Hazy Shade of Winter -- Part 4
by Marina Frants


Notes and disclaimers in Part 1

IX

For the next several days, Maggie lived in constant expectation of disaster. Riley was going to say something incautious to a friend, or a CO, or his new therapist, and ruin both their lives. The fact that Riley had not said a single incautious word in months of therapy did nothing to allay the anxiety. Every time Seville invited her into his office, every time Angleman looked in her direction at the lab, she would brace herself, relaxing only slightly when presented with a routine work-related query.

Michael's doctors approved her for visiting again, and she almost told him the whole story just to get it off her chest, but the fear of being overheard by someone pausing outside the door stopped her.

As the days wore on and no professional disaster struck, more personal fears began to intrude. She and Riley had decided -- or rather, Maggie had decided and Riley had agreed -- that they would have no contact with each other for a week after Maggie transferred his case to Zimmerman. That way, if they were seen together, they could claim with at least some degree of verisimilitude that the relationship started after Riley was no longer Maggie's patient. It had seemed like a reasonable precaution at the time. But as the week dragged to a close, she was seized with a conviction that the delay would kill Riley's interest. Left to his own devices for a week, he would find some pretty young thing, or lose his enthusiasm, or simply get cold feet. Several times, Maggie nearly broke her own resolution and called him, but she managed to control the impulse in time. She told herself it was common sense that bolstered her restraint, but it was only fear of humiliation.

They had also decided, as part of the arrangement, that Riley would be the one to call when the week was up. It was safer that way: since Maggie lived alone, there was no danger of anyone else taking the call or overhearing their conversation. The night before their deadline, Maggie made a resolution to spend the next day in her usual working routine, and not keep vigil by the phone like a dithering schoolgirl waiting to be asked to the prom.

She never got a chance to test her resolve. The phone rang ten minutes after midnight.

"I need to see you."

"Riley?" Maggie sat up groggily, trying to untangle herself from the covers without dropping the phone. "Do you know what time it is?"

"Yes. I'm sorry. I was going crazy with the waiting. I couldn't sleep. I had to hear your voice. You said to call Monday, and it's Monday. Can I see you this morning? We could have breakfast."

It would've been annoying if it wasn't so flattering. Maggie tried to affect annoyance, for the sake of future sleep, but found it difficult to keep up an appropriately stern tone.

"I have a breakfast meeting. Which I will probably sleep through, thanks to you. I should make you call back in another week, just to teach you some patience."

"Don't be cruel. Look what you've done to me. I'm talking in Elvis Presley song titles. Are you lonesome tonight? Love me tender. Help me make it through the night. I want you, I need you, I--"

"You ain't nothing but a hound dog," Maggie told him. "And I can't meet you for breakfast. Or lunch. How about dinner?"

"You're going to make me wait all day? Sadist. Okay, how about I pick you up at your office at six, and we'll--"

"No!" Maggie hadn't meant to shout, but the image of an enthusiastic, Elvis-quoting Riley showing up at the hospital to pick her up for a date triggered an attack of near-panic. "We'll meet somewhere. Not on the base."

"OK. How about the Toucan?"

"No privacy. We need someplace quiet." She closed her eyes for a moment, visualizing the town's layout in her sleep-fogged brain. A hotel restaurant would be best, she decided. It would be empty this time of year and less likely to be frequented by locals. "You know the Sheraton on Route 17?"

"Yeah."

"They've got a restaurant downstairs. Meet me there at seven."

"It's a date."






She took a garment bag to the hospital with her, and changed into a navy blue wool dress with a rather daring neckline before leaving work for the day. She told herself it was a practical thing to do -- the dress was warmer and more comfortable than the uniform -- but that pretense collapsed when she spent nearly ten minutes fussing with her hair.

"You'll be stuffing socks in your bra next," she muttered irritably to herself as she marched from the bathroom. A passing nurse paused to give her a startled look before moving on in a hurry.

Riley was waiting in the restaurant when Maggie came in. Her earlier comments about privacy had apparently made an impression, since he'd claimed a booth in an alcove in the back, out of sight of most of the other tables. Still, Maggie was glad to find that the only other people present were a tired-looking couple fussing over a crying baby in a high chair, and a lone businessman engrossed in his newspaper. Riley was in uniform, and Maggie immediately felt annoyed with herself for changing, but the way his eyes widened when he stood up and took her coat dispelled all her misgivings.

"You look great." He put one hand in the small of her back and kissed her lightly on the lips before moving the table out so she could slide into the booth. "I've been thinking about you all day. And all week. I nearly lost another truck, that's how distracted I was. But I'm all better now."

"You certainly seem to be moving better." Maggie watched him as he pushed the table back into place and sat down. His cane was still there, leaning up against the wall of the booth, but his movements were noticeably less stiff than usual. "How's your leg?"

"Way better. I went through three physical therapy sessions with Dr. Lerner, and not a single problem. Dr. Zimmerman says if I don't relapse in the next couple of weeks, he'll give me a clean bill of mental health. So I'm officially sane now, all thanks to you." He flung out his arms and pitched his voice to a dramatic wail. "Oh, Doctor, you're a miracle worker!"

Maggie shook her head, laughing. "I don't know about that. You still seem crazy to me."

He reached across the table, took her hand and kissed it. "That's just from missing you."

Pleasant as it was to sit in a restaurant and be complimented, Maggie couldn't help looking around surreptitiously to see if anyone was paying attention to them. But the other customers were absorbed in their own business, and the waitress, when she finally deigned to come over, took their order with an air of bored indifference. They probably took her for Riley's mother, or a maiden aunt. Maggie decided it was for the best.

Riley ordered a cheeseburger and a beer. Maggie asked for a chef's salad and a glass of Perrier. Riley continued to hold her hands while they waited for their food to arrive.

"So tell me about yourself. It's my turn to listen."

Maggie raised her eyebrows. "We're taking turns?"

"Come on. I've been pouring out my life story to you for weeks. You must be sick to death of it. But I hardly know anything about you."

"What do you want to know?"

"Everything."

Maggie was quite sure he didn't want to know about her acrimonious divorce, or her brain-damaged son, or the mind-numbing routine of her work at the hospital. The HST project would've probably fascinated him, but she couldn't talk about that. Which left... well, nothing really. Yet there was Riley, looking at her as if he expected diamonds to drop from her lips at any moment. In desperation, Maggie dredged up a few anecdotes from her graduate-student days at Harvard. This tided them over until the bored waitress brought their food, which at least provided an excuse for not talking.

Afterwards, since they were at a hotel anyway, they went and got a room. They didn't do any talking there, either.






That evening set the pattern for all the encounters that followed. Maggie quickly became an expert on the roadside restaurants and small hotels around Ft. Tyrone as she selected the locations for their dates. The choice always fell to her, since Riley's ideas were uniformly impractical.

"How about Antonio's?" he'd say, blithely naming the most expensive -- and blatantly romantic -- restaurant in town. Or, "The Raintree has no cover charge on Wednesday nights. Want to go? You could teach me to dance." Maggie suspected that he would've been declaring their relationship from the rooftops if she didn't keep him in check.

Not that she didn't understand the temptation. It was wretchedly difficult to be happy and not be able to talk about it. And equally difficult not to give herself away even without talking.

"You're looking happy today." Angleman peered at her suspiciously as he handed her a printout of the latest blood work results on the new HST. "Did you have a brilliant breakthrough while I wasn't paying attention?" He tried to make a joke out of it, but there was a forced note in his laugh and a distinctly paranoid squint in his eye. Maggie allowed a trace of smugness to creep into her smile.

"If I do have one," she told him, "you'll be one of the first to know."

That kept him suitably distracted for the rest of the evening.

The new HST didn't have the rapid regenerative ability of the first, but its blood type and tissue structure proved remarkably similar, and Angleman's serum worked even better on it than on the rats. Maggie was sure that an organ transplant from either creature to the other would be successful. She sent reports to the Pentagon twice a week, describing her findings in minute detail and dropping discreet reminders about her research proposal. Perseverance paid off: after three weeks, the proposal received final approval, with only minor changes to the budget request. The expression on Angleman's face as he forced himself to congratulate her was priceless.

His reaction to hearing the details was even better.

"You want to transplant body parts from one Hostile to another? What the hell for?"

"It's a preliminary step. The details are in here." Maggie handed him a copy of the project specs. "I'm thinking we should start with a non-essential part -- a hand or a foot, perhaps. Less chance of death in case of rejection, and we can always amputate if all else fails."

Angleman's face got redder and redder as he paged through the specs. "A human-demon hybrid? Enhanced soldiers? Don't take it the wrong way, Doctor, but I think you've seen too many bad movies."

Maggie shrugged. "You don't have to participate, Doctor. I had hoped you would do the surgery, of course, but if you'd rather not involve yourself in something this controversial, I'm sure there are other neurosurgeons available."

"That won't be necessary," Angleman muttered. He looked as if he'd been chewing on a lemon. "I'll need to order some equipment first. Our operating room isn't set up for anything this delicate."

"Order whatever you want," Maggie said graciously. "I promise I'll approve it."

The professional victory put Maggie in a celebratory state of mind, so when Riley appeared, bouncing with enthusiasm and brandishing a three-day pass, she allowed him to talk her into a weekend in Chicago. They drove out in Maggie's car and stayed at the Hilton. Maggie contrived to be in the car, retrieving a conveniently forgotten pocketbook, while Riley checked in. As a precautionary measure it wasn't much, but at least the clerk at the reception desk didn't see them sign in together.

"I have to admit," she murmured as they sprawled sweatily across the king-sized bed, "this was one of your better ideas."

"I'm glad you like it." Riley kissed her left elbow, which was the spot closest to his mouth. "But I wish you'd tell me what the special occasion is."

"Mmm?" Maggie didn't have the energy to actually lift her head from the pillow and look at him, so she settled for craning her neck in his general direction. "What makes you think there's a special occasion?"

"Come on. Before this, every time I suggested we go someplace nice, you looked at me like I asked you to have sex on the parade ground at high noon on the Fourth of July. Now it's suddenly, 'Yes, Riley, that would be lovely.' What are we celebrating?"

"Nothing." Maggie rolled onto her side and curled one arm around Riley's waist. "I just thought I'd humor you for once."

"Want to humor me some more?"

"Depends." Maggie gave him a suspicious look. "What's on your mind?"

"Let's have a date that doesn't involve a hotel. We could... go to a movie or something. And then back to my place. Or your place. Or any place where I don't have to show a credit card and a picture ID before I make love to you."

Oh, God, not that conversation again. Maggie was not going to be drawn in this time.

"I'm fairly sure we don't like the same kind of movies, Riley."

"That's okay. I'll see whatever artsy chick-flick you want to see. It can even have Tom Hanks in it."

"I'll think about it." Maggie moved a little closer and trailed her fingernails across Riley's stomach, just above the hip bones. That usually served to distract him from undesirable topics of conversation.

Worked this time, too.






Angleman's surgical equipment arrived in due time, and work on the project began in earnest. Maggie had to give the man credit: he had not been pleased to have his work supplanted by Maggie's project, but once the resentment wore off, he responded to the challenge of the transplant surgery with fine professional enthusiasm. Maggie, prepared to be generous now that she was in charge, helped him map the two hostiles' nervous and circulatory systems in preparation for the procedure.

Following Maggie's initial suggestion, they used the subjects' left hands for the first transplant. The actual operation took over eighteen hours. By the time it was over, Maggie and Angleman were both so exhausted they could barely stand, but there had been no complications, and Angleman declared himself to be "cautiously optimistic."

Hostile 2 justified that optimism almost immediately. Its new hand looked incongruous: far too large for the bony arm it was now attached to, dull gray scales contrasting oddly with gleaming dark purple skin. It functioned perfectly, however; even the retractable claws worked.

Hostile 1 didn't do nearly as well. Its entire forearm swelled up like a balloon, blood seeping from the sutures in a steady trickle. The skin on the transplanted hand turned a mottled, yellowish gray and began to peel away in strips. After two days, Angleman admitted failure and amputated the creature's arm just below the elbow.

"I don't understand it," he complained. "This was the one I had high hopes for. It's stronger, it heals faster, we've had more time to study it. It doesn't make sense."

"Maybe the healing factor is what caused the problem," Maggie suggested. "Perhaps it recognized the new limb as foreign, and tried to reject it so that it could grow a new one properly."

"It's possible." Angleman drummed his fingers on the desk as he considered this explanation. "A hard hypothesis to test, with only two subjects to work with and no control group... if we could find a way to suppress the healing temporarily, we could try again with the other hand..." He trailed off, stared into the distance for a few seconds with a look of intense concentration, and reached for his notes. Maggie left him hunched over the computer, muttering to himself as he typed.

Even a partial success on their first attempt seemed a promising sign for the future, and Maggie was in a mood to celebrate. Conveniently, she had arranged to meet Riley at the Sheraton that evening. There was just enough time left to go home and change first.

Riley was waiting for her in the restaurant, at the back table she'd come to think of as "theirs." He had a beer in front of him, and an unopened bottle of Perrier waiting for her. It was a familiar enough sight, but something about his posture set off a mild alarm in Maggie's mind.

"Is something the matter?" she asked as he stood to greet her.

He looked nervous and young for a moment, then set his jaw and assumed a grimly determined expression.

"I want to ask you something," he said.

"That's an ominous way to begin a conversation," Maggie joked, or at least tried to. Riley did not smile.

"How long have we been together now?"

Maggie blinked at him. "That's what you want to ask?"

"No. Bear with me, okay? I'm working my way up to it."

Maggie thought back to their recent conversations, and Riley's repeated attempts to make their dates either more romantic or more domestic. He wasn't going to propose or something, was he? It would be just like him. The notion was appalling, amusing and attractive, all at the same time, though ,of course, a gentle refusal was the only possible response. Maggie composed her face into a kindly expression as she answered his question.

"About two months now."

"So why does it still have to be like this?" He made a sweeping gesture with one arm, including their table, the restaurant, the hotel, and possibly all of Ft. Tyrone, under the heading of "this." Maggie suppressed her impatience with an effort. They'd had this conversation before.

"We've talked about this, Riley. I know I've explained that--"

"Yeah, I know, you've explained. We have to be discreet. You keep saying that. What I want to know is, why? I'm not your patient anymore. We're not in the same chain of command. We're not cheating on anybody. We're not doing anything wrong at all. Maybe I'm missing the subtleties of the situation here, but why do we have to be discreet?"

Maggie's irritation grew. Under different circumstances, she might've spoken less sharply. But she'd been in such a good mood only moments before, and now it was spoiled. And Riley's pleading puppy-dog look, which she usually found rather endearing, suddenly seemed pathetic and ridiculous. This was no way for a grown man to look during an adult conversation.

"What do you suggest we do, Riley? Post an ad in the Stars and Stripes?"

"Of course not." He actually looked hurt at that. "I'm not saying everyone in the world must know immediately, or else. I just don't want to sneak around anymore. I want my friends to meet you. I want to put a picture of you on my desk. When Forrest asks why I can't hang out on Saturday night, I want to say, 'Sorry, I have plans with Maggie.' Is this really so unreasonable?"

For someone who intended to make a lifelong career in the Army, he was remarkably na´ve about it. Maggie did not consider herself particularly military, but even she had quickly learned how powerful the social grapevine was on a base. If one person knew, everyone knew. And proof or no proof, the suspicion of doctor-patient impropriety would be there. Maggie could only imagine how Seville and the rest of her colleagues in Psychiatric would react. Angleman's reaction did not bear imagining.

And then there was the matter of the project, and her security clearance. She had been warned repeatedly, by grim-faced men in dark suits, to avoid all "appearance of impropriety" in her personal and professional life. They never explained what constituted an "appearance of impropriety," but Maggie strongly suspected that this would qualify.

Trying to explain this to Riley, however, even without the classified information, seemed like a futile endeavor. Maggie could only shake her head.

"You don't understand..."

"No. I don't. I'm completely failing to understand what the problem is. Are you ashamed of us?"

"This is a difficu--"

"You are, aren't you?" Riley's eyes widened for a moment, then narrowed to angry slits. "You're ashamed."

"That's not--"

"What is it, exactly? Do you actually think we're doing something wrong? Or are you just afraid of what people might think?"

"Keep your voice down," Maggie snapped. "People are staring." That wasn't actually true, but he was getting a little too loud for comfort, and a preemptive strike seemed like a good idea.

The authoritative tone had its usual effect on Riley, despite his agitation. "Sorry," he muttered, and sat up a little straighter.

"Is there anything else you'd like to accuse me of?" Maggie asked coldly. "Or may I actually say something now?"

"I don't like to accuse you of anything. I'm just trying to--" Riley broke off and rubbed his forehead with one hand, as if trying to push back an incipient headache. "Never mind. I'm sorry. I don't mean to keep interrupting you. Go ahead."

"Thank you." Maggie maintained her icy tone. "As I was saying, this is a difficult situation. Other people's opinions may not matter to you now, but opinions have a way of becoming entrenched. Somewhere down the road you're going to apply for a staff position, a security clearance, a sensitive project... and someone is going to look at your application and remember every unfavorable thing they've ever heard about you. And it won't matter if it's only rumor, or if no one can prove anything. They'll remember. And given a choice between you and someone else who looks just as good on paper, they'll take the candidate with the spotless reputation. That's how these things work."

"So what?" Riley brushed her objections aside with a dismissive wave that made Maggie want to smack him. "This kind of garbage goes on all the time. One day someone's going to look at an application from me and reject it because I made a typo on page three, or because I was in therapy once, or because I spilled my bourbon on the rocks all over General Bryce's wife at last year's Christmas party. I'm not going to worry about it."

"Well, I am," Maggie said sharply. "It doesn't just affect you, Riley. I care about my work too. I'm not going to throw it away just so you can take me to the movies."

"I see," Riley said softly. He ducked his head, hiding his expression from her, and turned his beer mug around and around in his hands, but made no move to drink. When he finally looked up, his face was as flatly expressionless as his voice. "So that's all there is for us, then? Sneaking around in cheap hotels, with an occasional expensive hotel thrown in for special occasions?"

Maggie could only shrug. "What do you suggest?"

He didn't answer for a long time, long enough for Maggie to get an unpleasant hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach. "I suggest," he said finally, "that it's time I stopped threatening your reputation with unsightly spots."

The hollow feeling grew worse. Maggie felt as if she might collapse inward around the cold vacuum inside her. She took a breath, trying to fill the emptiness with air. Calm. She needed to be calm. Riley was obviously too agitated to think straight, but if she just spoke to him rationally...

"Riley. You're overreacting. I realize this is not an ideal arrangement, but we've made it work so far. Maybe we can come up with something better, but not if you just give up the effort."

Riley was shaking his head even before she finished speaking. "I don't want a better arrangement. I don't want an arrangement at all. I want..." He sighed. "I guess it doesn't matter what I want. It's obviously not what you want." His expression softened a little. "I'm sorry, Maggie. This isn't how I'd intended this conversation to end. But maybe it's really better this way."

He's dumping me. It was a ludicrous thought. She was a middle-aged woman, a scientist and an Army officer. She had two doctorates and a higher security clearance than most of Congress. And she was sitting at a back table in a hotel restaurant while a boy half her age gave her the "let's be friends" speech. She had to clap one hand across her mouth to hold back the laughter.

"Maggie?" Riley leaned toward her, eyes wide with concern. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," she said automatically. Calm. She needed to be calm. She put her hands on the table, palms down. The cheap vinyl tablecloth felt rough against her skin. She made herself focus on that texture and on the pattern of red and white checks, until her breathing steadied.

"I'm sorry you feel this way," she told Riley. Her own voice sounded as if it was coming from far away, but it was even and cool. "But perhaps you're right. I wish you well."

She stood up, retrieved her coat and pocketbook, pulled on her gloves. She was composed now, her motions smooth and controlled. Riley said her name once or twice, but she didn't look at him. There didn't seem to be any point. She buttoned her coat with perfectly steady hands and walked out of the restaurant.

It was raining outside, a steady gray drizzle that turned the remnants of last month's snow into lumpy slush. Maggie waded though it toward her car, climbed in, and went through the familiar motions of pulling on her driving gloves and turning on the ignition. The swish of windshield wipers against glass sounded unnaturally loud as she steered the car out of the Sheraton lot.

She drove with no thought to direction or destination, taking random turns onto random streets. It seemed important to keep moving, though she couldn't quite say why. She didn't speed, didn't run any lights or stop signs, didn't cut anyone off. But she stopped only when she had to.

Eventually, the warning light on the gas gauge lit up. Maggie pulled into a Mobil station, told the pimply teenage attendant to fill up the tank, and took stock of her surroundings for the first time.

She had no idea where she was. The road was a generic two-lane highway with generic strip malls on either side, not a single familiar landmark that she could see. Feeling foolish and irritated with herself, Maggie leaned out the window and asked the attendant which road she was on, and in which town.

As it turned out, she was only twenty miles southeast of Ft. Tyrone, not far at all, considering how long she'd been driving. She must've gone in circles part of the time.
Unfortunately, she had crossed into the next county somewhere along the way, falling off the edge of the county map she kept in the glove compartment. The thought of asking directions from the smirking attendant was too humiliating to bear; Maggie paid for the gas in silence, then went into the station's small shop and purchased a road atlas.

The enforced stop snapped her out of her earlier mental daze. As she turned the car toward home, Maggie began to feel an anger building beneath her layer of calm, anger not at Riley but at herself. Riley was just a young man being foolish. It was what young men did. Years of dealing with Michael had taught her that. She should've known better than to get involved with him. But she'd allowed herself to be swayed by impulse, by the lingering remains of holiday depression, by the pleasant novelty of being desired, by -- no point in being coy about it -- the great sex. She had neglected what was really important -- her work -- in favor of a meaningless distraction.

Maggie shook her head as she considered how little time she'd spent at the lab over the past few weeks. This was possibly the most important phase of the project, the time when the foundation for success or failure would be established, and she had pretty much handed the reins to Angleman while she occupied her time sneaking in and out of hotels with Riley. It was pathetic. And it was over. She would go home and get a good night's sleep; and in the morning she would go to the lab and start catching up on all the work she'd let lapse recently. And she would not think at all about Riley Finn.






It was after ten o'clock when Maggie finally got home. Unexpectedly, the light on her answering machine was flashing. Maggie frowned in puzzlement as she counted the blinks. Five messages. More than she normally got in a month. The possibilities were limited: the lab, the hospital, or Riley. Each option had its own set of unpleasant anxieties attached. Maggie felt her mouth go dry even as she reached out to press the play button.

"Dr. Walsh? This is Dr. Hughes from the Medical Center. Please call back as soon as you're able. Your son is awake, and he's asking to speak with you."

Maggie stood frozen in place, her coat half-unbuttoned, her gloves clutched, forgotten, in her left hand. The words "Your son is awake" echoed over and over in her head, but the meaning refused to sink in. She knew she should be having an emotional reaction of some sort, but all she felt was a cold numbness. She stared down at the answering machine. The light kept blinking. There was a beep followed by the soft whirr of advancing tape, then the next message began.

"Dr. Walsh? This is Dr. Hughes again. Please come to the hospital as soon as you get this message. This is an emergency."

The roads were empty this time of night, which was probably a blessing. Maggie might've killed somebody, driving at an earlier hour. She didn't really recall the drive, didn't recall her arrival at the hospital; her first clear memory after hearing the message was of walking into the ICU with Dr. Hughes at her side. Hughes was saying something about kidney failure, blood toxicity levels, dialysis... Maggie couldn't concentrate on the words. She could only look at Michael. The ICU ward was larger and more brightly lit than his usual room, and none of his personal belongings had been moved with him. The stark new surroundings made him look more frail than ever. He'd lost weight, Maggie realized, and she hadn't even noticed until now. Yet another vitally important thing she'd neglected recently. Yet another mistake she'd never repeat.

He'd been awake for less than half an hour, according to the nurses. They'd tried to convince her that she couldn't have made it in time to speak to him, not even if she'd been home to take the call, but Maggie knew it wasn't true. She'd made that drive often enoough to know exactly how long it took. She could've been there for Michael if she hadn't spent the evening moping in her car.

Apparently she managed to nod at the right places in Dr. Hughes' speech, because he finally muttered some vague words of comfort and left her alone. Maggie sat down next to Michael's bed, and took his hand. His fingers felt like dry twigs, ready to snap at the slightest pressure. Maggie knew without a shadow of a doubt that he'd never survive dialysis.

"I'm sorry," she said hoarsely. "I know I failed you. But I'll make up for it." Even as she made the promise, she realized how she could do it. All her years of work had been building up to this moment. Human frailty could be corrected by scientific means. She patted Michael's hand. "You'll be all better. We'll be together again.

"And it will be perfect."





EPILOGUE

Fort Bragg, NC
Three years later

Riley Finn had never been so dirty in his entire life. There was dirt on his fatigues, dirt in his fatigues, dirt in his hair, dirt in his ears, dirt in places he really didn't want to think about. He was soaking wet, too, and his whole body felt as if it had been vigorously beaten with a baseball bat, but it was the dirt that bothered him most, because inspection was in ten minutes and all the shower stalls were full.

All the benches were full too, occupied by exhausted soldiers in various stages of undress, so he slumped against the wall, lifted his left foot, and tugged at his boot. It wouldn't budge.

"Hell." He tugged again, with the same results. His feet were too swollen after a six hour march over rocky ground, in full battle gear, with a 45-pound ruck on his back. The Major in charge of the exercise had actually looked happy when it started to rain. He had looked even happier when Riley had lost his footing on a particularly steep slope and finished that leg of the trip on his ass. Evil bastard.

Riley looked over to his left, where Forrest appeared to be having similar difficulties with his footwear. "Help me out, will you?"

"Fuck you, man." Forrest scowled at him. "I've got my own problems here."

"I'll help you with yours if you help me with mine."

"Fine, whatever."

After a few seconds of tugging and grunting, Riley's left boot came off with a loud squelching sound. Both men had to catch themselves against the wall to keep from falling.

"Thanks." Riley took the boot from Forrest and turned it over. About a gallon of dirt came out, with a couple of pebbles and a generous helping of twigs mixed in. Riley poked at the mess with his shod foot, half expecting to find a few of his toes among the debris. "Remind me again why we wanted to be Special Forces?"

"'Cause chicks dig the green beret," Forrest told him solemnly. Riley nodded.

"Of course. I keep forgetting."

They were on the sixth day of the second week of the Special Forces Assessment and Selection program, and the officers and NCOs in charge of the torture delighted in telling them how much worse the last and final week was going to be. The First Sergeant, in particular, would always get an especially maniacal grin as he told gruesome tales of what was coming. Riley was starting to see that grin in his nightmares.

Forrest was apparently getting the hang of this boot removal business, because the right one came off quicker than the left. Riley breathed a deep sigh of relief as he peeled off the tattered remains of his socks.

"Ugh." Forrest waved one hand in front of his face. "I see you're all set for the chemical warfare exercise. Get those things away from me, man, and help me out."

Just as he spoke, Lukas limped out of his shower stall, patting himself with a towel.

"Mine!" Riley barked, and dove into the vacated stall before anyone else could grab it.

"Hey!" Forrest yelled. "Get back here and take my boots off, motherfucker!"

"Soon as I'm finished." Riley turned the water on, unmindful of the fact that he was still dressed. The fatigues were already soaked through from the rain and were going straight into the laundry anyhow, so what difference did it make?

Blessedly hot water poured over his head, and Riley sighed with contentment as he began to remove his BDU. About seven minutes left till inspection now. He took off his jacket and dropped it at his feet, followed by his shirt. Six minutes. He could do this.

"Finn!" Major Troy's eardrum-shattering voice rang through the shower room, making everyone jump. "Get your ass out here!"

What the hell? Riley stumbled out of the stall and snapped to attention in front of the Major. Was he in some kind of trouble? He couldn't remember doing anything wrong. He was too tired to do anything wrong.

"At ease," Troy said, and Riley relaxed his stance, though he certainly wasn't feeling relaxed. He didn't need to hear the other soldiers' muffled snickering to imagine what a sight he presented, standing there in nothing but a pair of soaking wet camo pants, dripping muddy water all over the floor. Major Troy was looking at him as if he was a particularly nasty insect, but Major Troy looked at everybody like that, so that was okay.

"Colonel Donato wants to see you." Troy threw a set of clean fatigues at Riley's chest. He managed to catch them before they fell into a puddle on the floor. "Right now."

That didn't sound too good. Riley wracked his brains as he changed clothes under the Major's impatient eye, trying desperately to figure out how he might've screwed up. Oh, well, no way to find out until he got there... There were no clean boots to go with the clean clothes, so he put his old ones back on and followed Troy out into the corridor.

Colonel Donato was in his office, appearing no more ferocious than usual. And standing next to his desk, looking very crisp and authoritative in her uniform, was--

Maggie? Maybe he was hallucinating from exhaustion. He'd thought about her from time to time over the past three years, with varying degrees of affection, regret and embarrassment, but he hadn't expected to see her again. Especially not in Ft. Bragg. Maybe this was the trouble he was in... But Maggie didn't seem worried or upset or angry. Riley gathered his scattered wits, saluted, and stood at attention again.

"At ease, soldier," Colonel Donato growled. "I believe you know Colonel Walsh here?"

Colonel? For the first time, Riley took in the silver eagles on Maggie's shoulders. That was fast. Riley had felt pretty damn pleased with himself when he made First Lieutenant two ago, and he already knew he was on the promotion list for Captain once he was out of SFAS. But Maggie, apparently, was on a real fast track.

"Good to see you again, Lieutenant," she said. Her voice was cool and impersonal. "You look well."

Riley was well aware that he looked like something the cat dragged in, but he said "Thank you, ma'am," and did his best to match Maggie's tone.

"Colonel Walsh has a job offer for you," Donato told him.

"Strictly a volunteer assignment," Maggie said smoothly. "You don't have to take it. But I think it will be an excellent opportunity for you.

Riley shifted his feet, feeling slightly uncomfortable. Maggie was a psychiatrist; what kind of job could she possibly have for him? Research? He hoped she didn't expect him to say "yes" just for her sake. He didn't join the Army just so he could shuffle papers in a lab somewhere.

No, that was stupid. He only had a B.S., and his academic record was good but not exceptional. No one in her right mind would pick him for a research project. But what else could it be, with Maggie in charge?

He had to say something; both Maggie and Donato were looking at him expectedly. Riley cleared his throat.

"Uhm... what kind of job is it, m'am?"

"I'm afraid I can't give you the details yet," Maggie said. "Not until we upgrade your security clearance. I can tell you that it's a combined forces project, deep undercover. There will be combat duty."

Combat? Maggie was in charge of a combat mission? That made no sense. A thousand questions crowded Riley's mind, but he held them in check. The answers would be waiting on his security clearance, no doubt.

"You'll get to pick your own team," Maggie continued, "subject to my approval. There will be six months of training before the assignment begins. If you complete the training program successfully, you'll be put in charge of the combat team, answering directly to me. Do your job well, and I can guarantee you a Below the Zone promotion to Major after two years." She smiled. "You may find, once you start the program, that SFAS is a picnic by comparison. But I have every confidence in you."

It sounded... hot shit is what it sounded like. Everything he'd hoped for when he volunteered for SF, only more so. Covert ops. Guaranteed BZ promotion. Top secret clearance. Combat. Okay, the idea of working for an ex-girlfriend was kind of awkward, but Maggie sure as hell wasn't acting like an ex-girlfriend, and it was all water under the bridge anyhow, wasn't it? They were professionals.

Riley stood up a little straighter, and gave both Colonels his best, most eager grin.

"Where do I sign?"


The End


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