Angie was reluctant to give in to the hand that had taken hold of her shoulder. She was far too deep into the verbal ass whupping she was dishing out to the greasy little sleaze who had tried to talk like a big man. He didn't have the nerve to walk away, and right now was looking over her shoulder at Tyler like a drowning man looks at a lifeguard.
"Angel, leave the poor kid alone. I think he's learned his lesson, haven't you kid? Gonna watch your mouth from now on, right?" Standing behind Angie, who was still focused like a laser on her sweaty, zit-faced target, Tyler widened his eyes and nodded pointedly to the kid to convince him to say the right thing.
"Yeah, really, I was just being a dumb fuck. I mean it's been a hard time, y'know? Man, nobody ended up like they started out, did you?"
That stopped Angie's tirade in its tracks. She gasped a breath, and was unable to go on.
"Take off, kid," Tyler directed. He circled Angie and looked closely at her. "Pull up on the throttle. I know it's sudden, but it's time to land." He could see that the kid's last observation had hit her hard. "C'mon, let's go somewhere quiet."
He led Angie, now silent, to the far edge of the camp where a grouping of rocks on the edge of a hill had formed the lookout station. It was abandoned but for a few empty water bottles and scattered cigarette butts. Tyler sat Angie down on a long narrow boulder, and then sat next to her facing the opposite way. Her face wasn't apoplectic-red now, and her breathing had returned to normal.
"Yeah. All that shooting, all the noise, it was over so fast. Hard to hit the brakes like that."
"You left some mighty skid marks, no question. You won't be the only one. The only thing harder than falling into war is falling out of it."
She nodded, mouth shut tight, eyes a little vague, as if she was trying to figure out what to say next. He reached his arms around her; when she leaned against his shoulder he rested his chin on her head, and they were quiet for a few minutes.
"What now?" she asked. Not worried about what the answer might be, just bereft of ideas.
"Funny you should ask… I've been doing some thinking about what comes next. Now me and you, still breathing, still here, that's not gonna change that I can see. You good with that?"
Angie nodded but didn't answer. The sun was shining, and she was breathing easy – as in 'stand still, be quiet, and breathe' – for the first time in a long time. She could lose herself in the feel of him, dirty and bloody as he was, and the sound of his breathing, and the dark velvet of his voice. She was not inclined to disturb any of that by contributing to the conversation.
"Okay then. What's also not gonna change, is you know me better than anyone. You know who I am, and who I've been. You've managed to find every skeleton I've hung in the closet, every body I've buried. All without ever asking. That's mighty powerful knowledge to have of somebody in my line of work. So the way I see it, I got two options for survival: I gotta marry you, or kill you. Myself, I'm leaning toward option one. Besides, you've been getting the milk for free for long enough, lady. It's time to buy the goddamn cow, or switch to water."
By the end of his speech she had sat up and was staring at him, not quite bug-eyed.
"Tell me you didn't really say 'buy the cow'. Please."
"Don't play word games, Angel, you know what I mean. It wasn't exactly a priority while we were blowing up the world, but now that the dust is settling… look the fact is that we're together, we've been together, we're gonna be together, almost like we have no choice in it. Not even 'almost'. But like it or not, for me that comes with a ring."
Those chocolate eyes were looking right into her again, and she couldn't look away. "Not to stir anything up, but you're already married."
"Not anymore." He shook his head. "Not for a long time now, I'm not. I made sure for a long time I didn't think about it enough to have to be sure, but I'm sure now. So if you're wondering what would happen if… well I know it's not gonna."
"So then you're saying if your wife turned up alive, if Mai Linh walked out of the smoke tomorrow… I don't think I need you to say you know what you'd do. I just need to know that whatever it was, you'd have given it some thought from time to time before it happened. If it happened." He was looking at her strangely, surprise in his eyes, and not for what she was suggesting.
"I never told you her name."
Well now's as good a time as any. "Yeah you did, more than once. You just weren't awake at the time."
He hugged her against his shoulder again. "I'm sorry, you didn't need to hear that." She pulled away and touched his face lightly.
"Don't be sorry… it's good. It tells me you've been giving it some thought. So I'm not wondering, about any of it."
She was frowning, though, and he couldn't ignore it.
"So what's bothering you?"
"Just that, well, I know you had this good marriage, or as good as it could be. And you know I had a collaborator and an alien double agent."
"And a demo derby driver who taught you to dogleg turn in a bookmobile. Probably others I couldn't give a shit about either. Believe me, I had a long ugly stretch between my marriage and this war, myself. And besides, like the cowboy said to Marilyn Monroe, I love you like you are, I don't care how you got that way." When Angie looked surprised he added, "What? I told you that first night in L.A., I know the classics."
"Woo, imagine me as Marilyn Monroe." She tossed her head, her (slightly) lengthening hair stirring a little with the motion.
"Close enough for the New World. So? Which is it gonna be, marriage or death?"
Angie's head was rattling with everything that had happened in the past year or more (who knew from calendars anymore?). Never in her life had she thought of getting married to anyone at all. Especially not someone like this. Though she had to admit that until now her choices in romance had left, well, everything to be desired.
"Well I can't say I've ever dreamed of being swept off my feet by a fully armed mercenary."
Tyler put on a dreamy face. "Well let me tell you, from the time I was a little boy lying on my little bed at night, I dreamed of the day when I could woo and win a computer geek who's as crazy as a bagful of rabid squirrels, and with a mouth that could kill at thirty paces."
At this, Angie pulled back and muttered, "Keep talking, Tyler, you're makin' it sound more and more like death."
He shrugged (outwardly, anyway… inwardly, not so much). "Up to you. Count up the complaints you have so far. I can probably manage to keep within those boundaries. No promises, but at least I've had a little practice in the last year or so, minus a couple months south of the border."
They stared at one another for a bit, and the subtle smiles that began to work their way across both their faces were remarkably similar.
"Okay, I guess," Angie said at last. "I mean, to be honest I'd rather chance fucking it up with you than getting it right with anyone else."
"Can I take that as a yes?"
"What were my choices again?" she deadpanned.
"Marriage or death."
"I guess I'll go with the first one."
"Great." Tyler got up and pulled Angie to her feet. "Question now is who can do the deed? Not many preachers left alive."
Angie was shaking her head vehemently.
"No preachers, and no justice of the peace. There is no god, no religion, no law, no anything left standing that I trust enough to claim that authority."
"Well shit, you're not leaving me much to work with."
"You're the Fixer." She reached up spontaneously, and gave him a ferocious kiss. "Fix something. Oh, and one more thing. When we find somewhere to live, I want a cat."
It was Tyler's turn for bug eyes. "A cat."
"Yeah, a cat. Really, I mean it," her voice turned pleading, "Dogs go everywhere, you know? They're about survival, even some of the rebels have been able to keep them wherever they had to run to. Dogs can be anywhere. But having a cat means you're home. A cat is like... it tells you life is normal again. It'll tell me I'm not gonna be running for my life or looking over my shoulder. I don't know if I'll ever believe the war is over unless I can feel like that."
He could see she was serious, no matter how far out of left field it was coming, and whether or not it made sense to him. He'd never liked them much, cats, they always seemed to be figuring you out when they looked at you. But shit, after all she'd been through it wasn't much to ask.
"A cat. Okay, Angel, we'll find you a cat. If the lizards haven't eaten 'em all." He was walking back toward camp, but stopped when he realized she wasn't walking with him. When he turned to ask why, he saw her standing in the same place he'd left her, only now her eyes were running and she looked ready to fall apart.
"Don't cry about it, I was just bullshitting. There's bound to be a few left, they couldn't have eaten all of them!" That had the opposite of its intended affect.
"What a shitty thing to say!" she bawled. "And why are you laughing?"
He'd almost managed not to, but not quite. "I'm sorry, baby, c'mere," he reached out to pull her closer. "It's just that in the past hour you went from shooting down lizards and threatening some kid's life to crying over some cats you never saw. It's kind of hard keeping up."
"Yeah," she sniffled, "well it's not too late to make a run for it."
"And lose the wildest woman in the New World?"
He wiped away her tears, lifted her into a deep, hard, kiss, and dropped her on her feet again.
"Not a chance."