Author's Note: I would like to sincerely thank you all for the feedback, especially Calcitrix who has consistently read each chapter and left a response. It's been a really wonderful time writing this, and I'm mulling taking a crack at a second story I had in mind.
Again, thanks and I hope you like this final installment!
He watched the muscles in her back tense as she pulled up on the free weight in her hand in the spare room he had converted into an exercise gym. She was bent over the weight bench, supporting herself with a knee and a hand as she worked to regain her strength. Her tank top was dark with sweat.
Flint could hear her grunt with the pain as she lowered the weight down again, straightening her arm. He knew the old adage was true.
"Come on, one more," he encouraged. "No pain, no gain."
She stabbed a glance at him out of the corner of her eye. "Easy for you to say. Can't wait to hit the shower."
"One more," he said, undaunted at her complaint.
She had come to live in his house while she was recovering, much to the raised eyebrows of commanders outside the Joe echelon. It was a logical move to him. Flint had exercise equipment, an extra bedroom, and Allison was certainly unable to fully take care of herself while recovering. It had been over a month since the attack on the mountain. Her motivation to get out of the hospital had pushed Hawk to make arrangements that she earned and deserved.
"Don't make me regret this decision," Hawk had warned Flint on the side.
So far, it had been good. Nothing had happened to give Hawk any worries.
Flint watched as she pulled up one last time on the weight, the muscles rippling in her back as she struggled to reach the mark one last time. She dropped the weight hard on the floor as she finished, having pushed her body to the limit for the session.
He helped her sit on the side of the bench. His eyes involuntarily strayed to the edge of her tank top. Before, he would have been drinking in the sight of cleavage. Now, his eyes were drawn to the scar that was just visible above the fabric. He saw tiny white dots of scar tissue on either side of the incision mark where staples had been used to close the skin after her surgery. Her torso had been opened up like a set of barn doors in order to repair the damage. Doc had done a good job. Allison's prognosis was good. Whether she would return to active duty remained in question, but she had told Flint she had every intention of getting back into the game. One thing was certain – she was angry. Cobra had irrevocably changed her life, had put a bump in the road of her career. For that, she was inconsolable.
"At least it's straight," she said, reaching for a towel. She had noticed him looking.
He smiled. "I like it. Makes you look tough."
"You just have a thing for tough women," she said slyly. She began gently drying her neck.
"Yeah, well, you certainly qualify."
She craned her neck downward, rubbing at tense muscles. "Don't feel so tough lately."
He sensed the door to talk opening. It had been closed since she was released. Various doctors and caregivers had told him that it would take time for her to open up about it. She had been scheduled for some counseling sessions, two of which she had already attended.
"You will," he promised, truly believing one day she would.
She looked pensive. "I'm just trying to process all this, and I can't figure out why I'm so damned angry."
Flint had been told to talk frankly with her. Pie in the sky would not do her any good.
"Allison," he said, facing her fully, "someone put a bullet in your body. I can't think of any reason why you shouldn't be angry at that. It's put you in a lot of pain, and it's going to be a long road back."
He wanted in so many ways to tell her how she had come to be wounded, but there was no use. The fact was that it had happened. Her sacrifice was legitimate. To try to explain otherwise would have been a violation of the promise he had made to Suarez, assuming she had told him the real story. Still, it did nothing to assuage his guilt when he looked at the scars on her skin. Some day, he would tell her the truth, when he was sure the both of them could handle the consequences.
A sad look overcame her face. "I know we're in a war. I always knew this was a possibility, but you never think it's going to be you. I've seen our people get wounded before, but my life just went on. I never gave it a second thought what their lives were like afterward, you know?"
"I know," he admitted. The names Osterman and Kelly flashed in his mind. They were recovering, too. "Thing you have to remember is that you're not alone in this. A lot of people care about you." Then he added, "I care."
She took his hand in hers. "I know you do. I'm just afraid that's going to get old. I'm afraid I'm not going to get through this fast enough for everyone."
"All you have to worry about is your own pace," he said. "You worry about you think, not what others think."
Allison gave a small smile. "You sound like that shrink they're making me see."
"Yeah, well, we smart people think alike."
She looked deeply into his eyes. "You're a good man, Dash."
He was drawn into the depths of her gaze. "You make it easy."
The air became thin as he looked at her. It was same feeling of attraction he had felt before with her, only now more intense. He realized it had surpassed the erotic and crossed over into what he had to admit was love.
He was in love with her.
Suarez had pegged it, even though he had denied it. He loved Allison. He had been kidding himself, buying into that it was something that was never meant to be because of their careers. All that changed in one day. It was no longer a game. It was real. He had no idea how he would make it work, but he had to try. Flint was no longer willing to let her slip out of his life. He had nearly lost her on the mountain, and he was not willing to ever let that happen again.
"I think I better hit that shower," she said, wisely breaking the moment.
At any other time, he would have tried to keep it going, but he knew he had to take his time. He now had a mission for himself, and he was content to work at that for however long it took.
"I'm going to go pick up some Chinese for dinner. You hungry?" he asked, letting her off the hook.
"Starved. Kung boa beef sounds like a winner." Her answer was no surprise. It was what she always ordered.
He smiled and wiped at a patch of perspiration on her temple. "That I can do."
Allison stood and hooked the towel around her neck. She walked slowly toward the bathroom, giving a glance back in his direction.
"Dash?" she said, turning toward him again. She leaned on the doorframe.
She hesitated. Then she said, "Thank you."
He smiled at her words. "Go, before I get too excited about you in that shower."
She laughed and threw the towel at him. "Get me some food!"
He watched as she closed the door. Flint stood and reached into his pocket for his keys. He stepped out into his driveway where the air was crisp and cold. Winter was bearing down on the area. Snow had been predicted for the night, a large storm that had the potential to drop quite a bit and clog the roads.
Flint slid into the driver's seat of his Durango and turned over the engine. He reached for the headlights and nearly hit his head on the roof of the SUV. Nancy Suarez leaned against the door of his garage, casually smoking a cigarette.
He turned off the engine but kept the lights on, wanting to be able to see her.
"Hi, Flint," she said congenially, smiling at him.
"Hi," he said, still shocked. "I didn't think I'd ever see you again."
She reached into her leather jacket and withdrew a long box. "Ran out of smokes," she said, showing him the carton.
"You're looking . . . alive," he said, not meaning for sarcasm to surface.
"Eh, a couple holes in the noggin, a little scar. I'm good," she said nonchalantly. "You?"
"Good," he responded. "Elwood's gone," he informed.
She nodded. "I know. Did a Houdini on you during transfer to the holding facility."
"Of course you know," he said. "So, care to share where he's hiding?" It was worth a shot.
Suarez shrugged. "Let's just say he knows where Hoffa's buried now." She winked. "He won't be bothering anyone else again."
He could not say he was sorry to hear it. Elwood, it seemed, had slipped through their fingers despite heavy security on his transfer. Someone had performed some amazing diversionary tactics to pull off the stunt, much to the chagrin of commanders across the board. A search team was currently scouring for where their prize had gone.
"So," he said slowly, "isn't this violating that little non-interference rule you have?"
"Perks of being called a hero," she said. She took a deep breath and became serious. "I came back to thank you, Flint."
She caught him off guard. She was thanking him for trying to kill her – twice.
"I think we're even in that department," he said carefully.
"Maybe," she said. "But you really pulled it together at the end. I hadn't figured that so far into my calculations. I thought it was important for you to know what you did made a difference, both here and in the future."
"Thanks, but I'm curious," he said. "The hole was black. How did Brian come back to save you? You seemed convinced it was over."
"Byron," she corrected. "And as far as I could see, time for me had ended. You changed my destiny, gave me a chance I wasn't supposed to have. Byron watched from the moment my timeline ended to determine it wouldn't harm anything for me to go forward in history. You made an acceptable evolution at the point where time was no longer recorded."
"You're living the future as you should," he concluded.
"It's a new world for me every time I go home," she said.
"You're still jumping around making things right?"
"Not as much as before," she said, "but I do occasionally take on a mission here and there. I'm nearing retirement age in my circle. Time for the younger kids to take over."
He liked the sound of that. "Going to live it up?"
"I'm debating," she said. "I like my job."
"No chance of coming to live in this time? Winters are pretty spectacular around here."
She sighed ruefully. "If only" she said regretfully. "But my place is in my time. I know that for sure. There's work to be done there. James wasn't entirely wrong about the situation. At least some good will have come of all this."
"I hope so," he said, nodding. "You staying here a while, though?"
"No," she said, straightening off the garage door. "I have to go now, as a matter of fact. They're monitoring this, and I'm already behind schedule." She took a deep breath again and looked at him. "You better go get that Chinese. Your girl's waiting."
She held out her hand to him. He took it, feeling her warm embrace. Her grip was solid on his hand. She gave him a quick squeeze before breaking away and stepping back toward the garage door.
A swirling disc opened up just behind her, only this time, he could see white. Byron stood there, waiting for her. He nodded at Flint, raising his hand in a little wave.
"Have a good life, Flint," she advised. Then, she stepped backward to where Byron stood. She, too, gave a small wave. Byron swished away the smoke from her cigarette and gave a roll of his eyes.
"You, too," he said.
Just as quickly as it appeared, the disc snapped shut, disappearing from sight. Flint stood in the headlights of the Durango, alone.
He tried to absorb what had happened, and he found it easier than he would ever have dreamed. He used the drive to the Chinese carry-out to process it. Flint found he was satisfied that Suarez had come and gone in such a fleeting manner. There would be no reporting it to his superiors. He saw no value in doing so. His promise of protecting what he knew of the future was one to keep.
Flint picked up the order at the counter, having called it in on the way. He made sure to ask for chopsticks. Allison liked to use them, but they were seldom included in the orders unless requested. While he did not care for "sporks", either, she liked the traditional sense of chopsticks and enjoyed laughing at him as he tried to navigate their use.
When he arrived back at his house, he smelled wood burning. As he looked up, he saw smoke rising from his chimney. Inside, Allison had started a fire in the fireplace and was tending to it when he entered. She had lit candles and doused the lamps. The only strong light was the subdued hues of the patio lights wafting in through the large sliding doors on the other side of the living room. Quiet piano music played on the stereo in the corner, matching the muted shadows in the living room. The fire crackled quietly as the logs caught solidly on fire.
Allison looked more beautiful to him than ever, especially in dark green silk pajamas that shimmered in the glow of the candles. Her hair was still damp, darker in the shadows than normal. She looked up at him, with his arms full of their dinner.
"I was beginning to worry," she said, slowly standing.
He put the food on the coffee table. "Ran into an old friend," he said.
Flint sat down on the couch. He helped her as she sat down next to him and leaned back into the cushions. He sat back, too, and put an arm around her. Allison pulled her legs up and snuggled into his chest. The scent of the vanilla shampoo she used wafted into his senses, comforting him. It mingled with the pumpkin from the candles, creating a comforting mix of earthy smells. He suddenly lost his desire for dinner, and he sensed that she had, too.
He put his arm around her, holding her, savoring the fact that he could. Flint had almost lost her. He never wanted to let her go again. His eyes strayed to the Purple Heart certificate that sat on the coffee table. It had been awarded the previous afternoon. She had earned it, though the words did not nearly encompass what she had done, in his opinion.
He gently kissed the top of her head, settling down further into the couch. Together, holding one another, they watched out the large windows before them as the first snow began to fall.