In her early twenties, Annie remembered hearing a lot of stories about friends who met the "perfect man" only to have him suddenly stop calling or become very conveniently too busy for a relationship. She hid her incredulity behind glasses of wine, stuffed her mouth with tapas to keep from giving an unwanted opinion, focused way too hard on maintaining a placid mask of understanding. But, the bottom line was, dating was hard and men weren't always trustworthy. Sometimes they really weren't ready for a relationship, but much of the time they just weren't ready for a relationship with you. It didn't make you the problem, it was all still on them, but it could be hard to hear. But, the way Annie saw it, who would fight for someone that didn't want them that much in the first place?

It's worth noting that she didn't meet Ben Mercer until she was 27. It was a beautiful hurricane of happenstance, a typhoon of this, that and the other thing. She was adventurous, he was morally sex-positive, and they both liked sleeping outside. It was crazy how quickly conversations turned to future plans; he looked at her like she was something long-awaited and precious, the antidote to a poison that had plagued him his entire life. He kissed her like she was the answer, and she didn't ask questions. In the back of her mind, she knew this couldn't go on forever. As simple and easy as it all seemed, travel had drained much of her savings and her visa wouldn't hold if she wasn't working. They started to plan trips elsewhere; Ben had always wanted to see Polynesia, despite the difficulty of island-hopping and travel, and Annie felt up for the adventure.

Then he bailed.

In later years, her hindsight would tell her that he was always hiding something, that he was evasive and withholding from the beginning, and that she was no better than those girlfriends who couldn't figure out why the perfect man would ghost them. She tried to be resolute and stick to her original theory: doors lock for a reason, and beating them down doesn't mean you'll find happiness on the other side. She wasn't sure how she got from there to CIA training, but it worked. It got her mind off of Ben and she was sure she'd never have to see him again.

Hilarious.

It wasn't until much, much later that she realized what all of Ben's bailing actually meant. That he did it for her. That his love was unconditional and sacrificial. He wasn't some jerk who ghosted, he was a man trying his best to keep all the plates in the air. He was a hostage in his own life. If he'd stayed in Sri Lanka, she would have been screwed. If he'd stayed in that hospital, he would have. Their dynamic would never be perfect, would never hold all the answers, but she was grateful for it. It gave her a career, however enjoyable or devastating. It prepared her for the heartbreak of losing those close to her, and opened her eyes to equations that didn't add up. It taught her to be a good agent and a good rogue.

It was a beautiful affair, one that she would spend the rest of her life trying not to recolor with the emotions or clarity of hindsight. She didn't want to be the poison when she could be the antidote.