Kit went to a nearby restaurant and brought back a bag of absolute sinful goodness: big bacon double cheeseburgers, seasoned fries from Five Guys, and stopped by a bakery for thick slabs of chocolate cake. We enjoyed the caloric volcano that was our meal while watching another SyFy cheese biscuit: ‘Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus.’ I discovered that Kit also had an appreciation for mediocre sci-fi scripts, bad acting, and cheesy F/X, and nobody delivered like the SyFy channel.
After wiping my chocolatey fingers on a napkin, I covered my mouth to stifle a very loud unflattering burp. Kit looked at me and chuckled.
“Nice,” he said.
“Excuse me,” I said, smiling. “That was fantastic, but I know I’m going to pay for this later. My little one is going to keep me up because of all that grease.”
“Do you know what you’re having?”
“I’ve decided it’s better if I don’t.”
He nodded. “Do you have a preference?”
“Fair enough.” Then a dark look passed over his face. “That’s all that really matters, Zuri.”
“Zuri, I have to go. Thanks for letting me hang out. I enjoyed myself. I haven’t had a chance to lounge in a long time.”
I got up to walk him to the door. “I had a good time too. It’s a shame we never took the time to talk like this before, but that was all my fault. I’m sure you tried, but—”
He waved his hand, as if blowing off my last comment. “Not all your fault.”
“I’m glad you came by, Kit.” I said. It was refreshing, having a man in my house that did not hog the conversation or talk incessantly about work. “We’ll have to do this again sometime.” That last rolled off my tongue so easily I didn’t realize I’d said it until he looked at me. And then I found myself caught in his dark-eyed gaze and decided I meant it.
He turned and left. I locked my door and had to sit down and gather my thoughts. Something had happened today; something I hadn’t expected and certainly was not prepared for.
I met with Louis Brady, the A.D. Monday morning and explained my reasons for wanting to transfer out of Violent Crimes. He looked at me for a very long time.
“Zuri, you are an asset to this field office. I can’t say that I blame you, after everything you’ve gone through, but you are irreplaceable. First off, you are the smartest, quickest agent I’ve ever worked with and your work is always impeccable. Never mind your innate skill with firearms. And you can work with and handle Jackson, which I can assure you no one else can. Does he know you’re leaving?”
“He’ll figure it out soon enough.” My words were cool, my tone anything but.
Louis shook his head. “So you’re going back to Quantico to be a firearms instructor?”
“The hours are good and it’s not that far from my house. It’s time for a change.”
“I understand. They’re going to get an awesome teacher for Hogan’s Alley. Zuri, I’ll see to it that this transfer goes through.” He made some sort of note on the application. “So, you’ll be with us for another three months or so?”
“Until my baby is born.”
He nodded again. “Well, let me be the first to say that you’ll be missed.”
I nodded and stood up. He wasn’t the first, but he might have been the only other to do so. Truth be told, I was going to be happy to get out of that field office and away from those covertly bigoted bastards who smiled in my face, but were quick to throw me under the bus at any given opportunity.
I sat down at my desk and sighed. Two more cases sat on my already cluttered desk. Kit was there, reading a case file. I looked at him. “Good morning, Kit.”
“Good morning, Zuri. And before you ask, Jackson’s gone. He said something about a clandestine meeting with one of his informants; that you’d know where he went.”
“Oh,” I said, waving that off. “What are we dealing with?”
“Double rape and murder; two of them. The cases are similar, but the locals don’t want to say if it’s a serial or not. But my review of the files makes it possible.”
I picked up the phone. “I’ll get us a car.”
“Jackson! What the hell!”
“Sorry, Zuri,” he said. “I just got a lead on this case. According to—”
Kit looked angry. “Do you mind, Agent Miller? We’re at lunch!”
Jackson ignored Kit and looked at me. “I need you to come with me and meet with this guy who says he knows who’s behind the killings. It’s not what you’re thinking.”
I closed my eyes, feeling my blood pressure rise. “I’m. Having. Lunch.”
“We need to go, Zuri. He won’t wait around for long. I’ll get you a burger or something on the way.”
I started to speak, but Kit beat me to it. “No.”
Jackson looked at him. “I don’t believe I was addressing you, Agent Eastman. This is between Zuri and me.”
“Agent Troy is my partner now. I think you’ve forgotten that.”
Jackson looked at me and actually grabbed my arm. “Zuri, we don’t have time for this.”
“I’m not going,” I said. “I’m hungry and I’m having lunch. Let me go, Jackson. Let me go. I’m not going with you. I’m done trailing in your wake like a groupie. If you want to meet with that guy, then go on. But don’t expect me to follow. I’m getting reassigned.” I carelessly tossed out that last part, wondering if he even heard me.
You would have thought I sucker-punched him in the face, but it was evident he didn’t hear that last. “What is with you, Zuri?”
Kit looked at me. “I’m going to say this once. Leave Agent Troy alone. Get up and walk away, Jackson. I won’t have you coming in here and deliberately upsetting Zuri again. Either you shut up and join us for a nice quiet lunch or you can get the hell out of here.”
“Or what?” Jackson’s tone was sharp, but Kit was impassive. For a second, I wondered which one of them would win in a fight. I thought Kit might.
“There is no ‘what.’ You are not going to upset her anymore. Whatever you do, it won’t be that.” Kit’s voice was calm, controlled. “So decide. Either shut up and have lunch with us, or leave us alone.”
Jackson obviously had deduced the same thing. His eyes took on a wary look and he got up and stalked out of the restaurant.
I took several deep breaths and sipped some tea. “I don’t get it. How can he be so obtuse?” I was really hurt by his actions. I guess a lot of it could be due to my overactive hormones, but truth be told, I was hurt. Jackson was different now. He wasn’t the man I used to know. After everything we’d gone through the past seven years; after all that we’d shared, after everything…to be so thoroughly ignored and disrespected by a man I loved stung. When I calmed myself, I looked at Kit and saw that he was angry.
“Zuri, are you okay?”
“I will be.” Then I looked Kit in the eye. “I used to love him, you know.”
He touched my hand. “You don’t need this.”
“Tell me about it.”
“You want some time alone?”
“No. I just need a moment.” I put my fingers against my eyes and wiggled them, took two deep breaths and slowed my pulse. I was already tired and my feet hurt and I decided to put the incident with Jackson out of my mind. I wasn’t about to let him ruin my day. When I opened my eyes, I caught Kit staring at me. The expression on his face was thoughtful and there was a light in his eyes that I hadn’t seen before. I looked at him; he smiled sheepishly and looked away. I couldn’t help but grin.
“Busted,” I said.
He grinned and it lit up his face. I found myself staring at him and then I found myself wondering about that, as we waited for the food and then as we ate. Had I been completely unaware this whole time? Had I, in my obstinacy and rejection of Kit as my partner, missed something serious? Something significant? It was one thing to show up at my house under the pretense of wanting to be friends, but the look on Kit’s face was more than mere friendship. Suddenly, I was warm all over and there were butterflies in my stomach not caused by my child. It became difficult to look at him while eating. I was grateful for the food; it kept me from having to look in his eyes. The silence was companionable, as it had to be due to my hunger. I was wolfing down everything on my plate, totally unembarrassed. I did notice, however, that Kit was sneaking looks at me between bites of his steak. I couldn’t help but smile. His concern for me made a lot more sense now. As had his unexpected visit to my house. Friends, indeed.
I looked up. Jackson was standing at our table. He looked worried.
Kit glared at him.
“I’m eating,” I said. “What do you want?”
He sat down, uninvited, and I saw Kit’s jaw tense. He continued to eat and I knew that he was going to let me handle this.
“Zuri, I’m sorry. I’m sorry about what I did. What is this you’re saying about being reassigned?”
I calmly chewed my food and swallowed some tea before answering him. “You do not actually think I’m going to be totally absorbed in these cases after my child is born, do you?”
“Zuri, you can’t leave! We’ve come through so much…you don’t want to be reassigned. You can’t leave me!”
“Jackson, maybe you didn’t hear me. I asked A.D. Brady for reassignment, so obviously I want to be. While my feelings for you personally have nothing to do with my request, the work itself does. I am not going to be all-encompassed with my job when my baby comes. You do know that my child comes first.”
“Zuri,” he said again. “You can’t leave. I promise I won’t be so…difficult, just don’t go.”
“I’m sorry, Jackson. It’s done. I put in for my transfer this morning. I will not do this anymore. I want a good life for my baby. This isn’t it. There’s nothing you can say that will make me change my mind.”
He was begging me, but there was a hint of exasperation in his tone. As if I was the one being difficult. “Zuri, you can’t leave me…you can’t abandon me!”
It was if he didn’t get it. I groaned in frustration and then felt Kit’s eyes on me. When I looked at him, his expression said it all. Calm down, Zuri.
“This isn’t about you, Jackson. It’s about me and my child. Get over it. You and Agent Eastman will work well together.”
Jackson’s face creased in a deep frown and Kit actually coughed around his food. Jackson eyed him and then me. “I don’t think so. I’m really disappointed in you, Zuri.”
I glared at him. “What? You’re disappointed in me??? For seven years we worked together in that damn cramped office and you never saw fit to order me a desk, even after that incident in Atlanta!”
Kit’s eyebrows rose. I’d have to tell him about that little incident one day. Considering what he knew about Jackson and me, it was definitely a story he might find interesting. Then again, maybe not.
“This is about a desk?” Jackson asked, his face incredulous.
I sighed. “I give up. You know what I’m talking about. You’re just playing stupid and I don’t have time for this!” I got up and Kit grabbed my hand.
“Agent Troy…please sit down and finish your lunch. Jackson,” he said, “You need to get up and leave. If you don’t, I will personally escort you from this table.”
Jackson glared at him for a very long moment. Then got up and left, nearly knocking over my tea glass in his anger. If the diner door didn’t swing both ways, he would have broken it from the force of his swing.
I sighed. “I don’t know how I put up with him for so many years. I really don’t. He makes me tired.”
“He’s used to you being a cushion for him, Zuri,” he said. “You’re his security blanket. He trusts you. Apparently you are the only person he does trust. I guess it is difficult for him to face the obvious. Jackson isn’t stupid and he isn’t blind. He’s well aware of what your pregnancy means and he can’t accept it. And now that I’m partnered with you, it’s as though everything he has is being taken away.”
I stared at Kit wordlessly. He’d pretty much summed it up, and far simpler than I could have.
“Finish eating, Zuri. I know you’re still hungry.” His eyes pinned me to my seat and it was all I could do to comply. I’d never thought of Jackson’s current actions towards me as a refusal to accept things as they are now. I just thought he was being an asshole. Kit was right. Everything was being taken from Jackson, but he was a grown man and he had to learn how to adapt. I wasn’t about to coddle him and ignore myself in the process. Not anymore.
A couple of days later, I left work at a decent hour and went home to occupy myself with baby catalogues. The empty room that was supposed to serve as my home office would have to be painted to match the furniture I’d chosen for the baby. I was deeply engrossed in deciding what theme to select when someone knocked on my door. When I finally answered it, Jackson was standing there, hands in pockets.
“What do you want?” I hadn’t seen him since he left the diner.
“Zuri? Don’t shut the door. I need to talk to you.”
“I don’t feel like debating or arguing with you.”
“I’m not here to do that. Let me come in. Please.”
I moved and he came in. Seeing the litter of baby books, he looked at my bump. I stared at him. “Yes?”
“Zuri, I wish you’d reconsider.”
“Please. I have no one else but you. My caseload isn’t even mine anymore. Louis gave it to Agent Eastman while I was gone and never gave it back. I couldn’t bear to lose you too.”
“Jackson, you’ll never lose me. I just have to think of my child now. When I remember those scary instances that those cases put me—us in, I shudder to think about going through that when I have a child at home waiting for me. I won’t do that to my baby. Not for you, not for anyone.”
He dropped his head.
I put a hand on his arm. “But you will never lose my friendship. We have too much between us. You are my friend and I do love you, but this baby is everything to me. You should understand and respect that.”
“I’ve been a selfish bastard, Zuri. I do understand what the baby means to you. I guess it’s rather hard for me to accept it when you told me that you didn’t get pregnant after our last time. I thought that…”
I gaped at him. I’d never told him that I went through in-vitro fertilization, but the situation never arose where I could have told him. Was that why he was acting so pissy? He thought I’d slept with someone else while he was gone? Did it bother him that I might have? Did he think that Kit was the father of my child?
“Jackson, since you came back, we never had a real chance to talk. I went to a fertility clinic when I thought you weren’t coming back. I’m glad that you’re okay; believe me, I was relieved when they found you, but I made a choice. I’m so happy that I was finally able to conceive, so you need to respect my decision and let it go.”
“You went to a clinic?”
He exhaled and grabbed my hands. “I’m sorry for my behavior, Zuri. I hope you can forgive me. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
I stroked his palms. “I forgive you. But you need to move on. I’m here if you need someone to talk to you, but I can’t be here for anything else you might need.”
“Is there someone else in your life, Zuri?”
I was so startled by the question that I couldn’t answer right away. Jackson stared at me, his brown eyes searching. Was he aware of something that eluded me? He was a perceptive man; if there was something, he would have picked up on it.
“No,” I said. “Just my baby.”
He nodded. “I’ll leave you alone now. Good night, Zuri.” He looked woefully sad and my heart ached for him. Kit was right. He was losing everything.
I squeezed his hands. “Good night.”
Jackson let go of my hands and left my house. I sat down on the couch, thinking hard. If he didn’t think he fathered my child, then who did he think did? Did I even want to go there?
No. Not tonight. Maybe not ever.
Time passed. Kit and I became comfortable as partners, even while working with Jackson. It was good in a way because Jackson was a buffer. Kit was vigilant because I was late in my pregnancy and moving slowly. He was protective and considerate of me because we both knew Jackson wouldn’t be. I was no longer bothered by his nonchalance. There was never anything overt or inappropriate on Kit’s behalf, but our increasing camaraderie didn’t go unnoticed by Jackson. It made my volatile ex-partner even more unpredictable. I wondered many times what he really thought of my pregnancy. It didn’t matter, for he never once inquired about my health after showing up at my house that night.
We were assigned to a murder case in Nevada, outside of Las Vegas. As was his style, Jackson went left while everyone else went right. He was of the belief that the unsolved rape-murders in Alexandria were related to what we were investigating in Nevada. There were a lot of similarities. But the evidence Kit and I gathered showed no real evidence to the contrary. However, Jackson convinced the SAC of the Vegas field office to give him time to prove his theory and we spent a tiresome four days in the Nevada desert. Kit was never far away from me; I was eight months pregnant and I felt fine, but I was certain that Kit thought I would go into labor at any moment.
When we got back to D.C., Louis was furious when he got the expense reports and a call from the SAC regarding Jackson’s behavior and total lack of respect. I wondered if he would get suspended. During the debriefing, I shifted a few times. My little one had been extraordinarily active as of late, probably because he or she was ready to get out. I was too. I tried not to squirm, but was failing as Louis read sections of the reports and chewed Jackson out at the same time. He had already barked at Kit and me for allowing him to run free like a dog off a chain. Kit and I had known the cuss-out was coming, so neither of us was fazed by it. Jackson’s actions always had ripple effects.
I shifted again. Kit looked at me. “Are you okay, Agent Troy?”
Louis and Jackson both looked at me. I glared back at them all. “I’m all right. Go on, sir.”
Louis’ rant continued and I held back my sigh and shifted again. I couldn’t wait for my maternity leave because I simply didn’t care about this anymore. I’d had enough of Violent Crimes, of Louis, of Jackson, of the field office. I’d had enough of everything. Suddenly I grabbed the sides of my chair and screamed as a contraction wrapped around my back. Perhaps I spoke too soon.
“Zuri!” Kit shouted, jumping out of his chair.
Louis rose and went for the phone. “Agent Troy?”
“I’m all ri—” I started to say when another contraction gripped me and I screamed again. Jackson stood up, but Kit shoved him out of the way and knocked over his chair coming to my assistance. Another contraction seized me and my water broke.
“Oh God, the baby’s coming! The baby’s coming,” I moaned. “I need to get to a hospital…”
Jackson, stunned into immobility, simply stared. Louis was screaming into the phone, demanding an ambulance. Immediately.
“She’s in labor! Jackson, get your ass in gear and help me carry her outside!” Kit had taken control of the situation, but Jackson had not moved. I was in too much pain to care and screamed again as another contraction hit. Kit swore as he gathered me up and carried me out of Louis’ office. In a haze of pain, I saw Jackson running behind him. Another contraction squeezed me and it was all I could do to say, “I don’t think I’ll make it to the hospital…”
Well, somehow or another, Kit Eastman saw to it that I would deliver my child in the confines of a hospital and not the field office. By the time he made to the lobby, the paramedics were already there, wheeling a gurney and met him by the elevators. Kit got in the ambulance with me. I was touched by his gesture, although I couldn’t show it because the contractions were coming every few minutes and killing me each time. When we arrived, I was wheeled to a delivery room and not a moment too soon. I was certain that my baby would pop out at any moment. The nurse kept telling me to bear down and breathe and all I could think about was why Jackson wasn’t there to help me. I thought that, for the most part, we’d resolved our issues (we’d certainly been getting along like we had) and I really wanted him in there with me. Maybe it was best that he wasn’t because I heard my name and felt a strong hand grasp my own.
I looked up, tightly wrapped in surgical blues and a mask, two beautiful onyx orbs and then I felt his hand take mine.
“Go on, Zuri. I’m here. Push.”
“Kit,” I breathed. And then, drawing from his strength, I pushed. And pushed. And pushed. And breathed. And pushed. And pushed. I thought I was being torn in half. Each contraction felt like a miniature death. I was so tired and my eyes stung from the sweat pouring off my forehead. Tears were in my eyes and I was cursing with each contraction, which were coming with every breath, it felt like. Kit wiped the sweat from my forehead.
“I can’t do this,” I wailed. “Kit, I can’t do this! I can’t, I can’t!” The pain was too great.
“Yes you can, Zuri. You told me once that it was a miracle that you conceived and how happy you were to become a mother. This is merely the price of admission. I’ll help you.” He put his arms underneath my shoulders and supported my back. “Push now. Come on, push! Push!”
He made sure to retain hold of my hand once he sat me up. I squeezed his fingers hard enough to grind bones, but his dark eyes never wavered from mine and what erupted from my mouth I care not to repeat. But true to form, Kit stayed with me, encouraging me to bring forth my baby. After what seemed like days, I heard the doctor say, “The head’s crowning…come on, one more time….push!”
“Push, Zuri!” was Kit’s enthusiastic reply. He was digging this. Why, I don’t know. But I was ready for it to be over. I didn’t know how long I’d been in labor, but I was beyond exhausted and all I wanted was to see my child and go to sleep. I bore down, squeezed Kit’s hand, shoved with all my might and felt no more pain as I heard my baby’s cries. Kit looked over to see the doctor holding my squalling infant and looked back at me. I could see the glint in his eyes and wondered if they were tears.
“It’s a boy,” he said, and laughed. “It’s a boy, Zuri! A beautiful boy and he looks as normal as a one dollar bill. Great job, Agent Troy!”
I cried with relief. My son’s wails were music to my ears. A vision that will forever be etched into my brain was the tear I saw squeeze out of Agent Eastman’s right eye.