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Paper Dragons

Chapter Text

The corridor stank of cheap perfume and sweat, the half-hearted attempts of a few unfortunate women trying to mask the stench of their desperate situation. The walls were barely paper thin, the tell-tale heavy breathing and stifled noises coming from within each room taking Chris back to a different time, a different brothel, where the air stuck just as thickly to every exposed inch of skin and even breathing felt dirty and choked you. The passage was so narrow that as they passed a gaggle of Thai girls, a few of them giggled coquettishly as his hand accidentally brushed the curve of their bare stomachs. Some of them looked to be gaining a new customer, but the two ex-soldiers saw them as little more than faceless obstacles standing between them and their objective. They were pretty — skeletal, yes, but Chris found it impossible to think of anything besides seeing Kim.

Ellen had wanted to come too, but Chris had refused — she was upset, naturally so, but the moment John had told him that Kim had been found, he’d been unable to focus on anything else. It felt important to see her alone, to prove to himself that miracles could happen, and he knew the delicacies of their unique situation could wait until he’d verified her survival, with his own eyes, past the horrors of the fall of Saigon.

It wasn’t even just her he was there to see — Tam, her son, their son, played on his thoughts at a near constant rate, the little piece of their brief happiness preserved forever in a face he was yet to meet. He didn’t know what he was going to do about Tam, or about Kim or Ellen either, but the details could come later.

First he just wanted to see her.

His heart hammered nervously in his chest as he followed John to the final door at the end of the corridor, where his friend knocked twice sharply. It hurt Chris to think of Kim living in a place like this, the very sort of iniquitous hell hole he’d tried desperately to get her out of. The door was thrown open almost immediately, and Chris was baffled to find himself face to face with the Engineer.

Momentarily stunned, he could barely get out a, “What are you doing here?” Before the man had thrown his arms around Chris.

“Monsieur Chris! Monsieur John! You are true as a fine pair of breasts!”

John let out a disbelieving laugh. “You’ll never change.”

The Engineer barely even acknowledge the jibe. “Ah, but I know why you are here!” The grin on his face practically shone. He thrust himself from the room, taking Chris by the arms and deftly switching their places. “Go, go! Go and meet your American boy. And then remember who it was that filled out the form that told you so, no?”

Before either of the ex-soldiers could get a word in, the Engineer was shutting the door to the tiny apartment and pulling John down the corridor to, in his own words, afford the reconciliation some privacy.

Alone in the room now, Chris could only stare at the rough wood of the door, feeling the humidity and the knot in his stomach make his hands even clammier than they should be. Just then he heard the rustle of movement behind him, the identifiable shuffle of another human being, and he was assaulted with sensations before he’d even turned around. The scent of orange trees floated across his consciousness, and in the corner of his mind he could hear the distant melody of a solo saxophone, an almost mournful sound that seemed miles and miles away. Chris enjoyed the onslaught of nostalgia, and for a moment he could imagine himself three years younger and full of wonderful ideas.

Finally, he willed himself to turn around, and she was there.

Kim.

Every nightmare he’d ever had of his view from the side of the helicopter faded before his very eyes, as the vision of her stood in front of him. She was as beautiful as every memory he’d preserved from those distant few days in Saigon — her hair hung in loose strands from her bun, and her dark eyes shone with warmth and a sheen of moisture he knew to be tears. Her body was more mature now; three years on and she was a girl no longer, shoulders stronger set, but Chris couldn’t help but notice how thin she was. This was a woman who’d had her fill of pain, and more. He was full of a fierce feeling that caused him to nearly stagger back — pride that she could stand there straight, admiration that after all she’s been through she could hold her own, and something overpowering he couldn’t remember feeling this intensely since he was screaming at God in the sky. Love. After all this time, and she evoked the same feeling inside him since the first day he laid eyes on her.

For a moment all they could do was stare at each other, breathless. Stillness permeated the room, until one of them moved — who could say which — and they were in each other’s arms again, clutching desperately as if without constant physical reassurance, they might vanish like phantoms under their fingertips. Chris locked his arms around her back, nearly lifting her into the air with the force of his embrace, and he could feel her fingers in his hair dragging almost painfully across his scalp.

“I’m sorry,” he was moaning into her shoulder before he could stop himself. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” If he’d been a few hours earlier, if he’d taken her to the embassy with him, if he’d met her just a day before — every single alternative scenario flashed through his mind and he knew he was staining the shoulder of her silk dressing gown with his tears. He had done this. He had betrayed her.

“It’s alright,” she was whispering, “it’s alright, you are here now.”

Overwhelmed with emotion, Chris might not have admitted that it was him who drew back first, who pressed his lips desperately to hers, wanting to feel her underneath him. It was her returning the gesture eagerly that brought him back to his senses, and he remembered the third variable in their equation of being — Ellen.

With effort he pulled away, firmly placing his hands on her shoulders and putting distance between them. He tried to ignore the innocent confusion on her beautiful features, which was soon washed away with unadulterated joy.

“I don’t know what to tell you first,” she said in a rush. Chris didn’t know what to say — he knew exactly what he should tell her first. Would it be wrong of him to preserve the illusion a little bit longer? To live the life he could have had for just a few more minutes?

Kim took him gently by the hand, and pulled him to the corner of the room cordoned off by a dirty, sheer curtain, ripped slightly on one side. Chris could tell that from the threadbare mats on the floor this was where she slept. And there, perched on the side of the counter, was the young boy he had seen in all of his dreams.

“Tam,” Kim said, voice shaking with emotion. “Tam, this is your father.”

The boy looked up at Chris with inquisitive eyes. The ex-soldier could see everything of Kim in him, but even as he subconsciously searched he wasn’t sure there was anything of his own in the boys features. Unsure if this was because of his reluctance to accept the existence of a son he didn’t know about, or whether he wanted this situation to be different, all Chris could do was smile.

Then the tiny boy smiled back, and the curve of his mouth could’ve been Chris’ own.

This was almost too much for Kim, who pressed her hand to her mouth and broke out into sobs, happy tears rolling down her cheeks. Tam dropped slowly down from the counter, before rushing over to her and clinging to her leg. Kim touched the top of his dark head almost absently, her eyes not leaving Chris’ face. Chris stared at the pair of them; his family. The family he could have had. And if he was completely honest with himself, it was the family he still so desperately wanted. But it was time for him to return to the real world.

“Kim,” he got out, his voice faltering with pain. “There’s something you need to know.”

Before he could continue, the door to the apartment was thrown open again, and the Engineer stepped back inside, licking his lips eagerly.

“Ah!” he grinned at the sight of them all together. “Excellent, magnifique. And what do you think of your American boy?”

Chris looked at Tam. “He’s perfect,” he replied honestly.

“No, you are perfect,” the Engineer replied slyly. “You didn’t sign any papers without me, did you?”

Just then John appeared behind him, and sent Chris a questioning look. Chris gave him a helpless shake of his head instead.

“Engineer,” John began loudly, “you know, maybe I am interested in a girl — for old time’s sake. Could you show me a few you’d recommend?” A little reluctant, but eager to stay on John and Chris’ good side, the Engineer obliged and left the room.

Once they were alone again Kim opened up like a flower. “Oh Chris, we have waited so long for today. Sometimes I thought it might never come.” She lifted Tam up under his arms, and placed him back on the counter. “But I never gave up. I knew our love was something special. We are something special.” She walked back over to him, eyes shining and took both of his hands in hers. “The sun and the moon. Do you remember?”

It was like staring at an image from three years in the past. Of course he remembered — he treasured those memories. But they’d become just that, memories. Past instances, flashes of bliss he could never hope to obtain again, and he’d made peace with that. Now with the wounds reopened and the pleasure his for the taking, he couldn’t help but loathe every part of his situation. He took a deep breath, and prepared to blow a hole in their happiness.

“Kim, I married somebody else.”

The dream shattered.

His girl, his beautiful Vietnamese girl, dropped his hands instantly and moved backwards. Her face contorted into a frown, her chest heaved with a heavy breath.

“You — you lie.”

But even as she said it he could see the realisation dawning, see the pain as if he’d slapped her right across the face. She had looked into his eyes and she had seen the truth.

“You have to understand,” he carried on, urgently, all the while every single justification he’d made prior to entering the room seemed to mean less and less. “I—I thought you were dead. After we pulled out of Saigon and I couldn’t reach you there was nothing left for me, anywhere. I didn’t mean for it to happen, but I was broken and Ellen was there—”

“Don’t,” Kim begged, sinking down onto one of the stools. “Don’t say a name. Don’t make it true, I beg you.”

Chris could feel something breaking painfully in his chest. They fell into an uneasy silence, Kim’s tears falling silently into her palm with Chris’ own running wordlessly down his cheeks. Tam sat in the corner, playing with a rag tied around a pole that could have once been a flag, oblivious to the charged air around him.

She finally spoke again. “And you love her?”

“I thought you were dead,” Chris repeated hollowly. “In my dreams, you were always dead. Shot through the heart by my own gun.”

Abruptly Kim leapt to her feet, rushed to the counter and opened the draw. There, sat inside, was the gun he had given her whilst he begged her to be waiting for him in bed when he returned three years ago. A return that was never meant to be. For a moment his heart stopped as he wondered what she might do, but she simply walked back over to him and held it out.

“Take it,” she said, her voice surprisingly firm despite the obvious tear tracks on her face. This was strength, Chris realised, the very strength that had blown him away the night they met. “Take it. I don’t want it.”

“I gave it to you to protect you,” he protested.

“And I used it to protect my son. Our son.” In her eyes was a fierce defiance, and Chris found himself staring at her in disbelief. She’d killed somebody? For Tam? “Now you must do that.”

Chris was perplexed. “I don’t understand.”

She steeled herself. “You must take Tam back with you. You and… and your wife. You must take Tam to live in America.”

“Kim,” Chris shook his head, “Kim, no. He’s your son.”

“He’s your son,” she replied, her sentence finally breaking into another heart wrenching gasp. “And I will do anything to keep him safe. You mustn’t betray him. Even if you don’t — if you don’t love me —”

The mere notion was so outrageous that it finally threw Chris over the edge. He seized the gun from her and slammed it onto the counter, then took her face in his hands and bent down to meet her. The kiss was warm and desperate, longer than the last and full of everything he knew he couldn’t say with words — he still loved her, he wished things could be different, she was still one of the only things in the world he knew he could truly believe in.

“I do,” he whispered between touches of lips, “I do still love you.”

Chris wasn’t sure how long they remained like that, or how far he would have let events carry on; he would never find out as the door to the apartment was opened once more and the pair sprang apart. John stood on the threshold, and from the sternness of his expression it was clear he knew what he’d walked in on. Chris had the good grace to look guilty, while Kim was merely stunned. To hide her embarrassment she turned away and walked back over to Tam, taking the rag from his hands and fussing over his hair.

“It’s getting late,” John pointed out as the Engineer followed him back in. “We’ll come back tomorrow and discuss things in a more official capacity, if that’s alright with you two.”

“It’s fine, it’s fantastique!” the Engineer declared. “Although, why wait? If you are feeling well rested later, feel free to come back today. My dear sister and I will be happy to accommodate you, won’t we Kim?”

“Yes,” she replied solemnly, not looking up.

“Chris?” John gave him a meaningful look. After one more glance at Kim he headed over to the door.

“I’ll be back.” Those words held a lot of danger between them, and Kim finally looked away from Tam, and sent him a fearful look. “This time, I promise I will.”

Finally John ushered him out the door, even amid protestations from the Engineer, and they were out of the building before Chris really had a full grasp of what was happening around him. John was resolutely silent the whole way there, but Chris could feel the judgement radiating off of him like the sun beating down on them from above.

“Don’t,” he muttered, feeling irritable.

John merely raised one eyebrow. “I didn’t say a word.”

Things were already becoming far more complicated than he’d envisioned.