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By ZooMomma

Romance / Action

Prologue

Saturday June 21st – Sunday June 22nd 2014

Somewhere over the Atlantic

Auggie Anderson leans back wearily against the headrest of the South African Airways Airbus A340, and double-taps the screen of his phone to silence the music that has been flowing through his headphones.

He is restless.

He has tried and failed, repeatedly, to sleep, and the jazz he so often relies on to soothe his nerves is having exactly the opposite effect.

What he really wants to do is pace, but that's not advisable on an airplane in the best of circumstances, and he has no doubt that a blind man pacing up and down the aisle will attract all the wrong kinds of attention.

It's not even worth heading to the bathroom again. Owen Garrett apparently, like Auggie Anderson, likes to pre-book back-of-plane seats when flying long haul. Auggie, as the person now occupying Owen's seat, is genuinely grateful for this: it makes for quick and uncomplicated bathroom visits – one can be up and at the bathroom door before any flight attendants (or 'helpful' passengers) see the white cane and start fussing and offering assistance.

But when one's legs are screaming to be stretched, four paces to the bathroom door and four back just doesn't cut it. So, he stays where he is.

Frustrated, he pulls the headphones off and reaches down to stow them and his phone in the leather messenger bag at his feet. Next to him, a sleeping Annie Walker stirs a little as if his movement has disturbed her, but then sighs and resettles. He leans back again and closes his eyes, listening to the sound of her breathing.

He is under no illusion as to why he is so wired. The fact he's heading out into the field, though thrilling, is not enough to produce this degree of edginess – he's had far too much experience for that to be a factor. No, it's the person who he's heading out with that's at the root of it.

She has ruined him.

He can't sit on a plane any more without thinking of the times he's flown with her – as friend, as romantic hopeful, as lover, as complete bastard. He can't listen to jazz without remembering the first day he met her; their most intimate moments in his apartment, jazz filling the spaces all around them. She's woven into his memories, which makes the yawning distance between them even harder to bear - particularly at times like this, when the lack of physical distance between them is making it impossible for him to avoid thinking about her.

Her breathing is slow and even. He can tell she's sleeping deeply. And so he risks lifting up the armrest between them to make contact with her. He slides his fingers carefully towards her across her seat, expecting to find a thigh, or maybe a hand. Instead he finds a knee – it seems she has curled up sideways into her seat facing him, legs tucked up under her. He feels fingers brush against the back of his hand and freezes, worried he has woken her. But her breathing has not changed and she has not moved.

And so he traces his fingers upwards along hers until his hand is covering her hand lightly, and he is tracing the bones on the back of it, the edges of her wrist.

She has lost weight. He can feel it. Her wrist and hand are bird-like, far too delicate under his fingers. Familiar rage begins to boil inside him.

This is his Annie. This is the headstrong, brave, impetuous, passionate human being who had taken on the CIA's former Head of Clandestine Services, Henry Wilcox, all on her own. Who took him down. And beneath his fingers lies the evidence of what it has cost her.

The agency, as a way of showing gratitude to the woman who exposed one of the greatest traitors of recent times, had taken Annie straight off the boat from Hong Kong, where she had killed him, into two weeks of high intensity, top level debriefing – mostly in isolation at a secluded facility nicknamed 'Bluebonnet Farm'.

She had been more than 'deep cover' - she had, to all intents and purposes been dead. (He had been one of the very few people who had known she was alive – and even he had not been able to contact her, to talk to her).

She had been completely alone, in utmost danger, and unsupported for months. And she had had no guaranteed way back in. Even when she returned, she was alive, but she was a ghost.

And the CIA had not known what to do with her.

They had only cursorily considered the deep psychological impact the mission may have had on her. So they had questioned her and polygraphed her and badgered her until, after one week and four days she had literally broken down.

Only then did they think to allow Joan Campbell, her boss, who had been constantly pushed away because she was 'on leave', to intervene – Joan, who like Auggie, was by that stage ready to march in, take Annie by force, and kill, with bare hands, anyone who got in her way. It was he and Joan who had carved a way home for her – who broke the news to her sister, Danielle, that Annie was still alive, who arranged for her to go to California to be with Danielle for as long as it took to heal.

It had taken five months. He had not been able to see her in all that time. They had spoken on the phone a few times – inane small talk – but as he'd said to her in Hong Kong not long before her return, nothing they had to talk about was small. Those conversations had been, as a result, stilted and painful – more frustrating than reassuring.

He'd been unsure if she'd ever come back.

But she had.

She'd returned to the DPD, still under strict psychological supervision and still not cleared for field work. She'd put her head down and done what she had to do and barely a month after getting back to work she'd been officially declared fit for field duties. But Joan and he and all the others who knew her well had been waiting for the Annie they knew to return to them. She was a phantom, a shell. And not one of them had wanted to see her back in the field.

She hadn't seemed to want to push it, either. She'd remained behind her desk without complaint, putting in her hours, and more - her standard of work as excellent as it always had been. But she'd drawn an invisible line around herself. She may as well have been working in a closed cubicle. She reached out to no one and politely discouraged attempts to reach out to her.

He had been no exception. Shortly after she'd returned to D.C. she'd come to his apartment. It had been a difficult conversation. She'd told him that she needed time and space to readjust, to rediscover who she was, and that whatever it was that lay between them was too much for her to handle. She had asked for his understanding. She'd been asking for his release.

And because he loved her, and God knew he owed it to her, he'd agreed.

And because he loves her, and God knows he owes it to her, he has tried.

But to have her so close to him every day, and yet so distant from him, is the worst kind of torture. From the first day she had walked into Langley they'd had a connection – banter, support, adventure, affection, friendship, then later love, passion, heartbreak. They'd never really tried to be separate - detached from each other - till that day in his apartment. He is realizing now that he doesn't think they can be. He has released her as much as he can, but she is an inextricable part of him, and he doesn't know how to let any more of her go. Even if she wants him to.

Even if she knows how to let him go.


It is only when his elbow is jolted by a passing food cart that he realizes he must have fallen asleep after all.

"I am so sorry!" The cabin attendant is full of apologies. He waves it off. He can count on the fingers of one hand the number of flights when his elbows haven't been victim to passing carts – which is probably why he still requests window seats, to the frequent bewilderment of booking agents and check-in staff.

He checks his watch. They've been in the air for about thirteen hours – less than two hours left before they land in Johannesburg. The cabin is stirring – seats creaking, chatter beginning - people passing his seat to get to the bathroom behind them. The cabin lights must have come on. It was no doubt a breakfast cart that connected with his arm.

Next to him Annie shifts, brushes against his shoulder as she stretches and yawns. He leans towards her and very soberly, very quietly says to her: "Good morning, Laura Pritchard."

"Good morning, Owen Garrett," she replies, voice still sleepy. But he can hear the smile in it. The exchange doesn't even come close to banter, but her instinctive, immediate response carries a tiny whisper of the rapid to-and-fro that was so characteristic of them before. She was the queen of quick comebacks, and he was the king. And for a while they had ruled supreme. This is the first time in ten months he's heard even an echo of that.

Hope rises

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