Arranging to meet him was an exercise in tradecraft. Disposable emails, payphones that took him thirty minute walks from where he was supposed to be. On the phone, there was a tone to his voice that would surprise anyone who heard it.
We finally met in a small vegan cafe, chosen because the idea of him eating there would be improbable when weighed against his public image.
Her public image.
At the table, he was hunched over, shrunk away from the world despite the heft of his shoulders and how his biceps strained at the sleeves of his t shirt. He had scraped his thick blonde hair away beneath a ball cap and his sharp blue eyes were beneath wraparound sunglasses. There was a small patch on his throat that he had missed shaving.
His chin lifted and his lips twisted into a grimace.
‘No names, please.’
My hand gestured to the empty chair and he nodded. Sitting down, we ordered. A beetroot and wild root pancake with camomile infusion that we agreed to share. He sighed when the waitress left.
‘I’d kill for a steak.’
My eyes darted around the restaurant. All wooden floors and tasteful prints in frames.
‘We could have gone to an outback.’
He shook his head.
‘If I’m going to talk about this, then I need to be somewhere people won’t expect me. You understand, right?’
My nod made the corners of his mouth lift slightly.
‘So, when did it start?’
When his plane had crashed on the shore, she had been the first one to arrive, white robes barely covering a physique sculptured by a life of training and ascetic practices. A woman raised and thriving in a society without men. Heir to it’s throne. She had been tender, drawn by the alien familiarity of his form as he staggered from the burning wreckage.
We all knew his adventures with her. The subtle mockery that came alongside it but there was something between them that humanized her. As part of a pantheon, she had been the most relatable. Despite her ferocity, her ability, the ease with which she wore sculptured armour and a gladius, he leavened her somehow. The sponsors were generous and the federal stipend gave them a life that made his military pension look piecemeal. With every movement, she promised an athleticism that led to the kind of bruising, raw sexuality which made men’s mouths go dry.
The first time had been when she had returned from the funeral of Yannick, Fleet who had given his life to stop The Void Armada. A glancing blow across his face when he had asked her to stop drinking. A swat from her gave him a dislocated jaw and a swollen bruise that he explained as a fall down the stairs.
His face crumpled and the urge to reach my hand across was almost overpowering. Yet he returned to my gaze and calmly recollected further incidents. The calm, careful recollections, offered without elaboration or excuse would have electrified the media but he knew the cost of disclosure.
‘Why do you want to know all this? How did you know?’
My eyes appraised him carefully.
‘I’ve had my suspicions and my concerns for a while now, Steve. What’s important for the both of us is what I intend to do next.’
He took the glasses off, a frightened, wounded look in his eyes and the fading, yellowing bruise around his left eye.
‘Will it stop her?’
‘Then I’m in.’