He is not a lover who does not love forever. — Euripedes
Cromwell stretched carefully, easing muscles still cramped from too long spent in one position as he’d helped to weed the shared kitchen garden that lay behind Bennaeth House. He enjoyed the work, but wished heartily that he’d remembered to stand up and stretch more often while he’d done it. He’d been so completely focused on the task that a cramp had caught him in his lower back before he realized how long he’d been bending over the rows, pulling out the yellow-green tufts of cloudweed that stubbornly insinuated themselves among the turnips, leeks and kale laid out in orderly fashion. The work reminded him of the hours he and Nick had spent weeding their grandparents’ garden as boys, during summer vacations spent in the rural countryside just outside Nanticoke, Pennsylvania. It was hard work, but fresh produce from the garden had always been well worth the effort. It was a hell of a lot easier on the back when I was twelve than it is now, though.
In the time since he’d first found himself living in Llanavon, he’d taken his share of turns at a motley collection of chores. Tasks like preparing meals or cleaning up after them were universal, but more than a few of the other chores also harkened back to things he’d done on Earth, either in adulthood or in his youth, like gardening, building or fixing fences and other structures, and caring for the community’s collection of animals including horses, goats, chickens and cattle. He’d always liked horses, and as for cattle, he’d milked the neighbor’s cows to earn spending money as a teenager, both at home in Tennessee and during those Pennsylvanian summers. Although doing so with the aid of modern milking machinery was a far cry from the old-fashioned method used here; still, he enjoyed spending time around animals, and even Llanavon’s milk cows were no exception. If he’d been destined to wind up in a place such as this, he reflected, he was glad that at least he’d grown up in the country rather than the city. Being here would’ve been one mother of an adjustment to make if I were from, say, Chicago or Miami.
The colonel rubbed surreptitiously at the small of his back as he knelt to lay a fire in the hearth of Tesni’s cottage. The heat of two days previous had broken, and as the sun sank toward the west, this evening promised to actually be cool and somewhat damp. He’d noted the scent of approaching rain on the walk back from dinner. Tesni assured him that one or two cooler snaps like this over the course of the summer weren’t unusual, although they generally didn’t occur this close to midsummer, now only two days away.
As he finished arranging logs and kindling, he realized he’d left the tinderbox on the table next to the settle. “Cariad, would you bring the tinderbox?”
Tesni knelt beside him, carrying the stamped tin container which held the flint, fire-steel, char-cloth and tinder. “I’ll do this,” she said. “Will you make sure the lamps are filled, please?”
He kissed her and moved to rise, feeling another twinge in his back as he did so. He caught Tesni’s frown as she watched him stand, and forced himself to straighten as he went to the cupboard for the flask of lamp oil. He checked the lamps, adding oil to two of them, and trimmed their wicks. By the time he’d finished and put away the oil flask, Tesni had the beginnings of a cheery blaze in the hearth. She lit a taper and joined him at the table, touching the taper to the lamp-wicks before blowing it out.
Cromwell set one lamp on its shelf next to the bedroom door and one on the side table next to the settle. The third he left on the dining table, where Tesni had busied herself opening a stone jug of cider and setting out cups. Returning to the table, he saw her uncork a small flask and tip several drops of liquid into one of the cups before splashing perhaps a quarter-cup of cider into it. She held the cup out to him. “Here, drink this.”
“What is it?” He took the mug and sniffed.
“Willow-bark tincture; what else? I saw the way you were favoring your back just now, and I was in the garden with you this afternoon. Drink.”
He did so, making a face at the bitter taste of the medicine. Still, he’d had plenty of occasions on which to be convinced of its efficacy, and arguing with Tesni was the furthest thing from his mind.
She took the cup from him and filled it full of cider, handing it back so he could wash the aftertaste from his mouth. As he did so, she took his hand and began leading him toward the bedroom. “Come and lie down on the bed,” she told him.
“I’m not tired,” he protested.
She favored him with an amused look. “Did I say I thought you were?”
“Ah… no… Tesni, you just saw that my back hurts. I —”
She interrupted. “Yes, and I’m going to fix that.” Taking the cup again, she set it on the night table. “Take off your tunic, and lie face-down for me, please.”
He did as she asked, noting as he stretched himself on the bed that she’d taken a small jar from a drawer in the night table. As she removed its lid, he caught a whiff of something pungently herbal. He’d spent long enough among the Pridani, and also in his grandmother’s herb garden, to recognize the scents of chamomile and rosemary, and he could hardly mistake wintergreen, which was by far the strongest component. Whatever was in the jar smelled for all the world like Bengay, and he realized belatedly that for all intents and purposes, it most likely was the local version.
She noticed him sniffing the air. “I have a salve for sore muscles,” she explained. “My back doesn’t often bother me, but I sometimes use this on my legs after I run.” A moment later he felt her touch the hollow of his spine just above the waist of his breeches, something slick on her fingers imparting a warming sensation where it touched his skin. She began to massage, adding the warmth of her own hands to that of the salve as she kneaded the area where he’d been able to feel his muscles knot and stiffen over the past several hours. “I don’t know how you even managed to sit through dinner with your back this tight,” she commented.
“I’ve had worse pain,” he assured her. “Believe me.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt it, Neirin. Still, there’s no sense in hurting when you don’t have to.”
She continued to work on his back for several minutes, her hands far stronger than he’d expected, her touch sure. He felt the cramped muscles ease, the pain disappearing under her ministrations. As the tension in his lower back vanished, she began to work her way up his back, until finally she reached his shoulders. She finished by planting a kiss on the back of his neck. “Better now?” she asked.
“Mmmmm. Yes, much better. Thank you.”
She laughed. “You’re welcome.” He felt her slip off the bed, heard the night table drawer open and close again, then footsteps and the splash of water as she washed up. “I like the smell of wintergreen,” she said, “but I don’t need it all over my hands.”
Cromwell rolled onto his side, watching her. “I don’t blame you.” He raised himself on one elbow and reached for the cider cup, taking a sip as Tesni approached the bed again. Smiling, he set it down and patted the space next to him.
She joined him, and he took her in his arms, kissing her before asking, “Why are you so good to me?”
Smiling back, she traced the side of his face with fingertips still scented faintly with wintergreen. “Because you’re good to me. And because I love you.”
He never tired of hearing those words, nor of saying them. They were one more reminder of the great gift he’d been given. As if retaining his life after he’d meant to give it up weren’t enough, having been blessed with friends in this place and a role in which he was useful to them was even better. But on top of all that, to have Tesni’s love was almost an embarrassment of riches. Cromwell knew he might never see the world of his birth again, but for all of that, the life he had here felt more nearly complete than what he’d had there in many years.
“I love you too,” he said, kissing her again.
Some time later, they lay drowsing to the sound of night insects beyond the half-closed shutters and the crackle of the fire on the hearth in the next room. Slipping into somnolence, Cromwell’s thoughts wandered until he found himself in Colorado Springs, in the home he’d once shared with his wife. A modern fireplace graced the living room there, and he and Lisa had loved to build a fire in it on cool nights when he was home, and sit before the blaze, talking and sharing a bottle of wine. In his half-dream, he found himself there again, some ten or more years in the past, in the company of the raven-haired beauty he had married when she was only nineteen and he twenty-five. Seated on the hearth rug, they chatted, sipping wine, eventually twined in each other’s arms…
“Oh, I didn’t mean for us to fall asleep. We should at least get up and put out the lamps, and bank the fire.” A hand shook his arm gently. “Neirin, will you wake up and help?”
Neirin? Who’s Neirin? he thought curiously. Turning, he wrapped his arms more tightly around Lisa. He only had four more nights at home before he had to leave again, this time for a training course at Lackland. Not so far away nor for so long as his recent deployments, but Lisa was remaining at home, and he planned to enjoy what time he had left with her before they would have to be apart again for a while.
“At least help me with the shutters,” the voice said, shaking his arm again. “Come on, sleepyhead.”
The living room and the fireplace began to fade, and he realized he might be dreaming. One part of him fought to hold onto the dream, even as another acknowledged the necessity of waking. For some reason, he was now expected to get up, although it didn’t feel like morning. Still…
“All right, Lisa, I’ll come and help,” he mumbled, shifting.
The voice which had insisted on waking him laughed, a musical sound. “Now there’s a word I haven’t heard you use before, fy nghalon. What does it mean?”
He froze in the act of opening his eyes, realizing that he had spoken aloud, and what he had said — in Pridanic, automatically answering the question that had been asked in that tongue. Except that he’d included one obviously non-Pridanic word.
Lisa. His wife’s name. Ex-wife, surely, by now, but still…
Every clichéd image from television, film and literature wherein a man called one partner by the name of another crowded his mind at once, and he felt his face grow hot even as his stomach turned to ice. He’d spoken while still in the grip of a dream — and why that dream, now? — but still, he couldn’t take the word back, and he wasn’t about to lie to Tesni.
Not when she’d given him so much, beyond anything he’d ever deserved or expected. He couldn’t repay that with lies.
He looked up to see Tesni leaning over him, a curious look on her face. “Is something wrong, Neirin?”
“No. Yes. That is, I don’t know.” He scrubbed a hand across his face, willing himself all the way awake and coherent.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” she said. “Were you having a bad dream?”
Dear God, no, not a bad one. Just one that was highly inappropriate, given the circumstances. Or is it the circumstances that are inappropriate? A little voice in the back of his mind insisted on asking him that very unhelpful question. No, he told it fiercely. I’ve probably got about a snowball’s chance in hell of getting home at this point, and I’ll be as damned as that snowball if I’m going to live like a monk for the rest of my life. Not now that I actually have a life.
Tesni was still staring at him, concerned now. “No,” he said. “Not a bad dream. It’s just taking me a minute to wake up, all right?” Anything to buy himself a moment to think.
Her face relaxed. “I’m sorry. I probably shouldn’t have woken you at all. I could have done this without help. Go back to sleep, cariad.” She moved, swinging her legs over the side of the bed to stand.
Cromwell joined her, pulling on his pants as she lifted her nightdress from the bedpost and slipped it over her head. “I’m awake, Tesni. What was it you wanted me to do?”
She shook her head, smiling. “Really, it’s fine. Lie down, and I’ll be back in a minute or two.”
“No, I’m awake now. I don’t think I’ll be going back to sleep for a while.” He pulled on his tunic. “Whatever it was that you needed, I’ll help.” It’s the least I can do, and maybe while I’m busy with that, I can think of what I should do next.
“I really didn’t intend to disturb your sleep for the whole night, Neirin,” Tesni apologized as she padded toward the living room. “I wasn’t entirely awake myself, and all I could think of was needing to close the shutters and extinguish the lamps. I don’t know why I asked for help.”
“It’s all right,” he assured her, picking up the empty mug from the night table and carrying it with him as he followed her. In the front room, he set the mug on the table and crossed to the nearest window, where he drew the shutters closed. It had grown decidedly cooler outside, and he could smell rain in the air again.
Tesni went to the other window, securing its shutters. “So, what was that word you used? ‘Lee-sah’. I’ve never heard it before. I assume it’s something in your birth language?” She flashed him a smile.
There was no avoiding it; he was going to have to explain things tonight. And if not tonight, just when would you have done it? the little voice in the back of his mind wanted to know.
Sinking down onto a bench at the table, the colonel rested his forehead on one hand for a moment before looking up at her. “Tesni, sit down for a moment. There’s a story I should tell you. I probably should have told you long before this, to be perfectly honest.”
Giving him an odd look, she took a seat on the bench opposite. The cider jug still stood there, along with her own cup, which she had never filled. She pushed them aside, folding her hands in front of her on the table. “I’m listening,” she said, tilting her head to one side and favoring him with a confused smile.
He drew a deep breath. “Tesni…” Good grief, how does one do this, exactly? “That word you heard me use is a name. I was dreaming; I wasn’t all the way awake when I spoke.” Knock it off, Cromwell; you sound exactly like a man who’s making excuses. “The name belongs to my wife, and I was dreaming I was back on my world with her, a long time ago. I didn’t mean to call you by her name, and I’m sorry.”
Tesni’s eyes widened a bit; then she nodded. “I wondered if perhaps you had been wed on your own world. I thought you might.”
“You thought so?” Wait, what am I missing here?
She nodded. “You’re certainly of an age to have been married, just as I am, and I would have been more surprised to learn that you hadn’t than to learn that you had.”
“Tesni, why did you never just ask? I would have told you.”
A shrug. “You don’t like to be asked questions about your life before you came to be among us. So I didn’t want to pry. Until recently, there was no reason for it to be any of my business anyway.”
Cromwell shook his head. “That changed rather dramatically not long ago, though, didn’t it? And yet you still have never asked.”
Tesni shrugged again. “You’re an honest man, Neirin, and I don’t need to know your entire life story to know that. I trust that if there were any reason why you and I should not be together, you wouldn’t have begun a relationship with me. Once you did, I believed that if there were anything I needed to know, you would tell me.”
This was becoming confusing. “So you were sure that I was married, but… but what, exactly?’
“You’ve never mentioned your wife, so I assumed that either she had died, or that one or both of you had chosen to end your marriage. Unless you had an open marriage, as some of our people do, but custom requires that a person at least disclose that to other partners, as I would guess it would among your people as well. Since you’ve never said anything, I was sure it wasn’t that.”
The colonel simply stared at her, willing his brain to work its way through everything she had just told him. “No,” he said at last. “I was married on my world, beginning twenty-two years ago, and it was not an open marriage. She still lives, as far as I know, and as of the time I left my world we were still married under the laws and customs of our people, but I had not seen her or spoken with her in more than eight years.”
Tesni nodded. “Under our laws and customs, an absence of that long with no contact constitutes divorce, by the intent of the person who left his or her spouse. It happens sometimes. This is different among your people?”
He reached for the cider jug, splashing a healthy amount into his cup. “Yes and no. Legally, it takes more than that to end a marriage, although an absence like that can be grounds for doing so. Neither of us had taken legal steps to formally end things, though. I think we were each waiting for the other to do that.”
“So what happened, exactly?” Tesni’s tone was curious. “Did you not love each other enough?”
He shook his head, staring at the table top. “It wasn’t that.”
“Do you still love her, Neirin?” she asked gently after a moment.
What a question! The colonel looked up, meeting Tesni’s eyes. “I think once you love someone deeply enough, you never really stop loving them. But it doesn’t always mean you can be together. We tried, but it wasn’t working.” He swallowed. “Please don’t think this means I love you any less.”
She reached out to pat his hand before picking up the cider jug and filling her own cup. “I know it doesn’t mean that, Neirin. I’ve never stopped loving Eogen, even though he died years ago. I love you just as much, and you’re here. He isn’t. Your situation with Lisa isn’t all that different, even if what separates you is circumstance rather than death.”
He nodded, unsure of his tongue just then.
Setting down the cider jug, Tesni fixed him once more with a curious look. “So what was the problem, if you don’t mind my asking?”
Having come this far, Cromwell felt compelled to answer. “It was my career. We loved each other, and we enjoyed being together when we could be. But my being… a soldier… it meant that we were apart far too much. Lisa was unhappy about it. I was too, though we’d both known we would be separated for months at a time, even up to a year on occasion. We thought we could handle it, but it was terribly hard. I think it was harder on her than it was on me, because I was busier and had so much going on that it occupied more of my mind.”
“Why did you have to be apart for so long?”
The colonel cast about for a way to explain. “Tesni, I was already a soldier when I met her. And I was sent all over my world, often to places where we couldn’t bring our families. Sometimes we could, and when that was possible, Lisa did come along. We lived in various places that way. But a lot of the time, the places I was sent to were deemed too dangerous for families to be there with us, and when that happened, I had to leave her behind at home. I might spend most of a year in a war zone, and while we could send letters or… well, my world has devices that allow people to talk over long distances, kind of like some of the communicators the Tok’ra use, though we didn’t get to use them more than every few days or weeks… anyway, it was hard. We had aircraft, vehicles that flew, so we could get from place to place around the world. But it took a lot of resources to operate them and hours or even days to travel, so it didn’t happen often that I got to go home and see her. It wasn’t as simple as here, where someone’s entire family might live in Llanavon with him or with her, and then when it’s time for a mission, we just go off through the stargate and then come back when we’ve done what we set out to do.”
Even as he spoke the words, he wondered at the irony of referring to traveling vast distances between star systems via a piece of alien technology he couldn’t begin to understand as something “simple” while the concept of flying around the world on an airplane, which he could at least explain in theory, became the more complicated option. He took a drink of cider as his mind tried to wrap around the strangeness.
“Wait, what was going on so far from your stargate that you had to be there?”
Cromwell realized he’d neglected to explain one crucial part of the equation to her. “Tesni… on my world, sad to say, we spend more time and effort fighting each other than we do fighting the Goa’uld. That’s because almost no one on my world is even aware of the Goa’uld’s existence, but various groups of people on my world have disputes with other groups and sometimes the military is involved. I’ve been a military officer for twenty-five years, but even I only found out about the Goa’uld and the stargate less than five months before I ended up here. Until that point, my entire career had been spent dealing with purely human conflicts in places all over my own world.”
She stared at him. “Someone should explain the Goa’uld to the common people of your world. Then perhaps they’d stop fighting among themselves so much. They’re going to face problems otherwise.”
She makes it sound so simple. Then again, how do I know that it isn’t? “Honestly, I don’t disagree with you. But it isn’t my decision to make, and never will be; not even if I get back there someday.”
“Well then, I think you’re better off here, among people who at least aren’t ignorant of what a genuine threat is.”
He couldn’t really argue with her. “You may be right about that, too, cariad.”
Tesni sipped at her cider. “So… in the end, what made you and your wife choose not to remain married?”
He sighed. This was where he was certain to come off looking like a complete monster if he was honest. Yet, if he was anything less than honest with Tesni, he knew he couldn’t in good conscience continue their relationship. I guess it’s better to be rejected for the truth than to lie to her. There’s already plenty I’ve kept secret from her, though at least I don’t lie to her about any of it. I’ll be damned if I’m going to start now.
He set his cup on the table. “It’s complicated. For one thing, the work I did in my people’s military entailed a lot of secrecy. Half the time, Lisa didn’t have any idea where I really was, or what I was doing, and I wasn’t allowed to tell her about it. You already seen a few unpleasant things yourself, I know; now multiply that by a large factor, because my particular unit was involved in some very messy activities. And we didn’t even have the comfort of knowing that the enemies we fought against were trying to enslave us, because the enemy was often made up of people very much like ourselves who either simply happened to hold a different set of philosophical beliefs, or who had managed to be born into the opposing group and possibly not even given a choice as to whether or not they would fight.”
“If I’ve read my history correctly, this sounds like some of what happened during yr amser cyfrwng y rhwyfaniadau — the time between dominations, what I referred to the other night as the Deceiver’s Interregnum.”
The colonel shook his head. “This is probably much worse. It was a nasty business, a lot of it, and while I’m proud of some things I’ve done, there’s probably almost as much that I’d rather never have had to be involved in. But a lot of the time, I didn’t have very much choice, either; in fact I often didn’t even know for sure what was going on behind the scenes until long after my part in it was done. There’s a line I wouldn’t have crossed no matter who told me to, but even things that fell far short of it had an effect. And the hardest part was that when I did get to go home and spend time with Lisa, I’d have all this going on in the back of my head, making me less than pleasant company, and I couldn’t even talk to her about it except in the most abstract terms. So I didn’t bother trying at all, most of the time. Besides, I didn’t feel like it should be her job to deal with the things I had to deal with. I was out there doing what I did so that people like her wouldn’t have to be concerned with any of it.”
Tesni poured more cider into his cup. “And I’m guessing she wasn’t comfortable knowing that you were unhappy but not being allowed to know why, so that she could try to help?”
He snorted. “That’s one way of putting it, I suppose.”
“Well, I can’t really blame her for that, Neirin.”
Pained, he looked at her. “Don’t you think I know that?”
Her expression softened. “Of course you do. I’m sorry, that didn’t come out quite right.” She took his hand, running her thumb along the back of it, as she always did when she tried to soothe him. “All I meant was that if you came home to me with something on your mind, I’d want to know what it was so that I could help you deal with it. Then again, there’s every chance, at least theoretically, that I might be the one having to deal with whatever I’ve encountered, and needing to talk about it.”
“And you know I’d listen and understand. Tesni, that’s the difference between you and me, and Lisa and me. I never pictured myself paired with a woman who’d been in combat herself, or who’d dealt even in the remotest sense with any of the kind of stuff I’ve dealt with. Lisa wouldn’t have had the frame of reference necessary, I don’t think, even if I’d been able to talk to her about half the stuff I knew. You don’t really have the frame of reference for most of what happened to me on my own planet, but you certainly understand what the Am Rhyddid is up against, because you’ve been in the thick of it longer than I have. We can talk, if we need to. Not that I’ve ever really been in the habit of talking about things that bother me, but you all — the Pridani, I mean — do that as a matter of course. And you personally have me doing it sometimes now, if only to you. Though I think you also understand when I don’t want to.”
“Sometimes I don’t want to either, Neirin. It’s another of those things that make us very much alike.” She paused. “Eogen was like that too. So you might say I’ve already been down this road once before, and know how to navigate it from both directions.”
Cromwell reached for her other hand, and held them both. “I wondered if maybe that was the case.”
Tesni nodded. “I hope it will help us. I think it may.” She gave his hands a squeeze. “So… your wife decided this was all too difficult, and she didn’t want the marriage anymore?”
He shook his head. “No, it wasn’t like that. We both wanted to be married to each other. We loved each other very much. But she kept wanting me to alter what I did, to ask the military to give me a different job. One that wouldn’t create so many secrets between us, and maybe wouldn’t send me so far away quite so often, either. And I couldn’t do it, at least not right away.”
Lisa had understood why, on one level. She’d met him and Jack at the same time, and over the years of their marriage she’d seen firsthand how close they were, how committed to looking out for each other, even if that meant going shoulder-to-shoulder into hell and back. She didn’t begrudge Jack one iota of her husband’s loyalty, and she’d made that clear from the beginning. At the same time, though, both she and Sarah had occasionally pressed the men to consider seeking a change, especially after Jack and Sarah had Charlie. But Jack couldn’t bring himself to do it, and that meant that he wouldn’t, either.
But how do I explain that to Tesni? “You know I’ve mentioned my friend Jack, the one I’ve been hoping would come here through the stargate looking for me?” At her nod, he continued. “Jack and I were best friends, and we were partners in everything we did. We had been since before I met Lisa. If it weren’t for Jack, I’d have been dead over twenty years ago, or on any of a number of occasions since that time. I’d saved his life once or twice too, and neither of us was willing to leave the other, because there wasn’t anyone either of us trusted more than the other as a partner.”
“So unless he changed what he was doing, you couldn’t either, Tesni observed.
“I really couldn’t. If I had, and he went off without me and something happened to him, I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself, wondering if I could have prevented it if I’d been there. If things had been the other way around, I know it would have been the same for him. Neither of us was going to make a change without the other. Does that make sense?”
She nodded again. “It does to me. Did Lisa not understand?”
“No, she understood. But she was still unhappy about it. We started having arguments about it sometimes. Not big ones, but even enough little ones can eat away at things, and I began to worry that maybe being with me was hurting her more than it made her happy. I didn’t feel right about that, but like I said, I was stuck. I owed Jack my life, but I owed Lisa some happiness, because she sure hadn’t married me just so she could be miserable.” He’d felt pulled nearly in two, back in those days, and the memory was still painful, years later.
With a grimace, he continued, “I was still trying to figure out what to do about it when somebody went and started another war halfway around the world from where we lived, and Jack and I had to go and deal with that. We were gone for months, and while we were there, something happened to Jack anyway… and it was my fault, or at least partly my fault.”
Cromwell looked down at the tabletop, where their hands were still entwined. “We were out on a mission with the team we were part of, and we were nearly finished and ready to return to the base we’d come from. There was an air vehicle coming to retrieve us, when the enemy figured out we were there.”
He recounted to her his horror as the mission had disintegrated in its final moments; how they’d lost their CO, and then, just as it had seemed they were on the verge of extraction, Jack had been shot too. “I wanted to at least retrieve his body. But I was in charge of what was left of the team, and under the circumstances — since I was sure he was dead — I had to order the rest of the guys out before somebody else got killed. I was hit in the shooting, too, just as I gave the order. Both sides used weapons that shoot bullets, solid projectiles made of metal. You’ve seen my right shoulder; two bullets hit me there. I got lucky; at least they didn’t get any major arteries or a bone, just meat and connective tissue. Less than an inch either way, with either of them, and I might have lost the use of the arm, or even died from blood loss. At least that’s what the doctors told me. But I did have to be carved up a bit to fix everything afterward.” He could see her confusion over his meaning. “I’ll explain that part later, if you still want to hear about it.”
“All right.” He flexed the shoulder a bit, remembered pain making it ache anew. Or is that the rain that I know is coming? “Anyway, those of us who were left made it to the aircraft and got away. We had to leave behind the bodies of Jack and our commanding officer, and we barely made it out of there as it was. Another couple of minutes and we’d have been completely overrun, pinned down, and probably lost the aircraft too. I actually got sent back home for my shoulder to heal, and I spent two months thinking my best friend was dead. I was even thinking of quitting what I’d been doing and doing something else. I didn’t want to leave the military, but with Jack gone I figured I could at least make Lisa happy by having them give me a different job, something that would maybe keep me closer to home, the way she wanted.
“And then I got called into the office of one of my superiors — something like the cadlywydd, only we had several of them — who told me he’d just learned that Jack wasn’t dead after all. Somehow, he’d survived getting shot, but he’d been taken prisoner. ”
Cromwell swallowed hard. “Tesni, the people we’d been fighting tended to torture prisoners. I wanted to go back and try to get Jack out of there. My shoulder was already healed enough that I’d been ordered back to where the war was happening, and I left that night to go there, already putting a plan together in my head of how to rescue him. Only nobody would let me try, and Jack spent two more months in prison before he was finally freed after the end of the war and sent home. I saw him once after that, but he wouldn’t talk to me.”
The colonel fell silent for a moment, remembering the effort he’d put forth to try to free his friend, only to be forbidden by General West from even making the attempt. “I’d barely said goodbye to Lisa when I’d left after finding out Jack was alive, and I barely even called or wrote to her while I’d been gone after that, because I didn’t really want to talk to anyone then. I was afraid she’d just start asking me to transfer again, and I couldn’t commit to that when I didn’t know how things would turn out with Jack. Besides, I was so mad at myself for letting him get into that situation that I wasn’t fit company, and I knew it.”
“I don’t see how it was your fault that he got captured,” Tesni told him gently. “You did what you had to do, and you thought he was dead. Besides, you were wounded too. What else could you have done?”
Cromwell sighed. “I know that, in my head anyway. It’s the rest of me that says otherwise, and at the time, that was all I was listening to. It’s all I listened to for several years afterward, for that matter.”
“Neirin, that’s an awful thing to do to yourself.”
He withdrew his hands from hers, folding them both around his cup. “Look, you asked what happened, and I’m just telling you.” He shrugged. “It probably didn’t help that Jack seemed to agree that it was my fault. When he wouldn’t even speak to me, I knew perfectly well that having me around was going to be even less pleasant for Lisa than anything I’d put her through before, and she deserved so much better than that. I got promoted and sent back overseas in command of a team of my own, and I just didn’t bother going home anymore. I sent Lisa most of my pay, and otherwise left her alone to find someone who would make her happy instead of miserable. I’d hurt her too much already, and I knew I didn’t have any way to fix it, so I just stayed gone.”
He gazed down into the cup, watching bubbles rise to the top of the cider as he gathered himself to admit out loud what kind of coward he was. “That was nine years ago, Tesni. I swore I’d never walk out on anyone, never leave anyone. It isn’t right. But that’s exactly what I did, and you may as well know.”
“And what did you do for nine — no, eight years?” Her tone held none of the condemnation he was sure he deserved. Merely curiosity; tempered, he could swear, by understanding.
“I did my job, and not much else. I was promoted again after a few years, which surprises me to this day. I had a team of my own, a lot like I have right now; and even the same rank, more or less. It wasn’t so bad when I was busy, but downtime was another story. I tried to avoid thinking about anything beyond my work even then, and when I couldn’t manage that, I’d lose myself in a book, or failing that, a bottle. As far as I was concerned, there really wasn’t anything else worth bothering with anyway. I figured I’d already either lost or thrown away most of whatever had any real value in my life.”
Weary of talking, he lifted the cider cup and drank, intending to finish it and then leave. He couldn’t imagine that Tesni would still want him around after what he’d just told her, no matter what he thought he might have heard in her voice.
He set the cup down and looked at her. “I’m going; you don’t have to say anything.” He moved to rise, only to freeze when she spoke again.
“Neirin ab Owein, you stay right there.” Now her voice was sharp, speaking the full name that she herself had given him. “You haven’t told me the rest of the story.” She splashed more cider into his cup. Not that I’d exactly mind being drunk right about now, in this mood, but Scotch would do the job a hell of a lot faster, he thought.
“What more is there to tell?” he asked bitterly. “You asked what happened to my marriage, and I told you. I screwed up, and then I walked out on my wife. It’s not the kind of story that has a happy ending, if that’s what you’re waiting for.”
In answer, Tesni stood and made her way around the table. She took a seat next to him, straddling the bench, and reached over to cup his cheek with her hand, turning his face toward hers. “Life is full of stories that don’t have happy endings,” she said quietly, looking into his eyes. “Or have you forgotten who you’re talking to?”
She kissed him then. He responded, reflex taking over where coherent thought left off, sliding his arms around her as she did the same to him. After a moment, he pulled back to stare into her face. The clear blue-gray gaze held his, unwavering.
He looked away. “I hadn’t forgotten,” he said. “I just don’t want you to worry that I’ll give you something else to be unhappy about.”
“I’m not worried about that. You said it yourself: we have a completely different situation, you and I.”
He nodded, still not trusting himself to meet her eyes. “We do.”
“All right. And I know we just recently began exploring what we might have the potential to build between us, but I have to ask: are you happy when we’re together?”
Christ, what a question! “I would have thought that was obvious by now, Tesni.” This time, he did look her in the eye. “That’s what scares me, I think. Knowing how I feel about you, and wondering if I’m going to wake up some morning thinking everything’s fine, only to have it all change by nightfall.”
She kissed him again, briefly this time. “Neirin, I’ve never known anyone who doesn’t worry about that on some level.”
It was probably true, he realized. Born and raised here, on a planet under the control of the Goa’uld, Tesni had lost people she cared about periodically throughout her thirty-five years, and so had everyone around her. Not that this didn’t happen to everyone, sooner or later. He himself had lost his maternal grandparents, an aunt and even his own brother before he finished high school, and both parents — his father to a heart attack, his mother to an automobile accident — by the time he was a year out of university, a young officer just beginning his career. His father’s elderly parents had passed away the following year, within months of one another, leaving him feeling oddly rootless and adrift at twenty-four, with only the Air Force providing him firm purchase on the rocky landscape of young adulthood. It was shortly after that when he’d decided to apply for entry into Special Operations and he soon found himself in training, where he’d met a wisecracking first lieutenant six weeks older than himself, to the day: one Jonathan “Jack” O’Neill, who went on to become the person he counted on most, and who counted on him… Yeah, until that got all fouled up…
But he’d fixed it, winding up here in the process. That, he realized, was the part of the story he still hadn’t told her.
“I suppose neither of us does, really,” he acknowledged. “I recall you asking me once, right here where we’re sitting, whether I trusted you. I think I’d known you all of twelve hours then, and I said yes.”
“I remember,” she said, tracing the side of his face with her fingertips, from temple to jawline.
His pulse leapt at the caress. “I still trust you, Tesni. The universe, not so much.” He swallowed. “I just told you more about the past twenty years of my life than I’ve told anyone, ever, and you’d be completely justified if it left you concerned about my ability to give you any sort of pleasant future. There’s more to the story, and I promised to tell it, but before I do, I have to know if you’ve any reservation at all about trusting me. Because if you do, I’ll understand. I just want it out in the open.”
Affectionate exasperation painted her features. “Neirin, if you’ll recall the rest of that evening, I trusted you as well, when we’d known each other those twelve hours. There’s not a single thing that’s happened since to change that, nor does anything you’ve told me, either. Does that answer your question adequately?”
He drew her close then, burying his face in her hair for a moment. Cromwell, you’ve just been given another gift you know you don’t deserve. Whatever you do or say, don’t screw this up. After a moment, he drew back again, kissing her gently. “Thank you,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper.
Thunder sounded; the front that had brought the evening’s unusual cool was about to deliver the rain it had promised. Tesni glanced at the windows. “I suppose we ought to close the shutters in the bedroom, too,” she said, disentangling herself from him and standing. “Will you do that while I add another log to the fire, please?”
As they set about arranging the cottage and themselves for the coming storm, Cromwell was glad he had thought to secure the shutters on his own home as soon as he’d smelled rain in the air earlier. The last thing he wanted to do was to leave here now.