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But I'm Strong

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Serena opens one of the smaller suitcases, feeling incredibly nostalgic when she’s had a bit to drink and is at home. She takes another sip of her shiraz, already on the second of her three remaining bottles. Conservation went right out the window. Gently rifling through the organized bit, she finally opens an album, old and worn at its sides and spine. She’s looked through this book many times.

 

John finally steps out from the laundry nook, using their few hours of electricity allowed during the city-wide emergency declaration. “That should be finished in no time with your combo unit.” He motions to the single appliance, “and I put our stuff all together so it has a better chance of finishing. Not like there was much to worry about, but I promise I won’t try to wear your skivvies.” 

 

“I’d hope not, they’d fall right off of you.” Serena hums a low chortle, leaning back against the sofa with the large photo album in her lap. She’s had too much to drink and she knows it.

 

“What’s this?” John leans over her shoulder, over the back of the sofa, smiling softly at the pictures of a young Serena. He whistles, “beautiful then and you’re beautiful now.”

 

“Flatterer.” Serena shakes her head, waiting for him to walk around to sit next to her. “Feel free to watch something on telly.”

 

“I’m interested.” John shakes his head, still looking at the album. He points to someone with her, “who is this?”

 

“That would be my ex-husband, Edward. Bastard.” Serena raises an eyebrow, “we met at Harvard. This particular picture is in one of the pubs not far from campus. We had quite a few mutuals who decided to set us up on a blind date because we were both British.” She shakes her head slowly, “sounds ridiculous now.”

 

“My Mom once told a friend of mine, he was a hockey player, known in our inner circles to be gay. Not just our inner circles, whatever. Well, Mom just thought that meant every gay person knew every other gay person or that every gay person was attracted to every other gay person. A grandson of one of her friends was gay, so she tried to say they’d be perfect for one another, based solely on that.” John smirks, “besides, yours seemed to work for you. You ended up marrying him.”

 

“I did.” Serena nods, turning to one of the pictures of them in an antique car, “that was my father’s.” She motions to another picture of the outside of the car, Serena and Edward peering through the backseat window. “Edward and I were...already fighting. It wasn’t...anything too serious, just some petty squabbles, but it was enough. My father came to me before the ceremony and asked if I just wanted to go. Said he had a bad feeling about this whole thing.” Serena exhales, amused by the memory, “oh how right he was.”

 

“If it isn’t too painful for you to talk about, what happened to end it?” John actually really loves this. Not just the old pictures and the story, but seeing Serena in a life before she was his stepmother-in-law. That sounds so weird.

 

“He was a drunk and a cheater.” Serena starts to laugh bitterly to herself, “suppose I can’t really...” She swallows, stopping herself. She was slowly turning into Edward, or maybe not so slowly. At least she was in the time she had ended things with Bernie years ago. Serena offers John her glass to set on the table, easier for him since he didn’t have a large book in his lap. “He’s an anesthetist and surrounded by pretty, young nurses. He wandered very quickly.” She pauses, loving to remember the good times, “we divorced when Elinor was small and I took him for everything he was worth.”

 

John glances at her face, then back to the page, “There’s still something about him that you look back on fondly though.”

 

“He gave me the greatest gift in the world...” Serena points to another picture, her holding a newborn Elinor in the hospital with her mother next to them, “he gave me Ellie.” She nods, smiling warmly to herself, “that’s my Mum with us. She...stayed with me through it all. Both of my parents. Edward’s presence was sketchy at best toward later on in my pregnancy because he knew I wasn’t going to go and look for him anymore, also made harder by my not drinking at the time, not frequenting hold haunts.”

 

“That must have been difficult.” John’s eyebrows pinch.

 

Serena nods slowly, “he didn’t show up until three days later. My-my father let him have it.” A smile snakes its way onto her face, “that’s why there are no photographs of Edward from the left side with Elinor as a newborn, he had a shiner.” Her smile grows a bit more, “my father was a doctor. It’s where I got my interest for medicine from. He was always very kind, mild mannered, incredibly caring. To know that his anger and frustration had hit a level where he saw no other alternative than to strike my husband...spoke volumes.”

 

John leans against the back of the sofa, watching her, “were you surprised?”

 

“I was...wishing I had listened to my father before the wedding.” Serena answers quietly, “I’m sure there was some...alternate timeline in the grand scheme of the universe where I did, but...then I see a picture of Elinor and...” She swallows, contemplating the notion as she tails off. Serena sniffles, “she’d be doing amazing things were she alive today.”

 

Nodding slowly, John rubs a hand on his stubble, “I went to her funeral, but...when we met, I realized you didn’t remember.”

 

“I felt like I was in a daze for the first few days. Just...going through the motions.” Serena responds softly, “I remember Bernie...holding me in bed when she’d come round to check on me. She’d clean up...ensure that I was eating. I’d...I started drinking too much. Started putting myself into dangerous, questionable situations.” Her eyes grow glassy, “started treating her terribly...as well as everyone else around me. I was ready to watch the world burn.”

 

“Understandably.” John nods, glancing at the book again, almost absently. “My kid isn’t even born yet and...I can’t tell you what I’d do for him.”

 

“Good.” Serena nods, reaching a hand over to pat his leg in an encouraging platonic way. “Word of advice though,” her words are starting to slur ever so slightly, “don’t you dare let him out of your sight...whatever you do.” 

 

“I’ll try my best not to.” John tries his best to reassure her.

 

“You mustn’t try, but do.” Serena continues, using her hand as she speaks, keeping her other hand placed protectively on the photo album, “because if not, you’ll lose them.” She flips toward the end of the book, a picture of her and Bernie with all of their children together. Smiles on everyone’s faces, but there’s something...uncomfortable about it. Serena falls quiet again, glancing back to the photograph. “Right after this was taken, Elinor disappeared to her bedroom which...I thought maybe she needed a couple of minutes as a breather.” Serena shakes her head, “I know now that...she was snorting a line. She was...very into cocaine.”

 

“Addiction is heredity. There’s nothing you or your ex could have done differently.” John shakes his head, “as difficult as that might seem to hear, even though your ex was an alcoholic-”

 

Serena mutters softly, “I think I may be too.”

 

“I can help you with that.” John answers honestly, “just like Nicky, but that’s only if you want it.”

 

“Let me finish what I have?” Serena swallows, then bites her lip, “I’m-I’m not ready-”

 

“Serena, I’m not forcing you into anything.” John shakes his head, “no judgement. I’m just telling you that when you’re ready, I’m more than happy to help you with that...or to put you in touch with someone else who is not me, but can help with the same thing.” He nods, watching her still, “but let’s go back. We were talking about your Christmas.” John reaches over, gently tapping his finger next to the picture, “you were a brunette.”

 

Serena nods a little, following his hand and looking at the picture. “I’ve thought of...maybe doing it again for fun.” She pauses, “it was a lovely Christmas though...before Elinor did what she did. Cameron and Charlotte were all too happy to keep Jason content with a card set of Christmas trivia questions that Bernie had gifted him. Elinor...couldn’t be bothered, but...” Serena licks her lips, thinking back, “it all felt so...normal. We...” She goes quiet for a moment, then continues, “Bernie and I thought it might be a changing point. That...her children and Elinor might be willing to spend more time together...or with us. May want to communicate more.”

 

John remembers Charlotte’s optimism from then. Speaking to her on the phone while sitting in his parents’ guest room, watching the snowfall through the window. His flight was delayed because of the weather. “I’m sorry it didn’t work out, Serena.”

 

“Me too.” Serena responds softly, just staring at another photograph, Her finger begins to absently trace Elinor’s jaw on a picture of the two of them together, “she was talking about moving back home. I-I really wanted her to. Jason was so excited.” She inhales slowly, “but she’d be dead...a few weeks after this was taken.”

 

“I wish I could have gotten to meet her.” John watches as Serena begins to break down, placing an arm around her shoulders and letting her lean against him. “I want you to think of something, though.” She doesn’t look up at him, but he knows she’s listening, “just because she isn’t here, doesn’t mean her spirit isn’t here.” He pauses, “and I don’t mean that in a religious way.” John licks his lips, not moving, but he feels her settle against him. “Spirit is the only thing about a person that isn’t physical. I’m certain her spirit still shapes you, stays with you...and it’s more than just being her mother.” 

 

Serena clears her throat, feeling that it’s too hot for this. She slowly sits back up straight. Just listening to him.

 

“I don’t know what she was like. Jason’s daughter doesn’t know what she was like, Tala, and my boy when he gets here.” John continues, “the kids will never have the opportunity to meet her in person, but there’s no reason for them not to feel like they have. No reason for her spirit not to be shared with them. No reason for her spirit not to live on.”

 

Smiling softly to herself, Serena nods a little, “Guinevere’s middle name is Elinor. Jason told me and I managed to keep myself together at hospital. Many things happened the day she was born, luckily Bernie was there.” She trails a little, bringing a hand up to push her own hair back, damp with sweat even though there’s a fan in the room. The shiraz isn’t doing her any favors. “Why am I telling you all of this, why...” She looks down at her lap, shutting the photo album and placing it back into the suitcase once it shuts.

 

“Because it’s on your mind.” John nods, turning on the television finally. May as well enjoy something while they have electricity. “When you’re left to your own devices and stuck in a house on fire...gives you time to think.” He shrugs, “whether you want to or not.”

 

“Thank you for putting up with my musterings.” Serena swallows, sobering up a bit out of sheer embarrassment, “you should have just told me to shut up.”

 

“Why would I do that?” John shakes his head, his eyes just looking at the television screen, a part of him disappointed, “I find you interesting.” He inhales slowly, “I didn’t just go into psych for the money or to help my clients. I like to hear about peoples’ lives, their loves, their losses, and their triumphs.” John continues, “I’m here to ensure they win at the game of life...and I’ll make damn certain my family does as well.”

 

It’s the way he says it that causes Serena to smile softly, her tone teasing, “the game of life...”

 

“Favorite board game.” John smirks, “still...I mean it. I’m not telling you to talk to me on a professional level. Again, you’re family so it wouldn’t exactly be...ethical, but that doesn’t mean we can’t just...talk, in general.”

 

“That means for you to talk to the rest of us.” Serena finally looks over to her stepson-in-law, “and I get the feeling that you don’t like to share much about your past.”

 

John takes a moment before replying, “what gives you that idea?”

 

“Charlie didn’t know you were in the military until a few months ago, when Bernie and I moved in. That’s rather odd considering the length of time that the two of you have been together.” If there’s one thing Serena Campbell is good at, it’s reading people. She’s good at getting the best out of people, but also causing them to perform their worst. “Wouldn’t you say?”

 

Shrugging, John doesn’t look over at her, “what do you want to know?”

 

“How long were you in the service?” Serena turns her body sideways on the sofa to face him, feeling a bit sleepy from her intake of shiraz, “why hide it from Charlotte?”

 

“The first one is...technically, I’m still in the service. Some of my telemedicine appointments are with service members, active and inactive, and I’m given a stipend by the US Government for them. I’m not going to be called to the front line or anything like that, so I just think of them as my regular clients.” John answers as simply as he possibly can, “and I didn’t hide it from my wife, it just never came up.” He shakes his head a little, “which I was fine with.”

 

Sinking into the sofa a bit more, Serena rests her head on the back cushion, “Why don’t you like to talk about it?”

 

“It isn’t that I don’t like to talk about it, it’s that I sometimes find it painful to talk about.” John nods, “I joined the military in order to go to college, it isn’t covered for everyone there like it is here. My parents didn’t have much when I was growing up and...it was either that or getting stuck in Illinois.” He explains, finally looking over to her, “so I went into medicine with the intention of practicing general surgery with a specialty in neurology, of all things.” John smirks at the thought now, “but...I realized, at least in the states, that mental health took a backseat there for service members.” He swallows, “there’d be a lot of talk, but no one wanted to actually...do anything. They’d hire doctors at the VA hospitals that had never been in a warzone or on a military base. There was...a major deficit in psych specialists that knew or understood what their clients were talking about.”

 

Serena furrows her brow, “that seems counterproductive.”

 

“And it was...still is.” John nods, an ounce of frustration in his tone. “A decade ago, four-hundred and fifteen US service members lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan compared to the UK’s forty-six, not that it’s a competition. Some were in combat and some weren’t, some were self-inflicted.” He licks his lips, returning his attention back to the television so she doesn’t see his glassy eyes, “some of my best friends died there and at home from the war...and I promised myself that I’d make sure that not a single one of them died in vain.” He clears his throat, quickly bringing the back of his hand up to wipe his dampened cheeks, “that’s why, the longer we stay here, the more I feel like I’m neglecting them...because I am.” When she doesn’t respond, John turns his head toward her again, glad to see she’s fallen asleep. The less he needs to talk about his time in active service the better.