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No Place for a Hero
Kate Porter drove her Land Rover Defender down the snow-covered road towards the stone cottage she hoped her husband had run off to. Three days ago, he’d shut down like he had before deploying on a mission but then this morning she woke up to find he’d left with just a note on the kitchen table saying he needed some time alone. That was something he had never, ever done in their twenty years of marriage.
Those words had chilled her as much as the cold outside and she’d packed a bag and headed right into a tremendous and dangerous winter storm hoping to find him there… alive.
John Porter couldn’t believe it when he heard a roaring engine outside the cottage he was holed up in. He thought the engine sounded familiar as he stepped up to the front window and looked outside.
Plowing through the last barrier of snow was his wife Katie’s battered black Land Rover Defender. She had refused several offers from him to help her buy something newer and prettier, but she refused to give up on the Old Girl as she called her beloved vehicle.
Just like she refused to give up on him, he realized.
He put on his coat and boots and went outside as she brought her vehicle to a stop next to his newer Audi. She got out of the vehicle and slammed the door when she saw him.
“You picked a hell of a place to run off to.” Katie said as she stomped through the drifting snow towards her husband.
“How did you know I would be here?” He asked, hating the fact that he was so damn happy to see his wife even if she wasn’t happy to see him.
“A hope and a slog through this bloody storm.” She pulled out her battered old bag and slung it over her shoulder. “I hope you have more than God-awful rations here.”
“Good. I know you can survive on them but this isn’t some bloody Third-World hellhole you’ve deployed to.” She muttered as she stomped through the snow towards the cottage.
John smiled behind his wife’s back as he thought back to a picnic he’d taken her on shortly after they’d gotten married. He’d gotten a nice hamper and blanket and found a secluded spot on a warm summer day down by the river. But when he’d opened the hamper and started pulling out ration packets… he thought he might be divorced before his next deployment. Luckily, Katie had seen the humor behind his picnic and also gotten to see a tiny bit of what life was like for him when he was deployed.
By the time he got inside, she was coming out of the bedroom wearing a pair of jeans that fit so well over her still-trim body and his favorite soft-blue sweater of hers that matched the color of her eyes. She went right past him to the kitchen and went for the kettle and filled it up with water then set on the stove before she turned back to face him.
“Can you keep an eye on the kettle?” She asked. “I need get something out of my bag.”
When she left the kitchen, he got out the milk and sugar, and some biscuits and put some on a plate. The kettle started whistling and he pulled it off the burner and poured the steaming water into the teapot because his wife made tea the old-fashioned way, and frankly, the best way.
He had just found the tea strainer when he heard his wife come back into the kitchen. He looked up, and froze in shock and horror at what he saw her holding in her right hand.
“Why did you pack your gun and bring it here with you?”
Katie hated the feel of the weapon in her hand but seeing it had chilled her more than the cold outside ever could. Just the thought of him with it had made her risk her life driving in a raging snow-storm. She’d held back her joy at seeing him when she’d pulled up because she knew she needed to find this gun before he tried to send her away again.
“Why, John? In all the years we’ve been together, is this what it was supposed to come down to?”
She watched him set down the tea strainer and took a deep breath. “Now that you’re here, no.”
“Good.” She went over to the back door and opened it to the cold and blowing snow. Then with every ounce of strength she had, she threw the gun into the heaps of piled-snow. She closed the door behind her then wiped her hands on the tea towel by the sink. “You can go look for it when the snow melts.”
She went over to the teapot and strained the tea properly then picked up the tray and carried it into the living room. She set it down on the table in front of the sofa then sat down as he went over to the fireplace and stoked the fire to a nice warm set of flames. She poured the tea and made his with just one cream and sugar as he liked it, the ritual familiar even as she prepared for a battle. Not just for her marriage, but for her husband, and his wounded and battered soul.
“John, what happened three days ago?”
He gripped the mantle of the fireplace as he closed his eyes in memory.
“John,” Katie’s voice was as soft and gentle as the snow still falling outside. And her warmth slowly began to penetrate the ice around his heart that had been frozen for the last three days.
He moved away from the fireplace to the sofa and sat down beside her. He picked up his mug of tea, feeling the warmth in his hands as he thought about how much she had done for him, and asked for so little in return.
“I know you may tell me it’s classified. But if that’s the case, and if you decide to break that rule and tell your superiors, I’ll defend myself, even to the bloody Queen of England herself.”
He looked over at Katie as she took a sip of tea then set her mug down on the table. She looked right straight at him, straight into his eyes, and into his soul. “I know she’s your Commander In-Chief, but you’re my husband, and the father of my children. I’ve been the wife of a Special Forces soldier for twenty years and many of those years you were gone and when came back you couldn’t tell me where you’d been or what you’d done. I just had to be there for you.”
“And you were. Always.” He felt himself smiling at the thought of Katie towering over the old Queen and defending him with nothing but her heart and soul. That image and thought lifted a weight off his chest, one that had encased his heart in a prison of ice and shame. He took a sip of tea then set his mug down on the tray.
“Mike King died three days ago.”
“The young man who was wounded on your first deployment to Iraq? I’m so sorry, John. He never recovered from his wounds, did he?”
John nodded his head from side to side. “No. There was a bullet lodged in his brain that robbed him of his ability to speak and motor control.”
He shuddered inside as he remembered seeing Mike in hospital, immobile, unable to speak, or even take care of himself. He looked to Katie, wanting to reach out to her and feel her arms come around him like they always had, greedy for the comfort she offered so freely to him, even without knowing what she was comforting him from.
Instead, he told her the secret that could destroy everything between them: “That bullet might have come from my gun.”
Katie inhaled sharply as her eyes widened with shock. But she didn’t back away from him. “How?”
He thought about what to tell her, to try to keep the mission details classified. But memories flashed through his mind: a darkened building of narrow stairwells and pockmarked walls and dirty floors. A mission that had gone wrong, men wounded…
He took a deep breath, his lungs drawing tightly in remembered pain as he struggled to tell Katie what had happened all those years ago.
“We were on a mission in Bagdad, just after the beginning of the war. It was chaos and the city was far from secure. We got in and acquired our target and were getting out when a group of… Iraqi’s pulled up and stormed the building. Mike and three others were bringing up the rear when they got pinned down. I was with our target but I went back for my men. Mike was the last one I found… and as he stood up I saw someone come up behind him. Mike yelled there was someone behind me. I fired my gun as the Iraqis in the room did, too. Mike went down with a single bullet to the head.”
John closed his eyes as he remembered emptying his gun into the Iraqi’s in the room, killing three of them before he picked up Mike and carried him up to the roof where the chopper had been waiting. Then he felt Katie place her warm hands on top of his cold, clenched ones. He opened his eyes and looked right into her beautiful face.
“Who knows about this?” She asked.
“Just my commander. He said until we could get the bullet out of Mike’s head it would be between us.”
“So you’ve kept this secret all this time.”
He felt the weight of it like never before yet as Katie continued to touch him, to face him, he wanted to believe he could lift the weight off even for just a brief moment in time, like he had so many years ago…
“That night I came back to England…” John swallowed past the sudden dryness in his throat as he remembered that dark and cold night. “I almost didn’t come home. I finally decided it was late enough to where you’d gone to bed and that I wouldn’t wake you.”
“Yet you did.” Katie remembered hearing him come home and hearing him go into their bathroom. She wanted to run to him but stopped when he looked up at her in what she could only think of as a mix of shock and awe.
“I couldn’t tell you then.” He wound his hands around hers, seeking her warmth and her soothing touch.
“I know. When I married you, a British Special Forces soldier, I knew there would be so much you wouldn’t be able to tell me. And I accepted that because of the man you were, and the man you still are.”
“I’m no hero, Katie.”
“Like bloody hell you are! You’re my hero. And being alone is no place for a hero.”
He felt the first tear slip out of his eye followed by another one, and then another. Silently, he shed tears for the burden she’d carried willingly all these years and loved him through it all. She wrapped her arms around him and he laid his head against her chest, closing his eyes as he let his tears come freely now as he took strength from his wife’s strong heartbeat under his ear.
Katie cried along with her husband, knowing he’d carried so much pain inside him yet could be so loving and gentle. She remembered back all those years ago, in that tiny house and tiny bathroom. For a brief moment then, she’d wanted to cry at the anguish she’d seen in his eyes then. Instead, she’d bared her body and soul to him, and in the cleansing water of that tiny shower they’d found solace and passion in each other’s arms. A solace and passion they would find after he came home every time from every far-flung mission… and hopefully the most important one now.
John had never cried with Katie, always believing he had to be strong for her. But after all these years, she was proving to be stronger than him. Strong in her love, her compassion, and her empathy. He had loved her for so long, yet he felt like he was falling in love with her again right now.
He lifted his head from her chest and looked right into her eyes. Their faces were so close he could see every detail in her eyes, and feel her breath on his lips. He saw the wetness on her cheeks and reached up to wipe her tears away as she did the same for him.
He wound his hand around her neck and brought her lips to his in a kiss that started out easy, but flared into heated passion as her arms wound around his shoulders and her body pressed tightly against his. He tumbled her back onto the sofa and started to lift her sweater up.
“John, really? The sofa is a bit narrow for us.”
“I can’t wait.” He buried his face against the side of her neck, licking her throbbing pulse and hearing her sweet moan in response. He did it again as he heard an annoying beeping sound.
“John, your phone.”
“Bloody hell!” He went still for a few seconds then he lifted himself up and got to his feet. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and as he saw who was calling, he turned to Katie and held a finger to his lips. She scrambled up to a sitting position on the sofa and curled up there completely still as he answered the phone.
Katie studied her husband as he listened to his Commander on the phone, standing tall and straight, ready for anything. He was her hero no matter what the news was, tall and handsome, his dark hair threaded through with a few strands of silver. His eyes were ice-blue and along with his perfectly-straight nose gave his face a sharp look that might have been intimidating unless you saw him smile.
“Thank you, Commander.” John ended the call and set his phone down on the table.
Katie stood up slowly, “And?”
“The bullet didn’t come from my gun.”
Katie moved around the table and threw herself into her husband’s open arms. They held each other tightly for a moment then as she looked so closely at her husband’s face, she saw the change in him. He was back, her hero, her lover, her husband, in her arms right where he was supposed to be.
Yet she had to ask, “Are they going to tell Mike’s family about this?”
“No. They were never told because we didn’t have any evidence either way. This will just be a note in the file on that op.”
She touched his cheek, “I’m glad you told me, though.”
“And I’m glad you came after me.”
“Like I said, being alone is no place for a hero.”
He tightened his arms around her and smiled warmly, “No, being with you is where I belong.”
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