It took six months for my body to get used to the heavy workout regime that was required of us. I had brilliant people in my team this time too- some of the best- but any idiot could see the shadow of fear in their stoic expressions when I made brought them to speed on what had happened on the last mission and exactly how we were going to proceed this time. They knew that the chances of getting out of this alive were slim to none. For me, the dying part wasn’t scary. It was the fact that I would never see Ajax again that made me freeze in terror.
Our last day in safe territory arrived. We were allowed to send one last message back to our families. I stared at the phone for a long time, debating on whether to call the one person left alive in my life or not. I didn’t even notice Jackson sitting down beside me.
“You’ll have to sleep with the damn thing if you keep staring at it like that,” he joked.
I rolled my eyes but smiled nonetheless. He was a man I looked up to- loyal, strong and dedicated. He had a naturally stern face but when he smiled, lines appeared on his cheeks, giving him the appearance of nothing less than a stuffed teddy bear. He had been my mentor since almost five years and cared about me like I was his own son. He was the only one who gave me a disappointed frown when I came back.
“Are you going to call him or what?” he asked.
I heaved a sigh and chucked the phone a few feet away. “No. He doesn’t need to worry.”
“From all that I’ve heard about him, it sounds like he’ll worry regardless,” he said.
I shrugged and conceded, accepting his phone when he offered it to me. He would worry. Even if he got married to someone else, he would still worry his hair gray. I mustered up the courage to dial the number I had memorized by heart. He picked it up after three rings. “Hello?” His voice sounded strained, exhausted, like he could care less what the person on the line wanted. I could hear the kids in the background, making a ruckus as usual, probably the reason why he was so tired.
“Hello? Is anyone there?” Hearing his sweet voice stunned me into silence, making me catch my breath painfully. It echoed again and again somewhere deep inside me. I needed him to keep talking, saying any damn thing.
“I can’t hear you. Can you please call me back later?” he said and cut the call and I could actually feel the silence when I couldn’t hear him anymore. I had thought that as every day passed, I had become better equipped in putting thoughts of him aside and numbing the pain. But I was wrong. One call and I was back square numero uno, aching so bad like someone had ripped me apart and scattered the pieces far from each other.
“What happened?” Jackson finally asked and I needed him to shut up so the memory of his voice didn’t wash out from my ears.
I closed my eyes and gathered myself. I only spoke when I was sure I could speak without breaking down. “I want to go back to him.”
“Then go,” he said simply.
I shook my head. “We leave tomorrow. Everything is in place. I need to do this.”
”You keep saying that you ‘need’ to do this. You’re so convinced of this one fact that you’ve lost perspective. Why do you need to do this, Delcour?” he asked.
“I killed them so that I could complete this mission. Their blood is on my hands. I have to do this for me,” I replied robotically.
“I’m going to say this only once so listen up and listen clear. It wasn’t your fault. You understand me? It was never your fault. You did what you had to do. And that mission was successful the moment you came back and relayed all the information they had died collecting.”
“I killed them,” I said emphatically.
“You did what you had to do,” he said firmly. “You know what their families said after I informed them of the deaths? They asked if you- the only survivor- were okay. They wanted to talk to you, not to shout at you or hurl accusations. To thank you for taking care of them. To mourn their loss with you. I never gave them your contact information because you weren’t in the right frame of mind to go through that. But if you’re going to throw away your one chance at a happy life because of some crappy delusion, then you need to know.”
My jaw fell open. I had never in a million years thought their families would ever want to thank me. At first I thought Jackson was lying, except he never lied about anything. His eyes were sincere and concerned.
“And as for everything being in place, you can still back off. It’s not too late, son.”
“I don’t know,” I sighed. It was something I had set my mind to since a long time. By now, it had become a kind of like a life goal. Changing plans so suddenly felt like everything had flipped over.
“Ask yourself what you want more from life. Is it this- what you’re about to do- or your man? You can’t have both,” he said.
“Ajax,” I said reflexively.
“Good. I’m going to start the paperwork while you mull over your life crisis. You can come and stop me whenever you want,” he said, apparently very pleased with himself. It wasn’t the first time he had given me the Are You Crazy? Don’t Do This speech. But I guess he knew it would be the most effective now. He had saved the best part for the Hail Mary pass and it worked. I didn’t want the fucking retribution anymore, not if the cost was Ajax.
It took a few more months to rearrange everything, from the leadership hierarchy and retraining of the team so that they knew their new roles. There was a lot of paperwork to pull me out, a lot of officials who reprimanded me for ditching an ‘important national cause’. But I was more content being the coward for a change.
This, in no way, meant that I didn’t have doubts. I went back on my decision a thousand and one times. But each time I told Jackson that it wasn’t right and I would go through with it, he sent me back to think about it for one more night and, as he expected, my decision would change again. The only thing that kept me going through it all was the knowledge that I would get to see Ajax by the end of it.
When it was finally done, Jackson dropped me till the airport and gave me a big hug. It was nice coming from a man who never showed physical affection. “Your healing is complete. You don’t need therapy anymore.”
“I told you the answer was getting laid,” I said but smiled nonetheless.
He laughed at my crudeness and bid me goodbye. The flight was almost a whole day. With every minute passing by, I was more and more anxious. What if he didn’t want to see me anymore? What if he was so pissed that he shut me out? Or worse, what if he was with someone else? By the time I got off the plane, I had formed a whole scenario in my head where I would walk in on him having sex with someone else. Maybe I did still need therapy.
I gave me a mental pep talk, telling myself that it was time to put my charms to use. I was gone for less than a year. He couldn’t have fallen in love with anyone so hard that I couldn’t undo it. If he could like my utterly messed up side, he would sure as fuck love the stable one.
I rang his doorbell and waited. I could hear people chatting and laughing inside. The earlier scenario glowed smugly. I gritted my teeth and swatted it away. Fuck you, brain. He’s mine and only mine.
He opened the door with a distracted look on his face that soon turned to plain unadulterated shock. The man hadn’t aged a day. He looked exactly as I remembered him; a tall glass of addictive whiskey, the blue-gray of his eyes shining like the horizon where the sea and sky meet, his bee-stung lips parted slightly. His necktie was a loosened, the top three buttons of his shirt open, revealing an enticing strip of skin of his chest. If anything, he had become even more dreamy.
“I didn’t go,” I said.
“I didn’t go through with the assignment. I canceled on the last day and came back to you,” I elaborated.
It took a few seconds for the meaning of my words to dawn on him. “You didn’t go,” he repeated in bewilderment, and, not very shockingly, was pissed but not for a reason I expected. “When did you realize you weren’t going to go through with it?”
“A couple of months ago. It took time because we had to rearrange everything so the others still can,” I explained.
He ran his fingers through his hair in agitation. “You knew for months and you couldn’t be bothered to give me one fucking call?”
“I was a little busy,” I mumbled.
“Busy? Busy?” he hissed. “I spent the last year worrying my ass off. I had nightmares of what you might be going through. I was this close to a goddamn heart attack. And you were too busy to call?”
I swallowed hard. I was not prepared for this. “Surprise!” I grinned weakly.
“Surprise?” he muttered, clenching his jaw dangerously. He muttered a string of curses under his breath and scowled, “Go fuck yourself.”
“Wait, wait-” I grabbed the sleeve of his shirt and spun him around. “I have a whole speech prepared. Just hear me out.”
He crossed his arms in a defensive stance, his muscles straining angrily against the silk of the shirt, and nodded at me but his impassive expression said that he could care less about what came out of my mouth. Nevertheless, I had to try. I hadn’t come all the way from Asia so he could slip away because of a frown.
“I know I’m a slowpoke, I’m an asshole, I’m a jerk, I’m any goddamn curse in the book you can think of, but I love you. It took me six months to realize that you’re everything I need and more. Please tell me I’m not too late.”
“You are,” he said stubbornly.
I blinked in stupefaction, a little taken aback by the bluntness. “Are- Are you with someone else?” I stammered.
“Thank god,” I sighed. I slipped down my hands from his biceps and clasped his hands in mine. “Look, you’re completely justified in being pissed at me. But please? Give me one chance?” Before he could protest, I slid down to my knees. “I’ll do anything to make up for it.”
He closed his eyes for a second and heaved a deep sigh. “My family is inside,” he said in a resigned tone.
“I’ll take a beating from your sister if it means you’ll take me back,” I said, raising our hands to my lips and pressing a soft kiss to his knuckles. “Please? I won’t fuck up this time. I promise.”
“Ajax, how many times do I need to tell you that this is not an appropriate payment to pizza delivery guys,?” came a sweet female voice from inside, one that I recognized as Ajax’s sister. It was the first time I was seeing her and she was every bit as exotically beautiful as her brother. She jerked to a stop when she saw me, her gaze whipping from me to Ajax, taking in the situation. “Ooh, you’re too cute to be delivering pizzas. Although you do look strangely suitable on your knees.”
I grinned at her, tightening my grip on Ajax’s hands when he tried to snatch them away. “I’m guessing you’re Alexa.”
“And I’m guessing you’re a prophet,” she said, raising her eyebrows.
“Not really but I’m seeing a future where your brother kicks my ass to the curb and I’m trying to change that,” I said very seriously.
Her eyes lit up in recognition. She turned to Ajax with an impressed expression and said, “This is the sexy soldier you’ve been hung up on? I need to call mama. Mama!”
Their mother’s voice reached us before she did. She was shorter than the rest of them but she had a personality that could rival an eight foot tall person’s. She was the sort of person who looked like she was always in motion and if she paused for a whole second, then the earth would stop spinning. “Did you lose your wallet again? I swear I don’t know how you manage traveling the world when you can’t manage your own wallet,” she huffed.
Alexa pointed to me enthusiastically, jumping on the balls of her feet, obviously enjoying the scene. “Look, this is the sexy soldier guy. He’s even sexier than the pictures.”
“Emmett, would you stand up?” Ajax growled.
“Not until you take me back,” I said.
“Oh hello, son. I see you’re back. Are you delivering pizzas now?” said his mother.
Ajax groaned out loud. “No, ma’am. I’m begging your son to take me back,” I replied.
She put her hands on her hips and glared at him. “I always knew you were kinky, Ajax. Now forgive the poor man and let him come inside. It’s freezing out here.”
Ajax stomped his foot like a child and whined, “Why are you guys ganging up on me?”
Another male voice came from inside. “Three of you at the door and you haven’t been able to get a damn pizza? I swear I have to do all the work in the house.” That was his father. Six and a half feet tall, I could see where these people had gotten their height from. Like the rest three, he had perfect aristocratic features but warm eyes that made you comfortable in his presence. He was obviously a man who laughed a lot.
“Great. He was the only one left in the picture,” muttered Ajax. Right then, a chestnut brown cat trotted over, nuzzling Ajax’s leg, meowing loudly. If I remembered correctly, her name was Gemini. “Right. How could I forget her?” Ajax sighed.
“What’s going on here?” his father asked, looking at everyone one by one for some clue.
“I’m Emmett, sir. But I think I’m better known around here as the sexy soldier guy,” I said.
He raised an eyebrow and gave me a once-over before turning to Ajax and said, “Hell, you did good, son. Way better than the weed guy you used to date.”
“Reid, baba, Reid. For the last time. Get the fuck up, Emmett,” he snapped at me, getting a smack from his mother on the head.
“Language!” she scolded him, making him turn into a whining puppy again.
“Why are we all here if there’s no pizza? At least there’s milk and cookies inside,” said his father.
“Because I’m not going to stop groveling until Ajax forgives me,” I replied. I blinked up at Ajax innocently again and said, “Please, Ajax, one last chance.”
“Stop being a drama queen. Look, he’s such a cute little thing. Gemini already likes him,” said his father.
That was true. The cat was almost in my lap, stretching her paws like it had found a brand new bed. “Yes, I’m such a cute little thing. If your cat has given the verdict, you shouldn’t argue with it,” I said reasonably.
“What the hell is even-” Ajax’s exhausted tirade was cut off when someone cleared his throat.
A young teenager was standing awkwardly by the staircase, a blue bag in his outstretched hand and a Domino’s cap on his head. It was obvious from his expression that he thought he had crossed over some wormholes and reached Crazy Zone. “Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen. Somebody ordered a pizza?” he said.
“Oh lord help me. The icing on the cake has arrived,” groaned Ajax. I let him free one of his hands to take out money from his pocket and hand it to the pizza boy. He took the boxes of pizza and kept it on Gemini’s back who happily carried it inside. As soon as he was done, I grabbed his hand again.
“Stop this madness,” he said firmly.
“Exactly. You’re getting smarter, dear brother.” Alexa smiled mischievously. “Stop this madness and kiss him. If you don’t, I will.”
Ajax rolled his eyes. “Be my guest.”
His father intervened. “The fact that I’m standing here encouraging your melodrama and not eating the pizza should tell you how close I am to grounding you if you don’t take him back.”
“You can’t ground me. I’m 36,” said Ajax emphatically.
“And I’m 58. So yes I can,” he replied. I decided I liked the old man the best. He could make Ajax squirm and that could never get old.
“Grow a pair and get over yourself. Kiss him!” ordered his mother which apparently was a cue for everyone to start chanting ‘Kiss Him’. I loved how everyone was in sync in that family.
“I’m not kissing anybody in front of you guys,” exclaimed Ajax, getting red-faced.
“So you’ll kiss me when they’re not looking?” I asked hopefully.
He made a face at my fake innocent expression, his narrowed eyes telling me he wasn’t falling for the angel act. “What? I didn’t-“
“You just said it. You can’t take it back,” I warned.
“Stand up, son. Welcome to the family. You held your own very nicely. Now I’m sure you’ll be perfect for my knuckle-headed son,” said his mother.
“Thank you, ma’am. That means a lot,” I said, slowly standing up but I still didn’t leave his hands. That was the one anchor I had to hold him down between this chaotic- and even though beneficial to me- madness.
Apparently Alexa wasn’t done having her fun. “We came to see some action! Show us some! Kiss him!” She started throwing cookie crumbs at us that had mysteriously appeared in her hands. Again, everyone commenced chanting for him to kiss me.
“Can’t ignore a public demand, Dreamy,” I shrugged.
Ajax groaned once more and stepped closer but there was a hint of smile on his delicious lips so I knew he couldn’t be all that mad. He leaned in and pressed his lips softly against mine to the whistles and applause of the rest of his family. I tilted my head and deepened the kiss, pushing my tongue in his mouth. He tasted like cinnamon and aftershave and Cabernet Sauvignon, like a burning bonfire on a cold winter night or the sound of the keys to your childhood home jingling in your pocket.
Somewhere far away, I could hear the others going inside. “That’s it. My work is done here. I’m going to get me some pizza.” “Gemini, give me back my cookie, you little wench.” “You are not eating out of the box! What in heaven’s name have I taken out the plates for, decorating with tinsel?”
He cupped the back of my neck, nibbling on my lower lip, making me moan in his mouth. “We’ll work it out,” he whispered.
Little snowflakes started to fall from the sky, collecting on the windowsill behind me like a jar of wishes, and for the first time since as long as I could remember, everything felt right.