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Great Marlborough Street

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It was funny, Halloran thought, as he kicked his way about the streets of London. It just wasn't the same any more. With the war was over, everything was just that bit less bright, just that bit less shiny. The streets were greyer now, with the gap-toothed look of an old man where buildings had been bombed to smithereens and the holes just left, not even cleared of their rubble. You saw children playing in them sometimes, and Halloran wondered whether he should warn them off, shout at them like he had any kind of a right to, because he'd dropped bombs for a living, after all, and he knew they didn't all explode, not by a long shot. Those kids could be playing on giant mine fields and the thought made him wince. They might be Kraut bombs but he still felt guilty - there were probably kids in Rouen who were playing among his.

Not that he dropped bombs any more. After the excitement of VE Day things had got to be all staid and boring round the base, all apple pie and darning socks. The boys who were left had relaxed, rightly or wrongly, and were waiting to be sent home. Halloran supposed that included himself. He'd like to see Chicago again - go Bears! - but there wasn't a lot he cared about back there, it felt a little like a dream, before all the flying and death and such. Before Maggie even.

He wasn't sure which one had affected him more. He missed the boys like there was a hole in his chest, like he was missing his real face, just like Cimino, and instead he'd been smiling his way through the rest of the war with someone else's lips. But Maggie... She was something else. Some of the guys had married their sweethearts, were planning on taking them back to the States and installing them on ranches in Kentucky, or apartment blocks in downtown New York. But that would never be him. Maggie had made her choice and he couldn't hate her for it, because it had been his choice too.

"Hello! Lieutenant Halloran! It is you, isn't it?" called a male voice, English, melodious, pleasant.

Halloran looked up, and wouldn't you know it, he was standing on the corner of Hanover Street. What was it about this place that his feet just unknowingly took him here? And as he looked up and across, first to the bus stop, because that just seemed right, and then second, towards the pillars of the portico where he'd stood for so long, he grinned a little to himself at the stupid irony of it.

Which meant he was smiling at Paul Sellinger when Halloran finally saw him waving, and it meant he got a blinding smile in return. Halloran blinked a little. No-one was that happy to see him, not ever, not even his Mom. But he couldn't deny that it was a nice feeling - even if it was only Sellinger.

"I thought it was you," said Paul, jogging across the road to meet him, dodging a taxi, and arriving at Halloran's side out of breath. It seemed his brief foray into field work hadn't kept him any fitter, but his smiles and his gleaming eyes, so obviously pleased, and his woollen coat covering that mildly heaving chest, all combined to have Halloran feel well disposed to him, despite everything. Paul really did need looking after, he supposed, some guys did, or they didn't button their shirts properly, or went out of the house in odd socks, or forgot to comb their hair. He didn't blame Maggie for wanting to keep that from happening, and he certainly didn't blame Paul. That was just the way things were, right?

"I'm glad to see you," Paul was saying, "I didn't think I'd meet you again. I would have assumed you'd have been de-mobbed by now, and be wending your way back over the pond. But I'm glad, I'm very glad you're not, although I'm sure you're wishing me to the very Devil for my cheek."

He held his hand out for Halloran to shake, so he obliged, and his hand was enveloped in the sudden warmth of both Paul's soft palms. His fingers tingled with the surprise of it, and with the returning circulation. Maybe he was colder than he thought.

"Yeah," Halloran managed, "It's good to see you too. How're you doing?"

"Oh, you know, can't complain. Intelligence is keeping me busy still, compiling reports for the most part - as undercover agents return, that kind of thing."

But he'd stopped smiling, Halloran thought. That was strange. Over such trivial information too. He'd only done the polite thing. No wisecracks, not even sarcasm. It couldn't be something he said.

"You sure you're ok?" Halloran asked, cautiously, because he didn't owe the man a damn thing, and yet...

"Look, can I buy you a drink?" said Paul, a pinch appearing between his brows, "I never did thank you properly for saving my life, and, well. It would be good to talk to someone, I can't deny it. Someone neutral, as it were." He laughed then, just a hollow little chuckle and Halloran didn't like the sound of that, no sir, not one bit.

"Sure. I've got nothing but time these days."

He hoped Paul wouldn't suggest a tea shop. There were limits and Halloran didn't think he could handle drinking tea while talking about Paul's problems. He realised his heart had sped up - was it Maggie, had something happened to her? Was Sarah ill? God damn his stupid sense of honour, he could have known these things if he hadn't chosen to walk away completely, to avoid temptation.

Luckily, Paul chose a pub, the Shakespeare's Head, down on Great Marlborough Street. It was old and dark, like the beer Paul bought them both, but not too crowded. They found themselves a quiet corner table and both chose to sit on the bench and left the little round stools to other people who didn't mind having their back to the room. It was unspoken, but it made Halloran feel pleased that Paul was either getting better at this, or perhaps his cavalier attitude in France had been a result of fear rather than carelessness. Or maybe Halloran was getting more paranoid, there was always that.

Paul was bright and breezy now, as though he regretted his confidences earlier, but Halloran waited him out, he had no axe to grind, he could wait all day if that's what it took, knowing that eventually Paul would have to spill. He was determined to find out what had happened and exactly how bad it was. Paul's quicksilver chatter just gave him the time to brace himself for the worst.

Eventually, Paul ran down, like a cheap watch, his words finally dribbling to a halt. He stared down into his pint glass and heaved a sigh, a small one, as though it had been forced out of him, before he looked up with another smile. This one as bright and false as his earlier greeting had been warm and sincere.

"I suppose I should tell you. I meant to tell you, but now it comes down to it, I find I don't even have the words. I thought telling you would be different but it isn't. It's still just as tawdry and depressing as hell, and talking about it only makes it worse."

Halloran took a slug of his pint. The beer was bitter and yeasty, but he'd got used to that over here. He'd got used the stiff upper lip way of doing things too - although it wasn't so different back in Chicago. Men didn't share easily, they grunted or shoved each, and that was good enough. He knew where Paul was coming from.

Paul couldn't look at him, instead he stared over at the bar where the peroxide blonde who'd served them was desultorily wiping a glass. "She's left me, you see. Divorced me, to be precise, and taken Sarah with her." Paul turned then, caught Halloran's eye. "Margaret, I mean. My wife. I told you about her, didn't I? I'm sure I did. In that wretched hayloft." He turned away again, and picked up his pint. "So there we are. The war's ending; it's a new beginning for the world and more unexpectedly for me."

"I'm sorry," Halloran said, because it was the thing you did, never mind whether you really felt that way, or whether your heart was fit to beat right out of your chest in shock. You commiserated with the guy's news after something like that. He wondered if he could ask what Maggie was doing now...

"You fight for something," Paul said, "In a war. Do you know what I mean? Something that makes you do all those stupidly brave things. And then you find out that it was all a lie. You can't be the same man after something like that."

"I suppose not." Halloran felt like a heel. He should be the last person Paul confided in, but that wasn't how things were working out. So here they both were and Halloran had to suck it up because maybe he did owe the man, far more than Paul would ever know. His marriage had been a lie for a hell of a lot longer than he'd imagined, and he'd discover it soon enough, as soon as Halloran managed to find Maggie. That made him feel even more of a heel.

"Of course, I don't blame her," Paul was continuing, "I've never been the most exciting husband. I'm steady, I suppose. Reliable. I find taxis in the rain, not give fine romantic gestures. I'm pleasant, remember? It's not enough in these uncertain times. A woman like Margaret needs something more, something grander and more passionate." He paused for another moment and Halloran watched him. "I sometimes think it would have been better if I'd fallen off that bridge in France. You remember? The one you hauled me up from. I'd have died happy in that moment, because I knew Margaret loved me. She would have been proud of me, and celebrated my memory. I'd have died serving my country. Everyone's honour satisfied."

Paul's face quirked into yet another smile, that Halloran suspected he produced a lot. It was a wide and guileless smile, a stretching of the lips that hid any real emotions that Paul might feel. It was as false as hell.

"Look," said Halloran, suddenly, the guilt spilling over into talk, "It's like you said in France, ok? All I've ever done is try to stay alive, and you called it good and brave. But you also called Margaret the perfect woman for you, like something out of Mother Goose - and that's just not right. The world's not like that, it's not any kind of fairy story. It's painful and messy, and people do the best they can, ok? There's no such thing as perfect."

He stopped, a little appalled at himself. But Paul was looking at him with something like real amusement. "Why Lieutenant Halloran, that was almost eloquent!"

Halloran huffed a little in response and settled a little more firmly back against the bench. He kicked his legs out in front of him, brushing up against Paul's warm wool-clad thigh, and drank more beer in embarrassment. What had he been thinking?

"You're right though, I'm afraid," said Paul, ruefully, "Although I didn't see it at the time. Margaret must have been unhappy for some time. Although the first I knew of it was when the divorce papers were served, and I realised that she and Sarah were gone from the house. All very neat and tidy, just like Margaret. But it is easy to arrange such things when there's money to throw at it, and I believe Colonel Housman is extremely wealthy."

"What?"

"Oh yes, didn't I say? There's another fellow involved. Although we decided upon irreconcilable differences for the official record - it saves on the scandal for poor Sarah's sake. He's a Canadian out of Windsor Field."

Halloran knew him. He was with No. 6 Group. Young for a Colonel, straight-talking with eyebrows that met in the middle. He supposed he was good-looking enough despite the eyebrows. He'd always struck Halloran as a better commander than his own Colonel Bart. Less of a stick up his ass. He'd even envied the squadrons of No.6 Group. Well damn.

He wondered if this was how Paul had felt on the day he'd padded over in his slippers to pick the mail, and discovered the discreet brown envelope. The sudden shock to the system like ice down the back. As though he'd jumped into a frozen lake, but there was no little boy to save, only the cold and the dark forever. As though everything that ever made the world make sense was abruptly turned on its head.

"Halloran. Halloran? I said, I don't suppose you know him, do you?" Paul was talking, and might have been for some time, Halloran didn't know. "I say, are you alright?"

He had to pull himself together. So he grunted a little and heaved himself more upright on the bench. "Yeah." He coughed to clear his dry throat and said, "Housman's a good man. Fair to his men, careful with his resources. His squadrons respect him."

"Well, that's good. That's something, I suppose."

But Paul didn't sound happy, and Halloran supposed he couldn't really blame him. They sat in silence for a moment while Halloran thought about it. "Depends," he added slowly, "If that's what you really want to know. Scuttlebutt is something else. Scuttlebutt says he's a martinet with the temper of a rabid raccoon."

Paul was looking over at him with startled eyes. Halloran lifted one side of his mouth in a wry kind of a grin. "I'm just sayin'. Scuttlebutt has that he carries a swagger stick to make up for the size of his dick."

There was a stifled noise then, a cross between horror and laughter, if he didn't miss his guess. "Lieutenant Halloran, you're talking about a respected colonel in the Royal Canadian Air Force, you can't just..."

"No, I'm talking about the man who's stolen your wife," interrupted Halloran, ruthlessly, and also incidentally the man who'd stolen his own Maggie. And while she herself hadn't turned out to be the girl either of them had thought her to be, that didn't make up for it, or make him more well-disposed towards Housman. This trash-talk felt good.

"He snores like a wounded buffalo, so I hear. His eyebrows grow together and Sergeant Miller reckons he steals chocolate and cigarettes from Stores to sell on the black market," he added recklessly. Which wasn't current scuttlebutt but it could be.

Paul had relaxed next to him, Halloran could feel it, his body warm and loose next to his own. Suddenly, this felt right. Paul had asked him to look Maggie up when he thought he was going to die in France, in a way he'd commended her to Halloran's care. And not that he had any right to, but Halloran had released Maggie of any obligation to him and in turn she'd gone back to Paul. They'd each offered the other something, and they'd each paid, in their own way. That made them brothers of a sort. If only in adversity.

Halloran stretched his legs out again, pressing closer to Paul. The stark horror of the news was fading a little under the need to keep Paul amused and distracted. And he'd had a long time to get used to the idea that he'd never see Maggie again. Surely, it was better this way, to know she wasn't worthy of his affections, before he wasted half his life thinking about her?

He could feel Paul shaking a little - with suppressed amusement, Halloran hoped. "You're a bad influence," said Paul, his voice breathy with laughter, "I didn't ask you for a drink only to have you ply me with scurrilous tales. But - I feel better. I think. Thank you."

He nudged his shoulder into Halloran's companionably and then left them resting together. It was bony but Halloran wouldn't have moved it for the world. Instead, he nudged back, feeling bizarrely more hopeful about the future than he had for a quite some time.

This was so much better than drinking tea.