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Classification Vignette, Romance, H/M
 
Length Approx 2,500 words, 8 pages (8 ½” x 11”)
Spoilers Through Season 9
Rating GS
Author's Notes This story takes place a few months after Hail and Farewell and is in the same universe as The Best of Things. The cake is back! If you don’t have a Cheesecake Factory near you, consult your local congressman!

 

Summary This is the sequel to The Best of Things.

 

 

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all
. Emily Dickenson



Saturday, 1330 local
Tim’s Crab House
Washington, D.C.

 


She sits across the table, sandwiched between Jen and Mattie in a friendly, girlish tangle of sweater-covered arms, lipstick-stained napkins and clanging bracelets. A huge platter of crab shells that the waiter neglected sits in front of them. White votive candles flicker. Even though there’s a fair amount of daylight left, the weathered wood paneling and shaded windows cast a warm sepia hue just darkening into black. Harriet has left her seat beside me and is leaning over Mac’s shoulder. One of them says something and laughter bursts out in all directions. She’s smiling now, ruffling some of Mattie’s curls then resting her chin on her palm and nibbling on the edges of her fingernails. She’s so damn pretty. She looks calm and relaxed and she’s lit with the buttery gold light that bounces off her glass. It may be my birthday, but the party is in full swing all over her face.

All the usual suspects are here and, I’ll admit, it wasn’t half bad. I usually try to let my birthday slip by with as little rumble as possible, but Mattie wasn’t having any of that. I don’t know who planned what, but suddenly Harriet slips a large round cake in front of me. German Chocolate. One candle. My brow hinges upward.

“The manager wouldn’t let the semi through with the rest of them,” Bud offers as the entire table quakes with snickers and giggles in various octaves.

I roll my eyes a little. “Very funny.”

A sorely dissonant but nonetheless endearing rendition of Happy Birthday begins and ends. Harriet pats my shoulder before sitting. “Go on. Make a wish.”

I meet Mac’s gaze over the bobbing flame and we’re instantly brought back to another time. I know she remembers. Her smile is subtle and reverent and her eyelids bow and rise again in a quiet cadence.

Six months. Sure, she’s talked to me. A little about Webb, more about her illness and finally enough about what it was like to finally face the wicked man that put us through so much hell and send him there herself. There’s something she hasn’t talked about, though. Neither of us has. It’s been all right, I mean, we’re friends again. Closer, too. But this birthday is just another bleak reminder that another year has gone by without her in my life the way I want her to be. I guess if anyone deserves a wish right now, it’s me.

The room is watching my every move. I close my eyes and, for some reason, baring my heart and soul to whatever wish god supposedly grants these things doesn’t seem so crazy. Really, at this point, what do I have to lose?

The little flame doesn’t stand a chance against these runners’ lungs. Clapping and cheers erupt as the cake is whisked away to be cut and served.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Sometime later, the table is a mess of chocolate crumbs, plastic bibs and glasses filled with melting ice cubes. The crowd gathers in the lobby, piling on jackets and exchanging goodbyes. As if by some miracle, she’s the last to the door, tunneling her arms into a cream-colored wool coat. I’m more than happy to assist her, straightening out one of the sleeves as she snuggles into it. She spins around to face me.

“Happy birthday, Harm,” she says then studies the burgundy paisley pattern of the rug before lifting her eyes. “This was fun.”

“Thanks. I’m glad you came.” Well, that sounded so incredibly lame that I immediately cringe. Thankfully, she doesn’t seem to notice because she’s already cracked open the rustic mahogany door and motions with her head for me to follow.

We’re hit with a brisk punch of air that has us stuffing our hands into pockets. Winter is eager this time around, but the sky grasps onto the tattered edges of fall, reluctant to let go. The last rays of sun weave a coppery light through the trees. And our shoes meet a scatter of oak leaves in all the usual colors.

Her car is just a few yards down the block and it’s killing me. I just don’t want to let her go. It’s still early after all and my mind begins to scurry itself around various things to do, anything to keep her near me awhile longer. A movie, coffee, a museum… “Walk,” I sputter out in a half-choke that has me wondering, again, what the hell happens to my brain when I’m around her lately.

She halts and turns to me with brows knit together, jingling her keys.

I manage to recover quickly. “We could take a walk. The river’s just a few blocks away.”

After a moment of consideration, she nods. “Good idea. I could definitely use one after all that food.” She promptly deposits her keys back into her purse.

“You mean after two pieces of cake?” I just can’t resist even though I may soon regret it.

“What do you mean two? Just because I finished off the rest of Mattie’s doesn’t make that…”

I stop her with a low, wicked laugh. “Whatever makes you feel better, Marine.”

She opens her mouth but nothing comes out as I grab her arm and steer her towards the Potomac. Instead, she purses her lips and wrinkles her nose, then smiles delicately in that secret way of women that most men have yet to figure out.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

We walk the short distance but speak no words. Perhaps neither of us wants to disrupt the companionable silence that has always served us best. It’s the words that have failed us time and time again. By now, we both know this and hopefully, just the knowing will make all the difference this time. But with every few steps our bodies instinctively draw a little closer, sharing their own mysterious discourse that years have cultivated and perfected. There are quick glances and friendly smiles, though. And when she sighs contentedly, I reach through the imperceptible distance and take her hand in mine. The unexpected sparkle in her eyes unleashes a warm feeling inside of me. I’m right where I want to be.

She sees the river. She’s almost dragging me along at her first view of the gigantic rippled mirror that copies the sky, all fiery pinks and oranges. The edge is dotted with sand-splattered rocks and lined by a winding jogging path. Our steps are bright and eager so as not to miss the celebration of sky and water and cotton candy clouds. We survey the landscape and listen to the sounds that come when day stretches lazily into dusk. Tourists are heading back for early dinners. Families pack up children and gear in favor of warmer places. A few runners and cyclists pass by every so often.

There are benches around but an enormous fallen log catches my eye. It’s partially hidden in a half-circle of oaks. I lead her there and she silently agrees as we sit low, knees poking upwards while a V of birds soar over the trees. I feel her shiver as she tugs her coat closer.

“Cold?” I ask, my voice low and rough as the silence is finally broken. I make a hasty move to share my own coat.

Her raised palm stops me. “I’m fine, thanks. Actually, this is really nice.” She cocks her head playfully. “But I can’t say I’d mind if one of those waiters had followed us down here with a big pot of coffee.”

Something like a chuckle escapes my mouth. “Yeah, God help the fool that stands between you and your java.”

She laughs richly in agreement then suddenly turns pensive in a way that makes me hopeful and fearful all the same. “Speaking of coffee, I must find a vanilla latte on my desk at least twice a week. For months now.” She looks up at me shyly. “I don’t know if I’ve said it before, but thanks, Harm.”

I can’t help but smile. “You have. But it’s nice to hear it again.”

She nods then wrings her hands together. “You know, it’s funny. Every time I order one myself, it’s never as good.”

“I always have them put in an extra shot of vanilla,” I admit while I etch runway lines in the grass with my shoe.

Surprised, her voice pops into the air. “Don’t they charge extra for that?”

“It’s no big deal.”

She grows quiet again. I watch as she picks a stray dandelion from a spot near her foot and twirls it back and forth between her fingers. “Then there’s the cheesecake,” she says at length, her head bent over the little weed.

“Cheesecake?” I ask innocently, though I’m fully aware of what she’s talking about. And she knows it.

“That Baker court marshal a few weeks ago was hellish. Sturgis was all poised to kick my ass and I was already feeling it.” She straightens a bit then lifts her brows. “During a break I found a note on my chair written in familiar handwriting.”

I grin wryly. “Proceed to the fridge, counselor…”

She giggles softly in a way that sends a ripple to the pit of my stomach. “Yeah, but the note I found taped to the Cheesecake Factory box was even better. Touch this and face the wrath of an angry marine.”

“Well, you did find it intact and undisturbed, right?” I rub her knee playfully. “And you won the case.”

“Sturgis maintains it was because his key witness turned out to be a lying scumbag.” She leans closer as if we’re in a crowd and the next words are just for me. “But I swear it has everything to do with that gigantic piece of chocolate mocha fudge chip cheesecake.”

“With extra whipped cream and two cherries.”

“Just the way I…” her words float away in the swift breeze that loosens a few strands of hair from behind her ear. All the play, the laughs are gone now. All of a sudden, she’s just staring at me, her mouth dropped open and the rest of her face, painted with a wonder I’ve never seen before. Her breath turns jagged and uneven and her eyes begin to fill. And it becomes apparent to me that something once hidden, something that’s nearly been destroyed so damn many times is peeking its way out to the surface.

“Mac, are you…?”

“The last time I had to borrow your SUV,” she starts, oblivious to my words, “you returned my car with a full tank.”

I nod, our gazes still fixed together. “You hate pumping gas.”

“And you even had the oil changed.”

“You never take the time.”

A tear slips down her cheek and she swipes the back of her hand over it before I get the chance. Then her eyes are back on mine and she shakes her head a little. “Every time I come back from a trip, my plants have plenty of water and whenever you drop me off at night, you always wait to drive away until you see my light go on.”

Caught off guard, my head tilts and I exhale a quick, nervous puff of air.

She sniffles. “I peek through the bedroom curtains.”

“It’s a crazy world out there, Mac. And plants need love, too.”

Her sweet face turns a rosy shade of pink as the tears fall again. “Harm,” she says, “the Cheesecake Factory is thirty miles from your apartment.”

I nod slowly and it’s at this precise moment that it all becomes clear to her. This woman finally gets it. Months ago, I promised her that I wasn’t going anywhere. I told her, for once, in pure, unadulterated English that I wanted to be part of her life. I know she heard me. But now, finally, she might be ready to believe it.

My head begins to swirl and as I watch her, the emotions I’ve tried like hell to rein in all this time force themselves into this space between us. I can’t even breathe. I’ve loved her for so long with this crazy, wonderful, complicated love but it’s never felt like this before. It’s so thick and heavy in my chest. And my heart is totally gone, right there in front of her in full view. We both see it now –all the things I could never tell her. There’s no more hiding it.

“Oh my God,” she says quietly through the tears. With only slight hesitation, she places her tiny, smooth hand on my shoulder.

I circle her wrist with my grasp, feeling the strong, steady pulse-the telltale sign of life that’s finally echoed in her face. I’ve got her back now, safe and trembling, inches away from me. “You okay?” I dare to ask.

She nods, even smiles through the wetness as she rubs her thumb over my arm. “Yeah…I think I’m just about perfect.” She nibbles her bottom lip. “But I am a little confused.”

My expression clouds. “Confused?”

She takes a deep, cleansing breath. “After everything we’ve been through, all you’ve done, all this time…the way I feel right now…I don’t know if it means I’ve fallen in love with you again. Or if I ever really stopped.”

Holy Lord, the words…the risk she just took humbles me to no end. “I know I’ve never stopped, Mac,” I say as I rest my forehead against hers.

“No?”

“No,” I whisper before I finally kiss her. Her body falls into my arms and her mouth follows mine to a place so unbelievably incredible, I’m at a loss to describe it.

The primal need for air forces us to part but I hold her close as the flaming red edge of the sun finally drops down out of view. “I love you, Mac.”

“I love you, too.” She kisses me again, once, then twice. Then her lip quivers and she glances away. “You never gave up. I see it now. You never lost hope?”

“Well, I might have lost face, at least for awhile. But, no, deep down, I think the hope was always there.”

“Why?”

My voice chokes a little. “Because I just wanted you so damn much. I always have.”

She sighs. “Even when I pushed you away?”

I nod slowly. “I heard you and now I think I’m at a place where I even understand why you did it. Even though I kick myself everyday for not doing something about it then, I didn’t love you any less.” I brush my lips across her cheek. She smells like flowers. “I couldn’t.” I pull back and touch the tip of her nose. “I don’t drive thirty miles for cheesecake for just any woman.”

“Not even the pretty ones?” She sobs, but the words are like brilliant globes that precede the stars.

I kiss her gently. “Only you, Mac.”

She smiles then circles her mind around something that makes her look like she’s about to cry again. “We’ve both made such a mess of this. We’ve wasted so many years.”

I draw her into my arms. “It’s time to leave it all in the past. I’m ready for tomorrow.” A blackbird flaps by, landing with stick feet in front of us. It calls out in tenor then lifts off again, carrying my words to the water. “As long as you’re in it.”

There’s no hesitation. “I’m in it.” She leans into my chest. “So, what did you wish for, birthday boy?”

I look deep within her eyes. “All the good things, Mac.” I nip her bottom lip. “All the good things.”

Though the sky is purpling and the air has grown bitter, the warmth between us is more than enough. “And before you ask,” I comb the hair back from her face with both hands, “it already came true.”

“Or mine did,” she barely mutters on her last hitch of breath and catches the gleam in my eye before kissing me over and over again. With hope.


The End

 

 
 
   

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