Hazy Shade of Winter -- Part 3
by Marina Frants


Notes and disclaimers in Part 1

VIII

She woke up early the next morning, feeling hot and thirsty. A quick glance out the window verified that it was still snowing as hard as the night before, if not harder. The street was an unbroken stretch of white, even the parked cars buried completely under snowdrifts. It was still dark out, and Maggie considered staying in bed for another couple of hours, but the room was uncomfortably stuffy and she needed a glass of water a lot more than she needed extra sleep. Maggie climbed out from under the covers, eased the bedroom door open a few inches, and peered out into the living room.

Riley Finn was asleep on her sofa, curled up on his side, arms and legs tucked in at awkward angles to fit into a space much too small for him. He must've sat up for some time after she'd gone to bed. The reading lamp was on, and there was an empty water glass on the coffee table next to her battered old copy of Passions of the Mind. Finn stirred slightly as Maggie tiptoed past him on the way to the kitchen, but did not wake.

She poured herself some water, drank it, then rinsed out the glass and put it back in the cabinet. A quick look in the refrigerator did not reveal anything she particularly wanted to eat, so she clicked off the light and headed back to the bedroom.

She was halfway across the living room when Finn rolled over onto his back and flung one arm out, narrowly missing the edge of the coffee table.

"Get it off me!" A harsh, panicked demand, accompanied by more jerky movements. Hands clawing at thin air. "Get it off!"

Maggie's first impulse was to wake him, but it was quickly mastered. In all their talks over the past two and a half months, Finn had never mentioned that he had nightmares. In fact, now that she thought about it, he had explicitly denied it several times. Had he been deliberately holding back, or was this a one-time occurrence, triggered by sleeping in a strange place? In either case, she wanted to see how the dream played out.

She didn't get a chance. Finn mumbled something unintelligible under his breath, swept his arm out again, and knocked his glass off the coffee table. It didn't break, but it did make an impressive clatter as it came down. Finn sat up, blinking and looking confused.

"Huh... wha-- oh, hell, I'm sorry."

"It's all right." Maggie held up the undamaged glass. "No harm done."

Finn swung his feet off the couch, blinking drowsily. "First I crash on your couch without asking, then I throw your dishes around. I didn't snore and wake you up, did I? That would just complete the obnoxiousness."

"Considering that you probably saved my life last night, I think I'd be willing to forgive you if you snored." Maggie put the glass back on the table and sat down on the sofa next to Finn. "But you didn't. Though I'm curious to know what you were dreaming."

"Nothing." He lifted his arms over his head and stretched, wincing as something popped audibly in his back. "Your couch is too short. I don't know what it is with people. Everybody's couch is too short."

Maggie stared at him skeptically. "Nothing?"

"Yeah." The drowsiness fled from Finn's eyes, to be replaced by suspicion. "Why do you ask? You said I didn't snore..."

"You didn't. But you were talking in your sleep."

"I was?" He looked genuinely surprised at the idea. Maggie was sure he wasn't faking it. "What did I say?"

"You said, 'Get it off me.' A couple of times." Maggie watched him curiously. "You really don't recall? You sounded rather... distressed."

"Oh." Finn frowned in concentration, as if he could retrieve the memory through sheer force of will. "Nope. Don't remember a thing. Weird." The idea didn't seem to concern him much. He yawned, shook his head, and appeared to instantly put the entire subject out of his mind. "So how are you feeling this morning? All thawed out?"

"Oh, yes." Maggie nodded. "No ill effects at all, except for a lingering embarrassment. I expect I'll live."

Finn laughed awkwardly at that, quickly trailing off into silence. Maggie discovered that she had nothing to say either. They sat there, a decorous distance apart on the couch, not looking at each other. Maggie could appreciate the irony of it: two people whose professional relationship was predicated entirely on talking and listening, rendered mute by the terrifying prospect of early-morning chitchat. If it had been any two other people, she would've been deeply amused. Instead she resorted, rather desperately, to the fundamental social principle absorbed from her mother thirty years before: when in doubt, offer food.

"Would you like some breakfast? Tea, coffee?"

It worked like a charm. Finn, who had obviously been brought up on the same principle, offered a polite but clearly token refusal, then gracefully allowed himself to be persuaded. By the time they completed a joint examination of the contents of Maggie's refrigerator, debated the virtues of fried versus scrambled eggs, and determined Finn's coffee preference -- black, one sugar -- ten minutes had gone by, and all the conversational awkwardness had vanished. They sat down to breakfast in an atmosphere of relaxed domesticity.

Afterwards, Finn insisted on cleaning up. Now it was Maggie's turn to protest politely before being persuaded. She left him slaving over a hot sink and returned to the bedroom, where all her earlier self-consciousness abruptly returned. Discarding her usual around-the-house wear, thermal leggings and loose wool tunic, she took a pair of pleated tan slacks and a wine-colored cashmere sweater from her closet and carried them into the bathroom with her.

She took a little more time than usual in the shower, then blow-dried her hair and applied makeup just as she would've for a day at the office. Finn had finished in the kitchen while she was fussing. He was sprawled on the sofa watching the Weather Channel when Maggie came into the living room.

"They say it snowed ten inches overnight," he reported. "With another ten to twelve inches still to go. There's a great big snow bank outside your front door -- I'm hoping the Jeep is somewhere under it, but I'm not really sure. Oh, and I tried to use your phone, but all I got was busy signals, no matter what number I dialed. I think the storm must've torn the phone lines down."

"Wonderful." Maggie rolled her eyes. "Well, at least we have heat, hot water, and electricity. For this winter, it's an exceptionally good day."

"I hope you don't mind being stuck with me for a few more hours." Finn glanced toward the window. "I know I'm risking my macho soldier-boy image when I say this, but I really don't want to go out into this mess to try and excavate the Jeep. I'm hoping if I wait a bit, the phone will work again, and I can get some of my buddies to come out and help with the shoveling."

"Not a problem," Maggie assured him. She knew as well as Finn did that his right leg wouldn't hold up to the task of shoveling snow in sub-zero wind chill. And she knew equally well that he didn't like to come out and say so. "Stay as long as you need to."

"Thanks." Finn smiled. "Can I use your shower?"

Once Finn had vanished into the bathroom, muttering sotto voce complaints about Chanel-scented soap and the prospect of shaving with a Lady Bic, Maggie used the privacy as an opportunity to consider how she wanted to use this unexpected quality time with her patient. By the time he reappeared, she had the rest of the morning planned out.

"If I recall correctly, Lieutenant, we had a session scheduled for this morning. Since we're stuck here, I think we might as well keep the appointment."

"Right here? I guess it makes sense." Finn looked around the room with a look of wry amusement. "Should I lie on your couch?"

"That's entirely up to you. But you don't have to decide until ten hundred hours. I believe in keeping to a schedule."

This left them with nearly two hours to kill. They occupied themselves for a while by flipping through the channels on the TV, trying to keep track of how many different ways the weather announcers could find to say "it's snowing out." When that palled, which didn't take long, they collaborated on the crossword in the back of the paper. That still left an hour, so Maggie excavated the bottom of the storage closet and dug out the portable chess set she hadn't used since Sean had left. She beat Finn twice, but the second game was close.

At ten hundred hours, she asked him, "Couch or chair?" and he actually appeared to consider the question seriously for a few moments.

"Chair," he said finally. "I'm more used to that. Besides, your couch is--"

"Too short. Yes, I know."

Maggie fetched a chair from the kitchen while Finn settled into the recliner. She felt mildly nervous about the approach she'd decided to take to this session -- not because she doubted her own judgement, but because she wasn't sure how Finn would react to the suggestion. Since the only way to find out was to ask, she plowed straight ahead.

"Would you object to being hypnotized, Lieutenant?"

Finn's face instantly creased into a suspicious frown. "What for?"

Well, at least he didn't refuse outright. Maggie decided to take that as a hopeful sign. "You couldn't remember your dream this morning. I want to see what else you're not remembering."

His frown deepened. "I thought all that repressed memory crap's been discredited."

"Most of it has," Maggie admitted. "I'm sure you read the literature when you were in school. But I'm not looking for your hidden childhood trauma, Lieutenant, and if you've ever been abducted by aliens while walking in the family cornfield, I don't want to know about it. I just want to see you go over the events in Rwanda in a more... focused way. Will you try?"

"My family doesn't have a cornfield," he muttered with the exasperated air of someone who'd been making the same disclaimer throughout his adult life. Maggie ignored it and just kept looking at him expectantly until he rolled his eyes and sighed. "Yeah, I guess I'll try."

"Good." Maggie placed her chair directly opposite his, with the coffee table between them. "Have you ever done this before?"

"No. Have you?"

"Oh, yes. More times than I can count. I used to work in an addiction clinic when I was in graduate school. This was one of the standard treatments for smokers."

"Great," Finn said cheerfully. "You can stop me biting my nails while you're at it."

"That costs extra," Maggie told him. "Now sit back, make yourself comfortable, and look at the wall behind me. Focus on a spot a few inches below the ceiling."

"Yes, Ma'am." Finn saluted with exaggerated precision before following instructions. Maggie let him sit for a count of ten before she began to speak.

"I'd like you to concentrate on your breathing." She let her words fall into a slow, almost sing-song cadence. "Feel the rhythm of it, nice and even... that's good. Now if you feel comfortable, try to slow it down a little... deep slow breaths... relax as you exhale, feel the tension flow out of your body just as the air does... very good. You may find that your limbs start to feel heavier as you relax. Your eyelids may start drooping a little... go ahead and close your eyes whenever you feel comfortable."

Finn's eyes fluttered closed. His shoulders drooped a little, and he sank a bit lower in the chair. Maggie waited another ten-count.

"I want you to think of a place you like, somewhere you feel safe and peaceful. Imagine yourself in that place now... do you have a picture in your mind?"

Finn nodded. Maggie pitched her voice to a lower, more soothing tone, and watched his face and posture carefully as she continued.

"Tell me where you are."

"In a field." Finn's voice was distant. "Outside of Ankeny. It used to be the Connors' cow pasture, but they lost the farm when I was a kid."

A cow pasture in Iowa. How stereotypically bucolic. Maggie's imagination, indulging an uncharacteristic flight of fancy, conjured a picture of Finn standing in waist-high grass, dressed in denim overalls and a tattered straw hat, chewing on a stalk of hay. It was a good thing Finn's eyes were closed. He probably wouldn't have appreciated the amusement on her face.

"Describe it."

Finn's shoulders lifted about an inch before relaxing back into their earlier slouch. "There's nothing there really. Just grass and a couple of wooden poles where the fence used to be. It's a quiet place. There's a dirt road cutting diagonally across the grass, but I'm not near it."

"Where are you?"

"Farther back. I left my bike leaning up against a pole, and I'm lying in the grass. It's high enough so that if anyone comes by on the road, they won't see me."

"What time of year is it?"

"Summer."

"The sun is warm on your face. You feel safe and relaxed. You may hear birds singing if you listen carefully." She paused to see if Finn would contradict her. When he didn't, she suggested more details: the smell of flowers, the humming of bees, white clouds drifting across a blue sky. Finn accepted each suggestion with an easy nod. From time to time, Maggie repeated her assertion that he felt safe and relaxed, and with each repetition his posture grew more limp, until he looked as if might slide right out of the chair.

"Very good," Maggie said once she was sure that his trance was deep enough. "Now I'm going to ask you some questions, and I want you to take your time answering them. I want you to visualize the events I'll be asking you about, replay them in your mind as if you're watching a movie. You'll be able to see yourself, too, but it will be your past self. Your real, present self is safe in your quiet place, and cannot be harmed by anything you see. Do you understand this?"

For a moment Finn didn't respond. Then his eyes flickered slightly behind their lids, and he nodded -- a slow, languid motion, as if he was moving his head through water.

"Very good," Maggie said again. "Now, I want you to go back to Rwanda, on the morning of August eighth. You're sitting in the back of the transport with the rest of your platoon, and you hear an explosion..."

The details of the incident were thoroughly familiar to her, but she paid careful attention anyway, searching for anything new. The trance stripped away Finn's customary bantering manner, and he gave an unusually animated account of the ambush, complete with sound effects for the explosion and the gunfire. But the details were no different from the descriptions he'd given in the past.

"Let's skip ahead a few minutes," she told him. "Your captain has just told you to check the houses near the road, in case anyone is trapped inside. You walk up to the first house, and shine a light through the window. What happens next?"

"There's something..." Finn trailed off, suddenly hesitant. "There's something moving inside."

"What it is?"

"I-- I can't see." Finn's breathing grew a little faster. A muscle under his left eye twitched. "It's dark."

"You have a flashlight. You're shining it through the window. What do you see?"

"I can't tell. The floor is covered with trash. I can see it shifting around... something's moving under there, but I can't tell what it is." Finn's face took on a distressed expression. Maggie wasn't sure if this was a reaction to the memory, or just to his failure to provide a satisfactory answer to her question. She concentrated on keeping her voice cool and neutral, devoid of either judgement or expectation.

"What do you do next?"

"I go inside."

"Into the house?"

"Yes. There's no door, most of the front wall's fallen in, so I just step through the gap. There's rubble everywhere. I have to keep kicking it out of the way so I can walk. And... something smells bad. Like... like rotting meat." The tic under Finn's eye grew more pronounced. There was a faint sheen of sweat on his upper lip. "I don't want to be here," he whispered.

"You're not," Maggie reminded him. "This is your past, remember? You're only watching from the outside."

He shook his head and tugged at the neck of his sweater. "I don't wanna..."

"It's a memory," Maggie said soothingly. "It happened months ago, and you survived. It can't harm you now. All you need to do is observe it and describe what you see. Do you think you can do that?"

Finn hesitated so long, Maggie thought she might have to give up and terminate the session. But then he nodded, though his expression remained unsure. "Okay."

"Go on, then."

"I shine my light over the floor, but there's nothing moving now. I call out, and there's a... a whimpering sort of noise, like a hurt puppy... or a child. I can't tell where it's coming from, all I see is dirt and trash and bits of broken wood. I step forward and..." He fell silent again.

"And?" Maggie prompted.

"I step on something soft, and it moves. My foot comes out from under me. I'm falling, I try catch myse-- oh, shit!"

Maggie jumped, startled as much by the unexpected swear word as she was by the sudden rise in Finn's voice. In the time she'd known him, Finn had been the most clean-spoken soldier she'd ever encountered.

"What is it?" she demanded once she was sure she had her voice under control.

"Get it off me!" Finn thrashed in the chair, tossing jerkily from side to side, arms curled protectively over his head. "Oh God... get it off!" He sounded genuinely terrified, almost hysterical. Maggie had to fight down the impulse to touch him. She settled for sliding her chair closer.

"Get what off? Lieutenant... Lieutenant Finn... Riley!"

He didn't seem to hear. He was in a panic, chanting "get it off me, get it off me" at ever-rising volume, thrashing around so violently, Maggie was afraid he'd throw himself right out of his chair. She had to almost shout to make herself heard.

"Riley! It's all right, you're safe. It's not real, remember, it's a memory, it can't hurt you, you're safe here with me."

She knew she'd made a mistake as soon as the words were out of her mouth. She'd gone through the whole rigmarole about Iowa cow pastures just to give him a safe place to retreat to if something went wrong, and now that it had, she'd ignored her own preparations and, to make things worse, associated his safety with her own presence. Still, it did seem to be having the desired effect -- Finn had stopped chanting and was holding himself reasonably still, though his breath came in short gasps and his arms still shielded his face.

"You're safe," Maggie told him again, carefully avoiding any mention of a location this time. She didn't want to confuse him by changing tracks, but there was no point in reinforcing her error, either.

"Safe..." Finn repeated in a dazed voice. Maggie nodded, then remembered his eyes were still closed.

"Yes. There's nothing to be afraid of here. Can you see that now?"

He hesitated, then nodded, lowering his arms a few inches "Yeah..."

"Good. Now, can you tell me what frightened you.?"

Finn swallowed audibly, and shivered. "It was choking me."

"What?"

"The monster."

"The monster." Maggie blinked a few times as she absorbed that answer. "There was a monster inside the house?"

"Uh-huh."

"I see..." Maggie took a deep breath and tried to collect her racing thoughts. Don't leap to conclusions. Don't ask leading questions. "What kind of monster? I mean, can you describe it?"

"I don't know." Finn's shaking was getting worse, and Maggie was fairly sure it had nothing to do with the temperature in the room. He'd lowered his arms from over his head and was hugging himself tightly, but it was doing little to contain his shivering. "I dropped my flashlight when I fell, I couldn't see much. But I could feel..." He trailed off, panting for breath as if he'd been running.

Maggie repeated the usual reassuring phrases, fighting not to sound too impatient. She could feel the tinge of anticipation in the pit of her stomach, the mounting sense of inevitability that always preceded a breakthrough. She was about to get some answers, to finally accomplish something, but she could still spoil it if she rushed the session or pushed Finn too hard. So she made herself wait until he was breathing normally again before she resumed her questioning.

"What did you feel?"

"Arms." Finn choked out the word, flinching away from whatever memory he was replaying in his mind. "Like human, but... not. Too many of them, and... and they were bending wrong. Like they had too many elbows. I could feel them around my neck and my waist and my legs, and there was this gibbering noise, and something was moving under me, and it was really big and-- get it off me! Getitoffgetitoff..."

He was hyperventilating again. Maggie risked a light touch of her hand on his shoulder, hoping the contact would help anchor him in the present.

"It's all right, Riley. We're done. I'm going to count back from ten now, and when I reach one, you will wake up and open your eyes. You will remember everything we've talked about, but you'll feel calm and safe. Ten, nine, eight..."

At the count of one, Finn opened his eyes with a startled gasp. For a few seconds he sat perfectly rigid, with a frozen, deer-in-the-headlights look on his face. Then he heaved himself out of the chair and bolted for the bathroom.

So much for waking up feeling calm and safe. Maggie went after him, but he shut the door and locked it before she could catch up. She raised her hand to knock, then thought better of it and leaned against the wall to wait. Through the door, she could hear retching sounds, followed by the toilet flushing and the water running.

"There's mouthwash in the cabinet," she called out.

There was no response at first, but after a while she heard him say "Thanks" in a muffled voice. Another minute passed before the water was shut off and the door opened. Finn stood in the doorway, looking pale and dazed, clutching a towel in his hands. The hair around his face was damp, and his clothes were splashed with water. His eyes, when he finally turned to look at Maggie, looked dull and clouded.

"Sorry," he muttered. "Kinda lost it there for a moment."

"Quite all right." Maggie smiled at him with what she hoped was a calming, reassuring expression. "It's a perfectly reasonable reaction under the circumstances."

"Circumstances. Right." Finn gave a short, brittle laugh, not quite hysterical but clearly headed in that direction. "You mean like finding out that I'm a total head case -- those circumstances?"

"I think it's too early to--"

"I remember it now." Finn's voice sounded flat and defeated. He slumped against the wall on the other side of the door from Maggie, looking as if he needed the support to stay on his feet. "The sounds, the movements, all those weird arms groping at me... I remember it all, just as if it really happened. Which it didn't. Couldn't." He pressed the heel of one hand against his forehead, as if trying to push the unwanted memory out of the way. "That's some hallucination, huh? Full sensory detail. I can even remember what it smelled like. Thank god it didn't kick in while the shooting was still going on, who knows what I might've done... gotten people killed, probably..."

The puzzle pieces began to click into place in Maggie's mind. "You think it was some sort of fear reaction?"

"I didn't think I was all that scared. Everything happened so fast. But this was my first time in combat, and the next thing I know I'm imagining monsters in the dark. Gee, you think there's a connection?"

"What do you think?"

If Finn recognized the question as the oldest tactic in psychotherapy, he gave no sign of it. "I think I freaked. Must've been more scared than I thought. God, can you imagine if it had happened a minute earlier, when I was standing there holding my gun? I might've shot somebody thinking it was the Bogey Man." He was shaking again, sliding slowly down the wall as he spoke, until he was sitting on the floor with his knees pulled up to his chest. "And then I didn't even remember. God. They're going to kick me out of the Army, aren't they? Gonna send me home with a Section Eight."

He looked so miserable, Maggie wanted to hug him. Instead she sat down on the floor next to him so that they could speak at eye-level.

"Actually," she said, "your not remembering makes a certain amount of sense. You know that what happened to you was impossible, therefore it didn't happen, therefore you don't remember it because there's nothing to remember. As for a Section Eight -- aren't you overreacting a bit?"

He gave her a bleak stare. "What would you do with an officer who's given to hallucinations and selective amnesia in times of stress?"

"We don't know that you're given to anything. This happened once. We don't know exactly why, and we have no reason to believe it'll happen again."

"Right. So would you hand me a gun and put me in the field, not knowing if it might happen again?"

"That's not my decision. Of course, the entire question is moot if you never complete your physical therapy because you collapse every time your doctor suggests you might be improving."

Finn's expression went from depressed to confused to stunned in the space of about two seconds. "Wait-- you mean-- you think that's why I-- Shit!" He banged his head lightly against the wall behind him. "I'm more screwed up than I thought, aren't I?"

This was infuriating. Maggie had seen enough in the past year to be almost certain that Finn had, in fact, encountered a "monster" in Rwanda. His sketchy description did not match either of the two specimens at the lab, but then they didn't match each other either, did they? Who knew how many types of Hostiles were out there? The problem was, she could say none of this to Finn himself, not without the appropriate clearance from the Pentagon -- and she seriously doubted that the men in charge of the HST project would be open to the idea of revealing classified information to an obscure Second Lieutenant for the sake of his mental health.

National security was all very well, but she couldn't leave Finn in this state. She had to tell him something. Some cover story that would reassure him of his sanity without getting Maggie arrested in the process.

"I realize it's difficult, but let's try to look at this rationally. You didn't experience anything unusual during the ambush itself, did you?"

"No."

"Or immediately afterwards?"

"No."

"Or when you first entered the house and started your search?"

"No." Finn frowned a little, but the expression was more thoughtful than distressed. "Where are you going with this?"

"I'm just trying to determine when this supposed hallucination of yours began. As far as I can tell, it started after the roof fell in on you."

"Not exactly. I saw things moving inside before I ever went in."

"Yes, but you didn't immediately assume you were seeing a monster, did you?"

"Of course not." Finn looked mildly offended at the suggestion, which Maggie took as a good sign. "I figured maybe an injured person, but most likely rats, or a stray dog or something."

"Which was a perfectly reasonable thing to assume. It was probably true, even. And that brings us back to my original point." Maggie shifted her position on the floor so that she could look Finn directly in the face from where she sat. "There were no monsters, in your mind or anywhere else, until after the roof came down. Meaning, after the two broken legs and the bleeding and the head injury." She put a subtle emphasis on the last two words. Finn didn't answer right away, and she wondered if perhaps she'd been a little too subtle, but then he lifted his head a little and she saw the first glimmer of hope in his face.

"You think that might've caused it?" His eyes begged her to say "yes."

"I think it's very likely," Maggie said. "You were in pain, in shock, concussed, and buried alive. You felt like something was crushing the breath out of you -- and something really was. It may not have been an actual living creature attacking you, but I can certainly see how it may have felt that way."

Finn listened to her bit of rationalization with the air of a drowning man who'd just been thrown a rope. He was nodding before Maggie even finished speaking.

"Yes, that makes sense. At least, more sense than anything else. I mean... it's a little weird, but it's not crazy, you know?"

That, Maggie thought wryly, was a perfect illustration of why HST's had remained undiscovered for so long. Riley Finn was a reasonably intelligent and level-headed young man, with several years of training designed to make him function well in high-pressure situations. Yet it took three months of therapy to get him to even acknowledge what he'd experienced, and even then he jumped at the first alternative explanation he was offered. The Hostiles would need to dance in the streets in broad daylight before the world took notice.

"Oh, man, that is so..." Finn shook his head and ran one hand through his hair, making the wet strands above his forehead stand up in spikes. "It's like I've been holding my breath all this time and didn't even know it. And now I'm breathing again and damn, it feels good."

"Glad I could help," Maggie said cheerfully. Finn looked at her with an expression of gratitude that bordered on goddess-worship.

"You're brilliant, " he said fervently, and kissed her.

For a few moments, Maggie was too stunned to react. Her mind duly registered the weight of Finn's hand on the back of her neck, the pressure of his mouth on hers, the faint taste of her cinnamon mouthwash on his tongue, but it was as if the whole thing was happening to someone else a vast distance away. Some other, unfamiliar woman twined her fingers in Finn's hair and shifted her weight forward into his arms. It wasn't until he broke the kiss and whispered "Maggie..." in a hoarse whisper before pressing his lips against the base of her neck that she snapped back to reality.

Reality brought on an instant rush of panic. Maggie braced her hands against Finn's and pushed.

"Wait."

He pulled back immediately. "I'm sorry. I know we shouldn't, but..."

"Shouldn't" didn't even begin to cover it. Just thinking of the possible consequences made Maggie feel slightly faint. She could lose her license. They both could lose their commissions. Only God and the Pentagon knew how her bosses at the lab would react. She needed to put a stop to this right now, to say something stern and off-putting, to get him out of her apartment as soon as humanly possible--

And to go back to her life of budget forms, dull seminars and administrative meetings. To endless, unheard monologues at her son's bedside. To eating out alone on Friday nights. How many years had she spent being competent and professional? How many more years could she maintain it just so she could keep coming home to an empty apartment night after night? Decades, probably, and the sheer oppressiveness of the thought made her want to scream.

She didn't, of course. Maggie Walsh never screamed. But she didn't do any of the things she knew she should, either. Finn was still holding her, and their faces were just a few inches apart. Maggie cupped one hand under his chin and brushed her thumb across his lips.

"It doesn't matter," she said, and drew him forward into another kiss.

There was a perfectly good sofa just a few feet away from them, and an even better queen-sized bed in the next room, yet neither of them suggested moving. They undressed each other in between kisses, tossing their clothes in random directions. Maggie had another brief moment of panic over the possibility that "yeah, she's kind of hot" was not a strong enough sentiment from a twenty-three-year-old boy to survive the actual sight of a middle-aged woman with her clothes off. She froze for a moment when he removed her sweater, dreading his reaction. But he only whispered her name again in a low, unsteady voice, and bent his head down to kiss the tops of her breasts as he reached around to unfasten her bra.

Riley made love with more enthusiasm than finesse, but Maggie had been alone long enough to be in the mood to appreciate youthful enthusiasm, especially when it came packaged with a long-limbed, muscular body and a charming willingness to put hands and mouth where directed. She could teach him the finer points another time, Maggie thought as she caught her breath, and was only mildly surprised to find that she was taking it as a given that there would be another time.

There was a long silence afterwards, and Maggie couldn't quite decide if it was companionable or just awkward. They took turns cleaning up in the bathroom, gathered up their clothes, dressed, returned to the living room and sat on the sofa. Riley picked up the remote, did another scan of the news reports -- it was still snowing everywhere -- and clicked the TV off again. Maggie thought he might be working himself up to a round of generic small talk about the weather, but all he did was tuck his feet up onto the sofa, and settle back against the cushions. Then he hooked two fingers into the waistband of her slacks and tugged. For a moment, Maggie thought he wanted to have sex again. Before she could decide how she wanted to react to that, he pulled her up against his side, wrapped his arms around her waist, and then held still.

Oh. He wanted to cuddle. How... sweet.

Maggie rested her head on Riley's shoulder. It was a good shoulder, broad and solid, comfortable to lean on. Maggie folded her hands over Riley's where they rested on her hip, and closed her eyes.

She must've dozed off a little, because when she opened her eyes again, her left leg was asleep and the patch of sunlight on the floor had moved several feet further from the window. Maggie sat up and rubbed the back of her calf, wincing.

"You okay?" Riley murmured?

"Fine." She flexed her leg a couple of times. "I'm sorry. Didn't mean to fall asleep on you like that."

"It's okay. But I'd like to get up now, if you don't mind."

"Of course." Maggie shifted over to give him room. Riley kissed the top of her head before he stood.

"Blizzard seems to be done. I want to try the phone again, see if it's working."

Maggie turned toward the window. There was over a foot of snow piled on the sill, and a matte coating of frost along the top of the pane, but she could see that it was no longer snowing. It should've been a welcome sight, but somehow it wasn't.

Riley leaned against the wall next to the phone cradle, holding the receiver against his ear with his shoulder as he dialed. He listened for a few seconds, then grinned and gave her the thumbs-up sign. That, too, wasn't nearly as welcome as it should've been.

"Hello?" Riley pulled over a chair and straddled it, somehow managing not to drop the phone in the process. "Is Lieutenant Gates there? Forrest? Hey, man, it's Riley... no, I didn't desert, don't be a moron... Look, I know you're oblivious, but even you must've noticed the big honking blizzard... Oh, shut up. I need you to do me a favor..."

Maggie listened to the one-sided conversation with a growing anxiety. She wished the phone hadn't worked. She wished it was still snowing. As long as they'd been isolated by the weather, it had been relatively easy to pretend that the events of the day concerned no one but themselves. But now the world was about to intrude, and the qualms she'd brushed aside earlier began to loom large. Maggie wished she knew what Riley was thinking. He looked relaxed and easy-going, bantering on the phone with his friend; but she'd had over two months to learn to distrust that look. It occurred to her that she had given this boy the power to end her career -- both her careers -- with a single incautious word.

"Okay, man, I'll see you soon." Riley hung up the phone and stood. For a moment, Maggie allowed herself to be distracted by the shifting of muscles under denim as he swung his leg over the chair. But that only increased her unease once she gathered her thoughts. She wasn't thinking straight, at a time when straight thinking was essential. Maggie made a superhuman effort and marshalled her thoughts into some semblance of order.

"Is everything all right?" she asked.

"All set. I've got a gullible sucker -- I mean, generous friend -- coming to help shovel the Jeep out. He'll be here as fast as he can navigate a Humvee through this mess." Riley walked back to the sofa, but didn't sit down. Instead he fidgeted, shifting from foot to foot and looking down at Maggie with a worried frown. Was he having doubts too?

"Look, Maggie... this is kind of... I mean, we could get in trouble for this, couldn't we?"

The trouble was a lot more likely to fall on her side, but Maggie saw no advantage in pointing this out.

"We could."

"Well, I'm not going to tell anyone, so you don't have to worry about that." He thrust out his chin and looked determined, like an action hero resolving to jump off a cliff. "But I'm not sorry it happened... are you?"

Ah. A different sort of doubts, then. Maggie smiled reassuringly and took his hand. "Of course I'm not sorry. And you shouldn't be either. We'll just need to be careful, that's all."

"That's okay. I can do careful." He finally sat down, looking relieved. "I'm thinking you really shouldn't be my therapist anymore. Not that I want to switch, but--"

"No, you're right," Maggie said quickly. "I'll take care of it." It was probably a bit late to be shutting the barn door, but it still had to be done. Seville might wonder at Riley's sudden desire to switch, after previous refusals, but there were any number of plausible explanations for that, and Maggie would come up with one as soon as she could concentrate properly again.

Lieutenant Gates arrived half an hour later, bearing a pair of shovels and complaining loudly about ungrateful bastards who made their long-suffering friends go out into the cold and forced them to do heavy labor. Riley bore the tirade with his usual good humor, interrupting only once to introduce Maggie.

"So you're Riley's shrink, huh?" Gates smirked as he shook her hand. "You've got your work cut out for you, then, 'cause that boy's a raving psycho." There was an appraising gleam in his eye, and Maggie wondered if he was recalling the conversation at the Toucan. She made a mental note to warn Riley to be extra cautious with what he said in front of Lieutenant Gates.

It took the two men over an hour to clear the snow around Riley's jeep. Afterwards they came upstairs again and Maggie, feeling very much like a den mother, served them hot cocoa and sandwiches. They left a few minutes later. Riley said goodbye with perfectly professional demeanor, shaking Maggie's hand and calling her "Major Walsh." But he stroked his thumb across the back of her wrist during the handshake, a caress so brief, Maggie wasn't sure if she imagined it. She managed to say "Goodbye, Lieutenant" in a cool and steady voice as she ushered him out after Gates. But she stood by the door for an unreasonably long time after they were gone, absently rubbing her wrist where he'd touched her.


TBC


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