"Auggie?" Annie asked, coming down the stairs.
"Heyyy," Auggie said, moving from the living room, where he'd been sitting with his laptop and his headphones, towards her, his arms out.
Annie wrapped herself into him, and Auggie walked with her over to the sofa. They sat down, and Annie curled up into his side after he lifted up his elbow for her to slide in. "How're ya feeling, Walker?" he asked her.
"You're gonna have to change that term of endearment soon, Mister Anderson," Annie said.
"You're dodging my question, soon-to-be-Missus Anderson," he said, kissing her head.
"My head hurts. My arms are really sore. But I'm okay."
Auggie knew she was bruised, and her arms being bound behind her back had made her shoulders ache. He was careful with her as he held her.
"Your sister called," Auggie said. "I told her you'd had a stapler accident, but you were fine, and you'd give her a call in a bit."
"Uh oh," Annie said, looking at Auggie with his little grin on his face as he flicked a shrug.
"She's fine," he said to her after a second. "She knows you're with me now, and I won't let anything happen to you."
He had been so terrified that he had let something happened to her. When Belenko had said he had her, Auggie had felt nauseous and dizzy. It troubled him that Belenko had led Annie off, not even knowing Auggie was down the river investigating his warehouse. It troubled him that it had been that easy for Belenko to grab her. That she hadn't been expecting him, she was only following a lead she'd gotten earlier about a hideout in Bowling Green. Auggie knew that Annie had not been taken for long, Belenko and one of his men had grabbed her and drugged her so she wouldn't be any trouble, and tied her up in Belenko's hideout. He'd gone to the warehouse with his henchmen to do their daily check on the site, and Auggie could only assume he was waiting for Auggie to leave work, wondering where Annie was, and worried enough to be ready to come to her aid. Belenko was using Annie as bait to get Auggie, and Decker was sworn to protect Auggie. He would have come for him. Belenko would have had all three of them then, and he probably would have taken them to the warehouse to watch the next part of his plan. But James Decker had changed that plan.
The sweep team had found the trap door in the back of the warehouse, under an empty shelving unit. They mapped out a tunnel, well lit, in which were a dozen freezer cases, well insulated, and marked as toxic. The area was secured, and a Hazmat team sent in. Belenko's pyramid was crumbling from the top down, and Calder Michaels organised a take-down of anyone who was in-the-know in the chain of command.
Auggie and Annie were given the obligatory time off, a few days and Auggie was to go in Monday morning, with Annie's return pending her health. She'd been given a total physical, as both Auggie and Joan were worried about her, and were still concerned with effects on her heart.
Auggie's ears were ringing for a day from the sound of the blast. He was bruised, too, and had cuts and burns on his back, but he didn't care. He had Annie back in his arms, and he took her home, to their home, and nothing else mattered.
"Well," Annie said. "I guess now he won't crash the wedding."
"Don't even joke about that, Annie," Auggie said. The fear of Mikhail Belenko had hung over Auggie's dreams of the future, and it had tarnished a lot of the excitement.
Annie looked at him. She reached up and put her hand on his cheek, turning him toward her. "You're not going to lose me," she whispered. "I'm marrying you, August Anderson. Nothing will stop it now."
Auggie smiled again and leaned over, kissing her. "Well, in that case, I'd better make you some breakfast." He patted her arm and stood up, leaving her smiling after him, as he made his way to the kitchen. "Look at that!" he called back over his shoulder. "Didn't hit the table at all!"
Annie laughed and shook her head, her love for Auggie so plain on her face.
"You're about to have the messiest, most visually unstunning omelet of all time," Auggie announced as he began getting out the ingredients and placing them on the island.
Annie watched him from her place on the sofa. He was getting very comfortable in the kitchen now, he'd mapped and committed to memory, and Annie had been very interested in the gadgets he'd introduced to her. She wanted to watch him, to breathe him all in, to know him and how his world worked for him. He knew, and he let her, because he wasn't afraid to show it anymore, at least, not to her.
"Betchya it'll taste the best," she called to him as he put the cutting board into his catch tray on the island.
"No doubt," Auggie boasted, winking at her.
"So we're not allowed to go into the office," Annie said after a moment of watching him across the space of the house.
"Not one step," Auggie replied. "James and I caught Joan's evil glare, I know it. No more going off-book. But I'd do it again in a second for you."
Annie got up and moved to the other side of the island from Auggie, pulling out the stool to sit on.
"What would I do without you?" she asked him.
Auggie shook his head, smiling. "You'd be lost," he assured her.
Her smile matched his. She grabbed a mushroom before he cut it up. "So now what do we do?"
"What, with our time off? Oh, I can think of a few things."
"I'm shaking my head and grinning in an exasperated way," Annie said, as she was doing so.
Auggie beamed a smile across the countertop to her.
"Well," he finally said, continuing with his task. "You are going to rest this morning. I don't want you collapsing on me later."
"Auggie, I feel fine."
"I know you feel fine. I want you to feel fantastic."
"I do. I will." She watched him for moment. "How about you?" She'd looked at the marks on his back the night before as she put antiseptic on them and some of them looked painful.
"Me, No, I'm okay." Auggie was so used to bumps and bruises and cuts and burns now that he could almost ignore the smaller things that happened. He was sure his pain tolerance was probably much higher than it should be at this point in his life. "But you are going to take it easy. Maybe we can go for a walk later. Whatever. We have our lives, we have this house, we have the back yard, we have the world. I'm happy just being here."
"Well, you're cheerful this morning."
"You're still here with me. I'm the happiest guy in the world."
The weekend arrived cosy and quiet. Auggie had seen that Annie was indeed strong and back to her usual health, so he let up on her. He never wanted to smother her, the way he'd never want to be coddled and smothered himself.
They spent Saturday morning Skyping with the plane crash children, and then did the housework in tandem. The rain pelted off the gables of the house and along the verandah roof, and a cool breeze blew the sheer curtains across Auggie's arm as he wiped the dining room table. He could hear Annie's wind chimes she'd put out in the tree. The air blowing in smelled fresh and green.
After the tense days leading up to Mikkhail Belenko's capture, Auggie caught himself thinking he was imagining this peace, these surroundings, even Annie. It often amazed him to think that they'd made it here. And he often wondered if they should keep pushing their luck.
He knew he wouldn't give any of this up. Hearing Annie singing absent-mindedly as she worked on some project or email, as she was dressing and brushing her hair, he'd promised himself to work through any mistake, any problem, any hurt, to make sure they stayed strong together. Feeling her walk by him, her hand pressing against his arm or his back as she passed, just as one would smile at her lover, he vowed to protect her and the love she so willingly bestowed upon him. The smell of her skin in the morning gave him everything he needed to face another day. How much did he want to gamble with that?
And yet, after five days off, they both were champing at the bit for something to put their minds in gear and their hearts in motion. Annie begged Joan to let her come in, and Joan relented, already having a whole week of less-than-exciting jobs lined up for her.
Auggie was glad that Joan didn't send her too far straight away. He still felt like he needed to keep her close, not let her out of his reach. He'd been on edge about Belenko for too long, and habitual thought was hard to break.
Decker was another story.
He'd been running for so long, he was a spark on a wire. And yet, Auggie felt a big change come over him. It was like he'd settled something inside. He was still quiet, still acting like everything was a deal in the back room, but he'd stopped looking so hard over his shoulder. Auggie sensed something of an acceptance in where he was. Maybe Decker was developing a feeling of contentment, Auggie wondered to himself. James was talking about having a youth soccer team starting up over the winter to be all ready for spring practice. He was getting his car inspected for another year. He told Auggie he'd bought a new television. Auggie told him to let him know when beers and a game were on the agenda.
The other thing that had happened was a change in Decker's thoughts about Auggie. Auggie had a distinct impression that James had accepted, finally, that Auggie wasn't the same man as he remembered. He finally started to take Auggie's hand and put it on his elbow without falter, and giving Auggie information before he asked for it. He seemed to be less self-conscious about acknowledging Auggie's needs. It was as though he had finally realised that Auggie was incredibly capable when given the right tools and information, but that he needed things that he hadn't before.
He admired Auggie for his tenacity. He admired him for stepping above all expectations while staying humble. He admired him for his fighting skills, which James had seen in the gym but until that day at the warehouse, had not witnessed in action. He stopped feeling awkward about trying to reinvent Auggie, and just formed a new friendship with Auggie now, leaving some of that baggage and loss behind him.
It was a new relationship for them, but to Auggie, it was a relief to be able to finally be himself with Decker, and not have to live up to another man's story. For Decker, it meant he'd given himself a friendship that meant more than the past.
One Saturday afternoon, Annie had just finished sorting laundry and Auggie, having just scrubbed out Annie's bubble bath tub rings, came in to put the towels and clothes away. They had brought their trusted contractor back in to see about doing something about the closet in their bedroom, and Kenny had come up with a few promising plans. He was coming to work on it when they went away in October, and it would be ready as a surprise when they returned.
"Thanks, Hun," Annie said as Auggie took over.
"You've done enough this morning."
Annie began putting away her underwear and stockings. Chores were much bigger with a house to look after, but she actually enjoyed doing housework with Auggie. Together, they figured it out. Annie didn't let Auggie get off lightly. Auggie didn't want to shirk his responsibilities to her and the house. He liked that they worked together at home as well as they did on the job. Minor disagreements aside, of course, which every household had, the whole thing was going rather well, Auggie thought. They had a woman, Callie, come in on Thursdays to supplement their housekeeping. Auggie had employed her through the company he used a couple of years ago and she'd been with him ever since. Annie knew she could trust her home with Callie as Auggie already had.
Annie walked to the window. "Who's that?" she asked out loud.
"You'll have to be a bit more specific," Auggie replied.
"Oh, it's James," Annie answered herself, turning from the window. "In his funny little car."
"He likes his funny little car," Auggie said, as if he could understand just by saying it. He picked up another towel and folded it, and then scanned the bed for anything he may have missed.
Finding nothing, Auggie turned and headed out the bedroom door, and Annie followed him down the stairs to meet James at the front door.
"Hey, Man," he said, pulling the door open.
"Hey." He looked around at the house, with the hanging flower baskets Annie had bought and hung under the verandah. "It's looks nice here. Hey, Annie. Looks good."
They invited Decker in but Annie had a better idea.
"Hey, you guys should take the 'Vette for a spin. Guys. You know. Guy stuff."
Auggie thought on that for a minute. "It's not my car anymore. She's offering it up to you, Man. You wanna take it out?"
"You know I do," said Decker, and Auggie could hear a grin in his words.
"You," Auggie said, turning to Annie, "are gonna get me in trouble. Do you know what this man is capable of?"
Annie smiled at James. "I do," she said. "And I'm grateful."
Auggie headed to the alcove under the stairs for his cane and wallet on the credenza there. "You going anywhere?" he asked Annie, turning.
"Nope. I'm going to go tinker outside and figure out how to hang that hammock for when you come home." She handed Decker the keys to the Corvette.
"Sounds good," he said. He turned back and swept the credenza for his phone, and then he was ready.
They opened the doors to the little garage on the side of the driveway and Decker whistled.
"Yeah, okay, I can see what you were drawn to," he said to Auggie.
"Wait'll you hear it," Auggie said, trailing his hand down the side of the car to the door handle. "Sounds even better."
Auggie had just finished buckling the seat belt when Decker turned the key. The familiar rumble reverberated around them as James pulled out into the driveway, and beeped at Annie, who was waving at them from the doorway. Auggie raised his hand above his head and waved. He knew she needed some alone time and she knew he needed some guy time, as she put it, and he was glad for both.
"Where do you wanna go?" James asked.
Auggie put his hands up. "Nope, you're in charge here, Decker, I'm just along for the ride on this one. You'll finally realise why I've been making fun of your car all year. Last year for the real sports car, here, Man." Auggie patted the frame of the door.
"Well, as much as I hate to say you're right, Dude, I may hafta say you're right on this one."
"How easy was that?" Auggie teased. I knew you'd come to your senses. And what do you mean this one? I'm never wrong, Decker."
"Well, they sure never scared that attitude out of you," Decker said, and Auggie smiled at him. He wasn't sure who Decker was referring to, the bombers, Belenko's men, Henry Wilcox, the CIA, or all of them together.
"No," said Auggie. "It's hard to mess with perfection."
"Aw, geez, you're so full of shit, Auggie." Decker was chuckling.
"I am that," Auggie agreed, grinning along with him.
"How does Annie put up with you?"
"I honestly don't know sometimes," Auggie said. "She's got patience, that's for certain." He turned his body to Decker. "Do you know she's learning Braille? Just enough to leave me notes. I mean, who does that?"
"You did that."
"Yeah, I know, but it was a bit more necessary for me. She didn't have to."
"She seems like the right one, Auggie."
"Yup. She is." She was.
"Smart one, too."
"One of the smartest." He was proud of who she was.
James was quiet, and Auggie took a shot in the literal dark. "It'll happen for you, too."
"Yeah, I dunno, Auggie. I'm a little rough around the edges."
"Some women like that," Auggie said. "I knew a few women like that. There's someone for everyone."
"You believe that?" asked Decker.
"I didn't used to," Auggie said.
"But you do now."
"I kind of have to," Auggie replied. "Look at what came my way."
"You're lucky," Decker said, and he meant it.
"I know." Auggie reached out and patted the dash of the car. "Now put this puppy into fifth and let 'er show you what she's made of," said Auggie.
Decker gave it all he had, and after forty-five minutes of good driving, he pulled off for something to drink.
"We got beer on one side and coffee on the other," Decker said.
"We could have one of each," Auggie said.
"Now you're thinking," Decker said, laughing.
They spent the next hour sitting out on the deck of a pub, drinking a beer. Auggie admitted to being worried about the upcoming September wedding, though he was looking forward to finally being married to Annie, for it to be happening. He told Decker about their plans to have a small ceremony at their own house, and that the invitation would probably be in his hand in a week.
"Annie picked out the invitations. They are blank. No detail. Nada. Like the White Album. So I'm not missing anything there. She actually sat and punched Braille into all of them. Not that there are that many."
"What did she put?" asked Decker, taking a swig of beer.
"She put love."
"Isn't that what that heavy big piece of wall art I moved for you says?"
"Yup. She was apparently sitting looking at the book of invitation styles and she was getting overwhelmed on her own. She said that simplified it for her, and so she ordered plain linen cards."
"Yup. No question. Meant for you."
Auggie couldn't contain the grin that crossed his face.
"So, you think you can handle coming to a wedding?"
"For you, Brother, I'd walk coals to get there."
He reached over and clinked his bottle against the one in Auggie's hand. Auggie nodded and raised his bottle to Decker, and drank.
After their beer, they moved on to a coffee, and headed back home. Auggie really noticed at that point that they hadn't had the weight of Belenko hanging over their shoulders. They'd simply done what friends do, they'd hung out and hadn't talked about work.
On the way home, they did what Annie had instructed. Guy stuff. They talked about sports, and the car, and about getting back to their judo class. When they reached back to the long driveway, Auggie was so glad Annie had suggested this for them. Decker had gotten a few good revs out of the car, took a few tight turns for the thrill of it. Auggie held on, not feeling the same innate trust that he had with Annie.
"That looks like Eric's car," said Decker as they arrived at the house.
"Is it?" Auggie was surprised. It was like he all of a sudden had friends and a regular life. That was what Annie and a house gave him, he decided.
"Want 'er back in the garage?"
"Yeah, you'd better, thanks, Man. I don't want Annie to have to come do it later. And it's totally for the best I don't try it. I don't think my home or my car insurance would cover that."
Decker patted him on the chest and backed the car into the little garage, and then they climbed out. Auggie didn't bother with his cane, he just reached out as he came to the front of the garage, and Decker's elbow appeared at his fingers.
Annie and Barber were sitting up on the verandah on the side of the house, Annie on the swinging bed and Decker in a rocking chair.
"Wow," said Decker, and Auggie looked and felt puzzled.
"Yeah, that's a little housewarming gift," said Eric.
"What are we talking about?" Auggie asked, out of his depth on this one.
Annie stood and came over to him, taking his hand in hers. He moved with her until she put his hand on the top of something heavy and hard.
"Look, Auggie," she said. "Eric wasn't kidding."
Auggie's fingers traced the large object, understanding almost immediately what they told him.
"It's your barbecue," he said. "Eric, you got us a barbecue." He turned to where he thought Barber was standing. "I'm touched, Barber."
"Yeah," said Eric, moving close. Auggie adjusted his direction accordingly. "I'm happy for you guys. I'm gonna give you a hug, Auggie, so..."
"Oh, okay," Auggie said as the big man wrapped his arms around Auggie.
"Annie," said Barber, moving over to her.
Auggie stood grinning as Eric hugged Annie, telling her how happy he was that they were together, in this cool house, like they were meant to be.
Meant to be. Auggie had heard it too many times, had thought it too many times, for it to be a coincidence. No-one had ever said it about him and Natasha. Or Even Helen.
"So," said Auggie. "Did you bring steaks and burgers?"
"Thought you'd never ask," said Eric, and everyone laughed.
"I guess it's a barbecue, then," said Annie. "All right, boys, you get the tank hooked up and make it happen, and I'll get all the other bits ready. We'll christen this place the way Eric would have us do it."
"Hey-oh! Par-tay!" said Eric. "Hey, Auggie, fist bump, right here."
"Oh, right, fist bump." Auggie stuck his fist out, letting Eric knock his own against it. He smiled anyway. Eric Barber was one of a kind, and Auggie was grateful for that. He reached out and found Barber's shoulder, giving it a squeeze. He was grateful for Eric.
Annie popped in and out as they all hung around the barbecue; Eric and James were both trying to follow instructions to get the hose attached to the barbecue.
"Maybe you should have gone with the charcoal one," Decker said as he twisted his grip on the tank.
Auggie didn't care what kind of barbecue it was or how long it took. Annie came over and looped her arms around his middle, and he turned and pulled her into his side. It was true: their lives outside the agency had become more than their lives inside. No-one was hunting them, no-one was trying to put a wedge between them, they had finally made it past that.
They would soon be husband and wife.
As long as Auggie didn't have to pick out flowers and table decorations, he was more than okay with the way this had all turned out.