually remarked about her husband.
"Mr. Beazley died," she told him softly, refusing to look at him. "A very long time ago. I live here."
Before Lucien could apologize the kitchen door swung open, and a dark-haired young man in a policeman's uniform came barreling in.
"Auntie Jean," the young man said by way of greeting, "I can't stay long, I just wanted to make sure you and the doc are-"
It was almost comical, really; the stricken look on Mrs. Beazley's face as she turned to face the young man, the way the young man's jaw dropped and his voice gave out when he caught sight of Lucien, and Lucien's own state of emotional whiplash, having experienced more tumult in the quarter of an hour since he'd walked through the front door than he was prepared to deal with on an empty stomach.
"Doctor Blake," Mrs. Beazley said faintly, "this is my nephew, Danny. Danny, this is Doctor Lucien Blake."
"Lucien Blake?" the young man - Danny - said as he reached out to shake Lucien's hand. "Are you the doctor's son, then?"
"In the flesh," Lucien said grandly, settling back in his chair while the young constable stared at him, wide eyed and innocent as a child, though he looked to be about twenty years old.
"Right," Danny said. "Well-"
"Are you in a hurry, Danny?" Mrs. Beazley prompted from the other side of the room, where she had just retrieved two slices of toast and wrapped them in a cloth.
"Yeah, sorry, Auntie Jean, the boss wants me in right away. Everything all right here?"
"We're just fine, Danny," Mrs. Beazley told him. She kissed his cheek and pressed the toast into his hands before pushing him towards the door. "Have a good day. Be careful."
"Goodbye, Auntie Jean, Doctor Blake," the young man said as he departed, and then they were left in silence once more. In total young Danny had not been in the room more than two minutes, and yet somehow his presence had provided them a slight reprieve from the heavy air of melancholy that had settled upon them thanks to Lucien's poorly-delivered inquiry, and now that sorrow was back with a vengeance. Mrs. Beazley heaved a little sigh and carefully cleared away one set of dishes and cutlery from the table; evidently her nephew regularly took breakfast at the Blake house, and she had been expecting him. Lucien couldn't say why, exactly, but that surprised him, the thought of Mrs. Beazley's earnest young nephew regularly sharing meals with his father and his father's housekeeper. It was altogether domestic, more familial, than Lucien's recollections of his own time in his father's house.
"Charming lad," he said, at a loss for what else to say and yet wanting very much to lighten the mood between them.
Mrs. Beazley did not answer him; Lucien decided that given he had failed rather spectacularly in his previous attempts to draw her into conversation he would likely be better off not speaking at all, and so he took up the paper once more, using it to shield him from the beautiful, tragic woman on the other side of room. Only an hour before he had imagined that this would be a straightforward trip, that he would attend a funeral and a few meetings with the solicitor and be back in London in no time at all, but already the situation had grown so complicated as to be almost untenable, and he found himself wondering what on earth he'd gotten himself into.
He wasn't quite what she'd been expecting, somehow, though now that she had been given the opportunity to look upon Lucien Blake in the flesh, she could not say what exactly it was she had been expecting. Just not this, this handsome man with his chiseled jaw and close-cropped beard, his fine tailored suit and his soft, erudite way of speaking. He reminded Jean rather forcefully of Thomas in that regard, his gentility and his proud bearing, but somehow Jean had always imagined that - given how hard the younger Blake had tried to distance himself from the elder - Lucien would have been the exact opposite of his father in every way. His appearance in the corridor outside his father's bedroom had thrown her, had left her reeling and out of sorts, and as she tried to find some semblance of normalcy in the midst of the sudden chaos of her morning, she kicked herself for having struck him. How could she have done that? she asked herself as she poured his tea and tried not to burn his breakfast. Yes, he had surprised her, and yes, she had never reacted well to strange men putting their hands upon her person, but she had struck her employer's son in the face the very first time she'd met him.
Perhaps if she had been less distressed, less befuddled by the morning's turn of events, she might have noticed that the heat in her cheek was not solely caused by the rush of blood in her veins, the sudden flush of embarrassment that overcame her when she realized whose face she'd slapped. Perhaps if she'd been paying more attention she might have noticed the way Lucien rubbed absently at his biceps as if they pained him, in precisely the same spot where Jean's own arms were smarting from the ferocity of his grip. As it was she took no notice of it, really, and set off at once to repair the somewhat damaged state of affairs between herself and Lucien Blake.
Things only seemed to get worse, however; first he asked after her husband, and she was forced to confess to her state of widowhood less than ten minutes after meeting this man for the first time. It never got any easier, telling people that her husband had died, that she still mourned for him, that she lived alone without a love of her own. And somehow it was particularly difficult to speak those words to Lucien Blake; she tried not to delve too deeply into her own heart, tried not to give a name to the emotions that filled her when she looked at him. It had been fourteen years since Christopher's death, fourteen long years of endless loneliness for Jean, but in all that time she had hardly spared a glance for another man. There had not been a single one handsome enough, kind enough to turn her head, not when her heart was consumed with grief for Christopher and worry for her nameless soulmate. But now, oh, now she had found a singularly distracting man, and for the first time in a very long time she found her heart racing at his proximity. He was tall and broad and strong and gentle, and so wildly inappropriate a match as to make any interest she might harbor for him utterly laughable. And so she endeavored not to speak to him more than she needed, and chided herself, reminding herself of her soulmate, that dear, broken man hidden from her in some far corner of the globe, that man who needed her, far more than Lucien Blake did. He was nothing more than a passing temptation, she was sure.
"You will eat with me, won't you?" Lucien asked her as she plated up his breakfast and passed it off to him.
Jean stopped short, frying pan clutched in one hand and her own empty plate in the other. So far she had been operating more or less by instinct, setting the places at the table just as she would have done any morning when the doctor was well; if she were to continue on as normal, she would, in fact, have to share a meal with Lucien Blake.
"If you don't mind?" she forced herself to ask. His question made it sound rather as if he was expecting her to join him, but she had to confirm it just the same; she hardly knew the man, hardly knew what he would expect from his father's housekeeper, and she keenly felt the need to comport herself appropriately in his presence.
"I insist," he said, a kindly twinkle in his eye, and Jean spun away from him at once, desperately trying to banish the vision of those blue eyes from her line of sight. It was too late, of course, for now that he had smiled at her, she found she only wanted to see that smile again.
Jean made her way back to the table, setting her plate down and folding herself primly into the chair at Lucien's right hand. The newspaper lay forgotten on the table and half his breakfast was gone already; it would seem all his travels had given him an appetite. He was watching her from the corner of his eye, she noted; he would not look directly at her, but still she could feel his attention settling upon her shoulders, and a shiver ran down her spine at the thought. If only he would just speak, just say something, anything to dispel the rising tide of tension that swirled and eddied around their feet, but he remained silent, and with each passing moment Jean felt more keenly the need to assert control over the situation. There were so many things she wanted to ask him - where he'd served, if he had a family, why on earth he had been so cruel and refused to make amends with his father until it was too late, just for starters - but she knew that it was not her place to go making accusations over the breakfast table, and so she settled instead upon a safer path.
"How was your journey?" she asked, following her question with a long sip of tea.
"Uneventful," he responded, leaning towards her and away in the same instant, as if he were uncertain just how much attention he ought to pay her. "Though there have been quite a few surprises, now that I'm here," he added.
Jean felt a crimson blush stain her cheeks and so she ducked her head, too proud to let him see the mark of her discomfort upon her face. What must he think of her, she wondered, of the way she ran this house, of the way her nephew was allowed free reign to come and go as he pleased? Oh, Danny hadn't done anything wrong, and the doctor didn't seem too bothered by his sudden appearance and equally sudden departure, but still, she had grown accustomed to taking certain liberties in this house, and she dearly wished for that state of affairs to continue uninterrupted.
"I am sorry, Mrs. Beazley," he added, his good humor fading somewhat as he looked at her. "For what I said, before. I didn't know-"
"Of course you didn't," Jean interrupted him brusquely. As much as she appreciated his concern and his earnest apology, the last thing she wanted to do was discuss her husband's death with this handsome stranger. "You had no way of knowing. Please, don't apologize."
"Right," he said slowly. It was his turn to duck his head, to stare down morosely at his teacup.
"And you should call me Jean," she added on impulse. "Your father usually does. Did." Ordinarily Jean wasn't the sort of woman to swear, but she very nearly did in that moment, so frustrated was she by the way neither one of them could seem to speak without putting their foot right in it. The last thing he needed was a reminder of the inevitability of his father's demise, the fact that the old man could not speak, could not rise from his bed. The man hadn't even finished his breakfast, and yet already Jean had raised the specter of death at the table.
But Lucien Blake was a doctor, and a soldier, and he and death were very old friends. He seemed utterly unphased by her comment, raising his gaze slowly to her face and smiling at her softly as he did. "Then I will. Jean."
As soon as he was finished eating Jean whisked his plate away from him, regardless of the fact that she'd barely touched her own food. He wanted to protest, but he held himself back, sensing that perhaps it would be best to simply let her be, to let her carry on in her accustomed fashion and not rock the boat, as it were.
"I'll just let him know you're here," Jean said breathlessly, wiping her hands on her apron before bustling off down the hall to his father's room. It was not until that precise moment that Lucien realized his father was in fact inside the house; until that point, he assumed the old man had been in hospital. Now, however, as he dawdled along in her wake, not wanting to rush her but likewise not wanting to linger too long alone in this house that seemed to sigh with sorrow at every turn, he could not help but wonder at that. Jean had kept Thomas at home, no doubt looking after him with the same care and dedication she had so far shown his son, and somehow he couldn't fathom it, that his father should inspire such loyalty in her. What had the old man done, he asked himself, that she should be so beholden to him, so willing to forgo her own comfort in favor of caring for him? It didn't add up in his mind; Jean was kind and considerate, and Thomas had always been cold and aloof. Could it be, he wondered as he loitered there in the corridor, that his father had changed, had become a more tolerable man? It didn't bear thinking about somehow; Lucien didn't want to imagine what could have made his father kind, when his own son was not enough to inspire such change in him.
At long last Jean appeared, and beckoned him into the room.
"Thomas," she said softly, trailing along behind Lucien as he crossed to his father's bedside. "Lucien is here."
Lucien's breath caught in his throat, as he gazed down at the shell of a man his father had become. Small and pale, Thomas was lying propped up against a pile of pillows, wearing a dark blue shirt and his trademark mustache, though his mouth was slack and his arms hung limply by his sides. There were more flowers here; a lopsided little red begonia sat on the bedside table, and the sun streamed in merrily through the windows, and he could not help but thinking they were mocking him somehow, the sunshine and the flower, so full of joy when this room was so full of grief. His father's eyes watched him, their stuttering progress and the fluttering of his chest as he breathed the only indications that the old man still lived at all. For almost his entire life Lucien had borne such enmity for this man, had cursed him, had ignored him, had nursed the wounds Thomas Blake's disregard had rent in his heart in quiet isolation, but now he found he felt only pity, and a boundless sort of regret. There was so very much to say, and so very little time left in which to say it.
Perhaps he had been quiet too long; Jean reached out and squeezed his shoulder gently, guiding him towards the little chair by his father's bed. "I'll be in the kitchen," she told him softly, and then she was gone, the warmth of her voice and the faint scent of her perfume lingering on the air in her wake. Part of Lucien desperately wanted to call out to her, to stop her, to bring her back into this room to support him while he faced down his demons, but he knew better, and so he let her go. He followed her instructions, and sat down beside his father.
"Hello, dad," he said, choking just a little on the word dad. Thomas did not speak, could not speak, but there was a desperation in his eyes Lucien recognized all too well, for he felt it in the depths of his own heart.
1 November 1958
The eerie stillness of the house unsettled him after the activity of the day. Not that there had been so very much for him to do; between them Jean and the solicitor had handled most of the details, and Lucien had taken a step back, grateful for their assistance and his own distance from the mundanity of his father's passing. Once the funeral ended, however, Lucien had suddenly recalled more pressing business elsewhere and beat a hasty retreat.
A boon had arrived at the end of the service in the form of Patrick Tyneman; though Lucien dimly recalled making trouble for the man in his youth and found he had no more fondness for the portly businessman now that he was grown, he was nonetheless deeply grateful for Tyneman's generosity as regarded sorting him out a membership at the club. Oh, Lucien had no intentions of staying in town for very long, and he found the very principles of the club distasteful in the extreme, but it did provide him with a quiet place to go and drink himself into a stupor on the day his father was buried, and even in his inebriated state he was able to acknowledge that Tyneman had done him a kindness. He'd been there for hours, drinking whiskey like a man bent on nothing more than forgetting, and his fellow patrons had given him a wide berth. As darkness fell, however, Cec Drury had firmly - but politely, as ever - thrown him out onto the street, and he was left to make his meandering way home on foot, dreading it with everything he had.
It wasn't a Catholic funeral, he thought as he walked along. It was silly, really, that he should be so distracted by such a simple thing, and yet he kept coming back to it. Jean had been quite shocked to learn that Thomas in his later days had disavowed the Catholic church; she had insisted on having a clergyman - of some indiscriminate Protestant variety, much to her distaste - for the service, but old Father Morton was nowhere in sight, at Thomas's own request. But why? Lucien wondered. He could not recall the last time he'd had any conversation with his father at all, let alone one about religion, and it was clear that this was just another in the long line of changes that had been wrought in Thomas Blake during the long years of his estrangement from his son. At every turn it seemed to Lucien that he was faced with the staggering notion that he had not truly known his father at all. He had hoped that the whiskey would help, but all it had served to do was make him sluggish and a bit dizzy.
He stumbled across the entryway as he entered his father's home, cursing just a little when he bumped into the sidetable, and then cursing again for having made such a racket. The young district nurse, Mattie O'Brien, had taken up residence in the home during the last week of Thomas's life, and he didn't want to disturb her. I'll have to sort that out as well, he thought morosely as he ambled through the house with no clear destination in mind; the house would need to be sold, and Jean would need to find employment elsewhere - and be given some sort of compensation for all the effort she'd gone to in Thomas's final days to make sure the man was comfortable - and the doctor's patients and files would need to be passed along to other surgeries. There was so very much to do, and his skin seemed to crawl at the very thought. He wanted it done, wanted to make his way back to London and forget the last two weeks of grief and devastation, but there was no clear end in sight.
"Lucien?" he heard a soft voice call out from the sitting room.
Damn, he thought, though wisely he did not speak aloud. Mrs. Beazley was a pious woman, he had discovered, and she took a dim view of swearing. Likewise she did not approve of whiskey or cigarettes or sons who went twenty-five years without speak to their fathers; in short, she did not approve of him. He had rather hoped that after their somewhat bumpy introduction they might become more comfortable with one another, but he was sorely mistaken; with each passing day it seemed he affronted her more until he could hardly stand the sight of her and her disappointed, tragic eyes. Jean Beazley had a beautiful smile, but it seemed to Lucien that he only made her frown, and he could not bear to be the cause of more strife in her life.
Still, though, she had called out to him, and he could hardly pretend he wasn't there. He squared his shoulders, and marched into the living room to face his doom.
The sight of her brought him up short, however; she was curled into the corner of the sofa, a glass of sherry in one hand and a rosary in the other. Her hair was in wild disarray, her curls hanging limp and loose around her angel's face, a face that was, for the very first time in their acquaintance, utterly devoid of make-up. She was wrapped in an atrocity of a pink dressing gown, and her legs were bare where they peeked out at him from beneath its hem. She looked...soft, and sad, and beneath the haze of the alcohol Lucien felt a sudden, fierce desire to hold her. It simply wouldn't do, he knew, to approach her in such a way at such a time, not least of all because of the promise he'd made to himself regarding his soulmate. He pressed his palm flat against his thigh, remembering those terrible moments when he had called out across the void to his beloved and she had answered him in kind; whoever she was, she deserved more from him, and he could not allow himself to be so distracted by his father's housekeeper.
"Where have you been?" she asked him in a voice so very low and so very gentle that he knew she was not accusing him of anything, was only asking out of concern for his well being. That made a somewhat startling change, but it was not an altogether unwelcome one. It seemed that however much she might detest his vices, she was still willing to speak to him, and he was all the happier for it.
"I went to the club," he confessed, gingerly traversing the room to sit in the armchair across from her. He did not trip, and for that he was very thankful.
Jean did not answer him, merely nodded and took a sip from her little glass. Strange, that, Lucien thought as he watched her; in all the time he'd been in this house, he'd yet to see her take a sip of anything that was not tea or water. He glanced at the sidetable and took note of the bottle there, the bottle that had been unopened that morning but was very nearly empty now. His heart went out to her; Jean had been working for his father, living in this house, for years, and at times he rather thought that Thomas's death had hit her harder than it had him.
"I know you fell out with him," Jean said after a moment, watching him beneath the thick fan of her eyelashes, reaching up to brush her hair back from her face. Her hand trembled, and her words were thick with all the sherry she'd drunk, and if she hadn't looked so bloody forlorn he might have laughed, to think that Jean Beazley was sitting before him drunk and slurring. As it was, however, the sight of her only tore at the shattered remnants of his heart. She deserved more, this beautiful woman who appeared to have no one else in the world save for Thomas Blake, Thomas Blake who was now dead and gone, and so Lucien did not protest as she spoke.
"But he was kind to me," she continued. For weeks now Lucien had been wondering what had transpired, to so endear Thomas to Jean, and now it seemed that he would finally have the chance to hear the truth. He only prayed he'd remember it in the morning. "It seems like he was always there, every time something went wrong. When Christopher...when my husband…" she couldn't quite seem to get the words out and Lucien very nearly interrupted her then, very nearly told her of the wife and child he'd lost, this grief they shared in common, but then she lifted her chin and carried on, proud and strong even if her lower lip was trembling. "Times were hard, and he never let me pay him for seeing to the boys. He offered me this job when I was in need, and my sons were always welcome here, no matter what trouble they got into. My boys grew up in this house, Lucien. Playing football in that garden," she smiled sadly, gesturing vaguely towards the windows. "And when they left home, Thomas took me in. He didn't have to, but he did. And I'm so grateful to him." Tears had begun to spill down her cheeks as she spoke, and Lucien felt the answering sting of his grief welling up inside him, though he could not give it voice. Could not tell her how it pained him to know that his father had been so attentive to her sons, and so dismissive of his own. But this marked the first time that Jean had spoken to him of her family, and he committed every bit of it to memory, hanging on her every word. She had two boys, then, troublesome boys, boys who had left home and never looked back, much as Lucien had done. No wonder she had tried so very hard to bring him home before his father's passing.
"He was an expert on the marking, did you know that?" Jean carried on. She finished off her sherry and reached for the bottle to refill her glass, though she very nearly dropped the both of them in the process. And all the while the rosary dripped from her fingers. While he had been out drinking himself into a stupor, Jean had been at home praying; well, she'd certainly been drinking, as well, but she had been praying, and not for the first time Lucien lamented the loss of his own faith, the comfort it had brought him once. Now, though, he had seen too much, endured too much, and religion brought him no reprieve. He envied Jean the peace her prayers brought her.
"I didn't," he confessed. Something else about his father he'd never known, another question he'd never get the chance to ask. Could it be, he wondered, that Thomas had held the answers to his own dilemma, would have been able to guide him safely to his beloved and save him all the heartache he had suffered without her through the years? It was a troubling thought.
Jean smiled at him sadly. "He was a bit fanatic about it, to be honest. He took extensive notes on every one of his patients and their partners - with permission, of course - and he was always reading the latest research. He helped me so much." Her voice faded out on those final words, her eyes misty and far away.
This was something else he envied about Jean, the certainty she had regarding her soulmate. Oh, they had never discussed it, but the fact that she had been so long a widow and never remarried was telling in itself. It seemed obvious to Lucien that her late husband had been the one for her, the only one, that she treasured his memory, no matter how much time had passed. She had known, however briefly, the joy that Lucien only dreamt of, had been blessed to fall asleep safe and secure in the arms of her beloved. Oh, how he wished.
As he watched her his hand returned to his thigh, his palm pressed hard against his flesh. In the two and a half decades since Lucien's soulmate had first made herself known to him only five words had passed between them, but he treasured each of them, the hope they instilled in him, even as they broke his heart. Lucien was very nearly fifty years old, and though he longed, with every fiber of his being, to find this missing woman, he knew it was likely too late already. She'd borne her children and lived her whole life without him, and it seemed too much to hope that the course of fate would alter at this late stage.
Silence fell between them, as Jean remembered and Lucien lamented. They both needed to seek their beds, but he was loath to leave her. There was something comforting about this, sitting here in the darkness with this woman, listening to her memories of his father. Lucien would have liked to have shared his own recollections, but they were hard and bitter, and Jean did not deserve to have his burdens thrust upon her in her moment of grief. She deserved a hand to hold, a comfort in the darkness, and Lucien endeavored to provide that for her, even as he cursed himself for breaking his promises to keep his distance from her.
In the end, though, it was Jean, as ever, who brought them to their senses. She drank the last of the sherry down, grimacing slightly, before rising unsteadily to her feet. In a move of uncharacteristic boldness she extended her hand to him, and helped him up from his chair.
"You should sleep, Lucien," she told him softly.
"So should you, Jean," he answered. His free hand twitched by his side, wanting to reach out to her, to cradle the softness of her cheek in his hand, and yet still he maintained just enough sense to hold himself back.
She smiled at him softly, and led the way from the sitting room, their fingers still loosely intertwined as they mounted the stairs together. Lucien was confused and grateful for this tether in equal measure; he could not say why Jean had chosen to reach out to him, why she was behaving so very warmly towards him, but he needed her touch to ground him, to help him navigate the stairs and find his way to his childhood bedroom once more. There was something so tender about her, in this rare unguarded moment, so very different from the hard, sometimes brittle force of nature she could be in the harsh light of day. In this moment, she wasn't Mrs. Beazley, wasn't a housekeeper or a receptionist or a harpy hellbent on berating him for taking his pleasure as he saw fit; in this moment she was Jean, just a woman, soft and gentle and sad and real.
They parted on the landing, she disappearing into her room and he into his. The trek up the stairs had set his head to spinning and he collapsed on the bed at once. He had half a mind to reach for the little knife in his trouser pocket, to cry out to his beloved for the first time since the day Changi was liberated, but his arms were heavy and uncoordinated, and he fell into dreams before he could stop it.
11 November 1958
It was the sound of screams that woke Jean from her sleep. She was on her feet and shuffling into her dressing gown before her mind caught up with her; for an instant upon waking she had been certain that it was young Jack crying out in the darkness, that she was back in the farmhouse that had been her home with her two boys to look after. The room slowly came into focus, the soft wallpaper and pale pink paint, the pile of her cosmetics on the dressing table, the door that led, not to the home that she shared with Christopher, but to Doctor Blake's house. She shook her head, certain it had been no more than a dream, but then another terrible shout rent the air, and fear gripped her heart like a vice.
Jean fiercley knotted the sash about her waist and made her way out of the room, pausing to grab the cricket bat that rested beside the door. She'd taken to keeping it in her room when the doctor had first fallen ill, knowing that he was in no condition to defend himself should something awful happen. Its weight was a comfort in her hand as her heart pounded wildly in her chest, wondering what could possibly have distressed Lucien so; he was a drunkard and a fool, but he rarely shouted.
On the landing Jean nearly walked straight into Mattie, hovering at the top of the stairs in her pale pink pajamas, her hair in wild disarray and one hand clapped over her mouth.
"Jean," the girl breathed, and Jean cut her off at once.
"It's all right, Mattie," she murmured. "Go back to sleep. I'll deal with this."
Mattie didn't need to be told twice, scuttling off down the corridor to her own room at once. Jean hefted the cricket bat in her hands and slipped down the stairs as quietly as she could.
It was two weeks since Doctor Blake's passing, and in that time it seemed to Jean as if her entire life had been turned upside down. She mourned for the man as if he had been her own father, missed his wise counsel and his soft eyes even as she understood that his time had come, that he had been in grievous pain with no quality of life to speak of. He might have been better off, but Jean was lost in his absence, floating at sea with neither rudder nor sail to steer her path. More than anything, she wished she could have spoken to Thomas about his son.
Lucien had made quite a hash of things, in a remarkably short span of time. He had cursed Patrick Tyneman in full view of all and sundry at the club - why, Jean still wasn't sure - came home drunk and reeking of cigarette smoke more often than not, stayed up all hours playing the wireless at top volume or banging away on the piano, and, perhaps strangest of all, he simply refused to leave. Doctor Blake had left the entire contents of his estate to his son, with the exception of the furniture in Jean's bedroom and a few odds and ends from the kitchen and the sunroom he had bequeathed to her, dear old man that he was. By his own account, Lucien intended to sell the house and return to London with all due haste. And yet, somehow, between brawling at the club and pestering Jean all hours of the day and night, he had not found the time to do anything about it. He had graciously granted Mattie leave to stay in the house through the end of the month and moved his belongings into his father's bedroom downstairs in order to stay out from underfoot - he said, though Jean found him no less a nuance now that he was living on a different floor - and as long as Lucien remained in the house and Mattie remained in the upstairs room, Jean felt compelled to remain at her post. She could not make arrangements for living accommodations or alternate employment until she knew when Lucien would be leaving them, and the man himself seemed content to keep her in the dark as regarded his timetable for his departure. Jean had been fuming about it for days.
And now, this. From the sound of his shouts it seemed to Jean that Lucien was in great pain, and the thought terrified her. What could she hope to do, one lonely woman with her hair still wrapped in a sleeping scarf and a cricket bat clenched between trembling hands, if a man as tall and strong and bloody minded as Lucien Blake had been powerless to defend himself? Still, though, there was Mattie to think about, and so Jean did her very best to be brave.
The ground floor of the house was all in darkness, and a quick glance down the corridor showed the front door still firmly bolted shut.
What on earth, Jean wondered, and then there came the sound of Lucien's voice once more.
"No, no, no," he cried, just that one word, over and over, coming from the room where he slept.
With no thought for the possible impropriety of the situation Jean burst into his bedroom at once, though she drew up short at the sight that greeted her.
Lucien was alone, thrashing around in a tangle of sheets, his normally neat hair a mess of soft blonde curls, matted around his face with sweat. The cricket bat clattered to the floor as Jean lifted her hand to her mouth, utterly overcome by the sight of the man before her. In sleep Lucien was all but unrecognizable; how had she never known before how wild was his hair, how sharp was the line of his cheek? He was mercifully dressed, but the tortured expression on his face tore at her heartstrings.
They think my son might have been captured.
Thomas Blake's words drifted through her mind, a long forgotten memory. As she looked at Lucien now she couldn't help but wonder what he had suffered, couldn't help but wonder if as he slept he had returned to that terrible place. What had he endured, at the hands of his captors? Was it anything like the torment she'd seen laced across her own back, the gift of horror her soulmate's bond had bestowed upon her?
In an instant she was by his side, reaching out to brush the hair back from his brow, murmuring softly, "it's all right, Lucien. It's all right, you're safe." Safe, the word her soulmate had inscribed to her in blood and pain, a word that meant to more to her than almost any other. She shared it with Lucien now, hoping it would bring him the peace it had once brought her. As she touched him, whispered soft, soothing words to him, she found herself thinking of her soldier, wishing she could comfort him as she was comforting Lucien Blake now. For so long she had dreamt of her soldier, had wondered where he was, but she had been denied the opportunity to cradle him in her arms, to tell him how she cared for him, how she would keep him safe, for all the rest of her days. Now, in his absence, every ounce of sweet affection she felt for him she poured into Lucien Blake, thinking only how sad he was, how broken, how unfair it was, that he should walk the earth alone.
Beneath her hand Lucien did not still; if anything he seemed to grow more fevered, until at last his eyes flew open and he lashed out with venom in his gaze, breathing like a raging bull. Jean managed to dodge the blow, but only just; his fist had very nearly collided with the side of her face.
The moment Lucien realized where he was, he fell to pieces.
He rolled into an upright position, planting his feet upon the floor and burying his face in his hands, trying to block out the image of Jean, wide-eyed and terrified, looking so small and so helpless in her pink dressing gown. His chest heaved as he struggled to breathe, struggled to calm the frantic pounding of his heart. He had almost struck her, he was certain of that; in his dream he was once more tormented beneath the lash of the whip, and the touch of Jean's hand upon his brow had become the hard fist of the Japanese commander he'd hated most. The room was too small, the walls closing in on him, his clothes too confining, he couldn't breathe, couldn't think, could feel nothing but panic and a wave of guilt so strong he nearly retched, to think he had almost hurt Jean. Jean, who was so good and kind, even if she detested him and complained most bitterly about his behavior.
Lucien knew he should apologize, but he could not find the breath to speak. The world seemed to spin, everything flying at him at odd angles, and even when he closed his eyes he found no release from the terror. He was trembling, head to foot, and try though he might, he could not stop it.
She will leave you now. The thought, bitter and dark, danced through his chaotic mind. She had seen him, now, had seen who he truly was, broken and haunted, and he knew that surely she would leave him now, would not deign to spend another moment in the company of such a pitiable creature, a man who had very nearly done her serious harm. She would leave, and he would be alone, again, as ever. The loneliness was more intolerable than the nightmares, sometimes, and there was a small, almost childlike piece of his heart that wanted nothing more than to reach and cling to her, to bury his face in her breast and weep, and let her hold him until the pain went away.
She hates you, his bitter heart told him, and his trembling redoubled.
But then, he felt a warmth enveloping him, a heat and a softness he had not truly known since the day Mei Lin left him. He raised his ravaged face, and found Jean beside him. She had draped his blanket over his shoulders and wrapped her arms around him, resting her head against his shoulder as she hummed to him in a voice so very low and so very sweet he felt the choking flood of tears threaten to overtake him once again.
There were not words for this, for the terrible beauty of this moment, Jean holding him tight, despite the contempt she felt for him, despite the fact that he had brought her nothing but trouble since his arrival. She was a mother, he knew, and she held him so tenderly he could not help but wonder, just for a moment, if she had treated her own children so kindly. His thoughts calmed, somewhat, as he tried to imagine a younger Jean, humming softly to her wayward boys, and once again he cursed his fate. His time with his own family had been cut short, and likewise he had never seen his soulmate cradling her children in her arms, and now this, now Jean, another woman, wonderful and gentle and utterly lovely, had crossed his path, only to be torn from him by his own fickle nature. Jean might comfort him in the darkness, but she would have no part of a man like him in the daylight, and he would not wish himself upon her.
"Thank you, Jean," he breathed as he slowly brought his body under control and sorrow replaced the fear that had all all but destroyed him.
"Are you all right, Lucien?" she asked him, not unkindly, as she disentangled herself from him, rising to stand before him with her arms crossed tightly over her chest and her cheeks flushed from embarrassment at her own boldness.
"I am now," he lied.
It was late the next morning when Lucien finally rose and shambled his way into the kitchen in search of tea and his father's housekeeper. He found Jean, as ever, standing by the stove, dressed and pressed and formidable. Strange, how different she looked now, without her scarf and her dressing gown and her wide pleading eyes. Strange, how in the light of day he could tell himself he did not need her, when only the night before he had been wrecked by the touch of her hand.
Jean had left him quite abruptly upon discerning that he was not in any immediate danger, and as he looked at her now he found himself wondering how exactly they were going to navigate this delicate dance between them. Would she mention it, he asked himself, chide him for waking her, for shouting the whole house down, for lashing out at her? Would she scold him for drinking too much? The problem as Lucien saw it was that he had not drunk enough the night before, had not sunk himself into a stupor before seeking his bed and so left himself open to the terrors of the dark, but he could hardly confess such a thing to Jean Beazley in the broad light of day while she faffed about making his lunch.
"I was beginning to wonder if you were planning to join us at all today," she told him, not even glancing at him as he made a beeline for the kettle. He smiled, though she could not see it; Jean had recognized the sound of his footfalls, and for some reason this made him unspeakably happy.
"It's not as if I have an agenda for the day, Jean," he answered in mild amusement as he poured himself a cup of tea, wondering how the kettle was still hot, how she had known he was coming. They had not known one another for very long, but Lucien was beginning to suspect that Jean Beazley was a mind reader.
"Actually," Jean said, casting a soft, uncertain smile at him over her shoulder. "You have a patient."
30 November 1958
Somehow, quite without his realizing it, the days began to slip away from Lucien Blake. It began innocuously enough; one of his father's patients - a woman called Nell Clasby, whom Lucien fondly recalled from his childhood - was suffering from what he suspected might well have been congestive heart failure, and she was in dire need of immediate attention from a physician. Doctor King had no time for the woman, and she had no interest in going to hospital, and so she had rung Jean, and the inestimable Mrs. Beazley had arranged an appoint for dear Mrs. Clasby and the young Doctor Blake that very afternoon. And just like that, Lucien found himself taking over his father's practice.
It was never his intention, to stay in Ballarat, but there was so much to do, and each time he began to put plans in place for his departure, some new obstacle appeared in his path, as if by magic. At first it was Nell Clasby, whose condition alarmed him most severely - apparently, despite his father's declining health, Mrs. Clasby had refused to take her business to another physician until the old man died. And then it was the body of a young man, pulled up from the depths of Lake Wendouree, and Matthew Lawson, dour faced and grumpy as ever, had requested his assistance, just until a new police surgeon could be found. And then word seemed to get around that Doctor Blake's son was taking patients, and the next thing he knew, Jean was keeping his appointment book and serving him a hot breakfast every morning, and he was working in his father's surgery or at the police station every day, and enjoying a nightcap at the club more often than not. Despite all his plans, Lucien Blake was in Ballarat to stay.
One particular Sunday afternoon he settled himself into his father's office - his office, now, he supposed, though he still wasn't entirely sure how that had happened or how he felt about it - and decided to spend some time going through the patient files. If he was to play the part of the caring country doctor, it would help him to know his patient's histories, their families, their occupations. He decided he would start with Mrs. Clasby, reviewing her file, with which he now had a passing acquaintance, as well as that of any of her family members who might have also seen his father in the past. It would help him to know if Nell's ailment had afflicted any of her kin, and so, with whiskey glass in hand, he opened the first drawer on his father's long filing cabinet, and began rifling through the paperwork in search of the "C" section.
He was distracted almost at once by a file in the "B" section, sticking out at an odd angle and drawing his eye.
Beazley, Christopher J. (b. 1915, d.1942)
Lucien stared at the little label on the file for quite a while, unmoving, hardly breathing. Beazley, Christopher J. Could it be, he asked himself, that within this file was contained the details of Jean's husband, the man whose death still caused her breath to hitch, her eyes to fill with tears, so many years later? The man to whom Jean was bound, body and soul, with chains that even death could not break? He supposed it must have been, because after his file there followed three more, all in a neat little row:
Beazley, Christopher J., Jr. (b. 1936)
Beazley, Jack T. (b. 1938)
Beazley, Jean M. (1915)
A perfect little nuclear family, torn apart by war and grief. Jean's eldest son bore his father's name, then, Lucien thought numbly as he stared at those little files. Two boys, sandwiched between their parents; did Christopher favor his father? Lucien wondered. Had Christopher Beazley bequeathed more to his son than just his name? And Jack; was Jack anything like Jean, with her fierce grey eyes and her high, sharp cheekbones? He tried to conjure their images in his mind, these boys - young men now, he corrected himself as he stared at the dates beside their names, as he added it up and realized how young Jean had been, when she'd given birth - these boys who were Jean's flesh and blood. This family she had raised, almost entirely on her own. Jack had been no more than four, when his father died; how hard that must have been for her, he thought to himself, finding his regard for her only growing as the few details he'd managed to glean from names and dates typewritten on those labels helped him to build a better picture of the woman who shared his home.
Before he could stop himself he had taken up her file and made his way back to the desk with it. It wasn't really an invasion of privacy, he told himself, even as he opened the file and began to read. He had taken over her doctor's surgery, after all, and it was his duty to familiarize himself with all the patients. And if there was one patient who concerned him more than all the rest, well, that was no one's business but his own.
His father's notes were meticulous; he'd inscribed the date and location of her birth - at home, Lucien read with a smile - and detailed each subsequent visit of one Jean Randall to the surgery. A broken arm, at age six. A terrible fever, two years later. And then nothing, until 1934.
Young Miss Randall was in quite a state when she came to see me today, his father had written beside the date. And she had every cause to be. Based on her symptoms and the information she divulged to me, I've no doubt that she is pregnant.
Lucien paused here, quite shocked by the very idea, quite overcome with guilt when he realized just what he'd done. He had never expected to find something like this, something quite this personal; his own patient notes were sloppy at best, detailing symptoms and little else. His father, on the other hand, had approached writing up each appointment as if he were telling a story, and the story this one told was one Lucien knew he had no right to. And yet, though his conscience begged him stop, he read on, hungry to learn more about her. At nineteen years old, Jean had fallen pregnant out of wedlock. It seemed so incongruous with the woman he knew, prim and proper and so concerned with morality, and for a moment he lamented the fact that he would never know the wild girl she had been.
The gossip is she's been seeing that Beazley boy Christopher. I've no doubt he'll do the right thing by her, though at nineteen I fear they're much too young to be starting this journey. I fear they will have little choice, however, for as I recall the Randalls are a deeply devout family.
Lucien sighed and ran his hand over his hair. So that's the way of it then, he thought. Much as she might dislike Lucien, he still felt a great deal of sympathy for her, as he imagined her plight. Pregnant too young, rushed into marriage; how lucky Jean had been, he told himself, that Christopher was her soulmate after all. Had he not been, she would have been doomed to a life a misery, all for the sake of her parents' beliefs.
The next entry came four months later, and tore at Lucien's heartstrings.
A tragedy, Thomas Blake had written. A little girl, born too soon. Jean was inconsolable, and Christopher looked near tears himself.
Lucien took a long swig of his whiskey at that. Though Li had been delivered mercifully without complications, he recalled all too well the pain that struck him, the night his soulmate lost her child, how his heart had ached for her then, as it ached for Jean now. And then quite suddenly the thought struck him; Jean had lost a daughter. Lucien had lost his daughter as well, though he had been blessed to spend more time with her than Jean had been given with her own child. Still, though, the fact that Jean had lost her husband and a child, when Lucien had lost Mei Lin and Li, sat heavy in his chest. They were so alike, he realized numbly, he and Jean, had suffered so very much the same, and yet though he longed to comfort her, to help shoulder the burdens he knew she carried, Jean was too distant for him to reach. She had not blessed him with her touch again, not since that night she'd found him screaming in the darkness, and when she looked at him now he felt the weight of her judgment heavy on his back. Still, though, he forced himself to read on.
Delivered Jean of a healthy boy, thanks be to God. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, however, for I have discovered a dark thing I am loath to commit to paper. Young Mr. Beazley bears the marking of his beloved wife proudly, but she does not bear his. I believe Jean does not know, though I felt compelled to tell Christopher; he deserved that much. I only wish I could tell him how well I know the struggles he will face, to love a woman who bears the marks of another.
Lucien had to rise from his chair and refill his whiskey glass after that particular entry. Never in all his days had he heard of such a thing; he had always believed the marking to be reciprocal, the cord that bound a pair together. His father did not seem to harbor any such preconceptions; I only wish I could tell him how well I know the struggles he will face…
It was difficult for him to wrap his head around it, this idea that Jean was Christopher's beloved, and yet he was not hers. His whole concept of her was shifting, changing by the second, as he realized that she had lived this whole life he'd known nothing about, this life that had been fraught with hardship and troubles. The story had gotten under his skin, and he barreled on, desperate to know if Jean had ever learned of her terrible fate.
Another healthy boy, Thomas wrote two years later. They're calling this one Jack. A fine strong name. I tried to speak to Christopher but he avoided me entirely; I fear he has not told his wife the truth, and I fear the consequences.
There came a long gap, then, years when Jean did not see his father, and whether that was because she was well or because some calamity, financial or otherwise, kept her from the surgery, Lucien could not say. The next entry was December of 1943. Lucien recalled that year quite well; he'd been in Changi, suffering under the lash of the Japanese. What had Jean endured, while he'd been trapped in that hell?
A most unusual day. I have always found Jean to be practical, level headed and kind, and she manages quite well, bringing up those boys on her own, though I worry she's grown much too thin. There is quite a bit of a gossip, as ever; I have heard whispers that she may soon lose the farm. For her sake I hope not, but I can't imagine how one woman could keep it up alone.
Though at first it struck him as strange, the longer he thought about it, the more he realized that it made a certain amount of sense, Jean being a farmgirl. It explained the broken arm in her youth - an accident attributed to a wayward cow - and her stern, unyielding nature, and her affinity for all the growing things in the sunroom. He thought about her striding through the fields with the sun on her face and dirt on her hands, and he smiled, just a little. She was made for sunlight, was Jean. The next words he read, however, stopped him in his tracks.
It is as I feared. Jean bears the marks of another man. I don't know how long this has been going on, if she knew when she married Christopher that he was not the one for her, and I will not ask, though for the purposes of my research into the marking it might be useful to know how long these marks have been manifesting, if they did not begin until Christopher's death. That question will remain unanswered, unless Jean chooses to divulge it unprompted, though I can't imagine she will. She is troubled by the marks of her beloved, and came to me for advice. I have never, in all my days, seen such horror upon human flesh. From the marks on Jean's back I can only assume her beloved has been whipped, and most severely. She seemed to accept that; I imagine there have been other marks, to make her believe he is a soldier. And she is deeply frightened, on his behalf, and isn't that a marvelous thing; she has never met this man, has borne another man's children and taken his name and loved him with all she has and mourned him every day since she learned of his passing, and yet still she fears for her soulmate's life, this stranger. Empathy, that's the key, and young Mrs. Beazley has it in spades. I pray she will find peace, and that God will keep her soldier alive, if only for her sake. And I pray likewise that God will keep watch over my son, who has been captured; I cannot sleep, for fearing that Lucien has suffered the same terrible fate as Jean's beloved.
The paper fluttered out of Lucien's grip to land silently upon the table top. His hands were shaking so badly he was forced to abandon his glass as well, for fear it might shatter. His mind was racing, his thoughts a chaotic jumble, Jean's face and Derek's both swimming before his eyes as memories and horror rushed through his veins like some unholy torrent. Jean had a soulmate out there, somewhere; if Lucien read on, would he learn that this man had died as well, that Jean had been twice widowed, and that was why she remained alone? And if not, if her soulmate still lived, who was he, where was he, this man who belonged by her side? Had Lucien met him in Changi, or was he one of the innumerable others taken in other places on the other side of the globe? An irrational spike of anger flashed through him; Jean deserved better than that, than a man who had abandoned her, left her to starve and struggle on her own for years. She was beautiful and kind and good, and she deserved the very world.
With trembling hands he rifled through the rest of the file; Jean was rather healthy and saw Thomas Blake but rarely; after she had come to work for him, however, he had taken to writing down each incident of the marking he had seen upon her flesh.
Her soldier has been struck in the face…
Broken ribs, I should think…
Bullet in the shoulder, though she tells me this is not the first…
Another bruise to the face; quite a brawler, this man of hers….
She tells me she feels the pain each time, and how strange that is. Empathy, I say, that's the key...
He read all the way to the end of the file, and as he did, his heart began to pound, dark spots swimming before his eyes as he fought for each breath against the panic that roared round and round his mind. It would seem, based on Thomas's notes, that Jean's soulmate had never found his way to her, that he had left her cold and lonely, with only bruises and scars to comfort her through the trials of her life. A darker suspicion had taken root in his mind, and he flipped through the pages again, taking better stock of the dates before him.
She lost a baby in 1934, Lucien thought. When I was in barracks. When my beloved lost her child. Then Christopher Junior, in 1936, when I was in Singapore. When I met Mei Lin, because my beloved was pregnant a second time. Jack, in 1938, when Li was born, when my soulmate was pregnant yet again. The marks of the whip, in 1943, when the Japanese beat me almost to the point of death.
Though he could not recall the exact date and time of each fist that had collided with his cheek, each blow that broke his ribs, each knife or bullet that pierced his flesh, he knew enough.
Jean was his soulmate.
He began to weep, his whole body wracked with sobs so great he slid from the chair and landed in the floor, burying his face in his hands. Jean was his, the woman who had written to him with her own blood for ink, the woman whose very existence had saved him, when he most needed it. How many times had he comforted himself with thoughts of her, conjured an image of a beautiful girl with dark hair and soft eyes and a tender touch? Jean was more than he could ever have dreamed, beautiful and strong and so damnably clever. For months now he had been dancing around her, drawn to her by some force he could not understand, though love of his soulmate had held him back, had forced himself to be circumspect with her, not to dwell too long on the way his heart seemed to cry out for her. And she had come to him in the flesh in his darkest moment, in agony as his nightmares wrecked him, hold him close and whispered words of comfort to him.
He did not deserve her.
For now he understood just what he had done. All those years before he had rushed into Mei Lin's arms, certain that his soulmate had scorned him, but the bitter truth struck him square in the chest, left him nearly howling with grief. Jean had not spurned him; she had been forced into a corner, had believed Christopher to be her soulmate, and when society demanded she join her life to his she had done so, never knowing the grief she caused Lucien. Lucien had known, though, that he was willingly choosing to set his beloved aside, and he had rained heartbreak and devastation down upon them both. For if he had not wed Mei Lin, how might the course of his life changed? If he had remained true to his beloved - to Jean - would he have found his way back to her years ago, when they were both of them less broken, and happily built a life with her? Instead he had been unfaithful, time and time again, and Jean had carried on, sad and scared and lonesome, loving him, though she did not know him.
She knows you now, though, a bitter voice whispered in the back of his mind. She knows you for the pitiful creature you are, and she detests you.
Oh, Jean was polite enough, but he saw it just the same, in the wide eyes that watched him, wary as a deer keeping guard against a predator. She was forever begging him to moderate his tone, his drinking, to make less of a bloody mess; oh, he thought, if only she knew. For to his mind, Lucien had made a mess of them both, had ruined their every chance at happiness.
She cannot know, he told himself as he sat immobile upon the floor. I cannot do this to her.
It would break her heart, he knew, to learn that the man she had loved for so long was an unfaithful bastard of a drunk. Surely, he told himself, it would be better for Jean to keep her fantasy of her beloved, a soldier, strong and brave and fighting for some cause greater than himself, than to learn the truth. He could not bear the thought of seeing the disappointment upon her face, should she ever discover that it was Lucien's whose marks had scored her flesh.
She cannot know.
1 January 1959
Jean did not ordinarily take much account of the New Year. One year was much the same as any other, and regardless of the significance of the event, Jean would still be expected to tend to her duties regardless of whether it was 1958 or 1959. Not that Lucien was a particularly exacting employer, per say; he rarely made demands of her, rarely outright asked her to do anything at all, but keeping up with him, making sure he didn't make too much of a mess - in his home or in his life - making sure he was sleeping and eating properly and not overindulging in drink all left Jean feeling rather as if she'd been run ragged. When Jean had requested a week off to spend Christmas with young Christopher he had seemed almost relieved to be rid of her, but when she'd returned she'd found the house in such a state that she was certain she'd never get it put to rights. Almost a week later and she still had no idea what he'd done with his appointment book, and had only the night before pulled an empty whiskey bottle from the back of the fireplace in the sitting room, with absolutely no notion of how it had got there.
Jean was, quite simply, at the end of her rope, and as she lay awake in her bed, the little clock beside her proudly proclaiming that the old year had gone and the new one had come, she found herself on the verge of tears. So much had happened, over the last year; Christopher had gotten married, to a girl Jean found she could not care for, try though she might. Old Doctor Blake had suffered his stroke and Jean had poured every ounce of energy she possessed into caring for him, only to lose him, just the same. And Lucien, Lucien had come crashing in amidst the careful organization of her life and set it all ablaze.
For Lucien represented to Jean the single greatest challenge she had faced since Jack had been taken off to Melbourne. By turns bombastic and melancholy, angry and gentle, she could never predict from one moment to the next what sort of mood he might be in. Oh, he was always polite to her, but there were days when it seemed as if just being in the same house was more than he could bear, as if he could not stand the very sight of her. She had been sharp with him, she knew, had perhaps scolded him one time too many, but she was not about to apologize for it, when he was the one who never seemed to be where he was supposed to be, who would abscond to the club without warning and leave Jean sitting alone at the table, watching his food grow cold and wondering if in the morning Matthew would come to tell her that the good doctor had been found in a ditch somewhere. Lucien was the one who had to be browbeaten into keeping his appointments and was still late more often than not; he was the one who slunk from the room with the air of a kicked puppy about him whenever Jean showed her face. She had taken to reading in her bedroom in the evenings, rather than in the sitting room as she had done when Thomas was in residence; the weight of Lucien's gaze - and of his sorrow - had grown too much for her to bear.
And through it all, though she dearly longed to turn tail and run, to find employment elsewhere and be shot of that fool of a drunk, she could not stop her eyes from wandering over him, each time he came home, checking to be sure that he was all right, and lingering, perhaps longer than she should have, upon the broad expanse of his chest. Not since Christopher's death had Jean ever felt quite so conflicted; Lucien infuriated her, terrified her, confused her, and yet she felt herself drawn to him, as a moth to a flame. He was fascinating, wild and unpredictable and completely unfettered by other people's expectations, as Jean had so longed to be in her youth. And yes, he was handsome, heart-stoppingly handsome, like something from one of the old books full of ancient paintings and statuary that languished on Thomas Blake's bookshelves. Though Jean had felt herself to be long past the point of foolish infatuation she could not deny the way her heart would pound, sometimes, when he would look at her with fire in his eyes, when some small, innocuous act would draw her attention to his strong hands, and she would shiver, just for an instant, thinking how it might feel to have those hands ghosting over her skin. Eighteen years, since Christopher had been shipped off to war, eighteen years since she'd last felt the touch of a man upon her, since she'd last allowed her heart to love with all the fire and fury she possessed. Eighteen years of waiting, and just as she had made peace with it, built a life she could be proud of and buried all her disappointed longings, Lucien Blake had stumbled across her path and set her to yearning once again.
She shouldn't want him, she knew. He was dangerous, he was selfish, and above all, he was not her soulmate. Jean had already learned, to her very great cost, the consequences of giving herself to a man who was not her beloved. That was one mistake she was determined not to make again, but every moment she spent in Lucien's company, fretting over him and sparring with him and watching him as he prowled through the house like some exotic jungle cat she felt her longing for him only growing stronger.
Where are you? She wanted to shout. For so long now Jean had been waiting for her soldier to find his way to her, to finally look into his eyes and know the peace of having her beloved by her side at last, to feel the strength of his arms wrapping around her, holding her tight, promising her love and joy for all the rest of her days. So many endless years of waiting, so many terrible marks, so many sleepless nights, and yet still, he remained beyond her grasp. It had been some time, since she'd last caught sight of one of his marks; the occasional bruise appeared on her, now and then, dark at hip or wrist, though Jean couldn't say with any certainty whether her beloved had put them there, or she had done it herself. Wherever he was, it would seem that his life had taken a calmer turn, and while Jean was grateful to know that he was safe she resented, just a little, the absence of his mark upon her skin.
The thought was bitter and black and upon her in a moment. When one beloved died, the marking disappeared, forever. Could it be, Jean asked herself as she lay burrowed beneath her blankets in the still of the night, that her beloved was already dead and gone? Could it be that she had not seen his mark for so very long because he had already left her? While it was entirely possible the grief that threatened to overwhelm her at the very thought nearly had her crying out in pain; Christopher had been dead for months before she ever learned of his fate, and she could not bear to endure such agony again, to know that she had, however unwittingly, abandoned another man she loved.
There's only one way, she told herself, rolling out of bed and reaching into the top drawer of the little table beside her at once. Christopher's knife rested there, as it had done since the day he left her, a little piece of her husband she carried with her, a reminder of the sacrifices, the loss, the pain he had endured, for love of her. Christopher had cut himself with that knife, and in two moments of sorrow Jean had done the same, had answered the cries of her beloved with her own blood and tears. Now, for the first time, she was contemplating reaching out to her soldier when he had been silent, desperate for some proof that he was still with her, that he had not yet passed beyond her reach.
It was wrong, and she knew it. The church had rather a lot to say, about manipulation of the marking; to push for more, to mark oneself deliberately, to test one's connection to another was a direct affront to God, a direct challenge to his plan. Jean knew she was supposed to wait, to pray and be patient and have hope, but patience had never been her strong suit, and she needed answers. She needed to know, for certain, where her soulmate was, if he was still living. For if he wasn't, there was a handsome man downstairs Jean could not stop thinking about, and the guilt was eating her alive.
It always hurt like hell, slicing that little knife through the flesh of her thigh. Her soulmate had chosen that spot, each time he had spoken to her before, for reasons she had never questioned, and so Jean chose it now, wincing and trying not to swear. It didn't matter that she tried to keep her touch light, to cut no deeper than was needed; it hurt. Perhaps that was right, that she should suffer such pain in order to speak to him; perhaps such closeness did not come without cost.
She got no further than that one word before guilt and grief overtook her. This was wrong, and she knew it; she could not ask him where he was, could not expect him to give her an address, a place where she could go and find him at once, if she chose. That was not the way the marking worked.
All of this is wrong, Jean thought morosely as her tears returned with a sudden ferocity. It isn't supposed to be like this. No other story she had ever heard about the marking had been anything like this one, as unfathomable, as fraught with trouble. Everyone she knew had found their soulmate quite easily, quite by accident, when they were young and happy; she'd heard her friends laughing as they recounted the sweet moment when a simple cut had told them the truth, had revealed to them their beloveds and set their feet upon the proper path. The marking was a blessing, that's what everyone always said, a piece of hope to cling to in the chaos of the world. Not so for Jean; her marking had only ever brought her grief. That grief washed over her as she stared down at the bloody word upon her thigh, as she realized just how desperate, how foolish she had become. They had been separated for so long, Jean and her soldier, that she almost could not imagine a world in which they were together. Perhaps, she told herself, this was God's plan all along, that Jean should suffer this isolation as penance for her sins.
And then, through the veil of her tears, a single word rose up beneath the one carved by her own hand.
Here, it said.
Jean began to sob so strongly she had to cover her mouth to stifle the sound to keep from waking Mattie.
He shouldn't have done it, he knew. Shouldn't have answered her, shouldn't have given her cause to hope. For months now he had been so careful, had done everything he could to keep from leaving a mark upon her, from drawing her curiosity, but it would seem that even the absence of him had been enough to pique her interest. The thought of her sitting upstairs in her bedroom in the small hours of the night, when by rights she should have been sleeping peacefully, so consumed with thoughts of him that she should carve that word into her skin in search of her mysterious beloved was enough to bring him to his knees; she was so good, was Jean, so kind, so damned compassionate, and he could not bear the thought of all the times he had hurt her.
For her had hurt her, he knew, had allowed his pride to keep him far from Ballarat - how much sooner would he have met her, he asked himself, if only he had forgiven his father? - had allowed his wounded heart to pin all his hopes on Mei Lin, though he knew another woman waited for him, had put himself through so much physical pain and each time forced her to face the horror of the man to whom she was bound. Jean deserved better, but he had no more to give her than himself, his own tattered heart, and he feared it would not be enough.
And now, this. This whispered plea, though unfinished, had torn at his heartstrings, and though his hands had been shaking from the grief and the whiskey he could not stop himself from answering her. He could not lie to her, could not hide from her, could not deny her this one bit of hope, and so he gave it to her, the only thing he could. He was here, not just in this house, waiting for - and dreading - the day when she might discover their connection and damn him for a betrayer, but here, on the other side of her skin, listening and waiting and wanting her, always.
16 February 1959
"I am sorry," Lucien murmured softly, his fingertips coming to rest against the poor girl's stomach. It was the smallest curvature, barely noticeable, but now that he had spotted it he was certain that he knew what it meant. It never got any easier, walking into that room, coming face to face with death, but somehow this was so much worse; the victim was just a girl, younger than Li - younger than Li would be, if she still lives, Lucien thought darkly - and though he would have to complete the autopsy to be sure, he was fairly confident she'd been pregnant at the time of her death. Such a senseless waste, he thought to himself as he began preparing for what was to come; a beautiful young girl, with her whole life ahead of her, and that little whisper of a promise, just beginning to show, both taken from the world too soon.
While he worked Lucien always tried to divorce himself from his emotions, but this time he found he could not. He performed each task with his usual skill and attention to detail, but the thought of that child, the child that could have been, if only this girl hadn't been murdered, sent his mind careening off onto Jean. Jean, who had lost her daughter, brought into the world far too soon. The memories of the night he'd lain awake in barracks, his knees drawn up to his chest as the echo of her pain washed over him again and again, had haunted him for the last few months, creeping up out of the vault of his mind now that he knew it was Jean who had suffered that loss. That Jean, nineteen and scared, was the one whose pain had woken him from sleep. And he wanted, so badly, to tell her, to tell her how he had wept for her, how he had longed, more than anything, to comfort her, how he knew what it was, to mourn for a daughter, a dream never realized.
But no matter how he longed to speak to her, to unburden his heart to her, to reach for her as he had done in his darkest moments in the past, he knew that he could not. They had reached a sort of understanding, he and Jean; they were courteous to one another, if not particularly warm, had found a way to coexist without completely alienating themselves, but the state of affairs between them was not in any way conducive to such an explosive confession. It was such a personal thing, this marking, the intimate bond between two souls, and he knew that Jean would be horrified, to learn that he was the one who had been granted access to the deepest secrets of her heart. He could not seem to speak to her without disappointing her in some way, and likewise her constant judgement grated upon his nerves; why was it, he asked himself, that the woman could not leave him in peace, that she seemed to take such pleasure in constantly reminding him of all the ways he had fallen short of his father's legacy? No, theirs was not a relationship so much as it was a very tense acquaintance, and he would keep his secret.
Keep his secret and lament, for despite all the hardness in her eyes Jean was lovely, and she had been kind to him in his low moments, and she remained, for now, utterly beyond his grasp.
The sound of someone rooting around in the study drew his attention, and Lucien made his way there at once, stopping short at the sight of Jean, bent double behind his desk, her dress stretched tight across a bum he'd spent entirely too much time gazing at over the last few months. Still, though she was lovely, in her floral dress and her perfect curls, once he realized what she was doing, shame and anger welled up within him; though she had not yet spoken a word, he already felt himself on the defensive, ready for whatever barb she might choose to throw at him.
"Can I help you there?" he asked her pointedly.
Jean straightened up at once, looking somewhat abashed as she stumbled her way through an apology, explaining that she had only been cleaning up his desk. Not for the first time, Lucien wondered if it might be better for both of them if she were not there, constantly tidying up after him; he made a mess of everything he touched, he knew, and a part of him hated having her there to bear witness to his own private disasters.
"You really don't have to hide all these you know," she told him, not unkindly. There was worry, hidden in the depths of her glorious eyes; Jean was fretting about him, and though in a way he was moved by her concern, the guilt he felt at continuing to cause her such distress far outweighed it. He could come to trust this woman, love her, even - in truth, he feared that last had already come to pass - but he was not yet prepared to share all of his burdens with her, to unmask himself completely. He had been too long a soldier, too long a spy, to let his guard down, to allow anyone to see just how weak he could be.
"There aren't many consolations in life, Jean," he told her. "Good whiskey happens to be one of the few." In his own uncomfortable way he was trying to tell her not to worry, that while perhaps he might drink more than was wise it was necessary, sometimes, just to get him through the day.
Jean sighed. "There's rather a lot of consolation here," she told him, dropping the last of the bottles into her bucket with a clatter. The judgement was back, her disapproval beginning to outweigh her concern, and Lucien groaned inwardly. He was beginning to grow tired of this dance, this constant push and pull, swaying towards understanding and then retreating into polite bickering. The cruelty of it galled him, that after decades of waiting, of pining and yearning, of grief and fear and doubt, he should finally find himself face to face with his soulmate, only to discover she was the one woman who would never accept him willingly. To have her so close, and yet distant as the sun, was breaking his heart into pieces.
It's no more than you deserve, he told himself glumly, after everything you've put her through.
Jean had been roused from her bed by a sudden desire to go downstairs and fetch a glass of water. She did not often roam the house after dark, choosing instead to leave Lucien to his ghosts and his whiskey downstairs, and spare him the sight of her wrapped in her fluffy pink robe, hair caught up in a net and makeup removed. Jean tried to tell herself that it was propriety that kept her confined to the upstairs at night - she was, after all, a widow living in the home of a notorious bachelor - but somewhere deep in her heart where she feared to tread she knew that it was vanity that kept her from letting Lucien see her the way she looked at the end of the day, when all the artifice of her appearance had been stripped away and all that remained was Jean, forty-four years old, with two grown sons and more wrinkles than she'd care to count. It was another sin to add to the list, next time she sat for confession; vanity, and pride, and envy, all sins she had found herself confessing to with alarming frequency, since Lucien Blake arrived. If Father Morton had noticed the connection, between her sins and the change of her employer, he had not commented upon it, but Jean could not deny it.
It had been weeks since she'd spoken to her soulmate through blood and tears, and in that time, things with Lucien had improved little. Oh, he seemed more comfortable in her presence, seemed to take her admonitions more in stride, but Jean felt as if she were ripping apart at the seams. He would not listen, would not take his reputation into account, would not stop to think before tearing off on some hair-brained scheme; he rattled around the house, chaos fluttering in his wake, but each time he smiled, her heart began to pound. It was untenable, really; Jean wasn't sure how much longer she could carry on like this, before her curiosity - and that unfathomable desire - pushed she and Lucien too close together. They had brushed against an intimacy that frightened her, that night he'd come home to find her drowning her sorrows after Thomas's death, and again, the night she'd woken to hear him screaming. He was like a little lost boy, in need of a hand to hold, but Jean knew that hand could not be hers. Whether he had a soulmate out there or not, some poor woman waiting for him to come home, Jean could not say, but she did. There was a man waiting for her, a man who had suffered such grievous pain and yet still answered her when she called, and he deserved more from her than this infatuation with Lucien Blake.
Jean moved as silently as she could through the house, stopping for a moment as she passed Lucien's bedroom door and noted that it stood open. Though she knew it was wrong, knew she should have passed him by without a second thought, she could not stop herself from peeking inside. Jean could not count the hours she had spent in that room, tending to Thomas Blake, making it comfortable for Lucien after his father's passing, flitting through with laundry or a feather duster in hand, but to see him there, sitting in that room that belonged to him, the room in which he slept, was an altogether more personal tableau, and one Jean knew she had no right to witness.
Still, though, she stopped, and looked, and what she found startled her immensely.
Lucien was sitting beside the trunk that stood at the end of his bed, carefully turning the crinkled, weather-beaten pages of a book. Jean could not quite make out the details of those pages that had so captured his attention, but she watched in fascination as his fingers trailed across the paper, the gentle way in which he handled it, as if the book were holy. There were few things in life that Lucien Blake treated with any kind of respect, and she couldn't stop herself from wondering what those pages contained, to merit such reverent devotion. Couldn't stop herself from wondering, just for a moment, how it might feel to have those fingers ghost across her skin with that same tender care. She shook her head, watching in a rapt silence as he pulled out a single page, carefully smoothing the edges as he stared down at it. Whatever this was, Jean knew it was not meant for her eyes, and so she turned away, though her heart cried out with questions, demanding to know more.
He had been held captive, she knew, just as her soldier had been. He had seen horror, no doubt lost friends, his steps dogged by grief. That he shared in common with the other man who consumed Jean's heart, and though she wanted, so very badly, to speak to him about it, to sit with him in the still of an evening and let him unburden himself to her so that she might better understand both Lucien and her beloved, she dared not ask. Lucien didn't trust her, she knew, and she would not press him for more than he was willing to give.
He was such a lovely boy, Nell Clasby had told her just that afternoon, and as Jean fetched her water and once more mounted the stairs she found herself wondering about the boy Lucien had been, and the horror he had suffered, to turn a lovely boy into the broken man she knew.
20 April 1959
The arrangements were all in place. Though Jean had tried her best over the previous six months to look after Lucien, to be a good housekeeper and keep him from making too much of a mess, the truth was she had reached her breaking point. The man was too wild, too unpredictable, too selfish, too bent on his own self-destruction, and Jean could no longer bear to stay and witness his inevitable implosion. There had been so many little moments, over the last few months, when Jean was certain that they were making progress, certain that perhaps they might be drawing closer to understanding, and yet each time the reality of the doctor's nature had reared its head, and whatever steps they had taken towards one another were erased in a moment. There was nothing else for it; it was plain that Lucien Blake did not want a housekeeper, and Jean was never one to stay where she wasn't wanted.
It was Eadie who told her of the job opening at the Royal Cross; a fine new hotel, offering good pay and steady work and a bit more respectability for a widow whose reputation had taken a beating while she lived in the house of the most notorious bachelor in town.
If you find him so distressing, Jeannie, there's no reason you should stay. I'm sure Thomas would have understood; he wasn't on the best of terms with Lucien himself. You've done the best you can to look after him; maybe now you ought to look after yourself.
And so Jean had gone and spoken to the manager at the Royal Cross, and scheduled herself an interview for that very week. When she told Lucien, he had seemed entirely disinterested in her and her choices; his brow had furrowed, for a moment, as if he couldn't quite understand what she was telling him, but then he had nodded solemnly and told her of course, Jean, whatever you think is best. And that had been that.
If there was a small piece of her heart that shattered, just a bit, to realize that Lucien Blake didn't want to stop her leaving, she did her best to ignore it. He had told her from the beginning that it had been too long since he'd employed someone to look after him, that he was more than capable of feeding himself and doing the washing up and he really didn't think there was any need for her to fuss over him. He had made it plain that he did not need her, no matter how much she might wish that he did. It wasn't her place to force him to accept her, and it wasn't her nature to beg him for his kindness, his affection.
She thought more and more of her soldier as the days passed and Lucien continued his wild ways. Though Jean had never met her beloved she had over time drawn a sort of picture of him in her mind. She thought that he was kind, and gentle, despite all the pain that she had seen etched into his skin; after all, he had shed the vestiges of his pride and confessed his loneliness to her, and had reached out to reassure her the moment he was safe. He had remained a soldier, even after his release; Jean could think of no other possible explanation for all the many blows he'd taken, to his face, to his ribs, the second bullet that had pierced him. That spoke to her of a man dedicated to his duty, a man strong and brave. A man, in short, who seemed to her to be the very opposite of Lucien Blake. Her soldier had finally settled down; Lucien was forever charging around like a bull in a china shop. Her soldier had written to her upon his release; Lucien could not even be bothered to assure his own father he was well. Her soldier did his duty, no matter how it hurt; Lucien often had to be dragged back to the surgery by his ear. When she had reached out to her soldier he had reassured her that he was here, for her, always, every time she called; Lucien was an island unto himself, utterly unconcerned it would seem by the troubles of those around him. To her mind they could not have been more different, regardless of the suffering they shared in common. Men responded to such horror in different ways, she knew. And though Lucien was handsome, though her heart called out to him, yearned to comfort him, it was her soldier she needed. They had been too long separated, and with each passing day the weight of his absence grew harder to bear. Lucien confused and distracted her, and she desperately longed for something solid, something real, something constant to cling to. She longed for two strong arms to hold her, for gentle hands to smooth over her hair and a warm voice to whisper that everything would be all right.
So yes, for the sake of her own battered heart and the sake of the love she bore her soldier she would leave Lucien Blake, would distance herself from the torture of his presence and focus her efforts instead on her beloved, this man who belonged with her. Anzac Day was coming, she knew, and the soldiers stationed at the nearby Army base would parade through the streets, their ranks swelled by veterans, Jean and the other war widows with them. Maybe, just maybe she told herself, her soldier would be one of those fine men. It was a thin hope, but it was all she had to cling to at present.
Jean was leaving him, and Lucien had no idea how to go about stopping it, or even if he should. After all, he was the one who resisted her every attempt to take care of him, disgruntled and out of sorts as he was with the knowledge that she was his beloved, and yet felt no affection for him. She was his soulmate, the other half of his heart, and watching her at work, tidying up his mess, cooking his meals, washing his clothes, made him feel so terribly low, as if he were taking advantage of her kindness. Nevermind that she was paid a good wage for her troubles, it still rankled, watching his beloved toiling so hard while he himself seemed to flounder around, doing very little of anything at all.
And if she wanted to go, if she had grown so tired of his presence, so frustrated with the nature of his character, so exhausted by the endless demands that looking after him had pressed upon her, surely it was not his place to force her to stay. He wanted her with him, always, wanted to wrap her in his arms and never let her go, wanted to run his fingers through her hair and muss those perfect curls and watch her smiling at him with warm fondness in her fierce grey eyes. More than anything, though, he wanted Jean to want those things, too, to adore him as he adored her, to willingly join herself to him, not to go along with him out of some sense of duty, as she had done when she married Christopher. He wanted to drop to his knees and confess the truth, and likewise he wanted to keep his silence for all the rest of his days, if only to spare himself the devastation of hearing her say, once and for all, that she would not have him. He only wished that she would do whatever made her happy for his heart was shattered, regardless of whether she stayed or went.
He did his best to keep himself occupied, to not dwell too long on the cruelty of his fate; a man could go mad from wishing, he knew, and so he endeavored not to spend too long brooding on the futility of his heart. There was a murder to investigate and the mystery of the two deserters to solve, and so Lucien threw himself into his work, though his heart sank when Matthew ordered him to go home. Home was the last place he wanted to be just now; it was impossible to avoid Jean in that house, and every moment he spent in her presence only pushed him that much closer to calamity. She would be furious, he knew, should she ever discover that he had kept this secret from her, and the thought of that fury - and her distaste for him - left him awkward and boorish around her. So Lucien lingered, his eyes wandering to the corridor where Bill had requested Matthew's presence.
Through the open doorway, however, he caught sight of a face that stopped him in a tracks, a face that made his heart drop through his stomach, his mouth falling open in wonder. Almost before he realized it he was moving into the corridor where Lawson stood talking to two uniformed Army officers.
"The station's resources are at your disposal," Matthew was saying. Lucien bit back a grin, deciding to have a bit of fun at Matthew's expense.
"Not quite," he said, trying very hard not to laugh at the look of chagrin that crossed Lawson's face at those words. "Not me." The taller of the two officers - the one with more stripes upon his shoulders, turned to survey Lucien cooly.
"Well," Lucien continued, "you just said we're all at his disposal. I'm certainly not."
"Oh, for Christ's sake, Blake," Matthew said in a huff, shifting uneasily on his feet. No doubt Lawson had been hoping to keep relations between the police and the army smooth and genial, and to his mind Lucien had just lobbed a hand grenade into their midst. The young Army sergeant had a face stoney and unreadable, but the Major beside him scowled fiercely.
"You employ this man, Superintendent?" the Major asked, and Matthew's face turned redder by the second; he looked for all the world as if he wished he could disavow Lucien in that moment, and perhaps send him down to spend a night in the cells as punishment for his once again making a bloody mess. But there was a surprise in store for Matthew Lawson.
"Well then, my opinion of your station has just taken a dramatic improvement," Major Derek Alderton continued with an absolutely straight face.
Lucien was grinning in full force now, and Matthew looked positively mutinous.
It had been seven long years since Lucien had last seen his old friend, but the time had been kind to him. Derek was still straight-backed and formidable, and it would seem he had lost none of his good humor. Oh, he'd always been a serious bloke, but he'd always known when Lucien needed him to play along, and had not ever been above having a bit of fun, so long as Lucien was the one who started it. They knew one another so well, even after all this time apart, and that Derek had taken one look at him and immediately known what he was up to - and played his role to perfection - warmed Lucien's heart. They were brothers, he and Derek, bound together by blood and sacrifice and grief. They had been to hell together and lingered there for years, had saved one another's lives, had cursed one another and bled for one another, and such bonds could not be broken by the slow marching of time.
"I don't see you for years and suddenly you appear out of nowhere," Derek said to him, smiling just a little as he reached for Lucien's hand. For his part Lucien was grinning fit to burst; the last six months had been a trying time, and he had felt himself to be at odds with everyone around him. To come face to face with a friend, a man who understood him implicitly, an ally in his time of strife, buoyed his spirits immensely.
They made plans to meet later in the afternoon before a distinctly peeved-looking Matthew ushered Derek away, and Lucien left the station with a spring in his step. It would be good, he thought to catch up with his old friend, to learn how the years had treated Derek and to forget, for however brief a time, just how dismal his own circumstances had become.
A/N: as I mentioned earlier, I finagled my own timeline for this fic. Yes, in 1.2 Lucien says Li would be 23, but her birthday is one of the dates I altered for this story.
"Did they ever find them?"
It was strange, really, how easy it was to stand around playing pool and drinking with Derek as if no time had passed at all, scolding him over the testing of nuclear bombs in the desert and laughing as Derek trotted out the old line about working in administration. Funny, the way spies talked about themselves, the many layers of mystery they were forced to shroud themselves in. Though Derek had pressed him on the subject the truth was that Lucien did not miss that work, not in the slightest. There was something so undeniably right about working here in Ballarat, tending to his neighbors in the surgery and helping Lawson on his cases; as miserable as Lucien's private life might have been, professionally he had finally found some sense of fulfillment. But then Derek had gone and blown all his good cheer to hell, asking after Lucien's family, as Lucien knew he would. It was a fair question, but not one he wanted to answer.
"No," he answered softly. They paused in their game as the weight of Derek's question and Lucien's response bore down upon them.
"Bad business," Derek said, somewhat sympathetically.
Lucien had had enough self-pity to last a lifetime, and he wasn't keen to indulge in it now. "Well, they weren't the only ones to go missing when Singapore fell. I made inquiries. Every now and then someone thinks they've seen them. Believe it or not, Derek, my little girl would be twenty-one now."
It was almost impossible to believe, that Li should have grown so much, from the sweet, precocious little girl she had been into a young woman. Lucien didn't even know what she would look like, now, what sort of a person she had become, if she still lived. His child, his flesh and blood, the best and brightest piece of him, would be a stranger to him now.
Derek hung his head for a moment; after all, he had known Mei Lin, had watched Li playing in the garden while he and Lucien sat together beneath the shade of a longan tree, sipping drinks in the fading summer heat. It seemed like something from a dream, now, something that had happened to someone else.
"And did you ever find her?" Derek asked after a brief, sorrowful pause.
For an instant Lucien longed to tell him the truth. He had spoken to Derek of his soulmate once, had confessed that there was a girl out there somewhere who bore his marks, a girl bound to him by fate, and no doubt Derek thought that finding her would be good for him. The reality of finding her, however, had brought Lucien no joy. Yes, he had at long last met his mysterious beloved, but she would have no part of him, was planning to leave him at the first opportunity, and his heart was shattered at the loss of her. No matter how dear Derek was to him, no matter how much they endured together, however, there were some things Lucien simply couldn't stomach sharing with another soul, and so he lied.
"No," he said again. "No."
It was late, when Lucien made his way home. He trudged through the kitchen, pausing as he took in the sight of his dinner sitting on the table, covered in foil. Such a little thing, but it soothed his weary heart; the day had been a long and trying one, but he was home, and Jean had been thinking of him, had left behind this token for him, not wanting him to go hungry. She did try, he knew, to look after him, to make sure that he was all right. Somehow he could not reconcile it, her distaste for his behavior and her devotion to his well-being. The ever-shifting ground beneath their feet troubled him no end; he hated to see her working so hard on his behalf, and yet the evidence of her concern warmed his heart. He had no idea what to do, how to mend the rift between them, how to reach her, to explain to her the worries that plagued him, not without confessing his connection to her, and to make such a confession would, he knew, destroy any hopes he had about making things right between them.
Dimly the sound of the wireless permeated the fog that swirled through his brain; it was not Mattie in the sitting room, as he had first suspected. No, the music was wafting gently down the stairs, and called to him as a siren. He was powerless to resist, and his feet led him up the stairs at once, following that soft melody.
When he reached the landing the source of the sound revealed itself; Jean's bedroom door was cracked open. Though he knew it was perhaps a bit presumptuous, to assert himself into her private domain so late in the evening, he simply could not stop himself. The sight of her curled upon her bed, her legs tucked beneath a blanket and a book cradled in her hands while the wireless played softly beside her, was one of the loveliest things he had seen in quite some time. She looked...warm, and gentle, and soft, and beautiful, alluring and elegant as ever, and for a moment, just the briefest instant, he longed, with every fiber of his being to go to her, to slide onto that bed beside her and wrap her in his arms. The distance between them manifested as a physical ache in his chest, tore at the tattered remnants of his heart, left him cracked and bleeding in its wake. His nerves were raw, his emotions frayed, and then she noticed him, lingering there in her doorway, sitting up straight at once, and he realized he had to speak to her, though he feared what he might divulge in his current state of need.
"Yes?" she asked, as if he had come to demand some service, as if he had not been drawn to that spot by the sheer radiance of her.
"I couldn't help but hear the wireless," he said, stammering just a little. It was true, the wireless had caught his attention first, but now he was casting about for any excuse to linger in her presence, just a moment longer.
She reached to turn it down at once, looking a bit sheepish, as if she feared she had been playing it too loudly, and for an instant he considered asking her to turn it back up. What would it be like, he wondered, if she cared for him, if he could come home in the evenings to be greeted by the sound of music, to wrap her in his arms and dance her all around the house? It was a fool's hope, but it blossomed in his chest regardless. He could not bear to leave her, and so he rather daringly requested entrance to her room. It was a request she granted at once, though everything about her posture was wary and uncertain.
As he entered her room he glanced around, taking note of the soft scent of her perfume, the scarves hanging over the mirror, but he paused as his gaze landed on a smart grey jacket draped across the back of a chair, a jacket hanging heavy with bright, shining medals. His heart sank as he stared at it. They were Christopher's medals, of course; Anzac Day was coming, and Jean would march with the other war widows, bearing her husband's medals proudly, honoring his memory. Somehow seeing those medals made Christopher suddenly very real, in Lucien's mind; this man had lived, had wed this woman, had given her children, had laughed with her, kissed her, loved her, left her grieving and alone. It was almost as if that jacket had become the man himself, standing there tall and proud and glaring at Lucien, for having the audacity to lust after his wife. Lucien averted his gaze at once, shamed and cowed by the ghost of Christopher Beazley.
Jean was watching him expectantly, her hands folded in her lap, and so he cast about for something to say.
"Erm...how did the interview go?" he asked finally.
"Fine," she answered, a little smile flitting across her face, forced and painfully brief. The awkwardness Lucien always felt when he found himself facing Jean alone reared its head, an uncomfortable sort of tension dancing between them.
"Fine?" he repeated, somewhat lamely.
"Yes, it's a lovely building and I'm sure there will be plenty of work," Jean elaborated. She shifted beneath his stare and he found himself wondering if she found their interactions as painful as did he, if that was why she had chosen to abandon him.
"And they'll treat you well?" he asked softly, before he could stop himself. Lucien knew how it went, for women in service, and he could not bear the thought of anyone taking advantage of Jean. Perhaps she did not wish to stay with him, and perhaps in time he would come to accept that, but he simply couldn't allow her to go somewhere she might be mistreated.
"Apparently," Jean answered with some attempt at good cheer. And wasn't that strange, Lucien thought as he watched her, that she should have to try so hard to seem pleased with this development. She was not much accustomed to lying, and she was not particularly good at it. Maybe she doesn't want to go, after all, a hopeful little voice whispered in the back of his mind.
"Good," Lucien said. "Good."
Still, he was not ready to leave her. If there was any chance, any at all, that Jean wanted to stay, that there was something he could say that would convince her that he needed her for more than cooking his meals and washing his dishes, to explain how she brightened his life, how she gave him hope, Lucien knew he had to try. Perhaps he could not tell her everything, not now, not yet, but perhaps he could tell her enough to keep her by his side, just a little while longer, to build up some sort of understanding between them. Vulnerability did not come easy to him; Lucien was not a man who readily admitted his own needs. But he needed her, more than his next breath, and so for her sake he would lay himself bare, and beg her to stay.
"May I?" he asked, gesturing towards the empty chair at the foot of her bed.
"Oh, yes," Jean answered, her face a study in confusion.
"How do I," Lucien muttered, as if to himself. Jean watched him, feeling a bit lost, as he told her he did not need a housekeeper; what a foolish man, she though as those words left his mouth. She was certain Lucien wouldn't survive two days on his own, without someone to look after him, and the fact that he found her services unnecessary stung, more than she cared to admit. Still, though, he was speaking, and she tried to focus. "What I do need is help. A blind eye every now and then, a damn good talking to at other times. You know I'm sure there may well be days when it's all a bit…"
"Confusing?" Jean volunteered, desperately trying to follow the thread of the conversation. Lucien seemed almost at war with himself, struggling for every word, but his eyes shone with a hopeless sincerity that tugged at her heart strings.
"Yes," he agreed.
This is very strange, Jean thought as she sat listening to Lucien stumble his way through a muddled speech that seemed to be his way of asking her to stay. Strange, that he should come to her like this; he had not once over the course of their acquaintance set foot inside her bedroom, and now here he was, just there, at the end of her bed, all broad shoulders and thick muscles and babbling doubts. He looked rather out of place, with his beard and his masculine physique, against the backdrop of her pink walls and her dressing table. How many times, Jean wondered as he spoke, had she lain there in that bed, thinking of him? And now he was here, uncomfortable but earnest, telling her he needed help.
And oh, God forgive me, but Jean wanted to be the one to help him. She wanted to be the one who stood beside him, who helped him at his work, the one he could rely on, who could be brave and strong for him. She wanted to help him find his feet, wanted to help him smile, wanted to hear him telling her how much she meant to him. It was vain, and it was foolish, but she wanted to be a part of his world, the intrigue and the adventure and the excitement. She shouldn't, she knew; she should leave this man, set aside her infatuation for him and focus on finding her soulmate at last, should keep her heart safely tucked away until the man set aside for her by God finally made his way to her.
But it had been twenty-six years since Jean turned eighteen and her marking began, and in that time her soulmate had never once made himself known to her. Where he was she could not say; she could not say with any certainty that she ever would find him. And Lucien was here, warm and real, asking for her help.
"It won't be like it was with my father, with me," Lucien said, somewhat sadly. There was a part of Jean's heart that longed to reach out to him then, to offer him comfort, to apologize for all the times she had chided him for not doing things the way his father had done. How often must people compare him to Thomas? She wondered then. It must have been difficult, for a man like Lucien, so proud, so independent, to be constantly measured against his father's achievements, and constantly found lacking. In truth the more Jean got to know him, the more she appreciated him for who he was, those differences that made him warmer, more energetic, more sympathetic than his father had been.
"With me it will always be somewhat...messier."
The sad little smile he offered her reminded Jean of nothing so much as her son Christopher when he was young; Christopher had always been a somber child, had grown into a self-deprecating man, and in the bashful look on Lucien's face Jean saw the boy he must have been, hopeful but trodden down by life. Jean could not help but give him a reassuring little smile in return. Yes, Lucien seemed to make a mess of everything, but he was trying his best, she knew. And in that moment she realized just how desperately she had wanted him to ask her to stay, how much she longed to remain right where she was, cleaning up this mess of a man, helping him on his way.
Still, though, she needed to hear him say it.
"So are you trying to say that-"
Lucien's face lit up, and Jean tried to ignore the flood of warmth that washed over her at the sight.
"Yes," he said, sounding almost overcome with relief that she had understood him at last.
"Yes," she answered, perhaps a bit too quickly. Strange, that they had no need of further clarification; his grateful little sigh and her own swift response had told them both exactly what they needed to know. She wanted to stay, and he did not want her to go, and whatever happened next Jean was determined to see it through.
Though they were silent for a moment he was still smiling at her, his face soft and warm, and so Jean spoke again.
"You said you needed some help?" she prodded him gently. If he needed a partner, a hand to hold, she would offer him all that she had, though her soul be damned. She had waited this long for her soulmate; surely, she told herself, if he was meant to find her he would, and in the meantime she would do everything she could for the gentle, lost, lovely man sitting at the end of her bed.
"Yes," he answered. "What can you tell me about the Royal Cross Hotel?"
A/N: I will likely not be able to post again until Monday.
For the first time in a very long time, Jean Beazley felt alive. She wasn't waiting, any more, for a mysterious man to come and save her, for her boys to come home, for someone else to reach out and direct the course of her life; she had been offered a choice, between biding her time or seizing the moment, holding steady in hopes of finding her beloved or living her life on her own terms, and she had chosen. She was through with patience, through with grief and doubt. Lucien had given her an opportunity to test her own limits, to challenge herself, to meet him as an equal and solve a terrible mystery, and Jean had set to with gusto. Her blood thrummed through her veins, thick and hot and electrified, her every nerve tingling as she seamlessly executed their plan. Their plan, not Lucien's alone, for Jean had provided the background knowledge on the inner workings of the hotel, had made suggestions and Lucien had heard her and together they had set about this business. It was easy enough; Lucien distracted Major Alderton and his Sergeant, and Jean leaned over the desk, checked the ledger, found the key, slipped up the stairs unnoticed, got her hands on Sergeant Hannam's boot, and promptly escaped without anyone the wiser. Her heart was singing, as she made her way home in Lucien's car; Lucien would remain behind, would give every appearance of drinking himself silly while he plied his old friend for information, and then he would make his way home on foot. After Thomas's heart attack Jean had taken to driving him anywhere he needed to go and she was comfortable behind the wheel, the night air rushing past her face through the open window invigorating and redolent with the scent of freedom.
The house was all in darkness, when Jean returned. She carefully placed the boot in Lucien's study and then set off to the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea, and all the while her mind was racing. Something had changed in her, the moment she agreed to stay on to help Lucien in whatever way he needed. Though she had always been an independent sort of girl she had grown wise enough with time to realize just how much her fate had been directed by other people's choices. Her parents had forced her marriage, Christopher had lied to her about the marking, Eadie had talked her into buying that house, Doctor Blake had presented her with an offer of employment she could not refuse, and her soulmate had chosen to remain far from her side, denied her the chance to spend her days with him. No longer; Jean Beazley would find her own way.
She was too excited to sit still, and so she paced the kitchen with her teacup in hand, eager for Lucien's return. Would Alderton confess the truth to his old friend? Jean wondered. Lucien had not told her very much about his history with the Major, just that they had served together and knew one another quite well. Would Alderton trust Lucien, or would he suspect that something was afoot? Lucien had a way about him, Jean knew, a way of setting people at their ease and then striking the legs out from underneath them, but surely a man who knew him well would not be susceptible to his usual tricks.
The sound of the door opening jolted her out of her jumbled thoughts; she almost called out to Lucien, but then she heard the sound of another's man voice, speaking to him softly.
That was not the plan. Neither Alderton nor his Sergeant were supposed to come back with Lucien, and so Jean held her tongue. She hesitated for a moment, uncertain as to why she suddenly felt so afraid. Lucien was a strong man, brave and clever, and he was more than capable of taking care of himself in intense situations, but some instinct Jean could not name had her rushing up the stairs in a moment. If she was wrong and there was no trouble afoot she would no doubt feel foolish, but she preferred minor embarrassment to being caught unawares. Silently she slipped into her bedroom and retrieved Christopher's pistol from where it rested in the drawer of her bedside table, pausing just long enough to load a single round into it. Jean detested guns and would have preferred not to keep this one lying around - particularly given the trouble it had brought to Jack - but it was Christopher's, and she could not bear to part with it. She was certainly grateful for it now.
Lucien was in the surgery; Jean followed the sound of his voice, lingering just outside the doorway, listening with horror rising like bile in the back of her throat as he spoke. "Did it ever occur to you," Lucien was saying, "that one day, one day it might be your body rotting from radiation that has to be stolen from a morgue?"
Oh, no, Jean thought grimly. She had heard enough to realize that Lucien suspected the Sergeant was the one responsible for the death of the morgue attendant, for the theft of the deserter's body, and now, fool that he was, Lucien was confronting the man alone, with no backup, no one to call for aid save Jean. She took a deep breath, steeled herself to dash into that room, to raise Christopher's pistol and rescue the man who had already done so much for her.
Before she could take a single step, however, a sudden pain, deep and terrible as if a great hand had wound itself around her throat, tore the breath from her lungs. In the surgery Lucien had gone silent and Jean knew she needed to go to him, but the ferocity of the pain had nearly sent her to her knees. It was her soulmate, she knew; that man, more dear to her than she could say, her every dream for the last seventeen years since Christopher's death, was in great peril. Jean's heart cried out, terrified for him, but another voice whispered in the back of her mind. You cannot help him, and Lucien needs you now.
"You don't have that address, do you, sir?" the Sergeant said. His words, cold and aloof, shook Jean free from the paralysis the marking had struck her with. Though her whole body was trembling, though she could hardly breathe for the pain and the fear that gripped her, Jean rallied, and strode into the room at once. The pistol was waving wildly in front of her, her arms unable to hold it steady, but still, she pointed it at the man who currently stood with one hand clenched tight around Lucien's throat.
Oh, God, no. In that moment, everything seemed to fall into place. The little Jean knew about his past, the pull, insistent and undeniable, that had drawn her ever closer to him, the longing to reach out to him that consumed her from the moment she first met him; there could be no other explanation. In that moment, seeing Lucien struggling against Hannam's grip, feeling his pain echoed in her body, the manifestation of the bond between them fierce and terrible and righteous, the realization struck her square in the chest. It was not a stranger's pain she felt; it was Lucien's. Fate had brought her beloved to her side at last, and Jean could hardly think for wanting him.
"Let him go," Jean said as firmly as she could manage, though her voice was hoarse, though she wanted nothing so much as to collapse onto the floor and weep. A single tear slipped past her, though she did not dare even blink. Hannam had turned toward her, but he kept his grip tight around Lucien's throat, and even as he did, Jean felt the pain, gasped as she struggled to breathe.
"You'll have to kill both of us to get away, Sergeant," she told him, her trembling so fierce now that she could hear the gun rattling in her grip. "Are you prepared for that?" Lucien's eyes were wide and round and scared, his lips moving soundlessly as he struggled to breathe.
Please, God, she prayed, please don't take him. Not now, not like this. I've waited so long…
"My Christopher was a Sergeant, too," she forced herself to stay, taking a step closer though her heart was breaking. "This is his pistol. But he died on the Solomons." Because I sent him there, because of Lucien's mark on my skin. Christopher, oh, Christopher, please forgive me. Forgive him. We didn't know. For now Jean knew the truth. She could not deny it, faced with this incontrovertible evidence. The Sergeant strengthened his hold on Lucien's throat, and Jean felt the press of his fingers against her skin. All her worrying, all her doubts, had been for naught, for Lucien was hers, the dear, sweet man who had written to her, who had soothed her, who had calmed her, and she no longer had cause to feel guilty when her heart cried out for him. Lucien was hers, and she would be damned if she let Sergeant Hannam take him now, when she'd only just discovered the truth. "I wonder what he'd make of you." She gestured with the gun, silently ordering the Sergeant to release his grip, to unhand her beloved and release her heart from the chains of fear and pain that bound her. It would seem Jean's words had done the trick; perhaps the Sergeant had been shamed by the memory of all those brave souls who had perished in the war, died for nobler causes than the one that had turned him into a cold blooded killer. Whatever the reason, he released his hold on Lucien at once. Jean's hands continued to shake, but she refused to lower her weapon, remained frozen to the spot, too shocked by what she'd just discovered to move so much as an inch.
Lucien gasped and coughed for a moment, and then he crossed the room to stand beside her. Still Jean stood, both hands on the gun, her eyes trained on the Sergeant, certain that if she turned to Lucien now she would fall absolutely to pieces.
"Thank you, Jean," he told her.
The Sergeant stood, straight-backed and silent, but still Jean could not lower the gun.
"Give it to me, Jean," Lucien said softly, reaching out, his broad hand ghosting across her skin and sending a chill running down her spine. He was safe, and he was here, and he was hers; Jean felt as if she were about to faint. After so many years of sleepless nights, of agony and misery and loneliness so potent it manifested as a physical ache in her chest, she had, at long last, found her beloved. She relinquished her hold on the gun, and Lucien took it from her, escorting the Sergeant into the next room. Dimly she heard the sound of Lucien rummaging around, no doubt in search of some way to bind the Sergeant's hands, and then she heard him on the telephone, ringing Matthew. It all felt very far away, just now.
For so many years Jean had watched the markings of her beloved appearing across her skin, had taken note of all that he had endured and wondered, more than once, just how much one man could stand, how anyone could survive such calamity. And now she knew; she had heard Lucien crying out in the night, had watched him drinking himself into oblivion. Ever so slowly the truth began to permeate the fog that swirled through her brain, the undeniable truth that it was Lucien who had suffered so much. Somehow seeing his face, knowing him as she had come to over the last few months made it so much harder to bear. He had been through so much, and she longed, with every fiber of her being, to go to him, to fling her arms around his neck, to kiss his temple and hold him tight and comfort him, to tell him how she had prayed for him, to tell him how her heart cried out for him. And, she realized rather suddenly, now she could. It was all right, now, that she thought him so handsome, that she wanted so badly to hold him. He was hers, and her hands had been formed to soothe him.
At the sound of his gentle voice she looked up at once, her eyes wide and shining with the tears she could hold back no longer. She had to tell him, she knew, but she could hardly find the words. He had no notion, of course, of the way the ground had shifted beneath their feet in that room, had not been privy to her great revelation.
"Lucien," she choked out his name, hardly able to speak at all. With concern etched in every line of his face he made his way to her side, stopping just in front of her.
"Are you all right?" he asked, his eyes darting all over her face; no doubt she looked a bit wild-eyed.
Jean let loose a nearly hysterical laugh but before she could speak, he reached out as if to brush his fingertips against her neck, his eyes dark and troubled. He stopped short, however, snatched his hand away as if he'd been burned. There was no need for Jean to ask him why he'd reached for her; she could see the bruises dark on his skin just above his collar, and no doubt he could see the same marks written upon her. She held her breath, teetering on the edge, wondering if he was putting it together, if he realized where those marks had come from.
It was a moment Jean had been waiting nearly two decades for, and she was not about to squander it. She took a step closer to him, and reached out to place her palm flat against his chest, just above his wildly beating heart.
"Lucien," she whispered, staring up at him in wonder, unable to hide the smile that blossomed across her face, but as she watched him that smile slowly slipped away. There was no shock in his eyes, no confusion, no awestruck relief. All she saw in him now was sorrow.
"Lucien," she said again. "I felt it, Lucien." her voice still trembled, the weight of her confession heavy on her tongue, and she begged him silently to smile at her, to give her some sign that he understood, that he was pleased. He didn't, though, and the longer he stood silent, the more a single, terrible suspicion began to fester in the back of her mind.
"Please," she whispered. "Please say something."
"Jean," he answered, reaching up to cover her hand with his own. This time, though, his touch brought her no joy; how could he stand there, looking so sad, when they'd finally found one another? Unless he isn't pleased, she thought, suddenly horrified. Unless he doesn't want me. "I'm so sorry, Jean."
His words took her like a punch to the gut; she sucked in a deep breath and took a step back from him, crossing her arms tightly over her chest in a bid to quell the riotous clamoring of her body. He knew, she realized then. He was not at all surprised, not at all shocked; he had known, for how long she could not say, and he had said nothing.
He's no better than Christopher, a bitter little voice whispered in the back of her mind. Lying about the marking, using it to his own ends.
"When did you know?" she demanded in a soft, terrible voice.
"Jean, I-" he began to plead with her, taking a step towards her, but Jean stepped back, undeterred.
"When did you know?" she repeated.
He hung his head.
"November," he confessed in a small voice.
Jean turned on her heel and all but ran from the room, desperate to escape him, desperate to hide her tears.
Lucien felt as if he were being torn in half. Any minute Matthew would arrive, would come to take Hannam away, and Lucien knew he would be needed at the station, if for no other reason than to fend off Derek Alderton. Duty called him elsewhere but his heart was crying out, begging him to turn away, to mount the stairs and race after his beloved, to catch her by the arm and stare deep into her glorious eyes and proclaim his constant, boundless affection for her. If his life were a song, that's the way it would have gone; the marking bound souls together, brought love and joy and light to dreary lives, and if his life were a song he would throw caution to the wind and gather her into his arms and she would forgive him and bury her face in his neck and all would be well. But his life was not a song; his life was hellfire and devastation, the sure and certain ruination of everything he touched. Jean was beautiful and kind and gentle and he had shattered her, with no notion of how to put things to rights.
He hadn't handled things with Jean well at all, he knew; the touch of her hand, scorching hot against his chest, everything he'd dreamt of for months now, had addled his mind, and he'd spoken without thinking. From the moment he'd first discovered that Jean was his beloved he had been certain, so completely sure, that she would not want him, had lived in abject terror of her ever discovering the truth, and it was that fear of her disappointment, her disapproval, that sent his ill-timed apology tumbling from his lips. He was sorry, sorry because he knew she deserved so much better, sorry because he thought that surely she would have wanted more than a man like him, battered and broken. And of course she had not understood; he had seen in her crestfallen expression, had recognized in the watering of her eyes and the way she flinched beneath this touch the moment she found her own meaning in his words, the moment she decided that he had spurned her, and it seemed there was no taking it back. Not now that she knew the awful truth, the truth he had kept hidden from her for half a year. He had betrayed her, Jean had fled, and Lucien could not follow.
The crunch of tires on the drive heralded the arrival of Matthew Lawson, and Lucien squared his shoulders, scrubbing at his face for a moment and trying to regain his sense of equilibrium. He had failed Jean, he knew, but at least he could still do this, could still bring justice to those poor murdered souls. It wasn't much of a hope to cling to, when his world seemed to lie in glittering pieces at his feet, but it was all he had to cling to at present.
Jean stood sentry by her bedroom window, watching as Lucien and Matthew walked Sergeant Hannam out to the police car. The night was still, dark and quiet, the stars twinkling softly overhead oblivious to the tumult that gripped her.
I'm sorry, Jean.
He was sorry. He had known for six months, and had not told her, had not come rushing to her side with a grin and hopeful eyes to show her the evidence of her mark upon his skin. The moment Jean discovered the truth she had gone weak in the knees with longing, had not hesitated for an instant before telling him, and yet it would seem that Lucien was perfectly content to carry on as they were, to keep their connection buried. That stung worse than almost anything else, the knowledge that she had been so thrilled, so delighted, so overcome with joy and relief and boundless hope, and he in turn was only sorry.
In that moment, standing by the window with tears staining her cheeks and her arms wrapped tightly around her middle, Jean's thoughts were too jumbled for her to make any sense of them at all. She had known heartbreak before, loss and devastation and a grief so boundless it had all but ruined her, and yet each time she had faced such pain in the past it had always been mitigated, somewhat, by the knowledge that her soulmate was out there, somewhere, waiting for her, thinking of her, that one day she might again know peace. Now, though, he was the one who had wounded her, who had with three simple words cut her to the quick, and left her alone to bleed out in that house they shared.
Christopher's face flashed before her eyes, half-forgotten remembrances of moments they had shared, moment of happiness, moments of betrayal. Christopher had loved her, and he had lied to her, and she had somehow found a way to forgive him, to continue on as his wife, if for no other reason than that she loved him as well, that she was bound to him for the sake of the children they'd made between them, the family they'd built from the ground up. At least she had understood him, had looked into his ravaged face that afternoon in their bedroom and seen in his eyes all the burning love he felt for her, had recognized in the touch of his hand and the hoarseness of his voice that it was love that motivated him, that caused him to sin, time and time again. Jean could forgive almost anything, if it were done for love.
Lucien, though; Lucien had lied, but she could not see any love in it. For months she had felt herself falling further and further under his spell, in his thrall, drawn to his wild ways and his broad shoulders, the strength of his hands and the fury of his heart. There had been moments when she had looked into his fierce blue eyes and would have sworn that he felt it, too, that shimmering cord winding round and round them, pulling them ever closer together. And yet it would seem that all her hopes, all her dreams had been for naught, for Lucien had known since November that she was the one meant for him, and he had said nothing. He was not pleased; he was sorry.
He was lonely, he'd told her once. That first time, when the lines of his mark upon her skin had lit a fire in her blood, had convinced her that though they had not met his heart and hers already beat as one. Lonely, he'd told her sixteen years before, and she had answered him in kind, dutiful and cursed. Was that all he felt, she wondered now as she watched the indifferent stars shimmering overhead; was he just lonely, and content to speak to her in passing as he had done these last few months, content to share her space but not her heart, her body, her bed? He had been her lifeline, her tether, her hope in the darkness; had she been no more to him than a willing ear for a lonely man?
Tears coursed silently down her cheeks, but the rest of her body was still. She had trembled and shook until her bones ached, and now she had nothing left, nothing but these quiet tears. What would become of her, if her soulmate didn't want her? No one knew, of course, about the mysterious man whose marks had scored her skin for decades now, no one save Eadie, who kept her silence as any good sister would. Still, the thought was unbearable; Jean had never heard of a man spurning his beloved, turning his back on her when faced with irrefutable proof of their connection, certainly not when she had not been cruel or unfaithful to him. And Jean had been neither; for so many years Jean had held steady, had turned down offers until she got a reputation as a bit of a prude, all because she had been waiting for her beloved to finally come home. Without Thomas to look after, knowing that Lucien did not want her, Jean knew she could not stay in that house. She could not bear to linger in proximity to him, wanting him, longing for him, and yet knowing her affections were not returned.
Still, though, a tiny voice, reed thin and exhausted, counselled her to hope. Lucien had not told her outright that he wanted no part of her, and when she laid her hand upon his chest he had covered it with his own. He wanted you to know, when he was safe. He did not even speak to his own father, but he spoke to you. It was not much to cling to at present, when she felt herself cast adrift upon a sea of endless loneliness, but it was better than nothing. He had wanted her, once, had needed her to know that he was well, and perhaps with time, if she were patient and kind, he would want her again. The years had changed her, and she worried she was not as lovely as she had once been, that her face and her body might not be enough to tempt a worldly man like Lucien Blake, but she was his, and he was hers, and maybe, maybe if she were not rash, if she did not act on her impulse to flee, if she waited for him, he would come to her with time.
The thought was somehow both comforting and infuriating. Though she longed with every piece of her soul to hold him she had already waited such damned long time, and the thought of waiting still longer, waiting for a man to change his mind, waiting for a man to decide he could settle for her, galled her, battered her already fragile sense of self. After everything she had endured, she told herself as she reached up to brush the tears from her cheeks, surely she deserved better than this, better than a man with one eye on the door, a man who did not even have the decency to tell her of the marking. Haven't I suffered enough, she asked herself, asked God as she stood unmoving by the window. My daughter, my husband, taken from me too soon, my sons lost to the world, even old Doctor Blake. Haven't I paid for my sins a thousand times over?
The night was dark and still, and held no answers for a heart in turmoil.
His conversation with Derek rattled him; it was not until that moment, standing beside Lawson's desk, watching Derek guilelessly deny his part in Hannam's crimes, that Lucien realized his friend had been behind it all. The deserters, the theft of the body from the morgue, the death of the attendant, it had all no doubt been orchestrated on Derek's orders, and now he would whisk Hannam away, not to face a tribunal as he'd promised, but likely to receive a pat on the back and orders to orchestrate more foul deeds in the name of the service. Lucien had seen Derek to the door, had tried to speak to him, to remind him of the horrors they had faced at the behest of grey faced men with stripes upon their shoulders, but Derek remained undeterred, accused him of being soft. And perhaps he had gone soft, after all, for the thought of what Derek and Hannam had done turned his stomach and he wanted nothing more than to go home to Jean.
Jean, who would no doubt be furious with him. Though he had no notion of how he was going to put things to rights between them he was determined to try. He had not had the chance to explain himself, and as he bid Matthew farewell and strode out into the night his thoughts lingered on the mystery of his own heart. That he wanted Jean, cared for her, longed for her, was a reality he had grown accustomed to months before. That his lies had hurt her, had possibly ruined any chance he had of making her his, he knew without a doubt. Still, though, a hopeful little voice whispered to him. He had been so sure that she would not want him, and yet as he drove through the darkness the vision of her face swam before his eyes. Upon discovering the connection that bound them Jean had not run from him; she had stepped up to face him, her eyes shining brightly, and placed her hand over his heart. Maybe, a hopeful little voice whispered to him, maybe she was not as disappointed as you imagined her to be.
When he pulled into the drive at his father's house the first thing he noticed was the light shining brightly in the upstairs window. It was Jean, he knew, and though he could not see her he imagined, just for a moment, that her lithe frame was silhouetted against that light, that she had stayed up late into the night, waiting for him, waiting for her beloved's return. As he stepped out of the car he wondered where Mattie had gone, how she had missed the disaster that had taken place earlier in the evening. Of course, he told himself, though the very earth shook beneath his feet they had not made so very much noise; Hannam had moved stealthy and silent as a jungle cat, and Jean's trembling voice had not carried very far. It seemed, wrong somehow, that his brush with death and the revelation that had passed between himself and Jean had not been accompanied by thunder and lightning and trumpets sufficient to rouse the whole of the southern hemisphere.
Before he realized it his feet had carried him into the house and up the stairs, standing just on the other side of Jean's bedroom door. The light shone through the frosted glass panes of the door, warm and comforting and beckoning him on. It was terribly late; the sun would rise, soon, would herald the coming of a new day, but Lucien could not - would not - rest until he had spoken to her, until he had carved his heart, soft and weary though it may be, from his chest and placed it at her feet as a supplicant before an altar. She was his, and he could not let her go, not without a fight.
Jean cursed herself for having left the light on; if only she'd turned it off perhaps Lucien would have left her in peace, would have given her this one night, at least, to nurse her wounded heart in solitude before forcing her to face him once again. In deference to the lateness of the hour she'd slipped into her pale pink nightgown with no foundation garments to protect her from his steely stare, her hair undone and her makeup scrubbed off, her eyes red-rimmed from crying, and she knew she was in no fit state to be seen. It was not only vanity that had her hesitating to open the door, however; her pride had taken a battering, and she had no earthly idea what she could possibly have to say to the man who had shattered her so utterly.
Still, though she lingered, though trepidation slowed her steps, her hand rested upon the door knob, a little voice whispering from the depths of her heart, begging her to let him in. After all he was her soulmate, the man whose very existence had bolstered her when she was weak, had given her the strength to carry on when the troubles of the world cast her down upon her knees time and time again. And more than that; he was Lucien, the man who had given her the courage to step outside her prescribed role, to seize the moment with both hands and run like hell for the horizon. As cruel as his apology had been, he was all things to her, the culmination of every desire of her heart, her fondest wish made flesh. And though her rational mind denounced him for a fool and a rake, her heart cried out for him, for the other half of her soul.
Taking a deep breath then she squared her shoulders and flung the door open, only realizing at the last moment that she had not taken the time to slip into her dressing gown, and so would have stand before him all but bare in a thin shift that left very little to the imagination. Her cheeks reddened, but she stood firm before him.
The moment he saw her, every word he intended to say left his head and he found himself struggling to keep from gawping at her, his mouth opening and closing soundlessly as his eyes went wide with hopeless hunger. She was a vision, soft and real and all but vibrating with a towering, terrifying anger. Her dark curls fell in reckless abandon around her face, a face that was pale and fresh and for once untouched by lipstick or rouge, a face that was devastating in its honesty. She wore only a lightweight nightgown, and though it was long enough to cover her from collarbones to calves it left her long, lean arms bare and whispered around the curve of her hip in a way that set his heart to racing. Beneath it her body was soft and loose and it took every ounce of restraint he possessed to keep his gaze locked on her face, to keep from wandering up and down the length of the body that had haunted his dreams almost from the moment he met her.
"Yes?" she asked him curtly, no trace of warmth or fear in the hardness of her voice. She crossed her shapely arms tightly over her chest, no doubt in a bid to shield herself from his view, but the movement only served to draw his attention to the soft swells of her breasts, rising and falling with each of her shallow breaths beneath the fine material of her gown.
"Jean," he managed to croak out a single word at last. He cleared his throat, and tried again, more firmly this time. "I think we need to talk."
"Do we?" she fired back, her eyes hard as sapphires in the dim light between them.
"Jean, I'm sorry-"
"You're sorry," she cut him off, and this time her voice was low and burning with grief. "For what, Lucien? Sorry for lying? Sorry that I found out the truth? Sorry that you're stuck with me?"
The sheer venom in her left him breathless and uncertain; he wanted, so badly, to make things right, to explain to her all the twists and turns of his heart, to reach out and run his fingers through her hair and promise her that all would be well, but it seemed Jean did not want to hear him. Before he could think of anything to say that might cool her ire she took a step back from him, and the notion that she might leave him sliced through him quick and hot as lightning. Without a single thought he stepped towards her, crossed the threshold into her private domain, and the way she glared at him when he did left him with his head hanging like a chastised dog. Furiously she tugged her atrocious pink dressing gown over her body, hiding herself from his view.
"I'm sorry, too, Lucien," she told him, but there was no kindness in her. "I'm sorry I trusted you. I'm sorry I didn't leave when I had the chance. I'm sorry for all the years-"
Here her voice gave out as tears began to shine in the corners of her eyes. Lucien could bear it no longer and reached for her, one hand rising up as if to brush against her arm in comfort, but she spun away from him in an instant, making a beeline for the door.
"Don't," she spat, and before he could protest she had abandoned him, the sound of her bare feet on the stairs all but inaudible in the late-night stillness.
For a moment he stood, shell-shocked and grieving. I'm sorry for all the years...how had she intended to finish that sentence? For all the years she had spent waiting, wishing, wanting? Lucien knew how difficult it had been for him, to walk the road of his life without her by his side, knowing she was out there, somewhere, and yet unable to find her. He knew how he had longed for her, how the thought of her had soothed him, but what he did not know was how the many long years of their separation had treated Jean. Her husband had known, from early on in their marriage, that he was not her soulmate; had Jean known? How had she felt when she discovered the truth, that the man she'd wed was not the man whose marks she bore? How much pain had she suffered, how much grief, for his sake? As he stood there just inside her bedroom, the faint scent of her perfume and her outrage lingering on the air, all the little pieces of her life sparkling on display for him to see, it struck him at last just how foolish, how careless he had been in keeping the truth to himself. He could never have hoped to hide this secret from her forever, and to deceive her, this beautiful, sorrowful woman who had already suffered so much for the sake of her marking, was a sin so grievous it nearly left him weeping in repentance.
He had to make things right.
Lucien tore off down the stairs, hardly caring how much noise he made, his only thought get to Jean. He did not think she intended to leave, not in the early hours of the morning with darkness all around them and no shoes upon her feet, but he knew that with every second that passed her heart was drawing further and further away from him. Somehow, some way, he had to catch her, had to get to her, had to unburden himself to her and beg her forgiveness. Whatever the cost.
To his immense relief he found her in the kitchen, her back ramrod straight as she stood before the slowly warming kettle. She tensed, a bit, her shoulders drawing tighter, her arms crossing once more over her chest, that subtle shift the only indication she gave to acknowledge his presence, and yet enough to tell him that she knew he was there.
Easy now, he told himself, taking a moment to gather his thoughts and his courage.
What words to say, to unbreak a heart? What words to mend a fissure he'd torn himself, to bridge a chasm so deep and so vast he trembled at the very thought of it? No words, he thought bleakly. There were no words for this, for boundless love and terrible grief, for twenty-six years of waiting and all that had transpired as they walked the lonely roads of the world. There were no words, but still, he had to try.
"I don't think I was clear, before," he started slowly, keeping his voice low, lingering in the doorway though he longed to step closer. Jean would not react well to his proximity, he knew, would lash out like a caged beast if she felt him trying to trap her with his body and his voice, and so he remained where he was, all but trembling in fear. "I am sorry, Jean, but only because…" the words left him as her shoulders began to shake; though she was silent, he knew that she was weeping, and he could hardly bear the thought. "Because you deserve so much better than me."
Across the room she drew in a sharp breath, but she did not berate him, and so he barreled on. "I am sorry because you are too good, too beautiful and too kind to have been alone for so very long. I should have waited for you, Jean," he told her, stumbling as he spoke her name, his tongue heavy in his mouth as the sheer tragedy of their situation struck him square in the chest. "I should have been there for you, I should have cared for you. I should have waited for you Jean, and I didn't, and I am so sorry."
The kettle was boiling; he watched as she reached out with a trembling hand and retrieved two tea cups from the cabinet above her head. In silence she poured their tea, adding sugar and milk from the little containers she'd gathered before their arrival; a healthy splash of milk and just a little sugar for her, and more of both than was really wise for him. When her task was done she squared her shoulders and turned to face him with a cup in each hand, the tracks of her tears leaving rivers of sparkling silver on her pale cheeks.
"Then why didn't you, Lucien?" she asked him softly. She took a single tentative step towards him and he closed the space between them in an instant. Jean offered him his cup and he took it, but only so that he could place it down at once. His hands were trembling too much for him to trust himself with it.
"You had children, Jean," he answered her slowly, shyly, his gaze darting back and forth across her face as he waited with bated breath to see how she might respond.
A single, ragged sob escaped her; she placed her own teacup down upon the table so that she could reach up and cover her mouth with her hand, the blood-red paint on her nails shining fiercely in the dim lights of the kitchen.
"God forgive me," she breathed from behind that delicate hand, her eyes shut tightly against her own memories.
"I felt it, Jean," he told her. "All three times." Another sob left her and she turned away, but Lucien followed her, coming to a stop just behind her, close enough to touch her, though he did not dare even make the attempt. "I thought you didn't want me, that you'd already made your choice. So I married Mei Lin."
It was the first time he'd spoken to her of his wife but he felt he owed her that much; after all, he knew her story, now, knew more about her than she'd ever intended for him to know, and the time had come, he felt, for him to share himself with her as well. "We had a child, a little girl." Visions of Li danced before his eyes and he blinked them away with his tears. "And I lost them both, when Singapore fell."
At those words Jean turned to him sharply, pity and grief shining in her eyes. Was she putting it together, he wondered, realizing that they had both lost a child and a spouse, that it was not only physical wounds that bound them, but emotional ones as well? "I tried for so long to find them," he carried on, warming to the topic now. "And if I'd only waited for you, if I'd never married Mei Lin, maybe you and I would have found each other sooner, maybe I never would have hurt you so badly, and for that, I'm truly sorry."
Jean shook her head, catching her bottom lip between her teeth as she struggled to stem the flow of her tears. There was a war raging inside her; Lucien could practically feel her turmoil, but perhaps that was only because he felt it himself.
"No," she said softly. And then she did something he did not expect, something that stilled the raging of his heart against his ribs. With a single, trembling hand she reached out and placed her palm upon his chest, just above his heart, just as she had done earlier in the night when she'd confessed the truth of her marking to him. "Don't apologize for that, Lucien. Don't apologize for loving your family. I know…" she cleared her throat, stood up a little straighter, and forced herself to look at him, and in her eyes he saw everything he felt, magnified a thousand times. "I know I wouldn't trade my sons for anything, not even...not even for you."
Those words gave him such hope as he had not known for many years. Jean understood what he had done, for she had experienced much the same; they had both done the unthinkable, married people who were not their soulmates, raised children without their beloved by their side, grieved for the loss of their partners even as they dreamed of one another. There was no one else in the world who could possibly have understood the long and winding path of his life quite like Jean; she was his soulmate, after all, his perfect match, in every possible way.
"I thought," she began haltingly, no doubt having decided that since he had been so honest with her he deserved the same in kind. "Earlier, when you said...I thought you didn't want me. And I couldn't bear it, Lucien, because I have waited for you, for such a long time." Her fingers curled against his chest, pressing into his skin through his thin shirt, and he could not hold himself back a single second longer.
He fell upon her like a hurricane, his fingers tangling in her curls and dragging her closer to him as his lips crashed into hers, as her arms snaked around his neck and she lifted herself up onto her toes to reach him. They kissed with a bruising force; Lucien was hardly aware of himself, of the thrusting of his tongue against her own, of the way his body slammed her back against the counter. All he could sense was her, the taste of her, the warmth of her, the scent of her hair, the heady sound of the little whimper that escaped her as she kissed him back with everything she had. They were twined together as closely as two souls could be, her breasts pressed hard to the plane of his chest, her lip between his teeth, her heart in his hands, and all at once, for the first time in his entire life, Lucien Blake knew what it meant to be home. The years seemed to fall away, as he held her, as with the touch of her hand she blessed him, freed him, revived him. It did not matter, any more, that he had spent so long adrift. It did not matter that he had lost sleep cursing the man whose children she bore. It did not matter that he'd been unfaithful, did not matter that she had been kept from his side for so very long. She was here, now, warm and real and more beautiful than he could have dreamed, and she kissed him like she felt it, too, as if the song that had burst from his heart the moment his lips first touched hers had buoyed her as well, as if their souls were singing in harmony for the very first time. She was here, and she was his, forever.
"Mine," he breathed against her lips, the first fever of his kiss cooling somewhat as he realized she was not running from him, as he realized that she had found sanctuary in his arms, just as he had found in hers.
"Mine," she answered, nipping his bottom lip between her teeth once for good measure before she burst into tears.
Jean buried her face in his neck and he held her close, cradling her tightly against his body as his own tears streamed down his cheeks to land silently in her hair. Mine.
As the sun slowly began to peek through the curtains on the window Jean lay nestled in Lucien's embrace, warm and exhausted and almost delirious with happiness. It had been a long hard road that brought her to this point in her life, a road fraught with heartache and grief, but she would gladly walk every lonely mile again for his sake, for the sake of this man whose strong arms cradled her close, whose breath washed warm and welcoming against her cheek as she burrowed still closer to him, too exhausted to speak, too elated to sleep.
They had not finished their tea, had in fact abandoned it utterly and slipped back up the stairs to her bedroom hand-in-hand the moment Jean's tears subsided. Neither of them were entertaining particularly salacious thoughts at present, but likewise neither of them could bear the thought of being parted, not now that they had finally found one another, and so they had tumbled down amongst her pillows together, her head coming to rest against his chest, his arms wrapping around her at once. The sun was rising, heralding the coming of a new day, and somewhere in the dim recesses of Jean's mind the piece of her consciousness that would always be a housekeeper was fretting about the chores she needed to accomplish, about what Mattie might think when she came into the kitchen to discover the ruins of their tea and no breakfast in sight, but that voice was drowned out by the clamoring of her heart. A new day was dawning and with it a new chapter of Jean's life, and she was eager to see what her future had in store for her. Starting here, starting now, starting with sharing herself with this man who had walked beside her every day of the last twenty-six years.
"When did you first see the mark?" she asked him softly, trailing her fingertips slowly across his collarbones, mapping the terrain of his chest all unthinking. Lucien had shrugged out of his shoes and his jacket and his tie and his waistcoat, had come to lay beside her in just his shirt and trousers, while Jean had blushed scarlet and disposed of her dressing gown, feeling quite risque indeed in her thin shift. Lucien had warmth enough to spare for the both of them and kept his hands contained to the slope of her back, though they drifted lower every now and then, as if he could only barely control his desire to touch her, to feel her, all of her, at once. It had been quite a long time since any man had desired her, but what she felt when he touched her was more than simple flattery. Lucien was not just any man, he was her soulmate, the man she had dreamed of for most of her life, a man she had worried for, prayed for, grieved for, longed for with every fiber of her being, and with each quiet word they exchanged in the sanctuary of her bedroom she fell that little bit more in love with him.
"Oh," he sighed, brushing a kiss against her temple. "I was in Edinburgh, the first time I saw your mark. I'd finished school but I hadn't joined the Army yet so it must have been...1932? 1933? You cut your palm."
As he spoke those words he reached for her left hand, raising it to his lips and pressing a gentle kiss against her skin, in the very spot where she'd cut herself on her birthday, so many years before. She wanted to weep but all her tears were spent; every last ounce of pain and grief she possessed had poured out of her while she stood wrapped in Lucien's arms there in the kitchen, and she had no more left to give. Though she knew she would have to tell him she hesitated, still; they had come so far so quickly, the sure and certain knowledge that they belonged to one another, that they each understood one another's path in life having soothed the ache left by every bitter word that had come before it, but still Jean worried that one day the secrets they kept between them might tear them asunder, for good and all. She could not bear the thought of losing him now, but likewise she knew that she owed him the truth, every bit of it. Their souls were bound together, and they could not truly be one if she held even the smallest piece of herself back from him.
"It was 1933," she answered him slowly, her gaze focused intently on the rise and fall of his chest, unable to look him in the eye. "It was my birthday. I cut my hand, to prove that Christopher was my soulmate."
To his credit Lucien did not tense or shy away from her; if anything, his hold on her only tightened, as if to tell her without words that he was here, for her, always, regardless of what she had done in the past.
"Jean," he said slowly, his voice low and reassuring, but she barrelled on, desperate to tell him everything before she lost her nerve.
"He had my marks, Lucien," she whispered, closing her eyes against the memory. "I saw it, I can't even count how many times. I was his soulmate, but he wasn't mine."
I know, Lucien wanted to whisper, but he held his tongue. Later he would confess how he had read her patient file, how he had discovered the truth of their connection, but in this moment he rather felt that it was best to simply let Jean speak, not to burden her with his own misdeeds. He had no intention of lying to her, if she asked him outright, and likewise he knew he ought to tell her before the day was through, but this moment was too delicate, too precious for him to shatter it with sorrow.
"You didn't do anything wrong, Jean," he told her firmly. "You loved him, and he had your mark. There is no shame in that."
"I did my best," she said, her voice low and sad but not as haunted as it could have been. "I did love him, Lucien, and we were happy, for a time. We had the farm and the boys. It took me years to realize what it meant, that I was his soulmate, and he wasn't mine. I was meant to be there for him, I think, for as long as he was alive, and then when he was gone…" her voice cracked and Lucien tightened his hold on her still further, wishing he could take her pain, her grief, and make it his own, if only to spare her from it. Even so, he could not help but stand in awe of just how perfectly they were suited one to the other; who else would understand what Jean had been through the way that he could, having walked that road himself? "When he was gone," she continued after a moment, "then it was time for someone else to be there for me."
"I think you're exactly right," he told her. In his arms she sighed, and Lucien seized the opportunity to ask a question of his own.
"When did you know? That you had a soulmate, I mean."
"The first time you were shot," she answered, somewhat ruefully, reaching out to place her palm flat against his right shoulder, directly above the terrible scar from the bullet that had pierced him in Singapore, before the war. "When I went to find Christopher it was obvious he wasn't hurt. He had known for years, you see." Her voice grew thick with remembered sadness. "He...cut himself, so I wouldn't notice, tried to hide you from me. I might have found out years before if he'd just told me the truth, but he didn't."
The briefest flash of anger surged through Lucien's gut as she spoke, but it was replaced almost at once with a terrible sort of pity. Though Lucien had spent countless nights cursing the man who shared his beloved's bed, he was coming to understand that some things were infinitely more complicated - infinitely messier - than he had ever imagined. As he lay there with Jean in his arms, thinking how much he loved her, how wonderful she was, how he would move heaven and earth for her sake, he found he could understand why Christopher Beazley had done this terrible thing. The man had loved his wife, had loved their children, had loved the life they'd built together, and he had been willing to put himself through endless pain, just to keep her near. Faced with the same conundrum, twenty years younger and twenty years more foolish, Lucien may well have done the same. After all, Christopher had borne Jean's marks; no doubt he had felt that she belonged with him, without question. And though the man had been dead for many a long year, Lucien could not help but feel a certain kinship with him, a certain shared understanding borne out of loving the same woman. A kinship, he realized with a start, that Mei Lin believed she had shared with Jean.
"Your Jack and my Li are almost exactly the same age, did you know that?" he asked her softly, trailing his hands up and down the slope of her back, from her delicate shoulders to the curve of her bum, trying to warm her, trying to soothe her, trying to reassure himself that she was real, that she was here, that this was not some fantastic dream. "You and Mei Lin were pregnant at the same time. I think Jack came along about a month before Li."
Jean leaned back in his embrace, staring up at him incredulously. At the sight of her raised eyebrow and her parted lips he smiled and ducked his head to kiss her once, softly, just because he could, because she was there, because he had finally, after so many years of searching, found the other half of his heart.
"I loved Mei Lin in a way, you know," he said, trying to cushion the blow, willing her to understand. "I knew that you had someone else, and she was good to me. We worked well together. And we loved our daughter, just as you love your sons. And I need you to know, Jean, that she knew about you. She told me once that she felt connected to you, in a way, for my sake. She said our children would be like siblings."
As Lucien spoke Jean lay very still, hanging on his every word. It had occurred to her to wonder before now, of course, if her soulmate had found another; after all, she had married Christopher, had raised his children, and they had been apart for such a very long time. Now she knew that Lucien had married another, a woman who could have regarded her so kindly, a woman lost in the horror of the war, she found she was intensely curious about what sort of person his wife had been. Had they met in Singapore? She wondered. What did she look like? Her name, Mei Lin, was beautiful and strange to Jean's ears, and briefly she recalled images she'd seen from the newsreels during the war, small, slight women with dark eyes and long hair wandering through the ruins of Malaya, haunted by the devastation that surrounded them; had Mei Lin been one of them? This woman who had lain beside Lucien as Jean was now, this woman who had known him in his younger days, before he had been so shattered by grief? For a single moment a fierce sort of jealousy gripped her as she fisted her hands in his shirt, pulling him closer still. He was hers, and Mei Lin owned a piece of him she would never reach. But then her conscience counseled her to prudence, reminded her of the little box beneath her bed where she kept all of Christopher's letters bound with a length of red ribbon. How could she hate Mei Lin, this woman she had never known, this woman who was already dead and gone, when she was the one Lucien had chosen, the one who had kept him warm when Jean herself could not?
"Mei Lin had no soulmate, you see," Lucien told her, his voice rumbling through her chest where they pressed together. "I told her about you before we married. It must have been the night young Christopher was born. I felt your pain, Jean."
Jean shifted slightly in his arms, rising up on one elbow so that their faces drew level with one another, so she could look into his eyes, those sparkling pools of blue that could be so fierce, so tempestuous, and yet were tranquil now as he gazed down upon her. "You felt it?" she asked him shyly, thinking of a conversation she'd had with his father in the kitchen downstairs, thinking about the echo, that truest manifestation of love, so rare in life, yet striking her each time her beloved suffered a blow. Thomas believed the echo was connected to empathy, and she thought about his words now, about how a person had to experience pain in order to understand it. Her Lucien had suffered, had been bowed and broken, and it had only made him kind, had only opened his heart so that she might step inside.
"Every time, love," he answered, and her heart sang to hear him refer to her thus, though he looked somewhat taken aback by his forwardness. Given that Jean was lying in bed with him wearing only a thin nightdress while he ran his hands over her back she felt such bashfulness was uncalled for, and so she closed the space between them and kissed him on the cheek, trying to reassure him as gently as he could.
"I almost wrote to you, that first time," he continued, and at those words Jean was forced to look a way, a lump rising in her throat. It had been twenty-five years since that terrible night when Jean had lost her baby, and still sometimes it caught her unawares, the grief and the guilt. To think that Lucien had felt it, too, that he had known what was happening to her - if not why, or how - was somehow strangely invasive; he had been privy to every secret of her body, before they ever met. Of course he was her beloved, the one was meant to share those things with her, but it was not his child she carried, and she did not quite know how to feel about this revelation.
"But I realized that was probably the last thing you needed," he told her, and she smiled, somewhat ruefully, continually amazed by how well he seemed to know her, how well they seemed to fit together. He would have shattered her utterly, if he had revealed himself to her then, would have changed the entire course of her life, and she was rather grateful that he hadn't. His words reminded her of another question she meant to ask him, however, and so she squared her shoulders and spoke.
"Where were you, when you wrote to me the first time?"
Lucien's eyes grew dark and far away and for a moment Jean worried that she had put her foot right in it, that she had ruined their beautiful moment with memories dark and terrible. She needn't have worried, however; her Lucien was stronger than even she realized.
"Changi," he answered, and she felt the breath freeze in her chest, turned to ice and horror all at once. Strange, how a single word could carry with it such devastation. She keenly recalled the lash of the whip upon her back, but she had never for a moment imagined that the night she lay in her bed in the farmhouse, warm and safe in her dressing gown though her heart was heavy with grief, Lucien had been in that terrible place, that hell on earth.
"I was...in solitary confinement, and I thought I was losing my mind. I needed something to cling to, some reminder that I was not alone, that there was a world outside that place. And you gave it to me, Jean." He reached out, cradled her cheek in his palm, his eyes darting across her face as if he were trying to burn every line and every curve of her into his memory forever. "You saved me that day."
"Oh, Lucien," she breathed, reaching up to wrap her hand around his wrist, desperate to feel the heat of her skin beneath her hand, to know that he was real, and safe, here with her. "You saved me, too, you know," she told him shyly. "I was all alone, and I hardly had enough money to keep the boys fed, and I felt as if my whole world had come to an end. And then you wrote to me, and I knew I wasn't alone any more."
As she finished speaking he surged up towards her, kissing her hungrily, desperately, and she tangled her hands in his hair and held him close, her body arching towards him, eager for the heat, the connection, the certainty that came from holding him like this. For how long she could not say, but when finally they broke apart Lucien was smiling, though there were tears standing in the corners of his eyes.
"I have waited for you for such a long time, my darling," he told her softly, echoing the words she'd spoken to him in the kitchen.
Apparently Jean was not yet through with weeping; she buried her face in Lucien's neck and silently sent up a prayer, thanking God for bringing this man to her at last, thanking God that Lucien's wife had not hated her, that she had understood the undeniable truth that had taken Jean so very long to find. They were meant to spend those years apart, she believed now, to love the people they loved, to build their families, so that when war and grief ripped them apart they might find their way to one another at last, and carefully begin to mend their hearts, together.
Lucien shifted against her, her thigh sliding between his legs, his hands flattening out at the small of her back, pressing her closer to him, so close that her tears painted the tanned skin of his neck as she wept, enveloped in his warmth and his scent and the welcoming embrace of a man who loved her, understood her, utterly. It was a precious moment, made all the more beautiful for every instant of grief that had preceded it, and for once Lucien did not fill the silence with rambling words, choosing instead to let them find their way together in the stillness of the early morning.
"I'm glad she was there for you," Jean whispered as her tears subsided. "I'm glad you had someone to look after you."
Lucien caught her chin in his hand and tilted her head back so that he could smile down at her, the little wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and the warmth of his gaze endearing him to her still further. "And I'm glad Christopher was there for you," he answered.
All unthinking Jean reached up and cradled his cheek in her hand, feeling the brush of his beard against her palm, smiling when he turned his head to kiss her gently.
There were questions to answer, still. Where they would go from here, if they would share their news with anyone - Mattie certainly deserved to know the truth, Jean thought, and she very much wanted to tell Eadie that her soldier had come home at last, if only to hear her sister squeal in delight - if they would stand together at the altar at Sacred Heart and seal their love with words and rings. All those questions could wait, however, for in this moment Jean only wanted to savor this, this peace, this joy, this sure and certain truth: she was his, and he was hers, and their search was finally at an end.
A/N: All right folks! I believe we've reached the end of the road. Just an epilogue to follow. I can only offer my sincerest thanks to each and everyone of you for the support and enthusiasm and encouragement you have shared with me along the way. It means the world to me.
One year later…
It wasn't a Catholic wedding, in the end. Though Jean and Lucien were both widowed and though their union had been blessed by the marking, consecrated in blood and pain, they had decided that between them they had had enough of the church. They had endured quite enough grief and doubt, and though Jean made her way to mass most every week, she had agreed most enthusiastically to Lucien's suggestion of a quiet ceremony and reception at the club. There was a certain comfort to be found for her in rite and ritual, but she needed no further proof of God's will in her life; Lucien's arrival and everything that had followed after had been benediction enough for Jean.
Their friends stood in attendance as they said the words and exchanged the rings, young Christopher and his wife sitting in the front row with slightly bemused looks upon their faces. Jack had not put in an appearance, but then Jean had not really expected him to; though she had kept the most painful parts of her story locked away deep in her heart, the news she'd delivered to her sons - that she had another soulmate, that another man had marked her skin - had taken them hard. Young Christopher had come round, thanks in no small part to Ruby, who found the whole story terribly romantic. Jean had never felt as grateful for her daughter-in-law as she did the day that Ruby rang to confirm that she and Christopher would be in attendance. Danny and Mattie and Matthew and all the lads from the station, Patrick Tyneman and a select few others from the club, Jean's sister Eadie and Agnes Clasby and even the new pathologist Alice Harvey had all turned out, dressed in their finery to bear witness to the wedding, but Jean had eyes only for Lucien.
I have waited for you, for such a long time. They had spoken those words to each other that night so many months before, simple words that somehow encompassed such sorrow and such grace. For long years they had waited, had worried, had despaired, and yet at long last fate had brought their feet upon the same path, and Jean could hardly believe it. She was so full of joy, so grateful for the brilliant light of his smile, for the strength in his arms as he spun her deftly around the dancefloor, so grateful for the soft voice that whispered in her ear you look beautiful, my darling. They had waited, and at last they were to receive their reward, the peace and comfort that came from finally being together at last.
Which was not to say that the last year had been without its trials; Lucien was a difficult man at times, haunted still by his past, and Jean's steps were still dogged by doubt. Tongues had wagged, when they'd announced their engagement and their plans to marry as soon as possible; it seemed Jean would never be free from gossip entirely, but the touch of Lucien's hand put her mind at rest. Let them say what they would, she told herself, for she knew the real reason for their haste; she and Lucien had been too long apart, and every moment spent away from his side was a moment wasted, as far as she was concerned. Their plans for a winter wedding had been delayed by the news that Lucien's daughter had survived, and Jean had not hesitated for a moment before sending him off, knowing how important it was for him to seize whatever opportunity he'd been given to reconnect with his child. We can wait another month or two, she'd told him, cradling his face in her hands and brushing the tears from his cheeks with the pads of her thumbs. We've had rather a lot of practice at that.
Though she missed him desperately every day he was away her spirits had been buoyed by the knowledge that he was coming back to her, that she would hold him in her arms again, that one day soon he would call her wife. He had given her his mother's ring and she had worn it proudly, had smiled when people asked after him and every night she had checked herself over from head to toe, searching for a mark, searching for a sign that he was in danger. No such troubles came to him, however, and he returned to her arms at last, safe and whole. Though he had confessed that his meeting with Li had not gone as well as he had hoped, he had proudly produced a photograph of his daughter, a beautiful young woman with a strong, hard sort of expression on her face, and shyly confessed that he planned to write to her. With Jean's encouragement Lucien had made good on those promises, and slowly they worked together to mend the fissures in their tattered little family.
And now, after a beautiful wedding and a lovely party and a rather earth-shattering round of lovemaking, the sun was slowly beginning to rise behind the curtains as Jean Blake woke on the first morning of her new life as a married woman. Beside her Lucien was sleeping, lying flat on his back while Jean rested with her head pillowed on his shoulder. They had taken their time, the night before, had traced every inch of one another with lips and tongues and reverent fingertips, had come together as slowly in bed as they had in life so that by the time they were sated they had both fallen into a deep and dreamless sleep. Still, though, some habits were hard to break, and Jean Mary Beazley Blake would always be a farm girl at heart, always the first to rise to greet the coming of a new day. There was no work to be done today, however, as she and Lucien had the house to themselves and a lifetime of togetherness stretching out before them, and so she lingered, gazing adoringly at this man she had waited so very long to find.
They had been married for less than a day, and already she had learned so many new things about him. The riotous curl of his hair had surprised her, and she smiled at him fondly now as she took in the sight of those blonde curls against the white pillowcases. He was always careful to keep his hair neat and tidy, and before their marriage she would never have guessed just how much effort keeping up that appearance required. The curls rather suited him, she thought, made him look younger, softer somehow, and she resolved to tell him so when he woke. His skin was smooth and inexplicably tan, though perhaps that might have had something to do with the hours he'd spent attacking the hedges in the garden at his beloved's request. She had spent rather a lot of time perusing that tanned skin at her leisure, had discovered the salty taste of his neck and the way he shivered when her nails scraped lightly over his hips. She had learned the sounds he made, had learned the lightning strike feeling of his fingertips against her waist, strong and gentle and all-encompassing. A hundred tiny details had been burned into her memory over the course of that night, and she knew there were countless more to come, and she gave thanks for each and every one of them.
As the light slowly filtered into their room - for it was theirs, now, a place they shared, a sanctuary they'd carved out just for the pair of them - her eyes roved endlessly over the expanse of his chest. There was the mark upon his shoulder, jagged and terrible, from the day he'd been shot, the day Jean had first learned of his existence, the day her life had changed forever. And there on the curve of his bicep was a sickle-shaped scar that Jean knew had come from a burn of some sort, not because he'd told her so, but because she'd felt the searing heat of it against her own flesh. She shifted slightly, throwing one arm around his waist as she shifted closer to him, trying not to shiver when her fingertips brushed against the ridges of scars upon his back. Those, too, were blazoned in her mind, a terrible memory, and yet they gave her hope, for those scars had bound them together, were evidence that he had survived and made his way home to her at last, her soldier a restless wanderer no more.
There were newer marks upon his skin she blushed to look at now. A blotchy red mark at the base of his neck not left by Jean's lips but rather the mirror image of the mark Lucien's mouth had left upon her skin; Jean smiled wryly at the sight of it, making a note to wear a high collar the next time she ventured from the house. And further down, a darkening bruise on his chest, just above his heart, the counterpoint to the tender flesh at the curve of Jean's breast where his lips and teeth had scored her skin as he growled the word mine. If she were brave enough to reach out and trace her hand over the curve of his bum she knew she'd find the marks of her own fingernails, left behind as she had urged him on, drawn him deeper into her, and she knew that he would see the same marks echoed on her skin in the same place. There were not words for this, this certainty, this sure and certain truth, this love that warmed her from the inside out. He was everything to her, and always had been, and now that she had him, she knew she would never let him go.
"Jean," he breathed, his eyelashes fluttering against his cheeks, his arm tightening reflexively around her, a smile tugging at the corners of his lips as she nestled closer to him.
"Good morning," she answered him, lifting her head to kiss him once, softly.
"Good morning, my darling wife," he answered, blue eyes flashing at her as at last he woke and looked down upon her properly.
Jean's heart was so full she nearly began to weep, and so she chose instead to snake her arms around his neck, drawing him to her for a proper kiss as he smoothly rolled her beneath him, her body safe and warm beneath his own. Yes, it had been a long and messy road, but every moment was worth it for this, for him, for them together. Always.