She hadn’t expected the loneliness.
Maybe she should have, but she’d been so focused on getting away from Division—making plans for her escape and then for how she’d live after—she hadn’t thought about what her life would look like. She’d run, and she kept on running, until she thought the trail might be cold enough to come up for air.
But as soon as she paused to catch her breath and regroup, it hit her that she had no one. She hadn’t held a real conversation with anybody for weeks, other than the perfunctory exchanges to buy food or rent a room.
Division might have been a prison, but at least there had been other inmates.
When it got bad enough the first time, she found a local bar in the mid-size town she was passing through. The town was large enough, and there were enough people there, that she wasn’t worried about being remembered. She crossed the wooden floor, detouring around scarred Formica tables, and found an empty barstool.
An old-fashioned jukebox on one side of the room blared out Johnny Cash, and there were a wide range of people filling up the tables—middle-aged men who worked construction judging from the sawdust on their jeans, college students in jeans and t-shirts, a couple of older couples who had probably been coming here for years. She blended right in with her dark jeans and boots, although she was the only single woman.
She ordered a beer and paid in cash, sipping her drink as she eavesdropped on the conversation between the two men sitting next to her. She noted the grease under their fingernails that no amount of scrubbing would erase, and listened as they bitched about their boss.
Normal. It was all so normal, and so foreign to her. These people, who had never heard of Division, who had clean hands—metaphorically speaking, anyway—who woke up and went to work and complained about their bosses and spouses and children.
Hearing them, she felt more alone than ever before, and yet somehow comforted. She’d forgotten there was a life outside of Division, and this place, this mundane conversation, was a reminder.
Maybe, someday, I’ll be one of them, she thought, and let the voices wash over her, reminding her that she was, in fact, human.
It was easier after that. When she began to think she’d forgotten the art of conversation, she’d go to a bar, always making sure that there were enough people around so that a lone woman would generally go unremarked. Sometimes she made conversation with the bartender, but mostly she just listened, wanting to remember that there was another sort of life than the one she’d been living.
This bar was no different than any other—sticky wooden floor, a polished oak bar, seats upholstered in black leather, and populated mostly by people about her age. She blended right in, and was listening in on the exchanges she could hear, appreciating the mundane nature of it all.
So, the man in the blue jacket got her attention immediately when he asked the bartender, “You know anything about the haunted house over on Jackson Street?”
She had perfected the art of studying someone without being obvious about it, and she used that to good effect now. His clothes were unremarkable—jeans, boots, and the jacket over a couple of shirts. He was clean-cut and clean-shaven, and there was something about him that reminded her of a Division recruit, maybe in the way he held himself.
But he wasn’t Division, because she was fairly sure she would have recognized him, and no self-respecting agent would be asking around about a haunted house.
With a mental shrug, she dismissed him and went back to her beer, but he was just a couple of barstools over, her ears were tuned into the conversation, and her curiosity was piqued.
What kind of man asked a bartender about a haunted house?
The bartender was a big guy with tattoos covering both forearms and crawling up his neck. She caught his skeptical look. “That’s just a story kids around here tell. There’s nothing to it.”
“Maybe not, but ghost stories sell,” the man replied. “And I’m a free lance writer.”
She didn’t think that was likely, but held in a snort of disbelief.
The bartender shook his head. “I haven’t heard anything worth sharing. Just the usual stuff—doors slamming, kids daring each other to spend the night there and getting scared. No big deal. Can I get you something to drink?”
The question was pointed, and the man shrugged. “A beer and a whiskey for me, and another beer for the lady.” When he glanced at her, his look was frankly assessing, and he wore a confident smile that suggested he rarely got shot down, which she had every intention of doing.
But he was really good-looking, and just her type, and she was so fucking lonely. And if he got too pushy later, she could kick his ass.
“Thanks,” she replied, and didn’t give off any of the signals that would have had him eating out of her hand had she still been an agent.
He slid down the bar, onto the black leather stool next to hers. “I’m Dean.”
She shook the hand he offered, pleased when he didn’t linger too long. “Nikita.”
“I’d ask what a pretty girl like you is doing in a place like this, but that would be a cliché, and I try to avoid those.” He said it with a self-deprecating smile and a raised eyebrow, inviting her to share in the joke.
Nikita shrugged. “I’m just passing through. You’re a freelance writer, huh?” she asked, tacitly admitting to listening in.
“Sometimes,” Dean said. “Among other things.”
She couldn’t resist asking, “And you believe in ghosts?”
“Don’t you?” he countered.
“I’ve got enough ghosts of my own without chasing any others,” she replied, the alcohol and loneliness loosening her lips just a bit.
For a moment, just for a moment, Dean’s smile was gone, like a cloud passing over the sun, and his green eyes turned dark. He suddenly looked ten years older, and Nikita could see herself in his expression.
She’d seen that look far too often when looking in the mirror not to recognize it on someone else.
And then Dean shrugged, and he smiled again, although his mouth had a bitter twist now, and he said, “Yeah, so do I, but most people love ghost stories.”
“I’m not most people,” she replied.
“No, I can see that.” Dean took a sip of his beer and gave her a long look, but he didn’t ask any questions, for which she gave him points. “Are you staying in town long?”
She shook her head. “No. You?”
“Just until this job is done,” Dean replied. “Hopefully not more than another couple of days.”
She glanced down at her beer and the ring of condensation it had left on the bar, and wondered if she’d ever learn the trick of talking to someone when she wasn’t on a mission, and didn’t want anything.
When she glanced up again, there was a man standing next to Dean, his messy hair and crooked tie at odds with the formal suit and trench coat. She blinked, a little surprised, because she thought she would have noticed him walk in. At the very least, she should have seen him approaching; her attention had only been diverted for a second.
Dean sighed loudly. “Cas, I told you—you can’t do shit like that!”
“No one saw me.”
Dean glanced at Nikita, looking a little worried, but she kept her face carefully blank and her tone even. “Who’s your friend?”
Dean shook his head, amused exasperation on his face, but when he looked at the other man, his eyes were fond, even soft. “Nikita, this is Cas. Cas, Nikita.”
Cas’ blue eyes were sharp, his gaze measuring. Nikita got the feeling that he saw more than his placid expression revealed. “Hello.”
“Have a seat,” Dean said, patting the stool next to him. “I’ll buy you a beer.” He threw Nikita an apologetic look, and she shrugged a reply.
Cas settled on the stool, his stiff movements incongruous, given how quickly he’d crossed the bar. Dean clapped Cas on the shoulder, and she felt a stab of envy so sharp it momentarily stole her breath. She had no idea if they were friends or lovers, but she could see real affection in Dean’s eyes, and in the almost-smile Cas gave Dean when Dean ordered another beer.
And she wanted that. Nikita might be out in the cold right now, but eventually she would take on Division, and she’d need allies to do it.
Unable to push her jealousy aside, she finished her beer and rose. “I should get going.”
Dean glanced at her. “It was nice to meet you.” His smile was wry, and a little rueful, and he shrugged. “Good luck, wherever it is you’re headed.”
She smiled, the words and his sincerity warming her. “You, too.” Then she smirked and said, “Good luck finding your ghost.”
Dean chuckled, but said, “You don’t need luck when you’re as good as I am.”
Nikita rolled her eyes, but she laughed a bit anyway, and then she headed for the exit.
At the doorway, she glanced over her shoulder to see Dean leaning in close to Cas, one hand on Cas’ shoulder, and she took a deep breath.
She had plans to make. It was time to find an ally.