As time passed, Hannah grew more open, more comfortable with Aedan near her. There were still nightmares and the occasional flashback, but Aedan would wake and keep her, help her talk through the memory. It startled him most that she couldn’t remember her childhood – but he was grateful for it, considering what she did remember. Long nights watching movies and eating popcorn were common, and the pair settled into a familiar dynamic.
“Hey,” Aedan said after a few days, “I don’t feel like cooking.”
“There’s bread, and some ham in the fridge. We could make sandwiches,” Hannah said absently from her computer.
“We should go out to dinner. I know this great Indian joint we could try. It’s small, so there shouldn’t be too many people. It’ll be fine, perfectly safe. You can bring a gun if you like.”
"Sounds like fun," Hannah said as she closed her computer and rose.
"Nothing like a second date after a deployment, huh?"
She grinned, reaching into her bag and pulling out a small pistol, hiding it in her purse. “You can’t see it, right?” she asked.
“See what?” he asked with a grin.
“Exactly,” she said. “Let’s go.” She slid her hand into the crook of Aedan’s arm and let him walk her out onto the street.
Aedan could tell she was nervous; she clung to him, frightened, and eyed passersby warily.
"It's okay. We're in the States. You're safe."
"How do you know?" she asked.
"Because I will always protect you."
She smiled, leaning into his side. “I know,” she said softly.
“It’s right this way,” he said, ducking Hannah into a restaurant about the size of a postage stamp, with three small tables and a counter for ordering. The round faced, dark-skinned woman at the counter grinned as Aedan approached.
“Hello, Aedan!” she said cheerily, coming out from behind the counter to give Aedan a flour-stained hug.
“Hey, Mrs. Reddy. How’s everybody?”
“We’re all doing fine, Krishna is in college now, he’s going to be a doctor. Riyah is working tonight, she’ll be sad to have missed you. Who’s this?” she asked, tilting her head at Hannah.
"This is my girlfriend, Hannah. We just got back from our deployment."
The woman blinked a few times. “Your girlfriend?” she asked.
“Yes Ma’am,” he grinned.
She smiled at him and turned to Hannah. “I wanted to find him a good Indian girl,” she confided. “Meera will be so disappointed.”
Hannah chuckled. “Sorry,” she said. “I guess I’ll have to do.”
“So,” Aedan said, “the usual? And some Garlic Naan?”
“And what will you have, dear?” the woman asked Hannah.
“Whatever he’s having, so long as it’s spicy.”
“Two lamb kormas and a garlic naan!” she called towards the kitchen before turning back to the couple. “Sit down and your food will be right there.”
Hannah and Aedan sat down, and Hannah began to forget the pistol she concealed in her purse. "So did you always want to be a soldier?"
"Well, with a dad in the teams, it was kind of a given that I would join. I had the hardest time in BUD/S though. I was constantly being harassed by the instructors because I was the slowest Mirage. When I went to Sniper School, though, I was the best in the class. They called me the Hunter."
She grinned. “Oh, shit, two Hunters. I couldn’t handle it.”
"What about you? Any interesting training stories?"
She chuckled. "They ever tell you about the Florida phase fiasco?"
"No, they didn't. What happened?” He asked.
“Well, there was this swamp survival incident. My team was turned out into the everglades. We had to go retrieve something, never mind what, and I got cocky. I thought I knew better than the rest of the team, and ended up going against the plan, ditching the team, and trying to get the job done solo. It didn’t go well.”
“You went solo? Why the fuck would you do that? Come on, Hannah. You never go off-book. You know that.”
“Trust me, I paid the price. So tell me, you grew up on that ranch?”
He grinned. “Yeah,” he said. “It’s a hell of a place. Nothing like farmwork to toughen a kid up.”
“I saw you had a barn. Horses, or cows?”
Aedan smiled. “Coupla horses, and some pigs and goats. There’s some cows, but not in the barn. We keep them downwind of us, cows smell awful.”
“You have one of your own?”
“Yeah. Most incredible, beautiful horse you’ve ever seen. His name’s Cobalt.”
“How’d you get him?”
He grinned, leaning back. “I was eleven, and my parents said that a horse would teach me responsibility. They wanted me to get a nice, broke mare, but then I saw Cobalt.”
“Really? Love at first sight?”
“This pure-bred Arabian colt, jet black as a devil. I wouldn’t have any other. But we got him cheap, mostly because he hated people. They didn’t think they could break him.”
“Did he get over that?”
He grimaced. “The hard way, yeah,” he said. “We were driving home, Cobalt in the trailer, and this car comes out of nowhere, hits the back of the car, right where I was sitting.”
"Wow. Were you okay?" She asked.
“It was a really close one. I needed a transplant, it was pretty bad. But Cobalt got some of the hit as well, and he wasn’t doing so great either. Got some of the van stuck in his side, and the surgery spooked him pretty bad.”
"I bet. Well, I'm glad you were ok. How did the recovery go?"
“I didn’t take it very well. Always figured the first time I’d get that seriously injured would be in combat. I withdrew a bit. Even got violent, a bit. Almost hurt Jen. After that, I started staying with Cobalt, in case I hurt anyone else. I got better pretty fast after that. Taking care of him helped.”
She smiled. “That’s good. I’m glad it all ended well.”
He chuckled, pressing a kiss to her knuckles. “Do you know how to ride?”
“Of course. Every good Russian girl knows-” Hannah froze suddenly as a woman walked into the restaurant.
She was beautiful: Ivory skin without a single scar or blemish, cold black eyes framed by long lashes. Her face was narrow, slightly hollowed cheeks drawing attention to her high, aristocratic cheekbones. Her hair was black and glossy, shaved short on the sides and the top flopping over on one side.
Aedan couldn't help but stare at the woman – and who could blame him, she was gorgeous – but Hannah stared at her with fear.
Hannah took Aedan’s hand. “Can we leave?” she asked gently.
Aedan blinked. “Sure, why?” he asked, shifting to shield the view of Hannah reaching into her purse for a gun.
“I can’t explain,” she murmured. “I just have a feeling this is a bad place to be. Please, Aedan. Now.”
Aedan blinked and nodded, standing. “Sure, all right. Mrs. Reddy, I have to head out. You’ll put it on my tab?”
“Of course, Aedan,” she said with a smile. “It was good to meet you, Rose.”
Hannah forced a weak smile and left on Aedan’s arm.
The walk back to Aedan’s apartment was quick and hurried: Hannah kept a hand on her gun at all times, and as soon as she was in the apartment, she checked it thoroughly for recording devices.
“Hannah, what’s wrong?”
“I’m okay,” she said softly. “That… woman just reminded me of someone.”
He sat down next to her and opened his arms toward her. "Come here," he whispered. "You're safe, I won’t let anyone hurt you."
She leaned hesitantly into his arms and curled into his chest, perfectly still.
"You're going to be okay. You're safe with me," he said as he traced her back with his hand.
She nodded. “I know,” she said. “Can we… go to bed? I just want to be in the dark, just with you.”
Aedan blinked and nodded, gathering her in his arms and carrying her towards his room, dropping her on the bed and curling up beside her, holding her. “There,” he murmured into the darkness. “Is that better?”
"Much," she said as she curled into him. "You amaze me."
"You’re always so loving to me, so kind..." She said, shivering as he kissed her throat lightly. "... And so gentle."
He smiled against the skin of her neck, breath warm against her skin. “I try to be,” he promised. “Do you want to tell me what scared you today?”
“I thought I recognized her,” she said quietly. “It was… I couldn’t stay. If she’d looked at me, I would have killed her.”
"She looked like one of the people who trained me. Back in Russia. I swore that if I saw them again, I’d kill them.”
Aedan sighed. “I would help you,” he promised.
"I know you would. But this is my fight.” She looked at him through the darkness. "You’re a good man, Aedan,” she said softly, resting her head on his chest. “Thank you.”
“Shh,” he murmured, rubbing her back. “I’ve got you, kitten,” he promised.The next morning, she had vanished.