Rose diStephano tried not to pace. The waiting area at N1 in the Seattle-Tacoma airport was crowded with travelers headed for Sitka, Alaska. Like her, some of them must also be attending the conference on traditional foods and cultural preservation. She scanned the terminal as the gate agent announced over the PA that boarding would begin with people who needed assistance, and those traveling with small children. No one was taking toddlers to southeast Alaska on a Tuesday in April. But an elderly man with papery skin and a halo of wispy white hair was boarding, pushed by an airport attendant. And a tiny, wizened woman with burnished skin and a walker was being assisted toward the gate. The sturdy middle-aged man by her side spoke to her softly in a language Rose couldn’t even guess at. Would Maji, with her polyglot’s ear for languages, recognize it?
Was the incomparable, inscrutable Maji Rios still coming? Rose sighed and looked at her watch for the thousandth time since getting off her flight from California at Sea-Tac to find no familiar face meeting her there. Well, Maji hadsaid she might not make it, even while confirming in a brief voicemail three weeks ago that she had booked her flight. Maybe she’d only accepted Rose’s invitation out of guilt. Maybe she didn’t want to date, to even try out being a couple. To explore whatever this time together might lead to. Maybe Maji didn’t love her back and just wanted closure—from a comfortable distance.
The jangle of her phone broke into Rose’s brooding. Maji? She tried not to be disappointed to see Bubbles’s smiling face on the screen instead. Without preamble, Rose asked, “Is she there?”
“No, I was hoping she was with you. Her phone’s still off,” Bubbles said. Maji’s closest friend had stayed in touch with Rose since befriending her the previous summer, on Long Island. Bubbles had emailed Rose an ultrasound of the baby she and her husband Rey were expecting in the fall. And called, sobbing, when she’d miscarried. Maji wasn’t there for her to tell.
“Do you want me to tell her?” Rose asked. “Assuming she actually shows up.”
“No, I’ll do it,” Bubbles replied. “And she was really pumped about the trip last time I saw her. You know she wouldn’t blow you off, right? If she isn’t calling, then she can’t.”
Where on earth could Maji be that she couldn’t at least leave Rose a message? Although Rose understood that as a Select Reserve in the US Army Maji could be called up anytime, surely she would have told Rose if that happened. Or at least told her best friend and had her deliver the bad news. “Just how long has she been gone?”
Bubbles’s delayed response made Rose’s chest constrict. “Bubbles. Just tell me.”
“Almost three weeks. That’s longer than normal.”
Normal? How often did this happen? “But didn’t she at least tell you where she was going? Or for how long?”
“Rose, she can’t. You get that, right?”
Rose sighed. “Not really. But I guess I’ll know when she shows up, or doesn’t. I’m not used to playing Schrödinger’s cat.” Realizing she’d subconsciously invoked a dead-or-alive scenario, she shuddered. “Sorry—scratch that. I’m just…unsettled.”
“Look, Rose. She may be an idiot, but if she said she’d make it, she will do her best to. If she can’t, try not to take it personally. Promise?”
“It’s too late for that, sweetie. Gotta go.” Rose disconnected and sighed again, watching the line of passengers in first class and the back of the plane file down the gangway. She got in line and shuffled her carry-on and shoulder bag with laptop, papers, and other academic paraphernalia along behind them. She thought with regret of the rolling suitcase already loaded on the plane. Certainly she’d overpacked; but going from the near-summer weather of California’s central coast to chilly rain put some fear into her. So she’d followed the conference organizers’ tips and found a breathable raincoat with zip-out liner and hood, tall rain boots with lug soles, and warm layers to wear from the conference center out into the muskeg, forests, and tideflats. No way would she miss learning about the local Tlingit foods by being unprepared to go outdoors.
“Passengers Huang, Rios, and Carlsbeck, report to gate N1 for boarding. Last call for Sitka passengers Huang, Rios, and Carlsbeck.”
Rose took one last look around the terminal and handed her e-ticket to the gate agent. “Have a good trip,” he said with a perfunctory smile.
As the flight attendant walked the aisle, reminding last-minute texters to turn off their phones and premature nappers to put their seat backs up, Rose wondered if inviting Maji on this trip had been a mistake. Maji had been painfully clear with her last July, stoically insisting that a relationship would only hurt Rose. We’d make plans with your family or your friends, and you’d have to lie to them when I didn’t show up. I’m not going to put you through that.She’d been right about getting stood up hurting. But damn it anyway, what gave her the right to unilaterally decide what was best for both of them?
Last July Rose couldn’t argue with the burdens Maji shouldered. Very scary people really had wanted to kill them, or at least kidnap her and force her cousin Angelo to do their bidding. It was a disorienting time, so far from Rose’s everyday reality distanced from her Mafia relations. As Ang’s teammate and closest friend, Maji had kept her promise to protect Rose from harm but had not been able to keep the physical and emotional distance she promised herself. To Rose that was not a failure to be held against her. Extraordinary though she might be, Maji was human. And if there were things about herself or her work that she couldn’t share with Rose, then so be it.
But Maji held herself to a standard Rose couldn’t fully grasp. She clearly felt responsible for Angelo’s death, despite doing more than anyone could ask to prevent his murder. And then when the danger was over and Rose had wanted to discuss the future, Maji had given her that speech about how they couldn’t have one together. Maybe you could do it. But I don’t think I could live with watching you get hurt, over and over. And blaming myself for that.Rose knew there was love under those words, but it was buried under the rubble of Maji’s fear. Rose had held out hope that by now Maji had dug her way out, but perhaps today was just the same message delivered in a new way.
Should Rose even have invited Maji on this trip? She hadn’t planned to. She wouldn’t even have driven up to UC Berkeley to see Maji’s mother speak, without Bubbles’s nagging. But when Rose had seen Maji, looking fully recovered from the previous summer’s injuries in her Paragon Security uniform, all the stored-up resentment fell away. They had joked and flirted, and even talked seriously over tea in the student union. Their shared grief was clear, but not as potent as the attraction still there just under the surface. Rose would have abandoned her classes for a week to accompany Maji on the remainder of her mother’s tour, had Maji only asked. But of course she didn’t. Rose had been surprised to find herself inviting Maji to join her in Sitka. And then dangerously elated when Maji had not said no.
But Maji had hedged then, and now she was incommunicado. Not only had she not returned Rose’s phone messages, but she didn’t even call Bubbles to say she wouldn’t make it. Trying not to take it personally was easier said than done. She wanted to give Maji the benefit of the doubt. Maybe something had come up. Maybe Maji would appear in Sitka, late but with a good story. Or maybe she wouldn’t show at all and Rose would have to finally let go. By any standard, her attempts so far to move on seemed half-hearted. She hadn’t asked anyone out, telling herself she was too busy settling in to a new town, a new college. Rose could have driven up to San Jose or even San Francisco if she’d wanted a casual liaison away from the small town watchfulness of San Ignacio. But that wasn’t her style. Maji was the only stranger she had ever invited home. And though she was less physically wary for her safety than she had once been, thanks to last summer’s self-defense camp and two semesters with the college jujitsu club, she just didn’t want to. She was making friends at the college—and that was enough. Besides, when she had said yes to a few dates, the one nice-enough man and two perfectly attractive women she’d spent a few hours with simply paled in contrast to her memories of Maji. Until she was free of those, it wasn’t fair to date anyone else.
Rose closed her eyes as the plane rumbled forward, lifting off the tarmac and circling over Puget Sound. If this was how she felt after being stood up for a trip she didn’t need company on, maybe Maji was right. Maybe a future together would be too painful.
Maji watched the Seattle skyline recede, and the trees and water grow small. She sighed, feeling the sweat on her T-shirt cool as her heart rate dropped back to normal after the sprint from the security office to the gate. Maji resisted unzipping her jacket to cool down, as it was the only thing between the other passengers and her ripe body odor. She wasn’t sure which day it was when she’d caught that three-minute shower, but it hadn’t freshened her clothes up any. Reaching Sea-Tac on the right day was a huge relief, but waiting for her properly boxed, fully unloaded sidearm to clear security so she could board the flight had nearly snapped her last frayed nerve.
Would Rose politely but firmly tell her to piss off? She ought to. Fucking self-fulfilling prophecies. Anxiety over Rose’s reaction to seeing her warred with exhaustion as Maji struggled to stay awake long enough to get up when the fasten seat belt sign finally went out.
The first class section’s flight attendant caught her eye and smiled. Just before the free-to-wander announcement started over the PA, she replaced Maji’s empty complimentary water bottle with a fresh one. “Can I get you anything else?”
Maji shook off her stupor enough to nod. Words were hard to form. Sentences? No way.
A full horizon of navy blue dress filled Maji’s view, and the nameplate now uncomfortably close to Maji’s face read Tina. When she pulled back a bit, Maji noticed the immaculate makeup, with lashes unrealistically long and dark around startlingly blue eyes. Contacts. “A snack box? Beverage?” Tina asked. The lashes blinked, the blue eyes sparkling. Flirty.
Maji pulled out a credit card and handed it over. “Food please,” she said. “And water. Lots.”
That was enough like sentences to give her hope. Time to find Rose. As soon as Tina turned toward the galley, Maji unbuckled herself, rose stiffly, and pulled back the curtain separating first class from the normal people.
“Which snack?” the attendant called after her.
“Both,” Maji said without breaking stride. She spotted Rose in 13C, eyes closed with her head tilted against the headrest. Crouching in the aisle, she took a minute to drink in Rose’s features. It was worth nearly four thousand miles of trucks, boats, and planes to see that face again. Please don’t send me home. Not yet. Maji touched Rose’s hand.
Rose startled and looked up. When she looked down and saw Maji, she smiled broadly, grasping her hand. “You made it! I didn’t see you get on.”
“Had to run for it. Got bumped to first class. You want to trade?” Smooth, Rios.
“No. I’m fine.” Rose traced Maji’s cheek and jaw lightly with her fingertips. “You’re sunburned.”
“Yeah. I…yeah. And I lost my phone—sorry.”
“You didn’t get my messages, then?”
“One, right before…um. Did you leave another? Change your mind?” Maji felt tears threaten. Breathe, Rios.
“No,” Rose said, looking unsure how much she wanted to say. “I just wanted to line up lodgings. When I didn’t hear back, I took a single at the dorm.”
Maji knew the local college was hosting the conference in conjunction with the Sitka Tribe. It was probably good that Rose had a place of her own in case their reunion went badly. But she was hoping, well…She swallowed. “Hannah lined up a suite at a hotel, in case you needed security. She didn’t mention that?”
At Rose’s puzzled shake of the head, Maji plunged on. “It’s big enough to share even if you want space to yourself. Or I could take the dorm if…” She couldn’t assume that Rose would fall into bed with her just because she’d invited her along on a work trip. Not getting between Rose and her career was important too. “Um, unless you need to be in the dorms to get everything you want from the conference.”
Rose blushed, but smiled at her warmly. “No, I don’t need to. Let’s settle into the hotel and see how things go.”
Those big brown eyes full of light and warmth held Maji, even as she felt her calves start to cramp. “Yeah,” she agreed, wincing as she unfolded herself back to standing.
Rose reached out for her. “Are you all right?”
Well, she hadn’t eaten a hot meal in days, had only caught short naps for the last two, had no idea what time her body thought it was—and she stank. But she’d made the damn plane, and Rose was holding her hand, looking at her with…damn. “Sure. I just need a shower, food, and sleep. You want a snack box?”
“No, thanks,” Rose replied. “I’ll see you in Alaska.” Maji looked down at their joined hands and nodded. She didn’t want to walk away. But Rose released her hold, reassuring her with a smile. “Go.”
Maji inhaled both snack boxes, drained all the water bottles lined up on her tray table, and promptly fell asleep. She startled awake at a sudden drop, along with the captain’s voice over the intercom as the plane shook and shifted in the air. “Yes, folks, we’re encountering a bit of turbulence. Please stay in your seats and keep your seat belts fastened. We should be on the ground in twenty or thirty minutes.”
Depending on what?She could roll with uncertainty in a lot of situations, but flying wasn’t one of them. To distract herself from thoughts of crashing, Maji looked out the window. The sight of small islands in a slate-blue ocean, snowcapped mountains, and an endless swath of evergreen forest took her breath. “Wow.”
“First time flying in?” the man across the aisle asked, a proud smile on his face. Able to focus again after a few hours of sleep, Maji sized him up quickly. The sandy hair and boyish good looks made him appear thirtysomething, but the creases around his eyes put him over forty. And the buzzed sides of his head would have suggested military to her, even without the American flag patch on the flight jacket he wore over a uniform.
“Yup.” Maji swallowed down the snack boxes trying to rise up in her throat as the plane continued to pitch.
“Bag’s in the pocket there,” the man said pleasantly. “And don’t worry, this is normal.”
Of course it was. There were no alarms, no smoke, no spinning toward the ground. “No worries.”
He chuckled. “Really. I fly Jayhawks here. This is a day in the park. And I know the captain—she’s top-notch.”
Still, Maji thought, anything this bouncy should come with parachutes. Not that she hoped to arrive anywhere that way again soon. In the dark. From thirty thousand feet. At least this last mission had spared her that, and the village buses had bounced along on four wheels. “What do you use Jayhawks for?” she asked, less from curiosity than to distract herself.
“Search and rescue, law enforcement, environmental disaster response.” He pulled a business card from his jacket’s inside pocket. “Here. Call me for an insider tour of the station.”
United States Coast Guard, Air Station Sitka. Lt. Commander John T. Fitzsimmons. “Nice to meet you, Lieutenant Commander.”
“Jack.” Not Fitz?Whatever. He offered his hand across the aisle. “Nice to meet you, Ms. …?”
“Rios,” she said, giving him a brief shake but no title correction.
Damn. She had planned to just be herself on vacation here. But there hadn’t been time to go home and get her civilian ID. So she was stuck with her work identity, Sergeant Ariela Rios. And then because she was running so late, and being a Select Reserve made her active duty, they’d bumped her to first class without even asking. She sighed. “Yeah. Army Reserves now.”
“Well, no need to burst Tina’s bubble.” He tilted his head toward the flight attendant. “She gets a little carried away with the thank you for your servicething. Word to the wise.”
Maji blinked at him. Was he warning her off? Or was he fishing, trying to gauge her reaction? Maybe the tour offer was his equivalent of asking for her number. Whatever, dude. “The bump to first class was more than enough for me. I’m not looking for any favors.” She set his card on the edge of her tray.
“Well,” he said, “hang on to that anyway. How long you in town for?”
“Just a few days.” Five, but why be precise? She thought about adding that she was here with someone, but no. Whether he was hitting on her or just being friendly, it was still none of his business.
“Ever been up in a Jayhawk?”
“No, I’m more of the Black Hawk type, I guess.” They touched down, bouncing lightly and gliding smoothly to a stop. “Thanks,” she added, realizing he had distracted her through the last of the turbulence.
“Happy to help,” he said, giving her a wink. “But seriously. I’m in command the next few days, so I’m grounded and happy for an excuse to get out from under the paperwork. Guests are always welcome on downtime—bring a friend if you’d like.”
“Sitka passengers please remain in your seats,” the captain’s voice said overhead. “We’ll be in and out of Ketchikan before you know it.”
Maji peered out the window at the glimpse of Ketchikan visible and registered houses right up to the water, a large ferry, and lots of fishing boats in the harbor. “Where’s the ferry go?”
Jack leaned back to see her through the boarding group of teenage boys in matching soccer team gear. “That’s the Marine Highway. Comes up from Bellingham and connects all of Southeast. Can’t drive from one town to another. Or anyplace, for that matter.”
Maji nodded and closed her eyes. Tina’s voice woke her before she realized she had fallen asleep again. Or that she’d missed takeoff. Just as well.
“Jack? Don’t fake sleep, come on.” Apparently Tina knew him well too.
“Sorry,” he replied. “What’s up?”
“I put in for a transfer, and—”
“A transfer? What’s wrong with Anchorage? What about Jasper?”
“That’s what I wanted to ask you. I don’t think I should take him to Seattle or LA and—”
“He’d hate LA!” All the suave in Jack’s voice was gone now. Was Jasper their son? “You’dhate LA. And I know you’re homesick. Wait—did you meet somebody already? Is that it?”
“Stop.” Tina pitched her voice lower. “Just stop.” Maji peeked from beneath her lashes and saw the blue tights and heels that rounded out Tina’s uniform protruding into the aisle from her perch on the seat one row up. “You know I’m not even trying to meet someone until I’m legally single. Are you holding the paperwork up on purpose?”
“No! It just takes time. You could stay in Sitka till then. I wouldn’t bug you, and Jasper…”
Tina sighed. “Name me three people in Sitka who don’t know me. Will you take Jasper or not? He needs more runs than he’s getting and…he misses you.”
“Makes one of you. You don’t even have to ask, T. I never wanted you to take him in the first place. Just didn’t want you alone in the city.”
“Right, Mr. Chivalrous. How could I forget?” The blue heels planted themselves in the aisle, and the stockinged calves went vertical in Maji’s tiny slice of fake-sleep vision. “We’re almost to landing.”
“What, Jack?” She sounded sad now, rather than angry.
“It’s not too late. Nothing’s final yet.”
“Sure it is. Has been for a while now. We just hate to admit it.”
Maji kept her eyes closed until the plane descended enough that looking out the window was irresistible. Craning to see out the windows on both sides of the plane, she gasped at the sight of mountains to the right and miles of water to the left. Just as it started to seem as if they were going to land in the deep blue, she spotted a snowcapped mountain with a scoop out of its top. “Wow,” she breathed.
“That’s Mount Edgecumbe,” Jack volunteered.
“Wow.” Fatigue was hell on her vocabulary. Hopefully when she saw Rose again shortly, she’d manage more than yeah andwow.
Maji waited in her large, cushy seat until the first twelve rows of coach had worked their way off the plane. The sight of Rose made her want to say wowagain.
“Did you get something to eat, and a nap?” Rose asked.
Maji nodded, grateful for Rose’s unstoppable kindness. “It helped. Thanks.” Then she fell in behind Rose, happy just to be near her.
As she neared the exit door, someone pressed a napkin into Maji’s hand. She turned to look. Tina smiled with one brow raised. “Thank you for flying with us today.”
Maji nodded and stuffed the napkin into her jeans pocket without looking at it. At the baggage carousel she stood by Rose, each of them spotting for their bags. Maji’s came off first, a small soft-sided bag not much bigger than the backpack over her shoulder. Rose left her carry-on with Maji, then stepped in to hoist a large suitcase off the carousel.
Rolling it back toward her, Rose asked, “What does your bag look like?”
“Like these,” Maji said. “Ready?”
They walked out into the cool spring air to find a Tribal Tours van waiting at the curb. A pleasant looking woman in a black vest with large iridescent buttons held a sign that read, Traditional Foods Conference.
“That’s us,” Rose said.
“Sweet. Will they mind if I hitch a ride?”
Rose gestured toward the taxi driver getting out of the cab parked just in front of the van. “If they do, we’ll catch a taxi.” No way was Rose letting Maji out her sight again. They had a suite to share, she thought with a mix of trepidation and exhilaration. Of course there were things they need to talk about, but—
The sight of the cab driver trying to wrestle a skinny teen out of the taxi’s front seat and onto the sidewalk cut off thought and movement. Rose felt Maji’s hand on her arm and then the weight of her small bag, thrust against her midsection. Rose accepted it, understanding Maji wanted her hands free in case she needed to step in to help the young man.
The teen wrenched out of the driver’s grasp and pulled a hunting knife from inside his jean jacket. “You can’t make me go.”
Maji stepped in front of the teen, motioning Rose to the man, who had stepped back at the sight of the knife.
“Simon…” the man said, raising both open hands in a calming motion. Then, “Lady—no!”
Rose took her cue and moved between Maji and the man, looking him in the eye. “She’ll be fine. Are you all right?”
“I’m good. My nephew, he’s just upset. His dad died recently.” He moved to go around her and Rose moved with him, a subtle block.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, trying to keep his attention on her. “I’m Rose. And you?”
Just like at practice scenarios in camp last summer, the empathy and redirect worked. “Nate. She really okay, your friend? He seems calmer.”
Rose turned just enough to keep an eye on both Nate and Maji, along with the boy. Maji was now the one holding the knife, but she was offering it back to him respectfully with two hands as if it were a practice weapon in the dojo. Rose heard her say softly, “Beautiful handle. You carve it?”
“My dad,” the boy said, his face twisting in pain.
“They won’t let you take it on the plane, of course,” Maji said in a casual tone, as if they were chatting in a café. “We could ship it in one of those little express boxes the airports use for stuff they’d have to confiscate.” She gave the Tribal Tours driver a look, and the woman nodded and headed inside.
Rose hadn’t noticed the driver with all of her attention on Nate, but Maji clearly had. As always, she turned strangers into members of her team. Maji gave Rose a hint of a smile while keeping most of her focus on the young man. “Where you headed, Simon?”
Nate opened his mouth to answer for the teen, but caught Rose’s look and waited silently. Rose relaxed her guard a bit, as Nate gave no indication of trying to get through Maji to the boy.
“Los Anchorage,” he replied with a sneer and then rolled his eyes. “Rage City.” He shrugged. “My mom’s job’s there.”
The van driver came back out and handed the shipping box to Maji. “Thanks,” Maji said, not taking her eyes off Simon. “How bad is Anchorage? On a scale from one to suckiest?”
The boy nearly smiled, and relaxed a notch. But as he opened his mouth to reply, Nate spoke up. “You gotta make that plane, Simon.”
The boy held his ground, visibly charging up again. “I should stay here. Grandma needs me.”
“The Eagles will take care of her, Simon. Your mother is Raven too, and she doesn’t have us in Anchorage. She needs you.”
“She doesn’t need me—she has a girlfriend.”
“So she’s got one up on you and me. But that lady’s not Tlingit, eh?”
“No,” Simon conceded with a frown. “She’s Yup’ik.”
“Then go be a good son. Finish the school year without flunking anything and you can come back here and fish with me.”
Hope replaced the teen’s scowl. “Really?”
“If your mom says yes, and you keep out of summer school.”
Maji looked between them, then gave Rose a nod. They both moved from between the man and boy. Maji handed Simon the box and a twenty. “Buy the insurance, okay? I always do.”
Simon looked at the box and the money. “Okay. Hey—thanks.” He gave Maji a quick, awkward hug and disappeared inside, his uncle at his side. Maji waved off the van driver’s profuse thanks, but accepted seats in the front of the van for Rose and herself that the driver insisted would give them the best view.
As five more people from their flight climbed in, the driver checked them off against a clipboard.
“I’m a last-minute add,” Maji said to explain why she wasn’t on the list. “May I pay for my ride separately?”
The driver gave her an incredulous look, then slid into her seat behind the wheel. Over her shoulder she said, “You two can ride free with me any day you’re in town. Just ask for Heather. Now, where you headed?”
Maji gave her the hotel’s name and felt Rose slip a hand into hers.
“With me,” Rose added.
Maji turned in surprise and couldn’t suppress a grin at the sparkle in Rose’s eye.
As she drove, Heather volunteered the backstory on the sidewalk drama. “Simon—the boy—he lost his father just recently. The cops want to write it off as an accident, say he was intoxicated and maybe suicidal even. That’s bullshit, of course. But anyway, Simon’s dad was an Eagle, like his uncle Nate. Married a Raven woman, like an Eagle is supposed to, traditionally.”
“So the grandmother Simon is worried about is his mother’s mother?” Rose asked. “Matrilineal,” she added quietly to Maji.
“Ayuh.” The driver nodded.
“Huh,” Maji said. “A clan system? Sorry, I’m not an anthropologist.” On nearly every mission she had to learn who was who in a community, who played well together, who was feuding. Tribal clan systems actually made that easier, if the traditional lines still held.
Heather chuckled. “Nothing to apologize for there. And yes, there are lots of clans, but you’re always either from the Eagle moiety or Raven moiety. Like two umbrellas with lots of smaller groups under each one. And times like these, all the clans in the opposite moiety take care of the deceased’s family.”
“Is that really all you brought?” Rose asked as Heather hefted her rolling bag down from the van’s rear storage. Maji hadn’t let the driver take either of her small bags, keeping them between her feet as they rode. It made her press the length of her thigh against Rose’s in the most pleasant way.
“Well, I had a date to go shopping with Bubbles, but then I got called out of town. And lost my phone, and ran out of time. I’ll get stuff locally tomorrow.” Maji looked to Heather. “There a thrift store near here?”
“White Elephant,” Heather said with a nod. “Couple consignment shops too, with longer hours.”
Maji looked to Rose. “What time’s the conference start?”
“There’s a light breakfast at eight and the plenary is at nine.” If they finally got to talk, or…anything else, Rose planned to make it just in time for the opening speaker.
“But don’t miss the Warming of the Hands tonight,” Heather said, handing Maji a flyer.
“Thanks,” Maji said and tried to hand her a twenty.
Heather gave her a skeptical look, shaking her head. “See you at Naa Kahidi at six.” She smiled. “Bring your appetite.”
“Clearly she doesn’t know you,” Rose joked, slipping an arm through Maji’s as they entered the hotel lobby. It was a nice enough place, older but clearly refurbished. Some of the decor was obviously meant to evoke Alaska and the coastal tribes.
Rose observed as Maji handled getting into their room an hour before normal check-in with a combination of politeness and finesse. The desk clerk seemed impressed that Maji had booked their only suite, and offered twice to send someone to help with the bags. Or anything else they might need.
“What was that about?” Rose asked as the elevator took them to the grand height of the fifth floor, the top. In this town, the hotel stood wider and taller than almost any other building nearby. The only larger one, pointed out by Heather as she’d narrated their short drive, was the assisted living facility called the Pioneer Home.
“The suite’s a little spendy, I guess.” Catching sight of herself in the mirror inside the elevator, Maji grimaced. “Jesus, I look like hell.”
“Not to me,” Rose said. Clearly exhausted though, and perhaps a little on edge now that they were alone. “But you must be worn out. Have you been sleeping badly?”
Maji held the elevator doors open as Rose rolled her bag out. “I don’t know—it’s just been naps the last few days. I’m sorry to show up such a mess. It was either get cleaned and fed, and catch some rack time, or make the flight.”
So Maji had gone hungry and unwashed from God only knew where, on no sleep, to arrive when she said she would. Rose felt tears prickle at the edges of her eyes. She took the card key and opened the door for them. “Let’s improve that situation then.”
Maji followed her in and seemed to ignore the breathtaking view out the large windows, going instead to the framed landscapes on the walls and tugging at their corners. Rose watched as she turned in a circle, scanning the room with a clinical eye, then picked up the phone on the desk in the neatly appointed office area of the suite. “Where exactly is the safe?” Maji turned toward the hall closet as she listened to the reply. “Ah. Thanks.”
When Maji dumped out her small bag on the couch, Rose eyed the metallic-looking case with two padlocks with suspicion. “Are you smuggling jewels now?”
“Not this time,” Maji deadpanned, humor in her eyes. “It’s my sidearm. Nearly made me miss the flight, getting through security. And now I should clean and oil it before locking it up, but I’ll have to get supplies first. Oh, and”—she plucked a passport from the little pile of odd items and handed it to Rose—“sorry.”
Rose opened the little blue folder and recognized Maji’s photo, with her official military name under it. “Are you not on vacation then?”
“Well, I am off duty,” Maji explained. “But it would be best if you called me Riin public, like before. I can only travel with one passport, and I didn’t have time to get home to switch them out.”
So she’d also bypassed time to recover at home in order to be here as promised. Rose tried not to embarrass Maji by showing how much that meant to her. They weren’t even officially unbroken up. “Or to get Alaska-appropriate clothing. What did you bring?”
Maji zipped open the modest backpack and put her nose in, pulling back with a pained look. “Nothing I can wear tonight.” She looked embarrassed. “Could I borrow some clothes?”
“You get in the shower and I’ll find something in there”—Rose pointed to her large bag—“that will do. Do you need…everything?”
Maji grinned sheepishly. “I try never to go commando in borrowed pants. But, yeah. I’m wearing my least ripe clothes, and I wouldn’t stand near me.” At Rose’s laugh she added, “Thanks. I promise to shop in the morning.”
While Maji washed up, Rose unpacked. The living area of the suite had no bureau and only a small coat closet, so she used the bedroom’s, taking care to leave half of each drawer and plenty of hanging space free. It felt perilously like moving in together. There was bedding for the sleeper couch in the living area, but she’d wait to use it until they had a chance to talk. The idea of just falling into bed with Maji made her heart race but her head ache. Rose had counted on a return call from Maji—anytime in the past three weeks—to talk about what Maji accepting her invitation to this week in Sitka might mean.
The sound of the shower stopped and Rose fled the bedroom, leaving out some clothes that might fit Maji’s shorter, less curvy frame well enough for an evening event. She looked out the picture windows at the harbor and to Sitka Sound beyond it. Curious about the curtains on the west side of the suite, she opened them and found a balcony. Out in the cool afternoon, she could see Mt. Edgecumbe, the iconic dormant volcano. The air felt fresh and soft with hints of evergreen, sea salt, and a recent rain. Rose smiled to herself. This was a gorgeous spot and she would spend her days with colleagues from interesting places, learning about things that fascinated her. And in her off-hours, whatever the two of them did or did not do this week, she would get to know the real, civilian Maji a little better. For now, that was enough.
Behind her Maji’s voice called, “Rose? You still here?”
Rose turned, and the sight of Maji with one towel wrapped around her hair, and another tucked in just above her breasts, quashed her que sera, seradelusions.
The look on Rose’s face almost drove Maji back into the refuge of the shower. She should have known better. They needed to talk, and soon. But right now she felt nearly human again, clean at last. And she couldn’t get dressed until all of the wound dressings were replaced.
Rose’s expression changed to concern the second she spotted the fresh bandage on Maji’s arm. Or maybe it was the bruises. “How badly are you hurt?”
“All superficial. But there are two spots I can’t reach. I’m sorry.”
Rose ran her fingers lightly over the discolored areas around the edges of the wound dressing, and then up to Maji’s sun- and wind-burned cheeks. “Stop apologizing for things you can’t control. You chose to be here.” She leaned in and put her lips softly on Maji’s, a gift and a promise with no demands. Before Maji could lose her senses, Rose stepped back. “Now show me how to help you.”
So Maji lay on her front on top of the quilt on the king-size bed while Rose gently peeled the damp medical tape and wound dressings off the chewed-up patches of skin. The one on her lower back didn’t hurt much, but the strip of abrasions on the back of her right thigh stung when the air hit it. Through her own controlled breathing she heard Rose stifle a gasp.
“I don’t suppose I should ask how this happened?”
“No.” Maji stopped herself just before the word sorrypopped out again.
“Well, let’s let them breathe a bit. Stay there.” Rose returned a moment later and began smoothing lotion over Maji’s back and shoulders. Maji closed her eyes and tried to block out the images that flooded in, focusing instead on Rose’s touch. But the contrast between what she’d seen over the last few weeks, the hell she’d gotten herself successfully into and back out of, and the sweetness of being with Rose in a quiet, safe, and clean place was too much. Tears leaked out and she shuddered as she opened her eyes again, staring at the bureau across the room.
“Are you all right? Should I stop?” Rose’s hands paused, resting on the small of Maji’s back, warm just above the towel.
“I’m just a little wiped out,” Maji said, hating the wobble in her voice.
“Mm-hmm.” Rose was too polite to call bullshit on her. Or too nice, maybe.
“It’s been a rough few weeks. But I’ll be fine. Better by the minute.”
A few minutes passed as Rose moisturized her feet, her calves, her arms. “I’ll let you get the rest yourself. Hand me the ointment.”
Maji reached for the tube of prescription antibiotic the medics had sent her home with and passed it back to Rose without rolling over. At least all my parts move in the right direction. If she slept tonight, tomorrow she could go for a run, eat six meals, and get back to normal. “Don’t worry about hurting me. Just glob it on.”
Rose did better than that, and Maji concentrated on breathing rather than flinching. “Did you help someone?” Rose asked.
Maji smiled. Rose had some well-founded suspicions about Maji’s covert work for the Army, based on what she had seen and heard last summer. But she had attended Hannah’s self-defense camp too, and the core values resonated strongly with her own. Maji boiled the mission debrief down in her head, looking for a succinct answer. She had infiltrated, gotten two high value targets to a safe house, and exfiltrated without blowing her cover. And she’d handled it well enough to avoid any blowback to the villagers. So, yes. As a bonus, she’d managed to not get blown up, shot, or raped. Exfil had banged her up a bit, but nothing was broken and she hadn’t cracked her skull again. “Yeah. We did.”
“Good.” Rose stood and pulled the far side of the bed’s quilt over Maji. “Do you want me to wake you for the Warming of the Hands?”
Clean and cuddled in soft warmth, sleep was already encroaching. “I’d like to go. Just give me ten to get ready.” Maji reached up and snugged a pillow under her head. Such luxury. “If I have a nightmare, don’t get too close, okay?”
“Hooah, Sergeant,” Rose whispered, brushing a strand of hair off Maji’s face. “See you in two hours.”
Rose’s enthusiasm about attending an event hosted in the Sitka Tribe’s community house was endearing. “It’s a modern recreation of the traditional longhouse, of course. A great place to entertain and, I suppose, also hold ceremonies and meetings and classes. No one lives there, though, as they would have before the Europeans invaded.” She squeezed Maji’s hand. “I hope there’s dancing.”
“But they’re going to feed us too, right?” Heather had intimated as much. Whatever the welcome involved, Maji hoped it started with dinner.
Rose laughed, turning them just before Totem Square Park on to Katlian Street. “Yes. Herring roe is a big deal here, and the harvest just ended. So I expect we’ll get to try those. What else, I don’t know.”
“Well, you are all about traditional foods for the next four days, right?”
“Yes. I just don’t know what’s in season. I didn’t do my research very well.”
Maji heard the self-judgment in Rose’s voice. “How many classes are you teaching?”
“Three. One intro to anthropology, one upper-level undergrad course on food and culture, and one graduate seminar. It’s a small college.”
“Wow. It’s good you could get away at all.”
Rose’s thumb caressed the back of Maji’s hand as she answered. “It was important to me. There are people attending that I’d have to travel abroad to meet otherwise. And…” She paused. “I wanted to see you on neutral territory. Does that make any sense?”
Maji nodded. Rose was working to build a professional life at a new college, while Maji had just wrapped up her master’s degree at Columbia. Rose’s family—the few left who mattered—were all in California now. Alaska would seem far enough from the worlds of career and family. “Perfect sense. I’ll keep myself occupied while you work. And…I’m not making any assumptions about what you do or don’t want.”
Rose gave a self-deprecating laugh. “As if I knew. Honestly, I almost jumped your bones earlier. And I had a big speech ready, about taking things slow and actually getting to know each other.”
“How about tonight I sleep on the couch and tomorrow we talk over breakfast and dinner? Are you free for dinner?”
Rose stopped and faced her. “Is that what you want, or what you think I want?”
“I want to make love all night and stay in bed all day tomorrow.” Maji’s confession earned her a deep blush from Rose and a shy smile. “But I’m seriously exhausted and you have people to meet.”
“Let’s play it by ear,” Rose said, brushing her lips against Maji’s ear. Then she turned back toward their objective for the evening. “We must be close.”
Sure enough, in another half a block they saw a large, almost warehouse-like building with a signboard reading Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Community House. A few people milled about at the entry, dwarfed by the three-story wooden panels on either side of the doorway. Each panel was decorated in Tlingit designs carved into the wood, painted in red and black and pale blue.
Maji stopped, eyeing Rose’s colleagues. “Is this okay?” she asked, holding their joined hands up.
“I’m delighted to be seen with you,” Rose said. “But then, I’m out at work. So it’s your call really. Will you get in trouble?”
Maji wished again that she were traveling under her civilian name. Joint Operations Special Command knew she was queer and didn’t give an actual damn. But she’d prefer not to spend vacation dodging questions about her role in the military, or making Rose lie for her, either. Damn it, anyway. “Tell you what,” she said finally, “if I get worried, I’ll let you know. Until then, let’s try acting like normal people.”
“By holding hands in public? A lot of women would love for that to be normal.”
Sadly, Rose was right. “Well, let’s fake it till we make it, then. You game?”
“I’m all in,” Rose replied, with a look behind the light words that made Maji suspect she meant much more than what seemed so simple on the surface. Would it ever be that simple for them?
Whatever Maji meant by normal, Rose wasn’t ready to admit how inordinately exciting it sounded to her. That would feel like pushing, asking for something Maji had insisted she couldn’t give. But as bizarre as last summer had been, the most mundane moments were the ones that always came back to her. Cooking together, talking about books, hanging out by the pool. Maji was easy to be with, whenever she laid her armor down.
Lost in thought, Rose didn’t notice Javier, her friend and translator from her first trip to Peru, until he was within feet of them. “Javi!”
“Rosita!” He beamed at her and kissed her on both cheeks.
Rose kept her hold on Maji’s left hand as she introduced them. “Javi, this is Ri. Ri, my friend and colleague Javier Mendez.”
“Nice to meet you,” Maji said.
As the two shook hands politely Rose asked, “What on earth are you doing here, Javi?”
“Following my bliss, as they say. I missed you last summer, when you canceled our trip. And then I heard such sad news about your family. I really hoped to see you again. And here you are.”
Or a card would have been nice. “Oh. So are you attending the conference?”
“That’s what my grant says,” he replied with a wink. “But seriously, I’m really starting to get into ethnobotany. Maybe we could compare notes over a drink after this…” He waved a hand toward the sound of the crowd inside.
“Not tonight. Maybe lunch tomorrow? We could sit together then anyway.”
Javi seemed to notice their joined hands for the first time. “Sure. Mañana. Excuse me.”
As they watched him slip into the building around the short line of people waiting to get in, Maji asked, “A surprise?”
“For both of us, it seems. He’s always been a bit unpredictable, though.”
“Did he know how to reach you?”
“Only my work email changed. He should still have my cell number.” Rose saw the wheels turning behind Maji’s neutral expression. Well, it was her training to be suspicious, and she didn’t know Javi like Rose did. They reached the door and received a warm welcome from a man in the familiar Tribal Tours outfit of black slacks, white shirt, and button-adorned black vest. Following his instructions, they found seats at a table in the large room inside, on the top tier in the amphitheater style setup.
Maji scanned the room, both from habit and curiosity. So this was what a longhouse looked like. The wooden walls and beams gleamed, reflecting the light from the ceiling fixtures. At the far end, behind the stage, more huge wooden carvings decorated the wall, a screen of art between them and the backstage area. The look of them was distinctive, highly stylized yet clearly evoking birds and other animals. Maji wondered which images were the Raven and Eagle of the afternoon’s discussion.
Something out of sight smelled tantalizing and Maji noticed an open door at the far end of the long room, offering a glimpse of people hurriedly preparing trays of plates. And in the center of the recessed floor, a square, rock-lined fire pit waited with a neatly built arrangement of wood. Would dinner be cooked there? Or was it ceremonial? The room smelled like food, not smoke, and she didn’t see where an indoor fire could vent. Not your worry. You’ve ID’d all the exits, now chill out.
As the rest of their group settled into seats, three people walked onto the stage. Holding a microphone, the short woman with graying hair introduced herself as the vice chair of the Sitka Tribe’s council. “On behalf of the tribal government, thank you for coming to our land to learn. Tonight we will welcome you as we have welcomed travelers to our territory for over ten thousand years. But first, a few words from your conference hosts.”
Another woman, younger and wearing a navy business suit, introduced herself as the conference organizer. She handed the mic to a tall, lanky man with a beautiful button blanket worn like a cape. He spoke a moment or more in a language Maji assumed was Tlingit. “Interesting phonology—makes me want to see some written words,” she whispered to Rose.
In response, Rose smiled without taking her eyes off the speakers and gave her hand a squeeze under the table.
When he switched to English the speaker translated, “My name is Warren Paul. I am Coho Raven, L’uknax.ádi clan. We welcome you to our home tonight with the Warming of the Hands.” He paused. “In the old times, we traveled thousands of miles on the sea, throughout Southeast and well beyond. Travelers always arrived tired and hungry, and often cold. A host village would warm them, feed them, and give them a place to sleep. Since it’s nice out and you have lodgings, let’s get right to the food.” The group murmured its approval. “You all were smart to visit around herring season—we have eggs for you harvested in the subsistence manner. Who here grew up with herring eggs?” At least a dozen hands went up. “If you’re from Southeast, keep those hands up.” All but four went down. “Tomorrow you’ll learn why Native Alaskans from as far away as Barrow share this gift of the spring. Or maybe even tonight if you take them out—but don’t believe a word of those tales if you do.”
The group chuckled as servers began to carry trays out, setting paper plates laden with food, bundles of plasticware in paper napkins, and paper cups in front of the guests. Teens in dance regalia carried pitchers of water and juice to the tables, performing their task with seriousness as well as care for their obviously custom-crafted clothing. Maji looked at the offerings, some recognizable to her and some not. The most obvious were a nice chunk of salmon, something that looked remarkably like macaroni salad, a small heap of tossed salad, and a lump of yellow fish roe.
Rose leaned into her, pointing her fork at the large yellow eggs. “The main attraction.”
The man to Rose’s right overheard and said in a good-natured tone, “If you don’t like ’em, send ’em my way.”
“Mighty kind of you,” Maji replied, matching his tone.
“Al’s all heart,” a woman nearby said, nudging the man. “And all stomach.”
After everyone had been served and some of the group had already dug into their suppers, Warren the Coho Raven walked back to center stage, wincing as the mic’s repowering caused a squeal of feedback. “Sorry about that. I’ll turn this thing off in just a minute. Now, while you enjoy the feast, I give you the Naa Kahidi Dancers.”
In the expectant silence a row of dancers, from young and tiny to elderly and stout, and of all sizes and ages in between, filed onto the stage. Warren handed the mic to one of the people decked out in regalia, a fortyish woman with light brown hair and a fair complexion. She introduced herself in Tlingit and then explained, “As we like to do, we will start with an honoring dance for our veterans. What you may not all know is that the United States first peoples weren’t even considered citizens until 1924. But we have served proudly to defend our home in every major conflict the US has gotten into, just like we Tlingit defended this land against the Russians, many years ago.”
She called on the group to self-identify any veterans of World War II or Korea, but no one responded. At the call for Vietnam veterans, two men and one woman rose and made their way to the stage. The largest group rose when the call for anyone who served between ’Nam and 9/11 was made, with younger conference attendees rising last.
Maji felt Rose nudge her and release her hand when the dance leader called for anyone who had served since 9/11. Maji shook her head, giving Rose a frown.
Rose raised an eyebrow at her. “Go up and be honored, Sergeant.”
Maji rolled her eyes but complied.
The drumming and singing began the second Maji, along with another woman and two men, found their places near the wings of the stage with the older veterans. She was glad that the dancers held her attention and the diners’ as well. The few times she’d had to stand and be recognized, generally in dress uniform or in formation with her unit, she’d never felt such a visceral reaction. Was it the drumming? The voices? Or perhaps it was the sight of the people onstage, repeating for her a dance passed through centuries of generations. When her group was dismissed, she headed past the clapping audience directly to the restrooms down the hall.
Rose found her a few minutes later, patting her face dry of the cool water. Maji met her worried gaze in the mirror.
“Are you all right?”
Maji wasn’t sure what the correct answer to that was. No? Nearly? Better with you in a few hours than I have been in years?“Depends. Is my plate still safe from Al’s big heart?”
Rose wrapped her arms around Maji’s waist from behind and swayed her gently, their reflections smiling. “It’s ready for your big appetite. If you still have one.”
Maji nearly joked again in response. But no. Rose deserved whatever honesty she could manage. “Rose…I’m not used to this.”
“Being cared for?” As always, the warmth in Rose’s eyes held a twinkle even when she looked serious.
“Being taken care of. I’m not good at it.”
Rose brightened again. “I know. But turnabout is fair play, and even superheroes need a little TLC sometimes.” She kissed the back of Maji’s head and took her hand, pulling her toward the door. “Come on. Your herring eggs may be in danger—Al can only be held off for so long.”
Rose slipped her arm through Maji’s as they walked back to the hotel, and Maji let herself bask in the at ease feeling of their being together, in public, with no worries. Just like two normal people in love. They talked lightly about the dances and the food, and how the sky was still light after eight p.m. in April. The small wonders and simple pleasures of travel to a new and interesting place just for fun. Standing in front of St. Michael’s Cathedral, Maji intoned a few words in solemn-sounding Russian.
“Is that a prayer?”
Maji smiled. “No. It translates to, The church is near but the road is icy; the tavern is far, but I will walk carefully.”
“You are such a smart-ass.” The fondness in Rose’s voice was as good as a laugh from anyone else. Better.
“Hey, I didn’t make it up. It’s a well-known proverb.”
“But of all the Russian proverbs you know, that’s the one you picked.” Rose moved to face her. “And watch it with the languages, or we might have to skip that talk tonight.”
Maji felt herself flush at the memory of the last time she’d spoken multiple languages to Rose, to give herself the freedom to say things she couldn’t speak otherwise. They’d slept little that night. “English-only rules are discriminatory.”
Rose’s eyes twinkled. “So sue me.”
“What’s the deal with Javi?” Maji asked, deliberately switching gears as the Spanish- and Quechua-speaking interpreter came to mind. “Has he ever acted stalkery before?”
Rose’s eyes widened in surprise. “Stalkery? No. He’s very much the modern Latino male feminist. Friendly, sort of casually intimate, but not…weird like that.”
“Good. Still, I want you to call Hannah tonight and give her all the information you can on him.”
Rose looked skeptical. “I hardly think—wait, you promised not to boss me around. We’re not going back there. Ever.”
“Agreed. I’m just reminding you that you promised Hannah.” Angelo had asked Hannah to watch out for Rose after he was gone, until they were sure none of the angry Italian, Russian, or other organized crime groups were looking for payback.
Rose blew out a frustrated puff of air, riffling the glossy black curls on her forehead. “Fine. I’ll call her right now.” She dug in her purse for her phone and sat on the cathedral steps while the direct line to the head of Paragon Security rang. “Oh, Hannah, I’m sorry. What time is it there?…Yes, she’s here. And she insisted I call you about an old friend who’s in town also. I’m sure it’s nothing, but—”
Maji paced the sidewalk while Rose spoke with her godmother. Then Rose passed her the phone. “Just bruises and scrapes,” she responded to Hannah’s predictable questions. Before she hung up Maji added, “Tell Bubbles I made it, okay? And…that she’s right.”
Stowing her phone again, Rose asked, “What’s Bubbles right about?”
Maji gave Rose a hand up off the steps. “That I’m an idiot. Every time you went out with somebody, she reminded me.”
“Brat,” Rose responded, looking a bit pleased. Didn’t matter which of them she meant. “If you really want a talk tonight, you’d better do it before we reach that posh suite with the lovely king-size bed.” She took Maji’s hand again and pointed them toward the hotel, now in sight just two blocks away. “And it’s too chilly out here to linger, so speak now or hold your peace.”
Maji gathered her thoughts. She’d practiced in her head nearly every time she was awake in transit from the mission debriefing to Sea-Tac. And still, here at go time the words got stuck. “English only?”
“Fair enough.” Maji paused, taking a long inhale. “So, I still think I was right. You had to call me Ri tonight. Who I am, what I do…it follows me. And it isn’t fair to ask you to just put up with it. But…” She almost said, I love you, so—. “As Bubbles keeps pointing out, you should be the one to decide that, not me.”
“Are you really worried that I’ll decide you’re not worth it?” Rose stopped and looked Maji in the eye. “You couldn’t stop me from falling in love with you. And breaking up with me, no matter how noble your intentions, didn’t work either. Maybe you should try being happy and see how that goes.”
Maji put her hands on Rose’s upper arms, to maintain the small distance she longed to close. “You have a week to figure out that I’m not worth the grief. After that you might not get rid of me. Seriously.”
Rose pulled her close and a few minutes later the throaty rev of a truck engine and a hollered, “Get a room!” brought Maji back to the reality of the night sky beginning to mist on them as they kissed on the sidewalk. Fortunately they had a room.