“Full Circle” is another story about some favorite characters out of the UNSETIC Files--namely, Tim, Kate, and AJ (though Brigid totally guest-stars). It’s a Christmas Eve story about the best gift Kate ever could have given to her sometime-lover and her best friend--one where she ends up getting a little surprise of her own.
Check out the rest of the UNSETIC Files series wherever books are sold. More information is also available on Erin’s website, www.embklitzke.com.
“What do I say to her?” Mat whispered, staring out the window at the snow that swirled down beyond it.
Kate glanced at him sidelong, frowning. “What do you mean? You tell her you love her and that you’re home now and everything’s going to be fine.” I wish someone would do that for me. I don’t think it’ll ever happen. That bridge had been burned a long time ago. Her hands hurt from gripping the steering wheel too hard. Even after years of living in the Midwest, she still wasn’t quite used to how quickly the roads would get slick once the snow began to fall.
Don’t crash this bloody car on the way to reuniting your best friend with her lover and your ex-lover with his best friend.
It was only a few more miles to the house in the suburbs, the sprawling edifice where Christopher McConaway lived, where AJ and Tim had grown up with the man beside her, the house that no matter what her current relationship with Tim McConaway was, she was always welcome. Mat’s gaze was distant as he stared out the window, at landscapes that had undoubtedly changed a great deal since he’d seen them last.
“I almost don’t recognize it,” he said after a moment, his voice still hushed, as if his throat was almost too tight to let him speak. “I know where we’re at, but it’s all so different from how it used to be.”
“Years will do that,” Kate said. “It’ll be familiar again soon enough. Just wait and see. Besides, the things that really matter haven’t changed at all.”
“I hope you’re right.” Mat rested his head against the window. Kate kept her eyes on the road.
She took a left two intersections later and headed down the winding private drive that led up into the huge wooded lot where the McConaway house hid from the rest of the world. It was a familiar drive by now, after spending so many years as AJ’s closest friend, as Tim’s sometime lover.
I wish I didn’t miss him. I wish I could stay angry.
The one thing she didn’t wish is that she didn’t love him anymore.
The brick building practically glowed in the snowy landscape, light streaming from every window. Kate could see AJ’s Jeep and Tim’s sedan parked in the circle drive, each lightly dusted with snow. They’d been here for hours.
Of course they have been. It’s Christmas Eve, and they’re home for the holidays. She suppressed a sigh. He was, anyway.
I should have gone to England, she thought. Maybe she would have if she hadn’t been with Tony Bridger and Scott Andrews, walking the thin spaces between worlds and hunting down a man who’d disappeared nine long years ago, right out of the cockpit of his fighter jet in the skies over Iraq. Bringing Mat home had been more important than anything, though, if only to know that AJ would have a shot at the happiness she would probably never know herself—it would be coming full circle for the both of them.
After all, she’d gotten Tim back a long time ago. It was high time AJ got her fiancé back.
She parked behind AJ’s Jeep and climbed out of the car. Mat was a little slower, a little more awkward.
“I’m fine,” he said quickly as she moved to help him.
Kate shook her head. “I don’t want you to slip and fall getting out of my car because you’ve only got one working arm.”
“It’s not that slippery,” he said half a second before one foot started to slide out from under him. Kate caught him before he could bang into the side of the car.
“You were saying?”
Mat choked on a laugh. “Right. The sooner we’re in the house, the better, I guess.” He took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. “How do I look?”
Their hasty trip to the mall had netted him a pair of jeans and a nice sweater, sneakers and socks. Sierra had done a passably good job with his hair, Kate had to admit, which was tousled by the wind. The bruises on his face stood out in stark contrast to the rest of his skin, but there was nothing that could be done about that. Other than the sling cradling his broken arm and those bruises, he looked pretty good.
Kate gave him a lopsided smile. “Like a man who should stop stalling and get his sorry ass reunited with the people who love him. Come on.”
Together, they headed up the steps to the porch, up to the wood and glass front doors. She rang the bell but left him positioned in front of the doors, uncertain whether she hoped that AJ would answer or Tim.
In the end, it was AJ who threw the door wide and then froze, eyes widening at the sight that greeted her.
Kate couldn’t help but smile at the awkward expression on Mat’s face and the sheer amazement on AJ’s.
We did good, Tony. We did good.
“Is this real?” AJ asked after a moment of staring.
Mat took a step toward her. “You tell me.”
Then he was kissing her and Kate felt vaguely like a voyeur, maybe a little dirty for watching as AJ threw her arms around Mat’s neck while his good arm snaked around her waist and held her tight against him.
“AJ, close the—” Tim stopped abruptly a few steps from the door, blinking. “Mat?”
“I think he’s busy,” Kate said softly, edging past the couple and into the tiled foyer. Tim tore his gaze away from his sister and her fiancé and redirected it to her. “I would be,” Kate continued, trying to ignore the intensity of the Air Force officer’s stare. “If I was seeing the love of my life again for the first time in nine years.”
“Kate,” Tim said softly, “what did you do?”
“Tony and Scott and I went across and found him,” she said simply, shoulders rising and falling in a shrug. “I told Scott I’d drive him out here so he and Sierra could go home and salvage some of their holiday. I think Tony made his plane to Detroit, too.”
Tim shook his head slightly, looking at Mat and AJ again. His lips barely moved as he spoke. “I don’t believe it.”
“It’s real.” Kate smiled and shrugged. “And now, since my duty’s done, I’m going to go ahead and get out of your hair. Happy Christmas.”
She slipped past Mat and AJ—still kissing like they’d never get another chance to—and made it another three steps before Tim’s voice stopped her.
She turned, frowning as she watched him duck past the pair to join her out in the snow and cold of the winter night. “Go back inside. I don’t want to intrude.”
“You’re not,” he said, closing the gap between them. “You never could.”
“Tim.” Her heart gave a painful squeeze as she looked up at him. He looked haggard, but that was to be expected—they’d just gotten back from Citadel. At least his partner’s going to be okay now. Hopefully he’s got his magic sorted, too.
“Kate.” He reached for her, one hand on her shoulder, then the other against her cheek. His palm was rough and warm as she looked up at him, met his troubled gaze.
He always seems like he’s carrying the weight of the universe on his shoulders. It’s been that way since he came back, since he escaped. What I wouldn’t give to make that go away.
But it never would—she knew that. He’d always shoulder that burden, whether anyone wanted him to or not. It was his penance for the crimes he wouldn’t talk about, the things he didn’t want to remember but did and all the things he couldn’t recall and never wanted to.
Her hands closed on his wrist. “Tim, please.”
“You brought him home,” he whispered. “You did what I couldn’t. It’s over now. That…that hell is all over now.”
Was it her imagination, or could she actually see some of his burden lifting? Was he standing a little straighter, his eyes a little clearer, a little less troubled than before?
That shouldn’t matter. You told him that you were through—that it was over.
But that was because he kept disappearing, and he kept disappearing because he was trying to find the man that’s making out with your best friend on her uncle’s front stoop. The whole game’s changed now. Everything’s different.
And you still love him more than you’ve loved anyone else in the world.
She stared into Tim’s eyes and realized that some things were still the same. Kate sighed his name and squeezed his wrist, pressed his hand a little more tightly against her cheek before she let go. “I’m still not the one you want,” she whispered.
Something shattered in his eyes and the hopefulness that had been in his expression died. His shoulders slumped like some great weight had suddenly come crashing down on him. “Kate,” he rasped, “never say that.”
Then his lips were against hers and she stopped thinking entirely.
AJ couldn’t hear anything except for the pounding of her heart, the rasp of her breath in her throat as she pressed her forehead against Mat’s. His gaze was as haunted as her brother’s had been when he’d finally made it back home again, but he was here and he was whole.
Nothing else matters.
“I love you, AJ,” he said in a bare whisper, breathing as hard as she was, still recovering from their reunion celebration. “And I’m never leaving you again.”
“I’m never letting you go again,” she whispered back. “It’s been too long.”
A flicker of fear passed through his eyes. “How long has it been?”
“Too long,” was all she said as her arms closed around him again and she buried her face against his neck. She felt him wince and she stepped back, suddenly mindful of his arm, cradled in the sling against his chest. AJ stared at it as she drew away, then her gaze flicked up to his face. “What happened there?”
“I broke it while I was trying to escape.” He swallowed hard. “It was before Kate and Scott and Tony got to me. Thank god they did, otherwise…” His voice trailed away and she hugged him close again. Mat sucked in a breath before he could continue. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
AJ swallowed the rising sickness in her throat and shook her head. “Come inside,” she said. “Come in where it’s warm and—and—” Will he feel safe anywhere? It took so long for Tim to get better. To be something close to normal again.
I just want us to be happy. I want us to all be a family again.
Mat was looking past her, toward where Tim and Kate stood in the falling snow, tangled in an embrace. His hand found hers and squeezed. “And where we’re not intruding,” Mat said softly, one corner of his mouth twitching into a smile.
Her fingers tightened around his. “Right,” she whispered. She looked up at him and smiled. “I can’t wait to see the look on Uncle Chris’s face.”
“What about Peter’s?” Mat asked as she led him into the warmth of the house. AJ flinched, stopping in her tracks.
Of course he wouldn’t know. How could he? “Uncle Peter died,” she said. “It was a couple years after you guys went missing.”
“Oh,” Mat said, glancing down at his toes. “AJ, I--”
“You don’t have to say anything,” she said. “He was practically your uncle, too.”
“I guess,” Mat said softly. "I’m still sorry.”
AJ squeezed his hand. “It was a long time ago, now,” she said softly. “The pain’s better than it used to be. Come on. Uncle Chris is still here and he’ll be overjoyed to see you.”
She tugged him gently toward the living room, knowing that her uncle would be waiting there with Brigid. They’re probably wondering who the hell was at the door and why it took us so long to come back.
“Well, it can’t be Bryn and Jim with the kids unless they’re all asleep in the car,” Brigid O’Connell was saying, then laughed. “Of course, if they’re all asleep, that would explain why it might be taking so long.”
“Hate to disappoint you,” AJ said as they came into the warmth and light of the living room, “but it’s not Bryn and Jim and the kids.”
Mat tried to use her body to shield him for a moment as they came into the room, but it was little use. Christopher McConaway came to his feet in a heartbeat, face ashen. “Matthias!”
Curled in one corner of the couch with a blanket cocooning her, Brigid O’Connell looked no less shocked to see Mat. AJ darted forward to catch the mug of cocoa that began to tumble from the naval officer’s fingers as Christopher cleared the floor in a few swift strides to take Mat by the shoulders.
“You’re alive,” Chris whispered.
Mat actually laughed. “Somehow,” he said. “Somehow.” He folded Chris into a one-armed hug for a long moment before releasing him and looking toward Brigid.
“Surprised to see me?” she asked with a wry smile. Her hands were steady around the mug now that the initial shock of Mat’s appearance was wearing off. AJ straightened and leaned against the arm of the couch next to her brother’s keeper and partner of five years.
“A little,” Mat admitted. “What are you doing here?”
“Brigid’s been working with Tim almost since he came home,” AJ said. Without a doubt, she’s the only reason he’s sane now. “She’s his partner.”
“His partner,” Mat said, his brow arching slightly. “What, are you guys cops or something now? I’m guessing that you guys aren’t romantic partners, considering the make-out session going on outside.”
“Or something,” Brigid said, glancing at AJ. “Is Kate out there?”
“Yeah,” AJ said, shaking her head slightly. “Something tells me they’re going to fight and somehow come up with a new reason to not be together, but it’s nice to enjoy a few minutes of peace.”
Brigid patted her thigh. “You might be surprised. I think he’s missed her.”
But did he miss her enough? And do they both care enough to forgive each other? It would be nice if they had found a way to forgive, to start over—or pick up where they left off in all of the best ways. She knew they loved each other. It was getting harder and harder to watch them both suffer when they were apart. Even if Kate said the last break-up was the very last one, that they’d never get back together, AJ had never believed it. She knew her best friend and her brother too well for that.
“Maybe,” AJ said softly. She reached a hand out toward Mat and he abandoned her uncle, coming over to her and taking her hand.
His gaze lingered on Brigid for a long moment. “Or what, huh?”
“Or what,” she said again, then smiled. “How are you here? Who rescued you? Kate?”
“Kate,” he said softly. “Kate and Tony and Scott. Those were their names.”
Tony Bridger. He was definitely a smart recruit. AJ squeezed Mat’s good hand and he smiled at her a second before he pressed a kiss to her temple and leaned his shoulder against hers.
Brigid looked at AJ. “And they didn’t tell you or Tim.”
AJ choked back bitter laughter. “How could they? We weren’t anywhere to be found. We were on Citadel with you, incommunicado.”
“Y’all need to do something about fixing that little problem at some point,” Brigid said, then stretched with a slight wince. “Ooh, that pulled something wrong.” She shuddered and looked at Mat again. “So some of the Portal Corps’ finest rescued you—finally—from the Cabal. Good. Now what?”
He blinked. “What do you mean ‘now what?’ I’m home. I’m going to marry AJ and—and—”
“And then what?”
Mat just stared at her for a long moment. AJ’s heart sank as she squeezed his hand with every ounce of her strength.
“I don’t know,” he said softly. “The Navy thinks I’m dead, don’t they?”
“Officially, missing but presumed killed in the line of duty,” Brigid said. “I signed off on the papers myself.” She smiled weakly. “So unless you want to absolutely destroy my credibility...”
“I don’t go back to active duty,” he said. “Not that I had that intention, but...” His voice trailed away and he looked at AJ.
“We do whatever we decide to do,” she said firmly. “The what doesn’t matter as long as we’re together, Mat. That’s all that matters anymore.” I have you with me again. I don’t care what happens next as long as I never have to be alone again.
“We’ll figure something out,” Brigid said with no small measure of conviction. “Tim and I have gotten pretty good at that over the years.”
Mat shot her a watery smile and nodded as he slid his arm around AJ again. “I believe you.”
“Good,” Brigid said softly. “You absolutely should.” Slowly, painfully, she pushed herself to her feet with a wince. For all the time they’d spent on Citadel, for all the work both Tim and Jade had done to heal her, to save her life, she still wasn’t fully recovered from her encounter with a third story window and the resulting fall—nor were they sure she’d ever fully recover. Tim’s magic was the only thing that had saved her on the scene and he’d nearly burned himself out making sure she stayed with them. “Now I’m going to go drag the lovebirds inside so we can think about eating. It’s about that time, isn’t it?” She cast a questioning glance toward Chris.
He waved her back down again. “Leave them be a little longer—at least until Jim and Bryn get here with the kids. Dinner will keep.” He smiled faintly, crossing his arms, getting a little misty-eyed himself. “Dinner will keep.”
“It’s cold out here,” she finally whispered as they came up for air again.
Tim gave her a rakish grin, the tip of his nose brushing hers. “You’re doing a pretty good job of keeping me warm.”
Kate laughed, lacing her fingers through his hair. “You’re shivering and not wearing a coat. We should go inside before you freeze to death.”
“I’ve got a better idea,” he said, nudging her back toward her car. “You and me in the backseat.”
He stopped, taking a deep breath. He reached up to stroke her cheeks gently, a momentary pain flickering through his eyes. “Is this the part where you’re going to tell me that it’s not going to work? Because you were doing a pretty good job of convincing me that it could a minute ago.”
“But would it last?” she asked in a whisper, her fingers tightening in his hair. “Would it last this time? Tim, I can’t…I can’t keep hoping that it’s going to work out and then have it come apart again. I can’t do that anymore. I meant it the last time we broke things off. I need it to be for good or it can’t happen.”
Tim rested his forehead against hers. “Kate, I have no reason to leave again and no one I’d rather be with than you. Y’hear me? You’re the one that matters to me.”
“And the next time your partner takes a header out a window, the next time Mat disappears and someone has to find him?” Kate swallowed hard and shook her head. “What if I need you the day that happens? What do you do then?”
“Tim, I don’t want to make you choose. Don’t you see? That’s why we don’t work. I won’t make you choose but I don’t like coming in second to everyone and everything else. I can’t keep doing it—and I won’t keep doing it.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “My heart can’t take it. I love you too much.”
“Kate,” he said again. “Listen to me. Look at me and hear what I’m telling you. I am done being stupid about all of this. I know that I hurt you and I know that I’ve been stupid and juvenile and my priorities have been all over the map, but I also know that the biggest mistake I’ve made in the past ten years was forgetting how much I love you and how much I need you with me.” His thumbs brushed across her cheeks and he took a slow, deep breath. “Brigid’s a big girl who can take care of herself and I imagine that AJ isn’t letting Mat anywhere out of her sight for the next fifteen years at least. My heart’s yours and so is my body. It always has been, I’ve just been too stupid and too blind to realize it.”
She opened her mouth to say something, but he rushed on, not letting her get a word in edgewise—not yet.
“When I accepted your life in return for the lives of your men on Arkydia, I knew I needed you without realizing who you were. No one else could have done what you did, Kate. You opened the gate wide enough that they could never get it closed again, not all the way.
“Even without being there, even without my realizing it, you saved me from them. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you.”
Her heart had somehow risen up into her throat, threatening to choke her, rendering her unable to speak. Tears stung in her eyes, the ones she usually didn’t let him see, the ones she saved for the moments after he walked out of her life again.
“Do you really want to stay forever?” she whispered.
“As long as you’ll still have me,” he murmured, resting his forehead against hers. “Will you?”
She squeezed her eyes shut against the tears and nodded, trying to swallow her heart back into place. His arms closed around her and she buried her face against his neck, wrapping her arms around his shoulders.
“I love you,” he murmured into her hair. “That’s never going to change.”