Annie had come back. Auggie listened to her cleaning up. She’d gone in the morning, saying she needed a bit of head room to get her thoughts together. It had not been a surprise, as the night before, she had been very quiet, and spent a lot of the time in Auggie’s bathtub with magazines. Auggie had given her the space, and she’d chosen to stay, which kept his hopes strong. But when she left in the morning, his stomach set itself in knots and stayed that way for an hour or two. Then, as he tidied up the living room area, his hands stumbled upon Annie’s sweater, and then a pair of her jeans. He smiled, and continued cleaning up, with the intentions to find more evidence that she was not gone for long. When he came across a pair of her boots tucked under the side table, he couldn’t help the smile of relief that crossed his lips. And so he waited.
One thing Auggie was good at was waiting. He waited for transportation to drive him places. He waited for people to announce themselves to him. He waited for a guide to show him the way. He waited for a sales associate to come help him with his shopping. He waited for operatives to come back with intel. He waited for Annie all those years as her handler. He waited the years it took to realise that he wanted her in his arms. And then he waited months more to know that she would come back at all. And then, there was this last waiting, which was the most unusual kind of waiting. He was waiting for her to come back to who she was. And she was within his own arm’s reach, but he had to wait.
Annie came out of the bathroom and he heard her pulling on the sweater she’d left. He heard her stop, and knew she was watching him as he stood at his island with his cutting board and a knife and some vegetables, preparing something for her to eat. He was still trying to keep her on some kind of normal schedule. He stopped momentarily, waiting for her to say something, but there was nothing. He took a breath and started working again.
“I’m going to make you eat at least one plate of food tonight, Annie,” he said. “You left this morning and I bet all you had was coffee.”
“I had a doughnut,” she said softly.
“Not enough,” he sang. When there was still no response, he turned his head, slightly. “Are you still in the room?”
“It’s okay. I’m okay, Auggie. This looks good. Do you need me to do anything?”
He smiled in her direction. “I need you to choose some music and then I need you to pour some wine and relax.”
“I can do that,” she said, and he could hear the smile through her voice, which made a soft smile cross his own lips. She found some music and put it on his turntable. A soft sax and some piano created enough colour to the scene that Auggie could even sense it made Annie relax. She poured the wine and guided his hand to the glass, and then took her own to his chair.
“You let me know if you need me for anything,” she said, and he could tell she’d sat down or curled up on his couch with her wine.
“You can just watch and marvel at the skills I wave around here.”
“I always do,” she said.
“I was joking,” he said. She’d replied so seriously that it worried him for a minute.
“I told you a long time ago that I find you oddly mesmerising.”
“I seem to recall that.”
“It’s never waned, Auggie.”
Auggie was puzzled. He sipped his wine and then he carefully slid all the vegetables into a big silver bowl. He checked the timer near his stove for the remaining minutes on the chicken. He’d even put a couple of potatoes in to bake, thinking the more food options he gave her, the more she might choose to eat. He remembered her delight about her own sister’s baking and cooking, but she didn’t even find cake of interest lately. However, this hadn’t stopped Auggie from picking up a half dozen pastel frosted cupcakes from his favourite bakery as a sweet surprise for her for after.
Auggie pulled it all together, carefully and cautiously, never burning himself, barely making a mess at all. He let Annie watch him, which he usually felt uncomfortable about with most other people. He remembered Liza Hearn used to enjoy just staring at him, and he often wondered if she did it just because he couldn’t stare back. He never felt like that with Annie. Annie didn’t usually just sit and stare at him, though. He wondered if her mind was elsewhere as she sat there quietly watching him.
When he got the plates down, she came to stand beside him, offering to serve everything up while he shut the oven off and got the salt and pepper to take to the coffee table, where they’d taken to eating, cosied up informally. The music was perfect, and the wine was perfect. He hoped the food was perfect. He liked to think he was capable in the kitchen, though cooking had never been on his list of talents or hobbies, either before or after he’d lost his sight. It smelled good, and how could he possibly ruin a salad? He took the silver bowl to the coffee table as she set their plates there.
“Everything okay?” he asked.
“Yes. Everything looks wonderful.” A pause. “Auggie?”
“What if it’s more? What if it gets worse? What if I can’t take care of it?”
Auggie put his fork down and faced her. “We’ll take care of it.” He chewed his lip. “You’re scared, aren’t you?”
“I can’t be scared. I need to just get it taken care of. I need to be back in the field. I won’t let this sit me on the sidelines.” Another pause. “I don’t mean it like that, Auggie. I... every time I say anything about it to you, I know I put my foot in my mouth. It’s too close to you, Auggie.”
“No, it’s okay.”
“You didn’t have a choice. Everyone expects you to... I don’t want people thinking I am incapable.”
“Join the club.”
“How do you do it?”
“What? Ignore people’s ideas of me? Deal with not being in the field where I want to be? Deal with my own incapability on a daily basis?”
“How do you get past any of it? How did you? How did you come back from a war, a war that cost lives that didn’t need to be lost, with all this baggage and hatred and learn to live again? How do you laugh again? How do you look into a future that has hope when all there is, is darkness? I mean, for you, literally... for me...”
Auggie dropped down off the chair and crept across to close in on her space. He reached out a tentative hand and found her right shoulder. He moved his hand to her neck, her cheek.
“It gets easier. It never goes away completely, but it gets easier. Annie, you have to let it go.” He took a breath, knowing he was lost in trying to make his eyes peer into hers but he wanted her to see his feelings. “I had to let it go. I can’t go back. No-one ever can. The decisions you made were the best at the time for you. You thought this was the only way to make it safe for all of us. And you made it safe. We’re all still here. You’re the only one that isn’t. You need to come back to us, Annie, because you saved us for a reason.”
“Were you scared to come back?”
Auggie laughed out loud. “Scared? Annie, that is a word that wouldn’t even touch how I felt. I had more anxiety about coming back than I could ever let on. He was still out there. I was blind. I had zero confidence, and no clue what the hell I was supposed to do.”
“You are more confident than anyone.”
“Illusions and extroverted warfare. Inside, I was terrified. I thought I’d be seen as a pity case, relegated to the basements of IT, or that I’d be seen as a fraud, and that no-one would tolerate a blind guy trying to pretend to work with them in the big leagues.” Auggie hated exposing this side of himself, he did not do it as a rule. It always felt safer to keep everything close to the vest. But Annie was a special case. Annie needed a different side of Auggie then he showed anyone else. She was taking her time to reveal her inner dæmons, and it was only fair that he show her the same vulnerability, to show her she was not alone in her sense of loss and loneliness. He puffed a breath and found her hand. “I’m still scared a lot of the time.”
He shook his head at her in disbelief. “Of course I am. How could I not be? You realise I have to walk around out there in total darkness every day? I get turned around often and lose my bearings. You don’t think that scares a person? I’ll never be able to just make my way from here to there, because there is no there until I get there and it becomes here. Does that make any sense? Everything out there is unknown to me. Unless it makes a noise or I can feel it, it is just nothing. Everything outside of this,” he waved his hands around his body, “doesn’t exist to me. You think that’s not scary?”
“Auggie, you are so in control, you never lose your way. I’ve seen you walk around foreign cities with only a cane and your phone.”
“Yeah. But do you see how many times I get stopped and asked if I need help? Do you see how many times I lose my bearings and have to go back and retrace what I hope are my steps until I get it sorted out again? Outside the walls of the CIA, I am a blind man, a man with an obvious disability that most people are uncomfortable around, or pity. I don’t want to be seen as some cripple who can’t pick his own groceries or who gets lost going to the bar. And yet, every day, this happens. You think that doesn’t bother me? It takes all I have some days to get out of bed and face it all again.” Auggie fell silent. He felt angry at her for making him bare this to her, but he also felt grateful to say it to someone. Especially to her. He didn’t like to confront these feelings on his own.
“You just have to keep getting up. Finding the good in the day. And, Annie, there’s lots of good.” He found her hand again. “You are the good in my day. You have never once thought of me as less. I haven’t had anyone put me in equal standing with other men, other agents, until you came along.”
“You’re not in equal standing,” Annie whispered to him, clutching his hand tightly, touching his face with her other hand. “You are miles above them.”
“And you, Annie Walker, are right here with me.”
“I want to be.”
“There’s no reason why you can’t. Except you. You cannot keep thinking you need to be alone so no-one will be hurt. The person that hurts the most is you. You never need to be alone.” He pulled her close, leaning in until his forehead rested against hers. “I don’t want to be alone. I’m tired of waking up to face every day alone. It’s tiring me out. And you, you’re working harder at running from everyone than you would if you just stopped and let the world look after you for a while.
“Tomorrow, I’m going with you to the hospital. I will be there with you holding your hand when you get your test results. I will stand by you through whatever treatment you choose. But I can’t do this if you choose to keep pushing me away.”
Annie’s hands were behind his neck. He could feel her fingers worrying his collar.
“I am scared. I do want you to come with me. I don’t want to go alone.”
“Then don’t.” Auggie felt her hands relax and he took the chance to reach around her tightly and pull her body tightly to his. She rested her cheek against his neck and did not let go.One more step closer. Patience. He would try anything because he would not lose her. She was the one thing he loved and would fight for before anything else. Maybe she was starting to finally see that again. Maybe she was starting to see him again, the same way he was beginning to see her slipping back into the woman that he knew and had come to need in every sense of the word.