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It's Getting Hard to Be Someone

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It wasn’t the largest protest by any means—no march on Washington, no sit-in, nothing particularly uproarious—but it still wasn’t small; this was New York, after all. The dozens or so of dedicated young adults did take up a decent amount of their patch of grass in Central Park, holding signs and chanting slogans that all supported the statement carefully, though clearly hand-painted, on the banner behind them:

END THE WAR IN VIET NAM

They made enough noise to drown out the din of traffic from the city beyond the trees of the park, but were still situated in a well-enough traveled area to make a statement, even if half their audience was wide-eyed tourists and the other half was jaded Manhattanites. 

Killian Jones, from the view of his park bench, was probably more aligned with the former group, though that didn’t mean he didn’t appreciate their drive and optimism. He didn’t think it would work—that they really only had half an idea of what they were trying to achieve.

But maybe, if he hung around them enough, some of that hope would rub off on him. Because it had been a damn long time since he’d had any.

At least, it felt like that. In reality, it had hardly been a year since his discharge; three since he first deployed. But in those few years, he’d lived a lifetime. 

He was of age with the protesters, more than likely, yet still felt like an old man shaking his head at the folly of youth. Those trust fund college kids would never know what it was like there, in the jungle—the thick air, the long marches, the bombs the bombs the bombs the b—

He shook his head; if he followed down that train of memory, it’d take ages to get out of it, and he was actually having a good day for a change. That didn’t mean he wouldn’t still be stopping at the bodega by the subway entrance to pay a visit with his friend Captain Morgan (or one of his other, cheaper brethren). But he didn’t need to head for the bottle...yet. Not until his one remaining hand started shaking, so he was alright thus far.

Commotion surrounding one of the park’s trash cans caught his eye; a group of young men were gathered around it, each one sticking the corner of a piece of paper into their lighters and laughing while the sheet went up in flames, letting the ashes fall into the bin below.

Killian couldn’t help but scoff. They could burn those draft cards all they wanted; if their number came up, Uncle Sam wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Perhaps the college kids were a bit smarter than him in that regard, though—he’d actually signed up for the military voluntarily, determined to follow his big brother Liam’s steps and make a name for themselves. Yet all it had wrought him was a lovely case of post-Vietnam syndrome, a medical discharge, and a spot on a waiting list for a prosthesis where his left hand used to be.

At least he’d made it out. Liam’s body never even got out of the jungle. (The official designation was “missing in action”, but—Killian saw what happened; felt the heat of the flames. He knew. And he relived it every night, waking up screaming and sweat-soaked in his secondhand sheets.)

Technically, he was being treated by the VA, and had check-ins and appointments every so often. Normally, he was seen in Brooklyn, where he lived, but there was a day several weeks ago when the phantom pains got too bad to bear and the overladen clinic had no openings, so he had to make the trek out to the Manhattan building. He was taking a walk through the park after, killing time before his train home, when he stumbled upon the small but dedicated rally. 

And, for some inexplicable reason, he kept coming back. He was frankly out of fucks to give when it came to considering why. But it was a nice break from the monotony of liver abuse and spinning old 45s on repeat.

He never talked to anyone, though there were some fellow veterans visibly part of the proceedings. And no one tried to interact or get him to protest; his shaggy hair and leather jacket, hand and wrist shoved deep in the pockets, were either off-putting, or suggested he was like-minded enough to not need convincing of their cause.

It got him out of the house, exposed him to some fresh air, and was probably the only thing keeping him from a self-destructive downward spiral.

At least—until it was time to get on the train back to Brooklyn.

Then, he did stop in the convenience store for some bottom-shelf rum. He shuffled down the steps to the subway platform, trying to ignore the ever-present smell of urine and exhaust. Jumped on his train, flopped in a seat, and then uncapped the fifth. The sway of the train always reminded him of riding the Tube back in London, a lifetime ago as a small boy, before—everything.

Generally, he was able to remain mostly sober by the time the train pulled into the station nearest his apartment—at least, as sober as he ever was nowadays. But behind the locked door of the dingy flat he used to share with his long-gone family, the bottle was usually empty by the end of the night, and he was passed out on whatever flat surface he ended up on, the mattress or the floor. 

And then he’d awake the next morning with a splitting headache and fading nightmares, waiting for something to push him in one direction or the other.

══════════════════════════════

As time went on, he found himself spending more and more time in the park. Not necessarily at the protest, but walking around, people watching. His caseworker, Robin, appreciated that he was getting fresh air, even if he was sipping from a flask the whole time. It was progress, of some sort.

That said—he still found himself among the dissenters whenever he was there, for at least a little while. He began to recognize some faces, though hadn’t yet worked up the desire (or courage) to try to talk to anyone. Similarly, most recognized that he was best left to his own devices, so while he might make eye contact and be on the receiving end of some half smiles, that was the extent of his human contact on the average day.

Until, one early spring afternoon, while sitting in what had become his usual bench on the outskirts of the demonstration, a small creature plowed into his knee—more specifically, a small child, he determined once he’d gotten over the jolt. (Something he was working on, but it was slow going when the slightest startle brought about a string of reactions more suited for war zones than city parks.)

When he finally looked down at the little lad, it was into a pair of large brown eyes and a wide grin, a set of chubby fingers gripping his knee while the other hand was proffering a slightly bent daisy.

“Fow-er!” the little boy yelled, shaking the stem toward him.

“For me?” Killian asked, his voice nearly cracking in surprise.

“Uh-huh!”

“Why, thank you sir,” he replied, and gently took the bloom from the boy. He tucked it in his breast pocket for safekeeping. “You’re quite the little gentleman, aren’t you?” he asked, smiling and ruffling the boy’s (clearly done-at-home) bowl cut. 

(Though it wasn’t like his own shaggy locks weren’t a result of similar efforts—an old, dull pair of scissors and a lopsided, one-handed attempt at trimming his fringe; the rest could grow long so long as it was out of his eyes—or until he had enough foresight to head to a barber before a bodega.)

The boy giggled, but Killian took the opportunity to scan the crowd while he was still somewhat safe in his grip. Surely someone was keeping an eye on the lad, or at least concerned he’d wandered off? Granted, the streets of his neighborhood were full of unsupervised children not much older than this one, but—this was downtown; it was different.

“Lad, where’s your mum?” he asked, shifting his hand to the boy’s shoulder.

He looked over his shoulder and pointed to the crowd, but the next words that came out of his mouth were incomprehensible to Killian’s ears—someone named David? Maybe?

Thankfully, a frantic voice started shouting from the swath of people, and he could see the crowd parting to let someone through.

“Henry? Henry!”

“Mama!” the boy—Henry, apparently—shouted, but made no move to leave Killian. 

“Henry! Oh my god,” the woman yelled, and quickly knelt in front of the tot and pulled him into her arms. “Do not scare me like that!”

Killian vaguely recognized the blonde woman, he thought, as being one of the people at the center of the protest. She was young, too, or at least seemed it; but he recognized some of the fatigue of a hard life that hung on her frame like it did his.

Regardless, this wasn’t the place for a kid. If he was right and she’d been around here before, then she knew what could happen at these events—when things got out of hand. And she was just bringing her child into the fray?

“You really need to keep a better eye on him, lass,” he said, fully aware of the edge creeping into his voice.

Her eyes jumped from her son to him in an instant; fierce green was staring at him from behind thick-rimmed glasses. “Excuse me?”

“All these people around, in the middle of the city—anything could have happened to him.”

“Well I was going to thank you for finding him, but not if it comes with a lecture. I’ve got him now. It’s fine.” She stood up and took Henry by the hand, using the other to brush some dirt off her bell-bottomed jeans. 

“Look, you know how these events can get out of hand fast. It’s no place for a kid, let alone one who should be leashed.”

He regretted it just about as soon as he said it, especially when her eyebrows nearly jumped into her bangs. “If you have an issue with how I parent my son, you’re more than welcome to leave.”

“Fine. Just keep him safe.” And he got up and stormed away.

Looking back, he had no idea why he reacted the way he did. He didn’t have any particular affinity for children, though he didn’t dislike them. His own childhood was far from glamorous, but he didn’t have any bad memories of parental neglect—his father had left them, but his mum never did, not until she passed. He still wasn’t even sure if he was passionate about the cause.

But...when that little boy smiled at him so genuinely, without any pretense, knowing nothing about Killian, his terrifying past, or his sorry present, it triggered a feeling he hadn’t known since he returned stateside—possibly ever. 

Someone simply wanted to share something with him and make him smile.

Despite his lingering anger at the encounter, that odd bit of hope carried him home; even the old woman at the bodega gave him a funny look as she gave him his change (and his rum). 

The last thing he saw before he passed out that night, “Paint it Black” spinning in the background, was the slightly beat-up daisy, carefully placed in a glass of water on his coffee table. He fell asleep smiling.

══════════════════════════════

He tried to stay away from the park for a while after that, not wanting to invoke the fiery blonde’s ire; there were plenty of other parks around town—plenty of other people who hated the war. Robin had given him some information on some support groups he might benefit from, and he’d given the information a solid eye, but he wasn’t sure he was enough of a hippie for whatever kumbaya they offered. (Unless they were offering marijuana, too...but he didn’t think that was an appropriate question to ask his caseworker.)

So it was no surprise when he ended up on his usual park bench a week or so later. He wasn’t even thinking about it; he was coming out of a fog—either rum or morphine, he wasn’t sure, but his phantom pains had been hurting something awful that day and the VA was all too eager to dope him up and move him on. Before he knew it, he was floating up the steps of a subway station across from the park, and the varying particles of him didn’t settle back into a solid form until the recognizable sound of dissent reached his ears.

He blinked his eyes clear as the bleariness from the drugs wore off, though thankfully their effect on his left arm lingered. The park and his surroundings were their own kind of balm, too, though he didn’t dare to say anything so sappy as it being “good for his soul”.

He continued to come down as the world rotated around him; probably a good metaphor for his life. But he was dragged back into the goings-on when a familiar mop-top smacked into his legs again.

“Hi!” The little boy from last week screeched, a battered dandelion in his fist. “Fow-er?”

“Again?” Killian sighed, even if the gesture was just as heartwarming as it had been last time. “Where’s your mum this time?”

“For you!” was his only reply as he shoved the flower into Killian’s hand. 

“You’re too kind, sir,” he replied, taking it, “but really—we need to find your mum.” Why was Henry here again? Not everyone here would react the same as he did to a small, unattended child running up to them; with as fearless as Henry seemed to be, it wasn’t hard to imagine the worst happening. (And that wasn’t just his intrusive thoughts talking.)

The boy began to babble again, so Killian gently gripped his arm and glanced around for his mother; at least he knew what she looked like this time. 

His eyes scanned the crowd and he listened as well as he could, though he wasn’t at his sharpest. Finally, though, he found her, near the center stage as it were—really just some crates bolted together—talking to another passerby in earnest. He admired the devotion to the cause, but not when it came at the risk of her son’s safety. 

“Henry, can I pick you up?” he asked the boy, though he realized as soon as he said it that the question was just as much for him. 

Thankfully, Henry wasted no time in holding his arms up; Killian managed to scoop up the boy with just his right arm, but instinctively tried to stabilize him with the left—only to hit the blunted end of his wrist. He hissed in pain as stars filled his vision, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been—the morphine was still numbing the pain to some extent. 

“You okay?” Henry asked, patting him on the shoulder. 

“Aye,” he breathed, hoping if he said it, he’d will it. “Let’s go to your mum.”

She was still in her conversation as they approached, but as they got closer, he saw her eyes widen behind her glasses. She quickly excused herself and dashed over to intercept them. 

“Henry! What have I told you?” she whisper-yelled as she pulled him into her arms. “You can’t go wandering off like that!”

“Perhaps you should stop putting him in harm’s way, then,” Killian bit out. “What other strange men has he ran up to while you weren’t looking?”

She glared at him. “Apparently, only one asshole. Maybe I should be asking you why you keep ending up with my son?”

“You can make me your villain if you want, but I’m not the one you should worry about. A protest is no place for a babe.”

“You think I’m just bringing him here for the hell of it? Teaching him while he’s young or something?”

“I don’t know; you tell me. Can’t you leave him with his father?”

“I can’t, actually, because his father is dead.”

Oh. Well that did complicate things. 

His eyes darted to her left hand, only to see her ring finger was bare. He could only imagine the judgment she’d faced for that—and was starting to realize why she might have a good reason to bring her son to an anti-war rally. 

And a long-lost sense of honor and duty drifted through the haze of his conscience, not to mention a hefty amount of guilt.

“Well, thanks,” she spat, clearly feeling anything but grateful, and turned her back to him to walk away.

“Wait,” he said, though not very forcefully. It was enough for her to pause and look over her shoulder at him. “I know you don’t know me, but, if you want—if you need—I can keep an eye on the lad, while you’re here.”

“Thanks, but no thanks,” she threw back, and continued away from him.

He swallowed as she left him in the proverbial dust, trying to figure out why her rejection of his offer felt like such a gut punch. He’d been far more disappointed in life and far more traumatized. 

And, in reality, he probably shouldn’t have expected even a halfway decent parent to leave their child with a man who was noticeably high, whose hand was shaking with tremors indicating some other issues.

For a fleeting second there, though, he thought he could have some purpose, small as it was. And it was more crushing than he’d anticipated to be turned down.

He shuffled out of the park, following his usual routine in heading home. But when he got to the bodega, he noticed the dandelion in his reflection, tucked into his coat pocket again. He wasn’t even sure when that had happened. But the weed was just enough of a burst of hope that he needed to not give up so easily.

There was something drawing him to that little boy and his mum, and even if he was in sore need of some help himself, if he could assist them, maybe that would be enough to keep him going until he otherwise figured out his life.

══════════════════════════════

A few days later, when he was in as improved a place as he was bound to get, he showed up to the park like normal. He was fairly clear-headed this time, though had his flask nearby if he got too shaky (and took a sip or two as he climbed the steps from the subway platform).

He passed his bench and entered the loose crowd of people at the demonstration, searching for the spirited blonde and her tot. It didn’t take long; she was once again near the center, talking to one of the men he recognized as an organizer of the movement here. Her hand was holding Henry’s, but he was desperately trying to pull his mom in another direction—anywhere but there, it seemed. 

She finally relented and turned her attention to the boy, but he quickly caught her eye. He supposed he wasn’t surprised that she scooped Henry into her arms and went on the defensive. 

“The hell are you doing here?” Anger flashed in her green eyes, a sharp contrast to her red leather coat. 

“It’s a public park,” he quipped back, his own defensive instincts coming to the forefront. But he took a breath and eased off. “I just wanted to reiterate my offer from the other day. If you need someone to watch the lad while you’re fighting the man, I’m more than willing to.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Why should I trust you?”

That was a valid point. He hardly trusted himself; lord knew he’d be a terrible role model for any older a child. But— “Is anyone else offering?”

She pursed her lips at his equally true response. “Fair. But why are you? You don’t know me; I don’t know you. I don’t even know why you’re here or what your name is.”

“First Sergeant Killian Jones, United States Marine Corps.”

It was her turn for a wash of realization, apparently, and he didn’t miss the way her eyes gave him a quick once over, lingering on the empty left cuff of his jacket. “I see. They let you into the US military with that accent?”

He scratched nervously behind his ear. “Moved here when I was 13; as long as you have a green card, they don’t ask too many questions.”

“No, they don’t,” she concurred. “Are you sure, though? He can be a handful.”

“Good thing I still have one,” he replied with a self-deprecating grin. 

The string of emotions that usually played across someone’s face at such a quip were always amusing to him, and hers were no exception, as she quickly moved through horror, apology, and finally settling on something akin to awkward amusement. “I didn’t mean—”

“No one does; it’s fine.”

The man she’d been talking to earlier shouted out, “Emma!” and beckoned her over. 

“Oh, that’s me,” she said, and then turned to Henry. “I’m going to leave you with Sgt. Jones for a bit; is that alright?”

“Okay, Mama!” the little boy answered without complaint, then looked up at Killian. “No fow-er today.”

“Well, that’s alright,” he replied, holding his hand out as Emma—apparently—set him down; the boy didn’t hesitate to wrap his small fingers around Killian’s rough ones. “Perhaps we can find some nearby?”

“Thank you,” she effused again. “I’ll be right over here, in case he needs anything. And just—stay in sight?”

“Of course, Emma.” He liked the way her name felt on his lips. (He wasn’t sure what he thought of that notion, though, sudden as it were.)

She gave him a smile—a tight, small thing, but it seemed like it was rare enough she gave those to anyone other than her son that he ought to treasure it. And then she ran back to the curly-haired guy.

There was another bench nearby, this one with varying weeds sprouting about its base, which meant Henry was quite content to build a bouquet (and put another dandelion in Killian’s pocket). The boy babbled the whole time, and though Killian began to pick up on more words the more time he spent around him, a translator would have been helpful. But he seemed to be content as long as he had someone to talk to, and Killian’s intermittent nods, gasps, and “tell me more”s kept him engaged enough that he didn’t even attempt to wander off.

Eventually, though, the boy took a seat next to Killian, laid his head against his side, and promptly fell asleep. Killian almost couldn’t breathe—partly for fear of waking him, and partly out of shock. It was one thing to enjoy spending time in his company, and for Killian to keep a watchful eye; this was a whole other level of trust he hadn’t anticipated.

(And he had to will away the shaking in his hand, lest it disturb the boy’s slumber.)

Thankfully, Emma came back shortly, but even she was taken aback by the sight. “Wow; has he been out long?”

“Not very, no; I apologize if this means he’ll be a handful at bedtime.”

She waved it off. “He always is; this won’t change a thing.” She came over to pick him up, and the boy automatically nestled himself in her shoulder. “Look—I’m sorry for the way I’ve treated you the last couple times you’ve been here; I—”

“Love, no,” he interrupted as he stood. “I made some rash assumptions and rude statements; it wasn’t my place.”

She shrugged. “It wasn’t mine, either. But thank you. It was nice to be able to focus on things here and not constantly worry about him.”

“I can imagine,” he said. “Um, if you’d like, I could watch him again sometime.”

Her eyes grew wide, magnified by her glasses. “You’d really do that?”

He shrugged. “Someone has to fight the good fight. And I’ve done enough of that, but if this is some small way I can support the cause, then I’m glad to.” Frankly, he astonished even himself with that statement, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t true. He went on, though. “I can’t say I keep an exactly regular schedule, but whenever I’m here, I’d be glad to keep an eye on him.”

She smiled again, even bigger than the last one. “That would be amazing. I’m not here every day, either, but whenever we match up—absolutely. Thank you.”

The man she’d been working with earlier came up alongside her then. “You read to go, Emma?” But he was giving Killian an assessing stare.

“Oh—yeah. David, this is First Sergeant Jones,” she introduced, nodding at Killian. “And this is my brother, one of the directors here, David Nolan.”

There was a steeliness in David’s gaze that didn’t relax, even if the man’s posture did; it was a look Killian knew from his own experience (his own brother) of protective instincts. But he still offered a hand, which Killian took, and he shook it firmly. “Thanks for being here,” he said. “Any chance we could get you on stage?”

Emma threw a warning glare at her brother, but he didn’t fault the man for asking. “I’m not much for public speaking, I’m afraid,” he replied—though he feared more reliving those dark days in the jungle. He’d seen enough other vets recount their horrors on that stage, and they barely even scratched the surface; maybe someday, but not anytime soon.

“You’re fine,” she assured him. “David, go on; I’ll catch up.”

David’s eyes narrowed, but then he gave a nod and headed off. 

“Ignore him; he’s overprotective but also always looking for a bigger impact to make here,” she said once he was out of earshot. “I get the impression it’s not something you like talking about.”

“Not particularly, no,” he agreed. “It’s...not something I’m much proud of, or much like reliving.” The screams in his nightmares weren’t just his or his brother’s—the things they’d been commanded to do—he squeezed his eyes shut against the sudden onslaught of memories, but—

“Hey—you’re here; it’s okay,” Emma told him, but it was her hand squeezing his arm that pulled him out of the mental hole he’d started to go down. “Are you—are you getting any help?”

“Some,” he whispered, “at the VA. But...there’s a lot of us.”

“Yeah.” There was concern etched in her brows, but neither of them seemed to know what to do about it. “Well—take care of yourself, okay? Until I see you next?”

“I’ll do my best.” He knew that wasn’t much, but it was something.

“I’ll be seeing you, then,” she said, gave him another smile, and then made her leave.

He turned the opposite way and meandered through the park, giving himself a bit of time to clear his head from his almost-breakdown—and to take some stabilizing sips from his flask. They quelled the tremors in his hand, but not his shaken nerves. He hated how often that happened, but that was the first time it happened in company. At least Emma had been understanding.

What was even more, though, was that she hadn’t judged, and she hadn’t changed her mind about him. She might yet, but—she hadn’t told him not to come back, or that she didn’t want him around her son. That on its own was significant. 

Maybe he wasn’t a completely lost cause, then. Didn’t mean he wouldn’t get lost in a bottle tonight, but in general—there was some hope.

══════════════════════════════

He showed up a few days later to a smiling Emma and excited Henry. And again the next day, and then a couple days after. As he’d said earlier, he wasn’t much for a schedule, save for his biweekly meetings with Robin (which he always followed with a trip to the park), and they weren’t there every time he was. She worked in a diner, apparently, and took classes at Bronx Community College a couple days a week. Her sister-in-law usually helped with watching Henry, but she was a teacher and had her own schedule, too, which was why Emma usually brought him to the park. “Figured the fresh air was good for him,” she explained; Killian had no counter to that, given that he always enjoyed the reprieve from his stuffy apartment.

He also learned she was only 20; not significantly less than his 23, though perhaps they were just both old souls. They hadn’t shared their respective traumas, but they didn’t really have to—it was pretty apparent they’d both lived through some shit, and they recognized that fact in each other.

It didn’t take long for them to strike up something of a friendship. He wasn’t sure if he could really be much of a good friend anymore, but he certainly tried, for her sake and Henry’s. The lad could warm even the hardest heart, and there were certainly days—after bad nights, usually—that Henry’s bright smile and chatter were just the balm he needed. And it seemed as though Emma liked having someone to talk to who she wasn’t related to or worked with.

He was a little surprised at how much he enjoyed their company. He’d gotten so used to being on his own in the last year, and some time before that, prior to his discharge, that he’d forgotten what having connection was like. No wonder Robin had been pushing him towards those support groups. He still wasn’t sure he was ready for something like that, but just—talking to someone, conversing with a voice that wasn’t his nor whoever was singing out of his record player, was refreshing.

He even began to understand more of Henry’s stories, and realized that most of them involved his family. He never asked, but given the lack of talk about his father, he had to assume the man had met a fate similar to far too many overseas, and long before Henry could form memories.

After a month or so of these sporadic shared afternoons—with Killian watching Henry until he fell asleep, and Emma joining him for a conversation of some length (David occasionally joining in and, if he wasn’t mistaken, warming up to Killian), she asked him to join them for dinner. “Just at the place I work,” she added. “We get a discount.”

How could he say no? (That, and he wasn’t sure when he’d last ate something that wasn’t a TV dinner—especially ironic since he didn’t own a working television; no amount of tin foil could get those antennae to get reception.)

That too became an intermittent tradition, and he gradually got to know Mary Margaret, David’s wife and said sister-in-law, as well as Granny, Emma’s surly (but caring) boss. 

He still had bad days. He still got phantom pains. He still ended too many nights well into a fifth. But things were looking up. 

══════════════════════════════

That said, Emma still managed to throw him for a loop. “Are you coming to the be-in on Sunday?” she asked one evening in late March. 

He’d seen the flyers for it all over town, even in Brooklyn, calling for a mass gathering on Easter to not so much protest the war, but celebrate life itself (although it no doubt had something to do with the decision made by the city parks department to no longer allow mass demonstrations in the park, as well). “Do you need me to watch Henry then?” He thought it odd she’d try to bring him to something as large as that. 

“No, of course not—he’s staying with Mary Margaret that night. I’m asking if you’ll be there with me.”

Oh. Well that was something else entirely. Or maybe it wasn’t and he was reading into things too much. Either way, it felt like a step up from their usual interactions, where Henry was nearly always a buffer, even when he was sleeping on his mum’s shoulder like he was now. (Not like they’d really be alone...there’d likely be thousands of people there.)

“I...guess I hadn’t gotten that far,” he answered. “Should I?”

“I’d like it,” she replied, somewhat shyly. “David will be there too, and even if it’s not technically a protest, I know he’ll be in business mode. But I think it’ll be nice to to just relax.”

And she wanted to do that...with him? He swallowed; he was taking too long to answer and definitely interpreting some other meaning in her asking. They were friends, that was all; and it’s not like he was really looking for anything more, nor was he ready for that.

(But—if he was—it would definitely be someone like Emma: fierce, sharp, determined, hardworking, beautiful...perhaps he had put more thought into this than he realized.)

“Then yeah, I’ll be there,” he finally said. “Do I need to bring anything, or wear anything, or…?”

“Just yourself,” she answered, but then tilted her head in thought. “And maybe some snacks.”

“I think I can manage that,” he said. “What time?”

“Whenever,” she said casually. “I think it starts early morning, but I probably won’t be there until around noon.”

That was sadly considered early for him, but he had an alarm clock somewhere—probably buried in a closet, but it was somewhere. “I’ll see you then, then.”

“See you,” she said, giving him a grin that never ceased to brighten his day.

They parted ways, and he promptly began to overthink his entire existence. What should he wear? Should he get a haircut? Trim his beard, short as it was? What kind of snacks did she like? What did the bodegas he frequented even have? 

Bloody hell—it was still a few days away; he had time to figure this out. But, for the first time in a long while, he had something to look forward to—and he didn’t want to mess it up.

══════════════════════════════

On Sunday, just a bit after 1200 (there was a delay in the tunnel getting there), Killian arrived at the park with a paper bag in his left arm and taking a sip from his flask with the other. He’d cleaned up his beard and tried to do the same with his hair, and made sure he’d done his laundry so he had some clean clothes, though his straight-leg jeans were clearly out of style and his tshirt was a faded black (but at least it was soft). Still—he was ready.

Until he saw the mass of humanity across Sheep Meadow and suddenly felt very, very lost. 

Thank God he heard his name being shouted; when he figured out where the voice was coming from, he saw Emma waving at him not far away, with David nearby.

“Good thing I saw you, huh?” she said as he got close.

“Aye; I don’t think I’d have ever located you,” he agreed, taking a seat on the blanket they had spread out.

“Nah, we’d have found you eventually; we always find each other,” David said, then nodded at the bag. “What’d’ya bring?”

“Uh, well, I wasn’t really sure,” he started, pulling out items. “But I grabbed some Bugles, some potato crisps, and some Pop-Tarts.”

“My favorite!” Emma yelled, grabbing the box of treats. “How did you know?”

“Lucky guess,” he replied, laughing; he’d never really been a fan but supposed someone might enjoy them—he just hadn’t realized how much. (The Bugles were his personal preference.)

They settled in and watched as more people arrived, spread out across the vast expanse of green. Lots of hippies—on lots of drugs—but people from all walks of life, of all ages and all races—even families in their Easter best—filled into the park, which was carefully being watched by police; he hoped their involvement wasn’t necessary, though there was something to be said for the fact they hadn’t kicked anyone out yet.

Truthfully, Killian had worried such a massive gathering might trigger some of his anxieties, but after a couple hours, he was still feeling calm. David had wandered off a bit ago to discuss some protest plans, leaving him and Emma alone and deep in conversation—about music, books, Henry, everything. 

He did pull his flask back out after some time; she’d seen his tremors before, but if he could stave them off today, he’d prefer it. “What’s your poison?” she asked as he took a sip.

“Rum,” he replied, following the familiar burn down his throat, then offered her the flask. She gamely grabbed it and took her own long pull, though coughed a bit after she swallowed.

“Yeah, that’s rum alright. Guess I’m more of a whisky girl.”

“To each their own,” he shrugged as she passed it back. “Although I’m not sure I pegged you as the whiskey type, either.”

“No? What did you think?”

“Beer, maybe?”

She gagged. “No thanks; that’s what Neal liked, but I could never get a taste for it.”

“Neal?” he asked before he was even thinking—although as soon as he said it, he could make a guess.

“Henry’s dad,” she said simply. “Which...you’ve probably figured out how that ended.”

“To some extent, yeah.” A slightly awkward silence settled over them, despite the sounds of joy all around. “Do you...want to talk about it?” he finally offered.

She sighed. “Not a ton to tell. We went steady in high school; he was a couple years older than me. He got drafted nearly as soon as he graduated and didn’t have a way out of it, since his dad had cut him off as soon as he turned 18. So we got married real quick, he left, and then he didn’t come back.”

“Wait—you were married?” But, as was established, she wore no ring.

“Yeah; he didn’t want his dad to be next of kin in case anything happened. And I was young and in love, so I agreed.” She paused. “Looking back, I’m not sure it would have lasted, but at the time, it seemed like the right thing to do. Especially when I found out I was pregnant a couple months later.”

“Bloody hell.”

She nodded. “I hate that Henry doesn’t know his dad, and so I mourn what could have been; hell, I don’t even know if he got the letter I sent letting him know. It wasn’t a whole lot later I had a couple of g-men at the door saying he was gone. But...is it bad that I don’t think I really miss him?”

“Not necessarily,” he replied, though it wasn’t a position he’d ever been in. “Raising his son is the best way you could honor him, as is promoting an end to the war. He’ll always be important to you, but you don’t have to structure your life around grieving him, not when you have other responsibilities—and when you’re so young.”

She scoffed a bit. “Yes, because you’re so old,” she teased.

“I certainly feel it sometimes,” he countered. “Feels like I’m going on 240 some days, rather than 24.”

“Then that makes me 237.”

“And you look fantastic for it.”

She giggled, but it didn’t last before she turned somber again. “You’ve lost someone too, haven’t you?”

“A few,” he said simply. “My parents are gone, same as yours.” She’d explained that one a while ago. “But yeah—my brother. We served in the same unit. I...he...he died. In my arms.”

“Oh, Killian. I’m so sorry.”

Her words sounded far away, though, as the image came back into his mind’s eye—the humid forest, the heat of the bombs, the smell (god, the smell)—

“Hey—I’m right here; we’re here,” she said, grabbing his arm again and pulling him out before he fell too far in. “Sorry; I shouldn’t have prodded.”

“No; it’s fine,” he assured her, though he took a pull from the flask he was still holding. “But perhaps I should take some of my own advice; I spend so much time trying to forget how he died that I can't remember how he lived.”

“What was he like?”

“A stubborn arse,” he joked.

“Oh, like David?”

“A bit.”

They shared stories of growing up—her in the Bronx, he in England and then Brooklyn—comparing and contrasting their youths and taking note of the many similarities between their older brothers; no wonder he and David were starting to get on well.

As the day wore on, she convinced him to try one of the strawberry-flavored Pop-Tarts and he had to admit—it was better than he remembered...but the Bugles were better.

David came back eventually, with some franks he’d acquired from a street vendor, and they watched as the sun began to set into the city’s skyline.

Despite the occasional outburst from the crowd, and their own emotional revelations, it had been a peaceful afternoon, thoroughly enjoyable, and more fun than he’d had...probably since before he enlisted. 

At one point, Emma had left to track down some glasses of water; when she came back, she sat right next to him, leaning her shoulder into his, her red leather right against his black. It was a physical familiarity he’d never really known, high school girlfriends aside, but he didn’t dare voice how much he enjoyed it lest he risk breaking whatever happy spell had descended on them all. (If he was being rational, it was probably residual high from the many dope smokers around them, but that was also reason enough to throw logic out the window.)

But as evening darkness settled, everyone was jolted into awareness by bright lights suddenly being beamed into the crowd. Then the cops came over their bullhorns and speaker systems, ordering everyone to disperse. Confusion and chaos quickly broke out, but this was precisely why Mary Margaret had stayed home: in case they needed a bailout. 

Quickly, they gathered their things and got up, although they soon lost David in the swarming crowd. Killian tried to call for him, but Emma said it was fine—she’d see him at home. “We just need to go,” she said, starting to sound panicked.

Well, he hadn’t reached the rank of sergeant for no reason. Without thinking, he grabbed her hand and looked for a path through the throng of people heading in every direction. “Hold on,” he commanded, and began to press through as fast as he could.

Their path was winding, and not the fastest way to get out of the park, but it worked, and they were eventually breathing—well, not fresh air, but that’s how they knew they were clear of any potential danger, standing under a streetlight on 5th Avenue.

“Thank you,” she sighed as they both caught their breath. “That was a bit more excitement than I thought we’d have.”

“Yeah,” he concurred; he hadn’t moved that briskly since...well, the jungle. “You think David got out alright?”

“He’s a big boy; he’ll be fine. And if not...we’ll get him.”

She was still holding his hand and leaned against the light pole, a happy smile taking over her face.

“That was fun,” she giggled.

“Aye,” he chuckled back, and stepped a bit closer to her, so they both stood in the circle of light from the lamp. “That...seems to happen a lot more lately.”

“I’m glad to hear that.”

The moment between them grew heavy in a way he wasn’t sure how to interpret. But he didn’t miss the way her eyes darted to his lips.

In another life—his coquettish school days, perhaps—he would have made some flirtatious quip and essentially dared her to kiss him. 

But, as it turned out, he didn’t have to. “Can I kiss you?” she bluntly asked.

“Yes.”

She didn’t hesitate to grab the lapels of his jacket and haul him in, quickly finding his lips with hers. His hand and wrist settled on her waist, and he ignored the brief jolt of pain as he got lost in—her: the way she felt against him, the way her lips tasted (like Pop-Tarts), how the rest of the city seemed to disappear for a long moment. 

Truly, nothing seemed to exist but them, until all too soon they were breaking apart for air. But even then, it was just him and her in the glow of the light. “That was…” he murmured, but his mind wasn’t clear enough to determine just what. 

“Something I’ve been curious about for a while,” she finished, and he felt more than saw the smile on her lips. 

“And?”

“Even better than I imagined.”

Now it was his turn to grin, and to find her lips again. 

Their moment didn’t last much longer—it couldn’t, lest they both missed their trains home, but it was a sweet reprieve from the responsibilities (or lack thereof) they dealt with daily. 

“Can I at least see you to your train?” he said softly as they got ready to depart. 

She laughed again. “It’s the same station, silly.”

They kissed a few more times before hers arrived, and his was the next one out.

And if a goofy grin played at his lips the whole ride home…then good; let everyone see how happy he was, even if only for one night.

══════════════════════════════

Of course—it had been a while since he’d done...this—romance. His more gentlemanly instincts wanted him to call and make sure she’d gotten home okay, and then ask her out again on a proper date.

But that was kind of hard to do without a phone number, or even the right phone book—he could only seem to come up with one for Brooklyn (that was five years old at that).

So he swallowed his awkward pride, bought a bouquet at the bodega, and showed up to the park in their normal spot at their normal time a couple days later. 

Emma was engaged in conversation when he got there, Henry tugging at her miniskirt, but when she saw him coming, her eyes lit up.

But before she could even approach, Henry screamed out “Kill’an!” and ran for his legs.

He knelt and gave the boy a hug; who knew that such tiny arms could give such a warming embrace?

And when Emma did come over, he shifted Henry into his left arm and stood to greet her, but before he could even present the flowers, she was pressing a kiss against his cheek. There was a slight nervousness in her features, too, but that honestly made him feel more at ease. They both had baggage—some more visible, some not—but they could navigate that together.

More than that, maybe this was something he could just...have. There hadn’t been a whole lot of that in his life—something he had any control over. Perhaps this could be that.

Nothing much changed, really—they still saw each other more than a few times a week; he still watched Henry, and they still went to Granny’s diner after. It was just—more: more closeness, more affection, more kisses. He was still working up the nerve (and cash) to take her out on a proper date, but she thankfully didn’t seem to mind that he hadn’t yet.

And at the next be-in a month later—this time an actual protest, with a subsequent march on the United Nations and even a speech from Dr. King—they walked hand-in-hand, shouting for peace.

His soul just might finally have found some.

══════════════════════════════

But nothing in his life was ever that easy, was it?

He was still on the waiting list for a prosthesis, continually moving down in priority as men came back from Viet Nam even more broken than he. Robin was apologetic, but he could see how harried the man was and wasn’t about to let his own somewhat short temper snap at the man.

It wasn’t like having that piece of equipment would miraculously make the phantom pains go away, anyway, but whatever he’d been doing while watching Henry lately was exacerbating them (not that he’d ever let the lad know that; Emma seemed to figure it out, though, by the way he’d wince and shake at the end of the day). So he was making somewhat more frequent trips for pain relief than he’d like to be making.

It all coalesced one day in May—the anniversary of Liam’s death, because of course it would all happen that day. He was already holed up in his apartment, well into his bottle, when an odd sound rattled in the street below. He went to the window to investigate, but before he could, it rang again—shots.

Instinctively, he hit the floor, jarring his wrist in the process and sending stars across his vision as he cried out in pain.

But when they cleared, he was back in the jungle—the thick green foliage all around, the smell of death hanging in the air, the bombs the bombs the bombs and—Liam—Liam was in his arms—but he was—he was—

He didn’t know how long he was stuck in the traumatic loop; not even the sirens down below pulled him out, nor his own retching. He wasn’t sure what did, really, until he heard the shrill ringing of his alarm clock. Somehow he got up and shut it off—it was only a few feet away on the coffee table—but that was usually his signal to pull his shit together and go watch Henry; he was in no shape to do that today. It didn’t help that he’d apparently left the record player on, spinning an endless loop of “Strawberry Fields Forever” that didn’t aid his addled mind at all.

But being in this ghost-filled apartment wouldn’t help, either. Maybe Emma would understand that he just needed to be there—away, out. Or maybe she’d finally realize she was so much better than his sorry arse and kick him to the curb like she should have done months ago.

He threw on his cleanest shirt and grabbed his nearly empty bottle and headed out. The train was packed, and slow, or at least it felt like it, so at least he didn’t mind when the world began to blur as he gripped the overhead bar and swayed with the car. 

He nearly missed his stop but managed to stumble out before the doors closed, and nothing else quite registered until he was in the park, dropping his now-empty bottle in the nearest waste bin. He scrubbed a hand down his face and took a deep breath, trying to clear the fog from his mind. It didn’t work, but maybe he’d at least be able to hide it enough to keep anyone from worrying—or judging.

Henry didn’t mind, and came charging at him with his usual enthusiasm; never had a hug felt better. He didn’t trust himself to be steady enough to hold the growing boy, though, so he took his hand instead, and prayed Henry didn’t notice Killian’s world tilting off its access once he was upright again.

Emma, though—he should have known better than to try to hide it from her. “Killian, what’s wrong?” She was kneeling at his side sooner than he realized, hand cupping his face and worry furrowing her brow.

“Don’ worry about me,” he tried to reassure her. “Just...not a good day. I don’t...I probably won’t be much company today.”

He could almost see the steel set into her gaze and prepared himself for a verbal lashing. But instead, she picked up Henry and grabbed his hand, then pulled him away from the small but devoted crowd.

He lost track of where they were going but was aware of the fact that it was suddenly quieter, and she was pushing him down onto a bench. She was still standing in front of him, though. “Who’s your contact at the VA?” she asked, digging through her purse. 

“Um, Robin,” he said, pulling the name from the haze of his mind. “Robin Locksley.”

She turned around—they were at a payphone, apparently—and went about calling. He tried to tell her not to bother, he’d be fine, but she just sent another glare his way and he shrunk back.

“You need help, Killian,” she said, almost angrily.

“The VA has enough on its plate.”

“Yeah, and you need more than them. Just—let me do this, okay?” She stepped closer and her hand brushed his cheek again, and he thought he might cry.

She turned her attention back to the phone, and other than Henry’s gentle pats on his shoulder, he began to lose awareness of whatever else was going on around him. Voices became muddled, and his vision clouded. He was vaguely aware of Emma moving him somewhere—his feet got the message his brain didn’t—and they might have been in a cab? At some point, his head wound up on her shoulder and he got lost in the clean scent of her hair.

But all too soon, it was stopping, and what followed was a blur of hospital rooms and doctors and the smell of antiseptic and trying desperately not to flash back to the field hospital in Da Nang (and failing, several times). There were brief moments of lucidity where he wasn’t reliving past traumas, but even those were so muddled he couldn’t tell dreams from reality.

(He thought he felt Emma’s lips on his forehead once, saw her bright green eyes behind those thick black frames in the midst of the jungle, but he wasn’t sure what to trust or believe any more.)

Until, suddenly, it was over. He blinked his eyes open to the sterile light of a hospital room; could just hear the sounds of life from the other side of the curtain that divided it. An IV was in his arm and he felt sore all over, but mentally, he was clear for the first time in months.

Which made it all the more apparent that he was alone. And that stung worse than the physical aftereffects of withdrawal he was likely dealing with.

What did he expect, though? He wasn’t naive enough to think he’d be able to hide his issues from her forever; she knew about them to some extent, anyways. She deserved so much more than a one-handed veteran with a drinking problem, though; he should just be grateful that he got to bask in her glow for a little while.

And he was good at brooding, so he let himself do that for a while. Eventually, the curtain began to shift; likely a nurse coming to check on him and hopefully telling him when he could leave. 

But it was Emma.

“Oh, thank God, you’re awake!” she exclaimed as she rushed to the empty chair at his bedside. “How are you feeling?”

He blinked a bit. “You’re here?”

“Of course I’m here; why wouldn’t I be?” She seemed taken aback.

“Because I’m a bloody mess,” he barked out, half laughing, half astonished. 

“And I’m not?” she countered.

“You’re not the one who spent...god, I don’t even know how long I’ve been here, detoxing or whatever they did to me because you don’t know how else to handle anything.”

“It’s only been a couple days,” she told him. “And I don’t think you can really say anyone who had a kid at 17 really has their life together. If I’m getting by, it’s only because I have a support system; and guess what—so do you now.”

He scoffed. “You don’t need to do this, love; you deserve someone much better in your life than me.”

“No, I don’t need to do this. But I want to.” She reached out and squeezed his hand. “You didn’t need to look after Henry, but you wanted to. And don’t think this is just me returning the favor—you’re funny, you’re smart, you’re sweet, and you’ve got such a big heart, Killian—and it’s so easy to see the pain it carries. So don’t bother with what you think I deserve— you deserve better than what you’ve been dealing with; you deserve good things, and I plan on reminding you of that whenever you forget. Including right now, apparently.”

He blinked and swallowed—God, he could use some water—and let the weight of her statement wash over him. He wasn’t imagining this too, was he? “You’re not mad?” was all he could manage to say, though.

“I’m not—well, I am,” she admitted. “A bit at you, but mostly at—everything. And I wish I could have helped you sooner.”

He wanted to tell her he wasn’t worth it, to leave and forget about him, but he was too selfish. “Thank you,” he finally told her, though it didn’t seem like those two words were enough for all she’d done for him the last few months, even if she didn’t realize it. “For everything.”

“You can thank me by staying sober.” It was blunt, but he knew it needed to be said. He nodded. 

She brushed the hair off his forehead and leaned forward to press a kiss against it (confirming that he hadn’t been dreaming it). “I have to go to work in a bit, but I’ll come by tomorrow, okay?”

“Sounds perfect, love.” He was in no position to complain. 

“Get some rest. I’ll see you then.”

“I can’t wait,” he said, probably hyperbolically, but what else did he have to do?

She did give a grin at that, one he couldn’t help but return, and then slipped away. 

A harried nurse eventually came and caught him up on what he’d missed in the last couple of days—a heavy detox cycle that he was still stabilizing from, and a hefty warning to not head down such a path again. 

He’d do his damnedest—if not for himself and his liver, then for Emma and Henry. 

The rest of the next day or so was spent in and out of sleep; he attempted to eat the meals they brought but his stomach was still uneasy (and not just because the food itself looked unappetizing, but that certainly didn’t help). 

He was snoozing again early the next afternoon when a steady tapping noise woke him; it grew louder and his mind started assuming the worst, until a small voice yelled his name and burst through the curtain.

“Killian!”

“Henry!” He sat up to greet the lad as he climbed up on the bed and slammed his little body into him. He didn’t hesitate to wrap his arms around the boy; there must be some magic in Henry’s hugs. 

Emma came in behind him, followed by David and Mary Margaret. He felt suddenly self-conscious at having such an audience to his problems, but Emma gave him a reassuring smile, and he remembered what she said yesterday about having support. Regardless of what his pride or ego thought, he needed that—and he was glad they were the ones offering. 

“How are you feeling today?” Emma asked him, brushing his hair out of his face; he didn’t know why such a small gesture meant so much to him, but he wouldn’t question it. 

“Alright; still a little nauseous, and sore, but as best as can be expected.”

“Did you eat?”

He couldn’t remember the last time anyone asked him that—or cared. “Not much; couldn’t really stomach it.”

“We’ll have to get Granny to send some food over,” Mary Margaret commented. “Much better than hospital food. She sends her regards, by the way.”

“I…appreciate it,” he said, somewhat surprised, but at the same time—not really. Just not something he was accustomed to. 

They politely chatted for a bit, until Henry proclaimed his need to use the restroom; Emma took him and Mary Margaret followed, leaving just him and David. 

The man hadn’t said anything since they arrived, but he was getting the same vague sense of disapproval he’d gotten at their first meeting. But he did approach. 

“Are you serious about staying sober?” he asked. 

“Aye, I am.” He may have found these people in spite of his dependency issues, but he didn’t want to lose them over them. 

“Good. You know,” he started, resting his hands on his hip-hugging jeans, “I’m not sure if Emma told you this, but…our dad fought alcohol addiction his whole life. And I know there’s a lot more to it here, but—he never beat it, and it killed him. I can’t…I can’t see that happen to someone I care about again.”

There was a quip on his tongue about David having affection more than tolerance for Killian, but now wasn’t the time. “I don’t intend to let you—any of you—down,” he assured him. 

“I know some people that can help with that—some groups—if you’re open to that.”

Just a few months ago, Killian probably would have declined; but now— “I’d like that a lot; thank you.”

David smiled. “We’ll get that figured out, then; but first, you’ve gotta get out of here,” he said and clapped Killian on the shoulder. “Have they said how long?”

“Another couple days, it sounds like.”

“You’re coming home with us, you know,” Mary Margaret added as they returned to the room. 

“Oh, no—I couldn’t impose—”

“It’s not imposing if it’s a command, is it?” she countered. Bloody hell, she was on par with some of his drill sergeants in terms of authority. Though he later realized that was to be expected with elementary teachers. 

“Aye-aye, captain,” he agreed with a salute. 

The conversation lasted a bit longer, until both he and Henry were sharing yawns and they took it as the cue to leave. He would have liked it if they could stay longer, but sleep was indeed calling. 

The Nolans took Henry out, giving he and Emma a moment alone. “You really don’t have to take me in,” he told her. “I appreciate it more than I can say, but it’s not necessary; you don't need me hanging around—”

“Hush,” she cut him off. “I know we don't need to. But like I said—we want to. And I plan on keeping you around for a while, so I’d like to make sure you recover from this properly.”

That was the second time she’d made a comment regarding her long-term plans with him. As amazing as it sounded—it hurt. “Emma,” he protested. “Look at me. I can barely take care of myself; do you really see a future with someone like that? You deserve—”

“Oh, fuck off with this ‘deserve’ business, Killian! You. You are the one that I want. No one else. We’ve been taking care of each other since we met, and I’m quite content to do that for as long as either of us are able.” She sighed. “Look—I get being scared to start a new relationship; I have been ever since Neal died, so I understand if you need some time and space to get yourself sorted out. But I’m not going anywhere, and whenever you’re ready, I’ll be there.”

He blinked and let that settle in. He hadn’t even dared to dream she saw that kind of future—or any, really—with him; that it was even possible. But now that it was out in the open air— “I want that too, love. More than anything.”

“Good.” And she pressed forward and stole what little air was in his lungs with a searing kiss—at least, as much as it could be when one of them was laying on a thin hospital mattress in a creaky bed, but he managed to dig his fingers into her hair and hold her there for a few moments longer. 

“Sleep,” she murmured, “and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“As you wish,” he said softly back. 

══════════════════════════════

Two days later, he was discharged from the hospital, and Emma took him back to their townhouse in the Bronx. 

Not even a week later, he attended his first AA meeting, with David as his sponsor. 

And finally, a month after, he was able to get a prosthesis for his left side—a hook that he had to go through a few sessions of occupational therapy to learn how to use, but immediately made his life easier. 

For as much as his life had felt aimless for the last year, it seemed to settle after his last breakdown. It was sad that that was what it took, but he knew it was more than that. 

Meeting that little lad and his amazing mother one fateful day in the park—that was the difference. More specifically, having something to live for. 

He still had days when his demons reared their heads; when the physical pain got too bad. But now—Emma was there to hold him through the ensuing tears, to massage his burning muscles. And Henry was there to put a smile back on his face.

It did take a few months for him to finally be able to take Emma out on a proper date. They went to a tiny place in Little Italy, where the food was divine and the company even better. 

They went back there a year later, when he proposed. 

And their wedding was a small affair, in a tiny corner of Central Park where it all began. (Henry picked the flowers Emma wore in her hair and in Killian’s boutonnière.)

The protests continued. Henry grew. Emma finished her associate’s degree, and Killian worked on one too. 

He sold the flat in Brooklyn—even if it held fond memories from his childhood, it was haunted with too many bad ones. They used the money to get their own place in the Bronx, not far from the Nolans, where they later welcomed their daughter. 

It was also where they watched the news (on a working television set) of the last troops leaving Viet Nam, a few long years later. Killian had been looking forward to that moment—to the day when no other man would be subjected to the horrors he and too many others had faced in that particular war. 

To his surprise, though, he didn’t feel the weight lift off him like he expected. Better yet—that weight wasn’t even there. 

He was thrilled, of course—it was long overdue. But where he’d expected some massive emotional release, he found only a normal amount of relief. 

He’d moved on. What happened to him there impacted him greatly, but it no longer defined him. 

He thought back to what had drawn him to the protests in the first place—that spirit of optimism and hope he had wished would rub off on him. 

He hadn’t expected to find friends—or, better yet, family; he couldn’t even dream that, in the not-too-distant future, he’d be settled with an incredible wife and their beautiful children, building a more wonderful life than he thought he’d have.

And now…well, just look at his infant daughter’s name: Hope. He held her close to his chest as he and Emma continued to watch the news—and continued with the life they were creating together.