It was the photograph that did it.
Mace was being given a tour of TEAR's facility by a younger soldier - she thought he’d been introduced as Tommy, though confusingly enough a few of the men seemed to call him Kipling. She was doing her best not to reach out and pat him on the head because he reminded her of one of those small dogs that bounced around you with excitement until you stopped everything you were doing to pet him. (A thought that she saved away to tell Fee later.) They were walking past a display case when the words above it caught her interest.
Lost But Never Forgotten
Curious, Mace stepped closer, turning her head to look at her guide. "What is this?"
"Oh." Tommy’s smile dimmed a little as he came to her side. "We call that the Wall of Remembrance," he explained. "It's to honor people who have died while working for TEAR."
She turned back to look at the display case.
"That's a nice thing to do for your comrades," Mace said approvingly. She knew how easy it could be to lose people you worked with when your job was dangerous. She looked along the mementos and signs, smiling faintly.
Captain Stefan Cervin --
Mace jerked her head back to the side so fast anyone watching would have sworn she had hurt something. Stefan Cervin?!.
"Stefan?" Mace said out loud, staring at the face that was almost as familiar to her as her own.
"Yes, ma'am. He was before my time, but I've heard stories about how he died a hero to save a friend."
She stared at the photo for a long time and felt herself swallow hard against the emotions she had always been careful to keep buried from view. After a moment, she stepped back from the display case, confident that she was back in control.
"It's a nice touch," she said again as they continued with the tour of the facility, unaware that she was being observed as they walked away from the display case.
Later that night when she left her flat, she went immediately to her bike. Firing it up, she sat there for a moment, letting the Ducati’s engine soothe her and letting her mind clear of many of the thoughts that had been going through her head most of the day. When she left the parking garage, she knew exactly where she was going. Once she reached her destination, she parked her bike and looked around the lot. It seemed that she was the only person visiting this section that evening. So more’s the better for being unobserved.
She zipped her jacket, put her hands in her pockets and started walking on the path and through the gates. After about a fifteen minute walk -- at her pace -- she found what she was looking for and sighed. Standing here wasn't any easier this evening than it had been any other time she had been here -- or when she had first heard about it four years ago.
"You could have told me, you know," she finally said. "It would have certainly explained some your attitude when we talked about work and plans. You didn't like what I was doing because you said it wasn't safe; I could get hurt. Bloody hypocrite. You're being an ass about my going to Sandhurst and all the while you're playing Indiana Jones or some such shit. Dad was already gone so I was the only one that would have known and you still didn't tell me. What the hell did I do to make you not trust me? I idolized you and I thought we were close! Yeah, you were almost a decade older than me but you still acted like you were my best mate as well as my brother."
She sighed and wiped some of the dirt off of the top of his headstone.
"Damn it, Stef. It absolutely killed me to find out that you had died, but no one could tell me what had happened and I felt so damn guilty that I couldn't come to your funeral because I was deployed." She glared at the headstone. "Do you have any idea how much I beat myself up about being in Afghanistan instead of here with you when you died because I thought that I wasn't there when you needed me?" She scuffed her boot along the ground. "Bastard. Your friends didn't even know you had a sister, did they? You know how I know that? Because I was there today. I saw that damn memorial wall and I saw your picture, but my name didn't mean anything to anyone that was there. As far as they're concerned, the only connection I have to that place is that I know Fee and Bennett."
She felt the tears well up in her eyes, and she didn't bother fighting them because there was no one here but Stefan's grave to see her cry. It wasn't like she hadn't cried over her brother before, but finding out that he had some kind of secret life for who knew how long and that he had lied to her for at least a year or two before he died hurt. It made the pain of his death seem as fresh as when she had been informed by her CO four years ago.
"I talked about you all of the time, you know? My big brother, Stefann, who was involved in wildlife conservation and who I was so proud of all of the good things he was doing. You were supposedly protecting animals and wilderness and I was out making sure no was blowing up our country. I wanted to be the soldier so you could be the forest guy." She frowned. "I'm good at what I do. Fuck that, I am damn good at what I do, Stef. Yet, when you died I beat myself up so much because I wasn't there for you when you needed me. Only, you were a bloody liar about your life and what you were doing."
Mace could feel the tears sliding down her cheeks and she hunched her shoulders. "Bastard. Asshole. Hypocrite. You were the only family I had and you lied to me."
She shoved a strand of hair back behind her ear impatiently. "Do you know what I was told about your death four years ago? I was told that there had been an accident on one of your wilderness retreats. Something went wrong." She bit her lip. "Just an accident. A fluke accident that could have happened to anyone no matter how experienced they were. That was all they could tell me, but that was a lie! God, Stef, was there any truth to anything you told me? What else did you lie to me about? I loved you! I looked up to you and I bragged about the work my big brother was doing and not one bit of it was true!"
She swallowed hard, trying to stop the sob that was rising up in her chest. "How could you?" Her shriek was muffled by the sob that broke loose. "You were my big brother, the one person in my family that I felt close to. You were the one I told everything to! You were the first one to find out certain things about me and when I kissed a girl! I trusted you and now I don't even have any idea if anything I know about you was real."
Mace shook her head. "Who the hell were you, Stefan?"
When she said that, she brought one of her hands up to cover her mouth. She was demanding answers from a man who had been dead for four years. Answers that he could no longer give her.
She didn't stay long after that. She had to go home because she was expected at TEAR first thing in the morning. They hadn't told her exactly what time that was, but she figured that her first thing in the morning would work. After all, who could argue with her showing up at work at dawn?
However, when she got home, she was too keyed-up and too heart sore to get sleep right away. She kept seeing her brother's picture on that memorial wall. It didn't surprise her that he had been saving someone else's life when he died. That was something that she would expect of him. Hell, that was probably where she got her tendency to risk herself to save innocent civilians.
She had done a lot of things in her life because she had wanted to make her big brother proud of her. She wanted him to be as proud of her for the things she did as she was for all of the things he did. She had thrown herself into her military training with a gusto, determined that she would change Stefan's mind about her career and make him proud of her.
She never got a chance to change his mind or to make him proud of her. She had been on her first six month tour in Afghanistan when she had been given the news of his death. For the first few days she had been too numb to grieve. She went through her duties and kept her focus because if she didn't focus on her job, she was positive she would have broken down. That was something she had been determined not to do in front of her squad. When her CO checked on her a day or two of he had given her the news, she had been able to convince him that she was just fine.
She had learned early on that sometimes it was a necessity to keep your softer emotions buried.
The dam in her heart and mind broke about a week later, but luckily, she had been alone when she broke down in her bunk.
And now, that grieving process was starting all over again because the brother she thought she knew had been living a life that made him seem like a stranger. He had been living a life that had killed him.
How was she supposed to react to that?
After a mostly sleepless night, Mace arrived back at TEAR a few minutes after dawn. She parked the Ducati and quietly walked to the entrance she had been shown through the day before, using her new wristband ID to gain entry. She wasn't sure how many people might be around this early, but she was used to be up and at work by the time the sun rose. When she didn't run into anyone she knew immediately, she made her way to where she had been shown the gym was.
As she came out of the locker room, there were two people standing at the door and from the way they shifted their positions when she came into view, they had been waiting for her. Looking at the pair of captains, Mace considered as how that was possibly a bad thing.
“A word with you, Lieutenant Graham?” Will Bennett’s voice was lacking in inflection, and the use of her rank told her she was in serious trouble.
Mace straightened her shoulders and her chin and looked up at Becker. “Of course, Captain.” Not even here a week and she was already getting into trouble for something.
“If you’ll follow me, please.” Without waiting, he led off, headed back down the corridor away from the gym. Looking at Fee didn’t give any clue as the redheaded captain was just as stony faced as Will had been.
Two corridors later, they were in the SF office suite. Will ushered her inside and Fee closed the door with a firm finality as she followed them both inside. Sitting down in the chair beside her desk, Fee’s expression finally broke. What Mace saw in her former course mate’s eyes was worry and a bit of hurt as well.
“Why didn’t you tell us, Mace? He was your brother. You used to talk about him all the time at Sandhurst. When we brought you in, why didn’t you tell us straight off that your brother was that Stefan?”
“I couldn’t tell you what I didn’t know about,” Mace responded to what she was perceiving as a small interrogation. This was the last thing she needed right now. “I didn’t know Stef worked here until I saw his picture yesterday.” The muscle in her jaw clenched as it usually did when she was biting back words that she probably shouldn’t say.
Catching the familiar gesture like the rising ghost of their shared past, Will grimaced. “You’re not in trouble, Mace. At least, not yet. But Fee and I need to know if we’re to square this with Colby and the Brigadier before it gets out of control. Trust us to do the right thing by you? We want you in, wouldn’t have made the offer if we didn’t. But this if we don’t handle it just right, this is going to make a whole lot of people twitchy about security risks. And after some of the things this project has seen, you really don’t want to be looked at in that light.”
“Security risk?” Mace’s eyes widened, but she fought to hold back the betrayal she felt over this. “So, because I didn’t know that everything my brother told me for at least two or three years before he died were nothing but lies, I’m going to make people twitchy.” Mace looked at Fee and then looked at Will. “I didn’t know. I didn’t know about this place until the two of you and I didn’t know that my brother hadn’t died in a freak accident in the wilderness until yesterday.”
Fee nodded and looked over at Will. “I told you. She just plain didn’t know. Yes, I know that you’ve plenty of reason to look for boogiemen, but in this case, there’s nothing but mist and misunderstandings. Now can we let it rest?”
Mace took a moment to calm her inner emotions down and then she looked at the two people she had always thought of as her closest friends -- sometimes disappointed that they were all only friends -- and asked the one thing that she had wanted to know since discovering that her brother was a liar and a hypocrite.
“How did my brother die?”
Will looked at her for a long moment, trying to gauge her reaction before answering. Finally, he shoved a file across the desk toward her.
“You can read it if you’d like, but the short version is that he died saving a friend. The ironic as hell part of all this is that I was brought in as his replacement. It’s why I dropped out of sight after my first two theatre tours were done. If it hadn’t been for your brother’s death, I would never have ended up in this place.”
Seeing the suddenly haunted look on Will’s face, Mace knew that there was more to it than that.
She stared at the file, but finally picked it up. “Do I have to read it here, or can I take it home?”
Honestly, she didn’t know which of those choices would be better. On the one hand, she wouldn’t make an ass out of herself by crying in front of her senior officers if she read it at home. On the other hand, she wasn’t sure she wanted to be alone when she finally got the real answer as to how Stefan had really died.
She played with the edge of the file. “You said he saved lives, that sounds a lot like him. He called me reckless, but he was the one always doing something crazy and then telling me he would kick my ass if I did the same thing.”
“Unfortunately, the files can’t leave the building due to the classified nature of the project. Point of fact, the file you hold in your hands is just a printed copy of the electronic records. As soon as you’re done with it, Captain Rivers will be shredding it for us. Look, I’ve weapons qualification drills to run this morning with both teams. Why don’t you use the office? Fee’s got paperwork to do.” Rising from his seat, he gave the redhead a pointed look. “She can answer any questions for you, or you can ask them of me later.”
Nodding her encouragement, Fee made a show of pulling forward one of the reports waiting on her desk and settling down to start work on it. After a few moments uncertainty, Mace flipped open the file and began to read. Heart heavy, Will caught Fee’s eye one more time before he left the office. Eyes full of understanding and sympathy, she made a little shooing motion with her hands, offering him the temporary escape he so desperately wanted both from Mace’s pain and from his own past.
An hour and a half later, she closed the file. Still holding it in her lap, she waited until Fee looked up from her report.
“I expect you’ve got questions,” the other woman offered gently.
Mace swallowed, looking down in her lap as she clenched and unclenched her hands. When she lifted her head back up, her features were carefully schooled. It was something that she had learned in school that had served her well in her duties; learn to wear a mask when the pain was more than you wanted anyone to see.
“My brother worked for this place in secret, while telling me that he was doing wilderness conservation. He ended up getting eaten by creatures that shouldn’t have been able to get near him.” She ran her hand over the file. “Were they caught?”
Biting her lip for a moment, Fee considered her answer before speaking. “From what I’ve been told, yes. The project may have had it’s share of problems at the time of its inception but the ability to follow through on their mandate to keep this out of the public eye has never been one of them.”
So she didn’t have to do something stupid, risking both her commission and her place here by going off the grid to finish cleaning up the mess that someone else had left behind. That was possibly good to know.
Mace sighed, playing with a strand of her hair. “When I was told that Stef was dead, I was on my first tour in Afghanistan. I wasn’t able to go to his funeral and no one back here could tell me anything besides that he had died in a freak accident. I beat myself up for weeks in the privacy of my own head or wherever I could be alone because I didn’t know what had happened and I was somewhere he hadn’t wanted me to be while he was dying.” She tapped the file on her lap. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to think about him or all of this, Fee. I talked about him all of the time and I thought he and I were so close and shared everything. He was all I had left... and now I find that I really didn’t know my brother at all.”
Her voice hadn’t risen at all, but the emotion that she was fighting with was evident in her tone.
Coming around the desk to kneel before her friend Fee looked upward with eyes full of sympathy.
“He’s still your brother, that person you always told Will and I about while we were all still in training. Because he was brought in as Stefan’s replacement, Will never got to meet him in person. But there’s a few others around here who did. Why don’t you start by filling in the missing pieces? Try to see him through their eyes? The people who knew him for those three years when he was working here. Will and I will have to talk to Colonel Colby about all of this first, but once we do, he’d be a good place to start. For that matter, so would Sergeant Michaels as I'm told the two of them worked together often.”
“What happened after Stefan? I saw that look in Will’s eyes; recognized it as the look of someone who had their own demons that were raising their heads?” Easier to focus on Will's than to have to ask the question she really wanted to ask of Colonel Colby.
Fee sighed. Head still bent to hide her face behind a curtain of red locks, she began to answer. “As I said, I haven’t been here very long myself. But after I’d started, I asked Jez to pull some of the old files for me. I was curious. Will had been completely off the map for more than three years and I wanted to catch myself up. Now sometimes I wish I never had. He’s broken, Mace. You saw that wall, they’ve lost so many people here. Your brother and his mate were just the tip. Will's been here for most of it. The majority of those names were his men, his colleagues. That year when the project was closed and he got sent back to ‘Stan? He’d tried to resign his commission. Colby wouldn’t let him. Shipped him overseas instead. Will still ended up giving up the commission the minute he set foot home again. Kavan Emerson was the one who dragged him back. Will wasn’t going to recommission but then that incident with CGS at King’s Cross happened. Ask Jez about it sometime. I wasn’t here for the worst of it. She was. Right after the place reopened. That look you saw? I’ve spent the past six months solid trying to banish it. But still some days it comes rushing back to slap him down once again. He needs us, Mace. There’s no one else he can talk to. Jez is darling, but she can’t fix him, she’s tried. He needs us, people who’ve known him long enough that we won’t put up with the masks. Otherwise, he’s never going to get over the things this place has done to him.”
“Fee, you know that for you or for Will I’ll do whatever I have to do. I would never leave either one of you to have to deal with the bad things we’ve all seen over and over again. But...” She swallowed. “Is Kavan even going to let me stay, once he knows Stef was my brother?” She looked at Fee and there was seriousness in her eyes that was tinged with sorrow. “Do you and Will still views me as a security risk?” Because if they didn’t trust her, that would break something in her.
Looking up finally at the other woman, Fee smiled softly. “Don’t worry, we’ll sort things out with Kavan. Like that file proves, this place has had some serious security concerns in the past. Loopholes that should never have been allowed to exist. It’s one of the reasons we’re as careful as we are now. That said, you are not a security risk. Period full stop. And I’ll stand toe to toe with anyone who says otherwise. And despite what he said, you bloody well know that Will would do so as well. He may gripe about it, but we’ll talk Kavan around to seeing reason.”
Blinking quickly, Fee scrambled to her feet. “That’s it! Nothing around here is ever forgotten. Colby’s the one who’s signature is on the paperwork that authorized the scrubbed version of what you were told about Stef’s death. As soon as Jez pulls that out of the archives, he can’t possibly blame you.” Smiling brilliantly, Fee grabbed the phone off her desk and rang Jez’ workstation. “Yeah, Jez? I need you to pull the records for the PR cover for Stefan Cervin’s death. No, I’ll have to explain later. Just get those files and call Major Bennett down on the ranges, tell him to meet me in Kavan's office.”
Hanging up the phone, Fee grinned broadly and tugged the other woman up out of her seat. “Come on, Mace. Time this all came clean in the wash.”
Mace gave a more natural smile as Fee talked. “If this works, Fiona, I swear I’m going to kiss you for it.”
“Promises, promises,” Fee quipped, looking back over her shoulder. “You never know, I just might like it.”