Actions

Work Header

Where The River Used To Be

Chapter Text

Fresh off the plane from Toronto, Aurora stood at the entrance to the Camden pub for a full minute, staring at the address scribbled on a piece of crinkled paper in her hand. This had to be it, she thought wryly, where she’d agreed to meet Neil for drinks after her flight landed. She looked up at the sign above the entrance, where “The World’s End” was spelled out in rich gold lettering on a varnished wooden plaque.

So it was. She sighed, picked up the paper shopping bag and small suitcase she’d set down at her feet, and pushed the door open.

At this time of evening, the pub was yet only half-full, though the noise of clinking glasses, buzz of chatter, and hanging pall of cigarette smoke suggested a more packed atmosphere. She tried not to cough, and her eyes stung as she searched the throng of patrons for Neil.

Immediately she saw a profile she’d recognize anywhere. She strode up to its owner’s seat at the bar, set her bags down and tapped his shoulder.

Bonjour, Neil,” Aurora said. She broke into a smile of genuine pleasure at seeing him again and held out her arms.

“Aurora!” Neil’s whole face lit up and he set down his near-empty glass. “Now there’s a sight for sore eyes.” He rose from his bar stool, hugged her, and kissed her cheek. She returned his embrace wholeheartedly.

“It’s so good to see you again,” she said, “it’s been a long time.”

“Five years,” Neil replied, “last time you saw me I was still working.” He had returned to the Metropolitan Police Service in London after the war ended and rose through the ranks a second time.

“That’s right, you’re retired now,” Aurora said. “How long?”

“Two years this past June.” He drew back, still holding her by her arms. “How was your trip?” he said.

“Uneventful,” she replied with a brief nod. “Long, but uneventful.”

“The best kind of flight. Bet you’re parched though. What’re you and Alfred having?” He signalled the barkeep over and gestured to re-fill his glass.

Aurora paused, her smile fading. Neil’s own wide grin faltered when he noticed that Alfred was not with her.

“What, is Alfred hiding in the corner already?” he asked. It was his turn to scan the pub for any sign of Alfred’s presence. “Right, Alfred, where are you?” he called. “Come out, come out wherever you are.” The regulars on each side of him laughed good-naturedly and joined in.

Aurora glanced away, then back, feeling her already-tenuous control begin to slip. “He’s not here,” she said, forcing her voice to remain calm.

On seeing her expression, the smile fell altogether from Neil’s face, and he let go of her arms. “Where is he?” Neil asked.

She shook her head. “I can’t talk about it here,” she said. She did not want to explain in front of a group of strangers, even if they were Neil’s friends and neighbours. “Is there somewhere we can–?”

“Come walk with me, Aurora,” he said, and offered her his elbow.

Aurora clung to his arm, her shopping bag, and her suitcase for dear life, as he steered her deftly back through the crowd and out of the pub. She took a deep breath once outdoors, to clear her lungs of the lingering smells of tobacco and beer. He turned left and herded her away from the line of shops and pubs on the high street in Camden Town.

Now that they were outdoors, she found that he moved much slower than she remembered. That firm, grim purpose he’d carried in wartime, had mellowed over the years, but his pace today seemed downright plodding now in comparison. She adjusted hers accordingly, wondering if perhaps he felt a little under the weather. He led her to a nearby park, where a flock of white swans floated by on a small man-made pond, shaded by spindly birch trees and surrounded by carved wooden benches along a cinder path. At mid-evening, only a few people milled about so they enjoyed relative privacy.

They found an empty bench by the water’s edge where they sat down. Aurora stared blankly at the swans, trying to remember if they mated for life.

“Now, Aurora,” Neil said, turning towards her with barely controlled panic, “what the hell is going on? Where’s Alfred?”

There it was, the dreaded yet expected question. She took a deep breath, forced herself to keep Neil’s gaze. “Uhm – Alfred – Alfred – he died, Neil,” she replied. It was the first time she’d said it aloud to anyone since it happened, and the shape of the unpractised words felt foreign in her mouth. “He died just over three weeks ago.”

Neil’s face blanched as he processed the news. “My God,” he murmured. He looked away for a moment, blinking rapidly. He then met her gaze, took her hands in his, pressed them between his own. “Aurora, I am so sorry,” he said, his voice husky, “I would’ve been there if I’d known.”

And she knew that, she knew Neil would have dropped everything in a heartbeat to be at her side if he had known. But resentment surged that he hadn’t. She couldn’t reach him when it happened. No one had answered any of her telephone calls for days, so she eventually stopped calling. And since neither she nor Alfred had any other surviving family, she had to endure it all by herself: the frantic call for the ambulance, the autopsy, the funeral arrangements, the service. The burial. The headstone was waiting for when she got back to Canada –

She pursed her lips and pushed all her bitterness into a tight little ball in her chest. It was unfair to place all that at Neil’s feet. He must have had a good reason to be unavailable, she thought, and she would find out soon enough.

“How’d it happen?” Neil probed gently.

Did Alfred suffer, was the unspoken question. She drew one breath, two, collecting her thoughts. “In his sleep,” she said presently. “He – he went to bed with a headache and never woke up. The doctor said it was peaceful.” A massive cerebrovascular hemorrhage, the coroner’s report had said. There was no way he would have survived. “Alfred had a stroke. He was sixty-five.” She shrugged one shoulder.

Neil closed his eyes for a brief moment. “Dying in your sleep’s a good way to go. Thank God for that. Alfred deserved that at least.”

“Yes,” Aurora echoed distantly, biting her lip. “He did.” It was a cold comfort, but she didn’t want to imagine what the process might have been like with his synesthesia had he lingered in any way.

They fell silent, each deep in thought. Aurora tilted her chin up towards the rain clouds building in the sky and closed her eyes. This year marked the thirty-fifth anniversary of the team, and they were supposed to take a different tack. Previously, they’d meet up for an afternoon in Dieppe, visit the cemetery and the beach, and end with rounds of toasts in one of the local pubs. Alfred and Aurora would stay on in France for a holiday while Neil returned to England for work. Now that Neil was retired, they’d booked an extra few days’ vacation to spend in London with him before heading across the Channel together. A practice run, as it were, for their next visit; Aurora had one more year left at work, then she and Alfred would retire together with all the time in the world.

But Alfred had taken all those plans with him when he died, and Aurora found herself cast adrift without him. She seriously considered cancelling this trip, remaining in Canada this year. But she couldn’t break this news to Neil from a distance, either. No one else in her life could understand the depth of what she’d lost.

If she were fully honest with herself, she came mainly because she couldn’t bear rattling about the empty house any longer.

She changed the subject abruptly. “How are Mags and the kids?” she said with forced cheerfulness.

Neil paused a split-second at her seeming about-face, but he followed her lead. “Growing like weeds, the lot of ’em. Linda’s moved out with her boyfriend, so Donna and Susie are happy they don’t have to share a room anymore. Henry’s practising for the Camden rep team. I think Mags is glad she decided to stay on here instead of transferring with Charlie. One more year and he’ll be back.”

Aurora nodded. His niece Mags had married a career military officer, and they’d had four children: Linda in 1956, Donna in 1959, Susan in 1962, and Henry in 1966. Her husband had been assigned to a three-year posting to the new training unit the British Army had built on the Alberta prairie. Normally the whole family would have joined him, but Neil had retired from the Met at the same time, and he utterly refused to move to Canada again. Mags decided the family should remain in London, so the older children could finish school in England and her uncle wouldn’t be on his own.

Aurora was happy that Neil had gathered a family and a community around him, because he needed people like he needed air. In contrast, she and Alfred had been content to keep to themselves after the war ended. They’d purchased a small townhouse in a quiet Toronto suburb; she’d taken a job as a receptionist for a literary journal and worked her way up over the years to managing editor, while Alfred worked at the university library archives.

“And how’s retirement? What’s it like?”

“Almost like work to be honest,” Neil said. “Got the allotment to take care of, Mags’ kids, volunteering at the Legion, dart league Thursdays –”

“Darts?” She raised a disbelieving eyebrow.

“Oy! Don’t knock it, I’m Camden champion three years running. Third overall in London in the seniors. Have to sit out half the next season though. Be busier in a few months when Linda has the baby.”

Aurora raised both eyebrows at that. “Mags is going to be a grandmother?”

Neil just beamed. “Yeah, she’s over the moon about it. First grandchild.”

His excitement was infectious and Aurora had to smile despite her sorrow. “That’s – that’s incredible! Congratulations! Four generations in your family? That makes you a —” She counted on her fingers, trying to recall how family kinships worked.

“A great-grand uncle, if you can believe it.”

“That’s wonderful news, Neil. I’m so thrilled for you.” And she meant it; she squeezed his hands with all the joy she could muster on his behalf. She could even take some comfort from it. She might be on indefinite pause, but life still marched on.

None of them had had children of their own, though Neil had raised Mags after she’d been orphaned. Aurora had decided against having any after the war, considering what she’d seen and done. And Alfred had agreed, though sometimes she wondered if he went along with that choice only for her. But Alfred also hadn’t wanted to risk passing on his synesthesia, had not wanted to burden any progeny with his condition.

His gifted curse, Alfred sometimes used to call it, on the really bad days. His cursed gift.

Would her crushing grief be more tolerable if she and Alfred had had a family? If they’d had sons, daughters to share the burden of her loss? She doubted it. They would miss the father; she’d still miss the husband and the soul mate. At best she would only submerge her sorrow in theirs for awhile before it would rise to the surface again.

Though that had been how she’d made it through the war: keeping busy, subverting her pain through the missions. Taking it to the enemy, as Neil had advised Harry to do once.

Except there was no battle to fight anymore except the one within herself. Most of the scars wrought by the war had healed over. Alfred’s death was still so recent, her memories of him still so raw, it was as if the best part of her had been amputated and the stump of her was still bleeding. She’d reach for anything to staunch the wound.

“You know, I’ve never asked, but did you ever find anybody after all this time?” Aurora asked. Oddly enough, Neil had never married, something which had always niggled at her.

“No,” Neil said, “but not for lack of trying.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Not your fault,” he said. “Pulled a few here and there. Met one not too long after Mags had Susie. Almost made a go of it, too. For a while I thought we would. We clicked, she got along fine with Mags, we were steady a couple years. Til Stella wanted to know what I did after I transferred to Canada.”

“The Official Secrets Act,” Aurora said automatically. Alfred could recite it verbatim. Sometimes he recited it backwards or in Pig Latin, to make Aurora laugh after a hard day.

“Put a bit of a damper on things,” Neil said, with his particular gift of understatement. “Stella had to know everything about me. She decided, if I kept what I did in the war from her, she couldn’t trust me to be honest about anything else.” He grimaced at the memory.

Aurora raged inwardly at a woman she’d never met for cutting Neil so deeply so many years ago. “You were too good for her,” she said stoutly. “She never deserved you anyway.”

“Yeah, but that’s ancient history now. I’ve moved on. Too busy with everything else these days to fit a lady friend in.” His mouth quirked in a small, downcast grin.

Neil sounded casual enough about it, but Aurora knew how difficult the Official Secrets Act made the lives of surviving ex-agents. Their cover stories only carried them so far. Talking with family, forging new friendships, especially finding romantic attachments – it often proved easier to keep to themselves than to keep their lies straight.

Tired of the lies, she and Alfred had chosen the quiet life: puttering around the house on weekends, private walks together, almost completely self-contained outside of work. Only now did she realize how insulated their lives had been.

And because of it, how much loneliness she was forced to bear now.

Something must have leaked in her expression, because Neil was peering at her warily. Aurora licked her lips; she reached up hesitantly and cupped his cheek.

Neil ducked his head away. “Aurora, we were never like this before,” he murmured. “Let’s not start something we’ll only regret later.”

Maybe he did miss some things; from the depth of his sigh, Aurora guessed he hadn’t been touched like that in a very long time. But he was right, of course, and she couldn’t afford to drive away the one true friend she had remaining. She pulled back to a proper distance and dropped her hand to her lap. “I know,” Aurora said, “forgive me, that was highly inappropriate. It’s just –” She could only cling to what she had left. “Will you stay with me tonight?” she continued, adding, “I promise we won’t do anything but talk and sleep. Like we did back on the team.”

Silently she willed him to say yes. She needed his solid, steady company too badly; she didn’t know what she’d do if Neil rejected her offer.

Neil seemed to take too long to consider, but in the end, he nodded and rose. Again he offered her his elbow.

“Shall we, then?”

She grabbed her bags, they left the park; she hailed a cab rather than taking the tube, and they travelled to her hotel in the centre of London just as the sun set. It had been their usual hotel whenever she and Alfred visited London. They didn’t speak in the cab, though in the hotel lobby, Neil brushed his fingertips lightly on the small of her back while she checked in. An old gesture of comfort from their mission in Poitiers; she hadn’t thought of it in years. She was profoundly grateful for that small contact now.

She switched on one bedside lamp when she closed the door behind them. Neil entered the bathroom; she deposited her suitcase on the floor, the shopping bag on the dresser, and drew the balcony curtains closed, leaving only the lamp and the falling daylight from the crack in the drapes to illuminate the room. She pulled the covers down on the bed, then straightened and unzipped her dress, listening to the flush of running water in the pipes. She’d packed a nightgown, but felt too weary to dig through her suitcase for it.

Neil exited the bathroom a couple minutes later, pausing when he saw her waiting by the down-turned bed. “I’ll take the chair tonight,” he offered, gesturing at the over-stuffed blue armchair with matching ottoman in the corner.

“Nonsense,” Aurora countered, “you’ll be too stiff to move in the morning. We’ve shared beds before, remember? The safe house in Calais?”

The brightness in her voice was forced, but she didn’t want to sleep alone tonight in a too-big bed. Nor did she want to admit it out loud. She hoped Neil would get her drift.

“I remember you snored half the night,” he said.

“I had a cold at the time. I couldn’t breathe.”

“Yeah, and then you passed your cold to me. Was bloody miserable for a week after. Lucky I didn’t catch pneumonia from it too.”

They both grinned at the memory, and that seemed to break the ice. It was still light enough in the room for Aurora to observe Neil covertly, how he had aged as he undressed down to boxers and undershirt, as he folded his clothes carefully over the back of a straight chair by the table. His hair had already begun to grey at the temples when they first worked together. He’d been fully grey by the time of Mags’ wedding in 1955. Now it was pure white everywhere, including his eyebrows. He was still powerfully built, if thickened around the middle, but he wore his years with dignity.

Well, she’d aged too in the meantime; not thickened, but rather drooped and faded. Especially the last little while, she thought sourly. She wouldn’t call it dignified though. She turned her back to him and let her dress fall to the carpet, leaving on her slip, camisole and underwear.

He gave her one of his rare, genuine smiles when she faced him again. “Bloody hell, Aurora, you haven’t aged a day in thirty-five years,” he said. “How do you do that?”

She’d never believed, in all her years of knowing him, that he might have found her appealing. On the team, they’d needed each other most as a friend and ally; a source of strength to draw on when their own formidable supply began to ebb. Tonight, she couldn’t tell whether he saw her as she was now, or how she’d been then. Either way, there was no undertone of desire in his voice; only acknowledgement of how much time had passed.

“I think you may need glasses,” she said wryly.

He chuckled at that, then looked around the room. “It’s quiet here,” he said. “Used to a little more bustle than this.”

She’d become so accustomed to silence the past few weeks that she hadn’t noticed. “I can turn on the TV for background noise,” she offered.

“No need,” he said, “I don’t mind. It’s not often I get to hear myself think these days.”

Aurora giggled. “Probably even less of a chance in a few months.”

“That is true.”

“So which side do you want?” she asked, waving at the bed. The left side had always been Alfred’s. She wasn’t sure how she’d react if he decided to take that.

“The right side, thanks.”

Oh thank God, he still could read her cues. She rounded the bed, relieved, and they both climbed in, pulled the covers up to their necks, and she switched off the lamp. They lay side-by-side, not touching. The sheets were faintly starched and cold against her skin. Alfred had hated that the last few years. Always painfully slender, he’d been prone to chills of late, so she often went to bed first to pre-warm the bedclothes for him.

Tonight she could feel the heat radiate from Neil beside her in waves. She knew it was her grief and loneliness talking. She knew she wasn’t thinking clearly. But why couldn’t they make a go of it together at some point? Neil knew her better than anyone alive. She knew him well enough too, even if their entire friendship was based only on being assigned to the same Allied agent team thirty-five years ago. In reality, they had nothing in common but three months of training and six months working together in the field.

It didn’t matter that they would never be in love with each other, she thought. She’d already experienced total fulfillment for over thirty years with Alfred. She didn’t need romance now. She didn’t even need to be happy. As long as there was companionship between Neil and herself, she could be content –

“You know I can’t be him for you,” Neil said, as if reading her mind again. “I can’t.”

“I don’t want you to,” she demurred.

“Just so we know where we stand with each other,” Neil said gently.

“Of course.”

He was right, it wasn’t fair to expect him to fill the gaping hole in her life Alfred’s passing had left. He’d chosen to remain single, but not because he was waiting for her by any means. Neil seemed to have everything he needed. He was the patriarch of a booming family, she’d have to insert herself into his life, and she had grown too used to having Alfred all to herself. She couldn’t ask Neil to devote himself exclusively to her as Alfred had, it wasn’t fair. She could only accept what he was willing to give.

“It’s not fair, is it?” Aurora said, turning her thoughts to her comrades from the Café de l’Azur, to her father’s family when she’d realized their fate in the Paris catacombs. “Being the last ones left.”

“It never is,” Neil agreed.

“Do you look back? Wonder how things might have been if Tom or Harry or Miri had survived – ?”

“Used to, sure.” He turned on his side to face her, propping himself up on his elbow. “But you can’t dwell on the past, Aurora, it only drives you mad. Can’t go back, there’s only forward.”

“I know that, but do you still see them sometimes–?”

“Aurora, listen to me,” Neil said gently, holding her gaze. “You just lost the love of your life, yeah? That’s not something you will just get over. I lost most of the people I cared about decades ago. I’ve had more than enough time to make my peace with it. But you haven’t. Do yourself a favour. Give yourself a chance to mourn him properly. Don’t try moving on before you’re ready.”

Her eyes were hot and so very dry. As much as she wanted to, she hadn’t cried at all since Alfred died.

“You’re right,” Aurora said, “I just need time.” She patted his hand. “Thank you.”

Neil yawned, rolled away from her and pulled the blanket over his shoulders. “Good night, Aurora,” he said. “We’ll talk more in the morning.”

“Good night. Sleep well.”

Neil seemed to drop off in minutes; she lay awake for a long time, staring up at the whorled ceiling.

Chapter Text

A few hours later, Aurora startled awake to pounding rain outside.

She listened for a few minutes to the drumming rhythm on metal and concrete. The sound of rain on the roof at night back home in Toronto relaxed her, but here in London it was too loud and unfamiliar to soothe her jangled nerves. Neil, curled on his side, seemed to sleep right through it, and she tried not to envy him for it.

Fearing she might disturb him with her restlessness, she slipped out of bed and tiptoed to the bathroom. When she returned to the bedside, Neil still appeared to be out, his breathing light and regular; he hadn’t even budged. She debated returning to the warmth under the covers, but instead she bypassed the bed and padded to the balcony door. She drew apart the heavy curtains and touched the cold window, leaving her hand print on the glass.

London rain, Toronto rain. It was all one giant cycle, Alfred had said, one lazy summer Sunday a few years ago when they’d taken a picnic in a nearby park. The air had been thick and humid that day; a thunderstorm had been brewing and would break later that evening. Alfred had lain with his head in her lap and pointed at the towering mass of cumulonimbus clouds above them, tracing the movement of moisture between sky and earth with his finger. Evaporation and condensation, rise and fall, the first April shower or the first ice storm in November, it was all the same water, he’d said: the same clouds, cycling all over the world.

Which meant some of the raindrops bouncing off the hotel balcony railing tonight in 1977, also must have soaked the fields near Dieppe in 1942, she thought: an eternal cycle linking London to Canada to France, present to future to past.

She heard a soft clearing of a throat behind her. “Come back to bed, Aurora,” Neil said, punctuated by a yawn. “It’s past three.”

She didn’t turn around. “I will in a minute.”

She continued to observe the rainwater sluice down the glass in sheets. Alfred had loved to walk the city streets when it rained in the evenings, when the roads and sidewalks were peaceful and deserted, when the streetlights lost their yellow harshness and bled into a gentle haze in the wet.

It had rained the last day of his life.

She loved to accompany Alfred on his rainy walks, but that evening she hadn’t. She’d had a deadline at the journal. She’d been typing edits furiously on her portable typewriter in her office when he dropped by and asked her to join him.

He’d looked so disappointed when she refused, but he hadn’t argued or cajoled; he simply kissed her and stepped out again with his umbrella. He’d been gone a couple of hours, had returned with Swiss Chalet chicken and a bottle of her favourite white wine, that still sat unopened in her office desk. She’d eaten while poring over her notes, getting grease prints on the foolscap.

She vaguely remembered him mentioning a headache behind his eyes so he was heading home and going to bed early. He’d been getting frequent headaches the past few years; they both attributed them to eyestrain at his work. She couldn’t remember if she’d kissed him goodnight. She’d stayed up until the early hours working on deadline, and napped on the living room couch at home afterwards so she wouldn’t disturb him.

She found him already gone when she went to wake him for work next morning.

Aurora leaned her forehead against the balcony door, her breath fogging the glass. Had Alfred known when he left the office, that his time was running out? Had he been trying to tell her that when he asked her to join him? She could have spent one last evening with him splashing through the iridescent puddles, revelling in the fragrance of freshly-fallen rain on the soil. Alfred had called it petrichor.

Instead that evening was swept away and lost forever. The only remnant of it left was the rain linking London to Toronto tonight.

It wasn’t fair.

She felt her throat tighten, the room start to close in. She needed to taste the kiss of rain on her skin, she decided, needed to feel those raindrops, that had touched him one last time, encircle her too. So she unlatched the balcony door, slid it open just wide enough to slip through, and stepped onto the concrete deck.

The rainstorm drenched her to the skin in seconds. Goosebumps dotted the flesh on her bare arms; exhilarated, she raised her face to the roiling clouds for a moment, let the icy water chill her to the bone. She then rocked back and forth against the railing to watch the fat drops plop into a giant puddle on the pavement six storeys below. The streetlights shimmered over the surface of the makeshift lake.

A minute or so later, squeaky hinges protested as Neil opened the balcony door behind her.

“What the hell are you doing, Aurora?” he shouted over the din.

Aurora turned to him, hands raised to the sky, and spun a slow pirouette. “I’m just feeling the rain.”

“Jesus Christ! Come inside before you catch your death out there.”

It shouldn’t have sounded so hilarious, but the laughter bubbled up anyway and she roared with it, her face still upturned to the heavens. Catching your death. It was so absurd, she never caught death, she deflected it. Everyone else around her caught it instead, one way or another.

But she would humour Neil. He still stood at the open door, features deepening to a determined scowl. In only a matter of seconds he’d stalk outside to haul her back into the room, get soaked himself in the process, and catch his death from her. That just wouldn’t do. She had too much blood on her hands as it was. So she ducked back indoors, still chuckling at the inanity of it.

She stood shivering in the doorway, dripping on the carpet. Neil had fetched a stack of fluffy white towels from the bathroom in the meantime; he pulled the sliding door closed behind her and quickly draped a bath towel around her shoulders. He wrapped a second over her hair.

“I don’t see what’s so bleeding funny about this,” he muttered as he rubbed down her hair. “Three in the morning, naught but slip and knickers, freezing outside in a bloody downpour. That’s not funny, Aurora, that’s stark raving mad.”

His fussing like the proverbial mother hen only compounded the hilarity. That’s the point, she wanted to say, it’s nothing but mad. She giggled harder until her eyes filled with tears.

“Right then, you need to change out of those wet things into something warm and dry. D’you have a nightie in your bag?”

She couldn’t speak for snickering, but she nodded, drawing the towel tighter around her. Neil went to her suitcase, opened and rummaged through the layers of clothing until he retrieved a proper nightgown and underwear. He passed them to her, still sounding a bit put out. “Hurry up before you get chilled any further.” He turned around to give her privacy.

She could have slipped into the bathroom to change, but instead she shimmied out of her sodden clothes on the spot. She patted the rainwater off and shrugged into the dry garments. But as she smoothed the nightgown over her knees, the laughter drained away, and despair rose like a spring tide in its place. Oh God, she wanted that lost evening back so much it hurt. She wrapped her arms around her middle against the cresting wave of pain.

“Do you know what the worst part is about losing him, Neil?” she asked plaintively.

Neil turned at her voice, instantly alert. “Tell me,” he said gently.

“It’s not that Alfred died,” she said. “It’s – it’s – we – ” She drew a huge, ragged breath, then another. Her hand flew to her mouth.

Neil approached her. “What is it, Aurora?” he said.

“We were going to spend the rest of our lives together,” she forced through a throat that was quickly squeezing shut. “But the rest of our lives ended before it got – it ever got to begin.”

She spluttered on the last words. The next thing she knew, Neil wrapped her in his arms and guided her head onto his shoulder. She huddled against him and trembled, though not because she was chilled. “Alfred, I’m sorry,” she hiccuped, “I’m sorry, Alfred, I’m sorry – ”

“It’s okay, Aurora,” Neil said, “just let it out now, yeah? Let it out.”

His permission released the floodgates, and she sobbed, heartbroken, into his neck.

The tide of grief slowly ebbed, and as it did exhaustion washed over her in its wake. “I need to lie down now,” she said after a few minutes.

He released her, and she climbed into bed, curled into a ball facing the wall. She felt the mattress dip behind her, then his hand rubbing small comforting circles between her shoulder blades. Tears sprung afresh at the touch, and she wept miserably into her pillow until she fell asleep again.

She woke up by herself in the bed, sunlight streaming through the crack in the drapes. She realized she wasn’t alone in the room, however, when she heard the rustle of newsprint. She turned over to find Neil awake and sitting at the round table in the corner opposite, reading a newspaper. Somehow he’d procured a kettle, two mugs, a small box of tea, and a packet of biscuits, which sat on the table.

He looked up at her stirring, peered at her over the frames of his reading glasses. “Good morning, sleepyhead.”

She glanced at the bedside clock. Was it really ten already? “Good morning. Have you been up long?”

“Not really.” Long enough though, to be fully washed and dressed, and from the disorganized state of the newspaper, he had been reading it awhile. “Want some tea?”

“Yes please.” She climbed out from under the covers, shivering as the colder room air hit her skin.

Neil rose and brought her a small throw blanket from the armchair for her to wrap around. She took it gratefully, and sat down in the second chair across from his. He heated the kettle and made her a mug, passed it over to her along with the biscuits.

She hunched over her mug, hair falling over her face like a curtain. After the storm last night, she felt more than a little awkward, though Neil didn’t seem to be uncomfortable around her at all. It wasn’t like they hadn’t seen each other at their lowest before. Still she wondered if she ought to apologize for her outburst in the rain. She forced herself to look at him.

“About last night –” she began.

“S’all right, Aurora,” he said, “no shame in needing a good cry.”

She smiled despite herself. “I may need a few of those before this trip is over,” she admitted.

“You know where to find me if you do,” he replied.

She nodded, grateful, and raised her mug to her lips. A beat passed, two, closing the moment.

“So what’s on your agenda?” Neil asked, in a deliberately lighter tone.

She shook her head; she had no idea what she wanted to do on her first full day in England without Alfred. “I don’t know. What are your plans for today?” she asked instead.

“Have to check on the allotment, catch up on some gardening, promised Mags I’d bring home fresh veg for dinner tonight,” Neil said, ticking each chore off on his fingers. “And Henry has a football game after, so I’ll go cheer on the lad.” He regarded her, worry plain on his face. “You’re more than welcome to join me if you don’t mind getting a little dirty. Would appreciate the help in the garden. And Mags and the kids would love to see you.”

Usually Aurora and Alfred spent a couple of days sightseeing in England before meeting up with Neil. After last night, she didn’t want to stray too far from Neil’s steadying presence right now. “I’d like that.”

“Come on then, finish your tea and get yourself ready.”

The room still felt too quiet. “Is there anything interesting in the news this morning?” she asked, if only to drive away the silence with his voice. So Neil read aloud a few news articles to her while she sat with her fingers curled around her mug, and while she pulled herself together for the rest of the day.

She dressed in slacks, one of Alfred’s shirts, thick-soled walking shoes that would tolerate soil, and pulled back her hair in a loose braid. When she stepped out of the bathroom, Neil did a double-take.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, puzzled.

“Nothing,” he said, shaking his head. “Just – for a second there I thought we were back at the Camp. How you’re dressed, I mean.”

“I can change if it bothers --”

“No, it’s perfect for the allotment. Got a lot of work in the garden today.”

“A day in the life of Neil Mackay,” Aurora said, “sounds idyllic.”

She smirked when he rolled his eyes at the jest. “Yeah, just you wait,” he said.

~~

A few hours later, Aurora began to see what Neil had meant about hearing himself think. No matter where they went, it seemed like everywhere they turned, on the Tube to his stop in Camden or on the street headed towards the allotments, there was someone he knew, someone with whom to strike up a rousing conversation. Back in the field they’d spent long hours on watch, observing the enemy in complete silence. At home in Toronto, she and Alfred could spend entire days, morning to night, without saying a word to each other, simply revelling in their companionship.

Since Alfred died and the silence grew stifling instead of comfortable, she’d learned to appreciate the tick of her kitchen clock for company. Here, the noise and chatter and interruption seemed endless. It was a miracle, she thought, how Neil managed to get anything done in his day. And he seemed to keep it up effortlessly.

Except once, while they were at the allotment. He examined the plants to make sure the rainstorm hadn’t caused serious damage. They tied back vines of ripening tomatoes, and she helped him harvest a small basket of snap beans for dinner. He set her to weeding a bed of leeks and chard, then disappeared into the small shed at the back of the plot to retrieve some garden tools.

Glad to have something useful to focus on, some time passed before Aurora looked up and noticed Neil hadn’t returned yet. One of the owners of an adjoining garden must have held him up, she decided. That was probably good for a half hour chat right there. But she needed a trowel to loosen an especially stubborn clump of weeds, so she went to the shed to fetch it herself.

She found Neil bunched over on a low stool inside, head bowed, hands on his knees.

“Hey, are you all right?” she asked, worry creeping into the edge of her voice.

Neil looked up, sweat dotting his forehead. Aurora briefly saw the lines of exhaustion on his face before he quickly pasted on a benign expression. “M fine. Just taking a breather is all.”

Her brow furrowed. He sounded cheerful enough, but she’d never known him to take any kind of break when there was work to be done.

“Here,” he added, beckoning her over. He took a coin purse from his pocket, pulled out two pound coins, and dropped them in her palm. “Tea shop’s to your left and down the street. Pick up one for me, will you? Get one for yourself too. Tell ‘em Neil sent you, they’ll know what to do.”

“Are you sure you’re okay?” She reached out, checking his forehead; he felt cool, perhaps even a little clammy to the touch.

“Nothing that a tea won’t cure. Cheers.”

Feeling uneasy, she left the allotment and picked up the drinks as asked, hurrying back as fast as she could. When she returned, Neil was back outside, working on the patch of soil Aurora had previously. He looked a little paler than normal, but otherwise he seemed back to his usual self.

Still, she wondered.

~~

Mags’ house was a few blocks downhill from the allotment, in the centre of a row of terraced houses, marked by a bright green door and billowing lace curtains in the front room window.

Neil breezed in, but Aurora paused just inside the threshold, preparing herself to greet his busy, high-spirited family. A pile of sports equipment lay jumbled in the corner behind the door. A pair of cleats were strewn carelessly in the middle of the hall. From two rooms upstairs, ABBA warred for dominance with Rod Stewart on separate record players.

“Music down, ladies!” Neil called up the narrow staircase. He kicked the shoes out of the way. “Henry Thomas, next time I find these bloody cleats in the hall they’ll go straight to the rubbish bin!”

Aurora had to laugh. He led her down the short passageway to the kitchen, where Mags stood at the stove, stirring a pot and chatting with a young woman seated at the table peeling potatoes.

“Mags, you remember Aurora, right?”

She turned, and Aurora couldn’t help doing a double-take at Mags’ resemblance to her uncle. “I do, and hello, it’s lovely to see you again! Linda’s dropped by for dinner, but I reckon there’s enough for Aurora too if she’s staying. That is if you brought the beans. And you did, oh brilliant!”

“Tomatoes too.” He hefted the wicker basket onto the counter. “Kettle still hot?”

“Just off the boil,” Linda said. “Sit down here, Uncle, I’ll get it.” She rose from her seat and expertly weaved around them and Mags to the kettle on the counter, revealing her pregnancy. Four generations in this room, Aurora thought with a mixture of wonder and envy.

Aurora did her best to smile and nod at the right places in the conversation, but she mainly focused on the mug of instant coffee Linda handed to her, trying not to feel overwhelmed by the commotion around her. Which she did once, when Mags offered her condolences about Alfred. And a second time, when dinner was ready and the rest of the family – Donna, Susan, and Henry, already clad in his soccer jersey – bounded downstairs to join them.

Henry bolted his dinner, and jumped up as soon as his fork clattered on the plate a final time.

“Gotta go now, see ya at the game --”

“You wait for your uncle, young man, you have to carry his deck chair,” Mags said.

“But Mum, I’ll be late again, and Coach said if I’m late one more time I won’t start – ”

“I can take chairs to the game,” Aurora offered, “it’s no problem.”

Henry flashed a hopeful grin at her. All eyes turned to Neil; Aurora was stunned to see an outright scowl cross his features. It disappeared as quickly as it formed, however, and he waved his hand to dismiss the boy.

“Go, we’ll catch up,” he said. Henry whooped, punched the air, and sprinted from the kitchen out the door. Only then did Aurora wonder why Henry was tasked with that particular chore.

Henry’s soccer game had already started by the time they arrived at the school pitch. She set up the chairs close to mid-line, as per Neil’s direction. A handful of parents milled about as well; most smiled or nodded in greeting before turning back to the game, but otherwise left them alone.

She had the distinct feeling that Neil was not used to sitting down at his nephew’s games. It didn’t feel right, either; she saw him jogging up and down the sidelines as linesman, not folded motionless in a canvas lawn chair. More than once she observed him struggle not to jump to his feet to cheer Henry’s team. Though he did anyway, seconds before the end, when Henry’s corner kick set up the winning goal of the game.

“Did you see my kick, Uncle?” Henry said, as they headed towards home afterwards. He carried the chairs back; Neil spun Henry’s soccer ball in his hands. “Just like how you showed me before you went into--”

“Pelé couldn’t have been prouder of that kick,” Neil said, cutting Henry off. “Keep this up, you’ll make the rep team next year.” He clapped Henry’s shoulder; Aurora’s chest ached as she recalled the same gesture from a different, darker era, encouraging another boy to pick up and keep going.

“Do you think so?”

“Not a doubt.”

Henry practically floated the rest of the way home with the praise. Aurora and Neil followed at his slower, plodding pace. When they arrived back at the house, Henry’s cleats hung neatly on a hook above the sports equipment.

“You weren’t kidding this morning,” Aurora said, “I don’t know how you can juggle all this without going – ”

Neil shrugged. “Family’s worth it, I reckon.” He gave her a brief, one-armed hug. “Want another cup of tea?”

Aurora checked her watch. “I should be going. It’s almost eight.”

“You don’t need to stay at that hotel all by yourself, you know,” Neil said. “Susan and Donna won’t mind sharing a bedroom for a few days.”

Aurora appreciated the offer, but didn’t think she could tolerate the Mackay household chaos much longer. “Would you stay with me at the hotel again tonight?” she asked instead.

Neil cocked his head at her, considering; he then nodded. “Yeah, sure. Just let me grab a few things first.”

He took his leave and disappeared into the bedroom off the front room, closing the door behind him. Aurora called a cab from the phone in the kitchen. When she finished, she returned to the hall to wait; Neil’s door was still closed. Mags came out from the kitchen, glanced between the door and Aurora, then stepped close to her.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” Mags said in a lowered voice, wiping her hands on a dish towel. “He’s never admitted it, but I think after the surgery he’d really been missing you and Alfred.”

Chapter Text

What?

Aurora stared at her in shock. “Surgery? What – what surgery?”

Mags goggled at that; she frowned at the still-closed door. “You mean he never told you?”

“This is the first I’ve heard about it.”

Mags set her hands on her hips with a heavy sigh. “Oh good Lord. Well. It’s really not my place, he ought to be telling you himself, but if he’s not going to– ”

She glanced at the door again, and continued sotto voce, “One night beginning of July, he started complaining of crushing chest pain so I took him to A&E. He had almost full blockage of his coronary arteries. Not quite a heart attack, the doctors said, but bad enough, so they operated right away. He had a triple coronary bypass. Spent all of July in hospital, just got out two weeks ago. He didn’t say anything to you at all?”

Aurora shook her head, pursed her lips. The beginning of July was almost seven weeks ago. Alfred had passed away in mid-July, three weeks later. That explained why she couldn’t reach him.

“I suppose not, he wouldn’t have wanted you to worry,” Mags said, sounding resigned. “I’m sorry, Aurora, I honestly thought you knew.”

“That’s all right,” she said faintly, biting back a sudden surge of anger. “Thank you for telling me.”

Henry came out from the front room, where he’d been watching TV, and joined Mags at her side. The bedroom door opened at the same time, and Neil emerged with a small canvas rucksack. Despite her growing fury at him, Aurora had to smile at that; some things never seemed to change.

“Shall we?” he said. To Mags he said, “See ya tomorrow, Maggie,” and pecked her cheek. He then ruffled Henry’s hair and added, “Be good for your mum, or I’ll hear about it.”

Henry looked up at his mother. “Is Aurora Uncle Neil’s girlfriend?”

Aurora tried not to laugh. Of course not, she wanted to reply, even though she herself had mused on the possibility. Neil didn’t bother dignifying that question with an answer either; he simply grabbed her elbow and steered her towards the front door without further comment. As they left the house to wait outside, before the door closed she heard Mags admonish, “Don’t make assumptions, young man. They’re friends from a long time ago. They have a lot to catch up on.”

Yes we do, Aurora thought grimly. She was surprised at how furious she was with Neil right now; no, worse. She felt betrayed. A heart attack? How dare he not tell her? Yes, he’d always tended to be private about his personal affairs. She’d never known about Mags until after they came back to Canada from Berlin, when he put in for a transfer back to England rather than return to the field. She’d been disappointed he wouldn’t join her in Belgium, but she couldn’t fault him either. Mags needed him more than she did.

But surely something as major as open heart surgery counted as something important to confide in her about, she thought as they climbed into the cab. Early July. Alfred was still alive then. They would have come to England in a heartbeat. How dare Neil face his mortality without them by his side? Weren’t they still a team? Of course she knew he hadn’t been alone, he’d been surrounded by family, friends, love. Yet –

A bitter, angry part of her thought, maybe if Neil had died, Alfred might still be with her today.

Immediately she berated herself for it. What a horrible thing to think. Death didn’t work like that. When your time was up, it was up. It would really have meant she’d have no one right now. She should be grateful Neil pulled through and was here to support her today. She was grateful.

Her gratitude didn’t help calm her rising temper though. She only barely held her tongue until they reached the privacy of her hotel room.

“Were you ever going to tell me about your heart attack?” she asked as soon as she’d locked and bolted the door behind her.

Neil sighed and set down his rucksack in the armchair. “Mags told you.”

“You certainly didn’t.”

“It wasn’t a heart attack – ”

“No, but you had open heart surgery so it wouldn’t become one.”

“That’s true. But I’m sixty-nine, Aurora. I’m not getting any younger. These things are bound to happen at my age.”

“You could have told us! You could have had Mags call us at least! We would have been there for you if we’d known!”

“They rushed me to surgery as soon as they found the blockages. By the time it was over you still would’ve been in the air.”

“And what if you’d died on the table?”

Neil looked at her, puzzled. “But I didn’t.”

“You could have.” Aurora’s voice warbled dangerously. “You could have died, and we wouldn’t have known until it was too late.”

“Like how you waited until you came to London before you told me about Alfred?”

“Because I couldn’t reach you when it happened!”

But Neil’s words hung accusing in the air between them. She pursed her lips shut and stared at the floor. She knew, she knew how Neil felt about leaving anyone behind.

“Why did you wait so long to tell me after the fact, Aurora? Did you think I didn’t want to be at his funeral to say goodbye? That I didn’t want to be there to help you?” Neil sounded genuinely wounded.

She turned around and closed her eyes, struggling for control. “It – it wasn’t something I could explain in a letter,” Aurora said weakly. “Or a telegram – I had to come tell you in person myself.”

“You could have called at any time,” he insisted, “I would have come.”

“You were still in hospital in mid-July,” she reminded him. “You were in no condition to travel– ”

“I would have been there regardless. Alfred was my friend too.”

She turned back at the sudden change in tone; to her dismay, he looked close to tears. “I know,” she said, her own eyes welling up in commiseration. “I know – and I wish – ”

She stopped herself, realizing there was nothing she could say that wouldn’t hurt more. Instead she went to him, cupped the back of his neck, and leaned her forehead against his. They stood like that for a few moments, quietly trying to pull themselves back together.

“Our friendship goes both ways, yeah?” Neil asked at length.

Her heart ached, that he thought he even had to ask her that question. “Of course it does,” she murmured. “And I’m sorry I waited so long to tell you.”

Neil swallowed. “Me too. Mags wanted to call after I got out of hospital. I wouldn’t let her. Figured I’d see the both of you in a couple weeks, explain everything then.”

A wave of exhaustion washed over Aurora. “Let’s – let’s just call it a night now, okay?” she said. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t nine o’clock. “I don’t think I’ve recovered from the jet lag yet.”

It was a weak lie at best, but Neil’s relief was palpable at the suggestion. “Sure. Good idea.”

She drew back, but Neil wouldn’t meet her eyes. She sighed, gathered her things and slipped into the bathroom to give Neil space to compose himself.

A few minutes later, she burrowed under the bed clothes, grateful for the cover of falling darkness. Neil, however, seemed to take a very long time in the bathroom, long enough for her to think she ought to check on him. When he finally appeared, he still wouldn’t look at her even after he climbed in beside her.

She curled on her side towards him, close but not touching. He lay on his back, hands folded on his stomach, and stared upwards at the ceiling. In the faint light remaining, she recognized the set in his jaw. She had seen it once before, the day Tom died.

Gingerly, Aurora reached out to splay her hand on his chest, over the scar beneath his pyjama shirt. He tensed at the contact, but he didn’t push her hand away either. The ridge of healing tissue, beneath the thin fabric of his shirt, rose and fell in tandem with his breathing.

Of course it would have to be a heart attack for Neil, she thought. Just as Alfred had died from stroke. Death always wanted one’s defining trait. She refused to think what Death had planned for her.

Neil licked his lips and addressed the ceiling, finally breaking the oppressive silence. “Back in July, when the chest pain started, I reckoned here it comes, the big one. And I thought, sixty-nine’s a good age. Older than anyone else in my family I can think of, if you can believe that.”

Aurora nudged closer, her gaze fixed on the profile of his features.

“They rushed me to surgery as soon as they found the blockages. The doctors told me what they did after I woke up. Ingenious, really, they transplanted veins from my leg to replace the blocked arteries to my heart. Harry would’ve liked that.” Aurora had to smile in agreement.

“I spent a lot of time thinking during my recovery. About the war. The team. About Tom, and Harry. How I’d already lived longer after they died, than either of them were alive. When they got killed, I told myself, if I survive this nightmare I’d live for them. I’d have the life, the family they never got to have. I’d celebrate every day. And I did. When they wheeled me into surgery I thought, I don’t want to die, but if I go now it’d be all right cause I kept my promise to them. And Alfred’s still alive, he’ll keep his promise to remember for all of us.”

He turned his head to look at her then, his face etched in pain. “When you told me Alfred died, last night, after you – after you fell asleep the second time, I realized, there’s still too much to do here. I’m not ready to go yet, I’m not done living my life. For Mags, for them. Alfred was struck down, I almost was. I can go anytime now. So can you for that matter. And that scares me now, yeah? That terrifies the shite out of me. Cause it’s just you and me left now who can remember everyone as they really were. When we’re gone that’s it. All those memories, everything we saw and did, they go with us.”

Aurora nodded. At sixty-four, she expected at least another ten to fifteen years of vigorous life ahead of her, barring accidents or other unforeseen events. Neil had endured one major crisis already. He had, being generous, maybe five years of good health left. Which meant she’d most likely be the last one standing of the team. It was something she realized she’d been trying to put out of her mind since the allotment, when she began to wonder if Neil was well.

No, before that. Since she first saw him at the pub.

“Are you still up to going to Dieppe?” she asked gently. “We can cancel our trip, give you more time to recover if you need – ”

“I can manage,” Neil said, “I have to. I owe it to them.”

“You don’t owe anyone anything. They would understand if we missed this year,” Aurora said. “Alfred would.”

Neil didn’t answer.

“Think about it, at least?” Aurora added, when the pause grew too long to be comfortable. She patted his shoulder.

“I’ll sleep on it,” Neil said finally. “Good night, Aurora.” He rolled over, ending the conversation.

“G’night.”

Again she stared up at the stippled whorls on the ceiling. That’s why he didn’t want to tell me, she thought. He always needed to be the strong one. The dependable one. The one who got blood on his hands to protect the others, who preferred to shoulder everyone else’s burden. To Neil, his own vulnerability was something to hide, not share. He must not only be terrified to admit something like this, she thought, but he must also be furious with himself about feeling so helpless.

She completely understood how that went.

Aurora shifted onto her side and curled up into a ball, her back pressed against the broad warmth of Neil’s. Clasping her knees, she stared at the top of the dresser where the shopping bag she’d brought from Toronto still sat unopened. A gift for Neil sat waiting inside it. She’d have to do something about it soon.

Visiting where Tom had fallen was remarkably straightforward. They would drive from London to Newhaven in East Sussex and board the ferry to Dieppe, seventy-five miles across the Channel. On foot they would make their way from the port to the pebbled beach and head west along the shore about two miles until they reached the rocks below Pour de Lys.

Visiting Harry’s grave was impossible in the meantime. The Communists had seized control of Poland shortly after the war ended. Alfred, Aurora, and Neil had all attempted to secure passage several times, but the Polish People’s Republic was effectively locked down to visitors from the West. Even Neil’s Met connections proved useless. The last time they’d seen Krystina was at Aurora’s wedding to Alfred in 1946. Their closest Polish allies had led the Resistance near Pruszko, except Janowski died during the Nazi raid on Nadzeja, and they’d lost track of Zosia after Berlin.

Part of Aurora felt, guiltily, relieved about it. Alfred had continued to have nightmares of Poland for years. None of her memories of those seven days were pleasant; she was not proud of what she had done, of who she became, for the sake of the mission. And for Neil, those days had meant nothing but loss, so many racked up one after another like ducks in a barrel.

But it wasn’t right, either. They acknowledged Harry at Dieppe too, of course, but Aurora sensed that it increasingly bothered Neil over the decades, how they couldn’t visit Harry’s resting place, though he never said anything about it. Even though they knew exactly where Harry’s grave was, it felt too much like they’d left him behind too, the same way they’d abandoned the others. Aurora felt powerless to fix it.

It was Alfred who had eventually found a possible solution.

He had taken up oil painting eight years ago. His first attempts were abstract, waves and swirls of diametric colour superimposed on everyday objects; his attempts, Aurora believed, to explain how he remembered things. Over time, as he honed his skill and developed his style, his subjects acquired a quality somewhere between photograph-like accuracy and a translucent, otherworldly distance, the swirls like memories of strolls in the rain.

After their thirtieth anniversary visit to Dieppe, he’d been inspired to paint the rocks below the cliffs at Pour de Lys.

He’d painted two versions of the same scene; one he’d sent to Neil for Christmas that year, and the other they’d hung over their fireplace. When she was at Mags’ house yesterday, she’d surveyed all the rooms and hallways available to her, but the painting was nowhere to be seen.

It was probably in Neil’s closed-off bedroom, she thought – or so she hoped. She never did hear what Neil had thought of it.

One day in mid-May, a couple months before he died, Alfred called her to the front room of their townhouse where he’d set up his mini-studio. He showed her a finished canvas on his easel.

“What do you think, Aurora?”

The fine, graceful brush strokes detailed a peaceful, if melancholy scene: a freshly-dug mound of earth at the foot of two giant elms, framed by a serene, glassy lake in the background and surrounded by young birch and maple saplings. The late afternoon sun burnished the ground, dappling the leaves just on the verge of turning. A photograph burned in memory and rendered in oil; Aurora thought she should recognize it, but wasn’t sure.

“It’s where Harry is buried,” Alfred said, “in Poland.”

Aurora’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh my God.” She had only seen it once, from a distance, the day she’d killed Heidi Adler for outing her as a spy.

“This one is for Neil. I thought we could take it with us when we go to London in August. I painted one for us, too.”

She’d hung their picture of Harry’s grave in their living room, beside the picture of the beach. On the flight to London, unwilling to trust the cargo hold, she carried Neil’s painting on the plane with her in the cabin, cradled in her lap. Now, she wasn’t sure when she should give it to him. Before, or after Dieppe?

Well, a wry voice murmured in her ear, just as she began to drop off, when would she prefer to risk losing Neil’s friendship for good?

Chapter Text

“Do you think we should tell Neil?” Alfred had asked her that evening, after he’d shown her the painting of Harry’s grave, as they were preparing for bed.

“Tell him about what?”

“About why we ended up on that train to Poland.”

Aurora, seated at her dresser, paused at the deliberate evenness in his voice, her brush still in mid-stroke through her hair. “It happened almost thirty-five years ago, chéri,” she replied carefully, speaking at his reflection in the dresser mirror. “What good would it do him now?” She’d long ago, simply out of necessity, set aside her guilt about it. She finished drawing the brush through and caught Alfred’s reflected gaze in the glass.

Poland had been a defining moment for all of them, though none more so than Alfred. “Ever since I started painting the pictures of Harry’s grave, I thought I’d keep reliving the day he died,” he said. “The train, the stories of the prisoners, the fire, the massacre in the field. But instead, I kept seeing the church in Paris. I kept hearing Colonel Sinclair’s conversation with Ernst Frommer in the pew.”

“Telling Neil about it still can’t bring Harry back,” Aurora reminded him gently, “and Sinclair paid for his mistakes in Berlin.”

“I know. But to leave Neil in the dark for so long -- ”

Aurora sighed and turned to face him properly. “Do you think he would want to know this late in the day?”

“Yes, because it is so late in the day,” Alfred said. He squatted beside her, face at eye level. “It doesn’t matter how late it is. He deserves to know the truth, Aurora. And you know he’ll start asking questions when he sees the picture. We’ll have to tell him.”

“No matter how much it could hurt him? Maybe even end our friendship with him for good?”

“If I were Neil, I’d want to know.”

“Alfred --”

“I wouldn’t want to know we’d been keeping something like this a secret. Even if it meant he could never forgive us.”

Chéri –”

“Promise me that if I don’t get the chance to tell him what really happened, you will.”

The intensity of Alfred’s voice stunned Aurora. “It’s that important to you?”

He nodded. “It is. We owe it to him. We owe it to Harry.”

Aurora sighed and relented. “All right. If you’re not there to explain when we give him the picture, I will tell him.”

~~

The London morning dawned cool and misty. Tomorrow, Aurora and Neil would drive to Newhaven to catch the Dieppe ferry. Today, Aurora wondered how to occupy her time. Lovely people though they were, she didn’t think she could handle a second day with Neil’s high-spirited family. Perhaps she could convince him to accompany her to the British Museum instead. Alfred had planned to visit the Qing dynasty art exhibit that had just opened. Neil had been a policeman in Shanghai before the war, so perhaps he might be interested in it too.

She flung her arm out sideways, to find Neil’s side of the bed empty. Did she sleep in again? No, the bedside clock read only seven-fifty. Neil wasn’t in the room at all, though his rucksack was still in its spot in the chair. Which meant he should return soon, she thought.

She sat up in bed, hands clasped around her knees, and stared at the bag on the dresser, still mulling about what to do about it. But then the lock turned, the door opened, and Neil breezed in, with a newspaper tucked under his arm and a full bag of what appeared to be--

“Rise and shine, Aurora, brought you breakfast.”

“Good morning to you too. But I thought the hotel restaurant didn’t open until eight.”

“Nah, too posh. This is a proper English breakfast. A mate runs a cafe on the corner. This’ll put meat on your bones, last you all day.”

She laughed, partly in disbelief, mainly because she was touched by how he continued to take care of her despite his own condition. He laid out two Styrofoam takeout boxes on the table, along with plastic cutlery and foil packets of various sauces, then set the kettle to boil.

“Sit down, Neil, I can finish making tea,” she said, and got out of bed.

He did, and she watched as he withdrew a small box from the breast pocket of his shirt. He shook out a handful of pills of different sizes and colours.

“That’s not going to be all of your breakfast, is it?” Aurora asked.

“Only half,” Neil said. “Beta blocker, blood thinner, lowers blood pressure, lowers cholesterol.” He pointed out each type. “Nitro for emergencies.” He returned the smallest white tablet to the box and lined the others on the table.

Aurora opened her takeout box: a thick slice of bacon, one sausage link, two eggs sunny-side up, a generous helping of beans in sauce, and three tomato slices all stared back at her.

“Couldn’t remember which one you preferred,” he said, “so got you both. Toast’s in the third box.”

“It looks delicious.” She glanced over at Neil’s open tray: beans and tomatoes, and what looked like scrambled egg whites. She found herself fighting back a sudden urge to cry at the sight. Alfred had begun to eat healthy like this a couple years ago, to ward off cardiovascular disease.

“You okay?” Neil asked.

“Mmm hmm.” She dared not say more; she refused to break down in front of Neil over something as trivial as bacon. She waited until the impulse passed, then tucked into her breakfast and finished it all.

While Neil read his newspaper, she gathered some clothes and went into the bathroom to get ready for the day. The bag on the dresser occupied all her thoughts. After witnessing the veritable pharmacy of pills Neil was now taking, probably for the rest of his life, she realized there was no good time to give him the painting. Before or after Dieppe didn’t matter. In some ways, Neil’s condition made it worse. She couldn’t predict how he might react.

Then just get it over with, she thought as she pinned back her hair. Say what you have to, as gently as you can, and pray their friendship would survive the resulting fallout.

Neil looked up when she exited the bathroom. “Figure out what you want to do today?”

She strode to the dresser. “I thought we might visit the British Museum. But first –” Before she could change her mind, she grabbed the bag from the dresser and set it on the now-spotless table in front of him. “This is for you. From Alfred and me.”

Neil raised an intrigued eyebrow. “What is it?”

“Open it and see.”

He set his newspaper down, pocketed his reading glasses, and pulled the gift-wrapped package from between layers of tissue paper in the bag. He then withdrew his pocket knife, sliced cleanly through the cello tape on the ends, and peeled away the paper. He squinted at the framer’s tag on the backing of the picture.

“About time you brought me an anniversary photo but you didn’t have to frame it too – ” he teased.

He flipped the picture over, and the grin fell from his face. “My God,” he murmured, stunned, “it’s exactly as it was.”

Aurora shifted back and forth on her feet. Neil continued to stare at the scene, a fine tremor in his hands. “Perfect in every detail. Right to the time of day.” He looked up at her. “Alfred, yeah? He painted this?”

Aurora nodded, unsure what to say. Neil blinked once, twice. “Jesus Christ,” he murmured, “the memories he had.”

“He wanted you to have it,” Aurora said, shrugging one shoulder. “To go with Tom’s in Pour de Lys.”

“Thank you,” Neil said softly. He sniffed, holding the picture reverently between his hands. He caressed the walnut frame with a broad thumb, careful not to touch the oil.

“Did I ever tell you how Harry kept me going after Caillefaux?” he said presently.

“Yes, I remember. After you lost Miri.”

“Yeah. Couple days later, Harry saved Alfred’s life in that Polish field. Alfred froze, Harry got him going again too. And got shot in the neck for his trouble.” He cleared his throat.

“I know.” Aurora drew a shaky breath. “You never should have been on that train.”

Neil looked up at that and scowled at her. “Bloody right about that.”

Aurora sighed. This was not a conversation she wanted to have at all. But she’d promised Alfred she would do this for him no matter what. “No, you don’t understand,” she replied heavily.

Neil’s whole body bristled at her words. “What do you mean?”

“How much do you know about how you ended up on the train?”

Neil paused, caught off-guard. “‘We need to find another way,’ was all Sinclair said to Harry and me,” he said after a reflective moment. “Our forger got arrested before we could get our papers. And you told us, according to Franz Faber, that train was the only way to cross through Germany without identification.”

Aurora’s eyes stung, her cheeks reddened; she couldn’t quite meet his gaze. Neil peered closer at the conflicted look on her face. “Right then, spill it now. What really happened?”

Aurora took a deep breath. “In Paris, when Sinclair met his German transport contact, Frommer, he – he had worked out a deal for safe passage for all of us to Poland.”

Neil’s face hardened as he processed her words. “We had safe passage,” he repeated faintly. “We – What the bloody hell happened to it?”

Aurora steeled herself. “Frommer – Frommer’s son was a POW. Sinclair had him transferred to Canada from Russia as a favour. He was at Camp X the day before Dieppe. He tried to kill Sinclair. Krystina shot him, and he died. And Sinclair – Frommer kept asking him about Klaus and wouldn’t stop. Sinclair tried – he tried, but he couldn’t – ”

“He couldn’t keep his fat mouth shut about it, you mean,” Neil finished for her. “Told Frommer everything and hung us out to dry.”

“Yes.”

Why?

“He – he couldn’t lie to an old friend, Neil. He’d promised to keep the boy safe, and --”

“And Harry paid the price for it,” he stared at her, his eyes accusing, “and you knew all this time.”

She nodded once.

“And Alfred knew too.” It wasn’t a question.

“We were both in the church to spot Sinclair during their rendezvous. We heard everything.”

He stared at her in utter disbelief. “At the inquiry, Mayhew asked specifically, why we ended up on a concentration camp train. Neither of you mentioned anything about that meeting – ”

“Krystina asked us not to.”

“To protect Sinclair’s legacy, am I right?” Neil spat the words out. “The big picture? Jesus fucking Christ!” He turned away, his fist clenched.

Aurora swallowed. “Neil, I’m so sorry, I wish things had turned out differently.”

“Do you think? Thirty-five years, and Alfred never breathed a word about it. Were you going to take this little secret to your grave too?”

“Alfred thought you deserved to know. That’s why I’m telling you now. He’d be telling you himself if he were here.”

Neil sniffed again, and his voice grew tight. “He was twenty years old, Aurora. Twenty. His life ended before it bloody well began.”

Aurora winced at the echo of her own words. “Don’t you think I know that, Neil? Don’t you think Alfred and Sinclair knew?” A note of exasperation crept into her voice.

“I don’t know what to think anymore.” Despite his shaking, he laid the painting gently back on the table. His jaw set, he turned on his heel and stalked towards the door –

He reached for the doorknob but missed. Stumbling off-balance, he landed hard on his knees on the carpet, his chest heaving.

“Neil.” Terrified, Aurora sprinted to his side. Oh God, please not this. “Neil! Are you okay?” She sat him up against the door and loosened the collar of his shirt. “Talk to me!”

He didn’t look at her. “Harry died in my arms,” Neil whispered, spreading his as if he were still cradling Harry’s body.

Aurora knelt beside him, placing her hand on his shoulder. “I know.”

Neil wrenched his shoulder away from her touch. “He would’ve been fifty-five this year. Should’ve had a wife, a houseful of kids. Maybe even a grandkid or two by now.”

“Neil, do you need anything – ” A glass of water, your nitro, an ambulance?

“Instead he’s buried, beside a lake in an unmarked grave, in a country we can never visit again.” He shuddered, his face almost as white as his hair. “I should’ve died with him that day too.”

“I’m sorry,” she repeated, ashamed by how that phrase had seemed to become the refrain of her visit.

At that he snapped his head up to look at her, bitterness plain on his face. “That’s all you ever say now,” he said, “ ‘M sorry, ‘M sorry.’ Means absolutely nothing.”

“So what do you want me to say?”

His eyes brimmed with barely-restrained sorrow. “It’s what I want you to do, Aurora,” he said huskily. Can you bring Harry back to me? Can you?”

She drew her mouth into a thin line, her own guilt-fueled grief rising. “That’s not fair, you know I can’t.”

“Then what bloody use is telling me all this now,” Neil shouted, “when it won’t do a goddamn thing?”

“Because you asked me to tell you!” Aurora yelled back. “Because I promised Alfred I would!”

They stared at each other for a moment, Neil’s cheeks wet with the tears he’d refused to shed earlier. He shook his head, and with that he finally crumpled inwards. Her own composure shattering, Aurora reached over and hugged him close. They clung to each other and he rested his forehead on her shoulder.

A few minutes later, the storm abated and he shifted in her arms. She released him and crawled around to sit beside him on the floor. He scrubbed his eyes with his fist and tilted his head upwards to stare at the ceiling. “I wasn’t gonna leave him behind like Tom and Miri. I wasn’t. I couldn’t do that to him.”

“I know.” She wiped her own with the sleeve of her blouse.

“But I’d almost forgotten what it looked like til I saw that picture today. Harry’s grave. I forgot what it looked like. How could I do that? Forgetting is worse than leaving him behind.” His voice trailed off and he sniffed.

So that was why it bothered him, why they couldn’t visit. “It’s been thirty-five years, Neil, details are going to fade – ”

He tilted his head to look at her. “I loved him, Aurora,” he said bleakly, “how many years ago don’t matter. You don’t forget your loves like that.”

“Now you don’t have to.” She wondered if that was the right thing to say in the moment, but to her surprise he nodded his agreement. They fell silent for a moment, leaning against each other for support.

“Last night, you asked me if I was up to Dieppe this year. Yesterday I thought I was, but today – I’m not. I’m really not.” He exhaled shakily.

“That’s okay, Neil. It’s okay.”

“The heart attack, the surgery – it took too much out of me. I can see that now.”

“Then stay here in London and rest. You don’t have to go on anyone’s account. Including mine.”

He shook his head. “That’s not fair to you, either, Aurora. You shouldn’t go alone, especially this year – ”

“That’s for me to decide.” She shifted to smooth a lock of hair off his temple. “Don’t worry about me, Neil. Whatever happens, I’ll be fine.”

“You know I can’t do that,” he said, “not while you’re still hurting over Alfred.”

She gave him a grateful, watery smile. “Thank you.”

They fell silent again, and she closed her eyes, thinking about what to do now that Neil was not going to make the trip across the Channel tomorrow.

She startled at his small snort. “We’re a right pair, aren’t we?” Neil said, gesturing between them. “Both of us with broken hearts.”

Aurora huffed a short laugh of agreement. “Aren’t we just.” She looked at him. “But we will both recover. We will. We just need --”

“ – Some time,” they finished in unison, and they shared a wry grin.

“Should we skip the British Museum today?” Aurora said.

“If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not go,” Neil replied.

“Okay. Then let’s get you home,” Aurora said. “Whenever you’re ready.”

Mags and Susan were at the house when they entered the kitchen two hours later. Mags didn’t even turn around from a towering pile of dishes in the sink.

“Donna’s at the shop and Henry’s at football practice,” Mags said before Neil could open his mouth to ask. “Hello Aurora. Stay for lunch?”

“Bloody mindreader,” Neil muttered, “eyes in the back of her head.”

“Thank you, Mags, but I’m just here to drop Neil off. My cab’s waiting for me outside.”

She turned around at that. “Oh, that’s too bad. Well, it’s been lovely to see you again, hope you’ll be back soon.”

“Yes, will you come visit again? You can be the cool auntie who drops in every few years to tell us stories about Uncle,” Susan said brightly.

“Wait, so I’m not cool?” Neil said. Susan stuck her tongue out at him in answer. “No more cheek from you, miss,” he added, but he ruffled her hair affectionately.

“And don’t be a stranger, Aurora,” Mags said. “You’re always welcome here. In fact, I insist you stay with us next time.”

“Thank you,” Aurora said, amused by Susan and genuinely touched by Mags’ offer. “I appreciate it.”

Outside, the mist had condensed to a light drizzle. Neil grabbed an umbrella from the hall and walked her back down the front pavement to the waiting cab. “Have you decided what you’re going to do today yet? It’s still early, going to the Museum after all?”

She shook her head. “No, I’ve decided to catch the plane back to Toronto tonight.”

Neil stopped at that, and peered at her closely. “Tonight? Are you sure?” he said. “You won’t stay on a few more days?”

“I’m going to listen to my own advice,” she said. “The boys will understand why I’m missing this year too.”

Neil still looked doubtful. “Will you be all right by yourself back there?”

She nodded. “I think so. It’ll be hard, without Alfred, but – I have enough to keep me occupied for the next while,” she said. “After that, we’ll see. But I promise, Neil, if things get too bad for me, I will call you. First thing.”

“You better,” he said, and moved in close to touch his forehead to hers. “I’ll miss you,” he murmured. “Safe trip, yeah?”

“Miss you too. Take care of yourself.”

“And thank you, Aurora. For the painting. For everything.”

He kissed her cheek, let her go, and she opened the back door of the cab. She paused, then turned to him.

“I was thinking, how about – Promise me you’ll accompany me to the fortieth anniversary of Dieppe and the team, and I promise we will return to Poland to see Harry too.”

Aurora’s heart ached at the expression of hope that lit Neil’s face, that was quickly extinguished as he considered how far in the future that really was. “A lot can happen in five years,” Neil reminded her soberly. “I’m not getting any younger here.”

“A lot can happen,” she agreed, “but I also know how stubborn you are.”

Neil shook his head, then grinned. “Right then. August 1982. It’s a date.”

Chapter Text

After she returned to Canada from London in August 1977, Aurora delayed her plans for retirement and began to work her journal connections with a renewed sense of purpose, trying to gain any kind of foothold into Communist Poland.

As hard as she networked at first, the door stubbornly remained locked, as it had so many times before. It seemed like the country was impenetrable. Then in 1978, Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, Archbishop of Kraków, was elected Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II became a rallying point for millions of disaffected Polish citizens. That, along with the rise of the Solidarity movement in 1980, began to pry the door open. By mid-1981, it cracked open enough that she was finally able to use her contacts to arrange visas and passage to the Polish People’s Republic for herself and Neil for August 1982.

In the meantime, to Aurora’s delight (and her relief), Neil had slowly continued to improve since her 1977 visit. They began to exchange more frequent letters over the years, and the occasional phone call as well, keeping each other up to date on details about their lives, and then on their upcoming trip. As the months drew closer, she felt increasingly confident that the team’s fortieth anniversary trip was going to happen –

Poland’s government enacted martial law on December 13, 1981.

Aurora watched her television screen in disbelief as tanks rolled through the Warsaw streets on The National. She didn’t hear Knowlton Nash’s measured tones relaying the news of the arrests of the leaders of Solidarity; all she heard was a door slamming shut with a resounding clang. She sat curled up in an afghan on her couch in her Toronto townhouse, her mind racing.

When the newscast ended, she reached for the phone on the end table and direct-dialed an international number, never mind that it was only four-fifteen AM in London. Neil picked up on the fourth ring. “Hello?”

“Did you see the news?” Aurora asked without preamble.

“Yeah, last night. Looks like Poland’s off the table,” Neil said.

The subtle disappointment under his wry tone only strengthened her resolve. “No. No, it’s not.”

“Aurora, let’s be reasonable here, they’re not going to lift it any time soon – ”

“I promised you we would go,” she said, “I will find another way to get us there. Simple as that.”

“Is it?”

“Yes, it is.”

But when she hung up some minutes later, after reassuring herself that Neil was otherwise doing okay, she sagged. She’d had to trade a few favours with university colleagues associated with the journal. Those avenues would no longer be open under martial law. Neither would Alfred’s contacts through the library. Schools and universities were the first institutions to fall under scrutiny.

A few days later, her travel agent called to confirm that the Polish leg of their trip was indeed cancelled.

She racked her brain for weeks, over the holidays (with another, more tearful phone call to Neil on her fifth Christmas without Alfred), and into the new year, researching, mulling over, and discarding ideas. By early January, she felt near wits’ end, suspecting Neil was right after all.

Then in mid-January, The National’s new sister program, The Journal, hosted a round table on the deteriorating situation in Poland. Aurora, having left the TV on by chance after The National ended, recognized one of the experts on the guest panel. A Canadian Army Intelligence officer.

The next day, she made some phone calls and arranged a meeting.

~~

“Aurora, oh my God, it’s wonderful to see you again!”

“Hello, Krystina, you too.”

Col. Krystina Breeland smiled widely, they exchanged embraces, and the two women sat down in a high-walled booth in the bustling Italian cafe on Wilson Avenue near CFB Downsview.

“You know, I can’t believe how amazing you look! I haven’t seen you since your wedding to Alfred. How long has it been? Thirty-five, thirty-six years now?”

“About that long, yes.” The harried waitress came to their table; both ordered coffees and tiramisu.

“And how’s Alfred doing?” Krystina asked after the waitress left.

“He passed away four years ago,” Aurora said, with only a slight pause in her words now.

“Oh, I’m so sorry.” Krystina patted Aurora’s hand in sympathy. “I know how much he really loved you.”

“Thank you.”

“Do you still keep in touch with Neil?”

“Yes, we keep in touch. I’m going to visit him in August, actually.”

“That’s wonderful! How’s he getting along?”

“He – he had some health problems a few years ago, but he’s okay for the moment.” Aurora peered at her. “And what about you?”

“Well, I transferred to the intelligence unit in Ottawa after Camp X was decommissioned. I worked my way up to Colonel. I’m in charge of training new intelligence recruits. I’ll be retiring next year. I was so surprised to hear from you last week, it was like you and Alfred had simply disappeared off the radar after you married.”

“We did,” Aurora said. “We blended into the woodwork just as we were taught to do.”

Krystina nodded. “Very effectively, I’d say. Any children?”

“No.” Aurora offered an apologetic smile, and clasped her hands together on the table. “Krystina, I wish that this was just a social visit.”

“I see.” Krystina’s smile hardened. “You were always direct, Aurora, I always admired that about you.”

“I saw you on The Journal last week, talking about the situation in Poland.”

“Yes, and –?”

“I need your help.”

At that point, the waitress arrived with their coffees and tiramisu. They paused their conversation until she left; Aurora leaned in and in hushed tones, explained the entire situation to Krystina.

“So, we need replacement visas and passage to Poland in August. Only to the Pruszko area, for three days, there and back. Will you arrange it for us?” When she finished, she sat back, surprised by how nervous she felt.

Krystina sighed and stirred her coffee. “That’s a tall order. Martial law in the Polish People’s Republic is absolute. No one is getting in or out of Poland right now. We don’t expect it to be lifted for a least a year. Even if I could get you in, and I’m not saying I can, you’ll be under constant scrutiny by the authorities. If you’re detained for any reason, your options will be even more limited. Does it have to be this August? You can’t wait until the crisis is over?”

Aurora shook her head. “I don’t know if we’ll have that kind of time.”

“Oh.” Krystina sighed and closed her eyes briefly. “No. I’m sorry, I can’t help you. I know how much this means to you, but it’s just not feasible.”

“But it’s not impossible.” Aurora took a sip of coffee.

“Aurora, it’s best if you let this go.”

“I know you can do this, Krystina. I know you have the contacts and the resources. You just need the motivation.” Aurora’s own features hardened, and she leaned in again. Krystina’s eyes widened almost imperceptibly.

“Alfred and I did as you asked at Mayhew’s inquiry into Berlin. We kept quiet about Colonel Sinclair’s error of judgment with Frommer in Paris. And we disobeyed a direct order from Colonel Mayhew to do it. Because of us, Sinclair’s legacy at Camp X remains intact. For now.”

Krystina drew her mouth into a thin line. “You’re still bound by the Official Secrets Act.”

“We’re still obliged to report any occurrence of wilful misconduct, or disobeying direct orders from a superior officer, no matter how long ago it happened. How would it look if I come forward now?”

“You wouldn’t implicate yourself.”

“Alfred’s gone and I have nothing to lose. I’m not a high-ranking Army colonel who works in intelligence.”

Krystina scowled outright. “You say you have nothing to lose. What about Neil?”

“He knows what happened. He figured it out. He has my back on this.”

Krystina stared in disbelief at Aurora. “You’d do all of this just to keep a promise?”

Aurora nodded. “Look at what you did to protect Sinclair.”

Krystina let out a slow breath. “Fine. If I do as you ask, consider us even. And you never contact me again for anything after today. Are we clear?”

“You have my word.”

They sat back, finishing their coffees and tiramisu and making small talk as if the discussion never happened.

When they left the restaurant, Krystina stopped Aurora in the parking lot just as she reached her car. “Give me your details and give me three months. I will send you and Neil your papers by courier.”

“Thank you, Krystina. I’m sorry it had to come to this.” She withdrew an envelope from her purse and handed it to her.

“Take care, Aurora,” Krystina said. “I hope you’ll find what you’re looking for. Say hi to Neil for me.” She spun on her heel and strode to her own vehicle.

Three months later, to the day, a courier showed up at Aurora’s front door with a thick envelope. Aurora accepted it and opened it as soon as the courier left, her heart leaping when she saw the contents inside. She called Neil as soon as she confirmed all the papers were in order.

“My contact came through,” Aurora said as soon as Neil picked up. “Poland’s back on.”

Chapter Text

After that, the months seemed to fly by. Soon enough, Aurora discovered that Krystina had gone beyond what Aurora had ever expected. Krystina’s packages to Aurora and Neil included not only the necessary visas and tickets, but also maps and detailed travel dossiers on the Polish People’s Republic, so they would know what to do when they arrived. As if preparing them for a mission, which Aurora supposed it was. There was no personal note attached, but one thing was clear: Krystina had understood. Aurora only regretted she would never be able to contact her again to thank her.

Unfortunately, Aurora had been prescient on one count. Aurora, who in 1982 was sixty-nine years old, had continued in good health. However, shortly after his seventy-fourth birthday, Neil’s began to decline again. He still tended to be reserved about his private affairs, but in the months leading up to August, he revealed enough in his correspondence for her to suspect their upcoming trip to mainland Europe might very well be their last one together.

She wasn’t religious anymore, hadn’t been since the war. This time she whispered a prayer to whomever might listen that she was wrong.

Except Neil tacitly confirmed her hunch when she arrived at Mags’ house in Camden in mid-August, to visit for a couple days before they set out for the mainland. When he greeted her at the door, Aurora could barely conceal her shock at his appearance. He had visibly shrunk in stature from last time she’d seen him. He’d never been a tall man but at this point she outright towered over him without heels. Frightfully pale, his skin almost translucent, he moved at a glacial pace. He tired easily, and wielded a quad cane to get around. But his eyes blazed with unreserved joy at her arrival, and, frail as he seemed, he heartily returned her embrace and kissed her cheek.

“Look at you. Five years on and you still haven’t aged a day,” he said warmly.

“I think you need those glasses checked,” Aurora said, with a fond, if tremulous, smile.

She managed to keep her composure the rest of the afternoon, throughout her day with Neil and Mags, the children, and Mags’ three new grandchildren who’d arrived since her last visit. Her heart lifted a little when she wandered into the front room for a breather and saw both of Alfred’s paintings, Dieppe and Poland, hanging side-by-side in places of honour, surrounded by four generations of family photographs. No longer hidden out of sight behind a closed door, she thought.

She heard a young male voice behind her. “Uncle says those paintings are where his best friends died in the war.”

She turned around to meet Henry, now sixteen and taller than she was. “That’s right,” she said, “Tom and Harry.”

“He doesn’t talk about what he did in the war, says he can’t. But he says they were the bravest men he ever knew.”

“Yes, they were.”

“And he wants us to remember them for him.” It was then that Aurora saw how Henry wore the uniform of the Army Cadet Force.

Later that night, in the falling darkness of her room upstairs, her fragile hold on her emotions began to slip. She crept downstairs through the sleeping house, and rapped gently on Neil’s bedroom door: three knocks, two knocks, one. Their old team signal.

“It’s open,” he called.

She let herself inside to find him sitting propped up under the covers. Wordlessly she sat down on the edge of the bed. He took one look at the crestfallen expression on her face, and gathered her in close against him, kissing her temple.

“Are you still up to the trip?” she said after a long minute. She rested her palm above his overworked heart, over his scar. “Can you still manage?”

“I missed Dieppe last time,” he replied quietly but firmly. “Won’t miss this now for anything. Been waiting too long already.”

In the half-light, his gaze never wavered; she saw how deep down, he knew as well, he was approaching the end. And he’d just admitted it, in his way. It wasn’t fair, she thought, not when he was all she had left now. Not after all the effort it took to arrange their trip. Not when all she’d ever hoped for, was a chance to spend more time together.

“You just watch me, Aurora. I’ll be all right,” he assured her.

Devastated, it took all her strength to keep herself together until Neil drifted off, when she curled into a ball beside him and silently cried herself to sleep.

The next morning, she woke first and lay beside him, her head pillowed on her hand, watching his compromised chest rise and fall with the rhythm of his breathing. She wasn’t going to start mourning for him now, she thought. She wasn’t, that wasn’t fair to him. For his sake, she would cherish whatever time she had left in his company. Anything else could wait until after.

They were to drive to Newhaven the next night to catch the early ferry to Dieppe. That afternoon, Mags pulled her aside and into the kitchen, where a small black notebook waited on the table.

“Uncle carries copies of all these,” she began, “this is yours. List of medicines and dosages, copies of the prescriptions, telephone numbers for his GP and cardiologist. My number and Linda’s are on the front inside cover if you need to reach us. Hope you won’t, but be prepared is Uncle’s motto.” She slid the small book in front of Aurora.

“He’s been waiting so long for this trip. I almost think it’s the only thing that’s kept him going the last little while. Now it’s here, and –” Mags stopped with a sharp intake of breath and wrung her hands, pinning Aurora with a teary gaze.

“I call him ‘Uncle’ because he is, but he’s really my dad, Aurora, in all the ways that matter. Every day that passes is one day closer to when he’s no longer here. I know I mustn’t dwell on it, but I’m afraid something might happen and I won’t be there at the end – ”

Aurora reached out and took her hand. “I’ll bring him home, Mags. I’ll make sure of it.”

Mags nodded. “And then you’ll stay until – ?”

“Of course. As long as you need me.”

~~

Aurora and Neil visited Dieppe first, to observe the fortieth anniversary of the raid. Arriving early to avoid the crowds attending the official commemoration, they made the round of the War Cemetery out of respect to the Canadians buried there, though Tom himself would not be among them. It was always the beach below the cliff at Pour de Lys, on the rocks where he’d fallen, that they considered his memorial site.

Neil was no longer in any condition to tolerate a two-mile hike down the beach and back, so Aurora hired a motorboat to take them there, paying the young fisherman guide extra to wait with the boat while they visited Tom’s outcrop. Neil insisted on walking the last few metres from the water’s edge to the rocks by himself. He picked his way upwards and over the shifting pebbles, leaning heavily on his quad cane. Aurora and the boat guide flanked him, ready to catch him if he slipped; more than once, he batted their steadying hands away from his elbow.

“Jesus Christ, Aurora, I may be old but I’m not decrepit yet,” he groused, and Aurora had to laugh.

On the beach at the outcrop, they gazed up at the high cliff walls, shielding their eyes from the sun.

“Miracle I didn’t break my neck climbing down that day to get to him,” Neil said, pointing out a zigzag path down the cliff face.

Aurora nodded. It was almost a straight drop, with very few footholds. A mountain goat might have found that descent difficult.

“You know, for a long time, whenever I closed my eyes, I felt Tom’s life slip through my hands,” Neil said, gazing on the rocks. “But today he’s never felt closer.”

On their way back from the rocks, they stopped at a small indent about a half-mile from the mouth of the Arques River. Aurora stepped back to allow him some privacy. The night after Tom had died, over a bottle of whisky, he’d confided in her about the carnage he and Harry had witnessed here: the sea a dull red, bodies scattered like broken dolls all over the beach, acrid smoke and the stench of death and blood and gunpowder everywhere. How a young German had unexpectedly shown them mercy, and who’d suffered Harry’s wrath for it.

This is where Harry had broken, she thought. Harry, who had fallen apart on that beach, and who ultimately found the will to pull himself back together stronger than ever. She had never been prouder of him than during those last two weeks of his life.

“You know, I never thanked you for bringing Harry back to us from Dieppe,” Aurora said, when Neil rejoined her.

Neil graced her with a small half-smile. “You’re welcome,” he said.

From Dieppe, Aurora hired a rental car and they drove to Paris. She had planned to stop along the way at Caillefaux for Miri. But Paris had grown over the years, absorbing the village into its suburbs so completely that nothing recognizable remained, not even the church. Only the name remained on a commemorative plaque. She was surprised by how disappointed she felt, mainly on Neil’s behalf.

She glanced at him in profile. He stared out the car window, humming brief snatches of a haunting tune she didn’t recognize.

“I’m sorry, Neil,” Aurora said, “I thought there might have been something here.”

“No matter.”

“What are you humming?”

“Something Miri sang before she died,” he said. “On those gallows, all she had left to fight with was her voice. And she protested right to the end. That’s what matters.”

Aurora did, however, locate the city pub where the team spent their last night in Paris in celebration of their radio broadcast coup. It was still open, run by the son of the proprietor. They even managed to procure the same booth, where they parked themselves for a couple of hours before heading to the Gare du Nord.

“Harry’s second finest hour,” Neil said, tilting a glass of sparkling water back and forth to watch the overhead booth lamps illuminate the rising bubbles. No more whisky for them, Aurora thought wistfully, sipping at her own glass.

“You were no slouch either,” Aurora reminded him. “De Gaulle himself heard your speech – ”

“Wizardry was all Harry,” Neil said. “Idea was, too, with Tom’s inspiration. Shoulda seen him, Aurora, splicing in that cable, all those sparks flying, driving that van with the Boche closing in.”

Aurora glanced down into her glass and smiled. “You said it was his ‘second’ finest hour. What was his first?”

He met her gaze evenly. “The train to Poland.”

Aurora closed her eyes briefly. Harry had given Alfred another thirty-five years of life, and happiness, at the cost of his own. She owed him a debt she could never repay. “Do you remember the toast we made that night?” she asked when she opened them again.

He glanced over at the two empty seats beside them, and raised his glass. “‘To absent friends’.”

She nodded, clinking her water glass against his. “ ‘To the love they left behind’,” she replied.

~~

They travelled on the overnight express train from Paris to West Berlin, where they would change trains to Pruszko in Poland. They kept their time in West Berlin as short as possible, not even leaving the station to explore. Their final mission together might have been a resounding success, but they had no desire to commemorate it.

Well, most of it, Aurora thought with a fond smile, remembering the art gallery where she and Alfred had consummated their relationship.

The train from West Berlin to Pruszko was an ancient, steam-powered relic from the war. Neither Aurora nor Neil could relax to enjoy the passing view. It reminded Aurora too much of her trip from Paris to Pruszko with Faber, Sabine, and Heidi. Given what Alfred had told her about that day, she didn’t want to imagine what memories the trains held for Neil, either. Aurora grabbed his hand the minute they sat down in the cramped, crushed seats, and didn’t release it until the engine sputtered into the Pruszko station, three hours behind schedule.

The surrounding passengers peered at them with varying levels of curiosity, resentment, or both. Despite their precautions, they still must stand out like sore thumbs, she thought with growing alarm. Back in the war that would have got them noticed and executed. Even now, a pair of Polish soldiers had stationed themselves across from them in their compartment and glowered at their every move.

They should have tried to blend in better, she thought. Neil, however, noticed the glares of the soldiers, and played up the role of the crotchety old man to the hilt. It proved remarkably effective in any language. Aside from the stares, they were left in peace.

The train station had barely changed when they descended from the car to the platform: the wickets, the mezzanine, even the tiles on the station floor looked the same as they’d been forty years ago, if only more worn. If she closed her eyes she could visualize Alfred, undercover as Alec, working behind the counter as if it were yesterday.

Neil whistled softly. “It’s a bloody time capsule here,” he said.

His whistle ended with a faint wheeze. Aurora glanced over at Neil’s drawn face and decided he’d had enough travel for the day. She hadn’t planned on staying in Pruszko overnight; the town held too many unpleasant memories. But Neil was flagging, they’d arrived late, and there wasn’t enough time to visit the lake that day before the evening train departed. She booked them into the second hotel in the town, the one Aurora hadn’t stayed in while she was undercover as Helene Bauer.

It was still an uneasy night, with flashes of Helene’s memories she thought she’d long set aside. She took comfort in Neil’s presence beside her, and was grateful that at least she didn’t have to face her nightmares alone.

The next morning, they boarded a local bus that would take them on the final leg of their journey. This was it, Aurora thought as they sat down, the culmination of three days of travel. Five years of planning. Forty years of memory. She and Neil had discussed it, of course, in their letters back and forth, the likelihood of actually finding what they were looking for. At the time, all of her research, and his too, had suggested the lake itself was still there, and was even accessible to the public, so there was a good chance they would at least be able to visit. Krystina’s dossiers even backed that up.

Her confidence was deeply shaken, however, by the complete erasure of Caillefaux from the map in France. If that could happen to a village within forty years, there was no guarantee of anything surviving at their lake, either. The last thing she wanted was for them to come all this way, only to leave Poland with nothing.

Neil shifted in his seat beside her to pull out his wallet from his pocket. From that he retrieved a folded piece of paper and opened it.

No, not paper, Aurora thought on closer inspection. A Polaroid.

“Had Susie take a photo of Harry’s painting before we left,” Neil said. “Figured we could use it to orient ourselves when we get there.”

Aurora inexplicably found herself fighting back tears. Neil noticed immediately and clasped her hand.

“What’s wrong, Aurora?”

“I – I don’t want you to be disappointed again,” she said, struggling to control her voice. “There was nothing left at Caillefaux and I’m afraid that nothing will be left here – ”

“I’m not disappointed, Aurora,” he said, “and I won’t be. If there’s nothing left at that lake, there’s nothing. We deal with it and move on. That’s all we can do. What matters is that we kept our promise to Harry. Yeah?”

Aurora bowed her head. “Yeah.”

“We’ve come too far to go back now. I reckon there’s only one way left to go.”

The bus, now full of passengers, pulled away from the curb. She nodded, and squeezed back. “Onwards.”

“Onwards.”

Chapter Text

The lake where Alfred and Neil had buried Harry had in fact become a public recreation area in the years after the war. When Neil and Aurora arrived, they saw immediately that the two ancient elm trees depicted in the painting were gone, long dead and decayed by age. But two more elms, young and vigorous, had risen in their place, arching their umbrella branches high in the sky. Harry’s burial mound was still there too, though it was now covered in a thick layer of grass and almost flush with the surrounding land. In another decade or so, it would no longer be recognizable from the rest of the shore.

So they’d arrived just in time then, Aurora thought. Before the land itself moved on.

The late-August day had dawned brutally warm and humid, so Neil and Aurora had to share the lake with several lake-goers. To Aurora’s annoyance, too many visitors frolicked about to allow them to pay proper respects at Harry’s graveside without drawing unwanted attention. She took shameless advantage of Neil’s crotchety routine to commandeer the closest bench that overlooked the mound and the lake, as close to the perspective of the painting as they could get.

“You know, you play the grumpy old man very well,” she teased as they sat down.

“Maybe because I am one,” he said, but he winked at her as he said it.

She watched Neil out of the corner of her eye. He gazed over the tableau, a pensive look on his face, both hands resting on the handle of his cane. Over the years, Alfred had told her all the details of the time he and Neil spent in the Resistance camp. The bright colours of holiday clothing, the shrieks and splashes of children playing in the water in front of them: did the visitors to the lake know about what had happened in these woods and fields around them, decades before they were born? Or would that knowledge fade with time too, until only the land remembered the secrets and heartaches of those who had trod upon it?

“Alfred would be happy to see this today,” Neil said at last, “how something good came out of what we lost.”

“He would,” Aurora agreed. “All he ever wanted was to make a difference.”

Just as Aurora decided it was time for them to return to Pruszko, a little girl, about seven or eight years old, ran up and chattered excitedly at them. Neither Neil nor Aurora could speak Polish so they could only sit, smiling and nodding and bemused by her antics, until an older woman noticed and came to rescue them. She was petite, with short salt-and-pepper hair, and she looked vaguely familiar though Aurora didn’t know why. The woman strode up to their bench and shooed the child away with a few words.

Her voice, too, sounded like an echo of someone from before. “I’m sorry Tania bothered you,” the woman said in heavily-accented German. “I see that you’re not from the area and my granddaughter is always excited to meet new visitors to the lake.” She then peered at them closer. “Should I know you?”

“We’re just visiting for the day,” Aurora replied, also in German. Neil glowered back at the woman, trying to place her in his memory.

“Tania told us quite a story,” Aurora continued, “I wish we knew Polish to understand what she said.”

“Yes, she wants everyone she sees to know about the Guardian of the lake.”

Aurora and Neil glanced at each other. “The Guardian?” Neil prompted.

The woman gave a nod and gestured at the trees. “Before the War, the lake would claim the life of one or two people every year. Everyone knew someone who had died there. Since 1942, no life has been lost to it. It is said a Guardian arrived at the lake that year to watch over it. A defender with a spirit so fierce that not one soul has drowned since.”

Aurora and Neil could only gape at each other. “Oh my God,” Aurora breathed.

“Sounds like Harry found his calling,” Neil said.

“Yes, I think so too,” the woman agreed. Aurora and Neil both turned to stare at her, recognition dawning. “I remember you now,” the woman said to him. “Do you remember me? The day from the train?”

Neil drew in a shaky breath. “Zosia,” he said, “you survived the war.”

“Yes, I did. And it is good to see you again, Neil.”

~~

They returned with Zosia and Tania to a tiny, dilapidated flat in Nadzeja a few miles away, where Zosia made Turkish coffee and sandwiches in her postage-size kitchen. Afterwards, Tania ran outside to play with a small group of children in a dirt yard across the street, leaving the adults to catch up at the table.

“Did you ever open your candy shop?” Neil asked. In the privacy of the flat, they’d switched to English.

“You remember that too,” Zosia said with delight. She shook her head. “Sadly no. I worked at a bakery instead. The government does not allow us to run our own businesses. But I snuck in some candy here and there when I could find ingredients for it. And your niece? Maggie? How is she?”

Aurora, sipping her coffee, stared out the window at the children in the yard, only half-listening to Neil’s reply. There was only one question she was interested in now, she thought, one she’d carried silently for forty years after the team’s final mission together in Berlin. That had been the last time she had seen Sabine Faber, just after her husband sacrificed himself to stop Marigold.

After the war ended and they’d demobilized, her oath had bound her to secrecy regarding anything and anyone related to Brigadefuhrer Franz Faber. Her hands thus tied, she never dared to hope she’d find an answer as to Sabine’s whereabouts. Until today, when they encountered Zosia at the lake. She knew she had to ask. She wasn’t sure, though, if she could bear to hear Zosia’s reply.

She waited until a break in the conversation, and took a deep breath. “Do you know what happened to Sabine?” she said.

Her voice was steady, her gaze on Zosia clear and direct, but her free hand trembled. She clenched it into a fist to try to stop it. Neil noticed, and covered it with his own.

Zosia considered it a minute, then looked at Aurora frankly. “Sabine took charge of the children orphaned from the Nazi raids, cared for them at the camp. But when the Russians came to liberate Poland, we knew they would not treat any German kindly, even those friendly to the cause. We spirited her to the border of US-occupied Germany and she became a refugee. I don’t know what happened after that. She may have settled in the United States.”

Sabine had survived the war too. A decades-old invisible weight lifted from Aurora’s shoulders; a kernel of an idea began to take root. “Thank you, Zosia,” Aurora said, “for agreeing to take her in. Knowing who she was, it must not have been easy.”

“She proved herself worthy and loyal to the Resistance,” Zosia replied. “That’s all that mattered.”

Neil excused himself to use the facilities. After he’d limped from the kitchen and the bathroom door closed, Zosia and Aurora exchanged sober glances.

“He is not well,” Zosia said.

Aurora shook her head; there was no point in telling her anything but the truth. “No, he isn’t.”

Zosia sighed in understanding. “I am sorry for your past and your coming loss,” she said.

Aurora reached across the table and took Zosia’s hand, squeezing it. “Thank you,” she said quietly.

“And I am glad you came.” Zosia squeezed back. “I had always wondered what happened to my brave and stupid friends after Berlin.”

“Me too,” Aurora said. They shared a chuckle and a quick smile.

When Neil returned, Aurora checked her watch. “We should be going soon to catch our train. I’m sorry we can’t stay longer.”

“I have something you might want to see first,” Zosia said, and she left the kitchen. Aurora heard rummaging sounds, various items being shifted in a nearby closet. Zosia returned a minute or so later, carrying a medium-sized brown case that had obviously seen better days. She set it on the table in front of Neil and stepped back.

Neil swallowed visibly. “Harry’s radio,” he said. Head bowed, he reached out to caress the cracking leather under his thumb. “You still have it.”

“It continues to work,” Zosia said, “though I’m sorry it’s not in better shape. I know I promised to take care of it. You should know it saved many, many lives during the Nazi raids of our villages. Thanks to it we forced the Germans out of Pruszko.”

She peered at Neil closer. “If you like you can have it back,” she offered carefully.

Neil hesitated, the longing in his eyes clear. Aurora held her breath. Harry’s glasses and radio had been all that remained; when they left the Resistance camp to go to Berlin, they could only take the glasses with them. Neil had been reluctant to let the radio go, though ultimately he had done the right thing.

After a very long minute, Neil shook his head. “I’ll see him soon enough,” he said under his breath. He lifted his head to address Zosia directly. “No, it belongs with you now.” He pulled his hand away from the case.

Aurora released her breath with a faint sigh; Zosia did not bother to hide her relief. “Poland’s government-in-exile is grateful. When the Communist nightmare ends I will take the radio to a museum where it will be properly admired. I don’t believe it will be very long now.” She pulled away the collar of her shirt from her throat, revealing a small Solidarność patch sewn on the inside.

“Still fighting the good fight,” Neil said.

“One day we will live in a Poland that is free.”

~~

On the train back to West Berlin, Neil gazed out the window at the rolling scenery while Aurora studied a pocket travel guide to Europe.

Aurora was more than grateful that they had come. She had never expected to find an answer about Sabine, but thanks to Zosia, she had a mission now: she would track down Sabine through entirely civilian means. And Zosia had given her the most valuable clue. The International Red Cross in Geneva would be the best place to start her search. She rifled through the pages to the chapter on Switzerland.

The evening train was surprisingly quiet, their passenger compartment not quite full. A couple minutes later, Aurora glanced up from her guide, at the miraculously empty seats across from her, and her breath caught in her throat. Tom and Harry and Alfred were sitting there, as she remembered them when they died. Tom was whispering something off-colour to Harry, who chuckled and shook his head. Alfred smiled directly at her, all his love for her shining in his eyes.

A fourth would join them on that bench soon, she thought wistfully. Though not just yet; she’d promised Mags she’d bring him home first. She leaned against Neil, her head on the curve of his shoulder. Alfred nodded at her in understanding. The next time she looked at the seats across from her, the three had disappeared.

A few minutes later, Neil shifted in his seat, the movement rousing her from her reverie. “Penny for your thoughts,” he said.

Their trip through the past was almost over; their time together was closing in. Aurora turned to him. “How are you feeling, Neil?” she asked.

He looked pale, sounded exhausted. Despite that, he clasped her hand with all the strength Aurora remembered. “Good,” he said, “I feel good, Aurora. Better than I have in a very long time.” He kissed her knuckles and leaned back in his seat, closing his eyes. “Thank you.” He held her hand the rest of the way.

The third morning after returning from Poland, back at his home in London, Neil collapsed and died in Aurora’s arms.