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When he finds her, he didn’t expect it to be like this. He didn’t think he’d find his Kim, on her knees, scrubbing clothes with water so grey-brown it’s a miracle anything is going to be cleaned.

“Come with me,” he says, half-expecting her to screech and shriek and refuse to go like a mad-woman, like the last time he saw her. But she only looks at him with dull, dead eyes, cheeks hollowed by hunger, and nods.

He didn’t expect it to be that easy, and part of him is wishing for the gap-toothed girl filled up with dreams that she used to be, for the girl teetering on the edge of beautiful who’d work like there was no tomorrow in the fields and then sit around his family’s fire with his brothers and sisters and tell stories late into the deep, star-scattered night. He knows it’s not going to happen, though, that they can never, ever go back. The war has changed everyone.

(Even him.)

...

She goes with him to Hanoi, sitting and staring out of the window of the car that purrs gently beneath them. He keeps his distance, and for that, she’s grateful.

...

The house in Hanoi is the sort of delightful that she used to dream about as a child, all white terrace and arching columns like the long, graceful necks of swans. She stands in the hallway, staring, feeling the dirt under her fingernails and the stares of the five servants gathered on the sweeping staircase. Thuy really has risen in the world, she thinks.

He appears, then, almost silently at her elbow. “Come, I’ll show you around.” His tone is cordial, polite, but she knows that he’s been irritated by her silence during their journey north, by the way she refuses to look him in the eyes.

There’s seven bedrooms – ours, he says, several for any children, some for entertaining important guests who sometimes drop by, bathrooms to match – a bathroom, an actual real room for the purpose of taking baths, just like the ones Chris told her about…no, no, no. A formal dining room and a sitting room on the first floor, the kitchens downstairs for which they have a cook, though Kim is very welcome to make use of if she feels like it.

Thuy leaves her in the largest bedroom, the one that will be theirs the minute they get married, and she sinks down onto the floor, burying her face in the fabric of her borrowed dress and crying for a life she lost long ago.

...

The wedding ceremony is quiet and private, the incense, the ancestral blessing, and the wedding song, and Kim has to bite down hard on her rouged lips to keep from crying at the memory of Chris’ hand in hers, of the happy bewilderment in his eyes as the girls, her sudden, new-found friends sang, and the way he kissed her, as though she was the most precious thing in seven continents and seven seas.

It’s not blue eyes that meet hers through the haze of smoke, but dark. She thinks about what would happen if Chris burst in now, the way Thuy had after her first wedding ceremony, but stops the thought before it can get any more hopeful. That will never happen. Chris is in America. Chris has forgotten about her. It’s time she should forget about him.

(But she knows that’s never going to happen. She will carry him with her for the rest of her days.)

...

That night, when she and Thuy retire to their bedroom after eating dinner and talking to their select guests, she’s braced herself for the worst, tensed her muscles and chewed the inside of her mouth raw, but it’s not as bad as she fears. He’s not gentle, but he’s not cruel either and afterwards, when he winds his arms around her waist and buries his face in her hair, she finds herself settling against him, relaxing, comforted by another warm presence in the bed next to her.

...

Slowly, she learns how to come back to life, how to wake up and greet Thuy in the mornings with a smile, how to chatter frivolously with the wives of other important officials about silks and servants and children, how to be Thuy’s confidante when he returns home angry about a decision that didn’t go his way, how to order a household, to be a beloved presence on the streets as the young, beautiful wife of an influential man who always has coins in her pocket and a listening ear.

But that’s all she is. Some nights, when Thuy is asleep, she still lies there and feels empty, cold, broken because although this should have meant all of her silly childhood fancies coming true, all she can think about sometimes is Chris, and what if he’s still in America waiting for her, what about, what about...mustn’t think about that Kim, you can’t.

She doesn’t think she’ll ever feel full again.

...

“I’m to go to Ho Chi Minh City,” Thuy says one evening, when the sky is turning dark and birds chatter restlessly in the trees. She looks up from the book she’s been reading.

“Any particular reason?”

“Getting rid of more Bui Doi,” he says, somehow managing to make those last two words sound like they are the very scum of the earth.

Kim feels her heart stop in her chest. “What?”

He gives her an exasperated look. “The children our women bore the American scum. Surely I’ve told you about them before?”

“What do you mean, getting rid of?”

“Depends. Shoot a few, send the rest off to farms to pay us back for all the hurts their fathers caused.”

A lump builds up in Kim’s throat, but she manages to force the words out. “What? Thuy, they’re children! They’re not to blame for what their fathers did!”

“Why are you taking their side?”

Kim looks away. She can barely breath, his words are ringing in her ears. “Kim?” he says. And then, “Is it something to do with that American jack that I found with you the first time?” His tone is ugly.

She can’t think of a reply. Suddenly, Thuy’s hands are gripping hers, his nails digging into the soft skin of the backs of her hands, and he’s forcing her to look at him, to see the fury rising to the surface of his eyes like a serpent.

“Yes,” she whispers, because what else can she do?

“I think it’s time you tell me the truth about that, wife.

There’s a hopeless kind of anger curling in the pit of her stomach, running rampant through her veins. “I don’t have to tell you anything, husband!” she spits.

“I’m asking you, Kim, what happened?” His voice is dangerously soft.

She shakes her head. His nails scratch deeper into her hands, and she can feel the burn of tears behind her eyes. “You don’t know how it was, after my parents died! I was so scared, and you weren’t there, you’d gone and left for the other side, not caring if I was going to be killed or…or raped by the next soldiers that came by the village, and so I went, I walked to Saigon and tried to find my sister, but she wasn’t there but Chris was and he was so different to everyone else, he was sick of the war and so kind to me, and I just…I fell in love with him, he was going to take me away to America and away from all this fear!”

“And he abandoned you, Kim! You shouldn’t have believed him, you…did you let him…”

“Of course! We were married!”

He wrenches away, cursing, storms to the other side of the room. She curls deeper into her chair, dashing away the tears that trickle down her cheeks.

“And what else happened, before I found you?”

She’s crying, crying and crying and crying, then, wishing that he would stop shouting and hold her like he does sometimes in a rare moment of tenderness, feeling the memories that she’d so adeptly locked away somewhere deep inside of her come bubbling to the tip of her tongue. She takes in a ragged breath.

“I had a child. A son. Tam.” She says his name like a prayer.

“Where is he now?”

She pulls herself out of her chair. “He died, Thuy, that’s what I’ve been hiding from you. My baby died! Gods, I hope you’re happy now!”

And then she runs to their bedroom, locking the door behind her and weeping, curled up on the bed until her heart feels as though it’s been ripped into tiny little shreds and burned into ashes.

...

She doesn’t see Thuy in the morning, just drifts around the house like a ghost until Lien, a friend of a friend appears with flowers and the latest gossip. Kim can barely bring herself to care.

“What’s the matter, dear?” she asks, leaning over to clasp Kim’s cold hands.

“It’s nothing.”

“Are you fighting with your husband?”

“How did you guess?” Kim laughs bitterly.

“I was once newly married, too. You take a few years to settle into yourselves, don’t worry. He’ll forgive you soon enough.”

“That’s the thing, though,” Kim says, almost to herself. “I don’t think he will.”

...

Thuy returns after a week, walking in through the door to their room completely unannounced. Kim is perched on the edge of the bed, staring at her fingers, waiting for him to tell her about the divorce, to order her out onto the street, but all he does is stand there. She looks up. There’s a bloodstain on his collar and a wild, haunted look that doesn’t sit well on his face.

“Thuy?” she ventures.

“Don’t say anything,” he says sharply. Then, softer, “please. Just come here.”

She steps into his outstretched arms, feels him exhale as he rests his cheek on top of her head. There’s silence, but for the drumming of their hearts and the noises of people out in the street.

He starts to speak. “There were so many of them. All of these children, some so little, only two or three years old, all with no fathers and mothers who’d been taken away to re-education or shot, and Gods, Kim, I saw all of these dark eyes looking up at me as the soldiers carried out their orders and all I could think about was a little boy with your eyes and your smile, and I couldn’t stand it, I just couldn’t.”

“Did you make them stop?”

“As much as I could. I have to follow orders too. I’m sorry.”

“I forgive you.”

His arms tighten around her. She can barely move, can only feel the coarseness of his uniform scratching against her forehead, but it doesn’t stop her hearing the soft, “I forgive you, too.”

Chapter Text

1997, America

“Letter for you, Dad!” Chris looks up from his work as his youngest comes running into the office.

“Thanks, darling,” he says, taking it. Freya hangs around, moving from foot to foot even though she’s seventeen and supposed to be far past all of this.

“Can I see what it says?”

“It’s probably just another bank statement.”

“No, it’s from that veteran society Mom made you join when I was little.”

“Okay, okay.” He rips open the envelope, and freezes.

“Dad…is something the matter?”

“No,” he says. “No, nothing’s wrong, sweetheart.”

“What is it, then?”

“Your mother and I have been invited to an event to celebrate the re-installation of diplomatic relations with Vietnam.”

“Oh…that’s good, though, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Chris runs a hand through his hair distractedly. “Would you mind telling your mother to come and find me when she’s awake?”

“No, of course not.” Freya presses a kiss to the top of his head. “Have fun with…whatever you’re doing.”

“Thanks, sweetheart.”

...

Ellen appears late-morning, her blonde curls pressed down on one side and wrapped up in her dressing gown, padding across the floor to perch on his desk. “Freya said something was the matter.”

“Yes, no, well, not really.”

Ellen’s eyes spark with laughter. “That’s not really an answer.”

“Read this.”

It’s a testament, that the second Ellen looks up, she says, “It’s about that girl, isn’t it? Kim.”

“Yes. It is.”

“It’s been twenty two years, Chris. It’s a long time – and you have us, now.”

“Yes, I know,” Chris catches her hand and holds it to his cheek. “I just want to know if she’s alive. Is that fair?”

Ellen sighs. “I want to say no, but you’re right. It’s only fair.”

...

When they arrive at the new ambassador’s house, there are tea-lights lining the drive-way and guards that wave them to a parking space.

“Do you know why they wanted veterans there?” Ellen asks, as he comes around her side of the car to help her out. She gathers up her dark blue skirts and stands to kiss his cheek.

“Probably something to do with a show of reconciliation. Who knows how diplomats think?”

“It will be fine.”

“I know. I’ve got you.”

She smiles, and takes his arm, and they follow the tea-lights glowing and flickering against the night to the house.

...

It’s about halfway through the evening that he sees her, descending the staircase on the arm of a man with silver in his hair and a resigned, stern face. She’s older, too, softer than she used to be, but he would know her anywhere. He quickly draws Ellen away from the group they’ve been talking too, across the golden-tiled ballroom.

“Chris?” Ellen whispers. “What’s the matter?”

“That woman, over there, in the green Vietnamese dress,” he grits out.

Ellen glances over quickly, and then back to him, her face creased with concern. “Who is it?”

“It’s Kim, Ellen. That’s Kim.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, of course I’m sure. She’s barely changed, God, why, tonight of all nights?”

“Do you want to go outside?”

He gives her a pained smile, and she kisses him again, gently. “You go and enjoy the party,” he says.

“If you’re sure…”

“Of course. Have fun.”

She smiles, and disappears off into the crowd, and he takes the door out onto the terrace. More tea-lights glow like fireflies, red and orange against the trees and painted wood. He’s only there for a few minutes when there’s the sound of two people talking in quick, hushed tones – Vietnamese, he still remembers a few words of it – and then the swishing of a skirt, the creaking of the boards under their feet. Someone stops, just out of his line of vision. He turns his head.

“Kim.”

“Chris.”

“How are you…”

“What are you doing here?”

She answers first, her voice soft. “My husband is high up in Government. We’re visiting America as a sign of goodwill.”

“Your husband?”

“Thuy, my cousin. You might remember him.”

Vaguely, Chris sees the distraught, angry features of a teenage boy in the older man she’d been with on the staircase, the one who’d begged and pleaded with Kim to go with him, that night in the club with the wedding ceremony and the unearthly ethereal song and the absolute joy in Kim’s face that he knows must have been mirrored in his own.

“I tried to get to you. I really did. John had to drag me onto the helicopter. I was fighting and fighting to get out and find you.”

“Chris, I know.”

“I was an absolute wreck for almost a year afterwards, I never forgot you…”

Her hand on his brings him back to reality. Her dark eyes are sad. “I understand. It’s alright.”

“I just wanted you to know. I didn’t want you to think that I’d willingly abandoned you.”

“I knew you never would.” She pauses. “I think it’s only right I tell you…”

“Tell me what?”

“We had a son.”

He feels as though he’s been shot. The world recedes for a second, and he grips the veranda railing, trying to take deep breaths because he was not expecting this, he really wasn’t.

“Where is he?”

There are tears, suddenly clinging to her lashes. She looks away. “He didn’t survive. He was so small, and there wasn’t enough food.” She pauses. “He looked so much like you. He had your hair, your smile, your nose.”

“What was his name?”

“Tam.” She touches a silver locket at her throat, and then quickly, as though she doesn’t want to think about what she’s doing, unclasps it and opens it in her palms, the two halves spread like the wings of a flightless bird. There’s a single lock of dark hair curling inside it. “This is his.”

Chris touches it, gently, with the tip of his finger. A son. A son. A little boy, half him, half Kim, a son that he never knew about until it was too late.

“I should have been there,” he says, his voice raw with memories and guilt and grief. “I should have been there to look after you. You both.”

“You would have been. I know you would have.” Before he’s even realised what she’s doing, she’s put a little of the hair into his hand – even after all these years, it’s soft, as soft as a baby animal’s fluff, and so dark, glinting a little in the candlelight.

“Are you sure?”

“Of course,” she says, turning away to look out over the dark, starlit garden and fastening the locket back around her neck. “So how is life, now?” Her words are a little choked. He takes the not-so-subtle subject change, and nods.

“It’s good. I have two kids of my own, Freya and Thomas. I work as an advisor for the logistical side of the army. You?”

“I have four children.”

“Four? Jesus, that’s a lot. Two’s hard enough for Ellen and I.”

Kim laughs a little. “Three sons and one daughter. You had it easy.”

“I guess we did.”

Another pause. A question burns on the tip of his tongue, and he thinks – what the hell?

“Does he treat you well?”

She gives him a little sideways smile. “He loves me, now.”

“I’m pleased.” Then, “I wouldn’t be able to bear it if he didn’t.”

She’s smiling properly now. “You’re still soft on me.”

“Of course I am. You’ll always have a special place in my heart.”

She laughs, outright. “And you do too, in mine. I think Thuy has given up on trying to make me forget it.”

“Chris?”

He turns away from the dark, and the smiling face beside him to see Ellen, silhouetted against the doorway and the party with her skirts in her hand and a worried look creasing the corners of her eyes. “Ellen, darling, there’s someone I want you to meet,” he says, and she walks over, cautious, slow. “This is Kim. Kim, this is my wife, Ellen.”

“A pleasure to meet you,” Kim says, nodding her head in the way he’d seen Vietnamese women greet each other in the streets of Saigon.

“It’s lovely to meet you too. We had better be going, it’s a long drive home.”

“Are you going to say hello to Thuy?” Kim asks, almost serious if not for the glint in her eye. Chris laughs, and takes Ellen’s hand.

“I don’t think so. Last time we met we had guns on each other – I don’t think the ambassador would like a repeat performance.”

Kim and Ellen laugh, then, and he steps forward, gives Kim a quick kiss on the cheek. “Our address is with the organisers – stay in touch, if you want.”

“Alright,” Kim says, and she turns back to the garden. “Enjoy the rest of the party, Chris, Mrs Scott.”

They walk away, back into the whirling mass of small talk and champagne. Ellen turns to him. “No regrets?”

“None,” he says.

When they leave, he sees Kim out of the corner of his eye, holding her husband’s hand and laughing at something he’s said. He doesn’t think she has any regrets, either. Not anymore.