April 10th, 999
It was the weekend and Andrew was over a friend's house for the day. With Leif at the Fourth Level Squad house, it left just the two of them at home. Patrick hadn't even mentioned Nara's first birthday to either son, and naturally they were completely unaware of it.
Patrick stared at Nara sitting in his high seat, chewing on the wrong end of his spoon. The child could ask for his father and say 'no' when he didn't want something. It was a beautiful thing. But of course the word 'mama' was not in his vocabulary.
Patrick did not intend to keep any secrets from Nara about his mother and what happened to her. He wondered when the question would come up for the first time. Maybe he wouldn't ask until he was five years old. Maybe he wouldn't ask until he was eight. If that was the case, Patrick wondered if he should take the initiative and sit him down to tell him.
He leaned over and picked Nara up from under the arms. The boy cooperatively leaned up against his father's chest and made a sound of contentment, still chewing on the spoon.
Tomorrow would have been Riley's birthday: she used to call Nara an early birthday present.
If she had lived, Patrick reflected he would have another son, too.
Of course, Patrick could spend most of his time starting every thought with, "If she had lived…" It exhausted him to see everything in that way. He felt as though he was beginning to view the world as a series of missed opportunities. That was almost as bad as losing Riley.
A solid eight months had passed since he lost her. The sting had lessened, but he wondered if he would ever go back to the way he was.
When Nara laughed, things felt okay.
Patrick took him outside and set him down on the sidewalk. He removed the spoon which made him whine just a little bit, but then he soon became distracted with the exciting notion of walking. Patrick took both his hands and held him steady, helping him walk just a bit quicker. His steps were like stomps as he stampeded down the sidewalk, cheering himself on as Patrick softly encouraged him.
When Nara became tired, Patrick picked him up and playfully began throwing him up in the air. Nara laughed hysterically as he bounced and reached for his father.
Seconds like this one made it easy to pretend things were easy.
He caught Nara and looked ahead of him to see Alexander standing several paces away from him, situated in such a way that it seemed almost as if he was watching. Patrick lowered Nara and walked over to his friend who was remaining quiet.
"Morning," Patrick said.
"I was on my way over to your house," Alexander said.
"What for?" Patrick asked as Nara tried to lean over and touch Alexander's hand.
Alexander did not withdraw his hand, but he did not exhibit a reaction to the touch. "It's your son's birthday, isn't it?"
"You remembered Nara's birthday?"
Patrick knew that was unlikely. Ever since Alexander had spent his time in the hospital, his recent memory was generally fairly unreliable. However, he was good at faking it and getting around having to admit that he was not at his best. Saying things like, "Your son's birthday," instead of, "Nara's birthday," was a prime example because Patrick knew Alexander could not remember Nara's name. Most days, he couldn't even remember Sofia's name. There were times he thought Riley was still alive, and those were the most difficult conversations to endure.
Patrick just tried to go along with it and say the names of things as much as possible and hoped things improved. There were certain things that Patrick was almost positive Alexander had completely lost all memory of. Of course, Alexander had never really been one to talk about his past unless prompted to do so, but Patrick could sense there were pieces missing.
For example, he was pretty sure Alexander forgot most details of the events surrounding Leif's conception. Patrick felt that was almost for the better, and Echo urged him not to bother reminding him. After all, that had always been a source of great pain for Alexander so he was better off not remembering.
Echo did not feel comfortable leaving Sofia at home alone with Alexander. He was still prone to dropping things or drifting off. It humiliated him, especially since he tried so hard, but sometimes when he zoned back in, he was completely lost on how he had gotten to certain places.
Alexander was still Alexander, but just a lesser version. Patrick would never say it, and could barely bring himself to think it. Alexander often joked about it, but Patrick guessed he only did that to hide from the embarrassment.
"Where were you off to?" Alexander asked.
"Nowhere in particular," Patrick admitted. "Just wanted to get a few laughs out of Nara. Maybe I was going to see Riley. Tomorrow would have been her birthday."
"That's true. It would have been. How old would she have been?"
"Twenty-nine," Patrick said.
Alexander sighed and walked with Patrick who led the way. His sigh sounded like Riley's name, and he shook his head slightly, and it was obvious at least to Patrick that Alexander was reflecting on the unfairness of the way her life was cut short. It was easy to recognize that look on anyone's face. He was becoming quite familiar with it.
"Did you hear?" Alexander asked suddenly. "Jason will be going with the Fourth Level Squad to Ursa. That probably means Leif will be going too."
"I had heard that," Patrick said with a childish groan. "He will be going. I still think they're too young."
"Maybe they are," Alexander agreed. "But, I was about that age."
"On your first mission?"
Alexander nodded silently, then cleared his throat. "Patrick, I wonder. Stop me if this sounds out of line."
"The only reason you agreed to have Leif put on the Squad was because Riley insisted, isn't that right?"
"Well, it seems to me that you can pull him off the Squad, can't you? That would be the first thing I would do for Jason if Echo—of course, I would never want that to happen…"
"No, I understand." Patrick put Nara back on the sidewalk because he was squirming too much. They walked a little slower so Nara could try again. "I've thought about that a lot, actually. I mean, it wasn't the first thing I thought of, but I definitely thought about it."
"But?" Alexander led.
"Is it selfish of me to pull him, though?" Patrick asked. "Leif can do a lot of good on the Squad when he gets older. He's very talented. Maybe I have no place making that decision for him."
"That's an unexpected answer."
"Well," Patrick went on, "for a long time I admired my grandfather for making the decision for my father to keep him off the Squad. But sometimes I wonder if maybe my father would have thrived there. Maybe he would have actually lived longer. I know that sounds weird talking about someone on the Fourth Level Squad having a longer life, but we all know it's not the poison arrow that really killed him."
Alexander seemed thoughtful for a bit. "Frederick Kan was the leader of the Squad and he was killed," Alexander began. "Then Elena Kamichael was the leader and she was killed shortly after that. They not only asked your father to join the team after that happened, but they asked him to be leader."
"I figured," Patrick said.
"He said no of course. You were just a baby at the time."
"I was his…perfect excuse," Patrick said with a nod.
"Maybe he would have been Head Change," Alexander offered with a bit of a laugh.
Patrick could only return the laugh. "Maybe," he said.
"Have you decided if you're going to enroll your youngest son in the Academy when the time comes?"
"I think I will," Patrick said.
"And what if the Fourth Level Squad comes for him?"
"I'll let him go."
"You've had quite the change of heart," Alexander observed.
"That's true," Patrick agreed. "But my life has suddenly become very different. You know?"
"Yes, I know."
Patrick picked Nara up again and stared up at the cemetery. He often wondered if he should have had Riley put in the Fourth Level Squad portion of the cemetery. He selfishly waved the offer because someday he wanted to be buried next to her.
"You know," Patrick went on, "I'm the only member of my family who wasn't born exceptional."
"That's not true."
"My grandfather was on the Squad, my father certainly could have been, my wife was even leader for a bit before resigning. Now, one of my sons is on the Squad and another one is going to graduate ahead of schedule for a child his age. Really, everyone is much more talented than I am. I don't exactly have any place keeping them from achieving the best their talent has to offer."
"Maybe you weren't chosen for the Squad and maybe you didn't graduate early. But you worked harder than all of them, didn't you?"
"I wanted to be great before I even knew how great they were."
"And I think people will remember you the longest."
"I don't think that's true."
"How many years have you been a teacher, Patrick? Life as a member of the Fourth Level Squad is surprisingly isolating. Do you think anyone remembers Frederick Kan or Elena Kamichael? If I hadn't survived the night this happened to my face, do you think anyone would remember who I am? You wouldn't have remembered me."
"It's not their fault."
"Members of the Fourth Level Squad are birthdates and deathdates in a book somewhere. Their missions are between them and the Head Change. All you've done for Ronin is going to be remembered."
"I didn't do anything for fame."
"And there you go. You have it now."
Patrick and Alexander weaved up the path to where Riley's grave was. He stared down at the headstone, reading: Riley Leary, April 11th 970—August 3rd 998, survived by a husband and three sons.
"I miss her," he said simply.
"So do I."
"Why…?" he trailed off, unsure of where his question was going.
He knelt and set Nara on the grass. The child sat down and began to poke holes in the earth.
"Why couldn't she stay?"
He fought the need to cry.
"I mean…why couldn't she stay?"
He wasn't even sure what the question meant but it was the only thing that came to his mind. That was all he wanted to know the answer to. It was crazy to think that everything could end with the simple statement: It's not fair.
Alexander knelt down too and kept facing forward. It truly did seem like he was looking at the grave.
"I wish she could have," he said.
Patrick lowered his head and put his hand over his eyes. Alexander couldn't see him, but he knew it was happening. He put his arm around his friend and patted him supportively on the back.
Seconds like this one made it difficult to pretend things were easy.
A/N: So...that's actually the end of Part 4. I've been planning a Part 5, but I've also been planning kind of a side project. A reviewer toyed with the notion of seeing events from Alexander's POV, and I've been thinking about exploring that. Let me know if you would be interested in that or interested in a Part 5 (or both). Thanks to everyone who read and reviewed!