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Never Too Late
Standing in the doorway, she peered into the shadowed hospital room and inhaled deeply. Disinfectant and stale air stung her nose, making her eyes water. She hadn't expected to feel like this… like her heart had been ripped from her chest looking at that frail body lying in the bed. She wasn't used to caring…or, at least, caring like this.
The woman in front of her was her agent, her responsibility. Her agent to watch over, to guard, to protect, and ultimately, to bring home. Usually, she could do her job with a cold, sometimes ruthless, emotionless that often scared her when she lay in bed at night beside her husband, Arthur.
But all the training she had received never prepared her for an operative like Annie Walker. She'd tried to dislike the energetic young woman that she suspected wanted to change the world. She'd waited patiently for the girl to fail or to flinch in the face of the terror her operatives faced on a daily basis.
It had been impossible though.
And in her heart, she knew why.
Once, she'd been just like that young woman in front of her. She, too, had been filled with energy and ready to change the world. Time, the cruel mistress that it was, had tempered the desire. She'd realized that any real change had to be affected slowly… carefully. But Annie was young and determined.
She only hoped that determination would see Annie Walker through the coming days.
It had taken them a full ten minutes to restart her heart as she had stood clutching Auggie's hand, both fearful that the fight had been lost. The younger man slept now, stretched out across three uncomfortable plastic seats in the hallway, less than ten feet from Annie's hospital room door. She'd tried insisting that he go home, but he'd remained steadfast, restlessly pacing the hallway until exhaustion had won out and he'd sagged into one of the chairs. She'd managed to coax him into lying down because one thing had been glaringly obvious.
He wasn't leaving Annie.
She couldn't really blame him. She'd been equally determined to stay when Arthur had demanded she take a break. As she had told him, Annie was one of their own. CIA took care of its own.
To tell the truth, she felt more strongly about that now more than ever. Losing Jai on American soil had been a shock. But losing Annie to a corrupt traitor inside their own Agency…. it couldn't happen. Lena was on borrowed time. One way or another, they'd bring her to justice.
And in this circumstance, she was determined that her brand of justice might not line up with the official party line.
Sitting down beside the bed, she stared at her operative's slack face for a long minute. Seeing her so still and silent was like a punch to the gut. From the day Annie had walked into the DPD, she'd been animated, excited to make a difference in a world filled with unseen dangers. Taking the younger woman's hand in hers, Joan swallowed hard.
"Fight," she whispered, squeezing the small hand she held. "You've got to fight."
She half expected her to mumble something smart assed in response. Honestly, she would have rejoiced. For as much as she chastised Annie for her spirit, Joan secretly admired it.
"Auggie's waiting for you, you know," she continued determinedly. "Just outside in the hallway. He refuses to leave this place until you do. I've never seen a man so dedicated to clearing your name. He believed in you before the first accusation had been hurled. That kind of loyalty is rare, Annie. You hold on to that relationship. Though, it's obvious that I'm going to need to keep an eye on the two of you," she commented with a faint smile. "You two remind me of Arthur and me in our early days. He's devoted to you to the point of insubordination. He told Arthur to go to hell twice in ten minutes when he suggested that there wasn't anything he could do here. I wish I'd had a camera for that. And your sister is on her way as we speak. I imagine she'll have quite a few words to share with me when she gets here if she's anything like you."
Only the soft beeps and whoosh of the machines filled the room. Annie remained scarily still in the bed.
Pressing her lips together as she stared at the serene face in front of her, Joan felt her eyes clouding. "You're too good to just quit on us, Annie. The Agency put a lot of time and resources into your training. We expect you to pull through this," she offered, prepared to resort to outright bullying if it would obtain some kind of reaction from the patient.
But still, nothing.
"Don't you dare allow that bitch to win," she ordered quietly, her lips pressing together tightly for a bare second. "You wake up, and help us hunt her down. I might even be persuaded to let you return the favor she did you with your gun. That weapons training could be put to good use in this situation, I think."
Still nothing. Not even a glimmer of response.
Staring at Annie, Joan's stomach clenched tightly. She'd never had children. Between her ambition to rise through the ranks of the CIA and the dangers that her job had presented over the years, she and Arthur had come to the conclusion that parenthood just had not been in their deck of cards. It was a decision she'd been comfortable with having made. Or, she thought it was.
Looking down into Annie's peaceful face though, she felt that rare maternal pull that she'd sworn she had trained her body to ignore. The truth was that Annie reminded her so much of the daughter she'd once imagined she and Arthur would have.
Strong, imaginative, and resourceful.
Reaching a shaking hand toward Annie's head, she gently brushed the hair back from her face. "You're going to live, Annie. The world needs people like you in it. Until then, you rest. The rest of us will watch over you for a change."
Sitting in the chair until her face had returned to its normally composed state, she finally rose and turned toward the door to find her husband propped against it. Meeting his eyes, she felt a moment of embarrassment at being caught whispering to the younger woman.
"Arthur, I thought you'd gone home."
"Not without you," he returned with a shrug of his broad shoulders. "How is she?" he asked, nodding toward the bed.
"No change," Joan replied, her lips barely moving as she formed the words and followed him into the hallway to stand just outside her room. "You should go home and grab a couple of hours sleep. Tomorrow is going to be hell at the Agency."
Arthur Campbell was a lot of things, but a stupid man wasn't among them. Gripping his wife's narrow wrist when she would have breezed past him back into the waiting room, he tugged her back to face him. "I know that look, Joan. I know all of your looks."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Joan replied briskly, averting her gaze.
"Yes, you do," he countered softly. "You're thinking about what we might have had together if our lives had gone a little differently."
"Arthur, you're being maudlin. I was simply checking on one of my operatives," Joan returned dismissively, forcing herself shrug her shoulders.
"And thinking about the fact that if we'd had a daughter that you would have wanted her to be just like Annie Walker," Arthur noted perceptively, his eyes soft on his wife's face.
"I think one Annie in the world is enough, don't you?" Joan scoffed, not quite meeting her husband's eyes.
Recognizing the concern and fear in the eyes of the woman he loved, he drew her against his chest. "I think it's never too late. Not for Annie. Not for Auggie. And certainly, not for us."
Surprised, Joan lifted her gaze to his. "Really?"
Pulling her against him, Arthur buried his nose in Joan's silky hair. "Really. Think on it, Joan. I think if the last twenty-four hours has proven one thing, it's that life is too short to have regrets."
Blinking back tears, Joan swallowed. "Food for thought," she whispered.
And for the first time in a very long time, Joan began to think that perhaps her future wasn't as well mapped out as she might have initially thought.