Chapter 1: New Year
Spencer Griffith has already died once, according to SGC legend. It's the kind of award that holds real merit, although he walked away from the experience with fewer scars than he'd brought. There's nothing for him to show for it but another batch of oak leaves on his Purple Heart and smooth, unblemished skin.
He didn't truly die, but he doesn't tell them that. At least, he doesn't think he did, but he can't remember the last minute or two before being lowered into the sarcophagus. He remembers burning, remembers his skin sliding from his face, remembers going blind because the last man he was sent to kill got fucking clever and went for the acid, but not light, not peace—just panic and disbelief. He's not asking for a personal visitation from Jesus Christ Himself, but he'd like to think he would have felt something, if he'd really died and been brought back to life. Instead it's a little easier to think he just came close to it, and let everyone else think what they will.
Nobody asks for specifics, after all. Nobody's that stupid.
When he comes back to Cheyenne Mountain for his second tour he's ready for it this time. None of two years ago, running on adrenaline and bravado and confidence and fear. It feels like that's all been scoured out of him, moved past for better things, like a pair of broken-in boots. He doesn't fumble his way through a page of hieratic and the dark places in his mind don't curl in on themselves in fright when he goes toe to toe with a goa'uld.
They did six months ago. They did before he almost died on the early cusp of summer, on the op the books say went right. He wouldn't have noticed the differences, then and now, except he's had six months' respite: four months in a golden summer and glorious fall of DC, sat down in General O'Neill's Pentagon pit of clever girls and boys expected to churn out miracles before they broke for lunch, and then two months in the petulantly dank Pacific Northwest in a panel van lined with computers, feeding information and orders into his operatives' ears while his brother oversaw tactics from the ground.
And after the events that had landed him in the sarcophagus the first time, he'd felt a real retributive joy in sinking his teeth into Ba'al's sticky fingers before he and Skipper went home to North Carolina for Christmas. It was Ba'al's laboratory he'd lost his face in. That alien gets to live on Earth—gets to be the fucking dark horse entry onto the Forbes 500, if he wants—but if he puts one toe past the line Spencer nearly died to draw, then he is going to goddamn pay for it.
Christmas was its own kind of interesting. His family was the same loud, fiercely loving, occasionally overwhelming mass of humanity that turned Aunt Sassy’s rambling ten-bedroom house on Black Mountain into a circus tent. Christmas was the season of the flying hug for everyone back from deployment and counting the hours until their flight touched off again. It meant so many relatives to buy Christmas presents for they employed a rotating lottery to keep things sane and well-distributed. It involved, predictably, not talking to his father any more than he had to so as to maintain their mutual fiction that the ugly fight they’d had last summer didn’t exist, and spending an afternoon in the woodshop telling his uncle everything. He’d had to coax his cousin Matt’s girlfriend out of hiding with the lure of turkey sandwiches and the assurance that the whole family did like her, they just had a Southern way of showing it.
There had been six babies, eight toddlers, and twenty-two children under the age of ten. He wasn’t blood-related to even half of them, but that didn’t keep them from all being family.
Most of the Christmas presents he finally gets around to unpacking in this apartment full of cardboard boxes are little housewares to round out life’s comforts, since it’s general knowledge that he’s staying put for a while in Colorado: Cam says their adoptive aunt Sam says General O’Neill says he’s reassigning Spencer and Skipper together to wink-nudge-don’t-ask in Colorado Springs, but for ease of conversation, we’ll say “NORAD”.
(It made the hair on the back of his neck stand up, as an intelligence man, when Elizabeth’s boyfriend Paul, a Marine and relative jackass, overheard this and asked casually, “Deep-space radar telemetry?” The SGC’s cover is cracking, badly. People like Paul without security clearances started to notice years ago just how many combat-experienced servicemen and women who came out of such an innocuous posting with haunted expressions. Thankfully Skipper had shot back, “Nah, we look after Santa the whole rest of the year,” and the moment had passed.)
He has to shake his head and smiled over great-aunt Sophia’s pillow shams. “In case you have… company, in your bedrooms,” she’d faltered, embarrassed by her concession to modernity. They were such an awkward tangle, her and Spence and Skip; she was too shy to teach strange children, but she’d seen her great-nephews through nearly a decade of piano lessons. Some years, they were the her only audience. She would never, never stop despairing that they weren’t the gentlemen she hoped, but she'd also written him during the fight with his father and said she’d heard some terrible things, but knew that he’d been raised right and should remember he had his family to rely on, and that blood was thicker than water.
Family. God help them all.
They space his field assignments out with tedium. Sure, there are the months when he's undercover in enemy territory and his tactical decisions will decide the fate of the Galaxy, and that's always fun, but they're balanced by a lot of quiet. The better ones involve him running an op when someone else is on the ground, or mean sometimes he gets sent for training and comes back speaking three new Jaffa dialects and knowing how to hotwire an al'kesh in case he needs to hijack a spaceship, but if he wants to be promoted he's got to look at the bigger picture. Which means tedium.
Most days of the week his once and future CO, Major Maricelli, sits with him every morning for a brief and leaves a little work on his desk—the minutiae of the SGC's intelligence operations are agonizing. They control thousands of informants on hundreds of planets; about half those informants are further connected to further networks of espionage or crime. These are handled by about a company of field agents—one of which, they tell him, Spencer at least theoretically doubles as—who report back up the chain to supervisors and analysts, which is the job he's tackling now. The buck stops at Colonel Ross for the uniforms, and CIA Deputy Director Johnson for the suits. He's at just the right place in the hierarchy to bottleneck the flow of information, since Maricelli is making him deal with the day-to-day requests for supply and support, which he can refuse as he chooses; it's his analyses of field reports that get collated into the briefs the people who set long-term strategy.
That, or he gets slotted into operations middle management, which is just where rubber meets the road.
It stopped being SGC policy years ago to invite alien dignitaries back to Earth. Earth's Gate address is, by now, the kind of secret anyone in the galaxy can buy if they know the right people, though the IDC market has withered, choked out by countless fakes. Gate teams almost always come through the Alpha or Charlie sites now before rerouting to Earth, and reaching either of those without a GDO means Gating to a planet whose address you can't buy for love nor money and navigating a small fortress that will keep you securely held and dials out for you, to tell Alpha or Charlie that someone's lost and wants to come home.
This bothers some of the planets they deal with, especially ones that have strong ideas about what being neighbors means, but letting aliens run over to Earth for a cup of sugar's on nobody's to-do list. Part of how they make up for it is making Charlie as homelike as possible, full of fields of test crops and semi-permanent military housing; it's the same thing they do to Atlantis, to make it seem that this is home—the word "colony" dances in the margins of their treaties. On red-letter days Charlie pulls out everyone in dress uniform and parade formation. Spencer doesn't mercilessly mock the Gate officers who haven't worn their Class As in years, but Skipper does it for him: at the Pentagon it was generally known that if General O'Neill had to wear the damned things, so did everyone under him. You could always kind of tell the man only put up with them in the vain hope that someday, he'd find an excuse to strangle someone with his tie.
Of course, Skipper's in Gate Greens, since his company is under orders to be the animals in the dog-and-pony show. His gloating is shameless and Spencer has already smacked his head once, before they even Gate out. Today they are ritually sealing a bargain with the five leading nations of P9R-331 through 334, who have managed to wrangle leadership of a third of Camulus's late domain. There are more than two thousand people on base, and Earth's contingent is slightly outnumbered by the Ganama'as, E'eska, At, Selta'ac and Padri delegations.
Skipper gets to spend three tedious hours standing to one side of the valley where everyone has gathered to see the ritual supper and treaty-signing; Earth has managed to balance out the nations' leaders, heirs, immediate siblings and scribes with IOA delegates, generals, congressmen, senators, and the Prime Minister of Russia. His unit will be called on later in the day to drill, then compete in games of "strength and cunning" with a Padri army unit of tretonin-powered humans.
Spencer gets assigned to event security.
Event security, here, means his command center receives video and audio pickup from the southern part of temporary housing for their offworld guests, who are camping in a meadow. He walked the ground both before and after they moved in. The pipes and cables that supply water and light to the area (which their guests think are absolutely delightful) also carry fiber optics back to HQ, giving them stable surveillance of the area. They also have agents on the ground, whose information streams straight back. Most of his people do nothing more than watch those pickups for anything interesting, though three are dedicated to liaise with other rooms that monitor different areas, and the overarching base security command.
By the end of the third hour of the ceremony, where they have all watched a few dogs wander through the deserted encampment, he's about to suggest someone break out a deck of cards. But if he does, these people don't know him like his last team and won't roll their eyes and go back to work. They're not gonna. They're all heading separate ways tomorrow. And his hands twitch a little, because he can suddenly see his last CO in a field command—not an officer except in all the ways that mattered—shuffling a battered deck, endlessly, as a way of making mental noise. Keeping his hands busy. There's a trick to coding ciphers that needs nothing more than a deck of cards, but takes far more effort to decrypt without knowing that sequence. Two hundred and seventy-five encrypted characters brought him into that mission, and the last time he saw those cards before they blew the whole thing sky-high he'd marveled for just a second. On such fragile things are empires broken.
To the yoke, if nothing else.
He files three incident reports that night. One rowdy contest threatened to spill over into the west quadrant, and a shouting match started before the MPs got there. One fight ended in fifteen seconds, before anyone else could come close. Towards the end of the night they spotted someone on the monitors who turned out to be drunk and passed out; people on the ground got her turned on her side and covered with a blanket.
"Honor and glory," Skipper says the next day, when they're both changing into civilian clothes before riding the elevator to the surface. He still smells a little of smoke. "That's our life."
"I got another papercut," Spencer says with a grimace.
Ann schedules all her six-month checkups the week after New Year's, before classes start. Her extraction was actually sometime in April, but the SCG hadn't moved her back to Earth until June and her doctors count the months by the first date in her chart, not her own personal calendar.
Not that she knows the day they took the snake out of her head. The Tok'ra don't use any measure of time that makes sense to her, so it took some numb, mindless stretch of bites of food and sleep and tears (somewhere between three days and a week) before someone from Earth came and got her, and took her back to the Alpha Site. That was April 26, 2008.
In the time that elapsed between November 19, 2003 and then, Ann has seen the destruction of seven planetary governments and system lords, because her body caused them. Athena's daughter-parasite wasn't allowed to return to Earth like the other goa'uld who infiltrated the Trust; instead she took up the weapons of an ashrak and set out to prove her worthiness as an assassin. Ann has visited—that she knows, was paying attention for, that she wrote down or drew out during debriefing and did her best to forget—more than twenty planets.
Most of her college classmates graduated in those years and moved on, seeking after-degrees in education or graphic design and selling their art in coffee shops. The last two Harry Potter books came out. Seven of the sixteen Trust operatives she betrayed to the SGC died in a raid on their safehouse in 2004; she saw four more die at her own hands when Athena ceased to have use for them. Anubis perished in a battle over the Earth's atmosphere that killed most of the 6,000-some personnel aboard the USS Nimitz and about half of the F-302 wing sent against him, and yet somehow did not shatter the Stargate program's secrecy. She lost seventy-three pounds: apparently when you're a goa'uld, discovering exciting things your first host does, like "eating" and "pooping", are pretty traumatic, so you cut down on them as much as is physically possible.
She did not celebrate any birthdays from ages 20 through 24, and still forgets how old she is. Over the 2007-08 fiscal year Earth acquired one full-time resident System Lord, which the SGC didn't tell her. Ba'al did, when she was still a snake, and she didn't read newspapers for a month after she saw him smiling out at her from one.
Her hair's grown out from the close crop she got last summer, when she chose to rid herself of years of lank and brittle growth. These days it hangs in dark buoyant waves around her face, which has filled out again. The Tok'ra kept her from going into cardiac arrest or organ failure at first, and the SGC's nutritionists have helped her get her weight back. Her eyes no longer look enormous, haunted, dark; they haven't really changed color, but she sees them as a warmer brown, now that her skin has lost its waxy pallor. Her muscles are filling her skin now. She has, more or less, figured out how to make them move without snake to prompt them, and how much weight she can lift; she's remembered how to paint and to laugh, to hug, to run, to ski, to shoot a rifle, and to have sex. She doesn't even mind the stretchmarks.
She knows when a flashback's coming on, most of the time, and can make herself sit and shiver until it's done. She's stopped hitting people who touch her when she can't see them. She sold a painting last month.
She wants to strangle the first doctor this week to pronounce her "recovered", as a warning to the rest of them. It's really not that simple.
She can laugh over it, in that awkward breaking-the-ice way over greetings as she shucks her coat. "It's a good thing you're not actually a veteran," he says wryly, sitting in his black leather office chair. "Very few of them get treatment this nice."
"I hope few of them have the same reason as me," she returns, settling into the sofa next to the magazine-rack. He only smiles again, lips closed. If you tortured this man, she thinks, he could give you the name of every prior goa'uld host the SGC maintained contact with. He has an unmarked research grant in millions of dollars, for a longitudinal study of people affected by offworld technology or organisms.
She doesn't work for the Trust anymore. She should really stop doing this kind of information collection. She's been telling herself that for months.
"According to your MRI," he says, flipping through the manila folder on his desk, "your body has absorbed the last vestigial fragments the symbiote left in your system."
"Parasite," she corrects.
He favors her with an infinitely patient look over the top of his glasses. "The goa'uld," he counters, pronouncing it all in one syllable. Goold. When she nods, he continues. "Your naquadah levels came out at forty-five micrograms. Which, not bad."
"In what sense?" she prompts. On one hand, a count above ten or fifteen is necessary for manipulating goa'uld technology; on the other, this is heavy-metal poisoning they're talking about here. "Is that 'impressive' not-bad or a 'it could be worse' not-bad?"
He smiles. "It means enough to be useful for years yet down the road, but not enough to impact your health too much. Your kidneys and liver are looking pretty healthy—if you run into trouble with those, it'll be when you're in your forties, unless you bother them too much. Try not to lean too heavily on anti-inflammatories. The rest of the risks... As you can imagine, you've got more of a tendency to conduct galvanic electricity. I can't say 'Don't get struck by lightning', though. I guess I can tell you not to find your true calling as an electrician."
"No risk of that," she says firmly.
Dr. Russ flips the page. "A great deal of the damage to your cranial nerve seems to be patched up, especially since your treatment in November, and your PT says you've got bilateral strength back up to 80% in your left arm. That sounds pretty healthy to me. You're still seeing Dr. Meyer?"
She blinks at the abrupt switch. "I'm seeing her once a month now."
"She recommends that you stay on the Ativan..." He scribbles something on the paper. "Any other concerns?"
When am I going to feel normal again? "No, I don't think so."
"Now, will you be trying to meet the application benchmarks for the Program?"
Do I want to join a Gate team with the SGC? "Ah... No. That's not in my plans."
"I don't want you to think that your prior history disqualifies you. You've got many talents that could be quite useful, you know."
"I start classes next week," she says desperately. "I seriously just... don't want to. Not until I'm good and tired of normal life. Maybe next decade."
"All right then." That gets an entire line of cursive at the bottom of the sheet, with some emphatic stroke of punctuation to end it. Then he flips the folder shut. "I think that's everything."
"Then... Thank you." They both rise, and she slides her coat under her elbow.
He offers her a strong, dry hand to shake. "See you in six months."
She recognizes the cashier at Whole Foods five minutes before it's actually her turn in line, but walks slowly forward to her doom because she refuses to pick everything up and move to the next line five tills down. That's ridiculous and cowardly. He's probably a college student, picking up shifts after class. Why, she thinks, couldn't she meet him on campus?
She is someone on campus. She's Ann fucking Marsters on campus. She was previously admin assistant regnant of the Fine Arts department. People know her. People like her, God knows why. She matters.
Here, she's a reusable bag, a head of lettuce and a bag of grapes, a pack of hamburger buns and a pair of chicken breasts, and then—she can see him look up and get it—oh yeah, she's that girl he fucked last autumn, in what she knew at the time to be a pathetically desperate incident that did not merit her a lot of self-respect.
But there was a snake crawling under my skin, and I forgot it until morning.
He smiles. It's a knowing smile, but not a smirk; it's a direct connection. Hey, my hometown girl, I remember you.
There's no response she can bring to mind that will let her come out of this on top. Flip, dismissive, or disdainful reveals (as is painfully obvious to her) a grain of insecurity at the bottom. It's probably so long with the goa'uld that makes her see ploys for dominance as signs of insecurity in power. Simpering or pathetically nice—please don't hurt me. They're both discarded instantly, because there's only one way to play this.
Which is why a smile jumps to her lips. It feels dazzling on her face, so wide and happy. This smile is self-assured and utterly confident, and she does feel a bubble in her chest that's joy at—something, she's not sure what. "Hey," she says warmly. "Brad, right? It's been forever."
She actually never knew what his name was.
"Uh, no," he says, with that awkward polite smile. "Steve. How're you doing."
"Oh, just great," she assures him, tapping her check card on the counter, as he packs up the last of her groceries. His eyes are down on the job because he's just had a chance to rethink. I maybe do not want her to be my hometown girl. This is awkward. "I had a really great Christmas, you know. It's such a great season, right?"
"Right," he agrees, a little desperately. "That's sixteen twenty-seven, please."
She holds up the card. "Debit."
"I hope you have a good day," he says thinly, after she's punched in her PIN and he's handed over her receipt.
"Oh, you too." Joyfully, she loads the bag up onto her shoulder. "Bye, now."
She still does social rounds with her mother, partly out of guilt. She still can't explain where she was when she was "dead" for the last five years; she'd very nearly disappeared without a trace. It still galls her that she'd made up her mind to change sides, she'd left a packet of information about the Trust and its people with a Gate officer—one of her black sketchbooks left on Dave Dixon's coffee table after babysitting his kids one evening—and the next day the Trust had scooped her up and made her disappear. If they'd only waited, maybe a few hours more…
All she can tell her mother is that she was "involved in espionage" related to Air Force technology, got kidnapped, was rescued, and spent time in hiding in an American military installation before coming home. When Yvonne asks her why she got involved in the first place, she can only shrug and say, "I was a teenager. Someone told me the Air Force was doing something bad, and using Dad's old friends to do it. It turned out I couldn't say no."
So she makes her apologies by meeting her mother more or less weekly, whether Yvonne comes into the Springs for coffee or Ann drives out to Cripple Creek for dinner. She even consented to a two-week trip over the winter holidays, to visit friends in Berlin and family in Mainz. Eventually she's going to put her foot down about being micromanaged, but her guilt about being dead for five years (for all her mother knew, at least) is still pretty strong.
She comes along when Yvonne wants to show pictures of their Christmas trip in Germany to old friends of the family, but escapes outdoors in short order with the daughter of the house. Ann and Kelsey Carnadine are the same age, just off by a month; Ann lived with Kelsey's family the two years she was in college, but underage, while Kelsey was in high school. The Carnadine farm is hardly fifteen minutes out of the Springs, an easy drive, while Cripple Creek is an hour away up in the mountains. Living with friends was Ann's teenage concession to her mother's worry. She'd originally wanted to make early admission to a college out East, or in Europe; the University of Colorado Springs kept her closer to home.
Of course, once she'd left UCS to spend a year in Berlin at the Universität der Künste the Trust had picked her up and sent her home to spy, so maybe Yvonne had been on to something after all.
Kelsey was one of the first friends to call her when she got back to Earth last summer, and the only one who hasn't asked a dozen little probing questions about where she'd been. "I'm curious," she says now and again when the topic comes up, "but if you could tell me and you wanted me to know, you'd do it."
No, instead she'd just grafted Ann back into life, even when Ann was too weak from the goa'uld to walk six blocks. She'd sit Ann in a kitchen chair and make her peel apples while she cooked, or perch her on a feed bin in the barn while she roached her beloved horses' manes, and carefully not cater to her friend's delicate state. She did celebrate when Ann felt well enough to ride, because to Kelsey horsemanship and health are synonymous, but otherwise lets Ann decide what parts of her recovery deserve attention.
So as they walk the path of packed snow from house to barn, Kelsey supplies the talk. Her city-job's in commercial real estate at a law firm, which is always full of stories wonderful and weird, though she seems to like the work. Ann never thought her friend would go to law school when they grew up together; thought Kelsey would be like her brother and want nothing more than the farm. There just isn't money in the kind of farming Kelsey cares about, though, so she'd picked a legal career to fund her equestrian habit. Small world: Alec Coulson just landed a few million dollars in military contracts that require Coulson Aviation to have a Colorado Springs base of operations, and Kelsey just got handed the Coulson Aviation account to seal the land deal. Then the Air Force gets their planes, CA gets their money, and Kelsey gets to spend fifty thousand dollars on a mare with impeccable bloodlines.
It works for Kelsey. She does work she's good at but doesn't deeply care about and lives her dream on the weekends. It's a split Ann's glad she'd never had to make with her art. She'd gone into university at sixteen already knowing she could make five digits off a single painting. Sure, the market value of her work's dropped considerably, but she has been out of the game for a while.
"What're you doing for your birthday?" Kelsey asks, as they reach the paddock next to the barn. One of the horses comes over to nose them hopefully and let them stroke his fuzzy winter coat.
"I don't know? It's the Saturday before classes start, so I didn't want to plan something huge."
"Kevin reminded me," Kelsey says, paying more attention to the horse than Ann, "that we missed your twenty-first."
Ann winces. "I missed yours too."
"Well, he recommended that we take you out and get you drunk to make up for it. Go out to one of the town bars, Murphy's or Hank's or the Royal Tavern." Ann looks over at her sidelong for a minute. "Listen, I know you've been to your fancypants wine tastings and gallery openings where everyone gets smashed on Stoli. I am offering to take you to a real, genuine dive, bad music and sticky tables, whisky and beer. An American tradition. Who's done that for you, huh?"
"All right, no one," Ann smiles. She doesn't mind Kevin weaselling in; his girlfriend took all his friends in the breakup, and he's leaning just a bit on Kelsey to get back on his feet socially. "You'd better be prepared. This is five years of birthday we're making up for. I'm holding you responsible in advance for the consequences."
"Knew that," Kelsey says and climbs down from the fence. "It'll be great. You'll see."
Chapter 2: Yeah, Me Too
They spend an hour drinking beer while Kelsey does Ann's hair. The beer doesn't hurt the work at all—she feels like she looks like a million bucks—and they're laughing against each other when they follow Kevin out to the car. She feels good enough to climb a mountain and confident enough to face the world, a friend at her back and the patient boy driving the car and drinking soda water.
Tonight, she's gonna dance.
"Okay, fuck this," Skipper says. "Let's go out."
Spence looks up from his email. "Hm?"
His twin flips the dishtowel through the handle on the oven door. "Since when did we turn into losers who stayed at home on Saturday nights?"
"You came down with a plague, Skip. And I didn't sleep until Wednesday."
His brother never whines. It's a rule. So what he's doing isn't whining. "But that was the beginning of the week, Spence. It's Saturday now. I am fucking sick of this workaholic routine. I'm never home Saturdays. I say we go out and have some fun before something new tries to destroy the world and we get stuck working again."
Spencer studies his twin from over the laptop's screen. Skipper's right, a little; for all the coolness of their work, his unit gets stuck with the crappy shifts, the ones that don't fit Earth-time. It doesn't so much matter if you get seventy-two hours of leave if they're from Tuesday to Thursday; that's the kind of time you use for boring things, like going to the bank and shopping for groceries.
Okay, no. Skipper's right. They've been go-go-go for the last month or two. Close up mission, debrief everybody's uncle, go to Christmas, hug everybody's uncle, retrain retrain retrain, and back to the SGC in record time. They haven't had an actual weekend out since Skipper got back six months ago, and that one had spectacularly sucked; they're just lucky they aren't banned from the entire chain of hotels. But since then they've been sliding perilously close to Responsible Adulthood, which has none of the glories promised on the recruitment posters.
"If we run fast enough," he says, shutting his laptop, "we could be into Mexico before they catch us."
"Ship'd pick us up," Skipper grumps.
He's right, goddammit. Prometheus is in orbit, and they're both traceable through a subcutaneous chip. Kind of like dogs. "Well, that just takes all the fucking spontaneity out of things." He laces his hands and stretches them over his head, hears something pop faintly. He refuses to get old. "I need to go get changed. Where are we going?"
Hank's is a good middle-of-the-road place; you can have a conversation without shouting over the music, and they run pool tables in the back. A slower crowd than they'd find at a club, older and a little country. Where you'd go for a party, not just a pickup. Skip doesn't want to go wild—just get out of the house a little.
They start the night off with a bourbon from the bar, then look around. Skipper insinuates himself into a game of pool. They need to do this more often, now he actually feels like going out. He didn't have much time with the cousins in Asheville, and he got less leave this year than last (having committed the dangerous crime of making himself useful—possibly indispensable—to his superiors), so he's actually out of practice and has to remind himself that he's not here for intel, he's not here to make contact, he's just here to... have a drink, stop his internal monologue about how he can't stop internally monologuing, shake his head, and ask the brunette at the end of the bar if she'd like to dance.
She does. She chews gum the entire time, dances in the kind of swaying rotation that results from one of you not knowing the two-step, and goes back to her friends at one of the tables. He turns to another girl on the floor, just in passing, but she turns him down with a wave and a smile and ducks out for the ladies'. He brings the second beer he buys down to Skipper, who learned billiards from Aunt Sam and therefore buys the next round with his winnings.
The next best thing to not thinking is to just watch the people swirl around him and not think too hard. There's a guy at the end of the bar drinking alone, practically nailed to his stool; the crowd watching a hockey game on the single TV screen; the pair of girls, blonde and brunette, who hit up the bar for whiskey, with a sulky kid trailing after them. One of the girls catches him looking, and he finds himself smiling back at her; her smile looks almost involuntary, like she's having such a good time it jumps out of her into full brilliance and she can't help it. Then she turns with a little bounce to hear something her friend says, her black ringlets bobbing around her head, then looks back at him when she gets her shot and throws it back. She's wiping her mouth when he walks up, because he can, because why not; all he has to do is say, "Dance?" and she extends a hand to him. (Her friend looks sidelong at his brother. He'll leave Skipper to his own devices.)
This is easy. This is known. She can two-step, for the last ten seconds of the song, and she steps deliberately close when something slower starts up, that happy energy vibrating off her. There's only an inch between them. She's almost the same height, her breath ghosting over his ear when she leans in. "Come here often?" she asks.
"Less than I'd like," which was more than true. He's close enough to smell the stuff in her hair, and past that, the scent of some perfume; she knows how to follow a lead, and she has not got the least problem with how close they are. He huffs, for a moment, something that's almost a laugh.
He feels her tense just a second before he hears raised voices at the bar; she saw it happen over his shoulder, two men standing toe to toe, the sulky kid and someone else; the friend his partner was drinking with has got a hand over her mouth in alarm.
"Shit," his girl says and steps around him, not even moving her gaze. "That's her brother. Excuse me." She pushes her way through people to the bar, where tense words are obviously snapping back and forth, pauses for a second to watch. When the second man moves to punch the kid, she darts in like a snake, pulling his fist down and sending hers into his jaw.
Colorado girls, he thinks wonderingly at the swift economy of that movement, the guy she punched reeling back. I thought they only made them like that at home. And the bouncer's just five feet away and she's got the kid saying something, distracting her, and the other guy just shoves her back.
And that, boys and girls, is why you shouldn't barfight in stilettos. She stumbles back once but can't catch herself in time, skidding on her heel, and topples straight back, and her head bounces off the concrete floor with an audible crack.
Then everyone else moved at once. The bouncer gets one fighter, Skipper sneaks in and puts a friendly hand on the sulky kid, and Spencer and the blonde reach the girl on the floor at the same time.
"Don't touch her," he says, but she's got a pulse. He breathes easier when it jumps, feather-light, across his fingers. He can't see blood, at least not yet.
"God. Ann," her friend says. Someone useful in the crowd was already on the line with 911 when the hand he's holding twitches a bit, and—Ann's—eyes crack open.
"Can you squeeze my hand?" he asks, over her friend's exclamation of thanks, and she does. She can sit up, slowly, and two of them help her to her feet.
"Kevin," her friend says, "go get the car. We're gonna take you to the hospital, honey." Spencer gives up his place to her, and the two of them slowly walk Ann out.
"What was that about?" the bouncer says, who's circled back after evicting the other guy.
"Don't know," he murmurs. "Don't know her. I was dancing with her, and I have EMT training."
He survives the examination by steely eye and turns back to the bar. "Violence ruins everything," Skipper says, laconically. Then he pulls out a little blue clutch and turns to the bartender. "She forgot this. Her friend dropped it when she went to help."
To which the barkeep says, "The one who hit him?"
"Yes. It's hers."
"Give it to me," the bartender says, making a snatch, "and I'll burn it." He fails to pull it out of Skipper's hand. "Or hold it hostage until she doesn't sue us."
"I'll keep it," Skipper says, in his best I'm-being-reasonable voice. "You don't want fighting. I get it." The guy waves them off in disgust.
"Gosh," Skipper drawls. "Guess you'll just have to track it down and give it back to her."
A brief check of the freezing parking lot yields nothing, but there's a cellphone in the clutch. He makes sure the ringer's on. His twin is utterly guileless and refuses to admit he's baiting, but Skip can read him like a book, and it does not take a genius to realize Spencer—has a type. A type that tends to move girls with guts and claws a little higher up the list of people he wants to know.
He had a deep, enduring teenage crush on a woman who blew up a sun, okay? It's not his fault.
In the quiet of the car Ann swallows and says, "Where are we going?"
"Penrose Hospital?" Kelsey asks her brother, who nods.
She licks her lips, fighting the pain resonating though her head like an endlessly ringing gong. "Academy."
"The Air Force Academy?" Kelsey turns around in her seat to look at her.
"Yeah. Their hospital has all my files."
She sees Kevin and Kelsey share a look; in the end, Kevin shrugs and changes lanes.
The upside of a military hospital is she can't be the only person who came in tonight drunk and reeling from a barfight. She has to wear her heels because of the snow, so Kevin and Kelsey prop her up, one on either side, and guide her carefully to the reception desk. There she realizes, staring at the nurse on-duty, that she doesn't have her purse. She doesn't have ID. She can't prove she's supposed to get treatment here.
"Serial number?" the nurse says briskly.
"I'm civilian," she manages. "Can you—look me up or something? I'm Dr. Russ's patient. I come here every—"
"All right." The woman cuts her off and starts clicking rapidly on her computer. "I'm gonna need some personal information."
They leave her in an examining room forever, as if to punish her for losing her purse, which Kelsey locates by calling Ann's cellphone. But she keeps the ID tag that gives her access to Secured Medical in her car. So she doesn't have that anyway. Kelsey relays over the phone that Ann doesn't need her purse right away, and arranges a pickup for tomorrow.
Ann curls up on the narrow bed, leaving her shoes on the floor. The piercing turns into a throb if she closes her eyes. Kelsey tries to play a word game, to keep her awake, and she wants to tell Kelsey to shut up. Kevin just paces.
It's a simple concussion, the first doctor says, but she isn't allowed to leave. Once she goes, Ann announces that she's going to puke and throws up in the little garbage can Kelsey lifts up for her. This room doesn't have anything more convenient. She only does it the once, getting most of the alcohol out of her stomach. It tastes awful. Her stomach doesn't do anything about the rest of it except bitch. She hopes the rest stays down and sits on the bed with her back to the wall, knees drawn up to her chest.
The second doctor is the neurologist who worked on her cranial nerve repair last fall. He looks at the chart, looks at her, looks at the Carnadines; says, "I need to be alone with my patient, please." Kelsey looks at Ann, Ann looks at Kevin, Kevin looks at the floor. Ann nods. They leave her alone and the doctor closes the door.
Same old routine, pulling her eyes open and trying to tell what's drunk and what's concussed. He's writing things down on a page that still has notes from their last appointment. "Ever been concussed before?"
"Three or four times," she says. "When I was a teen. Got thrown off my horse. Knocked down in basketball. Once when I was a kid."
"Okay." She focuses on her knees while he writes that down. Then he runs through her reflexes, hands and knees and eyes and jaw and of course she gets dizzy when she tries to focus on something moving back and forth. She just feels sick, and is only vaguely glad that he can't see anything unusual. She has to come back when the concussion's done with and get re-examined. He tells her to go back to PT, of course. PT is his answer for everything.
She's allowed to leave, so Kevin goes to get the car. As Ann drinks the bottle of water Kelsey hands her, an orderly pops in with the pair of disposable sandals Kelsey wheedled him into getting from an exam room. She holds her stilettos by the heel and shuffle-steps to keep the sandals on her feet; this way she doesn't have to walk outside barefoot. It's cold and frosty, but there's only the barest coating of snow in the city.
"What was that about?" Kevin asks in the car.
Ann has to stir herself out of a reverie. "What?"
"You have to go to a special hospital? We have to leave the room? What was that?"
She tries to think of an answer. Then she gets distracted by the pounding in her head. The car turns a corner, and it occurs to her that she didn't answer his question. "I can't think of anything to say that's not a lie." Because she can't think of something slick, and she gets a sense in the way her shoulders hunch that it's not just that. She's not motivated to think of a lie. She doesn't want to lie.
"There's a lot you can't say," Kelsey cuts in.
"Yeah," Kevin agrees, heavily. "There's a lot you're not saying."
He's getting pissy about this? Part of her tries to be outraged, and part of her tries to say, yes, I'm sick of this too. She takes deep breaths, "Because it's not like I'm under a nondisclosure agreement or anything."
"And you don't mind reminding us. It's not like you're James Bond."
"No. James Bond was good at his job." Why that little bit of venom slips out... oh, move on. Her head hurts. She's injured and she's tired and there's alcohol playing with her head. She's not supposed to feel bad about herself. It's her birthday. And Kevin Carnadine can just deal with it. "If you've got a problem, you didn't have to come. It's my birthday. So just... stop being an ass."
"Kevin," Kelsey says, and there's a moment of silence. They probably had brother-sister moment, Kelsey as wise girl and peacemaker and caretaker. Kevin's always angry.
God, is part of this about her stepping in to his fight? When she tries to remember it, it's all kind of hazy, but Kelsey says it was one of his ex's friends being an asshole. And it would be typical for him to resent someone who kept him from bleeding to death internally.
Kevin lets it drop, says quietly to Kelsey, "You're gonna stay with her tonight?"
"Yeah," Kelsey agrees. "Can you and Dad bring my car in the morning?"
"Okay." And then he lets it drop.
Kelsey lets her sleep in two-hour patches until morning. Ann's head still aches when she showers, while Kelsey picks up her purse, but it's not as vicious.
At nine in the morning she picks up the phone, like a good little soldier, and phones her PT.
"Jesus, Spencer," Skipper says, bright and cheerful and disgusting. "You layabout. It's already ten o'clock."
Thank God the lights aren't on. They'd found another bar, and the next one had people they hadn't seen since the Academy. It had gotten... out of hand. "Sleeping till noon," Spencer announces, slightly muffled by his pillow.
"Oh, no you're not." Skipper moves in and sets a glass on his nightstand, then parks his ass on the foot of the bed and bounces a few times. "Sloth begets all other vices."
He actually can't burrow any deeper into his bedding. Damn. "I hate you."
"No, you don't," Skipper carols. "Hold out your hand."
When he deigns to stretch out his hand, two aspirin are pressed into his palm; then Skipper bounces up again and pulls clothing out of the closet and throws them on the bed.
He risks a peek at the room, which is still dim, and sits up and swallows the aspirin.
"You look almost green," Skipper says gleefully.
"No, you idiot, that only happens to you when you're hung over." He downs the rest of the water in one gulp and thrusts the glass back for what he knows will be a refill.
"So glad to see you back among the living," Skipper says, and slaps his brother's knee. "Come on. Get dressed. We'll be late for church."
After coffee, church and brunch, Spencer feels a little more human. They tag-team the weekly duty calls (Aunt Sassy, Uncle Cam; home is out) and it's Skipper's turn to put dinner together. He's just sitting down on the living-room couch when something occurs to him and makes him go back to the front closet. The little slip of paper he put in his jacket has a number he has some reasonable excuses for needing, so he takes the phone out of its cradle in the kitchen and sits at the living-room desk.
The phone rings three times before she answers. "Hello?"
"Hi there," he says, something foolish already making him smile "Ann?"
There's a confused pause. "Yes?"
"I'm sorry to bother you. My name's Spencer Griffith—I was at Hank's last night. I wanted to make sure you got your purse back."
"Oh." And she pauses again. When she speaks her voice sounds more focused, less muzzy, and she's traded the wariness for something a little more friendly. "Yeah, I did. Kelsey brought it by this morning. Uh, thanks for taking care of that. I appreciate it."
"Sure thing. I hope your head's all right."
"Oh, well. You know. There's the headache, and the nausea, and the not being able to sleep... it's a gas."
"Yes, but you should see the other guy."
She chuffs a tiny laugh. "Um. Spencer... I feel really embarrassed for saying this, but I don't, um, remember you. The, uh, concussion... it's all a bit of a blur. It's not personal, okay?"
"Retrograde amnesia," he says. "I know. And. Well, I guess that makes things really awkward now, since I was calling to see if you wanted to go out for coffee sometime." Another pause. "Look, I'm sorry. I'll stop bothering you. I just wanted to make sure you were all right, and I'm glad you got your bag back."
"Are you in the habit of asking out girls who get knocked out in barfights?"
"Well," he drawls, "No. But there is a lamentable lack of that kind of thing these days, don't you agree?"
She laughs again. "Um," she says softly. "I don't know, when are you free?"
When he hangs up he goes back to the kitchen, whistling, and replaces the phone. Skipper looks up at him, one eyebrow raised, then just shakes his head and goes back to work.
The phone rings while they're eating dinner. Skipper hits SPKR without even pausing to swallow. "Hello," Spencer says
"Good evening there, Spencer," their father answers. "Your brother around?"
Skipper's done with the mouthful. "Caught us both at the table for once."
"Well, it's nice to hear you're having a good sit-down meal for once." Pizza, Spencer mouths; short for Pizza, hookers, and beer, which Skipper'd once told Ash were their biggest expenses, except then Dad had heard it, and, well, it'd all gone south even if they'd mostly fixed it up by now. But he's never easy about them "We were down having supper with your Aunt Ellen today; just got back to see you'd called."
"How's Aunt Ellen doing?" Skipper puts his fork back into his pasta. "She on her way to getting all fixed up?"
"Well, her splint won't come off soon, but the new nursing home staff are treating her pretty well, so no regrets there. Of course her son's convinced they're going to poison her food, and bless him for wanting to take her in, but you know she can't stand Alice May's housekeeping, so that would end in blood and tears."
"Not necessarily," Spencer points out. "So far as I recall, Aunt Ellen broke her shooting arm, didn't she?"
Their father laughs softly. Spencer sticks the rest of the green beans in his mouth.
They rehash the rest of the week's news—most of it they've already gotten from Cam and Aunt Sassy, though their father is more likely to take Uncle Carter's side about Jessie's new job, and can explain why Aunt Emma was currently being icily polite to Aunt Cindy.
"I'm sure you boys've got plans for this week, too," he finishes with. And he always just—has to pry, just a little bit, like he's still waiting for them to let him in on the secret.
"Spencer's got a date this week," Skipper contributes. Spencer's mouth is full of bread at that exact moment; he shoots his twin a look of betrayal.
"Yeah? Well, I hope it goes well. You know I don't like how light you boys are with your affections."
No, Spencer doesn't say, chewing, instead I should marry some nice Appalachian girl I only see every two years, have some children who forget who I am, and die on them before I turn forty. He takes an extra moment to take a drink of water to try to ease the sting before speaking; it wasn't worth fighting over. If the past year has taught him anything, it's that nothing is worth fighting over with his father.
"Well, Dad, only way to see's to go out with her, right?"
They have a moment of quiet, where both of them wait to see if the other's going to start a fight over it.
"Well, how about I put your stepmother on."
"Sure thing," Skipper says. "Good night, dad."
One of the problems with having five years missing from her life is that those years were supposed to contain normalcy. The time to mature and catch up on all the weedy, irregular growing she’d done as a teenager when she was fucked up and insecure and way too young for her college classes. This will be her third real date, the social definition of a date, a prearranged meeting in a public place for the purposes of negotiating sexual behavior. (She used to make those observations, tart and off-kilter and painfully self-conscious, when she was five years younger than everyone else at the party and they were all way more experienced.) She’s just fucked people who were there, who paid her attention, who made her an offer that seemed attractive. She’s had painfully intense friendships that meant three-am phone calls and ten-page letters that always stopped short of something seriously physical.
Her last attempt at a relationship had gone up like the Hindenburg and she and Jen don’t do much more than drop comments back and forth on Facebook these days, and only that much because Jen understands it’s not personal, but May and June of last year had been the epitome of a bad time.
Someone asked her a couple months ago. A guy who kept coming by her desk at the Fine Arts office and waiting awkwardly for her to get off the phone before making small talk. It was probably a sign of maturity, or returning sanity, or intellectual self-preservation, that kept her from even thinking about saying yes. Dr. Meyer's hobbyhorse is the combination of gut instinct and rational articulation of feeling, which frankly isn't her strong suit—but she knew she never wanted to see that guy again, and her boss has backed her up. He wasn't even an arts student.
One success: with an arts grad, before Christmas. Someone she'd gone to school with at sixteen, and slept with at sixteen. It left her feeling a little more whole after the fuckups with Mr. Whole Foods, the ones where she'd only been half-there; he'd been funny and respectful and left for a fellowship in New York a week later. It's a memory she gets to keep, like his last souvenir of Colorado Springs. She wishes him well.
And now? It’s kind of like when they’d handed her a new driver’s licence last year and meant it when they said she could drive home. She’d succeeded then, but not for lack of a high statistical chance of failure. But this wouldn't be the first time she's wrapped herself around a tree, raw and naked. So she has pretty much no clue as to whether she can do this or not. All signs point to maybe.
"Kelsey," Ann says when her friend picks up, "do normal people bring guns on dates?"
"We-ell," Kelsey drawls out phlegmatically, "I went out with a guy once who had a rifle in the bed of his truck."
Ann closes her eyes, thankful that she hasn't weirded Kelsey out. Maybe it's on purpose that she packs things into her first line so much. Kelsey's been standing in Ann's corner since they were sixteen, but she's got this quiet streak of religious conservatism in her. She's loyal, but just a bit uncomfortable with a lot of matters pertaining to Ann's sex life. "I've just got this date and we're meeting in a public coffee shop, by my studio, and I think it's pretty safe, but his number's unlisted and I can't find him almost anywhere on the Internet, and I don't know if it's better to be safe or sorry."
There's another pause. It occurs to Ann with sudden horror that she's interrupted something. But all Kelsey says is, "Who's this with?"
"Spencer. Apparently he's the guy I was dancing with when that di—guy—started bugging Kevin. Anyway, he called me and asked me out. I don't even know what he looks like."
"Nah, I remember him. He got your purse out of the bar, so when we got you out of Emerg I dropped by and picked it up from his brother. They live down near the airport, close to where those baseball diamonds are? Tall, kinda blondish. Nice-looking."
"This is going to go so badly."
"So what do you want to bring a gun for? Got some secret plan for using it to pep up the evening?"
"For protection, maybe? I don't know. I feel so paranoid, and I never know what's justified and what isn't."
"Ann," Kelsey says patiently, "keep your cell phone charged. Don't be afraid to call me, even if you just need someone on the line because things feel weird. Wear sensible damn shoes, it's freezing out. Go out and leave your gun at home and have fun."
"What if he doesn't like me?" she blurts out. She's trying not to care—but she doesn't know how to do this.
"Then he's stupid. But trust me, a gun will not help with that."
"You never know. He liked me after I punched somebody."
"That is your department. You know karate. You figure it out."
"Okay." She draws in a deep breath and heaves it out in a sigh. "Thanks. Sorry if I... interrupted anything."
"We were just making dinner, but I'm definitely gonna have to explain this one to Mom and Dad. They're looking at me like I've lost my mind."
"Then, uh, give them my love. I'll update something about the weather to Facebook when I get home safe."
"All right. Take care."
Kelsey waits for her to cut the line. When she does, Ann takes another deep breath and sets her cell phone back down on her kitchen table.
She still wants to slide her Beretta into the holster sewn into the lining of her black wool peacoat. She does that sometimes,on days when she feels irrational and paranoid. Or rational and paranoid. It's in her coat and the clip gets stored separately in her purse, next to her concealed carry permit and an epi-pen with enough sedative to knock out a goa'uld's host.
Kelsey's right. It probably wouldn't go over well. And the snake at the back of her head, and the person who'd once drunk in her handler's careful instructions while counting her heartbeats and sighting through a scope, both whisper that her that the gun's the least useful thing in her arsenal. It's a weapon without feeling, a cold mechanism, and it can be taken away; it can be turned in her face.
You're probably safe anyway, she tells herself, shows them all. And you know how to react when you're not.
Then she goes back into the bathroom one last time to look in the mirror and touch up lipstick that doesn't need touching up. It occurs to her with a bitter pang that she's finally hit on a branch of paranoia even her mother would understand.
They meet in her territory, at the Starbucks kitty-corner and down the block from street access to her studio. The sidewalks are slightly slick with a thin layer of frost and the residue of snow that can't be shoveled away, and even though it's six-thirty the sun is nearly gone. A streetlight flickers on down the block.
Tall, blondish, kind of good-looking, Kelsey said. When she pauses at the door to scrape her boots against the mat and look around, a man unfolds himself from a table near the far wall, and she's guessing it's him.
Faces are her specialty, her party-trick; the part of her memory the psychologists hesitantly call eidetic. It only takes her a couple of minutes to press a face into her memory and call it out again at will, drawing headshots of people from her first year in college or her old basketball team. It galls her that she was robbed of the ten minutes of life before her concussion because she doesn't remember him. What she sees when he comes near is a man, between twenty-five and thirty, tall and long-limbed but with a gathered efficiency to his movements; you'd never call him lanky. Blond hair, but it's dark, shading into both red and brown, except he keeps it cut short and gelled up so the light just gives it bits of amber; expressive brows, but blond eyelashes that are almost invisible. When his face says across the coffee shop Hi, this is me, I'm coming over he does it mostly with eyes and lips, but the muscles of his face are strong and mobile. There's a black jacket folded on his seat, so his clothing is a pair of light khaki pants and a dark-blue shirt that's a dress shirt's more casual cousin. When he approaches he tilts his head forward slightly, saying, "Ann?"
This close, she can see that he's a few inches taller than her five-eleven. "Yeah," she says, and smiles, offering her hand. His feels powerful—muscled and calloused—but his grip is merely friendly. When he squeezes during the shake it's with his fingers, not his thumb, so he doesn't crush her hand. Little things that put her at ease, for a given definition of "ease".
"I was just working on a muffin before you got here," he says easily, with a smile. "Did you want to get a drink?"
Suggestion-cum-segue, as they fall into the line at the register. "Yeah, I think I'll get something."
"How's your head?"
It makes her smile, and reach up to lightly touch her fingertips to her hair. "Pretty good. I'll try not to pick up any more concussions."
'Attractive' and 'unattractive' are not categories she trafficks in and she can easily explain why, but if this man asked her to dance she'd probably say yes. In fact, she evidently did. He has a kind of self-contained poise that makes him easy to talk to.
"I know it's a bit nosy, but I have to wonder just what that whole incident was all about."
She rolls the beginning of an explanation to the front of her tongue, then thinks another moment before saying it. "Some guy was picking on my friend's brother, Kevin. I don't know exactly what the fight was about. I recognized the guy as just someone around town, I think from the rodeo circuit, who had a—who was involved in a nasty disagreement Kevin got caught up in last year. Kevin didn't say." Kevin has not, in fact, forgiven her yet. Spencer stepped up to the counter first, to order an Americano, and looked to see if she would add to his order. "Thanks, but I'm on my own." She picks a fruit infusion teabag out of the rack and orders one of the strudels in the display case; they pick up the conversation again on the way back to the table. "Kevin's a hemophiliac. It's mostly under control and he doesn't like to let it get in his way. But I just looked over and knew he wasn't in control of the whole situation. And even with his drugs, getting beat up... bruising can kill him. So I didn't even think about it."
There were a few things in his face, and she thought at the end the kind of lifted brows that meant impressed appreciation. "I have to ask—rodeo?"
"They're ranchers. Kelsey barrel races. Kevin's got a degree in agriculture."
She shrugs. "He's really big about sustainable agriculture. He works with a charity that tries to implement humane farming practices in South America."
"Ah." The syllable accepts the explanation and expresses a kind of agreement, and he stirs his coffee. "To be clear, I'm not in favor of beating up every person you meet. I'm afraid I might have given that impression."
"That's... good. I am not in favor of beating up lots of people either." It's tiring and messy; that's what minions are for. She bites the inside of her lip. "But some people are okay?"
He smiles a little sheepishly and shrugs. "It's just... I'm from North Carolina. Sometimes it's how we say hello. Where I grew up, wait until your father gets home wasn't even part of our vocabulary; you pissed off your mama or your aunt, you were getting whupped right there. Maybe I just saw you go at him and thought, that's my kind of people."
Oh, that line is deadly. Sweet childhood story; appreciation of women; compliment and forced teaming. It's absolutely melting if it's true. She peels a corner off her pastry, self-conscious. "So how'd you end up in Colorado?"
"Air Force," he says, with a wry smile, like those two words explain everything. The butterflies all land on the bottom of her stomach. There are circles in her life, winding around her like a Maypole, confluences of where she lives and who she knows and what she is.
"So, are you a pilot?" Which is a crapshoot question. He's not too tall for it, she thinks, but it's the stupid question everyone asks anyone in the Air Force, even though the pilots are outnumbered twenty to one by every other trade and specialization there is. She grew up learning that. She knows that.
"Intelligence," he answers. "Colorado Springs does a lot of analysis and remote command. I speak Arabic, so a lot of my day is going through the huge amounts of data we pull in and figuring out what's useful to the teams in the field."
"So you work out of NORAD," she says without thinking. All her brainpower went into mapping that onto a job, an assignment, a command structure; none on whether or not she should say it.
"Yeah," he says, looking startled.
"My dad was Air Force," she explains, scrambling for facts that will cover her ass. "So I ended up knowing all this useless junk, like... all the different advances in aircraft design between the World Wars. All the overseas airbases. And local units. It kind of stuck in my head."
There's something gone kind of pinched in his face, but he's being polite. "Was your dad a pilot?"
"No. I think he pretty much always did pararescue. Special tactics. Stuff like that." She pauses. "I'm sorry for calling it useless junk. I know it's not useless to you."
"Yes." His eyebrows smooth down, just a little, so that almost-blank face is deadpan, hiding crinkles at his eyes, instead of pinched. "Every day, I have to consult this little list that tells me when they phased out the biplane."
After a moment, she laughs. "When did they?"
"If I knew, I wouldn't need the list." Smiling smugly at a successful riposte in the game between them, he lifts his mug and toasts her slightly before taking a drink.
It's enough, as she wraps her hands around her tea, to make her feel okay with talking about it. "Now that I've asked you the stupid question about being a pilot, I guess my next move is to try to discuss the situation in the Middle East, because I saw all about it on the news."
His chin tilts down as he tries to understand where she's going with this. "And I bite my tongue, because I don't want to tell you how full of it the news is?"
"And then you remember that half of what you know is classified, so you excuse yourself and go to the restroom, and hope that by the time you come out again I've forgotten what we were talking about."
He grins, a broad grin that makes him look strangely undefended, like he's a wholly different person when he's happy and not on his guard. "Yeah, I've had that conversation before."
"Yeah," she agrees, letting the conversation dip into a lull.
"My cousin Ash was a PJ," he says suddenly. Another pararescueman, she knows he means. Like Dad. "They're good people."
"It's hard work," she ventures.
"Yeah." And in that tiniest moment he seems hesitant. "He died. About a year and a half ago, in Iraq."
All she can say is, "I'm sorry." Because she is. She doesn't say that her dad's dead. Died in Colorado Springs, of wounds received in action. Not doing pararescue anymore, and no longer travelling by helicopter.
He ducks his head. The conversation dies again.
Then he rescues it, with another conventional form. "What do you do?"
"I'm finishing up university, but I'm an artist. I paint." And he nods, makes a slight hm noise, but he holds off. He's holding back from the traditional forms of stupid questions she has to answer one by one; she can see him do it, and understands the agreement they just seem to have reached. "I'm lucky that I can make a living off my painting, since I have kind of a following in Germany. I'm just getting the university degree because... I'm a masochist, I guess."
"A following in Germany," he repeats. "How'd you get that?"
"Oh, my mother's German. We were living in Germany, at Ramstein-Meisenbach, and my art teacher showed a couple of my paintings to a friend of hers who ran a gallery, and I got a show. I was kind of young, so people paid attention."
She looks down at the pastry crumbs on the tabletop. It's always more awkward not to answer honestly. "Eight."
He leans back, too well-bred to whistle. "Here I thought building a cub car with a lawnmower engine was pretty impressive at eight. Shows what I know."
She shrugs, a little jerkily. If it weren't for Dr. Meyer she'd say something self-deprecating, I can't change my own oil or it's not so great, really. "I guess I'm just lucky that I kept painting. A lot of prodigies do really amazing work when they're ten, twelve, and then they hit adulthood and say, I've played the violin enough for one lifetime, I'm off to become an accountant."
"You're still passionate about it?"
"I love it," she says simply. "I'm in my studio almost every day. It's where I live."
"Good." This is another genuine smile—she could catalog his smiles. This one's pleased and sweet, and it feels like it's just for her. (It's probably been used on other women before, but a small part of her can ignore that.) "That's the hardest part, I think. Doing something you love, and you do well, not because other people think you should or say you did a good job—because it's yours."
Momentarily speechless, she blinks before raising her tea to her mouth to cover it. "Happens to you too?" she asks, breath puffing onto the porcelain rim; it's a little hoarse.
He shrugs. "I'm from a military family. I got pushed a lot to achieve really high things. It was always kind of a fight to see if I was doing something because everyone would approve, or because it's something I thought was important. It was even worse if they were the same thing, because then I felt like I was cheating myself by making them happy." New smile: lopsided. "At least I disappointed them by not being a pilot."
Her tea's cooled off, but imperfectly so; the lukewarm surface gives way to a sudden current of hotter liquid on the bottom. The fruit flavors leave a matte surface on her tongue, making it feel thick. "Yeah," she finally agrees, her voice still not up to full strength. It keeps catching. "That is the hardest part." It's ridiculous—makes her feel ashamed—that she's sitting here drinking coffee (tea) on a date and yet almost about to cry because she's never heard someone else say that before, and it's one of those moments where she's never felt truly alone right until someone else says hey, me too.
He looks a little concerned, when she puts her mug down, and hesitates before noticing it's almost empty. "Do you want another one of those?"
"Yeah," she says gratefully, and fishes for her wallet. "Just the same one, thanks." He has to fight himself before taking the pair of ones she hands him, but he does and without argument, and in the moment she likes him for it even more.
The shuttered look is gone from her face when he brings back their drinks. He gets a small smile when he sets her tea down on the table with a friendly, "Here you go," and automatically curls her hands around the mug, although her fingers hover a quarter-inch away from the hot porcelain, but he doesn't think that's a bad sign; she goes from sitting back in her chair to leaning forward slightly, putting her forearms down on the edge of the table.
"How are you enjoying our winter?" she asks.
"Better than I used to," he says with a smile, leaning back in his chair and toying with the handle of his coffee cup. Her head cocks, making her look like a bright-eyed bird. "When I first moved here, I thought I was freezing to death."
"It was a pretty rough autumn," she concedes magnanimously, as though to excuse him. He shakes his head.
"I wasn't here for it—only came back after Christmas. But I went to the Academy, and I've been posted here since then."
"Oh, then you're used to it." I can't tease you at all now, her lips say in a quick pout that's gone again in a flash.
"By now?" He laughs. "I'd better be."
It's easy in its own way to start talking about places they've been and things they've done, winter sports and regional cuisine. It helps that she's interesting, but not self-centred, that she takes cues from him and feeds visibly off his laughter but disagrees swiftly (and lightly) when she thinks he's wrong.
And she ricochets off his one slightly disparaging remark about Colorado's status as an intellectual haven (it isn't one), laughing. "I should be offended," she says, "Because I am part of Colorado's artistic and intellectual community, and it is full of better people than you know. But, for shame! even you should know Colorado was the inspiration for one of the most influential thinkers in modern Islam. Colorado changed the future. If Sayyid Qutb hadn't hated lawn sprinklers so much, we'd be living in a much different world today."
That surprises a laugh out of him, a familiar joke from years ago. She means the father of modern jihad, who'd formed his ideas of Western decadence while studying at the Colorado State Teachers College. It was a Skipper joke: warmth and outrage (better people than you know) and a sideways pluck at the things and ideas that shaped the world. Girls who made Skipper jokes were worth talking to.
"Just for that—" he says, leaning back and putting down his cup. "I'm about to start floating with all this coffee. Do you feel like hunting down a place that serves real food?"
It's a date.
She pretty much already knows she wants to sleep with him.
Normal people on normal dates don't say, "Let's skip dinner. My place or yours?" They don't. It's an irregularity, a misstep, indicates different protocols and attitudes, and right now this is a real date with its own rules. It's kind of agonizing, to watch his hands brush past his hips when he puts on his coat, beautiful hands with long, blunt fingers, calloused but not rough, and play her normal-people game.
Your heteronormative patriarchal not-a-slut game, part of her growls, with weariness. She's sacrificed a lot of her old principles at the altar of just feeling human again, given up fighting systems she can't afford to reject wholesale. She used to be able to fight the feeling of not-quite-fitting, of being slightly alien and a little outside, by throwing over enough rules until she met people who took her in and made her part of them, but right now—friends at all are thin on the ground, and she feels like a whole person right now, who fits her skin (even if it's a little overheated and tingling).
Normal-Ann goes to the Vietnamese restaurant that occupies fifteen feet of storefront (and goes thirty feet back from the front door) back down the street, towards her car. She can admit freely to herself that she's meeting Spencer in places she goes on a weekly or daily basis so someone will remember her, remember who she was with, if anything happens.
(Jen asked her once why she would bother to spend time with someone she was afraid would hurt her, when Ann wouldn't let one of the Alpha Site corpsmen into her room to borrow a book because her room only had one exit and he was a lot bigger and stronger than she was. She still doesn't know why Jen, clever Jen, Gate officer of many years Jen, didn't understand that it was because the corpsman had been in no way special: she was that way with everybody.
"But I've been in your room with you," Jen had protested. "So it's not that way with me."
"No, see, it kind of is, I mean, anybody could hurt me. But I do a risk assessment and weigh the costs and benefits and with you, at least it's worth it, you know?"
That was a week before their breakup.)
But she also knows the food and can make recommendations when he steers his way around the menu. He's kind of sweet; underneath the charm and the brains (dear god, the brains) there's a kind of eager nervousness that falls into the silences, that imbues the tendons along his wrist and thumb when he picks a utensil off the table, that lives in the tell of his eyes when he looks up at her without raising the rest of his face from the plate. He wants to impress.
She wants to tell him, Relax. This is gonna go fine.
She comes to his place for coffee. He recommends it, offers the territory, still feeling after everything like Aunt Sassy's grading his behavior: he's offering hospitality, to be a host. He puts the address into her iPhone; they take separate cars.
By the time he pulls into his parking lot, his stomach's an awkward half-lump that he can't quite address and soothe. He's been doing so well, been fighting off the feeling ever since last June that something's wrong, that his bones aren't all clicked right into place, and that's not a total dislocation but just a nagging ache as the mental cartilage grinds.
Bringing girls home used to be easy. It used to be a rush. There were giddy moments when he'd had enough audacity to ask the right questions, to spend nights knowing exactly how she would feel if he got his hands on her; he has known more good nights with good women he'd had to leave than some men have in entire lifetimes, and he's twenty-eight.
But her grey Volks pulls into guest parking and he pulls his hand out of his parka enough to wave, and all he thinks is, Griffith, don't screw this one up.
Which he does. Almost instantly, he does. He doesn't blow his cover, never would; too much professionalism for that, and if he can't pull this off he ought to turn in his commission Monday morning before briefing. But when she stands behind him on the stoop and his hand turns the key in the lock and releases the doorknob, he gets a shot of some sick dread that he's inviting her into his house, and suddenly this feels all unsafe. (You never know who isn't on your side until you're fucked.)
But she comes in with a smile and removes her shoes before he can tell her not to bother, and he makes coffee as she wanders into his living-room, fingers ghosting over the spines in the bookcase. He breathes.
"You speak Russian?" she calls, looking at him through the pass-through cut into the wall between kitchen and living-room.
"Yeah, a little," he says, "but the books are my brother's. We both did languages." Something makes him pull down one of the nice salad-plates and start laying out pieces of the shortbread Skipper made last week; probably a remnant of excessive domestic training.
"How'd you end up with them?"
"He lives here." He wanders over to the pass-through, to watch her; she stands differently, barefoot. She's still long-legged and tall and doesn't make any effort to stoop to look smaller, but on her feet she loses the swish to her walk she has in heels; her steps are light, balanced to the front of her foot, solid and sure. Dance or martial arts, he'll bet. "Out this weekend, but when we get posted together we share housing. Makes things a lot easier."
She cocks her head again, her tell for when she's interested and listening. "Older or younger?"
"Possibly both or neither," he smiles. "We're twins. There's a family portrait—" he points to the shelf over the TV, which she obligingly peers at. "The black frame in the middle."
He's putting on a gamer face than he feels, right now, because it's almost like he's accomplished something when he brings out the coffee and cookie plate on a cheap laminated-wood tray. Dates. He knows how dates go. This is a successful date. She's in his house (he asked her there) and they're drinking coffee: check, check, check, good to go, more tickmarks on the successful situation list.
It helps that he really does like her; that the gnawing pit behind his stomach feels like it could be calm—like she's a mirage. It's a precise future tense: it feels like he has the potential of being calm in her presence. All he has to do is suck it up and ignore the alarm bells ringing in his brain, the ice on his spine, when she walks past the china cabinet with its rack with the carving knife and steel right there and her hands don't pull one out but they could. He has to stop flinching when she gestures with her hands, which after all he isn't, not really. He's not physically flinching. It's just, there is a glass paperweight on the coffee table, and she could grasp it so easily, and it has so much weight...
If he keeps trying to be calm, one day he will discover he has become the person that he's trying to be. Right now: Smile. Breathe. Laugh when she says something funny, which she does. God, she's funny, maybe funnier right now than she should be; he finds himself wanting to be the kind of person who would be having the best night ever right now.
Wishes he didn't have to sit with his back to the window. His shoulders twitch when he walks by it, bringing her a second cup of coffee, and this time, smoothly, he sits on the sofa beside her instead of in the sectional to her corner, because this is a dance he knows all the moves to.
And there is the fact that she is beautiful. Beautiful, upgraded from anything else, because of the smile when he's making a joke, and she gets it before he's finished saying the words. Because of the shape of those hands, which are dangerous as anything human is dangerous; because of the hollows in her wrists. The way her collarbone curves. Her smell, something golden and vaguely floral but with a bite, a single note that makes it pointed and distinct, and not just fading away.
But especially, it's the smile.
Which disappears when she purses her lips slightly, looking at him with her coffee cup held between her hands, in a moment of pure concentration and evaluation. She's looking him over, and not flirtatiously; like she's trying to find out if he's carrying something on him, maybe.
"I really like you, Spencer," she says finally.
That sentence could sound more ominous, but she would have to be holding a knife with a look of regret. "I like you too," he says, the words forming slowly on his tongue.
"So please don't misunderstand me." She smiles again: it's the social smile. "Because I like you. You understand?"
He nods, slowly, and she gets up and walks away for a minute, like she needs the distance. He watches her make her way across the carpet, rest her hands for a moment on the counter of the pass-through to the kitchen. Then she closes her eyes briefly and turns to him, before those eyelashes flick up and he's looking into this pair of deep brown eyes, and he already knows he's been made.
"Please stop lying to me," she says, and he forgets to breathe. One of her hands flicks to the side dismissively. "I know that for your job, you can't tell me what you do, security clearance, blah. I'm not talking about that. Lying professionally happens, and I get that. But please, don't lie to me recreationally."
He was almost ready to go along with that, but he protests, "It's not recreational."
"Yeah." She tilts her head to the side. "It actually doesn't look like you're having much fun." After a beat, she continues. "I don't know why you want me to be here, but it seems—to me—that I'm making you uncomfortable, and I don't know what I'm doing. But if you need to tell me to leave, I will not be offended."
He just sits there, staring at her like he's forgotten how to look away, the breath catching at the base of his throat and his ribcage struggling to rise.
I'm not talking about that. In an instant, he's forgiven the crime under which he struggled all last summer. Lying professionally happens. Someone else has seen, has recognized, has lifted the web of lies he crafts from orders and pinned him down where he lives. It is the distinction that separates love and action, that recognizes the person under the job.
And that frees him from pretending he is having a good time.
"You neither," he says, and a brief look of confusion crosses her face. "Don't lie to me recreationally, either."
Those brown eyes are steady when she nods. "I can do that."
Can you really? He wonders, because lies are social lubricant and she likes him.
"Do you want me to go?" she asks.
Spence swallows, his tongue heavy. "No," he finally admits.
That makes her cross to him, come back, set her mug on the table and sit next to him. Her hands clasp together and her arms rest on her knees, as she slants her body ahead and turns her head to look at him from the side. "Not having a good night?"
He has to roll that question around for a little while, trying to find an answer that's true. "Had a good evening with a pretty girl," he tells her, and she answers him with a little smile, a taut encouragement. "That's pretty good."
(It's that moment when you take the lump in your throat, retch it back up onto the table; you get what's ugly out of you, and acknowledge it's there, and he can't decide what made him think she wouldn't coil back in horror except for the implicit statement, in saying anything at all, that she's already seen what it is.)
"Haven't had a really good night," he continues, "for a while. Not since last year; haven't had a night this good since last year." He takes a deep breath. "I'll lie to you professionally. I was involved in a training accident."
And she gets that; she gets what he just said. She nods. "PTSD?"
He shrugs. When that isn't enough answer (she keeps looking at him) he says, "Close enough."
She echoes, "Close enough."
And when he looks over, she's smiling at him.
She takes his hand, a sure and warm movement, and squeezes it. "You're not a hopeless case, Spencer Griffith. Or if you are, everybody is."
"Thank you, I think."
She squeezes his hand again, then withdraws; her hands press palm to palm in front of her for a minute before she breathes out, a sharp decision, and she presses off the couch. He gets up and follows her, with a small distance between.
"Tell you what," she says, moving a half-step closer; her eyes are gentle and kind and meet his entirely, even though he still feels a little stunned. "I enjoyed tonight. I'm glad I met you. And I think right now I want to leave things when they're still… comfortable, and happy. So I'll say goodnight. Thank you for the coffee. And you… you have my number, or you can find me on Facebook. Okay?"
"Okay," he says numbly, and follows her into the entryway when she slips on her shoes. He's beyond, far beyond, really processing what she just said. It's like this whole night has been full of froth, making light and happy conversation, with occasional stumbles into… stunning profundity.
Hell, he can't get over the fact that she knew he was lying.
So it's with a kind of dazed confusion that she steps up an inch or two into those heels and she's pretty much almost on a level with him; when those distracting eyes move a little closer, and he can smell the bite of her perfume, it is way too easy to lean into that kiss. Which is the first part of him to thaw, to flow, to relax; he fits his lips to hers out of reflex, so naturally, that the pleasure of movement and taste washes out all the other words he forced out tonight.
Why couldn't it just have gone like this? He thinks, despairingly, and the kiss breaks.
"Thank you," Ann says, sliding her purse over her shoulder. "I hope—" She pauses. "I had a really good time. Good night."
He holds the door open for her and watches until she pulls out, because those are the manners he was raised with.
Then he goes for his jacket and his phone, and flips it open to call Skipper.
When Uncle Everett calls on Monday Spencer leaves the dishes in the sink and flops on the armchair in the living-room. Sunday calls with his aunt are a regular fixture of his life (and the lives, he knows, of a number of children of his generation, and her sons'; Sassy Mitchell is den-mother and honorary-aunt to more people than even she knows.) Everett calls a lot less often, and usually lets the other person do the talking. Usually he keeps in touch via telegrammatic email messages with news articles attached in a document file, with his annotations and glosses included.
"Wanted to see how you're settling in," Everett says briefly. "You've got a few weeks under your belt. How's the new assignment?"
Spencer smiles, his head cocked to the side. "Too bad Skipper's not here. He's pretty much bursting for somebody to ask him that. They handed him off a new handpicked unit, his support staff are geniuses, he's even got the old Master Sergeant he worked with last year and put up for promotion early. So he's damn well over the moon. Headed out with them this afternoon to catch a transport, won't be back for a week." Everett grunts, encouragingly. "I'm pretty good. A lot more command stuff, admin stuff, home every night by six, but I think if I keep working at it, give it a little time and it'll mean something."
"Still bucking for General." It's affectionate, but not a tease. Everett was the first person who'd ever said You know, I think you can.
"Family's got to have one sometime." After all, Cam had made Colonel, and rumor had it Elizabeth had been up for Light in the fall; nothing saying she wouldn't make it. "What've you been up to?"
"Taught down at a woodworking seminar in Charlotte this weekend. I don't know but I'll run it by you: would it maybe be useful to tell a man with no legs that all your buildings and food hall and workshops are up and down half a flight of stairs to get into?"
A choked, wheezing laugh comes out of his throat. "That's got to set a record."
"Not to mention, whole workshop full of tools, not one damn tall stool or chair. What the hell kind of workshop doesn't have anything to sit on?"
Knowing that his uncle's called him up just to bitch sends a happy shock through his chest, one he treasures and is suspicious of all at the same time. That esteem, that approval, still means something to him a decade into adulthood, because he still loves this man like a father. Just the same, his actual father's taught him there's a real danger, being a grown man and putting that much weight on someone else's opinion. "What kind've excuses did they give you?"
Too familiar a conversation, when Everett runs over excuses and ignorance and martyred accommodations and the current fight to get reimbursed for the hotel room he'd had to book at the last minute. His uncle's plane had crashed before he and Skip were born, so he's always known Everett as a double amputee; to him the Black Mountain house has always had a ramp and handrails and space for a chair to roll under the counters. It feels like he'd spent more time with his aunt and uncle than his parents, childhood backed away under the years he lived in North Carolina. They were who he'd come to, as a teen, as a young man, at the age he is now. And for the rest of the family their house is where you come to convalesce, if you've just come back from overseas with bits missing or not working right anymore, and the world just isn't built for you.
He has to give them this: his family makes worst-case scenario either a lot less scary or a lot more extreme.
"Henry tells me you're up to your old tricks again."
He fights the urge to roll his eyes. The Black Mountain men's gossip mill runs a little slower than its sister-network, but it's reliable in the main. "Yes, I went on a date this weekend," he says patiently.
"How'd that go?"
How'd that go? He hesitates for a minute before saying, "I don't know, actually." He lets a breath come in and out before taking another step into open air, and asks, "Mind if I run it by you?"
Actually explaining Ann takes a few stumbles, and his backtrack to describe the meeting in the bar makes his uncle roar with laughter, which is just a little discomfiting. Everett pries past his first gloss of the paranoia over coffee to get a better description—which sounds uncomfortably like a nascent panic attack when he re-phrases it over the phone—but thankfully lets him continue, and get Ann out the door. "So I don't know what it means," he finishes off. "If that's, I don't know, a kind of let-down, if she was just letting me down gracefully, or what. Since she said she wouldn't call again."
Everett takes a minute to think it over, invisibly pursing his lips and chewing the facts. Halfway through the cogitation he lets out a small "Hmph"; then Spencer can hear the small crackle of him changing position, letting the phone slide against his ear.
"Thought experiment for you," Everett says. "You're going out with a girl. You don't know her very well. And you've got the date, and it goes well, and she invites you to her house. So you go over, you drink coffee, but she starts acting nervous, kinda shy-like, and a bit like she's scared of you. What does a gentleman do?"
"Ask what's wrong," Spencer says, thought and realization both drawn out with the words. "And beg her pardon for making her uncomfortable, and excuse myself."
"And not pressure her to go out with you again?"
"I guess not. Not really."
"Doesn't mean you don't like her, right?"
"Well, no. But this is... different."
"That's 'cause you're a man. And you young boys, you think you're He-Men. Supermen. Don't got a single crack in your armor. Not afraid of anything. And there's a lotta young girls your age who're more than willing to live by that too, expect that of you and get disappointed as anything when you're not a perfect protector. It's not unreasonable to think that some girls would see that out of you and head for the hills. But, well..."
"But she's not like that," Spencer blurted. "That's not her."
"With that boy, she's already got one man she knows she's gotta protect from the world. Could be she's not looking for a perfect man. And Colorado Springs is a military town. Could be she already knows vets, gets how post-traumatic stuff works. Sounds like you got on like houses on fire before you got home. Maybe she's willing to give you a chance."
"Her dad's Air Force, yeah." He pauses. "So you think I should try to talk to her again."
"Spence, when have you ever been afraid of a girl bouncing you back onto the sidewalk? Worst she can do is say no."
Well, he hasn't ever mentioned being chickenshit, but it's not like he's never been; but the main point is true. Ego-blows are nothing new. He sighs. "Yeah, you're right."
"Good." His uncle sounds gruffly satisfied. "Now, how long have these little freak-outs been happening?"
Ah, yes; his uncle the terrier. Slipping a hand over his eyes, he says, "A lot less often, now."
There's no escaping the prompt rejoinder: "As compared to when?"
"I just got twitchy last summer. Mostly over being home, though I got like that too when they gave me quarters in Virginia. Just... thought home, my rooms, ought to be safe, and didn't like having guests in them. I met people out, in restaurants or public spaces." With a sigh, he slopes back in his chair. "Learned not to invite people in. It never changed work, never affected me in the field. Did some work on it with my psych. Skip kinda figured it out, I kinda told him. We did a bit of work about it, just me getting used to it, having movie nights and stuff, guys coming over to watch the game. The field crew up in the northwest, we got pretty close, so it was good with them, and then I could come over to your place for Christmas and we shared a room with Ray and Val and that was fine. It's been getting better."
Everett snorts, a soft sound, as though his mouth was turned up in an involuntary smile, his face twisted with wry sympathy. "Gotta put a crimp in your lovelife."
"Yeah, well." There have been a lot of reasons he hadn't dated much since June. "Thing is, you know. After I told her, and we kinda talked it over, she mostly found a way to leave, but it got a lot easier. Once it was out in the open and I didn't have to pretend I wasn't thinking it, I could say, there's this thought, it's crazy, but it doesn't affect me and it isn't real, so by the time she was almost out the door I was thinking, wait, maybe you could stick around and we can give this another shot." His shoulders slump. "But I didn't."
"Discretion is the better part of valor," his uncle tells him. "Don't regret it. Just plan for next time."
"Well, it's eleven now. I've gotta haul my carcass off to sleep soon. Anything else?"
"No, that's about it. You take care, Uncle Everett."
"Tell that brother of yours to call us when he gets back, before we start to suspect you're just covering for him and he's really disappeared to Mexico."
"I've already told him, but the long-distance from Tijuana comes out of his tequila budget."
Everett laughs. "Good night, son."
He holds the warm receiver cupped in his hands for a minute after hanging up. The display goes blank, then dark. He smiles and shakes his head. Thank God, he isn't doing this alone.