"Something smells really good," Auggie said as he moved from the door to the credenza, collapsing his cane and setting it in the tray, then removing his messenger bag and putting it beside it.
"I'm trying something," Annie said.
"You're getting pretty adventurous there, Walker," Auggie teased, grinning at her as he moved toward her with his arms out. His hands slid around her hips and she took his face in her hands and kissed him.
"Gotta learn new things," Annie said. "Besides, with Danielle so far away, I don't get those tasty meals now."
"Are you saying you don't like the stuff I order for you?" he joked with her. Then he closed his eyes and lifted his nose, smiling. "If it tastes like it smells, you may have gotten some of her cooking genes after all."
"One can only hope," Annie laughed, turning back to the kitchen.
Auggie grinned and moved towards the bedroom to change out of his work clothes. It had been a tense past few days, but this morning, everything in his tentative control had come back into play. James Decker had, in all honesty, made a memorable bit of intelligence retrieval in Cuba, and was now in a safe house awaiting the decision on his return. It was a relief to Auggie that Decker had been successful, without incident. It meant he'd been right, that Decker hadn't lost his touch, and that he'd be an asset to them.
"I can't believe we both have the weekend off," Annie said as Auggie returned back down the stairs in more comfortable clothing.
"Shhh," he said. "Don't say that too loudly. They'll hear us."
"Did you tell Joan we were looking at houses?"
"I sure did, Annie. You told me to tell Joan we were looking at houses, so I told Joan we were looking at houses."
She bopped him in the arm and he laughed. He sat at the island, a big sigh of contentment escaping his lungs. Annie bent down with her chin on her hands across the other side of the island from him.
"Was that a good sigh?" she asked.
He smiled. "Yeah."
She waited a minute. "Are you gonna tell me what that's all about?"
"Am I not supposed to be happy?" he teased her.
He heard her moved back to the counter, clinking cutlery, tossing something in the sink. He wasn't worried any more. At first, he had been worried that he would lose his routines and methods with someone else living there. He'd tried it with Natasha, and even Parker had come to stay with him for a while, and each time, he'd had to deal with his fridge contents being changed around, shoes in the floor, the remote control gone from its place in the tray, lost into oblivion. Tash had gotten defensive once when he rounded on her about moving the remote.
"It's gone," he tried to explain.
"No, it's just over here," Tash had sighed.
"First, I don't know where there is, Tash. And second? If it's not here, in this spot, and I can't find it around this spot, it's gone. It's out of existence for me. Okay? I can't just look around and see the damn thing over there!"
"Fine, Auggie, I'll keep everything exactly as it is, I won't touch anything. Happy?"
He hadn't been. And she forgot she promised shortly after that she had said it, or at least, she hoped he'd forgotten.
Annie. Annie, on the other hand, never forgot. She told him if she took something and used it all. She asked him questions if she was unsure. He knew she watched him, but instead of just watching him out of curiosity or pity, she watched and learned.
He knew that everything in the kitchen would be back in place before the evening was over. He knew that if he helped her clean up, she would give him jobs but that they would be explicit so he wouldn't tread in her mess, or create a bigger one. He trusted her, and he didn't try to overrule her because he wanted to prove he could do it. She was just right about it, and it was easier that way. Auggie knew that was something that worked between them without words. There were lots of things that had been hard, but this one had been so seamless. He still had no idea why or how, but he knew he'd never found it with anyone else, not in his family, not in his coworkers, not in his conquests or girlfriends.
He didn't realise he'd been lost in thought. He also didn't realise Annie had turned and saw he was lost in thought. When he finally noticed that she had stopped making noise, he snapped to, lifting his face to her.
"Are you worried about tomorrow?" she asked.
"What, Skyping with the girls? Not one bit, I love to talk with them. I hope Violet laughs so I can hear her," he said with a smile. He waited, then his expression became puzzled. "You mean the house-hunting?"
Auggie took a deep breath. "A little," he said. He had a moment's thought of hoping she wouldn't try to make it no big deal, or make it okay. She was quiet, which made him smile to himself. He put his hand across the island and felt hers slide into it. "I think it's a good nervous. I'm glad we're doing this, Annie, I really am. It's exactly what I want. It's just... it's harder... for me... now... I'm so used to this place. I have every seam and every piece memorised and visualised here. It's going to take me a long time to get that comfortable in a new place... and, well, it's going to be weird for you to see me there."
"Auggie," Annie said, a smile in her voice as she moved around the island to put her arms around his waist. He put his arms over hers and dropped his gaze to her face.
"I want to make it easier for you, okay? Just like we did in all those places we stayed in on our tour. And you can have all the time in the world to get oriented to it, Auggie. I'm not going to be weirded out by you. Why would you even think that?" She genuinely was surprised.
"Sorry," Auggie said with a little smirk. "Mesmerised." He winked at her, feeling an odd sense of accomplishment with her old description somehow.
"You better believe it, Buster. I know it's a whole new world to you in a new house, but we can explore it together." She looked around. "I'm going to miss this place, too. I have a lot of attachment to it."
Auggie nodded. "I know. But... it's time to let it go. There are too many bad memories here, too. Too many others, and... that night those guys were here, Annie. I've never felt as safe here since, and I don't know why. We have all the locks fixed and everything's back to normal, but... it's just a lot of bad memories. I want all new memories, good ones, with you."
"We'll set the new place up, wherever it is, to be whatever we both need. Right? It'll be ours. We can incorporate whatever furniture you want to take. Whatever you need. I have nothing of my own any more that I really want. I just want you."
Auggie laughed. "I am all about that," he said. "But this is a joint mission, I want your input. It's ours. Okay?"
Her words smiled into his ears. "Okay, Mr. Anderson. Fifty-fifty."
"Except on the colour. You could paint it like Sardinia, I wouldn't care. You're really lucky that way."
"That wouldn't be a bad idea," Annie mused. "I have such good memories of that place. Those colours will always take me back there."
"Yeah," Auggie grinned. "Me, too."
"You didn't even see them," she groaned.
"Yes, I did," he said with a smug smile.
She hugged to him a little. "I'm glad," she said softly. "But don't worry. I won't make our home anything but us. We have those memories forever with us."
"Ohh, phew," Auggie said. "I was so scared you were going to go all summer turquoise and sunflower yellow and seastorm green -"
"Seafoam green and whatever-the-gad else they name those colours."
He could feel her shoulders swaying as she shook her head. "I will restrain myself," she said. She let go of him and tapped his shoulder. "Come on, it's ready. Set the plates out, will ya?"
Auggie grinned. "Do I have to do everything around here?" he teased her.
The morning had been awesome. They'd first spoken to Violet's family. To Auggie's intense delight, the little girl was animated, and made all sorts of noises and sounds. Auggie couldn't keep the joy from his face. They talked to her new family and found she had already met dozens of cousins and there would never be an issue of her being alone in her lifetime. Auggie felt his heart brighten at this. The right choice had been made, and Violet was exactly where she belonged. Auggie laughed when the little girl giggled. She sounded so happy, so healthy, Auggie felt tears in his eyes, and he hoped Annie had tears as well, because then she might not notice his.
When Annie disconnected the link on Auggie's MacBook Air, she squeezed Auggie's hand. "Ready for another go?"
"You bet. Set 'er up."
The Skype chimed, and Auggie took a deep breath, trying to look composed, but his pleasure at their morning schedule put the smile back on his face.
The calls were made on Saturdays. Auggie sent them a message the night before to confirm the times and again this time, all had come back with affirmative responses.
"Who?" Auggie asked, as the computer chimed.
"Gianna," Annie said as the sound of the call connected and was picked up at the other end.
"Say hello," an accented male voice said, and Auggie heard a small Hello, and he felt his whole smile cover his face.
"Hey, Gianna!" Annie and he both said at the same time.
Annie switched to Italian, and coaxed the little girl out of her shyness. Auggie asked her about her new house and if she had any pets. She began to open up and chat, and Annie asked her if she had been dancing for her grandparents. Her response was to get up and disappear from the screen, as Annie informed Auggie. Her grandfather turned the camera so Annie could see the little girl begin a routine. She told Auggie what she was seeing, and described the lacy white tutu the child was wearing over her leggings and T-shirt. He could hear footsteps in no particular rhythm in the background on the speaker, and he sat, a look of anticipation and attention on his face. When he heard the sounds stop, Annie began to clap and he did the same.
"Brava, Gianna!" Annie said. "That was beautiful, you're going to be the most wonderful dancer!"
Auggie wanted to complement her, but he wasn't sure how. He couldn't see her dance. He just knew she was wobbly, and inventive, and totally absorbed as she did it. He imagined it that way, and it made her even more real to him.
"Wait," said the little girl, running close to the microphone again. Auggie furrowed his brows, to show his invested interest. She leaned in close and Auggie could hear her breathing. In English, her voice almost beside him, the little girl said, "Now, I have a dance for Auggie."
Auggie sat, curious as to what this would be. He heard her move off again, and then the voice of her grandfather telling them to be patient while the little starlet prepared.
Moments later, after hushed voices of Gianna and her grandmother, Auggie heard the loud and distinct sound of tap shoes clinking along a hard floor. She came close again and said, "My Nonna buy me this, so you can see me dance, too," she said proudly, unaware of how this took Auggie off-guard. Annie grinned and took his hand, squeezing it. This time, Auggie dipped his head and closed his eyes, listenning to the little girl dancing for him thousands of miles away.
How could he feel so happy? He had thought happiness like this would never come to him. Too many things had gone wrong. Things kept getting worse and Auggie just threw himself into his work. There was so much more to life than that. He had been telling Annie all along this very thing, and it was really starting to dawn on him that he hadn't even realised it fully himself until recently, maybe not until this very moment. That little girl was dancing for him and he couldn't see any of it. And yet, every image came into his mind full and clear, her lacy tutu, her hair in two loopy braids, even a face that he couldn't quite set to stone, but was almost clear in his imagination. And this was enough, because it was true, it was real, and it was the best place he had ever been, plain and simple.
Auggie thanked Gianna, so proud of her, and telling her how grateful he was that she made a way for him to enjoy her dancing. It amazed him how creative and accepting most kids were about things. The little girl clip-clapped to the laptop again, and everyone got ready to say good bye. Auggie and Annie both blew kisses toward the laptop screen, and then the call ended once more.
"Ohhh," Auggie said, lying back against the back of the chair. "That was fantastic," he said.
"Yeah, you looked pretty pleased about the whole thing," she said, leaning against him. "You're gonna be a terrific dad," she told him.
"We've gone from it being a possibility to it being a going to?" Auggie asked.
"Not technically... but, yeah. I think so."
"Well, let's do some more preparation, there, Mama Bear. Give my girly a call there; see if we can get Alessia to talk to us."
The shy four-year-old, who had been so quiet with Auggie, but so present to him, was very hard to read over Skype. Auggie had the most difficulty connecting with her over the internet. Annie talked to Alessia's aunt for a little while, and she told Auggie that Alessia was quietly sitting, and then she pressed her hand on Auggie's arm.
"What?" he whispered.
They heard Alessia's aunt laughing, and then she spoke both to the little girl and to Annie and Auggie on the other side of the screen. "Are you touching them? Yes? She has her hand on the screen, she touches you both. She's nodding."
Auggie was amazed. He was hoping on the flight home that the little girls would remember them, but he didn't realise that the connection he'd felt had been both ways.
"Hey, Sweetie," Annie said. "You all right?" She said in a quieter voice, "She's nodding."
"Of course she is," Auggie said. "Hey, Kiddo, are you having fun with your cousins?"
"Sì," the little girl said, loud enough for Auggie to hear. He smiled broadly.
Then, "Ya doin' okay? Are things good?"
"Sì, Auggie," she said. And then she started. Auggie couldn't believe it, but the little girl began to talk, in Italian. Annie told him the little girl continued to stand close to the computer or laptop they were using in her home and it was if she was only talking for Auggie's sake. She told him she saw a zoo, and she told him she ate three bowls of gelato at a family party. She told him she missed him, and she asked him if he would come tell her a story. Annie's hand clenched Auggie's tightly, and he could feel her emotion breaking through just from that squeeze.
"I will, one day, I promise, okay? I promise that we will come and I will tell you lots of stories, okay?"
"Sì, okay." She fell quiet again.
"Ti amo, Piccola," Auggie said.
"Ti amo," she said back. "Mi manchi."
"We do, too, we miss you lots," Annie said, her voice back in control. "And Auggie's right, we're going to come and visit you, okay? Not now, but soon."
It was hard, hanging up. The little girl had become quite animated in her talk with them, and Annie knew it was all for Auggie. She'd seen what had happened with the two of them. Something sweet had developed between two people that might have a hard time connecting with others: one a grown-up, and one a small, frightened child.
Annie leaned over and rubbed Auggie's shoulder. "That was so wonderful, wasn't it?"
"What kind of amazing lives will they have with firecracker starts like they've had?" Auggie mused.
"Maybe as amazing as ours," Annie said, pulling him to his feet. "Speaking of which, let's go grab something to eat across the way and head over town. Our first appointment is at eleven-thirty."
Auggie felt his watch. "Plenty of time," he said.
"I was thinking we might stop over at my storage unit," Annie said. "I have a surprise for you."
Auggie grinned. He had an inkling. He also knew needed to make one more step forward.