Adam wakes to the steady beep of his own heartbeat. It reminds him of the alarm he had in college, and he wishes for a sledgehammer. He knows he's in the hospital. He remembers being shot. Remembers white-hot heat and overwhelming pain and trying to stop a gush of warm blood with just his tie and his shaking hands.
His eyelids are impossibly heavy. After what feels like an hour, he manages to lift them enough to see his surroundings. The first thing he sees is a familiar, pale face framed by honey-blonde hair. The eyes are closed, fair lashes fanned out on top of dark smudges, but he knows that they are the color of the sky on a cloudless summer day. He knows what they look like mad, sad, tired, frustrated, happy, passionate, and lost in thought. He has an entire mental catalog of the variations of Tessa McRae's eyes. If he is a very lucky man, one day he'll be able to complete his catalog.
The fingers wrapped around his do not belong to the woman with her head near his arm. He knows Tessa's fingers. Knows the calluses across her palm from the gardening she does in the little spare time the job allows. Knows the scar across the pad of her right thumb she got from the paper cutter in their campaign office in Des Moines. Knows exactly how soft and supple her skin feels when it brushes against his.
The hand holding his is smaller than Tessa's. Stronger. Skin not quite so soft. Calluses more rigidly defined. There is a fierceness in the grip that he's never felt the few times Tessa has held his hand. It's the same grip he'd felt when a small, warm hand had slipped into his beside his dying father's bedside and again beside his father's grave.
It seems fitting, somehow (or maybe it's just the morphine), that Tessa's face is the first thing he sees and Joy's hand is the first thing he feels. They both are so precious to him in so many different ways.
Tessa keeps him on an even keel when the rest of the world spins around and around. On the day he hired her, she promised that he wouldn't regret it. He hasn't yet. Doesn't think there'll ever come a time when he will. With her steady grace and interminable patience seated just seven feet away, is it any wonder he's turned in to a workaholic?
Their relationship is stuck in platonic hell. He loves her with every cell in his body, but he can't tell her. It's obvious that she feels the same but is bound by the same restrictions. There are too many malicious minds just waiting for them to do or say something inappropriate. Something that would take them beyond boss-and-assistant and into something tawdry. Not that anything built on a foundation as solid as theirs would ever be tawdry but appearances are everything. When you work at the most famous address in the United States, you have to remain hyperaware of every line.
The fingers in his twitch. He turns his attention to the woman sprawled beside Tessa. Joy Mara. Two names from two different mothers. Mara from his mother, who'd been so deep in depression on the day of her new daughter's birth that the only name she could come up with was one for bitterness. Joy from her adoptive mother, whose happiness had been so overflowing that there had been no other name for her precious child.
He was Lizzy's younger brother. When he met Joy, he'd had no experience as the older sibling. She'd been too old and too angry for him to step into the generally-accepted role: no growling at prospective dates, tattling when she broke curfew, helping with homework, or warning about dragon teachers. Instead he'd played mediator between her and his parents, offered up a compassionate ear when she needed to vent, and played sounding board whenever she had a decision to make. He's never felt particularly protective towards Joy. Affectionate and exasperated, naturally, but never protective.
Perhaps it's because she can kick his ass six ways to Sunday. Could do so even when she was fifteen and he was twenty. No shame in admitting it, though he tries to avoid having to do so to her face.
He blames the drugs pumping through his veins for the surge of protectiveness that rushes through him when he looks at his Happy-Bitter sister. She looks so small in that chair. Too small to have been on the top of the short-list for head of the ATF. A position she deserves but can't have as long as he works for the President. Though she'd earn it all on her own, there are too many who would say she got it because of the DNA they share.
The fingers twitch again. The head of brown-blonde curls, a head that never reminds him of Lizzy because her hair was always long and dark like the cold Vermont soil and Joy's shimmers and bounces like the sand on the beach, shifts. Brown eyes open, meet his.
"Adam." His name is a whisper. A prayer. An utterance of delight. A sigh of relief. "Oh, Adam."
He can't speak around the tube in his throat. The hand in his tenses. He squeezes her fingers. As much as he'd like to have the tube removed, he doesn't want her to go just yet.
"It's been two days," she quietly answers the question in his eyes. She gently strokes the back of Tessa's head with her free hand. "I made her go home last night. She took a shower, got some sleep. Came right back here. You're a lucky bastard, you know that?"
He narrows his eyes disapprovingly at her language. Another big brother trait he rarely displays. The smile that spreads across her face doesn't quite match the sorrow in her eyes. "She's a good girl. Better than you deserve."
He can't argue with that assessment. He doesn't deserve Tessa. He's known that from the beginning. That doesn't mean he's going to let her go. He'll be the first to admit he's a selfish jerk. His eyes slide past Joy to the laptop set up on a rickety table and the mountain of empty coffee cups beside it. He adds in the dark shadows hanging heavy under Joy's bloodshot eyes and the lines of exhaustion across her forehead and beside her lips. His frown deepens.
She wrinkles her nose and slides her hand free. "As much fun as this is, I'd better get the doctor."
She's on her feet and out of the room before he can grab her hand to pull her back. She returns moments later with a doctor and a nurse. They work around a still-sleeping Tessa. Joy hovers protectively near his feet, hands on her hips and face set in a scowl. He takes a mental picture, titles it Warrior Nurse, and knows he's definitely under the influence of too much morphine.
He enjoys having the tube out of his throat, though he doesn't necessarily enjoy the process of having it removed. When he swallows his first mouthful of ice water, it is like shards of glass sliding down his throat. He doesn't think it'll be hard to follow the doctor's suggestion not to speak. He listens to the doctor describe his injuries and the measures they took to save his life. He's inordinately grateful that Tessa remains unconscious. She doesn't need to hear about punctured lungs, flat-lining, and organ removal. Joy remains stoic, impassive, through it all. His Happy-Bitter sister, already hardened to a stone, and it breaks his heart.
Once they are alone, Joy returns to her seat. She tilts back the chair to snag the laptop off the table and props her feet up on the bed by his hands. His arms are weak, embarrassingly so, but he manages to slide a finger across the bare strip of ankle above the cuff of her socks. Her eyes are on the laptop screen, but he can feel her attention, that laser-focus, on him.
"What?" A pause. He taps her ankle. "No, I'm not officially on the task force. Dave's keeping me in the loop. Technically, I'm ops support."
He's not surprised. His sister has never been one to let bureaucracy or nay-sayers or a disapproving mother keep her from what she wants. He draws a question mark on her skin.
"They have two suspects in custody. A few leads. Nothing solid yet. No one's claiming it." Her fingers are like lightning across the laptop keyboard. "It looks homegrown, though."
He draws another question mark. She sighs. "Three bystanders and one Secret Service agent were killed. President Lawton stayed one night for observation and released. Two of your coworkers - Val in Communications and a policy intern - were jostled. Tanya was grazed on the arm. Everyone else is fine."
He doesn't like how tired she sounds. He's willing to bet every cent in his trust fund that she bullied Tessa into going home but hasn't left the hospital. He slaps her ankle until she tears her gaze off the screen and meets his concerned stare.
He arches an eyebrow. Her top lip curls up in a sneer. His other brow rises. She rolls her eyes. He taps her ankle with a finger. She pokes out her tongue like the bratty little sister she never got the chance to be. He pinches a bit of warm, smooth skin between two fingers. She lets out a surprised yelp. The staring contest ends.
"Yes, I've been here. Tessa brought a change of clothes and I washed up in your bathroom." She bats at his hand until he drops her ankle. "I've heard it all from Deborah. I don't need to hear it from you, too."
He draws an "M" on her ankle. She nods grimly. "Mom's here. She's having lunch with Gene. He's been a real sweetheart about keeping her occupied."
He tilts his head, licks his lips. Joy doesn't move. He licks his lips again. She blinks. He smacks his lips together.
"See, I don't know if you're asking me whether or not our mother and your boss are off making out somewhere or if you need a drink of water."
Nausea swirls in his empty stomach. He gives her his sharpest glare. It rolls off her back like water. She grabs the water glass and holds the straw to his lips while he tries to ease the dryness in the back of his throat. Some of the ground glass sensation fades.
"Mom's at a hotel near your apartment. She plans on sticking around for at least a week once you get released, so that seemed like the best place to stick her." She watches him scowl and sighs. "I'm living in a hotel right now, too, so she can't stay with me. I didn't figure you wanted her at bachelor-central. Sticking her with Tess is just too cruel."
"Hotel?" he mouths.
"Yeah. Wasn't sure how long the D.C. gig would last. Don't give me that look, Adam. It's better than a few of the places I've holed up. Besides, I've got a line on a new place."
He doesn't care if it's an abuse of power, once he finds out which neighborhood she's chosen he's going to pull up every crime statistic he can lay his hands on. She can take care of herself. She's proven it a thousand times over, but that doesn't stop him from worrying. That will never stop him from worrying. He's lost one sister. He has no plans for losing the other.
"Getting a roommate, too," she adds, tone just a touch cheeky.
He smothers a sigh. Another background check he'll have to have his buddy at the FBI run. The rate Tessa goes through first dates and his sister goes through temporary partners, he'll need to set up a payment program with Jesse.
"Tessa's not one of those crazy morning people, is she? I can handle just about anything, but if she's perky first thing in the morning, there's going to be a friendly-fire incident."
His heart stops. Just for a second. Not long enough to make the machines go off. Just enough to make his chest ache and sweat pop out on his forehead. His sister and his… his Tessa? Living together? Sharing space. Stories. Gossip. Jokes about how he just grabs the first socks his hand hits and winds up with one blue and one brown sock under black pants. Tales from that Spring Break in college when he picked up a man in a rather fetching cocktail dress and that state dinner when he drank one too many glasses of champagne and slept under Gene's desk.
"Not funny," he rasps. It hurts to speak, but it's worth it to make his displeasure known.
"Oh, it is. Very." She grins and taps her toes against his knee. "It's also true. Have another question for you, big bro."
He arches an eyebrow. If it's a question about Tessa's sleepwear or something equally embarrassing, he will have her tossed out of the room, sister or not.
"What're the parking rules at your place? I know you have an assigned space, but how many are you allowed per unit? Tessa's junker is fine on the street because no one's desperate enough to steal that, but my baby needs a roof."
This time, Adam does manage to set off the alarm on his heart monitor. The high-pitched squeal sends Tessa to her feet. She stands, stunned, and watches Joy roll around on the floor laughing while Adam gasps for air like a beached fish.
"What'd I miss?"