Hazy Shade of Winter -- Part 2
by Marina Frants


Notes and disclaimers in Part 1

IV

Finn arrived fifteen minutes late for his Thursday appointment, pale and bleary-eyed and full of excuses about lack of sleep the night before.

"A couple of my buddies from Rwanda arrived yesterday morning," he explained. "They're stationed here for the next year, so it's like the Three Musketeers together again, you know? We ended up sitting around talking most of the night."

Maggie mentally translated "talking" to "drinking," and turned down the lights before sitting down at her desk.

"That's all right, Lieutenant. I just hope you're up for more talking now. Are you ready to pick up where we left off the last time?"

"Sure," Finn said, sounding not at all sure. Maggie did her best to look patient and encouraging.

"Tell me what happened once the ambush was over."

Finn closed his eyes -- either to aid his concentration or ease his hangover, Maggie wasn't sure -- and rubbed his chin with the back of his hand. There was a small cut on his jaw, and his shirt collar was slightly damp: he must've shaved in a hurry just before coming over. "We all got out to see what the damage was. Turned out we got lucky. The first truck was totally disabled, but the driver was the only one hurt. We got him settled in the other truck with as many of us as would fit, and sent them back to base, while one of the guys radioed for transport for the rest of us. While we were waiting around, we went to check out the houses."

He paused, eyes still closed. Seconds ticked by. Finn showed no inclination to continue.

"What houses?" Maggie prompted.

"Three of them, behind the trees on one side of the road. Little one-room shacks, wooden walls, tin roofs. Pretty rickety to begin with, and all the shooting had messed them up even more. They looked like they'd been abandoned for a while, but Captain Harris said to check them out anyway. There are a lot of abandoned houses in that area, and sometimes people squat in them or just stop for the night on their way to somewhere else.

"So I went up to the nearest one and shone a light through the window, and I thought I saw something moving inside, so I went--"

"Hold on a minute," Maggie interrupted. Finn's speech had gotten faster and faster as he went on, until by the end he was running his words together and barely taking a breath between sentences. "Slow down. What did you see?"

"Nothing, as it turned out. It must've been a trick of the shadows. I was a bit jumpy, so it really wouldn't have taken much to make me see things that weren't there. The point is, I thought there was something there. I called out, and there was a creaking noise, but no one came out. I thought maybe there was someone hurt inside, so I went in to look." Finn fell silent again. This time Maggie just waited without prompting him to continue. He seemed immersed in the memory, and she didn't want to break his concentration.

"The place was a mess," he went on. "Part of the roof had already fallen in, and two of the walls were damaged. There was debris all over the floor, and everything smelled musty. It was pretty obvious there were no people there, but I thought I'd make sure. I went in a little further, and I--" Finn bit his lip for a moment and winced. "I tripped."

"Tripped over what?"

"I don't know. I was pointing the flashlight a bit ahead of me, and I couldn't actually see where my feet were at. There was a vertical beam in the center of the room, supporting the ceiling. I braced my hand against it to catch myself, and it fell over, and then everything came down."

Maggie watched him closely, paying as much attention to the body language as the actual words. Finn kept drawing in on himself as he spoke: hunching his shoulders, folding his arms across his stomach, bracing his left foot against the edge of his chair. When he described the roof's collapse, he squirmed uncomfortably in his seat and rubbed his right hand over his throat in an apparently unconscious gesture. Maggie recalled that his current list of symptoms included chest pains and constrained breathing.

"Do you want to stop for a moment?" she asked.

"Actually, yeah, if you don't mind." For the first time since the conversation started, Finn opened his eyes. "Is there a water cooler around here? I'm parched."

"I'll get you a glass." Maggie stood. Finn started to protest, and to rise, but she waved him back into his chair. "I'm the one with two good legs, Lieutenant. Sit. Chivalry will survive my getting you a drink of water."

By the time she came back, he was composed again, sitting back in the recliner with his legs crossed at the ankles and his arms dangling over the armrests. He looked placid, relaxed, and very, very tall. He took the glass from Maggie with a perfectly steady hand, thanked her with a perfectly steady voice, drank, and looked up expectantly.

"Are you ready to go on?" Maggie asked.

"I'm ready." He gave her the look she'd mentally started to label as "the Hallmark face," all smile and dimples. "It got a bit too vivid there for a moment, but I'm fine now."

And he was, indeed, fine for the rest of the session, showing no signs of reluctance or agitation as he described the two hours he'd spent buried under a pile of wood and tin while his friends worked to clear the wreckage. He listed his injuries as if reciting a grocery list, and when Maggie asked about his time in the hospital, he launched into a series of amusing tales about the practical jokes played by his buddies while he was defenseless in traction. When Maggie finally remembered to check the clock, it was ten minutes past the scheduled end of the session and she was about to be late for a meeting. She interrupted Finn in mid-anecdote, confirmed the date and time of the next appointment, and returned to her office with the frustrating knowledge that she'd been successfully charmed into distraction.

The frustration increased steadily over the next two weeks as Finn continued to be pleasant, chatty, relaxed, and utterly uninformative. He continued to have problems in PT -- in fact, he'd added stomach cramps and vomiting to his ever-growing list of unexplained symptoms -- but remained steadfast in his insistence that there was a physical explanation for it all.

Shortly before Christmas, Finn left for two weeks to visit his family in Iowa. Maggie took advantage of his absence to do extra work at the lab, catch up on her paperwork, and discuss Finn's case with Seville.

"I feel as if we're circling around it," she told him irritably over coffee and sandwiches in the consulting room. "Whatever it is. Sometimes I'll ask a question, and he'll tense a little, and I'll think -- yes, now we're getting there. Then he'll answer with something completely innocuous. I ask something else, and he relaxes. I know I'm missing the target, but I don't know how or why."

"Perhaps you're being too direct," Seville suggested. "You may not know what you're after, but Finn does. You're prodding at the place where his defenses are strongest. Get him to talk about something else, and see if you can approach the problem that way."

"I've been thinking that myself," Maggie admitted. "But the boy has actually studied psychology, and I think he'd recognize an attempt at misdirection. If he decides to resent it, I'll never get anything useful out of him."

"You're not getting anything useful now," Seville pointed out.

Maggie sighed. "There is that..."

She was surprised to discover that she actually missed Finn during his absence. She had never noticed before how few people spoke to her in the course of an ordinary day. She wasn't close to any of her colleagues, either at the hospital or at the lab, and the double duty of her work left no time for a social life, even if she had been inclined to pursue one. And the daily one-sided conversations with Michael were downright exhausting, not to mention depressing. There was a lot to be said for having a polite young man talk amusingly to her for an hour, no matter how professionally frustrating it might be.

It didn't help that between the still-raging flu epidemic and the holidays, life at the base had slowed to a crawl. Everyone who could get leave, did. The unlucky ones who couldn't sulked and did as little work as they could get away with. Meetings were cancelled, seminars postponed. Only the lab went on with its usual schedule; Angleman had no more use for the holidays than Maggie did. Before her sessions with Finn had started, Maggie had resented the loss of two hours out of every week. Now she didn't know what to do with the time she had.

The tissue analysis from the Hostile's abdominal gland finally got finished, and Angleman was highly pleased with the results. He began to look even more smug then usual, and ordered a shipment of rats for testing. Maggie congratulated him, turned in her research proposal, and kept her fingers crossed.

Seville tried to organize a holiday party for the Psychiatry Department, but bad weather and influenzaphobia kept interest to a minimum. Maggie, who didn't go, heard later that less than ten people showed up.

The week between Christmas and New Year, in particular, seemed to drag on longer than the entire year that preceded it. There was snow, then a brief thaw that melted all the accumulation to slush, then a vicious four-day cold snap that turned the streets to solid ice. The heat in Maggie's apartment building went out twice, and the hot water three times. After the second time taking an icy shower in an icy bathroom, Maggie drove out to the nearest Wal-Mart to shop for a space heater. While she was inside, someone broke into her car and made off with the stereo, the cell phone, and the box of tissues she kept on the dashboard. The image of a flu-ridden thief desperately searching the parking lot for a Kleenex was not quite humorous enough to make up for the hassle.

It was a great relief when January first came and went, and life began to resume its normal pace.

Lieutenant Finn came back from Iowa full of health and good cheer, and gave Maggie a box of his grandmother's molasses cookies. His leg was much better, he said, and he hadn't once felt dizzy or faint or anything other than great, not even when he chopped firewood at his grandparents' farm. He thought he was "over it," whatever "it" had been.

This newfound optimism lasted for all of two days. On the third day, Finn arrived for his appointment sporting a dark and swollen bruise along his right cheekbone and a gauze bandage over his eyebrow.

"Hit my head on the weight machine when I keeled over," he explained. "Blood all over the place. Scared the living daylights out of Dr. Lerner. I think he thought I'd put an eye out."

So much for being over it. Maggie decided that this was a good opportunity to discuss something other than Rwanda without making it look as if she was deliberately changing the subject.

"Tell me what happened."

"The usual." Finn sounded tired. "I'm going through my exercises, feeling good, everything's perfect, Dr. Lerner's telling me how well I'm doing -- then suddenly the room starts spinning.

"What were you doing, exactly?"

"Just your basic leg extensions. Nothing extra-strenuous."

"Ever have difficulty during this particular exercise before?"

"Yep. But I've had trouble during every exercise, so that doesn't mean anything."

Over the next several sessions, Maggie got Finn to discuss his exercise regimen, his work, his social life -- almost as non-existent as hers -- and his family. She brought up Rwanda only when an opening arose naturally during the course of conversation, and she watched carefully for any sign of strong resonance between past events and Finn's present situation.

All she got was a wider variety of humorous anecdotes.

"Maybe I'm not the right therapist for you," Maggie suggested once. "Maybe you should talk with the other doctors in the department, find somebody you're more comfortable opening up to--"

Finn was shaking his head before she stopped speaking. "I feel comfortable opening up to you. And I'd really rather not have to go over all this crap again with somebody else."

Maggie didn't press the point. She didn't like to admit failure, particularly not on a case that Seville had insisted she take. So she told herself that if Finn didn't want to switch therapists, it would only do more harm to force him, and never brought up the subject again.




V

The phone was ringing. Hell. Maggie sat up, blinking sleep from her eyes, and groped across the top of the dresser with one hand. The window shades were down, and the only light in the room was the green glow of the alarm clock on the side table. It was eleven-thirty, way past the hour for social phone calls, even if she actually knew anyone who might call her up just to chat. That left junk calls, wrong numbers, and bad news. Maggie pushed back the surge of premature panic -- please, God, not Michael -- as her hand finally closed on the receiver.

"Hello?"

A soft crackle of static was the only response she got. Static and... breathing?

All right, that was one possibility she hadn't considered. Obscene phone call.

"Hello?"

"Major Walsh?"

"Lieutenant Finn?" Of all the people who might've called her, this was the last one Maggie expected. "Are you all right? Is something the matter?"

"No. Yes. I'm sorry." Finn's voice was shaky. Maggie wondered if he was drunk. "Did I wake you up?"

"It's all right," Maggie said automatically. "Is this an emergency?"

More breathing. A sniffle. Then, "I just need... could I talk to you for a bit?"

"We're going to see each other tomorrow morning, Lieutenant."

"I know. It's just... I really need to talk about this with somebody."

Maggie rubbed her eyes, trying to will herself to full alertness. This was not a decision to be made while half awake. Agreeing to counsel a patient outside of scheduled sessions was always awkward. There were risks: if she agreed once, Finn might start expecting it on a regular basis. He might become too dependent, start relying on her instead of friends or family, make unreasonable demands. It would break their routine, set a possibly dangerous precedent, change the dynamic of the relationship... Then again, their current dynamic wasn't accomplishing much, was it? If Finn felt ready to open up, and she made him wait, he might reconsider before morning.

And then there were the horror stories, tales of patients who killed themselves or took a rifle to a rooftop and started firing because a therapist refused to listen at a crucial moment. Maggie was ninety-nine percent sure that Finn was in no danger of going psychotic, but that one percent uncertainty loomed dispropotionately large in the middle of the night, with a guy who'd won three marksmanship medals breathing heavily into the phone. Maggie took a deep breath of her own and decided to take the plunge.

"Go ahead, I'm listening."

"My mom just called." The strain in Finn's voice lessened a little, as if simply having permission to speak was a relief. "My youngest sister's really sick. They took her away in an ambulance."

So much for him opening up. Maggie bit back a frustrated sigh. She would listen; if nothing else, it might make Finn trust her more in future sessions.

"What's wrong with her?"

"Mengoco-- no, that's not right. Hang on, I have it written down." There was another static-filled pause. When Finn finally spoke again, it was slowly and with great care, struggling to tame unfamiliar syllables. "Meningococcal Septicaemia."

"Blood poisoning." Maggie dredged through her med-school memories for the relevant information. "Treatable with antibiotics. Did they catch it early?"

"Yeah. Mom's a nurse. She recognized the symptoms."

"Then I'm sure she'll be all right."

"That's what everyone keeps telling me." Finn didn't sound convinced. "I can't even get leave to go home, because it's not an 'immediate emergency.' But I looked it up. The mortality rate is over fifty percent. One website said eighty."

"Only if it's not caught in time," Maggie said soothingly. "What did your mother have to say?"

"She said it will be okay and not to worry about it. But if it's so okay, why did she call?"

"Does she usually only call when there's something to worry about?"

"N-no."

"If it was really serious, would she lie about it?"

"No."

"Then maybe you should take her at her word?"

"I guess." Finn sighed. "It's just that... I'm used to taking care of her, you know? I want to be there."

What he really wanted, Maggie thought, was for someone to keep reassuring him until he believed it. So much for her good night's sleep.

"What's your sister's name?"

"Stephanie."

"How old is she?"

"Nine."

"Tell me about her."

It took a little over half an hour of metaphorical hand-holding before Finn pronounced himself reassured and allowed Maggie to hang up the phone. She met him in her office that morning in a scolding frame of mind.

"You know you can't do this again, don't you, Lieutenant?"

Finn nodded, looking embarrassed and contrite. "I know. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to keep you up half the night with my stupid problems."

"Keeping me awake is not the issue. And your problems are not stupid. But be honest now -- was this really something you had to discuss with me, and only me? You couldn't have spoken to your friends, or picked up the phone and called your parents?"

"I guess..." Finn met Maggie's disapproving stare with an expression of wide-eyed innocence that she had learned to recognize as a prelude to an evasion. "It's just that I've grown used to talking to you, you know?" He was actually blushing, a faint but noticeable pink tinge from neck to hairline. "You listen well -- interested but not judgemental. And you don't fuss. Everyone around me fusses. It's very tiring."

"Flattery will get you nowhere," Maggie said, and immediately wished she hadn't. She'd meant to sound reproving, but the words came out too glib -- not reproach, but banter. She took a mental step back and started over, more serious this time. "It's good that you're comfortable talking to me. And I'm glad I could help. But therapy is not meant to replace ordinary everyday coping. Of course, some people are in therapy because they can't handle ordinary everyday coping, but I don't think you're one of them."

"I'm not," Finn said quickly. "It won't happen again, I promise."

But three days later, when he called on a Sunday to report that his sister was recovering, but the doctors were worried about possible hearing loss, she didn't have the heart to hang up the phone.




Angleman divided his lab rats into two groups of twenty, broke their spines in a vise, and injected them with a serum derived from the HST's abdominal gland. The first group died overnight, covered in walnut-sized tumors. The second, dosed at lower levels, lived an average of three days, and half of the longer-lived rats healed their injuries completely before expiring from massive organ failure.

"I knew it would work," Angleman said cheerfully as he filled out the request forms for another batch. "Just a matter of getting the dosage right."

Maggie went home and drafted a letter politely inquiring about the status of her project proposal.

Finn's sister did not die, go deaf, or suffer any other permanent harm from her illness. The news had a visible improving effect on him, and he made it through three successful PT sessions before collapsing with chest pains mid-way through the fourth.

"I don't get it," he complained. "I was doing so well there for a while. Dr. Lerner was getting all excited just watching me do hamstring curls. And then -- wham! -- down I go. Again."

A similar remark from a previous session surfaced in Maggie's memory. "Wasn't there at least one other time when you became ill shortly after Dr. Lerner mentioned how well you were doing?"

"Yeah." Finn looked thoughtful. "A couple of times, actually."

"Is that always when it happens?"

"I'm not sure." He stared off into the distance for a few seconds, considering the question. "I haven't really been keeping track."

"Try keeping track from now on. If there's a connection, we need to deal with it."

"But why would there be? Why would I get worse every time I think I might get better? I want to get better."

Maggie was beginning to have doubts on the subject, but they were too vague for immediate discussion. "Maybe that's the problem. Maybe you get overanxious, or push yourself too hard. Or maybe there's no connection at all. But it's worth investigating."

That single bit of progress, however small and illusory it might be, was the only positive gleam in Maggie's winter. Everything else seemed frozen in a cold, gray limbo. Her research proposal appeared to sink without a trace into the vast sea of Pentagon bureaucracy, leaving Maggie to function as little more than Angleman's lab assistant. She threw herself into her work at the hospital, attending several seminars, taking over a weekly stress-reduction workshop from a colleague on maternity leave, and giving a talk on hypnotherapy to a group of civilian psychologists from Chicago. But the work was neither meaningful nor challenging, and she felt as if she was spinning her wheels, filling up the days with empty chores.

Endless treks through wind and slush finally took their toll, and she came down with a mild respiratory infection that had her wheezing throughout the day and coughing herself awake at night. It never got bad enough to justify taking time off, but it wouldn't go away, either. In the meantime, Michael's doctors requested that she stop her visits until she was fully recovered. Maggie understood the reasoning -- with Michael's weakened immune system, even a mild infection could easily turn deadly -- but it did nothing to improve her state of mind.

She acquired a habit of eating dinner at a restaurant near the base, not because she particularly liked the food or enjoyed eating out, but because her apartment felt a little emptier and darker with every passing day. She couldn't summon the energy to cook just for herself, and eating take-out in front of the TV had lost its appeal. So every night Maggie lingered just a little later at the Toucan Bar & Grill, until one Friday night she found herself still in her booth at nine in the evening, ordering a second pot of tea and a slice of cheesecake instead of getting up and going home.

The Toucan was decorated in a rain forest motif, with murals of vivid green foliage on the walls and brightly colored birds and butterflies stenciled on the place mats. The square columns that separated the booths were painted to look like tree trunks, with an occasional poison-dart frog to provide a spot of color. Maggie privately questioned the wisdom of using pictures of poisonous amphibians to decorate a place that served food, but it certainly didn't seem to be driving customers away. The place was popular with soldiers, mainly for its large beer selection and the three pool tables at the back of the bar, and Fridays were always lively, even at a time of year when few people cared to venture outside.

Maggie stirred her tea and swallowed a small forkful of cheesecake, which was far too sweet and had a soggy crust. She wasn't even hungry, really. It was foolish to sit and procrastinate this way. She really should--

"Yo, Riley, that steak is dead already, you don't have to keep stabbing it with your fork."

The voice, pitched to be heard over the surrounding din, made Maggie jump a little. She looked over to her left into the adjoining booth, separated from hers by a clear plastic divider and two tree-trunk columns. There were two young men sitting on the bench facing her, and neither one of them was Lieutenant Finn. Both wore civilian clothes, but their looks and bearing clearly marked them as Army. The one closer to Maggie was tall, black, with a shaved head and a broad grin that was just a bit too forcefully charming. The other had the same apple-pie looks as Finn, with a square-jawed, good-natured face and football player build.

"Stop nagging, Forrest." Definitely Finn's voice. He was sitting on the other side of the booth, blocked from Maggie's view by a column. She found herself pressing back in her seat, afraid that he might lean forward and see her. Not that this was anything to be afraid of, rationally. But sitting alone in a noisy restaurant on a Friday night, eating a dessert she didn't even like suddenly seemed more pathetic than ever before. And it wouldn't do for a doctor to appear pathetic in front of a patient, would it? Erosion of confidence and all that.

"I'm not nagging." The tall black guy -- Forrest, presumably -- grabbed a French fry from a basket in the middle of the table, popped it into his mouth, and blithely continued talking with his mouth full. "I'm stating an incowhawha--" Pause, swallow. "--An incontrovertible fact. That steak is dead. It's kicked the bucket, shuffled off this mortal coil, rang down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. It is an ex-cow! Now either honor its memory by chowing down on the remains, or pass it on to somebody who will."

"Help yourself." Finn's hand came into view, pushing a plate of barely touched T-bone and baked potato toward Forrest. "I'm not hungry."

"Oh, I didn't mean me. I meant the bottomless pit here." Forrest pointed his thumb toward his neighbor, who had just polished off the last bit of one cheeseburger and was picking the second one off his plate.

"I'm fine," the bottomless pit said. Forrest rolled his eyes.

"Well, if you're both going to be like that..." He pulled the plate toward him, but made no move to pick up his fork. He was still looking across the table at Finn, and Maggie could clearly see the genuine concern beneath the comedy. She wondered if Finn was seeing it too. "You wanna order something else?"

"Nah."

"How about a game of pool, then?"

"Maybe later."

"You're a wuss. Tell him he's a wuss, Graham."

"You're a wuss," the bottomless pit named Graham mumbled between bites of cheeseburger. Forrest clapped him on the back.

"See? Look at you. The whole reason we dragged our asses into the cold tonight was to get you to loosen up and have a little fun. Had I known--"

"Really? And here I thought we were going out to celebrate because Graham got into the Green to Gold program."

"That too." Forrest picked up his beer mug and held it out to Graham. "Good job, Gray. About time you stopped all that enlisted crap and became an officer like all the real men."

"Fuck you," Graham said mildly, and clinked his mug against Forrest's.

"The point is," Forrest continued, "we're supposed to be celebrating. All of us. Having fun. Had I known you were going to sit here all night looking like you just shot Old Yeller, I wouldn't have bothered to invite you."

"I'm sorry I'm not sufficiently entertaining for you." Finn's voice held annoyance and affection in equal measure. Maggie didn't need to see his face to clearly visualize his lifted eyebrows and the wry twist of his mouth. "Next time you want company, feel free to invite somebody else."

"I like my company just fine, thanks." Forrest glared, snatched up his silverware, and made a big production out of cutting and eating several pieces of Finn's steak. For a while, none of the men spoke. Maggie found herself inexplicably focused on Finn's hand, still the only part of him that was visible to her. He was turning a plastic straw over and over between his fingers, twisting it into loops then smoothing it out again. She could see the dark blue cuff of his sweater sleeve, turned back to just above the wrist, and a bit of dried blood on his thumbnail where he'd bitten it to the quick. Maggie tried to remember if she'd ever actually seen him bite his nails, and decided that she hadn't.

After a minute or so, Forrest resumed the conversation. "So Ry, what's up with that lady shrink of yours? She helping?"

Riley's hand clenched into a fist for a moment, then relaxed again. "Too early to say."

"How long does it take, man? You've been seeing her, what, two months? I've had girlfriends that didn't last that long."

"Most of your girlfriends don't last two days."

"Don't change the subject. You're not getting anywhere, Ry. Maybe you should switch shrinks."

"I like the one I've got."

"Yeah? What's so great about her, if she's not helping? Is she hot or something?"

Maggie sat frozen in place, tea and dessert forgotten. The last thing she'd expected when she began her unplanned eavesdropping was to find herself the subject of the debate. She had no business listening to this -- not that she had any business listening to any of it -- but leaving without asking for the bill might attract attention to herself, and then Finn would know she was there. Maggie looked around desperately, searching for sight of her waitress. At the same time, she tried to tune out the conversation still going on next to her, but the voices suddenly seemed unnaturally loud and focused, refusing to blend into the ambient noise.

"You're a pig, Forrest."

"And you're not answering my question. Is she hot?"

"Lay off him, Forrest," Graham muttered. But Forrest, apparently, was not to be dissuaded.

"Hey, all I did was ask a simple question. This isn't rocket science -- a woman is hot, or she's not. If you've seen her once, you must know. No need to get embarrassed about it."

"I'm not embarrassed."

"Oh, please. You're blushing like a virgin bride."

Maggie finally caught the waitress' eye. She made a little writing motion in the air, got a nod in return, and began to dig through her purse for her wallet.

"Come off it, Forrest. She's my therapist."

"And that makes her ugly by default?"

"Of course not. Can we change the subject, please?"

"Not when you're blushing so prettily. My curiosity's piqued now."

"That's your problem."

"It'll be your problem too, until you answer the question."

The waitress slapped the bill down on Maggie's table, said "I'll be right back for that, Ma'am," and moved on before Maggie could hand her the money. Damn.

"You're not going to let it drop, are you?"

"Hell, no. This is way too entertaining. Come one, now, it's a yes or no question. You can do it. Is. She. Hot?"

There was a pause. Finn let the straw drop and tapped his hand on the table, while his friends watched him expectantly.

"Yeah," he muttered finally. "She's kinda hot."

Maggie tossed two crumpled twenties on the table, and fled without waiting for her change.



VI

It really wasn't worth getting upset about. Maggie kept telling herself that, over and over, as she drove home. Yes, it had been awkward to suddenly find herself eavesdropping on a patient's private life, but in the end, what difference did it really make? Finn was showing mild symptoms of depression -- she knew that already. He had friends who were concerned about him -- she knew that, too. He found her attractive -- that was new, and somewhat embarrassing, but totally irrelevant to his case. The boy was twenty-three years old. He probably found anything female under the age of ninety attractive.

The irrelevancy of the information, however, did nothing to take Maggie's mind off it. Throughout the drive, she kept replaying her conversations with Finn over and over in her mind, trying to remember his posture, gestures, facial expressions. Suddenly, his charming smiles and funny stories, which she had interpreted as attempts at evasion, began to appear in a new light. Which was ridiculous. Whatever Finn might think of Maggie's personal appearance, the notion that he would flirt with her was laughable. The situation was so wildly inappropriate, and Finn obviously had so many other things on his mind, that the thought would never occur to him.

He seldom looked directly at her during their sessions. He'd stare at the ceiling, or the wall behind her, or the toes of his boots, sometimes ducking his head or turning away when she asked an uncomfortable question. But when he did meet her eyes, he always looked intensely focused and sincere, as if the question she was asking or the answer he was giving was the most important thing in his life. Was this his normal manner? Was he like this with his superior officers, his physician, his family, his subordinates? Maybe she could discreetly ask around...

Or maybe she could stop dithering. Maggie scowled in disgust at her own stupidity as she stomped up the stairs to her apartment. What was wrong with her, anyway? Why this sudden fit of adolescent jitters over a stray remark in a diner? Had it been so long since a good-looking man admitted to thinking of her as "hot," that the event should come as a shocking revelation?

Well, yes, it had, if she was going to be truthful about it. In the first year following her divorce, Maggie had gone out on a couple of dull and awkward dates arranged by well-meaning friends who thought she needed to get out more. The move to Tyrone had put the well-meaning friends at a safe distance, the doubled workload ate up all her spare time, and Maggie's social life had died a quiet, painless death. It had been years since she had interacted with a man socially.

You're not interacting with Finn socially, either, she reminded herself sternly as she hung up her coat and sat down to remove her snow boots. Really, even if she could socialize with him, she wouldn't want to. They had nothing in common. He was half her age. The idea was laughable. Maggie sat and forced herself to laugh at it, but the sound rang hollow and fake in the emptiness of her living room.

She was tired, that was all. Tired and stressed and losing her sense of perspective. A little relaxation would put her right again. Maggie went into the bathroom and turned on the water in the tub, then went into the bedroom to undress while the bath filled.

She lit a rose-scented candle on the shelf above the sink, sprinkled a handful of lavender bath salts into the tub, and climbed in, sinking down until the water lapped at her shoulders. It felt soothing and comfortable. Normally she would just lean back, close her eyes and soak, drowsy and relaxed, until the water cooled. But tonight relaxation eluded her. Instead, Maggie found herself lifting one leg out of the water and contemplating the shape of her calf with a critical eye. It was a good calf, not at all flabby, despite being almost forty-seven years old. Maggie had been quite athletic in her youth -- tennis in high school and college, numerous hiking and skiing vacations during her marriage -- and while her recent life left no room for anything more than the occasional half-hour on an exercise bike, she was still in fairly good shape.

In other words, I look great for a middle-aged scientist. Maggie sighed and dropped her leg back down into the bath with a splash. Whom was she kidding? She had seen the young women at the Toucan's bar, shooting pool and flirting with the soldiers. She had no illusions about how she'd fare in comparison. Finn's reluctant "she's kinda hot" was most likely a handy euphemism for "she's female, breathing, and not visibly disfigured." The fact that she'd attached any importance to the statement only went to show that her well-meaning friends had been right -- she did need to get out more.

Maggie closed her eyes and rested her head on the rim of the tub. Enough was enough. She was going to sit there and soak until she relaxed or the bathwater froze over, whichever came first.




Circumstances seemed to conspire against her. She had to reschedule her next appointment with Finn from ten hundred to eighteen hundred hours to make room for a seminar on drug interactions that Seville had ordered for everyone on the staff. Finn must've been off-duty that evening, because he arrived at the consulting room wearing jeans and a bulky turtleneck sweater. This was the first time Maggie ever truly appreciated, on more than just an intellectual level, the psychological importance of uniforms. They created a comfortable wall of professionalism, a mental barrier that made it easy to keep an emotional distance. Without it, Lieutenant Riley Douglas Finn stopped being an interesting case study in PTSD, and became an attractive young man with very long legs and a distracting smile.

It didn't help that Finn himself seemed to take his civilian attire as an excuse to sit with one leg draped over the recliner's arm in a posture that Maggie was sure violated a regulation somewhere. He was talking earnestly about his fears that his current troubles might damage his chances of qualifying for Special Forces in the future. Maggie tried to pay attention, and to look him in the face as she listened, but both her thoughts and her gaze kept wandering downwards.

"Lieutenant," she finally blurted out, "will you please sit up straight?"

"Ma'am." Finn jolted upright in his seat, planting both feet on the floor. "Sorry."

"It's all right." Maggie massaged her forehead with one hand. Not for the first time since that night at the Toucan, she considered the advisability of referring Finn to another psychiatrist. But the thought faded quickly, just as it had all the other times, and she pulled herself together with an effort. "I want you to be comfortable, of course. But... this is not a social visit, and I don't think we should behave as if it was one, do you?"

"N-no," Finn said hesitantly, watching her with a puzzled expression. Maggie couldn't begin to imagine what he must be thinking of her outburst. The urge to try and cover with some contrived explanation was strong, but she resisted it. Don't draw attention. Just move on.

She took a moment to rearrange the papers on her desk, then gave Finn a polite, neutral smile. "So, you were saying?.."




VII

The phone was ringing. Damn. Maggie clambered out of the shower, dripping water and shampoo, and sprinted for the living room.

"Hello?"

"Dr. Walsh?" Angleman's voice. What the hell was he doing at the lab on a Sunday morning? "You need to come out here as soon as possible. We've got another one."

"Another what?" Maggie returned to the bathroom, using one shoulder to hold the phone against her ear while she grabbed a towel. "Another HST?"

"Yes. They're unloading it right now. And they want your signature on the delivery forms." There was a faint but unmistakable tone of resentment in Angleman's voice. Maggie couldn't resist feeling just a touch of smugness. For all his recent attention-grabbing work, Angleman was still second in command on the project.

"I'll be there in half an hour." She hung up the phone, and hurried to get dressed.




The scene at the lab was eerily familiar. An unmarked truck parked at the front entrance, flanked by a pair of black sedans with tinted windows. Serious-looking men in suits poring over her identification and presenting endless forms to be signed in triplicate. Angleman hovering in the background, looking nervous and excited at the same time. The new HST sprawled, drugged and insensible, on the floor of a huge steel cage with bars thick as Maggie's wrist.

The HST looked nothing like the first one. This one was nearly eight feet tall, cadaverously thin, with skin the color of Concord grapes and a face that was all ridges and spikes.

"Where did it come from?" Maggie asked the man who seemed to be in charge of the delivery.

He stared at her with pale, impassive eyes that never seemed to blink. "If it's not listed on the forms, then you're not cleared to know, Major. Which reminds me..." He handed her a thick manila envelope, stamped "Classified" in impressive red letters on both sides. "I was told to give you this separately from the other forms. Sign for it here, please."

The lab only had one holding cell, and they couldn't very well lock both creatures in together, so Maggie had the men wheel the cage into one of the unused storage rooms. Perhaps when the construction crew came in, they could redo several rooms at once, in case more surprises arrived. The operating theater would need adjustments too. None of the current tables were big enough to hold this one. They'd need to have one custom made...

She wondered if it was possible that both HST's belonged to the same species. It seemed unlikely: they looked far too dissimilar. But the idea of two previously unknown humanoid species being discovered within a year of each other seemed even more improbable. Maggie had always done her best to refrain from wild speculations about her project, but it was becoming more and more difficult.

"Do you think they could be extraterrestrial?" she suggested to Angleman as soon as they were alone in the lab again. Angleman's lack of surprise at the question suggested that he'd been considering the possibility also.

"I suppose they could be, but... they can breathe our air, eat our food, drink our water. They respond more or less predictably to our drugs. Hell, they can take blood transfusions from us -- or at least the first one can. I suppose we'll find out about this one soon enough. Now, I can believe in parallel evolution to some degree, but this seems a little much."

"I know." Maggie sighed. "But then, where the hell is the Army digging these things up?"

"Damned if I know." Angleman shrugged. "Personally, I'm willing to just work with what they give me for the time being. Look what I've got here." He lifted the top of a wire cage, and scooped out a wriggling white rat with a blue tag on its ear. "Perfectly healed."

Maggie did her best to look enthusiastic. "I guess that means you finally have the dosage right."

"Yes, and that's not all." Angleman turned the rat over to expose its belly. "This one had an old scar across its abdomen, right here." He indicated the place with his finger. "Do you see a scar now?"

"No." Maggie leaned in for a closer look. The rat squealed and pedaled its hind paws in the air. "Are you sure you've got the right one?"

"Positive. I tagged it a different color from the others, because I thought this might happen. Do you realize what this means?" Angleman's normally uninflected voice practically squeaked with excitement. He sounded like the rat, Maggie thought pettily. "The serum doesn't just heal new injuries -- it reverses existing damage. Just think about that for a moment. Burn victims, frostbite victims... Maybe it goes beyond surface damage. People who were crippled in accidents, maybe even lost limbs..."

Maggie stared at the squirming rodent in Angleman's hand and felt her mouth go dry as she considered the possibilities. She had to take several slow, steadying breaths before she could trust herself to speak in an appropriately detached tone. "What about brain damage? Coma, vegetative state..."

"Who knows?" Angleman dropped the rat back into the cage and latched the lid. His brief burst of enthusiasm appeared to have passed, and he was back to his usual detached self. "It's all speculation at this point, anyway. For all we know, erasing scars on rats is the best we'll ever do. And if there's more -- you know as well as I do how long it takes to get a new drug approved. And that's assuming we can ever get this declassified. If we're lucky, the FDA will let us test on human subjects sometime before we both drop dead of old age."

"Yes, of course," Maggie muttered automatically. She didn't give a damn about FDA approval, and she suspected that the men who ran the lab didn't either. If they decided that human testing was warranted, then it would be done. And if she had a specific subject to suggest... Maggie pushed the thought away with an effort. It was, as Angleman said, all speculation. She had to remain detached if she was going to keep functioning at all. Maggie left Angleman to play with his rats, and retreated to her office.

Alone at her desk, she opened the classified envelope she'd received earlier, and extracted the thick sheaf of papers inside. The top sheet informed her, in terse militarese, that her research proposal had been submitted for budget approval. The evaluation would begin as soon as she filled out the attached expense estimates, personnel requests, and procedural forms. In triplicate. Maggie reached for her pen, wondering wistfully if the final budget would allow for a secretary with high security clearance.

Five hours later, her eyes blurry and her writing hand cramping, she was grateful to be interrupted by a knock on her door.

"What is it?"

"Dr. Walsh?" It was Henry, the security guard from the front desk, peering at her with polite concern. "Just wanted to let you know, it's snowing pretty hard out there. They're issuing travel advisories on the radio. You might want to leave now, if you're going to get home at all."

"Oh?" Maggie had been sitting with her back to the window. Now she swiveled her chair around and looked outside. It was, indeed, snowing, fat white flakes swirling in violent gusts of wind that shook the trees in the parking lot. It looked unpleasant, but no more so than almost any other day in the past two months. And Maggie had long since given up paying attention to travel advisories. "Thank you, Henry. I'll just finish up here and go."

It was another two hours before she finally left the office, having gone through slightly more than half of her required paperwork. By then, the snow in the lot was ankle-deep, with knee-high drifts piling up on the windward side. It was freezing, too. Maggie shivered violently as she scraped her car windows. By the time she got inside, her fingers and toes had gone numb. It took her several tries to get the key into the ignition. The heater spewed cold air the first time she turned it on, and she waited five minutes for the engine to warm up before trying again.

Even with the brights on, she could barely see the road in front of her as she steered the car out of the lot. The snow was a curtain of solid white. Maggie thought about the death-trap curves of Route 17 and cursed herself for not having left sooner.

She navigated the road more by memory than by sight, crawling through each turn, gritting her teeth every time she dared take her eyes off the road long enough to check the odometer. Fifteen miles. It was fifteen goddamn miles to town. How long could it take? She'd never bothered to replace her stolen car stereo, so there was no clock to check the time, and she wasn't about to take a hand off the steering wheel just so she could push back her coat sleeve to check her watch. It felt as if she'd been driving for hours.

Seven miles... eight... she was more than halfway there. The streets would be clearer once she got into town. There would be snowplows and other cars. It wouldn't be so bad then. Of course at the rate she was going, it would be spring by the time she got there... Wasn't there another sharp turn coming up? Yes, there it was, thank God she'd driven this road so many times...

A quarter of the way through the turn, Maggie realized she was steering too wide. She tried to adjust and felt the rear wheels skid sharply to the left as the car began to spin. Reflex kicked in before intellect. Even as her memory flashed through the usual driving school advice -- don't brake, steer into the skid -- Maggie's foot was slamming on the brake pedal as her hands spun the wheel in the wrong direction. There was a jolt, followed by a grinding noise, as the car slid sideways off the road and down the sloping ground, to be stopped only by the impact of passenger side against tree.

For a few moments, all Maggie could do was sit there and shake. Eventually the adrenaline rush subsided, to be replaced by the realization that she was not injured, only dazed and breathless. And stuck. Three attempts to make the car move either forward or backwards produced only more grinding noises. Maggie unbuckled her seatbelt, flicked off the windshield wipers, and sat back to consider her options.

At first glance, there seemed to be only one: sit and wait. This stretch of road was not especially well-traveled -- she had seen only one other car during her trip -- but this close to town, surely some one would come by eventually. Hopefully before she froze to death.

The passenger side window was shattered, the door buckled away from the frame. Only a couple of minutes had passed since the collision, but already a thin coating of snow had accumulated on the empty seat. Even with the heater going full-blast, the air in the car was cooling rapidly. Maggie briefly contemplated her own stupidity in not getting a new cell phone, decided this was not the time to worry about it, and settled down to wait for rescue.

Fifteen minutes later, no rescue had arrived, the car was beginning to feel like an icebox, and waiting no longer seemed like such a good option. Maggie shivered and held her hands in front of the heater's vent, rubbing her palms together. The cashmere-lined leather driving gloves she'd purchased back in November were not designed for prolonged exposure to the elements. Neither were her boots, for that matter. She couldn't stay here. The shivering was a sign that hypothermia was already setting in. Since help wasn't coming, she'd just have to go and find it herself.

Maggie frowned as she tried to concentrate. There was a service station somewhere up ahead, wasn't there? It was hard to think, she felt so groggy and unfocused, but she was sure it was just past this turn somewhere, half a mile, maybe less. She could walk half a mile, even in this weather. She had a heavy coat on, and the movement would help warm her up. In any case, it would be better than just sitting there waiting to freeze. Feeling determined now, Maggie retrieved her handbag from under the seat, and climbed out of the car.

The wind nearly knocked her off her feet. In the car she'd been sheltered from the worst of it, but now it seemed to be going after her with personal spite. Maggie raised her collar and held it closed in front of her face with one hand. This made breathing possible, if not pleasant. For a moment, her resolve wavered. Then she reminded herself of the broken window and the useless heater, and began climbing toward the road.

By the time she reached the shoulder, she had snow down her collar and in her boots, and her eyes threatened to freeze shut every time she blinked. She rubbed them with the back of her hand and kept walking, following the curve of the road as closely as she could, given the bad visibility and the uncertain footing. The wind continued its attack, but she must've gotten acclimated to it, because she no longer felt its coldness, only its force. Fortunately, it was at her back as she walked, so her face was shielded from it. Maggie tucked her chin down deeper into her collar and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other.

She thought she did pretty well at first, but the shivering kept getting worse, and her legs kept getting clumsier. With every step it became a little harder to make her feet go where she wanted to put them. Maggie stopped, swaying, and looked back to see how far she'd come.

She couldn't tell. It all looked the same -- road, snow, trees. How far was she from the car? Should she return or press forward? Maggie walked a few paces, stopped, reversed direction, walked again, stopped... It was no use. She couldn't decide which direction was better. She couldn't even remember which direction was which. Still, she couldn't just stand there. She needed to move, to go somewhere...

She took a random step, stumbled, and came down on all fours in the snow. When she tried to rise, her legs buckled. She made it up on the third try and found that she once again couldn't remember what direction she'd been walking in. The effort of figuring it out was just too much. All she could was stand there, shaking, while the wind resumed its attempts to knock her down.

She didn't even notice the approaching headlights until the car was practically on top of her. Even then, she couldn't bring herself to move. There was a squeal of brakes and a spray of snow as the car stopped just a few feet away from her. A moment later, the driver's door swung open.

"Hello?" a vaguely familiar voice called out, straining to be heard above the wind. "Ma'am? Can I give you a ha-- Major Walsh?"

A tall, bulky figure clambered out of the car and limped toward her through the swirling snow. Maggie blinked and had to rub the frost from her eyes again. She couldn't see his face, not with the light behind him, but the voice and the limp tipped her off.

"Lieutenant Finn?"

"What are you doing out here?" He put one hand on her shoulder, and she clutched at his sleeve, grateful for the support. "Are you injured?"

"No. I don't think... I mean... I skidded off the road."

"Come on, let's get you out of the cold." Finn guided her toward the car, which proved, upon closer inspection, to be an Army Jeep. He helped her into the passenger seat, then ran around to the other side and climbed in himself. "How long have you been out here?"

"I don't know." Maggie couldn't stop shivering. "A while..."

"You could've been killed." Finn turned up the heater, adjusted the vents to blow in Maggie's direction, and wriggled out of his coat. "The wind chill is, like, minus thirty or something. Here, take this." He draped the coat over her like a blanket. "I'm going to drive you to the hospital."

"No!" The thought of windowless beige rooms, fluorescent lights and intrusive nurses was unbearable. Maggie wanted to be in her home, in her own bed, unbothered by the kindness of strangers. "Home."

Finn shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "You're hypothermic. I really think you should--"

"Home," Maggie insisted. "Please..."

He sighed. "Where do you live?"





By the time they arrived at her apartment building, Maggie's shivers had subsided a bit, and the snow had melted from her hair and clothes. Finn double-parked right in front of the entrance, gently took Maggie's purse from her hands, and dug out the keys.

"I'm coming in with you," he said in a tone that didn't allow for the possibility of disagreement. "You shouldn't be left alone until you've warmed up."

Maggie tried to hand him his coat back as he got out of the Jeep, but he waved her off.

"It's only for a minute. I'll be fine." He ran to the front door and unlocked it, propped it open, then helped Maggie out of the car and into the building. When she stumbled on the steps -- it was difficult to move gracefully while bundled up in two thick coats -- he caught her with one arm around her middle, and slung her inside as if she weighed no more than an ounce. Some small, still unfrozen part of Maggie's mind wanted to protest all this chivalrous manhandling, but by the time she managed to formulate a coherent complaint he had already unlocked the door to her apartment and was asking where the bedroom was.

Before she knew it, she was sitting in bed, dressed in her warmest sweats and three pairs of socks, wrapped in a comforter, and clutching an electric heating pad to her chest. She could hear Finn puttering in her kitchen: rattling dishes, opening the refrigerator, turning on the microwave. A few seconds later he came into the room, carrying her largest coffee mug.

"Warm milk and honey," he announced, sitting down at the edge of the bed. "My grandmother swears by it. Can you hold it steady, or do you need me to help?"

"I can manage." Maggie found that she could stop shivering if she really concentrated. She took the mug from Finn and sipped the milk, wrinkling her nose at the sweetness. He must've used as much honey as milk. "I'm sorry to be so much trouble. I promise, I'm not usually this incompetent at taking care of myself."

"Oh, I know that." Finn smiled tolerantly. "You were hypothermic; it messes with your head. Don't worry about it." He gestured toward the mug, and Maggie obediently took another sip. "We should probably call AAA about your car, but that can wait. They're not going to send anyone out into this mess. What were you doing out there in the middle of nowhere, anyway?"

This was not a question Maggie wanted to deal with. It was hard enough carrying on a coherent conversation in her current semi-thawed state, even without having to come up with convincing lies. "And what were you doing there? Not that I'm not glad you came along..."

Much to her relief, Finn either missed the obvious change of subject or decided not to pursue it. "I was coming back from Chicago. I was supposed to meet somebody at O'Hare, but her flight got cancelled. Apparently this storm hit Minnesota before it hit here."

"Ah." Maggie nodded, drank more milk, and firmly told herself that she wasn't going to ask personal questions -- a resolution that lasted all of ten seconds. "Girlfriend coming in for a visit?"

"Yes, but not mine. A friend's girlfriend. He couldn't get off-duty to go meet her, so I said sure, buddy, I'll pick her up, no problem. What's a little driving between friends? That'll teach me to open my big mouth." He smiled again. "But it all works out, because I could be there to help you, and now Graham will have to drive to O'Hare eventually anyway, but he'll still owe me a favor."

"That's nice..." Maggie yawned. Now that the chills had subsided, she was beginning to feel drowsy and lethargic. Keeping her eyes open was becoming more and more of a chore.

"Why don't you get some rest?" Finn took the empty mug from her hands and stood up. "I'll be in the living room if you need anything."

She was asleep before he made it to the door.


TBC

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