The dust started to settle, and everyone lifted their heads, surveying the damage, seeing the destroyed gazebo that only moments ago had been packed with people. Laura looked at him while reaching for Mary as the child scrambled into her lap, watching him brush the dust from his eyes and hair. He was watching her, subtly looking her over for injuries, his hand still touching Mary’s back as though afraid to lose that last connection.
“Are you alright?” he asked, his eyes still frantic.
“You came back”
“I had to” he said.
“You just saved our lives”
“I had to” he whispered.
“You could have been badly hurt yourself”
“Wouldn’t have mattered” he said, shaking his head, his eyes on hers.
“You would throw your life away so glibly?”
“For you? Yes”
And then her mother had run over, fussing and worrying and asking a million questions, and they’d all got caught up in making sure everyone was alright. There would be time later to think over why and how he had come back at that very moment.
They were standing to the side of the wreckage, not quite touching shoulders, watching the people recover themselves and check over loved ones. Nobody had been killed, as far as they knew, and thanks to Charles’ overzealous shouting, most of the park had been cleared, so injuries were minimal; mostly cuts, bruises and scrapes. The children, always the first to recover, were collecting piles of wood, starting the clean-up in the only way they knew how, by building a small fort of timber under the dubious gaze of their parents.
Laura smiled as she watched her daughter direct an older boy on how to assemble the wood. She looked at Charles and saw him smiling, also watching her daughter. Laura could see the love and devotion he had towards her little girl, and she was suddenly very confused. She turned to him, and the movement caused him to look at her in return, his face sobering. They hadn’t parted well, that last time.
“Thank you... for saving my life…” she started, unable to hold his gaze. She looked back at her daughter, a look of gratitude on her face. “And Mary’s”
She watched Mary, aware that he was watching her.
She gasped out a hum, blinking as she turned her head to look across to where the gazebo had been standing only a short time ago. The look on her face was almost a smile, but there was a sadness underneath, as though she wanted to say so much, but the words were stuck somewhere in her chest, unable to rise.
He softly placed his finger under her chin, coaxing her to look back at him. Her eyes met his, hopeful and fearful all in one.
“I mean that” he said gently, not allowing her to break eye contact.
“I know you do” she replied, drawing his hand away and looking towards the ground. He didn’t resist.
“I want you to know-“
“You can’t stay” she interrupted, her voice stronger, her eyes clear and sad. “I am eternally grateful to you. I’m glad to see you. But you have commitments and a life in St Louis, and you can’t stay here”
“My wife… left me”
He knew as soon as he said it that he’d made it sound like she’d died- that the pause in his speech and the way he couldn’t meet Laura’s eyes made him look more like a grieving widower than a man whose wife had the guts to do what he couldn’t. He didn’t mean to give that impression, but in many ways it was much easier than explaining everything that had happened. With the time difference between them and no way home, Kristen was virtually dead to him now anyway. Everything about his old life was dead to him now, good or bad. Semantics hardly mattered.
Laura turned and looked at him, squinting in the sun, summing him up. He could feel her pity and understanding, and though he considered explaining, it was best to leave things unsaid. As dishonest as he felt, he knew these next few moments were decisive, and there would always be time to explain later.
“I am sorry to hear that” she said, sincerity evident on her face and in the way she tentatively reached a hand out to touch his arm.
“It’s been a long time coming” he said gently, meeting her gaze, willing her to understand. Willing her to see why an honest and honourable man had allowed himself to fall in love with her, and allowed her to feel the same for him. Though she may believe his wife had been sick, or ailing- that she had passed away after an extended illness- the truth was his divorce had been a very long time in the making too. The emotional distance had grown between him and Kristen over many years. Again, it was death of a different kind. He wanted desperately for Laura to understand that.
“I see” said Laura, nodding slowly.
“I want you to know- I had to save you… I never… I wouldn’t have come back if…”
And whatever truth Laura had decided to accept, she must have seen that he was being honest in this. She stopped him with a squeeze of his arm where her hand still rested, before sliding her hand down to clutch his. He gripped it tight, hoping she’d recognise that he never wanted to let go.
“Thank you for trusting me” he whispered instead. The truth of the situation was sinking in; the image of the explosion and her date of death forever ingrained in his mind.
“I do trust you” she said, looking him square in the eye. There was a weight to her admission, as though she wasn’t expecting that to be true, but knew it in her bones. After his deception, he realised what it meant for her to say that to him; what it meant for it to be completely honest.
The feeling of his arm across her back as they hit the lawn, his fingers gripping her tight, his body rising to shield her own; seeing Mary tucked safely away from the flames under his arm; the look of panic and relief when he saw both mother and daughter were unscathed. All of those images came flooding back to her in an instant, and she knew that despite- or perhaps because of- everything else, she could trust him. He had come back to save her life, and the life of her only child. He had done it, even when he didn’t have to, without ulterior motive or selfish thought.
“I’m staying” he said. “I’m staying here. For good this time”
“I think I knew that” she said, her expression more open than it had been all day. Her other hand enclosed his, trapping his hand between both of hers, bringing their bodies that much closer. “And one day… you will perhaps explain everything to me- explain how it was you found yourself here in Somerville. I think I deserve at least that much”
“You do. And I’ll do my best. Some of it might not make much sense, but I will do my best to make you understand”
She nodded, accepting his honesty.
“And I would very much like to take you to dinner” he continued tentatively, his thumb running circles against her hand. “You and Mary. Or just you… whichever you prefer-“
“I’d like that. I’d like that very much” she said, meeting his sheepish expression with mirth. He smiled, before turning serious once more, guilt evident in his eyes.
“Laura, I’m so, so sorry, I-“
She shook her head, closed her eyes and rested her forehead gently against his cheek.
“It’s alright. It’s behind us now”
He closed his eyes and breathed her in, and felt himself come home.
“I love you” he whispered.
She pulled back slowly, looking him in the eye, her grip remaining firm over his hand, and he couldn’t regret saying it, even if it was forward.
“I think I knew that too” she whispered back, tears welling in her eyes despite herself. “I think I’ve known that for a while now”
“Good. Because it’s been true for a while, and I couldn’t not come back-“
“I understand” she said softly.
“I think so. For now, at least” she said, looking to the ground, confused by this man who seemed so out of place, so strange, yet fit so well in her heart.
He softly placed his free hand on her cheek, turning her face to look at him. Her eyes were misted, though she was holding the tears back, and she smiled widely at him for the first time since their walk by the river. He caressed her cheek with his thumb, running his eyes over every inch of her, glad to see she was injury-free. She was perfect.
“It’s rude to stare. What will people think?” she asked quietly, smiling at him all the same, her grip tight around his other hand.
“I don’t care” he whispered back, smiling. He remembering the moment he’d first met her, that unyielding yet open expression reining him in to the point of embarrassment. He remembered watching her with Mary, so free and so different from her work persona. He remembered her laughter, and her girlish shrieks of joy. He could still feel her lips on his. He knew that he wanted a piece of that- as much as she was willing to give him.
“I don’t care either” she breathed, before slowly, finally, closing the gap between them and kissing him, their eyes slipping shut. The hand from her cheek moved to the back of her neck, and she released his other hand in favour of wrapping him in her arms. She sighed into the kiss and he knew he never wanted to leave her side.
They broke too soon, aware that they were still in public, though everybody was too distracted by recent events to pay them much attention. He held her a moment longer, his relief palpable. She sighed against him, her head resting on his shoulder.
“I think I need to say this…” she started, burying her eyes against his neck, playing with the strange fabric of his shirt.
“I love you too”
He squeezed her, and placed a kiss against her neck, grinning madly, and he could feel her smiling against his shoulder.
She pulled back, and her tears had finally fallen. He held her face in his hands and wiped the tear tracks with his thumbs, both of them smiling.
“For a moment I thought I’d lost you, forever. I’m never leaving you again. Never. Not in a million years”
He sounded reverent, almost as though he was thinking out-loud rather than speaking directly. To Laura, it sounded more like a confession than a promise, and she wasn’t sure of much when it came to Charles Lattimer, but she was sure that he loved her as much as she loved him and for right now, that was enough.
“I wouldn’t have let you go” she said thickly, smiling. “Not now I’ve got you back”
He grinned at her and held her again, her arms wrapping around him as she composed herself.
“Mama” she heard, and she stepped out of his arms far enough to see Mary running across the park towards them. Charles kept one arm around her waist, as she did him.
“Hey kid” called Charles, waving as she came up to them.
“Have a look at the fort we’re building. Isn’t it great?”
“It looks wonderful, Mary” said Laura.
“What do you think, Mr Lattimer?”
“That’s the best fort I’ve seen”
“I have to go make sure the other kids don’t wreck it. Grandma is complaining that my dress is all dirty, but so is everyone else’s. If I don’t keep this fort going, it’ll never stand right”
She spun around on the spot, started running towards the park, before turning and quickly running back towards Charles. He knelt down, releasing Laura, meeting Mary at eye level.
“Thank you for saving us”
“You’re very welcome”
“Are you going to stay now that you and Mama kissed?”
Laura let out an outraged laugh, covering her embarrassment behind her hand. Charles grinned, holding back his own laugh.
“Yeah, I’ll stay”
“Good. I’m glad. I gotta go”
She spun around and was half way across the lawn before either could think of an appropriate response. Charles stood back up, shaking his head, meeting Laura’s eye with a grin. She was still stifling her laughter.
“She really is a pistol”
Laura hummed in agreement. “You really do care for her a great deal. You are very good with her”
“She’s great- it’d be hard not to love her”
“I was thinking of taking Mary fishing this weekend, after the rally. Would you care to join us?”
“I’d love to”
She wrapped her arms around his middle, breathing him in as his hands splayed across her back and he buried his face in her neck. He smiled again, a heaviness settling in his heart that he could only identify as joy. He could not quantify what he’d lost and what he’d gained. He could only say that every action in his life had been leading him to that very moment. He grinned again, and nuzzled her neck.
“What is it?” she asked, pulling back enough to look at his smiling face.
“Nothing, I just… I…”
“I just feel like I’ve finally come home”
Overwhelmed and unsure what to say, Laura could only kiss him again, and she knew it would not be the last time.
“I wanted to ask you something”
They were lying by the river, the setting sun casting a rainbow across the clouds as yellows and purples melted into the deep blue of the horizon. The cold was starting to settle, but they’d wrapped the edge of the blanket around themselves and the warmth of each other was keeping it at bay for now.
When he didn’t immediately answer she drew her eyes away from the clouds to look at him. His face was mere inches from her own, the blue of his eyes bright and piercing, and his gaze unwavering.
“Marry me” he whispered.
“I thought you said you wanted to ask me something. That wasn’t a question” she said with a grin, and he laughed at her, rolling over to lean above her, kissing her once, deeply and sweetly. He pulled back and looked at her as she ran the backs of her fingers down the side of his face. He turned his head, not breaking eye contact, and kissed her hand.
“Will you, Laura Brown, make me the happiest man alive, and marry me?”
“Well, when you ask so nicely, how can I refuse?”
“Is that a yes?”
“It is. Yes” she whispered, her arms wrapping around him. And he kissed her again, feeling not for the first time that he was exactly where he needed to be. He was home.