Annie was laughing. She was laughing so hard, Auggie thought she was going to choke, or maybe pee her pants. He was laughing, too, but not as hard as Annie.
Her laughter came straight from her soul, Auggie could hear the utter freedom of it. And it was infectious, simply because he could not see what it was she was laughing at. It was so ordinary, so silly, and so absolutely normal. They were making popcorn. Auggie had an old air popper from years before, which Annie had found in a low cupboard and cleaned out. Auggie remembered why he had not used it much after they had started making popcorn: the kernels popped after they hurtled up out of the chamber into the metal bowl, which was being heated by the hot air blowing out of the unit. As they popped, they jumped out of the bowl, hitting Auggie and springing all over the island and the floor. And the more it repeated, the funnier Annie found it.
Finally, Auggie grabbed Annie, who was startled by the sudden movement of his arms snaking around her waist, and she screeched, laughing even harder as he pulled her back into his stomach, his elbow around her shoulders in a pseudo-take-hold. “You think that’s funny?” he said, trying not to laugh as he said it, feeling Annie giggling as he held her. “You think it’s funny that I’m getting bombarded with hot popcorn? Look at the mess!” He spun her around, giving her a view of what he imagined was escaped popcorn all over the kitchen. “What if I had been injured? A popcorn kernel in a blind man’s eye isn’t as funny as it sounds. Nor is that same blind guy trying to find every piece of stray popcorn in his apartment.”
Annie spun around in his arms, looping hers around his back. “I’ll help.” She giggled again. “It was totally worth it.”
“Was it?” He smiled at her. She seemed so relaxed, so oddly and wonderfully like his old Annie. She had taken a nap after they returned from the doctor’s clinic, and had woken up in this exceptional mood. She had helped him to make supper, and they had tidied up together. Auggie had missed this domestic camaraderie since she had gone dark. They time they had been together, Annie had spent much of it at Auggie’s place, and while Auggie was completely independent and capable, as a man, he appreciated having a women in his place, and as a disabled man, it was a comfort and a benefit that he couldn’t even speak about.
“It really was,” she said, the smile still evident in her voice for Auggie to hear. She stood, admiring him. “I feel better,” she added.
“Then it was worth it.”
“There’s hope. I’d kinda given up.”
“I mean for everything.”
“That’s what I meant.”
“As for your heart, I meant what I said. The doctors say rest. I am keeping you to it. I don’t want you to worry about anything. You’ve been worrying about too much on your own for too long. So. No. More. Worries. Stupid movies, good take-out, presentable home cooking, or at least, home-microwaving, those are what you will partake in. Online shopping, if you must.” He felt her laugh. “Maybe call your sister? Whatever it is sisters can give each other, you need her right now, Annie.”
“What about you?”
“I need you right now, too.”
She giggled. “No, I meant, what are you going to do?”
“I’m going to work in the morning. I will do what I always do, head up the tech crew.” Auggie turned, finding the switch and turning off the air popper. Annie took the bowl of popcorn and added butter and salt, and carried the bowl to the living room area, putting it on Auggie’s coffee table. He followed her with a couple of glasses of Coke.
He didn’t tell her he was going to talk to Joan first thing. He had to fight for Annie’s reinstatement when she was ready, the way Joan had fought for him. He would tell her when he was sure. No more secrets.
They watched the movie, eating popcorn, laughing, forgetting the bad. When the popcorn was gone, Auggie put his arm around Annie, and she snuggled in under it. He forgot when she was out on a mission, how small she was tucked into his side.
This felt so right. It was as though all the battles he had fought in his life had been made worth it for this moment in time, this now. He couldn’t believe his luck. She was here. She was here and she was happy. She was ready to accept some love, some care, just a little at a time. She had told him she wanted to be here. She wanted to be here, she wanted to be with him, and there was a good chance that she would recover from her illness with no after effects. It couldn’t get more perfect at the moment, and Auggie was not going to think further ahead. He felt her skin under his fingers, the heat from her body, and how her chest rose and fell with her breathing under his arms. He couldn’t stop touching her, just lightly, running little caresses along her arms and shoulders, taking in her presence there in his home and his life. He needed to keep reminding himself she was there, he was not imagining her. She’d been gone for so long, it had become habit that he reached out for her only to remember she wasn’t there.
She was here now. She was giggling at something he had missed. He had stopped paying attention to the movie, his senses zeroed in on Annie’s being there beside him.
“They’re dressed like priests,” Annie said, turning to him.
“You’re not paying attention, are you?”
Auggie smiled. He didn’t want to have to tell her his thoughts. “I kind of went away there. It’s okay. They’re dressed like priests now?”
It was so normal. There was indeed a normal, Auggie thought, refuting his own words. There was this, and he had realised that this was exactly what he wanted more than anything.
“Auggie. It’s out of my hands.”
“It wasn’t out of your hands when you brought me back.”
“I was DPD head. I wanted you for my new tech crew head. Plus, Arthur was the one to go to. I have a way with him.”
“Oh, I know that, trust me.”
“But now, Arthur isn’t the one to go to.”
“Maybe it’s time Annie took a look at her life.”
Auggie had not felt it his place to tell Joan about Annie’s new prognosis and treatment, but now he changed his mind. His laser cane alerted him to the chair in front of Joan’s desk and he found it and sat.
“Maybe... she has,” Auggie said, waiting. He heard Joan walk to the chair behind her desk and sit.
“What are you saying, Auggie?” Joan leaned forward, taking in Auggie’s stiff upright frame and the look of intention on his face. “Tell me what you mean? Where is Annie?”
“She’s okay, Joan. Maybe better than just okay. It’s looking hopeful.”
Auggie took a breath and put his hands on his knees and started telling Joan exactly what Annie had told him. He told her about the treatments, he told her about the dangers, he told her about valve replacements, and he told her about the percentage of patients that completely recovered on their own. He told her his suspicions of the drug used to keep her unconscious after Calder “shot” her, his idea that it had been tainted, maybe unintentionally. Or something that she had contracted when she was in Hong Kong alone, or even as far back as those horrible days when Lena was trying to take Annie out. Maybe the damage had started then and not appeared until Annie had a chance to fall without the need to keep going until her mission to take Henry Wilcox down was finished. He told Joan how hard Annie had tried to just keep going, how much she wanted to work, how disappointed she was with how things had turned out. He wasn’t sure how he had let it happen, but it seemed easier to talk to Joan about Annie than it did about himself. And he knew he could trust Joan with this. She had no reason at the moment to take it further, and Auggie needed to persuade her with every gun he had.
“I know you care for her--”
“No, Joan. I love her.”
“Ah. So it’s come back to your feelings for her.” Joan kept a smile from her face and her voice.
Auggie took her words seriously, as he heard them. “It’s more than that. It’s what she wants, Joan. I can’t go up against that. I know how she feels. I know how much being out there, the adrenaline of it, of making all the pieces come together in a successful mission, a win for the team. I can’t take that away from her. When she’s better--” Auggie shook his head swiftly. He was a realist as well as a romantic. “If she gets completely better, I support whatever she needs to do. I have to, Joan. I can’t make her stop.”
“Does this have anything to do with her being your operative? Her being in the field kind of keeps you there, too, in a way.”
Auggie sighed, dipping his head. “It does, in a way. But you know you have plenty of operatives to give me to handle. I’m connected to the field as long as I’m here. I’m good at it. And so is she. I was taken out of it with a slam of a door, and she has a chance to go back. I’m going to take care of her until she has enough strength and support to make that decision. I had decision taken away; I’m not going to do the same to her.”
Joan came around the desk and put her hand on Auggie’s shoulder. “You never stopped loving her. That’s good. I knew it. I seriously thank you for coming to me, Auggie. For telling me. For now, you just look after her. Keep her rested, like she is supposed to be, and I’ll figure something out, if the time comes.”
“When,” Auggie said. “When the time comes. You know Annie. She’s pretty determined.”
Joan smiled, giving Auggie’s shoulder a shake. “That she is.” She dropped her hand and sat against the desk. “I must admit, I really miss her. I always missed her. She’s good, Auggie, we both know that. And with all this going on with Belenko and the bombing, it’s a hard time for the CIA. We need operatives with Annie’s credentials. And you know Calder is in alliance with us about her. She’s too good. But she’s cocky, and she’s lying to us, to you and to me. It makes her risky. Until that is taken care of, until her medical issues are looked after, there’s nothing that I can do. Keep her safe, keep her stong, Auggie. If she can come back from this, she’s going to have to be strong and know that she has people with her, a family here. She can’t run from us anymore.”
“I know. I am working on that.”
“Then that is your main operation to make happen. Keep me posted on your accomplishments there.”
Auggie laughed. “Thank you, Joan.” He stood, and Joan watched him go, smiling, feeling pleased that things were going how she had hoped. She had hoped just the night before, holding Mac in the nursery, that Annie could have the chances that Joan had been given.
“Annie?” Auggie slid open his door, turning his head to listen for any sounds within.
“I’m here, Auggie, in the kitchen.”
“Something smells good.” Auggie put his keys, bag, and cane on the credenza and turned towards her, moving, his hands out, searching for her. She let him find her easily enough, and he nuzzled her ear.
“I made you something for a change.” Annie was sounding pleased with herself.
Auggie grinned. “A man could get used to this.”
Annie surprised him with a kiss that he wasn’t expecting. He grinned. “A man could get used to that, too.”
“I want you to know how much I appreciate you looking after me,” she said.
“I’ll always look after you.”
“I know.” Annie took his hand, holding it in hers, touching his long fingers, and admiring it as she thought about her next words. “I want to look after you, too. If you’ll let me.”
Auggie felt a moment of surprise. She was asking his permission to let her look after him. She had been in his care on all those missions; he had been the one to look after her, to bring her home. She knew how he hated to rely on anyone, to let anyone take care of anything in his life. And here she was, asking for him to do just that.
“It’s as hard for you as it is for me, isn’t it?” Annie ran her fingers along his. “Maybe even harder?”
Auggie turned. “It’s not about me right now.”
“You have as hard a time to give up your own independence.”
“Annie. I think we both have a lot to work on.”
“I think we need to just keep talking.” Annie put Auggie’s hand on her waist and he took the other hand and placed it on her back, pulling her close, feeling her lithe body under his touch. She always gave him permission to see her as he needed to. She alone gave him sight through his four other senses, in a way no-one else ever had. And she alone didn’t hate that she had to do this all the time for him. It made him wonder how he had ever thought someone else would be able to do this the way Annie did.
“I think that is the best idea you’ve had tonight. Well, after the cooking idea, of course.”
“I have another idea,” Annie said, running her hands up and down his strong arms.
“Yeah. But it doesn’t involve much talking.”
Auggie smiled at her, and he could almost feel her glowing. “I think time-off to rest has made you a brilliant inventor of ideas.”
“You haven’t heard my idea yet.”
Auggie could hear the teasing in her voice. It was something he had not heard in a year. It was the way she had spoken to him for so long before he realised that she meant it as more. He could not keep the grin from his face as he reached down, feeling for the hem of her T-shirt and lifting it over her head, and when her response was to lock her lips to his, Auggie’s heart and mind leapt into a state of pure, grateful joy.
The food would have to wait.