Clearly when I said this chapter would be posted before the start of S4, it was a typo. It was supposed to read: S5. Time sure does go by quickly.
For all my patient supporters: the final chapter. . .
Auggie quickly discovers that driving is not exactly like riding a bike. For his first ten minutes behind the wheel, he has to dedicate his focus on the mechanics of operating the Volkswagen hatchback, which Annie affectionately explains she's dubbed Clark. Though the car itself is familiar - having ridden as a passenger on various occasions - the driver's seat is foreign. How sensitive are the pedals? How does it handle turns? Where's the auxiliary port so he can hook up his phone and tap into his Mingus playlist?
Annie keeps quiet in the passenger seat. Even when his breaking jerks them against their seatbelts or he takes a turn so sharply that Clark's motor grinds out a protest, she doesn't put forth any criticism, verbal or otherwise. Though it takes him twenty minutes to find the beltway because he's using outdated mental schematics of DC's road system, she doesn't direct him or call him out on his pride. They are small victories, but she doesn't rob him of them.
Auggie considers telling her about his conversation with the neurologist, knowing that he can't put it off for much longer, but he is using too much of his concentration to ensure he doesn't drive them into a ditch to focus on anything else, small talk included. And once he's comfortably adjusted to Clark's personality - enough to relax into the canvas seat - he starts to wonder just what Annie's Volkswagen can do.
Out on the open road, he tests Clark's limits. With all four windows rolled down, Auggie pushes the accelerator well over the speed limit. It may lack the horsepower of some - if not all - of his previously owned vehicles, but it manages to pass the other cars on the road with relative ease. Maybe it's a little foolish to cruise down the highway in a four door with the windows open, but the wind is in his hair and puffing up his t-shirt, filling his ears with a hurricane of sound that blocks out everything else, Mingus included.
Just over an hour after leaving the city, they pull off of the highway in rural Virginia, headed for their final destination. The road quickly transitions from asphalt to gravel to dirt. Clumps of scraggly trees thicken into a densely wooded area, forcing Auggie to weave between the trunks in a serpentine design. He's unfazed by the obstacles.
Annie finally speaks, asking, "So, what's the story behind this place?"
"No story. It's just a place." Of course that won't settle her curiosity, so he adds, "I used to come out here and fish with a couple of buddies."
For a guy who loves to sit at a computer for hours and analyze lines of code for entertainment, he supposes that activity does sound a bit out of character. "It was more to sit around and drink beer," he appends.
"Ah," she responds. "That sounds like the Auggie I know."
Casting a sideways glance in her direction, Auggie notices how she can't seem to stop moving her fingers. She stretches them out, then curls them in, drumming them on her thighs, wiggling them as though she's typing on an invisible keyboard. Auggie wants to reach over and calm her anxious excitement, but his hands are cemented to the wheel. It's not because he's worried about navigating through the unpaved wilderness; it's because he knows what is about to appear beyond the tree line: Lake Manassas.
The trees drop away, revealing a large open area - the ideal space to park an RV for a no-hassle camping getaway. Patches of grass gradually fade into mud, which then transforms into a pebble-dotted bank that disappears under the glistening water. Lake Manassas is so wide at this point that they can only see a horizon of leaf-laden branches on the opposite shore.
Auggie slows the car to a stop at the end of the grassy portion of the clearing. Annie sits forward, at attention. Her expression mimics the way his chest swells with memories of happy times of growing up along the water in Glencoe.
"It's got nothing on Lake Michigan," he comments in a low voice, "but it'll do."
With a soft click, the passenger door opens, and Annie steps out. He pulls the keys out of the ignition, then climbs out too, coming to stand beside her.
There is nothing but fresh air, the calm waters of the lake, and open sky. And stars, of course. They blaze with an intensity he hasn't seen since those long-away nights in the deserts of Iraq. Gazing at the stars while he was half a world away had made him feel lonely, isolated, and small. The ones shining above him now give him a sense of comfort. They feel like home.
Annie dips her head from her stargazing and smiles. She side-steps a little closer and brushes her hand against his. Auggie takes it and entwines their fingers. They fall into awed silence in the hush of the summer night.
Lost in the celestial bodies above them, they stand in quietude until Annie's stomach prompts them to acknowledge their earthly needs. She slips away from him, ducks into the car's backseat, and re-emerges with their quickly acquired dinner: sushi-to-go and a bottle of Pinot Grigio. Normally, they are the type to chat over a few beers, but tonight he feels wine is the more appropriate beverage choice. This is a celebration of all he's been able to do over the past two days.
A glint of silver flashes in her right hand, catching his attention and making him smile when he identifies the bottle opener she's produced.
"You always keep one of those in your glove compartment?" he asks, the amusement he feels coming through in his question.
She sets to work on the cork, responding with, "Have you ever tried to open a bottle of wine without one?"
She has a point there. "Not successfully."
"I have," Annie replies. "But, I've found a bottle opener is more effective than using tweezers and ruining a good book."
His rolling laughter disrupts the quiet darkness. "You're kidding."
"College," she shoots back with a nostalgic air that promises a more complete story at some future date.
There's something playful about her in the moonlight. Maybe it's the secluded location, away from distractions and the city. Maybe there's just something magical about this tranquil place. Whatever power is at work, he can't stop grinning or noticing just how beautiful the woman beside him is.
Annie presses the bottle into his hand, offering him the first swig. He quirks a lip and quips, "What? You don't have any glasses stowed away in your trunk?"
She shakes her head. "We'll just have to share."
"I don't mind a little backwash."
She nudges him with her hip. "First, that's disgusting - "
"Or romantic," he interjects. "All depends on your point of view."
She continues, ignoring his comment: "Second, we need to toast to something."
He has to think for half a minute, then raises the bottle and toasts: "To Stu, that clumsy, brilliant rascal, without whom none of this would be possible."
The strange smile that crosses her faces holds an underlying sadness, but she nods and echoes his sentiment: "To Stu."
They sit on the hood of the Volkswagen, leaning against the windshield with the picnic blanket they used on the memorial lawn earlier in the day draped over their legs. The empty sushi containers rest between them, along with the finished bottle.
It's close to two in the morning according to his watch, but he's not tired in the least. All Auggie can think about is the conversation ahead and the actual surgery looming ever closer. He needs to tell Annie, so he eases into the conversation.
In a soft voice he thanks her. "This is the best day I've had in a very long time."
Perhaps it is his words, or his wistful tone as he says them, but he easily captures her full attention. "What's on your mind?"
"Batman," he blurts out, the answer unexpected even by him.
That revelation only produces a hint of a laugh. "Only you would think of Batman at a time like this."
Frustrated with himself - for his inability to share his anxieties with the one person he knows will understand - Auggie hops off the hood and strides to the edge of the water. Annie follows.
"This isn't about Batman, is it?"
"I'm just disappointed I won't be able to see the last installment," he says, using the movie franchise as a vehicle to talk about the elephant that has followed them out to this secluded paradise.
"Maybe you can?" she hedges, toeing the damp earth with the tip of her shoe. "The surgery. . ."
"It's not optional, Annie."
"What if the doctor was wrong?" she questions. "What if it's not dangerous? Don't you think it's worth a second, maybe even a third, opinion?"
"I already spoke with the doctor again, Annie," he says more harshly than he intends.
"I'm sorry," she backtracks in a more subdued tone. "I'm sure you've considered every option."
"She's had specialists from all over the country looking at my case," Auggie explains, "trying to come up with an alternative."
"And?" She still sounds hopeful.
It hurts to have to crush that hope. "They've all said I should go through with the surgery."
A moment passes, filled with small nods as she accepts what needs to happen. "When?"
"One o'clock tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?" she throws back in shock. "That's so soon!"
Yes, it is.
"And that's why the next twelve hours are going to be some of my most precious."
Her head snaps up, tilting slightly to the right. Maybe it's because she's still processing the short time before his operation, or that he's choosing to spend that time with her in the first place, but Annie's eyes shine and shimmer in the moonlight.
"Auggie. . ."
"Please," he says, taking hold of her hands. "Please, Annie, can we talk about something else right now? Anything else."
Her jaw tenses, wanting to press the issue. He squeezes her hands and wills her to go against her obstinate nature, the part of her that won't let a topic go until all her questions have been answered, her objections suitably countered.
Annie takes a deep breath and shakes herself loose of the discussion. She glances out over the water for a moment, then inclines her head in the lake's direction. "Wanna go for a swim?"
It had crossed his mind on the drive out here, but he didn't expect her to go there. "I didn't bring my swimsuit."
"Neither did I."
Her one-sided grin is pure temptation. Her eyes dance with mischief, waiting for him to say something. She has to know that he's picturing her naked beneath the crescent moon, that she is merciless in her teasing. He can't decide whether her flirting is delightful or tortuous.
Auggie practically groans when he lays out the rules. "I'm giving you a ten second head start. After that, anything I see is fair game."
It's not a question. There's no haggling on this. He's her friend, and he'd never regard her as anything less than spectacular or demean her by reducing her to bits of anatomy. But, he is also a warm-blooded, living, breathing, human male. One who hasn't seen a naked woman - except in photos - in a very long time.
Annie initiates the countdown by pulling her shirt over her head. Auggie dutifully turns away, the image of her delicate lace bralet burning into his memory as he counts out his Mississippis and removes his own clothing. His t-shirt is one count. His left shoe, two. The right gives him trouble and takes up two more. Then he sets to work on his jeans, doubling the speed of his counting.
"Cheater!" Annie squeals on eight, as something small and white whizzes past his head. Her words are quickly followed by splashing and an expletive. "It's freezing!"
Good. He's going to need cold in a few seconds.
He regrets that thought when he actually plunges into the water, leaving his jeans and boxers on the pebble-laden bank. Annie is already waist-deep in the water, her arms crossed over her breasts, reminding him of Botticelli's Venus: innocent and sultry all at once.
She waits for him to catch up, and then they swim out further together, until Auggie's tip-toes can barely scrape the bottom and Annie has to tread water to keep her head afloat. Tilting the top of his body back, he looks at the twinkling lights in the pool of sky reflected above them. This is what he came here to see.
Annie's voice drifts over to him, hovering near the top of his head. "Did I ever tell you I'm a bit of an astronomy nerd?"
He can feel her hand displacing the water next to his body, can sense how close she is. With one hand she points to the sky, naming constellations. When she finishes pointing out all the clusters of stars she can remember, his focus switches from the sky to her face.
Everything looks a little backward from this angle, but Annie's chin tilts down so she can look into his eyes as well. Both of her hands find their way into his hair, playing the with silky strands as they ebb and flow. Underneath him, he feels the extra effort from her legs to keep her head and shoulders above the water.
He opens his mouth slightly, unsure of what to say in this intimate moment. Her eyes dart to his parted lips, then correct themselves to focus on his eyes again. It's hard to tell in this light, but he swears her pupils are dilated. Though it's been a while since he's had to read someone's body language, he's not rusty enough to miss the obvious signs of desire.
"Do you always look at me like this?" he asks, half teasing, half genuinely curious.
Immediately she tries to school her expression, giving him his ah-ha moment.
"Look at you like what?" she asks, attempting obliviousness.
Now that he's confirmed her interest, he's going to see what other reactions he can coax from her. "Like you want me to kiss you."
Emitting a short, nervous, laugh, she kicks backward, creating distance from him and from his question. Auggie flips over so that he is facing her and strokes after her, closing the gap. Annie catches on and panics.
"Race you to the shore!" she exclaims, splashing away in a flurry of water and moonlight.
Initially caught off guard, his brain eventually processes her challenge. He starts after her, though she has a good lead. Even with his naturally longer stroke, he can't catch the little siren.
Auggie's not counting that as a bad thing. Just as he comes to shallow water, forced to stand and wade the rest of the way, he sees that she's already hit the bank. His eyes travel up her glistening legs and stop to marvel at her gloriously bare, rounded cheeks.
Yes, he's the winner here. He throws his right fist up in the air, thumb pointed up, thanking whatever power has supplied him with this gift. His eyes remain devoted to her rear-end.
Annie doesn't stop at the shoreline. She sprints off to the car, wrapping the picnic blanket around her frame like a bath towel.
Auggie exits the water, striding forward with an unabashed slowness. He is going to get a straight answer out of her, even if he has to play dirty and make her flustered before he confronts her again. By the time he reaches her, she's averted her eyes, but there's a rosy glow emanating from her face. She hands him his hastily discarded clothing that she must have scooped up from the bank.
To save her from further embarrassment, he slides on his jeans, sans underwear. He doesn't bother with a shirt.
"All clear," he tells her.
She turns back to him, clasping the makeshift towel to her chest. He stands, still dripping, with crossed arms and a pointed stare. "So?" he prompts. "About that look."
Annie inhales and exhales loudly, in mock exasperation. She considers his body language, the persistent lines on his face that convey just how much he's willing to push her to get an answer. She's so close to him that he can see wisps of steam rising from her wet hair into the cool summer night.
"I don't usually have to guard my expressions around you," she confesses, resting on the lip of the car's hood and looking up at him.
He raises his eyebrow at her telling response. "Please, don't."
Whether she's breathing through her mouth from her sprint to the hatchback, or if his steady gaze is unnerving her, Auggie is distracted by her lips once more. He traces the peaks and valley of her upper lip with his eyes, then raises his right hand to her cheek. Tentatively, he swipes his thumb over her lower lip, moving from side to side before returning to the middle and pulling away. His hand drops back to his side.
Slowly, his gaze travels back to her eyes, locking on. The intensity he finds there makes his breath hitch. To say he hasn't seen an expression like Annie's in a while would be a massive understatement; he's never seen anything like it. More than desire or want or need, the look in her eyes is uninhibited and honest and vulnerable.
Unable to resist, he closes the small gap between them and presses his mouth to hers. Annie's response is immediate and welcoming. The kiss is fast and powerful and doesn't stop until his head is spinning, forcing them to slow down and remember to breathe. She places quick kisses on the corners of his mouth, then nudges his bottom lip with her teeth. She's is ready for another round, but Auggie hasn't caught his second wind. He's having difficulty breathing at all.
A hot tear warms a thin track of skin on his cheek. Another falls from his other eye. Of course it would hit him - it was really only a matter of time before all the emotions from the last two days caught up with him - right during his pinnacle of happiness. Truth is, he's been putting this off for much too long, but he still does not want to face it. And he certainly doesn't want to break down in front of Annie.
She intuits that something is wrong and puts him at arm's length to better assess his sudden shift in mood. The smile slips from her face, her rosy cheeks immediately blanching. "Auggie?"
"S'fine," he chokes out, wiping under his eyes with the heels of his hands. His attempted smile wobbles before collapsing completely. The shaking moves from his mouth to his chin, down his neck through his shoulders. He's trembling for Christ's sake, and he can't make it stop.
Her arms circle around his broad shoulders and across his front, drawing him into her body. With his hands pressed against his face, Auggie falls into her willingly, harboring himself against her chest, tucked under her chin. He's forced to breathe through his mouth as he cries, because his nose is plastered against the hot flesh just under her collarbone, welded there by the water on his skin. It takes all his resolve not to openly sob.
She holds on to him - tight. Keeping him steady with her lean strength, soothing him by circling her thumb against his shoulder, bringing him back under control with the soft, unintelligible whispers she spreads into his hair.
I can't do this, he thinks, not sure if he means continuing to cry in front of Annie or going through with the surgery. Angry with himself, he grinds his knuckles into his eyelids until it is almost painful. The force he uses to eradicate his tears is so powerful that pinpricks of color - flashes of purple and blue - dance across the pitch black background of his curtained gaze.
More flashes. That's how this all started. They scare him into a sudden, breathless, unmoving silence. Only his heartbeat quickens.
Annie's fingers still at his sudden rigidness. When she doesn't unwrap her arms, Auggie steps back slowly, letting her hold gradually loosen and drop away. She re-adjusts her towel as he flattens his slightly damp hair.
Though the waterworks have stopped, Auggie still finds it difficult to breathe. He begins to retreat toward the lake. "I need a few minutes."
After a beat, she quips, "Maybe you can find my underwear while you're down there?"
Her teasing question doesn't completely mask the concern in her voice. An automatic, if half-hearted, grin passes over his lips, then vanishes.
He spooks when she lays a hand on his shoulder. Out here in the wilderness, it's harder to hear her approaching from behind; there are no tell-tale heel clicks to signal him. That, and he's spent the past several minutes in deep introspection, trying to regain control of a situation that was never in his hands to begin with.
She mistakes his silence for brooding. "Auggie, it's okay to be scared."
He bobs his head a few times, indicating that, yes, he is scared, and, yes, it's alright to feel that way. Auggie keeps his attention on the lake, unable to face this conversation head-on. "It's just sunk in," he justifies. "A few hours from now, I'll be in surgery."
"Brain surgery," she amends, pointing out the heightened risk of his operation.
"I'm scared too," she admits. "Anything could happen."
He's sure that her mind has leapt to the worst possible outcome, that she's thinking about the experimental operation to remove the metal fragments that are inside his gray matter where they shouldn't be. Maybe she's wondering how he survived the surgery that put them there and thinks that his luck could have run out since then.
Auggie can't let her go down that path. . .then he'll start to follow her, and he can't have another breakdown. Not right now. He's not going to waste any more time crying over something that is unavoidable.
In an attempt to lighten the mood, he tries a signature, clever comeback. "You're right. I could end up blind."
Her reaction isn't anything like what he anticipates.
"Stop it!" she swears, her face flushing with a rush of color. Clenched fists rest at her sides. "Don't make this a joke."
What can he say? She's right. It's what he does to cope - turn his disability into something that he throws jibes at in order to shield himself against unpleasant, unwelcome truths. Long ago, maybe as far back as the first day they met, Annie caught onto his little charade, but she's never openly accused him of his cowardice before.
He decides to give her what she wants to hear: the truth. Above anyone else, she deserves it. "Annie, if I had a choice, I wouldn't get the surgery."
That one sentence admission reflects all of his frustration and heartache over being forced to lose his sight a second time.
And, just as he hoped, Annie understands.
"I shouldn't have said what I did earlier," she apologizes quietly. "I'm here for you. You know that, right?"
She runs a hand through her damp hair, ripping through the knots. "This should never have happened," she says. "Those cameras should have never been put into your head."
"You're right," he agrees. "But - "
"But nothing, Auggie! They had no right. They can't just put unwanted bits and pieces into your head, into any of our heads. We aren't machines they can manipulate for their benefit."
"I know, Annie," he says, taking hold of her shoulders. He appreciates that's she's defending him, but he's past that for now. He doesn't want to think about it until after the surgery and the inevitable recovery. Once he's back on his feet, he'll go after Arthur and all the rest who decided it was okay to use him as a test subject without his approval or knowledge. "But - "
She starts to open her mouth to go off again, but he squeezes her shoulders and gives her a meaningful look. Her jaw slowly closes.
"What I was going to say," he continues, "was that this crazy, beyond frustrating situation has given me chances I wouldn't have had otherwise. I got to make my peace, that sort of thing. And. . ."
He doesn't know why his chest constricts on the word and, but he pauses long enough for Annie to echo his cliffhanger. "'And?'"
He still struggles with the words as he gazes down at her. One of his hands moves from her shoulder to finger a string of still dripping hair. "And I got the chance to finally see you."
Her eyes soften at his words. "Anything like you imagined?"
"No," he says. "I always pictured you as two parts girl next door, one part femme fatale, and one part bookworm, with the fashion sense of Audrey Hepburn."
"And that impression doesn't hold up?"
"You're less girl next door, more Amelia Earhart."
She nods approvingly.
"But I won't need to describe you using comparisons anymore. Now and forever more, you'll just be Annie Walker."
She smiles, then steps into his space and wraps her arms around him, laying her head on his chest gently. She whispers, "You're going to be fine."
He believes her. Even so, he hugs her as if it's his final chance to hold her in his arms.
Across the lake, a warm glow crowns the trees on the horizon. Both fully clothed, Annie and Auggie sit in silence on the damp grass wrapped in the picnic blanket. They've spent the last hour talking about mundane, normal things: summers playing tag football with his four brothers in suburban alleyways, Chloe's first crush, catching lightning bugs in recycled peanut-butter jars. Work and the impending surgery are the two topics from which they steer clear. In the intermittent silences, Auggie listens to her breathing.
A rumbling stomach alerts him that they need to head back to civilization soon, as he needs to report to the hospital well before his surgery. "We should get you some breakfast," he says.
"What about you?"
"Can't eat anything before I go under the knife."
The sky has lightened considerably in the last few minutes. Rays of light shine through the loose strands of her hair, giving it a golden glow that highlights her eyes. He doesn't know what this is - this blooming affection that has sprouted between them - but he's not going to question it.
"There's one last thing I'd like to do." He tries to make it sound casual, more like wanting to ride one more roller coaster before leaving the theme park, and less like the final request of a dying man. He's not dying today, so there's no need to sound melancholy.
Still, the words do come out more ragged than he'd prefer.
She doesn't hesitate. "Name it, and it's done."
He smirks briefly at that, because his mind immediately strays to the gutter with all the possibilities her statement invites. But he brings his train of thought back to his initial desire.
She tilts her head at the simple instruction, but hops to her feet without questioning him, waiting for the next part of his request. When he remains silent, she starts fussing with her hands - a nervous tick he'll be sure to catalogue - unsure where to place them. She clasps them in front of her, then puts them on her hips in a Wonder Woman pose, and finally drops them to her sides again, grasping at air.
He smiles at her obvious discomfort, then rises to his feet. Slowly, he steps around her, circling her body, taking in every detail his eyes can drink in. He performs his visual sweep three times. With each circle, he inches a little closer, until he is finally only a few inches from touching her. He can feel her breath on his cheek when she speaks.
"What are you doing?" She's a little breathless. Funny, considering she's been standing still this whole time.
"I'm searching for something."
Her smile suggests that he's lost his mind. "For what?"
"Ah-ha! That!" he declares, bringing his finger to lightly tap the tip of her nose and eyeing her with a devilish smile of his own.
His actions make Annie's gaze narrow and her smile grow fonder. This is the image he will take with him into surgery, the one he will remember after his world goes dark once more: a smile so bright it could light up his world.
"What is it you've found exactly?"
"That look. It's back again."
"Is it?" she asks in an overly-innocent tone that tells him she's caught on to his game and finds it amusing.
He shakes his head in mock chastisement as his hands stroke lines up her arms. "You're insatiable."
"And what do you plan to do about it?"
"Oh, Ms. Walker, I always aim to satisfy."
His lips cover hers, but he finds it difficult to kiss her properly because he can't stop grinning. Neither can Annie.
It was never my plan to write what would happen during and after the surgery. This story was all about Auggie enjoying the short time he had to see again. That said, I don't see this as a "hard" end to the story. More could certainly be written. . .but not by me. (See where I'm going with this yet?)
If this story has inspired you and/or your muse, if you want to use it as a start for your own fic, I invite you to do so. What happens next? I have my own imaginings of where the story is headed, but I'd love to read what others come up with, whether it is just a oneshot or a multi-chapter story. All I ask is that you reference this story and give me a heads up in a review or PM so I will know to check it out.
It has been wonderful to travel through this adventure together. Thanks for sticking with me! As for future CA stories, I have a few different pans in the fire, but I've learned one thing from "Flashes": finish it before posting. :)
Thanks again for reading! -Trish