"Hi, Jason," said his father.
"Are you okay?"
"I just landed in Manila a few hours ago. I just wanted to let you know I made it and I'll start looking for Tam in the morning."
"I hope you find him, soon. Just—be careful."
"It's ironic you telling me that."
"Dad!" he said in mock-offense. It was his father who had gotten him into the agent business—and had known how well it would fit him. Too well, sometimes.
"Don't worry, I've done my research. I know what neighborhoods to avoid. Although… if I can't find him, I might have to…search in more unsavory places."
"Dad—you're not…heading into danger!"
"I wouldn't, except that he is family. If there's a chance he's in trouble, if there's a chance I can help—it's worth the risk to bring Jerry's son back—and his granddaughter. Ah, just saying that sounds strange—Jerry's granddaughter. Sierra is coming here, too."
"Really? She didn't tell me…."
"She's been working tirelessly on this—that's the impression I get. It's a complex, intense investigation. I called her after you gave me her number and she told me the trail led her to Manila. She finally got what she thinks is a good lead. I figure she thinks it'll be more efficient if I tell you so she can concentrate on her work."
"Funny how you're both in the same country—for two totally different reasons."
"We'll be combining forces. She'll help me look for Tam, and I'll help her with her investigation when I can."
"Look for human traffickers?"
"Don't worry, I won't throw myself into danger. Unless there's no other choice."
Jason was struck by how much in sync his father's thoughts were with his own about this case. And if their places were switched, he wouldn't hesitate to risk his life to help his nephew. But he couldn't stand the thought of losing his father…even if it were to gain another member of the family…. And he supposed that his father would feel the same about him.
"Well…you've got Sierra with you. That puts me a little more at ease. She's—the best of the best."
"I probably will leave the back alleyways to her. I'll focus on more official channels. And…another thing I've found out. The Philippines is a hub of online human trafficking. I'll search online in my spare time—like you've been doing."
"It's…horrifying. But it needs to be done. We need as many people as can… possibly stand it…" Jason's heart twisted with the memory of the young girls immersed in impossible suffering.
"I hope Ben isn't…that he's somehow been spared the worst."
"I hope it's not too late…that they've been transporting him, haven't had the time to…."
"I can't imagine—what his family must be going through. I know… what it's like to lose a son. And to have one…captured, tortured. But this— it would be even worse."
"I agree with you there. There's no…end to the depth of depravity that human traffickers will do to innocent kids."
"Yes… there's helping kids—and then there's helping kids. I…I'm beginning to think I haven't done near enough to end this problem—though I've given a lot over the years. Just nothing directly."
"You can't do everything. But when—you finally face all of this—look at what they have to deal with—everything you could do would never be enough. To crush the tide. Save as many as possible—there will always be more. Because of the sick demand for it."
"The only way to end it is to change hearts and minds… but it's true, that won't totally happen until the end of days. Until then… as much as I can do, I'm going to. And I'm doing everything in my power to find Tam and Mai and bring them home—if possible."
"I can't wait to meet them."
"I only hope they'll want to see us."
"Well, he's been thrown out of communism—might be more receptive to family connections."
"Or he might be more hardened."
"Yes…there is that," Jason conceded. Part of him could hardly believe that he had a nephew and grand-niece. He would believe it when he actually saw them. Until then—he could only guardedly hope, and not look directly at the possibility, for fear it might dissipate like an ephemeral dream.
"I suppose I better let you go," said Jason. "Get your rest."
"And I better let you get back to your dinner party."
"After all this is done—you should come to Muldavia. Or back, I should say."
"Maybe I will. Though beyond the royal family, no one can know…"
"It'd just be nice to visit."
"I bet it's changed a lot."
"It is a bit…volatile right now. Hopefully, it'll calm down by the elections."
"Really? I hope so too. Well, I'd better get going. I'll see you soon, Jason."
He set his phone down on the arm of the couch. Just in time for the door to open and Saul to step in, along with Lukas.
"It sure smells good in here," said Saul.
"Thanks," said Leila, stepping out into the hallway, an apron around her waist. She grasped the back of his neck and kissed him on the lips. He grasped her waist, gathering her closer. She pulled away slightly, slipped a strand of dark hair back behind her ear. "We have visitors."
Connie stepped into the living room, stood behind the couch, grasped Jason's hand.
"Hi, Connie, Jason," said Saul. "It's good to see you again." He stepped toward them while Lukas bounded into the kitchen.
"Have you discovered anything about Yavesh?" said Jason. "I suppose we would know if either of you had found anything significant. Beyond that it's probably classified."
"We're working on it," said Saul. "But it's slow going. Yavesh is very careful about covering its tracks. We've found snippets here and there—but none of it adds up to a complete picture, or even a recognizable picture. I'm afraid it might take years to find anything significant—enough to unravel the organization."
"The enslaved kids don't have that kind of time."
"That's why—I think it should take priority. Of course, weapons and drug trafficking are serious—but for any child to be trapped one more second in such a—" He shook his head. "I wish my organization could confront that problem more directly. I might have to content myself to a supporting role, providing whatever information that could be helpful, or…." He glanced at Leila. "I can't get it out of my head. Having children of my own—makes it even more urgent. I'm thinking of creating a special task force to deal with human trafficking. I'll have to convince the director it's a national security issue, but… she does respect my opinion, so she might be willing to keep an open mind. Even if I got approval, I probably wouldn't be able to do much more than overall direction, as I'm high up in the agency and have other duties. Leila, though… she's high up as well, but she has a bit more of a flexible position when it comes to these issues." He turned to her. "Leila…if it ends up going through…."
Her eyes lit up. "I'll do it!"
"Are you sure?"
"I should probably think about this. But I've been wanting to do more, not just sit on the sidelines. That would be—wonderful. This isn't an issue that can stand me sitting around and considering—I think I could do real good."
"We have to get this approved first. And if it doesn't…I might have to figure out a way to do something, informally. But I agree—you would be the best one for the job. And I'm not biased." He grasped her hand, drawing her closer, and kissed her on the cheek.
"It might take some time to get something like that going," said Jason. "I know how bureaucracy can be. In the meantime, if you'd like to avoid the red tape, you could help us informally, on the side—if it's feasible for you."
Saul nodded. "Work is already crazy—and I need to save time for my family. But this is too—crucial an issue to ignore. I have high security clearance, after all—I might be able to find something."
"Even higher than I do," said Leila. "Might you have special access to anything about the Hawk?"
"I might. I'll look into it."
"That would be a big help," said Jason. "Any way that we can share information—it could lead to a breakthrough. The smallest thing could turn out to be important."
Saul nodded. "Information sharing is often crucial to putting the puzzle pieces together."
"I suppose…it's time for supper," said Leila.
Lukas bounded into the living room. "Really? I'm starving!"
"Could you help me set the table?"
"Can't Mark do it?"
"He did it this morning."
"Oh, okay." He shambled to the cupboard and dragged out some plates.
"Lukas… don't forget, we have company."
"Okay. I'm just hungry, that's all."
Leila gave Jason and Connie an apologetic glance.
"We may not have kids," said Jason, "but we're both very familiar with kids."
"It's true, it is a bit different having kids of your own," said Leila, "but… for one thing, you're not prepared for the love that overflows your heart for them."
"You'd do anything for them," said Saul solemnly.
Connie's hand tightened in Jason's; he looked at her, and she had tears in her eyes. He came to her rescue, walking around the couch to join her.
"Is…is there anything else I can help with?" said Connie.
"No, you just sit down and relax."
"Are you sure?" said Jason.
"You're our guests." She smiled and gestured to the dining room.
Just then, two figures emerged from the hallway. A boy clasping a little girl's hand. Mark and little Katrina.
"She says she's better," said Mark.
"I heard all the people!" said Trina. "I wanted to see them!"
Leila hurried over and knelt in front of her. "You sure you're better?" She felt her forehead with the back of her hand.
Trina nodded. "I'm all better! So is Miss Fluffypuff."
Leila smiled. "Oh, that's good to hear! You feel a lot cooler."
"Does she have a temperature?" said Saul, walking swiftly forward.
"Hard to tell. Doesn't feel like it, but…maybe I better take it, just to be sure."
Saul nodded and opened a drawer to take out the thermometer. Trina dutifully opened her mouth and Leila stuck the thermometer under her tongue and she closed her mouth and hummed.
Connie nudged Jason. "She is so cute!" she whispered.
"Yes—very cute," Jason agreed. She had such big dark eyes in an adorable round face. He was relieved she was feeling better.
The boy sidled over to them. "Hi," he said, and held out his hand. "I'm Mark."
"Hi," said Connie. "We saw you at the dance."
"Yes, but we weren't formally introduced." He shook her hand and then Jason's.
"That's true," said Jason. "That's a strong grip you have." It was true; it was strong for someone his age.
"Well, I want to go in business, and to do that, you have to have a good handshake." He blushed a little. "I also started working out."
"It's good to start at your age—as long as you be careful and not to overdo it."
"I work out with Dad in the basement. He helps me."
"What kind of business do you want to go into?" said Connie. They headed into the dining room.
Mark's eyes sparked. "Probably something with cars. Sell cars, make cars…something like that." He leaned in rather conspiratorially. "I'm really jealous. Dad got Gina and Tessa a car for their birthday."
"One car or two?" said Jason.
"Just one. If he got two, I'd try to persuade them to let me have the other one. They do everything together anyway." He slid into a chair near the end of the table.
Jason sat down opposite him and Connie sat down beside him. Lukas came in holding a bouquet of forks and knives and slid them rather haphazardly at the edges of the plates.
Mark sighed. "Didn't Mom teach you how to set the table?"
"Yeah but this way is faster. I'll go around again."
"It's not faster! Just do it right the first time."
"I don't have to do it the way you say!" He dashed back into the kitchen.
Mark shook his head and slid his fork and knife into place, then did the same with the ones beside him. Then he looked at Jason and Connie, his head tilted slightly. "You guys have any brothers or sisters?"
"A sister," said Connie.
"Both," said Jason.
"Then you know what it's like."
"Well, I was the youngest," said Jason, "so… I was probably the annoying little brother."
Connie elbowed him. "No you weren't!"
"You didn't see me when I was a kid. I had a lot of energy, so I'm sure I was always annoying them… I didn't see it that way then, but…."
"What's your brother do now?" said Mark.
"He's—" Jason's throat caught. He looked down, catching a pale glimpse of his reflection in the plate, the hint of tears in his eyes. Even after all this time… "He's…gone."
"Oh. I'm sorry." He looked down, as if not sure how to respond.
"But I might get to meet his family soon. He…actually died in Vietnam. But he had a wife and kid, apparently, and Dad's over in the Philippines looking for them."
"I had no idea," said Leila, carrying a glass pitcher of water. "I'm sorry for…for your loss and the loss of all of that time… but this must be very exciting."
"I just hope…well…that it turns out. That we find some kind of closure and…something good from all the pain." Tears threatened; he fought them down, struggled to find something else to think about. He didn't want to get his hopes up. It had been so long…they were on the edge of finding Tam and his daughter… but things could still go horribly wrong….
"I hope so too," said Leila, pouring the water. Lukas came back in with a few more knives, set them, and then flopped down beside Mark as if he'd done a very strenuous chore. Saul came in, carrying Trina, who carried a stuffed gray elephant.
"Where do you want to sit?" asked Saul.
"There!" said Trina, pointing toward Connie.
"You can't sit where she's sitting."
"No, beside her. I like her."
Saul laughed and set her down beside Connie. "You don't mind, do you?"
"Not at all! Hi, Trina!"
"Hi! This is Miss Fluffypuff!" She held up the elephant.
"She's very cute."
"She's all better! Me too. I don't have a snitch of temperature."
"It's even a little on the low side," said Leila. "Ninety-eight point one."
"I'm glad you're feeling better," said Connie. "I hate it when I get sick."
"Me too! I could only eat yellow Jell-o. And crackers. That was after Gina and Tessa's birthday."
"Did you have fun at their birthday?"
She nodded. "I ate lots of cake!"
"I bet it tasted good."
"I'm really hungry now. I could eat—an elephant! No offense, Miss Fluffypuff." She kissed the stuffed elephant's head and squeezed her.
"You have to make sure you eat slowly, though," said Leila, on the way out with the empty pitcher. "We don't want you to eat too fast and get sick. Take small bites, remember?"
"I can help you," said Connie.
Saul came back in carrying a dish with some oven mitts. He set it in the center of the table. A delicious harmony of spices drifted from beneath the lid. Then he sat down at the end of the table opposite Leila. They bowed their heads and Saul prayed, thanking God that Trina was feeling better, for their guests, for the beautiful day and their family, and asked God to help them find the sources of evil to destroy it.
"You forgot to say thank you for the food!" said Trina.
"Oh, I always do that!" He bowed his head again and gave thanks for the food. "And for the beautiful one who prepared it." He opened his eyes, looking meaningfully at Leila.
Jason took a helping of the lasagna as they passed it around along with beans and strawberries. He was starving and dug into the lasagna. "This is—really good," he said.
"Thank you," said Leila, looking pleased.
He couldn't help but devour more. Then he figured he'd better take notice of something beyond food. He looked at Connie; she hadn't touched her food yet. He wondered if she was feeling sick or didn't like it, when he realized she was helping Trina cut the lasagna into little bites. So attentive to children that weren't even her own…. What would she be as a mother! Jason hoped desperately he'd get to find out…. He longed to surge forward into that chapter of their lives.
After the mission. When all the children were safe at home. If only that could be true…. There would always be more… more evil to crush. Until the end of days….
Bam! The door slammed open.
Jason flinched—then realized he wasn't being attacked. Two girls breezed in. One tall with curly dark hair, one shorter with straight dark hair and bangs. The tall one swung some keys and let them drop on the counter in the kitchen before sauntering into the dining room, the shorter girl following. The taller girl sat down beside Trina and the shorter girl sat down opposite her, beside her brother Mark.
"Jason, Connie," said Leila, "This is Gina—" She indicated the girl on her right, beside Trina, "and Tessa. You met—briefly—at the Centennial."
"Hi," said Gina absently, grabbing for the lasagna dish that Mark passed across to her.
"Hello," said Tessa, looking at Jason with large brown eyes.
"How was your drive?" said Jason. "I heard you just got a new car."
"Mm," said Gina, swallowing her first bite. "Amazing. We ran all over the countryside! It's wonderful to have such freedom."
Saul looked at her a little sternly. "You kept to the speed limit, didn't you?"
"Yeah," she said, not entirely convincingly. "Well….It was just a few miles an hour over! Everyone does it."
"And that's a good reason."
"If you don't—you get crushed!"
Saul raised an eyebrow. "I hope you were mostly on backroads."
"That's the funnest anyway. There weren't many people there. So…."
"So you were speeding."
"Not really. You do it all the time."
"It's okay if you go a few miles over. I just… well, want you to stay on the safe side."
"Don't worry, Daddy. I know how to drive."
"So the instructor said. But I also know you… like to push the limits sometimes."
"She wasn't too bad," said Tessa. "We didn't want to wreck the car."
"And…how about you? How did you like your drive?"
Gina slammed her hands down on the table. "It's maddening! She wouldn't go above like a snail's pace! Scared of hitting a tree in the middle of the road or something. So I had to take over—show her there's nothing to be scared of."
"Well…." said Saul.
"Daddy, really. I'm not going to go crazy on the road. I mean… I know it's dangerous. I'm careful. I'm just realistic. And—it's our car! Freedom, for the first time in our lives! I wanted to taste it!"
"Just so you don't go overboard, get too intoxicated by that taste. And so you give your sister a chance to practice. Did you?"
Gina nodded. "She had plenty of chances…. She didn't really want to."
"Did you get a chance to drive?" he looked at Tessa.
"Yeah… at the beginning. But then Gina kind of took over…."
"Gin, I bought this car for the both of you and if you can't share it—"
"She didn't want to."
"Did you ask?"
"Well, I was having so much fun and Tess didn't seem to mind…"
"I don't," said Tessa.
"You need practice too. You need to get used to the road—that's for the sake of safety, too. You have to take the wheel sometime."
"I… know." She looked around as if embarrassed they were discussing this in front of strangers.
"Maybe you should give us another car, then," said Gina. "Tess could have this one, and I could have… a corvette?" She smiled ingratiatingly.
"In your dreams." He smiled indulgently. "You've got to learn to work together. To share. To not be entitled, even if we could… technically afford it. Which we can't because—safety is the most important thing."
"A distant second, maybe." He smiled and looked at Trina, who was carefully eating one of her small bites of lasagna. "Sometimes I wish you were Tri's age again. Then I could—hold you down, keep you back…." He shared a glance with Leila. "But that wouldn't really work… you need to go out into the world and be equipped for it."
"Yeah, before you know it I'll be overseas, then Tessa can have my—our—car." She looked conciliatorily at her sister.
"For my first mission. If not for school."
"It's a good idea to go to school overseas if you want to be an agent. It's probably best to get a foundation here, though, at least for the first few years, if you're going to work for one of our agencies."
"That way you can save money, too."
"I think I want to go one semester at least in America. I've always wanted to go there, and America has the best spies in the world." She tilted her head, looking at Jason. "You were a spy of some sort, right?"
He nodded. "That's the worst kept secret in the world."
"Well, you're not a spy anymore."
"That's the official story." He gave a conspiratorial smile.
She looked a little flustered then smiled back uncertainly as if she wasn't sure if he was serious. "So…what school did you go to?"
"Campbell County College. Then Duke University."
"Ooh I want to go there. The place that the hero of Muldavia went to!"
Heat rose to Jason's cheeks. "I'm not a hero."
She didn't seem to hear. He didn't try to emphasize it—people here seemed to insist on putting him on a pedestal. He knew he didn't deserve it; he wouldn't have gotten out alive if it hadn't been for Tasha. But perhaps Gina needed a hero to look up to… though she already had her father. She knew him, though; sometimes you needed an ideal to strive for, even if he could never live up to such an image.
"What did you study?"
"International relations and history—concentrating on Eastern Europe and the Middle East. And of course I learned some languages—Russian was real big at the time. We had no idea then that the Soviet Union would fall— so quickly. I studied abroad, too—in Scotland and Oman, and volunteered most summers overseas. I was… blessed to have some connections. So I did get a leg up—my father had worked with the NSA and so he helped me get an internship there. I might not have come up on their radar otherwise. I…my grades were good, but not perfect. I played around maybe more than I should've…. There were so many candidates, despite how hard I tried to get in, that were probably better than me, so I might not have become an agent if it weren't for my father. Of course, that's why I wanted to be an agent in the first place, so…."
"Me too! I mean, I want to be like my dad." She looked at Saul with admiration.
"I just hope…you don't make the same mistakes I did," said Saul. "Sometimes I'm not sure how I made it through my first few missions…. I wanted to make a difference, after the revolution. Help rebuild my country. I resolved to do what was right even if I was scared to death."
"Tempered with your natural levelheadedness," said Jason. "Sometimes I can't believe I was so reckless."
"Maybe it was wrong for that mission overall, but to see you disregarding your own life—to save someone else… we never saw such things. Even people who stood up in underhanded ways were….disappeared." Pain flashed across his eyes. "I… sort of had reason to be terrified. My uncle Johann had disappeared not long before, and he had just worked at the underground newspaper. The only reason I stayed was for him—didn't want to dishonor his memory. But every second I was scared I would be snatched away, never to be seen again…." He hung his head. "We…never did find him." Grief burdened his voice and Jason was struck by the pain the communist regime had carved through its victims, even after all these years…. They still bore the scars, even if they looked as if they'd recovered on the outside. Some were destroyed by it, and some, like Saul, had risen from the ashes….. had become stronger because of what they'd had to do to overcome it.
"What made you decide to go into the security service? Rather than stay as a reporter?"
"Well, for one thing, I wasn't the reporter type. I was only there because… my uncle encouraged it. Then when he disappeared, I stayed for him. Then when the revolution happened, we didn't need an underground newspaper anymore. I wanted to serve my country…. And I was invigorated by your example. I applied as an agent—good thing, for me, that the bar was pretty low then for entrance, you just had to prove your credentials as a patriot and be reasonably competent. Plus… I kind of thought…if I was on the inside… I could look through any records from Von Warberg's regime and see if I could find my uncle. He… was more than an uncle, really, he practically raised me, since my mom died and my dad left the country. I found my father's location, actually…. Though we never connected; he didn't act like he wanted to be found. Anyway. Somehow I made it through my first few missions, but it was really Leila who centered me. In more ways than one. She helped me hone my skills, gave me a… technique for calming my fears and my inner demons. Gave me focus and purpose and… love. More vivid and intense than any flame—leaving my first love behind in the dust, making me see how pale in comparison it was…. Barely love, and not reciprocated at that."
"You're talking about Elena?" said Jason, with a quiver of trepidation in his heart, even after all these years. He glimpsed an image of his last view of her—disappearing into the crowd after trying to kill him. That traitor's kiss still burned on his lips.
Saul nodded, looked around the table apprehensively, then sighed. "It was a long time ago. Leila obliterated that crush, but at the time… it felt like Elena tore my heart out. I can still feel echoes of it, even now. First, when she chose you over me. Then, when she turned out to be a traitor—I have to admit, that was the greater pain."
"I'm glad you didn't get more entangled with her," said Jason, feeling that horrible shame and regret wash over him again. "I got to bear that burden for you—even though to you it felt awful, and to me it felt… wonderful at the time. Goes to show your feelings don't always mirror reality."
"I was… entangled enough. I'm glad I didn't get in deeper…. Though not that you had to experience it. But she led me on, too. The way she would flirt with me. Then pretend it was nothing. I was convinced she liked me—then she'd give me the cold shoulder… I know it wasn't love and she never got any further than a few glances, a few touches…. I don't know why she'd even bother to begin with, it wasn't essential to her role. It's like she was just…toying with me for fun."
"I think…she liked doing that. Toying with people. There was this one time at the stream—" He stopped, realizing it wasn't exactly a conversation for a younger audience. "I think she realized her charm and beauty and worked it for full effect. She did it because she could, because we were men, and her beauty was just another of her weapons. I don't think she was even using it for a reason, other than to keep it sharp—like a knife. Or claws." He smiled ruefully.
"We glimpsed what she really was, at the end. Beneath that cleverly constructed façade. Cold, calculating, utterly ruthless."
A chill ran through Jason. "There's no chance she could still be in Muldavia, is there? I mean, you haven't seen anything… she could be underground somewhere….?"
Saul shook his head. "Doesn't mean she isn't. Even with all our resources. She's that good. And she's had years to refine her tactics…. But she could have just as easily left the country. She could be… dead by now. I…have to admit, I've tried to look her up, on my own time. Never a trace of her. As if she's just…vanished."
"Maybe…she is gone for good, then. Not like she could do much… now that the regime's gone."
"I learned not to underestimate her. Though, it's true, just one woman wouldn't be able to throw that much of a wrench into the works… haven't seen much evidence of a communist resurgence, although they do still exist."
"There are communists still-?"
"They're pretty much discredited and no one pays attention to them, but… they're still around. They mostly just print newspapers, or post blogs, and we let them—they don't have to go underground, not unless they promote violence. They get a taste of the freedom we never had. It's Yavesh that we have to worry about… it's getting to be such a serious under-network that it could feasibly destabilize the nation. So it's a national security issue. We say it's the weapons and drug trafficking areas that are the most serious, but…human trafficking is just as, if not more, urgent and damaging. And not just to the people it enslaves, but their families and their community and by extension, the whole country. I hope we can get that new task force formed…. In the meantime, we'll try to help off the record."
"Dana said you have influence in the Turkish community?"
"To an extent. My father… I'm ashamed to say, had some dealings with the crime networks. I've got some cousins, though, who are more…upstanding citizens. Some of them influential. I've also got some connections in the Jewish community—they still remember my mom and my uncle Johann fondly. I can introduce you to some of them, see if they have any leads for you."
"That would be great."
"I could also… give you some tips on getting around in the more…disreputable areas; I've got tips from my father and from my job. Ali himself is ostensibly clean, but you can see if you can dig up any dirt on his associations…. He'll have business dealings in the Turkish community, as that'll be his launch point, and some of them may be more…underhanded than they appear."
"That could be helpful."
"You could follow the leads we don't have the time or the inclination to follow—by we, I mean the Muldavian National Security Service. I would follow them if I could, but some is more…tenuous evidence so we have to follow what's more promising. Doesn't mean some treasures don't lie underneath that seemingly shallow ground…. I can give them to you after dinner."
"Thank you." Jason looked at Connie, hoping she didn't mind this thread of conversation. She was deep in conversation with little Trina. His heart swelled with warmth. Connie – so natural with kids, so happy to be around them…. It was so unfair she had missed out on that with her own—she'd loved him so much already. All that love she'd built up—never had a chance to show it to her own little baby. He hoped desperately she'd have another chance, if not with a biological kid, then with an adopted one. The world would be missing out if Connie never got to be a mom. He was glad she was at least open to the idea now… and he felt a yearning deep inside him to be a father, too. Looking around the table at Trina, the twins, the boys—ah how much he wanted this! He could almost see it… now that he wasn't an agent, he had a chance to settle down and have a family. Someday, perhaps sitting around the table with his kids and Connie, like the most natural thing in the world… having a dinner together every evening—his heart ached for it, almost unbearably. He forced himself to focus on something else so he wouldn't break down here in front of everyone. Not easy to do when what he wanted was staring right back at him.
"Hey, could I help?" said Gina.
"Help with what?" said Leila.
"With the investigation. It would be good practice for me. The earlier I start, the better."
"You can't do much without a security clearance," said Saul. "Next year, you can apply for an internship with the Agency."
"I want to start now. Besides. I can do stuff… off the books. Help Jason with his investigation."
"That's too dangerous."
"How dangerous of things are you going to do?" she asked, looking at Jason.
"Well…." Jason wasn't entirely sure of that himself. "I'm trying not to go too far into dangerous territory—"
She looked back at her father. "You see?"
"It would complicate their investigation. Besides, I don't want you in Ali's sights. And we don't want him to know we have anything to do with this. He already knows who we are. If he knew you were within reach… he might use you as leverage against us."
She looked a little taken aback. "Oh."
Leila touched Gina's arm. "You'll get your chance. It's best to ease into it."
"Not really my style…."
"Well, a healthy amount of caution is needed in this business. Tell you what. Maybe you can help out with this new task force. You'll get in on the ground floor."
"We'll have to see if we can form it first. I have considerable say in the Agency…. You're right, it's best to get on the agent track early. Sixteen isn't too early. But you'll have to start out with office work…."
"Aw—that's—more Tessa's area."
"That's where all agents start, I'm afraid."
"Oh, okay." She folded her arms behind her empty plate, looking resigned.
"Even I started out behind a desk," said Jason, wanting to cheer her up.
"How long did you have to be there?"
"Just about a year."
"A year!" she looked aghast.
"It seemed like a long time… but it's essential to learn your job. Plus, agent training is fun—you get to do a lot of role playing."
Her eyes lit up. "I can't wait!"
"A lot of study first… what kind of subjects do you like?"
"Government, anything about other countries… I'd rather do hands-on things, though."
"You have to get good grades, first."
"No problem there," said Leila, smiling with pride at both her twins.
"I hope you learn what I didn't learn until after… well, it took a while to learn. You seem like you have a similar tendency… spontaneity can be a good thing. But you can go overboard. Just… make sure you consider what you're doing before you do it… because just jumping into a situation when you're in the field can get you or your partners killed. Not just that, but it can destroy nations. The agent game is a high stakes one…. Your actions can have international consequences."
She looked thoughtful. "I'll try to remember that."
"In the meantime, maybe you can help with some of the online investigations?"
"Sure. Tess would like that, too— and she's a lot better at computers than I am."
"Well, you have to be, to be an analyst." He looked at Tessa, not wanting to leave her out just because he seemed to have more in common with her twin.
"I'm not that great…" said Tessa.
"You're at the top of your class!" said Leila. "By that I mean, far ahead of everyone else. I'd describe her as a genius."
She blushed, looked down at her near-empty plate.
"Sounds like someone else I know," said Jason.
Tessa looked up. "Who is that?"
"Our friend Eugene. If you like computers, you two would probably get along well."
"Where does he live?"
"In Odyssey. We were going to call him later…" He shared a glance with Connie.
"I hope we're not keeping you too late," said Leila.
"No—with the time difference, probably best if we call at noon Odyssey time—and that's a couple hours yet. Eugene is the one married to Katrina."
"Me?" said Trina, her eyes wide.
"Our friend named Katrina."
"Oh." She picked up her elephant from the floor and hugged it. "I play I am in a wedding sometimes. Or some of my stuffed animals get married. For pretend."
"Trina was just telling me about her favorite books," said Connie.
"Can you read already?"
"No. Well, just some words like 'Mom'."
"Oh? How do you spell that?"
"M-O-M. Mom!" She slid off her chair and jumped up and down.
"She can also spell Love," said Leila.
"Those are both good words," said Jason, and he looked at Connie, with a jolt realizing just how appropriate those words were.
"I don't want to spell it now," said Trina. "May I be 'scused?"
"I suppose. If you're done with supper. But don't you want dessert?"
"I'm full now. I'll have some later."
"Well, I certainly don't want you to eat too much."
"May Connie be scused too?"
"Well, I don't know if she's done… she might want dessert."
"Oh. Do you want zert?" She looked at Connie.
"Well, I think I better try some of the dessert your mom cooked. Okay? Maybe we can play later."
"'kay!" She jumped off into the living room as if she were pretending to be a kangaroo.
"It's like she was never sick," said Leila, shaking her head. "I'll never stop being surprised by how fast kids bounce back from sickness…. Though she'll probably fall asleep early tonight." She stood. "I better go get dessert. Would any of you like some coffee or other beverage?"
"No thanks," said Connie.
Jason shook his head. "I'm fine." He took a last sip of the wine, gleaming soft pink in the light. It was struck through with a shaft of gold, the sun shedding long shadows across the table. He set the glass down and looked at Connie, the golden light spilling onto her cheek. She took his breath away. So beautiful… everything else receded into mist and he felt inexorably drawn toward her… longing to be with her, nothing between them…. She entwined her hand in his, their fingers fitting perfectly. He nuzzled close to her, kissed her cheek. She whispered in his ear, "Later," then pulled away, though keeping her hand in his. He savored the touch even as he realized where he was and hoped he hadn't gone beyond appropriate bounds. Gina and Tessa were speaking about something about school starting in a few weeks, and Saul was trying to break up a minor fight between Mark and Lukas.
"Boys, we have guests," he said sternly.
"He's on my side," said Lukas sullenly.
"There's plenty of room. Just slid over a little. Maybe you should separate for now. Come here on this empty chair." He patted the chair beside him and Lukas slid over and planted his elbows on the table, his chin in his hands.
"Hey, what do you like studying in school?" asked Jason.
"I like—" started Lukas.
"I like Language Arts," said Mark.
"Hey!" said Lukas. "I was talking first!"
"No, I was."
"Boys…." said Saul rather exasperatedly.
"I think… it was actually Lukas," said Jason. "Then you can have a turn. Mark, as the oldest, you don't mind?"
He pursed his lips and shook his head, though didn't look particularly happy.
"I like science," said Lukas. "It's fun! You get to do all kinds of experiments."
"Like put some gooey stuff in some containers and then they sprout all kinds of weird creatures!"
"What do they call those creatures?" said Saul.
"Micro—microorganisms!" he said with triumph. "Some are plants, and some are animals. They are so small you can't see them, but you can see their… their…"
"Colony?" said Leila, returning with a dish. She set it in the middle of the table where the lasagna had been.
"Yes! That's it. And you get to look at all kinds of things inside microscopes!"
"That's so cool you like science. I think it's pretty cool too. It wasn't my… specialty though. Hey, you might get along with another of my friends—Tasha. She's a biologist. She goes crazy over this kind of stuff." Tasha's eyes sure used to light up when talking about things like that. Just like Lukas.
He tilted his head. "You have a lot of friends."
"I suppose I do." He looked at Mark. "So you like language? That's a good thing to be good at for business."
"Yeah. I especially like English. We were doing Shakespeare this spring. I got to be in a play."
He shrugged. "Just a couple lines."
"Romeo and Juliet."
"Ah, that's a common one for middle schoolers. Did you have fun?"
He nodded. "I'm just glad I didn't have to be Romeo. Then I'd have to kiss someone!" He made a face.
"You'll be wanting to do that before long," said Gina, as if from the vast height of experience.
"Not in front of everyone! Romeo—that was Zak—sure got teased. Especially 'cause the girl was Zoe – she's kind of a…." He trailed off, as if not sure the word he was thinking was appropriate.
"Geek?" said Lukas.
Mark nodded reluctantly.
"Hey," said Connie. "You shouldn't make fun of geeks. They can be really nice people."
"I suppose. She's just…."
"A teenager," said Connie. "Everyone has an awkward stage. Besides, it's what's inside that counts. Maybe you should get to know her."
"Everyone might think that we're… going out."
"Let them. Maybe she needs a friend."
He looked a little thoughtful. "Maybe. I know I shouldn't judge by appearances. It's just…"
"Middle school. I know."
"Maybe… we do have something in common, we both like English. And Shakespeare…."
"That's true. If you don't write someone off, you might end up having a friend you wouldn't otherwise. I've had that happen over the years…."
Leila served the strawberry cake, which was delicious, and Lukas told them about soccer, and Mark told them about his favorite kinds of cars. They ended up looking at some of his models after supper, and Lukas showed them some of his trophies from soccer camp. Then they sat in the living room while the kids went off to play, except Trina, who sat beside Connie.
"You might have to take that one home," joked Leila, pointing to Trina, the waning light spilling across the living room. Threads of red wove through Connie's hair and Jason was mesmerized. He had to fight to focus… even though nothing seemed more important than the fact that Connie was beside him, impossibly beautiful…..
Trina fell asleep, holding her elephant, Connie's arm around her. Saul and Leila gave them their promised tips, then Connie gently pried her arm from behind Trina's back. "I'd… I'd carry her, but my arm is asleep." She shook it gingerly.
"Ohh!" said Jason, and he took it and kissed it, rubbing it gently.
Leila picked Trina up, and the little girl barely stirred as she carried her to her room.
Saul and Leila said goodbye at the door; the twins and Mark had disappeared. Lukas was out on the hill, kicking a soccer ball around. Jason joined him for a few minutes, then they waved goodbye as they climbed into their car. Then they crept down the driveway as Lukas ran after them, waving, his parents holding each other in the doorway.
The city glittered below, reflecting the sunset, a million brilliant lights of gold and rose and lavender.
"It's even more of an amazing view now," said Connie, leaning forward as the car wove down the road. A swirl of hair dipped across her temple. His heart skipped a beat. He longed to touch it, slide it gently back, then take her into his arms… but that wouldn't be a very safe idea while driving so he forced himself to focus on the road.
The car dipped below the forest and the view vanished, replaced by the dark shadows of pines, their tips jutting into the lavender and deep blue sky above, a few stars glittering against its backdrop.
"Jason," said Connie, looking at him earnestly, "I… I think I want that. Seeing it…. Being there… in the middle of a family." Her voice caught a little. "Sitting around the table, just—being together…. Having a normal day…. Kids fighting and playing and learning… and loving them. I—I think… I might have that much love to give after all. I mean, it hurts – so much… but maybe it's worth it. I love Jeremiah so, so much, and I'll always love him… but I need—someone to hold. Whether it's an adopted baby or my own… I think, he'd want that. He'd want me to fill my house with love… kids who need it… not just let this emptiness fill me…. This longing—I need it to go somewhere, Jason. Jeremiah's gone… I won't be able to see him till heaven. I'll get to meet him then… but now… I need somewhere to put all this love. It would… grow to surround not just my baby… but all the new ones… the ones who need me as much as I need them."
A tear streaked down her cheek, catching the last ray of sunlight. He reached out to clasp her shoulder as he kept his other hand on the steering wheel. "Connie…" His voice was hoarse. He fought back the tears crowding in on him, closing his throat. "I want that too. I want kids to fill our house. I want to love them… I think… I already do love them. As many as we have… whoever they are—I want to meet them, get to know them—love all that they are. With you."
She moved toward him. He longed to gather her in his arms—so he pulled off the road, under the shadows of the pines. And he gathered her to him, and her cheek pressed to his, and he couldn't tell whose tears were whose… and it didn't matter. Love for her filled him—a desperate ache… always filled, and never satisfied. He swept back her hair, kissed her cheek, tasting salt.
She slid her fingers in his hair, lingered in it. He closed his eyes, reveling in her touch, her nearness, in their shared moments of mingled grief and joy. She nuzzled his cheek, kissed his jaw; he turned slightly toward her and their lips met, a soft, gentle kiss, laden with promise.
He whispered in her ear, "I love you so, so much."
"I love you too, my Jason." They touched noses and foreheads, gazing into each other's eyes, her eyes gleaming like rich emeralds in the semi-darkness.
They kissed again, deep, luscious, lingering. Then he reluctantly pulled away, his hand resting on the back of her neck. Her eyes gleamed with fervent joy and guarded hope.
He started the car, part of him wishing he could stay here, immerse in her presence as long as he wanted. As they drove down, toward the suburbs of Rakima, Jason was struck by what she'd whispered in his ear at the dining table. "What did you mean?" he said.
"About what?" Her brow furrowed.
A smile lifted his lips. "When you said 'later'. When I was getting a bit… carried away."
"I just meant… it wasn't exactly the place for that."
"I'm sorry. You're just—so amazing sometimes I can hardly help it… but you're right. I can't always show my love the way I want. It's just I was away from you for so long and now—" He stopped, not wanting her to get the impression he wanted to make her feel guilty. "I only ever want to be close to you. As close as I possibly can." He kept his eyes on the road as they exited to the city.
She sighed. "I want to be with you—I don't want to be cut off from you anymore, it's like—the other half of my heart is beating inside you, and when I'm not close, when we're…fighting… or—keeping ourselves apart—it feels like everything is dull and pale…. Part of me is missing." Her eyes darted to him and he took in her unsettled beauty, longing striking deep inside him.
"Maybe… we should just… risk it. I mean—it's in God's hands, after all. Like—like Jeremiah is. He's there, with Him. Maybe we won't even be able to have any more kids. Maybe we'll be able to adopt—and maybe we'll have two at once! If we have Nika's baby and if we… have our own at the same time—they'll both be our own. I still—hate risking another baby's life…. But…" Her voice became hoarse. "Even if we lost another one." Her voice filled with grief. "God would help us through it and I would never, ever keep myself from you again, shut you off… that was so wrong. When you had done nothing to deserve it—were always so attentive and careful—" Tears poured from her eyes again, but she surged on. "I—don't want to keep myself from you any longer. For any reason. You don't deserve that… I don't want to live in fear, fill all our love with fear. You deserve everything I can give you. More than I could ever give. I want to stop being afraid… Not punish you for this anymore… I need you, Jason. I need all of your love. I don't even know how much I need it—not until I feel it—" Her eyes overflowed with desperation. He could hardly bear to meet her gaze, it struck so keenly against his own desire.
"We don't want anything to overshadow it, though. If we wait just a little longer… we can be together and not have to wonder about anything else—be ourselves without worrying a baby might….result." He wanted to make sure she was doing what was best for her.
"I… we've been without each other for too long already. I can't stand hurting you—I can see how it does, every time I pull away." She took a deep, shaky breath and looked out the window.
"I don't want to hurt you, either. If—the worst happened—"
She swung back to face him. "I'd be with you, no matter what happened. Because we're so much better together… even if it hurts… I'm not leaving you alone like that again."
"Well, if you're sure—" His heart leaped even as he said it, cautious excitement building in him. To not have to hold back anymore—to love her with all that he was- after so much waiting, during their courtship, during her mourning. He didn't know how he could ever not want to be with her every second they possibly could—even more now that he knew the acute agony of separation, the horrible darkness. Knowing what she could give—the joy of being together—then being torn violently apart—every cell of his body longed to immerse in her presence, in all that she was, savor every nuance of her, get to know her more in every way… whether it was working together, sharing their deepest thoughts and feelings, or embracing her with the fullness of his love, a burning need raging through him even as it was satiated. Ah, how much he loved her, needed to be with her with all his soul…. She fulfilled him as nothing else did. He only hoped he could give her a fraction as much as she gave him, with every second of her presence. It was heaven just to be near her, driving through the streets of Rakima.
They pulled up to the palace at about 9:00. Just as they were heading in the massive ornate doors, Connie's phone rang. She held it up, the phone glowing against her face. "It's Eugene!" she said as she answered.