"He's almost two already," Annie said.
"Time flies when you're on the run," Auggie said, without humour, as he followed Annie's guide to the Campbell's door.
The door pulled open before Annie had time to even get to it. Joan was slightly out of breath. Annie was taken aback.
"My zipper's stuck," said Joan. "Can you-?"
Annie pushed her gently back in the house, with Auggie trailing behind. He let go of her arm while she tended to Joan's distress, and stepped over one step to the right, his foot colliding with some sort of something.
"Oh, Auggie, that's just a toy, don't worry about it. The rest is cleared away. I missed that, Mack had it earlier, playing... Thanks, Annie... Arthur?"
Auggie grinned. Joan was flustered. He rarely got to see this side of her, and he was quite sure Annie had never seen it. As usual, he found it comical.
"No-one saw us, just to let you know," Annie said. "I mean, I know it's not..."
"No," Joan said, momentarily sounding like Joan Campbell. "That's good. It's good to keep vigilant. Three covert agents meeting at the former head of the CIA's residence may not look suspicious until it does... Arthur? I told you already that tux you had on was the nicest one. Annie and Auggie are here!"
Arthur came down the stairs, carrying the baby. "Annie, Auggie, thank God you guys are here. Everything that could go wrong in this house has gone wrong today. We've got twenty-eight minutes, Darling, are we close?"
"Just let me get my shoes and my handbag. Thank goodness at least one of us thought to find someone to look after our child. I still have no idea why you didn't tell me about this sooner."
"I did, but you weren't listening to your husband. If you didn't look so absolutely ravishing in that dress right now, I might be tempted to leave without you," Arthur said, following her out of the room.
Annie and Auggie stood there, slightly agape.
"Wow," Annie said.
Auggie shook his head, confused. "Do they still have the kid?"
"Yeah. Arthur has him."
"Do you think they'll tell us any general rules or are they gonna take Mack and leave without actually talking to us?"
"Well, considering their car is out front, I'm assuming they'll come back this way," Annie said.
Sure enough, moments later, the force that was the Campbells returned to the room and Auggie stepped aside with Annie as they put on their coats, handing off the baby to Annie.
"I wrote everything down; the list is on the counter in the kitchen. His bottle is in the fridge. No juice before bed."
"Come on, Joan, they know how to look after a baby, they looked after five of them in a plane crash off France, Mack will be fine." Arthur patted Auggie's shoulder as he went by him. "Beer in the fridge, Auggie. Help yourself."
"You have my number," Joan called as Arthur pushed her out the door.
Annie shut it behind them, holding Mack in one arm on her hip, and she took Auggie's arm in hers, walking together to the sofa. "Well, I don't think I've seen that before," she said.
Auggie laughed. "I keep telling you, Annie, Joan is not always so stiff. Of course, she's not usually this flustered, either. This one was a good one. Now where's the kid?" Auggie put out his hand to touch the little boy on his shoulder. Annie turned Mackenzie around and sat him on her lap, cuddling him.
"Nope," Annie told Auggie. "Not having any of that. He just slid quite deliberately off my lap to the floor and is heading for that toy you hit earlier. He's pretty fast, Auggie. You're gonna have to watch yourself."
"Then you better keep your eye on him, because I can only watch so much," Auggie said. For a minute he realised he hadn't thought about this age, when children started moving and even the best eyes missed little hands and little bodies being where they shouldn't. None of the kids from the crash were this age. And he had a moment's thought that maybe he wouldn't be able to handle it after all. He heard the kid's hands and knees as he ungracefully crawled over to the right and stopped.
"What's he doing now?" Auggie asked.
"Looking at a pillow."
"Fascinating," Auggie said, hearing the thumping motion of the child again, continuing his journey to the right. Mack stopped and hooted at something and then turned and asked, "Dah?" Then he giggled and the thumping happened again, faster this time.
"What's he doing now?" Auggie asked.
"He's standing over to our right, looking at us."
"Gawh!" Mack said to them. "Gawh? Hnhh!"
Auggie sighed and slid down on to the floor. "Well, the only way to know what he's doing is for me to play with the kid. Where's that toy?"
Annie grinned. "It's right in front of you, about eleven O'clock, maybe four feet."
Auggie located it and explored it with both hands. "A choo-choo train, Mack. Is this yours?"
The little boy thumped his loud little run toward Auggie but stopped.
"Uh-oh," Annie said.
"He's just realised his parents aren't here. Wait for it... and three, tw-"
She didn't get any further. With one yelp, Mackenzie went into distress mode and started bawling as Annie moved in to distract him. She picked him up and bounced him, and took the train Auggie held out to her from where he sat on the floor.
"Well, that went well," Auggie said.
"I'm sure he'll be fine by the end of the night," Annie said, sounding dubious.
"Sure, sure. Yeah." Auggie crawled back to the sofa, sweeping his hand out in front of him to keep from hitting the coffee table.
"Why don't you take a look around, and I'll see if I can't locate this list of instructions. She probably has a dossier in a file sitting on the counter in there. Do you know the layout?"
"I've been here a few times," Auggie said.
"I know," Annie said, and he heard her retreating to the kitchen. "Found it!" she called back. "This isn't as detailed as I imagined it would be. I'm kinda disappointed," Annie said, sounding it as she returned. Mack was still snuffling and letting out woeful cries but Auggie could already tell the kid was over it.
"I need something to play with him," Auggie said. "What's here?"
"There's a ball."
"Aw, geez, the day has come that I'm on an even playing field with a toddler playing catch."
"Well, we'll have a bell in ours," Annie said, placing the ball in his hand. "Go on. We'll all play." Annie sat beside Auggie, touching his knee. "Over there, Mack, Auggie's going to roll the ball to you. Can you catch? Perfect! Yup, he's sitting there waiting with his feet open."
"You ready, Mack?" Auggie asked, tipping an ear forward. The little boy made a happy, excited sound, and Auggie rolled the ball toward that.
"Yay!" called Annie. "Almost!"
"Almost me, or almost him?" Auggie asked.
"No, your aim was perfect. He was a little slow on the catch part. Kind of post-bounce try."
Auggie laughed as Annie reached for the ball. "Throwing isn't his strong suit, either, I take it," he said.
"Kind of an overarm throw at the floor," she described. "The intent was there, the method needs help."
"What do you expect, with Arthur as his father," Auggie reasoned, as Annie passed him the ball again.
They played ball for at least twelve minutes. Then Mack wanted a drink. After the drink, he wanted Auggie to read him one of his stories.
"We'll have to give this to Annie," Auggie said. "Sorry, little man, I can't read your books." Annie took the book and opened it, reading about a bunny that hated wearing slippers. Auggie listened with complete pleasure, taking in the moment.
"Oh, and he's gone. He's lost interest, now he's playing with the train again."
"Well, go on," Auggie said with a smile. "I really need to know if the bunny wears the slippers at the end."
Annie grinned at him, shaking her head, going back to finish the book.
Auggie heard the little guy running toward him, and anticipated possibly being hit with something, intentionally, or unintentionally. Kids just lobbed things at other people, that's how it worked. He put his hands out as if to catch, grab, or thereby break impact of Mackenzie, but the kid veered off right and in a moment there was silence.
"Sofa?" Auggie asked.
Auggie slid over and touched Mackenzie's back.
"He's sucking his thumb. He's getting pooped."
"I'm sure Joan's working on that thumb thing." Auggie got to his feet.
"You wanna go to bed?" Annie asked the little boy.
"Oh, like that's all you have to do," Auggie said, shaking his head, laughing when he heard Mack say no quite distinctly. "Kids never want to go to bed. Now, had you asked me on the other hand... Yeah, I know, you're rolling your eyes at me. I'm just sayin'. It's all in your phrasing."
"And how, pray tell, would you phrase it to this child?"
That child, Auggie heard, had taken off again. "Maybe we should just tire him out until he passes out where he is?"
"Is that good parenting?" Annie asked.
Auggie shrugged. "I don't know, I'm not a parent."
Annie moved quickly toward the kitchen, chasing Mack as he headed toward something or other. Auggie followed the sound as it went, trying to discern if Annie would require help in heading the boy off. No wonder Joan had been so flustered. One little boy with his belly full of food and his toys all around him was way different than five scared children who had no energy to burn.
"Annie?" he called.
"I got him!" Annie replied back from the other room. "Heading for the garbage bin."
These things were the things that worried Auggie. Sure, he could play with a kid, teach him, instruct him, listen to him. But he couldn't keep him from being where he wasn't supposed to be unless he was tethered to Auggie. How could Annie trust that he would be able to keep their kids safe? That they would not fall off the stair landing, that they'd stay out of the garbage, that they wouldn't find a pin or scissors and cause damage to themselves? How could she trust him, since he didn't know if he trusted himself. Had Annie thought of these things? Did it worry her that he wouldn't be able share as much of the load as he should? Would she resent him when she was tired of always being the one to keep watch?
"Do you think he'd fall asleep watching a cartoon or something?" Auggie asked, trying to think of the present.
Annie picked up the remote control and flicked on the TV. She scanned through the channels until she found something that had unreasonably high-pitched voices and very simplistic music.
"Oh, wait, no, honey!" Annie jumped as Auggie felt his cane hit his shins, not hard, but as though the kid had picked it up and was turning with it, hitting things by mistake. Annie pried the cane out of Mack's hands, which started another string of unhappy tears. Auggie stuck out his hand, taking the cane.
"If I'd folded it, he probably would have pinched his fingers," Auggie said. "My nephew did that."
"You have a nephew?"
"I have a big family. It was only natural for a nephew to come along at some point."
"You're going to have to make me a chart, and tell me all about this family, Buster. I don't know anything about any of them."
"Well, my mother's dying to meet you," Auggie said, over Mackenzie's wailing. "I talked to her this week."
"You did? When? When I was away? Mack? Stop squirming, Little Man. Oof."
The little boy wrestled away from Annie but didn't go far, choosing to stand and sob directly out of reach, so they'd get the full effect.
"Yeah," Auggie replied. "I told her about the house. They'd kill me if I didn't. They'll want to come see it. See you. You know."
He felt Annie's palm on his cheek. "It's okay. It's right, Auggie, that they should come. Maybe not all of them at once, mind you."
Auggie laughed. "Oh, Gawd, no, I'd never let that happen." He turned back to face the whimpering little boy. "I'm going to watch cartoons, Mackenzie. I'm going to watch this cartoon; do you want to watch with me?"
Mack just took a shuddering breath but stopped crying.
Auggie sat down on the floor. "Can we see the TV? Is the table in the way?"
"No, you have a clear view," Annie said, watching Auggie as he held out his hand towards Mack.
"Are there any purple guys on screen?" Auggie asked the boy. "Do you see purple guys? How about blue guys, are there any blue guys? Come watch with me."
Auggie felt the boy move against his leg, not touching his hand, possibly absorbed in the television screen. After a minute, Mackenzie sat against Auggie's leg. Auggie put his hand on the little boy's warm back. Within five minutes, Mack had moved back and was leaning against Auggie's side. Auggie put his arm around the little boy, brushing the soft hair along the crown of his head. They all sat quietly, separately engrossed in the sounds and the colours and the action from the television.
"He'll be out very shortly," Annie said, leaning forward to check to see if the little boy's eyes were still open.
"We should ask for a pay raise," Auggie replied.
"Oh, come on, you love this," Annie said, bumping his shoulder slightly so as not to disturb the child.
"I do, yeah. But there still should be some danger pay involved."
"We came out pretty unscathed, actually," Annie said. "I expected at least two broken things."
"Was one of those things me?"
Annie leaned up and kissed his cheek. He turned with a grin and leaned down for another, which she responded to, as always. She never left him in mid-air, pursed for a kiss, which was nice. "I had hopes it wouldn't be you," she said. "You've been broken enough recently."
"Ugh, don't remind me. Speaking of which, there's some news on the Belenko front, and I have my team on it. We need to get enough to tie him in, and as usual there's nothing concrete. But the thing is, we need to get to him, safely, with the intel, before Decker gets it into his head to go do it himself. Actually, it's in his head already, which is really worrying."
"What about me?" Annie asked. "Ask Joan to send me in."
"No, Annie, I don't want anyone that is attached to me or Decker involved. Period. Especially you."
"Auggie, you can't keep me from dangerous missions."
"I didn't say anything about keeping you from dangerous missions. I said you won't be involved in this one. And you won't. Besides, Joan has your plate loaded down."
"Will you at least keep me updated?"
"I will give you all the intelligence I can. You know I still can't go above your clearance, though, right?"
Annie sighed. "I know. I wouldn't ask you to do that."
"How's the kid?" Auggie asked, motioning with his head.
Annie leaned forward, checking. "He's out."
Auggie shifted a little, but the little boy didn't rouse.
"I'll take him up," Annie said, standing up and carefully lifting Mack from where he was pressed up against Auggie.
Auggie listened to her soft footsteps pad across the floor. He didn't mind that Annie took Mack up. He wouldn't be so lenient at carrying his own child to bed. He'd know each step, each stair, and whether the sheets were folded down, and he'd carry his own children and read to them like any dad. Well, thought Auggie, I suppose not like any dad. He might even be better than just any dad, because he'd want to carry his child to bed and read to them. He pushed himself up onto the sofa and then he leaned forward to the right, reaching out his hand. He brushed against the coffee table and then carefully felt along the top of it for the remote, needing to change the music before it bore into his brain and he was humming it out loud. The remote was generic cable, he thumbed the channel, not knowing what he was flipping to, as long as it wasn't a cartoon voice singing a song.
He soon recognised the voices and sound effects and music coming from the speakers of the stereo, and flicked his thumb over the other side of the remote, turning the volume down. And then he heard Annie coming down the stairs.
"Is that The Lord of the Rings?" Annie asked. "What, you couldn't take the dancing sponges?"
"They were sponges?"
"I have no idea," Annie said. "Is this the first one?"
"Yeah," Auggie said. "Come, sit beside me." He patted the cushion beside him. "It is the first one. Did you watch all these?"
"Somewhere along the way," she said. "Let me guess, you were at the opening night."
Auggie shrugged. "I don't know why you'd think that."
"Did you see them all?"
"Of course, I saw them all, why would I only see part of them?"
"No, I mean, did you see see them?"
"Oh. Yeah... yeah, I saw saw them all. I mean, the first ones. The new ones I only heard. Though I guess I wasn't missing as much, so that's okay."
"Can you still picture them if you watch them?"
Auggie smiled. "Sure. Just like you can remember them. I remember them. Plus, well, I may have watched them more than once."
"You're such a dork."
"But it didn't stop you from loving me."
"I think it's hot," Annie teased him. "Though I'm still not sure how you are a computer dork and a wrestling Special Forces hottie. It just doesn't seem fair that you are good at everything."
"I think I've had some upset there," Auggie said. "I've given back to even things out."
"Oh. Right. I forgot," Annie said.
"Oops. I did. I guess there are a few things that you're not so hot at. You're probably a really bad driver. And I wouldn't trust you with a bow and arrow."
The smile spread over Auggie's face, he could feel it happen and he couldn't prevent it. That's what it was like to be with her; he smiled a lot when she was around. There had been a horrible long stretch where neither one of them could smile, and Auggie usually shook his thoughts out when he dwelled on it too much, but her ease at making him smile, he never wanted to lose those memories or that feeling, ever again.
"Will it be weird for Joan and Arthur to come home to you and me sitting here all cuddled up on their sofa?" Annie asked.
"I hope so," Auggie said, hearing her laugh.