I don’t think any of my novels have evolved as much as Ask Me Again did. To begin with, it picked up very soon after the end of Ask, Tell and followed Sabine as she prepared for, and then went on another deployment. After I’d written a whole lot of it, I realized that having my two favourite people separated, especially with Sabine struggling with anxiety and PTSD, and Bec struggling with her own guilt and trying to support Sabine from afar, just…wasn’t great. They needed to work through it together. So – rewrites. But before I rewrote it, this is how Ask Me Again began.
(Obviously this is very loosely edited draft type stuff, but you may notice something that made it into the final version of Ask Me Again…)
The theme song for Roger Ramjet was playing on repeat loops in my head. No doubt my earworm had something to do with the intonations from the Lt. General about honorable sacrifices of our nation’s defenders and their heroic deeds.
Heroes of our nation.
Someone would be filming this. Probably my mother. Eyes front, Sabine. Do not look around. Do not be the asshole staring around during a presentation ceremony. Especially if someone, namely my mom, wanted to put the video on YouTube. If she could figure out how. I’d been at attention for eight minutes and forty-eight seconds, trying to ignore the wind blowing dust everywhere. Including into my eyes. As if this whole thing wasn’t uncomfortable enough.
I fixed my gaze on the monument in front of the admin building. What to have for dinner? Mom and Dad were taking us to a fancy restaurant, Mitch included, to celebrate this…event. Steak, probably. Maybe white fish. No, steak. Medium rare. A few glasses of red. Go home giggling and drag Bec into bed the moment we got in the door. My stomach fluttered at the thought. Mmm, not the time to think about that.
“Captain Sabine Ingrid Fleischer.”
I inhaled, straightened and executed a perfect step forward, pivot, salute combo. A flash of purple caught my eye before the medal was pinned to my chest. For a moment, I worried about being pricked in the boob with it. I had no idea what the Lt. General was saying, but when he finished speaking, I paused before responding with what I thought would be the safest answer. “Thank you, sir.” Good enough.
A hand was offered to me and I shook it. His skin was clammy, the grip too hard and he held on to my hand as he turned sideways. I was momentarily confused until I realized we were supposed to be posing for a photograph. Right. I turned the same direction as the Lt. General and let loose with a full teeth smile as someone hidden behind a camera took photos. Phones and cameras in the crowd were held up, flashes and clicks.
The Lt. General dropped my hand and I snapped another salute, waited for his response, then retook my place in line. The medal pinned to my chest both fascinated and disgusted me. I hated it. I didn’t want to look at it. But I kind of wanted to look at it. Actually, no, I didn’t. I really didn’t. I’d just missed President Obama visiting the military hospital when I’d been there, and I idly wondered if having him present it to me would have made me hate it less. As much as I adored him, doubtful.
I stared out at the crowd, finding my people near the front. Mitch was in uniform, standing with my parents and sister. Everyone clapping. Thank you, thank you, yes I got a medal. Two rows behind them, on her own, stood Rebecca. Smiling, cheeks dimpled, her expression was pure and unadulterated delight. At least someone was excited. Scratch that, I knew everyone but me was excited. Bec caught my eye and raised an eyebrow. I lowered my right one, just a fraction, but she’d see it and know what I meant.
My parents and sister were nowhere to be found when I’d finished talking to people and had collected all my crap and the presentation box for the medal. Walking into the courtyard where people had assembled, I spotted Rebecca conversing with Mitch and I slowed down to admire her. Hair down and curling around her shoulders, lightly made up and dressed in a charcoal skirt suit and the blue blouse that I knew made her eyes look super blue, she was gorgeous and every bit as commanding as she was during her Army career. My eyes were drawn to her exactly the way they had been when she was my boss. There was something magnetic about the way Bec carried herself, the way she interacted with people, the way she existed. She’d always had a way of making whoever she was talking to feel like the most important person in the world, and now we were together I felt that every day.
I approached and they both turned. Bec smiled, her eyes creasing. I stopped between them. “Ugh, thank fuck that’s over. Where’s Mom, Dad and Jana?”
Rebecca gestured vaguely. “Looking around. They said they’d be back soon.” Her eyes focused on something behind me but before I could turn, someone had clamped a hand on my shoulder, startling me. Before I could react further, I’d been spun around.
“Are we supposed to genuflect now?” Amy said, shaking my hand furiously. Like Mitch, she was still in uniform and I realized she had stayed after work to watch me get the medal. What a waste of her time.
I gripped her hand tightly, grounding myself in my friend’s touch. “I think that would be appropriate.”
“You fucking wish.” She let me go to acknowledge Rebecca. “Colonel Keane. Ms. Keane. Uh, Doctor Keane?” Amy glanced at me, her eyes wide, as if I could help her figure out what to call Rebecca now Bec was no longer in the Army or Amy’s boss.
Rebecca laughed, stepping forward to clasp Amy’s hands. “Amy, how are you? It’s wonderful to see you. Please, just Rebecca.”
I turned my attention to my certificate in its plastic sleeve, studying the text. I was amused that the Army would do something they didn’t need to when I didn’t want them to do it. I was half listening to Bec, Mitch and Amy talking and making plans to catch up for drinks but mostly I was checking to see if anyone was watching us.
You’re being paranoid, Sabine. The four of us could be taken as three people having a conversation with one of their retired commanding officers. There was nothing suspicious about it. No reason to suspect my relationship with Bec. Fuck DADT. I’d been silent for too long, caught up in my thoughts. Time for inane speaking. I prodded Amy. “So, if we all go out drinking, do you think you’ll be able to refrain from constantly calling Rebecca Colonel?” I bit the inside of my lip, but it didn’t stop my smile.
Bec laughed. “Odds seem low.”
Amy leaned closer to whisper in my ear. “Well, I suppose it’s easy to forget you used to have to call her ma’am when she’s lying underneath you and you’ve got your fingers inside her. Some of us don’t have the luxury of that disassociation.”
I snorted and Amy patted my shoulder, and raised her voice again. “I have to go. Promised Ben I’d get him from school. I’ll talk to you soon, love. Well done on your little piece of jewelry.” Amy gave a cheery wave. “Bye, everyone.”
She strode away and I caught sight of my family—my parents looking around and my sister texting with phone in one hand and coffee cup in the other, making their way back. I waved to catch their attention. My father bounded up and shook my hand enthusiastically. “I’m so proud of you, sweetheart.”
I squeezed his hand tight. “Thank you.” He let my hand go and I exchanged smiles with my mother and sister. I wanted nothing more than to hug them tight but I was in uniform and that was against regulations. Regulations sucked.
My parents stood awkwardly, clearly aware of the crowd around us and that they couldn’t acknowledge knowing Rebecca. Mom was fretting, unused to having to act this way. No hugging or easy talking. Pretending her daughter wasn’t a lesbian living with her ex-commanding officer. Jana put a forefinger under the medal and flipped it. “Nice brooch. God that was boring.”
I swatted at her hand. “Fuck off. And you should try standing up there if you want to experience boring.”
“Language, Sabs,” my mother said automatically.
“Sorry,” I responded, just as automatically. I tried to lighten the mood, grinning around at the group. “Should I pretend to introduce you to my old boss?”
I was ignored by everyone except Rebecca, who gave me a slight head shake. Fine, it wasn’t the time for joking. I un-grinned. Jana sipped her coffee. “What time is dinner?”
“Reservation is for seven,” Dad responded.
I glanced at my watch. We had two hours. “Yep, okay. I need to change, so we’ll meet you there?”
My father nodded. “Sure thing. Mitch, did you want to come with us for drinks now, or are you changing too?”
Mitch considered for a moment. “Yessir, I believe I will change.” He glanced at me. “And I think I’ll head off now.”
I nodded, sneaking a peek at Rebecca who raised both eyebrows at me. I knew what that look meant. It meant sexytimes. “We’ll come with you,” I said quickly, peering at my father who was gazing at a memorial plaque. He would want to take a few moments to pay his respects before leaving. “I’ll see you guys at dinner.”
My parents barely acknowledged me, but Jana caught my eye and mouthed, “Don’t leave me.”
I winked and turned away. Bec, Mitch and me began to walk towards the exit, three sets of footsteps keeping perfect time with one another. Discipline! My chest itched. I was desperate to snatch this medal from my uniform and lock it in a box where I’d never have to look at it again. Maybe fling it in the Potomac. Now I’d swung firmly from fascination to disgust. The medal was loathsome, dragging my thoughts back to that day when all I wanted to do was forget it had ever happened.
Mitch fished car keys from his pocket. “I fuckin’ hate ceremonies.”
“Well, hatred of ceremonies aside, I’m glad you came to see me get my big ol’ medal.” I put emphasis on that last word, rubbing it in.
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll see you folks in a few hours.”
“See you soon, Mitchy.”
Bec lifted her hand silently to say goodbye to him then turned to me. “I think we’re all set. Do you need to talk to anyone else?”
I checked my handful of junk. “No, I think I’m good.”
“Okay, I’ll see you at the car.” She pointed off to our right. “I’m just over there.”
I wanted to take her hand, to hold her close and kiss her in front of everyone, but instead I stood with my hands hanging at my sides. “I’ll follow you in a minute or so.” I hated it, this secrecy and pretense. Now she was out of the military it was better. But it wasn’t good.
“Sabine?” She stretched out her hand for the benefit of anyone who was watching.
I shook it. “Yes?”
“I love you. And when we get home, I’m going to show you how much. Quickly,” she added with a dimpled grin.
“Oh? Well, lucky me.”
“Actually, I think it’s lucky me…”
“Lucky us,” I tried but it came out forced instead of playful.
Her smile faded and she took a small step closer. “What is it? Are you all right?” Her eyes flicked down to my chest, and I knew she wasn’t perving at my breasts, but looking at the Purple Heart stuck to my uniform.
I shrugged, and the thing I’d learned that morning, that I’d been trying to ignore all day suddenly hit me like a ten foot wave, pulling me under and making it hard for me to breathe. “Bec?”
“Yes, darling?” Her voice was low, too low for anyone around to have heard her endearment.
The words stuck and I had to clear my throat before forcing them out. “I have to go back to Afghanistan.”