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if rome hadn't fallen

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“If you or I were a woman…”

And the sheer nonchalance with which he says it - absently sharpening his pencil with a penknife, left foot resting on his right knee and head tilted to the left – makes The Captain swallow a puck of rubber that had quickly found its way into his throat.

“If you or I were a woman,” he continues, tilting his head the other way as he adjusts his grip on the pencil, “We’d be married by now.”

The Captain’s body doesn’t react. He remains in his chair, rod-straight back, paperwork set out in neat, soldierly rows, pen in hand, ink dripping leisurely onto the table.

The Captain’s mind splits down the middle with a deafening crack, paints itself red, ignites like a bonfire, throws itself off a cliff, dissolves into ash, jumps in front of a hurtling locomotive, steps off a fighter jet without a parachute and does a million other things besides.

He puts the pen down and straightens his tie.

“Would we now?” he says, with a quirk of the eyebrows. His moustache twitches, mightily confused as to whether the mouth below it is smiling or doing very much the opposite, and below the table, he clamps his thighs around his closed fist.

“Oh yes, very much so.” The bastard still hasn’t lifted his gaze. His pencil would look at home in the hand of Lady Macbeth. He blows some of the lead away with gently pursed lips. “We’d have bought a little cottage in… Hereford or something – is Hereford nice? I’ve never been. Anyway – and there would be a vegetable garden outside, and I would spend my days ensuring that there was a pie cooling on the windowsill for when you got home. On weekends we would gaze out of the window and marvel at the strangeness of people, and your sock drawer would be the most regimented, meticulous thing you’ve ever –“

“Why are you the woman?”

“You have a moustache.”

“I wouldn’t if I was a woman.”

“I find myself doubting that somehow.”

The corner of The Captain’s mouth quirks up, properly this time, but the tank driver stationed in his chest revs its engine.

“If you or I were a woman…” Havers says it whimsically this time, tilting his head towards the ceiling with an easy smile that The Captain could never dare hope to see in a mirror.

The Captain picks up his pen again and signs a document. He puts the quivering of his fingertips down to the breeze blowing in from the broken window.

He speaks with his teeth closed, a dam against a thousand wishes and profanities, and against the suggestion that they should abandon it all and take to the sea; live alone against the raging waters as people as inexplicably, viscerally bound as they should. “If you or I were a woman… Or if the stars in the sky were arranged differently…” He swallows. “Or if Eve had never eaten the apple…”

Havers lets out a soft sigh of a laugh and finally lifts his gaze. “Point taken, Sir.”

“Besides,” The Captain says with a light shrug, “There would still be a war on.”

Havers hums. “Yes.” He places the pen knife and pencil down. Pensively, he drums his fingers across his knee, a swift noiseless piano scale. “Only one, though.”

The Captain pretends not to have heard him.

***

if you or I were a woman

or if the stars in the sky were arranged differently

or if eve had never eaten the apple

or if rome hadn’t fallen

or if the library at alexandria hadn’t burned

or if the peasants hadn’t revolted

or if king tut had stayed buried

or if nobody gave a damn

or if it were a different time

or if you or I were a woman

“Or maybe, just maybe, if I were less of a bloody coward.”

The lights of the empty room flicker and he jumps, then bitterly laughs out loud at the cruel irony of excellent. Scared of bloody ghosts now too.

***

“Right…” The Captain strolls into the drawing room, where the lights are off and the curtains drawn. He can see the silhouettes of Mary and Robin on the sofa (not to mention the omnipresent burning odour, of course), backlit by the glow of the television. “What’s all –“

“SHHHHHHH!” her arms flap around her head as she shushes him violently, then suddenly snap back into place. His mouth snaps shut.

Alison approaches The Captain from the other side of the room and raises her hand to pat him on the shoulder. She looks at it in bemusement for a moment as the penny takes an almost comically long time to drop, then lets it fall as she smiles flatly at him. “I really wouldn’t, mate,” she whispers.

“Wouldn’t what?”

“House renovation show… she’s transfixed.”

Robin shifts and grunts on the sofa and Mary shoots him a look that, had Robin dropped (doubly) dead at that moment, would have had Alison calling Mary’s ancestors and telling them that “actually, those blokes that tied her to the stick were right.”

The Captain frowns and Alison huffs a quiet laugh.

“Robin’s been trying to leave for hours. I’d retreat if I were you, Sir.”

She salutes clumsily, then tiptoes away.

The Captain is about to perform an about turn himself, when his eye is caught by the screen.

The renovated house, in full glory. Stone cottage. Vegetable garden. If he had breath, it would all have been knocked out of him.

He doesn’t quite manage to bite down on the strangled noise in the back of his throat, it creeps up and strikes like an adder, a single short sharp, “Ah,” twisted and thorny like the ivy that climbs up the wall of the cottage the stupid blasted cottage…

And it’s stupid, it’s all stupid, it was a stupid conversation, one of a million stupid conversations, that didn’t mean anything the seventy stupid years ago that it happened and certainly doesn’t mean anything seventy stupid years later but his eyes are stinging and his jaw is clenching and the room is getting hot and his fists are clenched and –

He coughs. “Enjoy,” he croaks, and spins on his heel.

Robin turns to watch him go and his eyes soften.

***

it’s a different time now

but I’m no braver

***

and of course

we’re both bloody dead

***

It is hours later and The Captain sits at the window. Thomas’ bloody sighing place. Look at him, he thinks bitterly, seeing himself from outside of his body. Just look at him.

Fittingly, he sighs, and fold his hands into his lap.

He is still staring at them when the floorboard creaks and Robin lollops in. He looks up.

“Ah…” he stands quickly and straightens his back. “Rescue mission not required then?”

Robin grunts, then drops onto the sofa. Decisively, (as all his borderline clumsy movements are really, by necessity) he pats the space beside him. The Captain frowns.

“Why-“

“Just do it.”

The Captain complies, wincing as his knees creak.

Robin’s dark eyes meet his, and they are alive with a depth of humanity cultivated across centuries.

“You were brave enough.”

The Captain blinks.

“That it. You were brave enough.”

The Captain blinks again.

“Wouldn’t have liked cottage anyway. No tanks.”

The Captain blinks, then hurtles across no man’s land in the pouring rain, mud splashing around his ankles, up to his knees, past his knees, splattering on his face. He dives under barbed wire, he fires his gun, he signs a form, he bandages a wound, he pulls the pin from a grenade, he kisses Havers by candlelight, back pressed against a locked door.

By the time he gets back, Robin has gone.