The chirps and whistles of birdsong drifted through the garden, a staccato to the whir of engines as cars sailed past in the background. The sunshine filtered down through the leaves of the maple tree, and the gentle warmth caressed Elizabeth's face as she lay back on the blanket, her hands a pillow beneath her whilst she stared up at the pastel blue sky.
The tread of footsteps swept across the grass, and a shadow fell over her. "Comfy?" Henry smiled down at her, a glint in his eye.
"It's all right," Elizabeth said, and she matched his smile, "once you get used to the rocks digging into your spine." She propped herself up on her elbow, and her other hand reached for his and pulled him down. As he lay on his side next to her, watching over her, she settled back again and closed her eyes, now blessed with both the caress of the sun and his gaze. "Are the kids okay?"
"They're fine," Henry said. "They insisted that I leave them to it." He toyed with her fingers where they rested between them atop the blanket. "Apparently our picnic's going to have a Tex-Mex theme."
Elizabeth smiled to herself. "Not quite sandwiches on the quad," she said, and Henry gave a soft chuckle. The sound lifted into the air, and then faded like shadows into dusk.
"What were you thinking about when…?" Henry trailed off.
Elizabeth's pulse quickened. Being dragged through the lobby, pleading for her life, the gun pressed against her temple, the certainty that she was going to die.
Her eyes flickered open, and she stared up through the leaves as they swished and swayed in the breeze. "The kids," she whispered, "and all the things I'd never see them do." She glanced sideways and caught his eye. Her breath stuck in her throat. "You, and how we never got to say goodbye…" She swallowed. "I wanted to tell you what you mean to me, and how grateful I am that you came into my life."
Henry rubbed her knuckles and then raised her hand to his lips. "I know." He kissed the delicate skin on the inside of her wrist, and she shivered. His eyes darkened in response, and there was a hunger there, a pull, like waters dragged into the maelstrom. He leant over her. His hand found her waist and he clasped her, as though she might slip through his fingers. "I love you," he said. An affirmation, a fundamental truth.
He inched closer, and his gaze fell to her lips. Her heart pounded. The world around them thinned, until there was him and only him. His weight resting against her, the kick of his black pepper shower gel woven with the spice of his cologne, the lingering fullness of coffee on his lips, the rough moan that reverberated through his throat as she arched against him.
She threaded her fingers through his hair and held him close, whilst his hand skimmed down and teased up the hem of her blouse. His fingertips trailed over her skin, eliciting a tingle of goosebumps, and she tilted her head back as his lips descended on her neck, hot one minute, stinging the next as the kisses chilled in the breeze.
"Henry," she breathed as his knee slipped between her thighs. "As much as I love the great outdoors, we need to take this inside."
He nipped at her collarbone, and her breath hitched. "Don't you like the idea of going al fresco?" And his hand roved higher, fingertips grazing her ribs.
"Not where people can see." She bit her lip and stifled a moan as his lips traced the V of her blouse.
"Interesting." Henry paused, and his gaze darted up to meet hers.
She frowned. "What?"
"That wasn't an outright 'no'." He flashed her a grin so wicked that it made her stomach quiver. "I can work with that." Then his lips were on her again, lulling her back into the intoxicating haze of Henry, and how wondrous it was to be alive, how good it felt for him to—
Elizabeth jumped at Stevie's voice. The fog split and the world rushed back in through the gap.
A second later came a groan of, "Oh God, you guys."
"Mmmph." Henry buried his grumble in Elizabeth's neck. He nuzzled against her, then placed a delicate kiss to the curve of her jaw and rolled away onto the blanket.
Elizabeth eased up to sitting. She peered across the garden to find Stevie stood by the backdoor, shielding her eyes. "President Dalton's here," their daughter called out, "just so you know."
"Tell him I won't be a minute," Elizabeth called back. And as Stevie disappeared, she muttered, "Thank God she didn't bring him straight outside."
Henry laughed, his stomach billowing with the sound. He sat up too and hugged his knees loosely to his chest. "I'm sure things will be awkward enough already."
Elizabeth's brow pinched. "Why?"
Henry paused. "I might have shouted at him."
She shook her head to herself. "Given the circumstances, I'm sure he understands." Had the positions been reversed…Her chest tightened, and she swept the thought from her mind. She stood up and brushed down her jeans and then offered Henry her hand. "Besides, I've yelled at him more than enough times."
"But he has a soft spot for you." Henry slung his arm around her, his fingertips digging into her waist, as they walked towards the house.
Elizabeth fought back the heat that rose through her cheeks. "He does not."
Henry scoffed. "Come on." He stopped at the backdoor and pulled her close. The lightness in his eyes faded, sparks dying out. "Maybe I shouldn't…I'm still mad at him…"
"You've got to face him sometime." She smoothed her palms up his chest. "You know he would never deliberately put me in harm's way." His gaze faltered, and she dipped to catch it. That ache had taken hold again, suffocating compared to the weightless freedom of moments before. "What happened happened. I'm here now, with you—" She pecked his lips. "—and we've just got to muddle through it together until we can move on."
Henry nodded, though his expression remained grave, the hurt lingering in his eyes.
"Come on." She tugged at his hand. "Just rip the Band-Aid off."
"Good morning, sir," Elizabeth said as she strode through to the living room, Henry's hand a guiding warmth against the small of her back. The air was rich with onion and garlic, earthy cumin, the punch of fresh chilli, and the zing of cilantro.
Conrad rose up from the armchair and turned to face them. "Bess. Henry." He offered them a broad, if slightly taut, smile. "Just thought I'd stop by and see how you're doing."
"Fine—" Elizabeth raised her eyebrows. "—all things considered." She motioned to the chair, and Conrad sat down again as she sank onto the couch opposite. Her body sighed into the embrace of the cushions, as if awakening to the tiredness and aches of before. Henry perched against the arm of the sofa and traced whorls over her back. "Can we get you anything?" she said. "Tea, coffee…I'm sure it's not too early for something stronger."
"Just a coffee will be fine," Conrad said.
Henry squeezed Elizabeth's shoulder. "Babe?"
She looked up at him and covered his fingers with her own. "I'll have a coffee too."
Conrad twisted round in his seat. He watched after Henry as he disappeared through the dining room and into the kitchen. The clatter of pans and the whir of the oven married with the laughs and lilts of her children's voices, and flowed through into the lull.
Conrad turned back to Elizabeth, and the corner of his lips teased into a straight line. "He's right to be angry with me. I made a mistake, and it nearly cost you your life." His eyes shone, imbued with the same distance as when he spoke of Harrison, as if he were lost amidst the wash of 'what ifs', 'how could Is', and other darker thoughts. He lowered his gaze to the floor and let out a huff. "I'll never forgive myself for that."
Elizabeth's chest tightened. She swallowed, her own gaze falling, and as she shook her head, her hair swept forward. She lifted her gaze again. "From what I gather, Khan's file was clean; it was only the QuickStitch file that mentioned me, and even then it was only by codename." And how could anyone know that Matt would pick up the bird, that last token of her time in the CIA?
"Still," he said. "I shouldn't have let you go in."
"Well, someone would've had to restrain me," she said, and Conrad let out a 'hah' and gave her the flash of a smile. "What matters is that it worked out in the end."
"By pure luck."
"I like to think that talking to Akeem helped. Had I not tried to connect with him, then maybe we'd be in a different situation now." And it felt as though the parallels were still too close to separate, a veil of gossamer between them, allowing glimpses of the other side. How stale and empty the air was in that other place, robbed of richness, numb to the vibrancy of life. "I feel bad for his family…for his little girl." Bella. Akeem's voice echoed in her mind. "I wanted to help my staff return to their families, yet now there's another child growing up without a father."
"We can't save everyone."
Elizabeth's shoulders sagged, and her breath sighed out. "No, we can't."
There came a clink and rattle as Henry carried the coffees through on a tray. He set them down on the table and then passed Conrad his before he handed Elizabeth her own. He sat back on the couch, his hand against her thigh, and the silence in the room prickled.
Elizabeth blew on the coffee. The surface ruffled, and the steam rolled away. She took a tentative sip before she met Conrad's eye. "Back in the CIA, I always thought that the work we did was making the world a safer place." She paused. "But after what happened—seeing the hatred and suffering that imprisoning Khan spawned—it made me wonder if maybe all we've done is to create a whole new set of problems for the next generation."
"But what's the alternative?" Conrad said, and sinking back in his seat, he crossed one leg over the other and studied Elizabeth. The fingers of one hand splayed where they rested atop the arm of the chair. "We can't just let people go."
"I agree." Elizabeth gave a firm nod. "But maybe we need to do more to help those who are left behind, so that they don't become victims too. Otherwise we're just chopping off one head, only for two more to grow back in its place."
"Sometimes I think that's just the nature of this job." Conrad gave a wry smile. "It's certainly something to think about though." His gaze lingered on her a moment, smile ebbing, and then he reached into his jacket pocket and retrieved something. He held out his hand. His fingers uncurled. The silver sandpiper balanced in his palm.
Her breath stopped, whilst Henry's grip on her thigh tightened.
"I picked this up from your office before it could be lost in the clean up. I didn't know if you still wanted it, given what happened…"
The silver glinted in the light, a piece of her past, a snapshot in time.
Elizabeth passed Henry her coffee. She eased up from the couch and took the bird from Conrad's hand. It was only light, weighing no more than a palmful of coins, yet it seemed to possess a gravity all of its own.
My name's Conrad Dalton. The company I work for is interested in your skills. / Welcome to the agency. First rule: Trust no one. / Good job, Bess. Do you mind if I call you 'Bess'? / I want you to be my new Station Chief in Baghdad. I know that you won't let me down. / Well, I can't say that I'm not disappointed, but if you're sure this is what you want. / Not a goodbye, I hope, but I'd like to give you this as a token of your time. It's been a pleasure, Bess.
She looked Conrad hard in the eye. Her breath flooded back. "Thank you." She leant down and wrapped her arms around him in a tight hug, the bird enclosed in her fist, whilst tears pricked at the corners of her eyes.
He remained still for a second and then hugged her back, clutching her like a memory he never wanted to fade. "I've seen many things in my time and done so much that I'm not proud of, but that sight will haunt me. I'm truly sorry for what happened."
Elizabeth shook her head as she drew away. "It's not your fault." She dabbed at her eyes and let out a bitter chuckle—why was she so tearful? And within a heartbeat, Henry was behind her, rubbing her arms. She turned into his embrace, and his pulse radiated through her. She clung to his shirt, and nestling against his neck, she whispered, "Please, Henry. Please don't blame him."
Henry's whole body tensed, knots of rope tugged from either end. And it felt as though her heart were caught in between, crushed by the thought of those that she loved—those who saw her, shaped her, embraced her—fighting.
The circle of his arms tightened, gathering her against him, and he kissed the side of her head. His lips brushed the shell of her ear as he spoke. "Next time," he said, his voice gruff, "you tell her 'no'."
"You have my word," Conrad said.
And the ropes slackened, and the tension eased, and Henry let go. He stepped free from her arms, and then reached out and shook Conrad's hand.
"Lunch is served," Alison called out as she and Jason carried the platters out into the garden.
Elizabeth was sat astride the picnic bench, snug against Henry's chest, his arms linked around her waist. "Wow." She sat up a little straighter as they laid the spread out on the table. "How many are we feeding?"
Sweet potato salad, black bean tacos, tortilla chips with tomato salsa and guacamole, spicy vegetable fajitas, corn cakes, chicken nachos. The table sang with the vibrant reds and oranges and yellows, more colour than the cloths and spices and trinkets packed into the bustle of an Iranian bazaar.
"Well," Henry said, and he kissed the tip of her shoulder as he squeezed his arms around her, "there were some people who wanted to thank you." He nodded towards the backdoor, just as Stevie stepped through, followed by Daisy and Joanna, Kat and Desi, Jay and Chloe, Matt, and Blake. Her staff met her with bright smiles, whilst Desi and Chloe ran into the garden, Joanna tottering along after them.
Elizabeth's whole body lit up. She turned to Henry and raised her eyebrows at him. "You did this?"
"Couldn't keep them away." He grinned at her. "It's all about the kids, right?"
And something swelled inside her, deeper than love, stronger than friendship, purer than home. "God, I love you." She twisted round, and with her knee rested between his thighs, she gripped his neck and crushed her lips against his.
"Mmmph." Henry froze. Then he grasped her and kissed her in return. His hands slid round her waist then up over her back.
"Ugh." Alison groaned. "You do realise Mom's just going to get broody again."
"Thank God her eggs are fried," Jason muttered.
"Well, someone ought to tell them that," Stevie said. "Guys, please will you keep it PG."
Elizabeth broke away, and Henry blinked up at her, lips swollen, eyes wide. She kissed the top of his head and hugged him to her chest, and then grinned at their children. "It's a good thing that I'm more than happy with my brood…but as for grandbabies…"
"Mom!" Stevie's eyes widened.
"What?" She feigned innocence. "Just one, or two…to start with."
Stevie and Alison raised their eyebrows at her and shook their heads, as if to say 'So not happening', whilst Jason lifted a chicken tortilla to his mouth and tore off a large bite. He spoke through his mouthful. "Don't you have enough going on with work?" He chomped then swallowed, grimacing as he tried to force too much down in one go. "After all, everyone's saying you're going to be the next Leader of the Free World."
"See," Elizabeth stretched out the word, "that's just my plan B. This—you guys—this is what it's all about."
Thank you for reading! This story was inspired by 'The Scientist' by Coldplay. As I said at the beginning, the visual nature of this piece means that it's probably more suited to television than prose, but I hope that it was still an enjoyable read.
My goal in life is to write stories that move people. Most of the time that feels like a pipe dream, but reviews give me hope that maybe one day it will become a reality, so if you have a moment, please leave a review and know that it is appreciated. Thank you.