Characters: Terry Hale

Terry took the steep climb up the mountain trail with the enthusiasm of one exacting penance on herself. Less than a week and she’d run herself out of work and reasons for staying away. The guilt and worry would take more time.

She found him where the kids (she still imagined them that way) said he would be, at one of the last rest stops up the mountain. Sitting on an old rock worn smooth first by the weather and later by the thousands of tourists that scrambled on and over it each year. He heard her coming by the crunch in the snow, and her puffing breath.

“I’m out of shape for this,” she declared, before he could speak. It broke the nervousness that was just beginning to build in the space between them.

“We’ll have to work on that.” He grinned and made room for her beside him. “I was beginning to wonder if you’d make it back.”

Terry looked across the vista, rather than at him for a moment. It didn’t look to have changed a bit since she last stood there. The midday glow on the snow-blanketed mountains was blindingly beautiful. Against that brightness, the dark bulk of trees gathered the shadows about their weighted limbs protectively, the contrast smudging an afterimage across her sight when she shifted her focus.

“I had some things to work on. But… I’m here now.” She turned to him, and eased herself down beside him on to the rock.

“You look tired.” He reached and brushed back the hair escaping out of her braid over one ear. His uniform showed as his coat shifted aside, opened to the sun’s warmth and the walk’s exertion. Terry was momentarily disappointed to see he was back at work, even as she chided herself for expecting him to wait. Lives went on around her own, and she had ended the vacation first.

“A little,” she confessed.

“Working too hard,” he persisted.

“Undoubtedly.” She shrugged, cracked a crooked smile, and kept the prisons, orphans and the dead in the back of her mind, unvoiced. They weren’t for a day under the sun. “Old habit.”

Warren finally smiled, albeit a little sadly. “I remember. So they didn’t manage change you in that respect, then.”

“Oh, they tried, but when there’s need…” Terry’s smile had grown tight.

“They keep you busy then.”

“There’s a lot more on the line.”

“I put my foot in it, didn’t I?” Warren said ruefully, not needing an answer. “I’m sorry. After all this time, it’s hard to sit and wait. I want more time with you, to find out who you are again.” It came out in a rush, as if he were afraid she’d escape in a moment’s pause. “Who we are again. Even if it can’t be…”

“Be like it used to be,” She finished for him. Traitorously she wondered if it could even exist again, and wondered if he’d been thinking the same in that last hesitation. It was her turn to rush on. “I’m sorry, too. I shouldn’t have gone, but I… panicked. It was a lot to take in in one night and I needed a time out.”

Warren watched her a long moment, surprised, but not for the reasons she expected. “I think I like the new you.”

It effectively derailed her attempted slump in mood. “What?”

“Apologizing, humble…” The look in his eyes had turned decidedly mischievous and yet encouraging.

Now you’re putting your foot in it.”

“On purpose.” He burst out laughing when she shoved him. “Seriously though, Terry, you seem different.”

“I should hope so, for you too.” It was her turn to tease him. “It has been over a decade.”

“Point taken.” He leaned back, and slowly wrapped his arm around her shoulders, pulling her close when she didn’t resist. It felt both familiar and strange and a habit to be relearned.

“On duty much longer?” Terry asked.

“Until the gates close.” He motioned with his chin to the trail of people cheerfully stumbling up the trails below, their laughter and loud chatter carrying up the slopes. One could almost forget the war that had been fought so recently above and in the cities. And perhaps that was just what everyone was after; forgetfulness.

“You could walk the route with me though,” he added, pulling her back, “If you like.”

Terry glanced up the rest of the trail. It was a fair hike, up over and down the other side. But it ended in a valley that took one’s breath away more surely than the walk did, and there was the privacy granted to those who would dare the trek. Most turned back when the easy road ended. A heartier breed, the service kept a small operations cabin tucked away down there, hidden to save the pristine view. She could easily remember the times they went before, and she grinned to cover her nervousness. “You just want to hear me wheeze.”

“Turnabout is fair play,” he laughed.

Reminded of the illness, she couldn’t find the humor to match. “It’s great to see you back in form, and back in service too. Is it really…”

“Gone? Yes. I thought I’d told you so the first time.”

“Did you?” Her first hours back home were a strange blur. “You could have told me you caught footage of the first flying pig on the wildlife reserve, and it would have slipped past, I think.”

He laughed, but his eyes were gentle. “Well it’s gone. Completely. There’s the usual check-ups of course, but good as new. No worries now, hm?” He stood and offered his hand.

Terry slowly smiled and took his hand, pulling herself to her feet. “I’ll work on it.”

“Good.” About ten feet up the trail, the mischievous smile returned. “I could carry you.”

Terry rolled her eyes at him. “I think I can manage.”

“A la maiden in distress,” he went on, playing with ridiculousness until her mood lifted out of the vicinity of her shoes. He pursued the shadow of her old humor — the teasing wit that he loved, that met him face on — with a kind of urgency to reach someone familiar glimpsed in the distance. “Or whatever works for King Kong, maybe.”

“Now that’s an appropriate image. You’ll have to drag your knuckles a little lower, though.”

“Just a little lower, eh? Thanks. No respect for your elders and betters….”

“Right, right old man.” Her laughter burst out as she moved quick out of reach, step lightening. Warren made a playful grab that captured only air, but still got something good out of the bargain. Snow scattered as the pursuit picked up, and soon their laughter joined the other giddy voices traveling up the mountain.

(C) Copyright 1999 Alida Saxon. All rights reserved.

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