Michael pounded the pavement with each stride as the miles blurred together beneath his feet. Despite the punishing pace, he pressed on, driving his body to the peak of exhaustion.
But the ugly memories returned regardless. They were no longer confined to the predictable night terrors that had plagued him since the fall of Section 20. During the past few weeks, the flashbacks had started to bleed over into his waking life, reopening old wounds that he never wanted to relive.
But, at heart, Michael was a soldier, and a part of him would give anything to be back on those bloody battlefields at the British military's beck and call. Without Section 20, he had no purpose. He didn't belong in this concrete jungle. As much as his reoccurring nightmares left him raw with pain, he yearned for that familiar life. He was good at it. He understood it. But strip away the ranks, the objectives, his brothers-and-sisters-in-arms…
Sometimes he wished he'd never returned from that final mission.
Michael pushed himself harder and ignored the incessant burning in his chest.
The Brit eventually slowed his gait and found his car in the parking lot. He didn't remember starting the car, exiting the lot, or merging onto the highway. It was only when he missed the turn for his apartment that he shook himself from his reverie. Michael numbly put on his turn signal and almost took the next exit before a split second of indecision stayed his hands, and he bypassed it entirely.
He wasn't ready to return to his sorry excuse for a flat. The bar? Michael briefly entertained the idea then discarded it with a sigh. No, he knew himself too well. Sitting across from the bartender was out of the question, not when his back was exposed to the door. The side table? Possibly, if a patron hadn't already taken the spot.
Forget it. He'd be too tense the entire night, expecting a bullet to the chest from an invisible enemy, while the rest of pub carried on like nothing was amiss, far removed from the dangers he'd faced as a member of British intelligence. The former agent drummed his fingers against the steering wheel and stole a quick glance at his mobile. Damien. He could call him up, but he'd crossed paths with the American not two weeks ago to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Julia Richmond's passing. It had been a bitter-sweet reunion. After the rush and excitement from their stint in Las Vegas, they'd both fallen into the rut of normalcy. Damien adapted. Michael didn't.
The Brit pulled into a random strip mall and cut the engine. There was nothing special about this day. It didn't mark the death of a friend. It held no particular meaning. Just an unremarkable Saturday. Michael took a deep breath and let his forehead rest against the steering wheel while he sobbed. Then why did today hurt so much?
"What are you doing, Michael?" he groaned to himself, brushing the unwanted tears away. Christ, he'd never once let his emotions overcome him on the field, when his every decision meant the life or death of the men and women at his command. But now, in the privacy of his car, away from the horrors of war, his perfect mask slipped. And he felt weak for it. Undeserving. He got out of the vehicle and walked without plan or purpose. He numbly registered the pet store's sign before he pushed the door open and stumbled inside.
What Michael found would change his life forever. Amidst the barking and flurry of wagging tails, one of the volunteers approached him with a pamphlet. He accepted it and flipped it over in his hands. Caring for your Rescue.
"Are you interested in adopting a rescue today? We have eight dogs with us this afternoon," the woman stated warmly.
"I'm really just passing through," he admitted, returning a half-hearted smile in kind. Michael shouldered his way past the shoppers ogling at the pups on display and debated whether or not he should just retreat to his rundown apartment, like all those countless days before.
He was broken. Useless. Less than five minutes ago he'd been hyperventilating in the driver's seat of his vehicle, feeling humiliated at his lack of control. And now he was trapped in a pet store, if the family of five blocking him in the dog food aisle was any indication. The Brit sighed. Maybe he should've hit that bar after all, he thought bitterly, although the idea of a drink made his stomach turn.
He was about to head down a separate aisle when the family eventually dispersed, allowing the ex-operative a means of escape. He squeezed his way back through the crowd, heading for the door when—
He saw her. The little dog in the corner, motionless; a dirty, pink collar around her neck. And his heart broke. Not because she showed any signs of physical abuse or neglect, but because she simply wasn't there. Her large eyes were vacant as they stared at the tide of hopeful dog parents, and she remained silent, even while her adoptive brothers and sisters clamored for attention. He caught one of the attendees as she walked past and motioned at the lonely rescue in the corner.
"Who's that black and white one over there?" he asked. The woman's face brightened.
"Oh, that's Emma. She's two years old, a real sweetheart."
"She's two?" Michael inquired further. With her petite frame, he would've guessed six months, at the most. Upon closer inspection, she had a long back and equally long legs, built like a small greyhound. A natural runner, he surmised. But her face…it wasn't the face of a greyhound. Terrier? Something else? The woman continued, in lieu of his lapse of silence.
"She's fully potty-trained, up-to-date with all of her shots. Would you like to hold her?" Hold her?
"Uh, well—" But the woman had already left his side and returned with the limp bundle in her arms. He instinctively reached for Emma's prone form and pulled her close to his chest.
It was as though the little dog had never been held before, although she fit snugly within the crook of his arm. He patted her belly—the fur was fine, soft, almost nonexistent. He gave her ears a scratch and her white tipped tail gave a small twitch in response.
And then, irrationally, unexpectedly, he was seized with a sudden thought: I could love this dog. And Sergeant Michael Stonebridge nearly sobbed for the second time that day.
He couldn't do that to this poor creature. Here he was—a washed out, hollowed shell of a man, barely able to keep himself together on the best of days—and he was entertaining the thought of bringing a pet into his home? He swallowed past the lump in his throat and subconsciously gripped her tighter.
"Does she…does she prefer a household with children?"
"No, she does better with a stable home, one to two adults. Since we take in so many rescues, she's been staying with one of our volunteers, but it's a temporary fix. We can house up to ten dogs at a time, so Emma would really need a companion who could devote a lot of attention to her."
"I run." The words were out of his mouth before he could stop himself. "I could take her with me on the trails." That damning voice inside his head returned in full force. His horrific flashbacks…his paralyzing nightmares…He wasn't fit to play Father of the Year with such a sweet animal. He didn't deserve it. And it was time he put this foolish idea aside. The Brit delicately handed the little pup back to the woman.
"I could go over the papers with you, if you'd like."
"I…uh…I'll think about it." He hoped that she didn't notice the slight catch in his voice. To his relief, she passed him a business card with a good-natured laugh.
"We're here until four. Give me a call if you're interested!"
"Thanks," he said as he gave the card a quick glance. "Bye, Emma." And with that, he returned to his car, feeling just as empty and unfulfilled as before. He turned on the engine, put the vehicle in drive and…
"Dammit, just drive away, Michael. Just do it!" he reprimanded himself. He clenched the steering wheel tighter.
It wasn't so long ago that he'd been planning to raise a baby with Kerrie and enter fatherhood. And now here he was, cowering at the thought of accepting a small four-legged friend into his sorry life. He slammed a fist against the dash. It wasn't fair to that dog. Stuck with him, his imperfections. And yet…
He didn't want to return to his apartment alone.
He didn't want to wake up in a cold sweat when the nightmares returned.
And he didn't want to leave that defenseless little girl in that damn ugly pink collar.
"Why the hell not?" Michael groused, killing the engine with a flick of the wrist. He jogged back to the double doors, just shy of a sprint, and located the attendant within the chaos. "I'll buy Emma."
After a stack of paperwork and a mile long list of pet supplies, the former special ops was now the proud owner of a subdued mixed breed, who watched the proceedings with quiet curiosity. When he seated Emma next to him in the car, he unclipped her collar, tossing it the floor, and gave her neck a gentle scratch.
"It's just you and me from now on," he said, managing a grin. He thought he saw her tail shake slightly before she curled into a tight ball in the passenger seat and slept soundly the entire way home.
He introduced Emma to the small apartment, dutifully organizing one side of the couch into a dog's paradise: a fluffy bed, warm blanket, and an armload of squeaky toys. After setting aside her food and water bowl in the kitchen, he lost sight of her, only to find the little girl standing close by his feet like a mini shadow. Michael smiled and grabbed the closest toy he could fine—a fuzzy dragon—and waved it teasingly in front of her paws. Emma studied the foreign object with a tilt of her head.
"Hey, it's a toy. You play with it," Michael said encouragingly. He kneeled on the floor and tried to entice her to tug the dragon from his hand, but it became clear that the poor girl had no experience engaging in play. He felt his heart break for her all over again. "Don't worry, Em. We'll figure it out."
The Brit muddled through his usual routine—stale leftovers and redundant channel surfing—all with a furry bundle curled at his side. He petted her silky coat and smiled when Emma stretched in response. And when he finally willed himself to collapse into bed, his new shadow eagerly followed and burrowed her way under the crook of his arm. For the first time in weeks, Michael felt his body surrender willingly into a fitful sleep. He only woke up once that night, clammy and shaken from a nightmare he could no longer remember. His trembling hand sought out his companion's velvety ears and the touch alone calmed the worst of his symptoms. For a horrible moment, he wondered if the little dog would leave him in exchange for her new bed on the couch. However, his fears were unfounded. Emma only sighed and nestled closer against him.
Three days was all it took for his newfound companion to emerge from her shell and reveal the feisty personality underneath. She played with her toys with reckless abandon, egging Michael into fierce tug of war matches, and nearly tore the seams off the dragon's tail. Any time he briefly left Emma's sight and returned, she greeted him with the same unbridled enthusiasm, and her white tipped tail became a waving banner as it wagged furiously from side to side.
By the end of their first week together, Michael couldn't believe that this was the same downtrodden pooch he'd nearly left in the store. He shuddered as he recalled the monotony of his meaningless routine before her arrival. The occasional run. Evenings shut inside his apartment. Cheap TV dinners. Resurfacing night terrors. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Ever since Section 20's collapse, he hadn't been living. Not really. He'd been going through the motions, hiding his anguish behind the walls of his shabby flat.
It was time to stop hiding.
"Come on, Ems. Let's hit the trails today," Michael said to the adoring girl prancing around his feet. After trial and error, he'd purchased a harness and leash combo for the purpose of transforming man's best friend into a running companion. If only he could figure out how to get the damn thing to work.
"How the hell do I even put this on you, Ems?" he cursed. "Did it come with instructions?" Michael rummaged through the bags from the pet store, but found nothing. He flipped through the Caring for your Rescue pamphlet, but its pages glossed over the details of general harness know-how. For the second time in as many minutes, he ran a hand across his face.
He'd survived hundreds of hot extractions, defended himself from hordes of faceless enemies, saved Scott's sorry ass more times than he cared to count…
But he couldn't figure out how to strap a dog into a harness. Just when he was about to give up and macgyver something together, Emma patted to his side and stared up at him expectantly. Her white tipped tail wagged slightly from side to side. Michael allowed himself a small smile and bent down to give her head a warm pat. The simple action steeled his resolve.
No. Emma deserved a harness, dammit, and he'd figure out how to put it together, even if it took him all day. He refused to put her in a collar ever again. Just the image of her in that dirty, pink atrocity made him sick. It took ten minutes for Michael to secure Emma in her camo colored harness and then he exited the flat, leash in hand.
The Brit had punished his body for so long, with bruising miles that tore his muscles to shreds, that he'd forgotten what it felt like to run. To really run. As he adopted an easy gait, he instinctively relaxed into the rhythm of his footfalls. Despite the slow pace, he felt strong. In control. As he watched Emma adapt to his strides, with the grace of a natural born runner, he felt a swell of pride in his chest and thought: I love this dog.
And Sergeant Michael Stonebridge had to stumble to a sudden stop as the full realization stabbed through his chest like a spear.
He'd finally welcomed a companion into his life, after months of agony after Kerrie's untimely death, and he realized how much he'd missed the company. Michael slumped onto a park bench, and accepted Emma into his outstretched arms. She licked his face, eliciting a smile from her owner.
Without Emma, he'd still be waking up in a cold sweat every night, terrified to close his eyes. Without Emma, he'd still be torturing himself on the running trails, trying to escape the horrors embedded in his mind. Without Emma, he had no purpose. She'd given him his life back. And he promised, with every bone in his body, that he'd return the favor and give the little bundle in his arms the life he knew she deserved.
The soldier freed his phone from his armband and stared at the lifeless screen. He ruffled Emma's ears and she snuggled against him in response.
"Do you think I should call her?" Michael asked. He weighed the phone in his hand, seized by another moment of indecision. He felt a cold nose bump against his hand in search for more attention. The Brit obliged with a laugh. "I should call her, Ems. It's been too long. If I let her go…"
Just like he'd almost let Emma go. If he'd abandoned this little girl in the pet store and never looked back…Michael's heart ached at the thought. He gave Emma another sidelong glance, then punched the number in his phone before he could change his mind. Michael's breath caught in his throat as the line started to ring. He hugged the small body closer to his chest.
"Michael?" the voice answered, and he felt that giddy excitement burst through his chest at the mention of his name.
"Kim," he said. "I'm sorry it's been so long, I…Well, we have a lot to talk about." The ex-operative suddenly felt his face flush with embarrassment. Man up, Michael! Christ, what was wrong with him? "Uh…I mean…dinner?"
Wow. Was he really THIS bad at flirting with Kim Martinez? He debated whether or not he should just chuck the phone in defeat and continue onward with Emma, when the DEA agent laughed warmly from the other line.
"Thought you'd never ask. Time and place," Kim accepted. Michael's shoulders dropped in relief and he began to converse with her in earnest.
He couldn't hide the smile from his face when he learned that Kim loved dogs.