They'd been on the run for two months when Aaron started considering it seriously. Before, it had just been another in a long list of unlikely contingencies.
They were in Singapore, had been for a few days. It was about time to head for Japan. He was watching Marta sleep; he did that a lot. There was enough light outside that he could see a sharpness to her features that hadn't been there when this had started. There were dark circles under her eyes, and her skin looked sallow. She'd lost weight.
This life wasn't fair to her, so far away from anyone or anything familiar, unable to do anything but live in fear, always on the move. They had each other, but that wasn't enough for someone like Marta. He'd known that ever since her ridiculous speech in Maryland about not being able to publish.
Maybe Bourne had the right idea. Maybe they should be working to expose all of this. That was probably the right thing to do: bring the whole shitstorm into the open. Aaron didn't really give a fuck. Jason Bourne had been in love, and his girlfriend had been collateral damage. Aaron wasn't going to let that happen to Marta.
But he also wasn't going to let her waste away, and that might happen if they kept this up. She loved him; he knew that, but she deserved so much more. He just had to figure out a way to give it to her.
The first phase in any mission is always reconnaissance, and he hadn't done nearly enough. "If we could settle somewhere, what kind of work do you think you'd want to do?" he asked her casually over breakfast the next morning.
"What, give up this peripatetic existence?" she said with smile.
Aaron tried not to react, but she'd gotten pretty good at reading his expressions. "What did I say?" she asked.
"It's nothing," Aaron said quickly. "Just, I don't know what that means."
"Peripatetic?" she asked, like there was anything else he could have been talking about. "It means wandering, basically. Roaming, being nomadic."
"Oh," Aaron said. What else could he say? He was good at pretending, at using words he didn't always understand in the right combinations. He could confuse people, manipulate them, con them, but he didn't want to do that with Marta.
She looked at him over her coffee, but she didn't say anything else.
"Anyway," he went on, "what would you do? I know you miss working."
"I do and I don't," she said. "It wouldn't be the same, not now, knowing what I know. What we did."
What they did to him and the others, that's what she meant. It didn't matter that he would choose this existence again if given the chance. "You wouldn't be able to go back to virology anyway," he said, which was a cruel truth he probably didn't need to remind her of. "You'd have to do something different. Is there anything else you like to do? Something that you could make a living at, if you had to."
"I don't know," she said, looking down. "I could wait tables, I guess. Not much point thinking about it, is there?"
"We need to keep our options open," Aaron said, unwilling to go any further than that. "Think about it, okay?"
"Okay," she said, and leaned over to kiss him. "I can tell you one thing I really like to do."
"Yeah?" he said, reaching for her and pulling her onto his lap. "What's that?"
"This," she said, pushing his shirt up as he kissed his way down her neck. Aaron didn't worry about anything other than making her feel good for quite a while.
They were camping on a small island off the coast of Queensland when he had time to think about it again. She'd regained the weight she'd lost, and she was sleeping better, but he was still worried. She'd learned how to blend in and stay small, but this wasn't the life she'd signed up for.
There was a shelf full of books at the camp store, and he found himself contemplating the titles and wondering if Marta would like any of them. She loved to read, but that meant leaving books they couldn't carry with them behind, books that someone might find. Maybe if he got her a few paperbacks that were long, those would last her a while and be easier to get rid of later.
Most of the titles and authors meant nothing to him, but he'd heard of Tolstoy when he studied Russian, even if reading novels wasn't part of Outcome training. Apparently there was a new movie of Anna Karenina, because there was a paperback edition of the novel with a glossy-looking photo of a glamorous actress on it. He picked that up along with two other thick books, both proclaiming themselves best-sellers, and brought them up to the counter with his freeze-dried linguine, condoms, and Marta's brand of tampons. They had candy bars at the counter, so he threw a few of them in for her as well. The clerk gave him a knowing look when she rang up the chocolate and the tampons, but he just nodded politely and paid.
Marta gave him a delighted smile when she saw the books. "Oh, Aaron, I haven't read Anna Karenina since college! And this is even the new translation, the one by Pevear and Volokhonsky--I read their version of The Idiot a few years ago, and it was amazing. Thank you so much!" She kissed his cheek and immediately opened the book.
"You're welcome," Aaron answered, feeling like he was the idiot, not some Russian book he'd never heard of. How had he never known that it made a difference who translated a book? It made perfect sense when you thought about it: languages were slippery, and it was easy to miss the nuances, even in a simple conversation. At least he'd managed to get the right translation for her, not that he'd known any better.
Maybe he could read the book after she finished it. Then they'd have something to talk about besides safe meet-up points, close-quarter techniques, and where they might go next. If he could find a copy in Russian, he could read that, too, and compare it to the translation himself.
For the first time in his life, he wondered what it might be like to go to college, like Marta had, to spend his time learning instead of whatever it was he'd been doing since starting the program. Thanks to the cognitives he was smart enough now, but he was so far behind. The longest thing he'd ever written was an after-action report.
It wasn't like he could get any credits for the shit he'd learned in Outcome; as far as he knew, there weren't any college courses on the effects of weather on rifle assembly. The only thing that might count for something was his skill with languages, and he doubted many colleges cared about any of the ones he knew except German, French, and maybe Russian.
He added "college town" to the list in his head that he might never have a chance to put to use and switched to figuring out the best way to get some more money without stealing from any of the locals. Marta finished Anna Karenina in less than a week, but she left it in a coffee shop before he had a chance to read it.
They'd been on the run nearly a year when the news broke. Jason Bourne, Pam Landy, and a CIA operative named Nicki Parsons had managed to come forward again. They were loud enough that no one could ignore them, and they got the proof out fast enough to the media that it couldn't be swept under the rug. The information they made public included the existence of both Outcome and LARX.
There was no mention of Aaron; all Outcome and LARX agents were reported to be dead, along with all the scientists who had worked on the program. Sterisyn Morlanta wasn't mentioned at all, and Eric Byer was very publically fired. Byer was found shot in his house the next day, supposedly a suicide. Aaron knew better, and he suspected Marta did as well.
It was the opening Aaron had been waiting for, although he'd doubted it would ever come. They'd still have to be careful, but he thought they might be able to swing it.
If it even was what Marta wanted. He'd never asked her, not wanting to get her hopes up. She'd had to depend on him this whole time, but that didn't mean she'd want to stay with him if she didn't have to.
They were back in the Philippines, in a small fishing village similar to the ones they'd stayed in right after Manila. The food, the climate, and the surroundings felt familiar, and they reminded Aaron of how they'd found their way to each other. "Hey," he said when Marta returned from the market. He'd been trying to fix the plumbing under the ancient sink, but he stood up as soon as he heard her.
"They had sinigang today," she said happily. "And I got you some fish balls." She looked at him expectantly.
"Fish don't have balls," Aaron answered with a smirk, watching her eyes sparkle. It was amazing to him that they'd been together long enough to have in-jokes.
"No, they have gonadopodia," Marta said, biting her lip to keep from laughing.
Aaron didn't even try to hold his chuckle back, although he no longer remembered why they'd found it all so funny the first time, when he'd been cleaning a fish and asked her how, exactly, fish fucked. "Get over here and maybe I'll show you my gonadopod," he said, and she laughed out loud.
"I don't know, baby, that could take a while," she said, sauntering over to him with a deliberate sway in her hips.
He put a little sway in his own steps as he moved to meet her, and she laughed again. He kissed her while she was still laughing, getting a mouthful of teeth before she got with the program and kissed him back.
They'd been together nearly a year, but making love to Marta still felt like something new and precious. He took his time with her, bringing her off with his fingers, then again with his mouth, before he finally slid into her, fucking her long and slow, holding back his own need until she came a third time. God, she was beautiful.
Later, after they'd eaten the soup and the fish balls, she said, "What's going on, Aaron?"
He looked at her for a moment. He could lie, say it was nothing, and she'd believe him. He could keep her with him, keep them in the peripatetic existence she'd grown used to. Keep her to himself. She'd never question him, not after everything they'd been through together.
But he loved her, and he supposed that stupid cliché about letting someone go free must have some merit. "There's a chance we could go back to the States," he said. "Go back and stay there. It would take some time to build the kind of aliases we'd need, but now that Byer is dead and everyone thinks Outcome is as well, it's a possibility."
"Would it be safe?" Marta asked, her brow furrowing.
Aaron shook his head. "Nothing's ever gonna be safe, Marta. Everything has risks. But I think the risk level would be acceptable. Better than what we've been doing, and a hell of a lot more comfortable for you. You could try your hand at pottery again." She'd told him about her college minor one night in Kyoto, saying that she hadn't regretted giving it up when she'd started grad school, but that maybe it was something she could pick up again some day.
"For me? What about you?" she asked, a teasing smile on her face.
He took a breath and met her eyes. "I don't have to go with you. I could get you set up, and you could go on your own. Find a new life somewhere you could belong. It would be safer for you if I wasn't there."
"No," she said, taking his hand. "No, Aaron. You need to drop this self-sacrificing bullshit. I didn't leave you the last time, and I'm won't leave you now. I love you, or did you forget about that?"
"Never," he promised, kissing the inside of her wrist. "I'm not being self-sacrificing. I'm trying to keep you safe and happy."
"Well, I won't be happy if you're not there," she said with finality. "What do we need to do?"
"We can start by picking new names," he said. "'Marta' is a little too unusual, but I think 'Martha' would work."
"Not June?" she asked, looking at him steadily. "Not Candace, or Stephanie, or Alicia? Martha is awfully close to my real name."
"The idea is to hide in plain sight," Aaron said. "If we're confident, no one will think twice about us; you know that. You'll need a new last name, though. I'll be Aaron Davis."
"Not Kenneth?" she asked gently.
He shook his head. "Kenneth Kitsom died ten years ago. I haven't been…I'm not him."
"Okay," she said, her hand on his arm. "Aaron Davis and Martha…how about Blackwell?"
He could see the name meant something to her. "Martha Blackwell," he said, trying it out.
"Martha Elizabeth Blackwell," she said, tracing the name with her finger on the table. "After Elizabeth Blackwell."
"Who's Elizabeth Blackwell?" he asked, because if she was some sort of distant relative, it was a bad idea taking her name; that really was cutting it too close.
"She was the first woman in the United States to graduate from medical school," Marta said. "She was a social reformer, an abolitionist, and a feminist. She was one of my heroes, growing up."
"Pleased to meet you, Martha Elizabeth Blackwell," he said, holding out his hand for her to shake. She ignored his hand and leaned in to kiss him instead.
After three months in Hong Kong setting everything up, they were ready. They had some money saved up, transferred into accounts under their new names. She had a plan and a list of ceramics contacts in Jaipur, and he had a job on a cargo ship that should bring more money in.
"I love you," Aaron told her that morning. Neither of them had gotten much sleep, and they'd made love one last time an hour earlier. "I'll see you sometime next year."
"You promise?" Marta asked, blinking away tears.
"I promise," he said, holding her hand in his, the way he had so many times before.
"I still don't understand why you can't just come with me," she said.
"The only way this will work is if our cover identities are completely solid," he reminded her. "That means we put in the time developing them before we go back. We'll meet again at some point, and then we'll take it from there. You know where to go if something happens."
Marta nodded, resigned. "I haven't even left yet, and I already miss you."
"Yeah, me too," he said, and kissed the top of her head. "Now go."
Eleven months later, Aaron Davis walked into a coffee shop in Jaipur and knocked a cup of iced coffee out of Martha's hand. "Oh, shit, I'm sorry," he said.
"It's all right," she answered him. He was proud of how uninvolved she sounded, although he could see in her eyes how happy she was to see him.
"No, really, that was stupid of me--let me buy you a replacement," he said, giving her his most charming smile. It felt wrong to use it on her.
"That's really not necessary," she said, her mouth turning up at the corners.
"I insist," he said, and a few minutes later they were seated at a table, talking like they'd just met. He asked her to dinner, she accepted, and he got ready for their date with nearly as much anticipation as he'd felt before he'd kissed her the first time.
He didn't kiss Martha until their second date, afraid he wouldn't be able to stop once he started. He made sure they were somewhere relatively public, which he thought helped both of them keep it from getting as heated as they wanted it to. They went on two more dates before Martha invited him into her apartment. The minute they got through the door, she unbuckled his belt and popped the button on his jeans, muttering, "Get this off. Fuck, I missed you, Aaron; I need to feel you inside me again."
"Hey, slow down," Aaron said, because if they didn't, he was going to come faster than he had since he was a teenager. "Martha, baby, slow down."
She looked up at him then, and he framed her face with his hands and kissed her. She clutched at him, and he kissed her again, exploring her mouth, taking his time. She relaxed, and they kissed for a few more minutes before she took his hand and led him to her bed.
After that night, things got easier; he hadn't realized just how much he'd missed her. He'd all but moved in by the end of the next week, and none of her friends questioned it when she informed them he was coming back with her when she left India. "It's wonderful to see two people so much in love," Martha's landlord told him. "You should marry her!"
Aaron ducked his head, mumbled something inane, and got out of there.
It felt like it had been longer than a year since they'd decided on Flagstaff, a town neither of them had ever set foot in. It had almost everything Aaron was looking for: neither too big nor too small, miles from any metropolitan area, and enough culture that he thought Martha could be happy there. It was closer to Nevada than he was completely comfortable with, but he doubted anyone who'd known Kenneth Kitsom would ever suspect that Aaron Davis had any connection to him. And Flagstaff was surrounded by miles of uninhabited public land they could escape to if the need arose. They had enough money saved to get them through the first year, even if he couldn't find a job right away.
They got to town in November, and he found a job teaching people how to snowshoe, hoping he could leverage it into some sort of guide job once the snow melted. They'd shipped in as many supplies as they could from Jaipur, and Martha had the kiln set up in the back yard before they'd finished unpacking.
The house was surrounded by Ponderosa pine, and there was a spare room for Martha to use as a studio. The rent was higher than Aaron liked, especially since they had to buy furniture, which he'd never had to do before. He hoped Martha's pottery would start to bring in some additional income, but they could handle their expenses without it if they were careful.
He was waking up in the same bed every morning, starting the coffee maker in the dark, and going for a run while Martha slept, but he couldn't get used to it. They'd spent nearly four months together in India, living the life that Martha had built for herself there, but that had just been a rehearsal. This was their life now, hopefully permanently, right down to the monthly payments on Martha's car and his truck.
Martha was doing fine; she'd already made friends with the neighbors and joined a ceramics co-op. She was excited to put what she'd learned in India into practice, building connections throughout northern Arizona. She came up with elaborate plans for home improvements that the landlord would never allow, grumbling good-naturedly that they should look for a house to buy, because renting was a waste of money. He was careful not to remind her of the house in Maryland.
They roasted a chicken for Thanksgiving; it was the first chance they'd had to celebrate the holiday. He could tell Martha missed her family, but all she said was that her grandfather taught her how to mash potatoes. Aaron felt like he was going through the motions, eating too much, falling asleep afterward on the battered couch they'd gotten from Goodwill, a football game on in the background. Kenneth's father had done that. His mother had always made instant mashed potatoes, green bean casserole (from store-brand soup and green beans), and served the cranberry sauce straight from the can.
"I'll be thankful for you the rest of my life," he told Martha that night, and it felt like the first honest thing he'd said all day.
Christmas was a little better, because that, at least, they'd acknowledged while they were on the run. Martha gave him a new watch, and he gave her a rug and some jewelry he'd picked up at one of the roadside stands on the Res. They took a walk in the neighborhood after dinner, and it started snowing. Martha was delighted, but Aaron couldn't help thinking of that morning in Alaska when he barely escaped being blown to bits with the only other Outcome agent he'd ever met. That had been real; this felt like make-believe. Even the San Francisco Peaks looked like mountains out of a fairy tale.
Aaron didn't know what to do with himself. He'd never been in this sort of situation before, with what was intended to be a stable home and a steady job. He'd lived in institutions half his life, and he'd known better than to think of anything but the next moment since he'd joined Outcome. He'd had the apartment in Chicago and the cover identity there, but none of it had ever been real. Only the missions had been real, and even they'd been based in deception.
This, though--the house, with its studio gradually filling up with Martha's creations, located as close to public land as they could find, with neighbors on both sides who'd welcomed them with baked goods--this was real, or at least it was supposed to be, even if it, too, had begun with deception. It could be real. He just had to get past the pretense of belonging there and somehow begin to believe it.
He'd meant this to be a way for Marta to live a free life, but he'd never really thought about what that would mean for him. He was good at playing a role, at living with artifice, appearing to float easily on the surface while paddling madly beneath it. But he didn't know what to do with Aaron Davis.
Davis had started as an invention, just like every other role he'd played since he'd finished Outcome training, but now he had to be him. Even when they'd been on the run, which was the closest he'd come to being…someone…he'd always been aware of the danger they were in, the danger she was in. He'd been her lover, but he'd also been her protector. That was who Aaron Cross had become, and it had been familiar. Comfortable. A mission of a different type, but still a mission.
Now, outside of a situational awareness he was no more capable of turning off than he could stop his heart beating, he no longer had to protect her. They could relax. He could be himself; that was the only mission left. He was Aaron Davis, no longer playing a role. That's who he was supposed to be, for the rest of his life.
Too bad he had no fucking clue who that was.
He started running earlier and earlier in the mornings, awake and unable to stay in bed. He sat on a stool and watched Martha in her studio, wondering if he should ask her to show him how to do what she was doing. He threw himself into his job, even though teaching tourists how to snowshoe was something he could do in his sleep. At least that was another role he could play: the charming, helpful, trustworthy teacher. That was easy.
He played it well enough that the owner of the rental place recommended him to a friend of his, and Aaron started guiding hikes up and around Humphreys Peak. At first it was only day trips, but by late spring Joe was asking him to take a group up to Pariah Canyon and Escalante for a week. "Can I think about it?" he asked, because he wasn't sure how he felt about leaving Martha alone for that long.
"Sure, just let me know by Monday," Joe said, and Aaron nodded.
"Do you want to go?" Martha asked when he told her.
"It's good money," he shrugged. "The truck's gonna need new tires soon."
"That's not what I asked," Martha said, frowning. "Aaron…."
"What, babe?" he asked when she trailed off.
"You're not happy here," she said. "No, don't bullshit me," she added when he opened his mouth. "You hardly sleep, you're twitchy, and you spend too much time out on the back porch staring at the sky. You miss it; don't deny it."
"Miss what?" he asked, genuinely baffled. "Martha, I love you, and I love being with you--"
"That's not what I'm talking about, and you know it," she interrupted. "Being here, with me, it's not enough for you. You miss it. What you used to do, the danger, the excitement--"
"Hey, hey, no," he said, taking her hands in his. "I don't. I promise you, I don't miss that life." He might miss the way it kept him from wondering about who he was, but he didn't want to go back.
She looked at him searchingly, then nodded slowly. "Okay, maybe you don't. That doesn't mean you're happy."
"I'm not unhappy," he said, fairly certain it was the truth.
"Then what is it, Aaron?" she asked, putting her hand on his arm.
He snorted. "I have no fucking idea. That's the truth, Martha. I really don't."
She looked at him for a moment longer, her mouth twitching, then laughed. "Jesus, Aaron, most people have their existential crises when they're a lot younger, like in college."
He shoved his chair back from the table and stood up in one move, his hands clenched at his sides. "What the fuck does that even mean?"
His voice came out a lot louder than he'd intended. She flinched, but he kept going. "Am I supposed to know? Is that something else that you expect me to know, like who Socrates was, or George Balanchine? Do you remember where I was, who I was, when I was in my twenties? Do you even care?"
"I'm sorry," she said, her eyes wide. "I shouldn't have…I'm sorry, Aaron. I just, I forget sometimes."
"I didn't go to college," he ground out. "I only graduated high school because of special ed, Martha, do you get that? I don't know what the fuck an existential crisis is, or why I should have had one earlier. I don't know who the fuck I'm supposed to be, and I'm damned sure I'm not who you'd have picked if you'd had a choice."
Her mouth twitched again, like she was holding back a smile, or maybe even another laugh, and that was the last fucking straw. He spun on his heel, walked through the back door, and ran through the yard and out into the forest, ignoring the way she was calling his name.
After he'd gone a few miles, he manned up and took out his phone. He couldn't get a signal, so he turned around and ran back towards the house, checking his phone every few minutes. He didn't feel up to actually talking to Martha yet, so once he got a signal he texted, On my way back. Sorry.
Then he googled "existential crisis," slowing down to a jog so he could read without running into a tree. The Wikipedia entry was only marginally helpful. What the fuck was "anomie"? And why did they have to write shit like "existentialism posits that a person can and does define the meaning and purpose of their life, and therefore must choose to resolve the crisis of existence"? Really, he should have been able to figure it out from the words themselves; it shouldn't be that difficult to work out what "crisis of existence" meant.
He thought about it until he got back to the house, eventually conceding that Martha had a point. Now that he knew what it was, it was pretty clear he was having some sort of existential crisis.
Too bad putting a label on it didn't make it any easier to figure out.
She was sitting at the kitchen table when he came back inside. It looked like she'd been crying. "I'm sorry I left like that," he said, crouching down next to her chair. "I'm sorry if I scared you."
"Ssh, ssh," she said, grabbing his face and pulling it to hers. "You didn't do anything wrong. I was a condescending asshole; I'm the one who should be apologizing."
"I shouldn't have left," Aaron said, his hands coming up to cup her shoulders.
"It's okay," she said. "I understand why you did. Aaron, I'm in the habit of thinking of you as this amazing, brilliant man who's always got everything figured out, who always knows what to do, no matter what the situation. I know it's more complicated than that, but sometimes it's easier to forget where you came from."
Aaron snorted. "It's easier for me, too, most of the time." He stood, offering her his hand and pulling her up. "I'd say we should continue this somewhere more comfortable, but I don't want my sweat all over our new couch. I'm gonna take a shower and try to get my head straight."
"I've gotten some of my best ideas in the shower," she offered, giving him a watery smile.
"Good to know," he said, pulling an answering smile up from somewhere. "It's late, and you've got that art fair tomorrow. Why don't you head up to bed?"
"I don't have to be at the art fair until eleven," she said, one eyebrow raised. "And Aaron?"
"For the record, you're the best choice I ever made." It sounded like an absolute truth when she said it.
"Likewise," he said, and this time he didn't have to force a smile.
When he got into bed, she had a legal pad on her lap, a pen in her hand, and an expectant look on her face.
"What's that for?" he asked, putting his arm around her. There wasn't anything written on the pad.
"Do you remember when you asked me what I'd want to do if we ever got to a place like this?" she said.
"Of course," he answered. "It took you months to come up with the pottery thing."
"At first I couldn't bear to think about it," she said, looking down. "I didn't think it was ever going to happen, so what was the point, you know? Once I realized you were serious, I had to do some soul-searching. There were a lot of variables to consider."
"Sure," he said. "You could do just about anything, but you had to find something you'd be happy with."
She nodded. "The same goes for you." When he looked at her, confused, she held her hand up. "No, listen to me. I don't think you realize--you can't see it, because you're too close, maybe--but you really could do anything, Aaron. You're like a sponge; you soak up absolutely everything you're exposed to, and you never forget any of it."
"That's just the cognitive upgrade," he said, waving his hand dismissively. "I'm sure all of us were like that."
"Not everyone," she said. "Just you. I saw the records. You scored off the charts in every neuro-cognitive category they could measure. You learned more languages, more quickly, and you integrated everything you learned with a speed they could barely believe."
"How is that even possible?" he asked skeptically. "If we were all recruited from the same place, I know the others had to be smarter than I was."
"Maybe they were, to start," Martha said. "Maybe that's why the chromosomal changes worked so well on you--there was more inherent plasticity to your brain, more neural connections to be repaired and improved. More to work with."
"Even if that's true, I don't see what it's got to do with my 'existential crisis'," he said, nudging her shoulder so she'd know he wasn't making a dig. "Smart or dumb, I still don't know who the fuck I am."
"Who do you want to be?" she asked. "Because that's the question I think you should be asking, along with 'what do you want to do' and 'what do you like to do.'"
It made him squirrelly, but he tried to think about it seriously. "I don't know the answers to those questions any more than the other one," he admitted after a moment. "I like being with you," he added. "I know that. I want you to be happy."
"I know, baby," she said, leaning in to him. "But you need more than that. I want more for you than that."
He kissed the top of her head. He wanted everything for her, so he supposed it made sense she'd want more for him as well.
"Can I ask you something?" she said after a minute or so.
"Of course," he said.
"You don't have to answer if you don't want to," she said, watching him.
"Okay," he said. He had a pretty good idea what she was going to say.
"I got into pottery when I was just a kid," she said carefully. "My aunt taught me."
He nodded. "Yeah, I know; you told me."
"When you were a kid, what did you like to do?"
He considered it carefully. It wasn't anything he'd thought about in a long time. Years, probably.
"I liked sports," he said, forcing himself to talk about it, even though it made him feel weak. Vulnerable. "I was too short for basketball and football, but I was on the baseball team. Track and swimming, too. I wasn't a star athlete or anything, but I did all right."
She nodded thoughtfully and wrote "Sports" down on the pad. "What else?"
"I liked comic books. Always liked to read, I guess--I just wasn't very good at it. I could handle comic books, though."
"Reading" went under "Sports," and she underlined it, nodding for him to go on.
"I liked shop class," he said. "My recruiter said I could be a mechanic, and I thought that sounded pretty cool. I liked working with my hands, I guess." He looked at her. "I like watching you in your studio."
"I'd be happy to teach you," she said, writing "Working with hands" on the list.
"When I got into the program," he said, keeping his breathing even, "when the chems started working, it felt like the whole world opened up. I…I really wanted it, Martha. I wanted to learn. The physical stuff, operating undercover, weapons and tactics, that was all great, but the languages were my favorite. It wasn't just the words; they needed me to learn to assimilate, so there was a lot of history and, uh, sociology I guess."
He waited for her to add to the list, but instead she looked at him, her brow wrinkling a little.
"What is it?" he asked, careful to keep his voice as even as his breathing.
"Huh," she said, looking at him thoughtfully.
"Jesus, Martha, just say it," he said.
"Sorry," she said. "It's just…. You could go to college, you know. The community college here is supposed to be pretty good, and I bet it's got some sort of bridge program with NAU. At the very least, you could take some classes. It might help you figure out what you want to do."
He shook his head. "We don't have that kind of money. We're barely making our expenses as it is. I can't just go out and get more the way I used to, not now." He'd made a promise to himself that Aaron Davis wouldn't break any laws other than the speed limit. He was done with all that.
She looked at him with a mixture of incredulity and exasperation. "So I'll get a part time job," she said. "I waited tables in college; I can do it again. I probably should have done it already; you shouldn't have to support us both."
"You don't have to do that," he said automatically.
"No, I don't," she said pointedly. "I want to. You've done so much for me, Aaron. Let me do this for you."
"I'll think about it," he said.
"You can think about it while you're on that job," she said, her mouth twitching. "You're right--the truck does need new tires."
That surprised a laugh out of him. "You've got a deal. Can we stop talking about this now and get some sleep?"
"We can certainly stop talking," she said, putting the pad and pen on the bedside table. "I don't know about going to sleep, though."
He laughed again as she reached for him.
The Pariah job turned into a two-week excursion after Aaron agreed to it. The money was too good to pass up, though, so he put his energy into planning, reminding himself frequently that he couldn't be sure the group was as experienced as their paperwork claimed. He'd probably end up with plenty of free time to brood over Martha's questions once they headed out, but if he was going to be responsible for twelve civilians for two weeks in the closest thing to wilderness in the lower forty-eight, he would do everything he could to be prepared.
Martha was busy as well; she'd gotten an invitation to sell some of her stuff at a local gallery and was working hard to finish enough pieces for that and some upcoming art fairs. She'd be down in Sedona for one, Prescott for another, and was hoping to do at least one in Phoenix. He suspected she was staying away from Nevada for his sake.
They were both distracted the morning he had to leave, but before he walked out the door, she took him by the shoulders and kissed him fiercely. "I love you, I'll miss you, and I'll see you in two weeks," she said.
"Two weeks," he agreed. "Be careful. Call me if anything happens, and don't forget to check your go bag."
"I bookmarked some links on your phone," she said, in the same voice she'd once used to tell him she hoped they were lost.
He laughed into her neck and kissed her again. "Okay," he said. "I'll look at them when I have time and a decent signal. Love you."
The trip started off well, although one of the customers was dumb enough to nearly get bitten by a rattlesnake not once, not twice, but three times, all within the first week. It was only Aaron's fast reflexes that kept the idiot out of the hospital; he hoped the rest of the group hadn't noticed exactly how quickly he was able to grab the second rattler, or how easily he'd crushed its skull.
Dealing with the rattlers was easier than dealing with the young woman who crawled into his tent the night after the third rattlesnake incident. She was lucky he hadn't been asleep; otherwise he might have reacted instinctively and hurt more than just her feelings. He guessed if he did more of these excursions he'd have to make a point of mentioning his girlfriend early and often.
"Girlfriend" was a completely inadequate term, but thinking about that freaked him out even more than the idea of going to college. Aaron had to figure out who the hell Aaron Davis was before he did anything stupid like ask Martha to marry the guy.
He shook his head and unlocked his phone, happy that they were at a high enough elevation to get a signal instead of camping deep in the canyon again. There was a text waiting from Martha: Sedona's great, but I miss you. He texted back and started working through the bookmarks she'd set up.
By the time he'd gone through them, plus a bunch of others they'd led him to, he was more overwhelmed than he'd been when he started. He'd had no idea there were so many options, so many different subjects he could study, especially if he went on for a bachelors degree, even at a small university like NAU. He nearly used up the battery on his phone; it was a good thing he'd brought a couple of spares.
He and Martha would have plenty to talk about when he got back.
They made excellent time on their way back to the trailhead, and Aaron nearly flew through the Res, grateful none of the tribal police seemed primed to catch speeders that day. He arrived in town nearly two hours earlier than he'd anticipated; he hoped Martha would be home. When he got close to the house, he could see several cars he didn't recognize, some in the driveway, some on the street nearby. He reached for the gun he had hidden next to the seat and pulled up behind a white Lexus that was parked next to Martha's Toyota, close enough that they wouldn't be able to back out.
As soon as he got out of the truck, he could hear the voices from the back yard, and he took a second to breathe out in relief before he put the gun back. "No, really, hon, we believe you," a woman said, laughing. "It's just none of us have ever seen this boyfriend of yours. You don't even have any pictures of him!"
"He's a little camera shy," Martha said. "And he doesn't like crowds."
"Six people is hardly a crowd, Martha," another woman said. "We don't have to go out for karaoke or anything. Just tell us you'll bring him to dinner next week."
"What's this about dinner?" Aaron asked as he came around the corner of the house into the back yard. He dropped his pack by the sliding glass door and smiled at Martha.
"You're home early," she said, getting up from her lawn chair and coming to his side. "Everyone, this is Aaron. Aaron, this is Thea, Isabelle, Tricia, Kate, Ana, and Deb. They're from the ceramics co-op."
"Nice to meet you," Aaron said, studying the women surreptitiously. None of them looked like a threat, but it never hurt to be cautious. "Hey, baby," he said to Martha as she leaned in for a kiss.
"How'd it go?" she asked.
"Fine," he answered. "Listen, I've just spent two weeks in the canyons without a shower. These clothes could practically stand up on their own, and I'm not fit company for man or beast. I'll come down after I get cleaned up, if your friends are still in need of convincing that I exist."
"Sounds good," she said, kissing him again.
As he walked up the stairs, he could hear one of the women (he thought it was Isabelle) saying, "Holy shit, Martha, you weren't kidding about his arms!"
"No, I wasn't," Martha said smugly. "His ass is even better, but you'll have to take my word for that." Aaron grinned.
He'd smelled the litter box, even though it was clean, the second he'd come inside, so he wasn't that surprised when a tiny black and white kitten came to investigate the clothes he was getting ready to drop in the hamper. "Hey," he said, offering it a finger to sniff. A second kitten, this one a calico, skittered up to him sideways, her fur puffed out and her back arched. "Hey there, little warrior," he said, smiling at her attempt to look big and dangerous. As soon as she'd investigated his finger, she rubbed her head against his knuckles like he was her new best friend.
"Are there any more of you?" he asked them softly, stroking one finger over each of their backs. They both started purring, and the black and white one--a male--began licking his forearm. "Okay, enough of that," he said. The calico batted at his hand when he pulled it away and stood up, and the black and white one meowed plaintively. They both followed him into the bathroom, then bolted when he started the shower.
They were waiting on the bathmat when he got out; he had to watch his feet to avoid stepping on them. The black and white one kept trying to lick water off his legs and feet; it tickled. He finally picked them both up in one hand and deposited them on the bed so he could get dressed. He could hear the women laughing and talking in the living room, although thankfully it sounded like they'd moved on to another topic.
If they'd been alone, he would have skipped the clothes entirely, maybe invited Martha into the shower with him, but they had company, strange as that seemed. He pulled on a polo shirt and one of his nicer pairs of shorts and walked back downstairs. When he got to Martha, he put his arm around her and kissed her cheek. "I met our new houseguests upstairs," he said.
"It's okay, isn't it?" she asked him. "You seemed like you liked that cat in, uh, in Jaipur."
The cat had been in Seoul, but he had liked her; he'd been sorry when they'd had to leave her behind. "It's fine," he said. "They're pretty cute. Do they have names yet?"
"I wanted to wait until you got home," she said, quirking an eyebrow at him. "I thought we should name them together."
"That works," he said agreeably. "What are you all up to?" he went on, waving at the others, most of whom seemed to be in some sort of debate about firing techniques for different types of clay.
"Thea's the one who found the kittens, but she's allergic," Martha explained. "They were left outside her studio in a box. Ana took one of them, I took our two, and Isabelle took the other one. Everyone wanted to come and see how they were doing, although I'm pretty sure that was just an excuse to visit. I know we haven't really had anyone over, but I thought it might be nice."
"It is nice," he said, smiling at her reassuringly. The last thing he wanted was for her to feel like she couldn't have friends over to her house. Their house.
"Martha tells us you've been working as a guide for Peak Outfitters," Tricia said. "They're a good group; my brother went on a trip with them last year."
"Yeah? He have a good time?" Aaron asked.
"He had a great time," she said.
"That's good to hear," Aaron said easily. "I'm gonna grab a beer; do you ladies need anything?"
The women stayed for another hour before they very politely refused an invitation to dinner. "You okay?" Martha asked him after the last of them drove off.
"I'm fine," he said, rolling his eyes. "I'm not sure why you think being around a few artsy-fartsy women would upset me."
"I know you don't like surprise guests, whether or not they're artsy-fartsy," she said, coming up behind him and putting her arms around his waist. "You sure you're okay about the kittens, too?"
"I like cats," he said, grinning. "I always have. You can put that on your list, if you want."
"I'll do that," she said. "Any ideas on names?"
"Yeah," he said, putting his hands on top of hers for a moment before turning to face her. "What do you think about calling them James and June?" he asked quietly.
She rested her forehead against his. "I think it's perfect," she said, a hitch in her voice.
"You think they're still on the bed?" he asked after a moment. "Maybe we should go upstairs and check."
"Mmm, that's a good idea," she answered, smiling softly.
"I have lots of good ideas," he said, kissing her the way he'd wanted to since he'd gotten home.
Not her house, or even their house. If they had furniture, pets, friends, and plans for the future, he'd better get used to thinking of it as home.
After dinner, they opened up the laptop and started a new list, although once it reached the third page Martha started laughing. "You know you can't actually take every single course, right? How about we start with the general education requirements?"
Four months later, he walked into the classroom for ENG 101, College Composition I, and sat down--near the front, on the aisle, with good sightlines of both the door and the windows. He'd scoped out the room the day before and came early to make sure he got the seat he wanted.
He fiddled with his pen and notebook until the room started filling up, nodding at the other students and remembering what Martha had told him that morning: "You belong there." He hoped she was right; this wasn't some cover he could drop in an hour or a day.
He'd tested out of all the developmental education courses, which surprised him. Apparently he could handle algebra after all, but he still had no fucking idea what went into a research paper. He wasn't even sure if this class would help with that. Martha had said he might have to write personal essays, which made him even more nervous than a research paper.
You belong here, he reminded himself.
He was looking forward to Beginning Navajo. He could have gotten out of the language requirements entirely based on his test scores, but Navajo was different from any other language. He thought that might be fun.
The professor walked in: young, copper-skinned, and cheerful. She had to be in her mid-twenties, younger than half the students, but there was no doubt that she belonged there. He wasn't sure whether she was Navajo, Hopi, or some other tribe. She looked around the room, enthusiastically greeting several students she apparently already knew. When she got to Aaron, she gave him an encouraging smile.
"Welcome to Comp 101," she told the class two minutes after the scheduled start time. "I'm Winnie Manygoats. You're going to be working together a lot, so let's start off with an icebreaker and get to know each other."
Aaron memorized everyone's names and what they said as they went around the room. When they got to him, he took a breath and said, "My name's Aaron Davis, and I'm thirty-eight years old. This is my first day of college, so I'm just trying not to pass out from sheer nerves." The class laughed, the guy sitting next to him gave him a fist bump, and the tightness in Aaron's chest let up a little.
For his spring semester, Aaron took as many credits as his advisor would allow. He attended every class, even the ones the other students thought were boring. He worked for Joe on the weekends, and he put in overtime during the summer to make up for it. Martha waited tables and gradually sold more of her pieces. They made it work.
He was accepted into the CCC2NAU program that spring, and by the following year he was taking some of his classes at the university. He was uncomfortable at first; the majority of the kids in his classes had come to college right out of high school. "You know that's normal, right?" Winnie asked him when they met for coffee. "You're a non-traditional student; it makes sense you'd feel a little out of place with classmates half your age. Now tell me what you're thinking of for your American Lit paper."
"I was thinking about Dickinson at first," he said. "She's Martha's favorite. But now I'm thinking about Frankenstein."
"What about Frankenstein?" Winnie asked.
"I think there's something in there about the monster and identity," he answered. "I haven't got it all figured out yet."
"That's a great idea," Winnie said warmly. "Let me know if you want me to look over your outline."
He ended up with an A on the paper; the professor asked him if he'd considered English as a major.
He shook his head, carefully considering what to say. "I'm thinking maybe engineering or geology," he said. It was the first time he'd said it out loud, and it didn't sound nearly as crazy as he'd thought it might.
A few weeks after that, he finally felt like he knew Aaron Davis well enough to ask Martha the question he'd wanted to ask for years. She cried, kissed him, and said yes.
Three and a half years after he started Comp 101, he and Martha invited twenty-some people into their home to celebrate his graduation from Northern Arizona University. When he stood up to thank his wife and all their friends for their support and encouragement, James bit at his ankle. Martha hid a smile behind her hand, her eyes suspiciously moist.
Aaron was exactly where he belonged.