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Kick at the Darkness

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Cassie gets into Chicago at two AM on a Wednesday morning. She double-parks outside and buzzes the apartment she saw.

She's expecting to hear his voice, so it throws her when it's the woman instead. "Yes?" Suspiciously.

"Hello, is Nick there?" she asks politely. Well, as politely as two in the morning after eighteen hours of driving can be.

"Who is this?" the voice says.

"Someone he's going to want to talk to," Cassie says. She doesn't know the woman's name, or how Nick knows her. Just her face and her talent.

Long pause. Then, "Hello?"

She sags in relief. "Let me up, Nick.”

Another pause, and then the door clicks open.

She amuses herself in the elevator picturing his face—she couldn't have seen this? Just a second's worth?—and gets out on the eighth floor. She only has to knock once before the door swings open, and he's tugging her inside, kicking the door shut, his hands on her shoulders.

She raises her eyebrows. "Hi."

"Hi," he says, incredulous, searching her face. What for, she has no idea. "What are you doing here? Where have you been? Wait—" he glances over his shoulder, at the window, "do we need to get out of here?"

"Not as far as I know," she says. "We're leaving soon, though. Nothing happens before then."

The woman's there, too, off to the right. "Hi," she says. "You must be a watcher. I'm Laurine. I'd shake your hand, but—"

Nick takes a second to get it, but then he says, "Oh," and lets Cassie go, steps back. Cassie turns to Laurine, shakes her gloved hand. "Cassie," she says. "You're the sniffer."

"That's me," she says cautiously.

"This is for you, then," Cassie tells her, digging into her jeans pocket, handing over the drive.

Laurine takes it, holds it automatically to her nose. "It doesn't smell like anything."

"Factory fresh. It's not for sniffing." Cassie turns back to Nick. "Since you asked so nicely, I'm here to deliver that to her, and I've been getting myself in a position to steal it. She's going to take it to Miguel, and they're going to figure out what to do with it. I don't know what that is yet, though, and I'm hoping that means Division doesn't, either."

"What's on it?" Nick asks.

She grins. "I can't tell you that."

"Course not," he sighs.

"I barely know myself," she says. "I mean, I know what the files are, and I know they'll be useful, but I don't know much about their contents. I just copied them, I didn't look at them."

Nick rubs his forehead. He looks tired, she thinks. "And where did you copy them from, exactly?"

"That's not important right now." He really needs to learn to focus. "We should get going. I don't know if they're looking for me yet. They have a sniffer."

"We should get you to Miguel, then." Nick says.

"No," Cassie says. "That doesn't go well." That had been her plan, originally, just head right to Miguel, give him the files, figure out what to do from there, but—well, Torri and her people might not have a watcher anymore, now that she's gone, but Division has a couple dozen, and she saw it a few days ago: they zeroed right in on her. Laurine's a relative unknown, it'll be easier for her to pass under the radar.

"Okay," Nick says, sounding like he does when he's really determined not to be frustrated, "so how are you going to get away from them, then?"

"There's a place," she says. "It'll be safe there for a while."

"How specific," he says. He looks over at Laurine. "You know Miguel?"

"We've met," she says. "I can find him. I don't know how quickly I can get to Arizona, though. I don't want to fly."

"It's not that time-sensitive," Cassie says. "Train or Greyhound is fine."

She nods. "I'd better get going anyway, though. Three of us in one place—"

"You're the safest of us," Cassie says. "Him and me—" she looks at Nick.

"Not," Nick says.

"Not," Laurine repeats. "Got it." She looks back and forth between them. "Good luck, Cassie. It was nice to meet you."

"You too," Cassie says, and watches her go. The door clicks loudly shut behind her, and Cassie turns to Nick. "Hi."

"Hi," he says. "You know, when you said you had some stuff to take care of, I was thinking more like a couple of days."

"I told you I didn't know how long it was going to take," she says.

"You could've at least used the word 'months'," he says.

"I didn't know how long it was going to take!" Which, all right, if she had guessed, it would've been more like months than days, but he wouldn't have wanted to hear that, and she hadn't been in the mood for a fight, not after their brush with Division in Paris. It hadn’t been safe for them to be together. And then she'd gotten a phone call, and, well. It was safer and more useful to go, so she went.

"How would you like it if I disappeared for four months without letting you know where I was or what was going on?" he demands.

She shrugs one shoulder.

After a second, he sighs, rubs his hands over his face. "Okay," he says. "Never mind. Where are we going? Train station?"

"I have a car," she says.

He does a really entertaining double-take "Do you have a driver's license?"

She pulls it out. He takes it, squints at it. "You were definitely not born in 1993."

"Give me that." She takes it back. "Do you have one?"

"Somewhere." He digs through his pockets. Looks at it. "It's expired."

She rolls her eyes.

"Shut up," he says. "You—"

But she doesn't find out what she is, because the door opens and Laurine says, "They're waiting for us."

"Who?" Cassie asks.

"How should I know?" Laurine says. "Two guys in a car. They've got sunglasses."

"Division, then, probably," Cassie says. "They love their sunglasses. This place have a back door?"

"Yeah," Nick says. "Let's go." He grabs a bag, gives the room a once-over, digs a gun out of a side pocket, and goes for the door. Cassie draws her own gun and follows. They crowd into a tiny stairwell, listen carefully, then haul ass downstairs.

The back door's through the laundry room, which is windowless. Nick eases it open, peers out. "I don't see anyone," he whispers over his shoulder. "The alley's pretty small. No lights."

They slip through the door, and Cassie's world flashes white for a second—dark suits, a gun, headlights, sunglasses—"Shit," she whispers. "Not that way." She grabs at his shoulder, gets a handful of hoodie, hauls him back, herding Laurine between them, starting to run. There's a gap between buildings just ahead, barely visible in the big-city nighttime gloominess, and she tugs Nick along toward it just as headlights flick on behind them, flooding the alleyway with light.

They get around the building just ahead of the first gunshot, and then they're in some apartment building's courtyard garden, overgrown and stony; Cassie trips, and Nick grabs her. There's a stone wall on the other side, and he lifts her, his hands solid and gripping tight, until she can latch on to the top with hands and one leg, scrabble her way over.

Laurine drops down beside her after a second. "Split up," she says. Another couple of gunshots on the other side of the wall, the spray of stone chips, and Nick hits the ground next to them.

"Yeah," Cassie says. "They'll follow us. You go."

"Good luck," Laurine whispers, and takes off into the night. Cassie starts in the other direction, Nick behind her.

They run, panting in the darkness, listening for footsteps behind them. They come out from the buildings onto streetlit pavement, and Nick cuts left instantly; Cassie follows him as gunshots crack behind them again. She risks a glance back. Four guys in suits, two ahead, two behind. Probably all of them, then, so if they can lose them—

More gunshots, and nowhere to turn for half a block. Nick spins and holds out a hand, and Cassie gets behind him and breathes out; he still can't make this work at will, but when it works, it works.

The next bullets bounce off. Nick's force field is bright in the gloominess, flashes of soap-bubble colors. The pavement chips across the street, and the four goons pause, then concentrate their fire. Cassie aims carefully, fires. One of them drops, and the other three startle and scatter.

Nick's power grabs one of them, hauls him backward through the air—he starts firing, panicked, only sort of in their direction, and Nick spins him so his last shots hit one of his buddies straight in the head, then tosses him into a wall. He hits the ground and doesn't move. The last guy starts to run, but something comes up from the ground and hits him in the head, and he wavers and falls.

"Good job," Cassie says after a second.

"Thanks," Nick says. "That's turned up the heat, though. Next guys they send aren't just going to have guns."

"How have they been at sniffing you?" Cassie asks.

Nick hesitates. "Not as good lately. I think whatever they have from the Hong Kong apartment is running low. We vacuumed pretty good in this place, too," he nods over his shoulder. "Paper plates, all that. Still, I don't know. And you said that you had a sniffer after you."

"Maybe not yet, but in the next couple of days, definitely," she says. She'd told them she'd be gone until tomorrow, the longest she thought she could get away with, and they're going to start wondering pretty fast. "I know a place with a shadow, but it's a few days' drive. We need to take back roads, stay away from anything they can identify by sight." If Division's paying attention, they can't fly even with fake IDs, so that lets out getting to New England before Torri—or Peter—notices she's AWOL.

"Let's get to your car, then," he says, and they go.

 

They drive south, get out of Chicago, until they're going through smaller and smaller towns. As the sun's coming up, Cassie pulls off the road in one of the last real suburbs, and finds a Holiday Inn. "It should still be okay to stay here," she says. There are signs, so if anyone's seriously sniffing for them, it might not be safe, but Division doesn't necessarily have enough to zero right in, and Torri's probably not looking yet.

"We can take turns sleeping," Nick says.

"Yeah." She lets him go get the room; even with the fake ID, hotel clerks look at her askance sometimes.

There are two beds, and she falls onto one. "I call first," she says. "I've been driving since yesterday morning."

"Yeah, sleep," he says. "I can stay awake for a while."

"We shouldn't stay here too long," she says, eyes already starting to close. "Don't let me sleep forever."

"Promise," he says, and that's the last thing she hears before she falls asleep.

 

He wakes her up midafternoon, which is way longer than she was planning to sleep, and then crashes out before she can complain about it. She sighs and eats a granola bar from her bag. Watches him.

Asleep, he's all—soft. His hand curled, his mouth relaxed, like she could just reach out and run a finger over his lower lip, or slip her hand in between his fingers. His shirt's ridden up a little bit, leaving a strip of stomach exposed, and she looks it over automatically. No bruises, no cuts, just soft white unbroken skin. She hesitates, and then dares to reach out, tug the shirt down to keep him from getting cold. The fabric's warm against her fingers.

Nick. She missed him, four months in the compound in northern California, full of paranoia and xenophobia. Nick's open, ready to hear things, always thinking and moving forward. Torri and Fletcher and even Peter were closed down and dedicated to their own narrow view of the future; they only wanted her around to make sure everything they did would conform, so that they could set things up so neatly that nothing would ever be unexpected.

Too bad for them. She pulls out her sketchpad—she switched to white paper before she got to the compound because she was pretty sure they'd like that better, and she was right—and taps her pencil against the paper, waiting.

It comes quickly—Nick's head, that upwards shock of brown hair, his body stretched out long and shirtless, his face turned away. Sprawled out on a bed—not this one, a bed with a headboard—sheets pooled around his body.

She studies it. She's not in the drawing, it's just him, but it has to be significant somehow, not just Nick asleep somewhere. Maybe she's behind the camera this time, and it's Cassie's-eye-view. Maybe.

She sets the sketchbook down and goes to peer out the window, see if anyone's lurking in the parking lot. They shouldn't stay here long.

 

She wakes him up that evening. He stirs, groans, scrubs a hand over his face. "Time for a shower?"

"Sure," she says, steadily. "I haven't seen anybody coming. Of course, that doesn't mean they aren't."

"I'll be quick," he says, and goes into the bathroom. She gets their stuff together while she waits, doesn't think about him in the shower. Except to wonder if she could ever see him in the shower, if it would ever be significant enough for her to get a flash of him naked and wet—God. She needs to calm down. She makes coffee with the tiny coffeemaker, pours herself a cup, and twirls a finger through the little sugar packets before deciding to leave it black. She's not going to like it no matter what she puts in it.

Nick comes out of the shower fully-dressed, toweling his hair. Cassie tries not to be disappointed. "Coffee?" she asks instead, offering her cup. "Or there's more in the coffeemaker."

"Thanks." He snags her cup, takes a swallow, gives it back. "Time to get going?"

"Yeah." She takes a last drink of coffee, her mouth over where his was, hides her grimace at the taste, and sets the cup down. "Let's go."

"Let me drive," he says outside. "You should take a break."

She digs the keys out of her pocket and weighs them in her hand, looking at him. "How long is it since you even drove a car?"

He shrugs. "Don't remember. I haven't forgotten how to do it, Cassie, come on."

She narrows her eyes. "You stay in the speed limit, you obey all traffic laws."

"Promise," he says, and finally she tosses them to him.

 

"But seriously," he says once they're on the road. "Where the hell were you? You were not forthcoming in your note."

"I didn't want to lie," she says honestly.

"So you went for a note that could've meant anything, instead," he says. "Great. You want to enlighten me now?"

She used to like it when he told her what to do, whether she was going to obey him or not, because it showed that he was paying attention, that he cared about what was going to happen to her. Nowadays, she likes it less; she doesn’t need orders to know he cares, and she definitely doesn’t need them to know what to do. Hearing his concern out loud like this is still nice, though. "I was undercover," she tells him.

Silence for a beat, and then he glances over at her. "Explains why your hair looks normal," he says finally. "Where were you undercover?"

"Compound in northern California," she says. "A family, some hangers-on. Sniffers, shifters, one pusher, a couple of stitches. Convinced them I was one of them."

"How'd you fool their sniffers?"

"Wasn't hard," she says. "They want people who hate Division, who are isolated, who believe in the supremacy of talented people over normals. Two out of three ain't bad. I just pretended I'd had a change of heart about the rest of it."

"Just," he says. "Great. How crazy were these people?"

She holds out a hand and wavers it back and forth.

"Christ, Cassie," he hisses. "You ever think about maybe not throwing your life into danger at the drop of a vision? Was there a vision?"

She nods, scrunching down into her seat a little. "I saw myself there." She saw a lot of things: the compound, enough of the area around it to figure out where it was, the computer. Torri's face. Peter's—everything. "That's important stuff that I got," she says. "Division's just starting to pull itself back together again. We have to hit it hard before it settles back down into a monolith. My mom—" she stops.

"Yeah," Nick says after a minute. "I know. We'll find her."

"I just—I really thought she'd be out by now," she says, feeling suddenly exhausted. She leans back in her seat, watches the Indiana road go by. "I really, really did."

"There's gotta be a reason," he says. This is a conversation they've had fifty times before, and it always comes down to her mom knowing everything beforehand, keeping herself in captivity because that's what needs to happen.

She doesn't want to have it again now. "Yeah." She watches the fields go by for another second, and then changes the subject. "So, that's what I was doing. What about you, what brought you to scenic Chicago in November?"

He shrugs. "Laurine needed a favor. She'd seen the wrong thing, told the wrong person about it, didn't realize until it was too late. She wanted some protection. I wasn't doing anything else, so I came up to work for her for a few weeks. Tell you the truth, it wasn't dying down very fast. She's probably just as glad to be headed out of town."

"Your muscles not up to the job?" Cassie asks.

"Hey," he says. "My talent is very impressive."

She holds her hand up again, wavers it. He snorts, and looks back at the road.

 

They're too complacent. It's been too long, she thinks afterward, since they've had Division right on their asses, had to watch carefully what they decided to do, how long they knew beforehand.

They stop at a gas station somewhere in Indiana. Nick's filling the tank and Cassie's browsing the 7-11 for something vaguely edible when she sees it. "Shit," she says, and the cashier glances at her. She runs for the car.

Nick looks up as she's coming, and she can see him realize, and start frantically pushing buttons. "How long?" he asks.

"Soon," she says. "They're pulling in—there, that's them—" a black SUV is coming into the parking lot. She dives for the driver's seat. "Keys, keys!"

He tosses them to her, and yanks the pump free from the car, fumbling for the passenger door. She hits the gas before he has the door closed, and in the mirror, she sees the SUV pulling a U-turn. "Do something," she grates at Nick, screeching out towards the freeway.

He twists in his seat, staring back at the SUV. "Come on, come on, come on," she hears him muttering, as it pulls up closer. This car is sort of a piece of crap; she stole it more for unobtrusiveness than for speed, and they're not going to stay ahead of a Division vehicle for long.

"Nick," she snaps. He breathes in, audibly, and his hand snaps up; as she hits the entrance ramp, she sees the SUV shudder, and then suddenly it's retreating in the mirror, shivering in place but not moving forward. His hand snaps closed, and the last thing she sees before they're on the freeway and accelerating away is the SUV crunching like an accordion behind them.

She lets out her breath, and after a second, slows down to just over the speed limit. "Good job," she says.

"Thanks." He twists back, finally, sits down in his seat. Reaches for his seatbelt. "They'll be after us again as soon as they can get another car."

"Pick a random number between one and ten."

"Six," he says, and starts shuffling through the glove compartment. "Is there a map in here?"

"If there is, it's probably a California one," she says, counting exits. She takes the sixth without looking too hard at any of the signs, and pretty soon they're in some Indiana town; she drives until she sees another freeway entrance. "Between eleven and twenty."

"Twelve."

Twelve exits later, they're in a suburb; she turns seven times and pulls into a strip mall lot, turns off the car. "Okay," she says.

"Yeah," he says. "Shit. You think they know where we're going?"

She shakes her head. "They'd have waited and gotten to us there. I don't think—I think there's a shadow there, strong enough to hide anything. I haven't even seen the place at all, yet. But if they can follow us to a small area, especially if they lose us right afterward, they're going to search it anyway."

"Yeah," he says. Then, "Okay. I know a woman in Cleveland."

"You know everyone," she says, not sharply. It's true. Nick surrounds himself with acquaintances; he talks to people, has coffee with people, carries their groceries, learns their languages. It's both a strength and a weakness, but it's saved him more than a few times and it's never gotten him killed, so.

"This woman's good," he says. "She could get it out of your head. She's really precise."

"And I—what," she says. "Write down directions?"

"Step-by-step directions," he says. "Make it roundabout. So we don't know where we're going at all until the end."

She thinks about it for just a second, but really, what else are they going to do with Division right on their tail like this. "Okay," she sighs. "Cleveland it is."

"I promise she's good," Nick says. He's watching her, a little concerned. "Nothing to worry about."

"I'm not worried," she says. She's not. She's just—"My mom told me where to go," she says. It comes out quieter than she meant it to. "It's a nice memory." Her mom's arm around her, waiting somewhere—a bus, a train, something, she can't remember, and her soft voice—Baby, did I ever tell you about my friend Yoshiko?

"Oh," Nick says, almost soundlessly. "I'm sorry, I—"

"No," she says. "It's okay. I have lots of nice memories of her. Thirty seconds one way or another isn't too bad. In the grand scheme of things."

"Yeah," he says. "I wouldn't have suggested it if I didn't think it was absolutely necessary—"

"Shut up already," she says. "We're doing it, it's fine."

"Yes, ma'am," he says, mouth quirking.

"That's what I like to hear," she says. "So," she turns the key in the ignition as punctuation to the change in subject, "nice car-crunching skills back there. You been practicing that move?"

"No," he says, and his voice gets that wondering tone it always gets when he's thinking about his powers. "It just—you know how it is. I can't do it, and I can't do it, and then suddenly, bam, I can."

"Does it feel different?" she asks, pulling out into traffic. "When you're trying, and when it just happens?"

"Yeah," he says. She glances over; he's settled back in his seat, staring out the windshield at nothing in particular. "When I'm trying, it's like—I'm focusing as hard as I can on a single thing, and that thing has to take up all of my attention, and if I lose any focus, it falls. I try to make that thing my whole universe, and then I can get it to do whatever I want. But when it's just happening..." He shakes his head. "I can feel everything. All around me. If anything moves, I know about it, and I can stop it. Like in Hong Kong. I was literally standing in a hail of bullets, and it was fine, because I knew where they all were. All of them. It's crazy." He looks over at her; he's smiling.

"Sounds it," she says, feeling an answering smile tugging at her mouth. She can't imagine being aware of all of the future, all at once; she thinks it would drive her insane. But it's different for him.

"Anyway," he says after a second. "Can we get to Cleveland from here? Do we know where we are at all?"

"Sure," she says, and starts looking for signs.

 

They get there eventually. Nick has her stop at a bookstore, and gets a book of state maps and some cards with little envelopes. Cassie finds a black-paged notebook and some pens, buys them, and instantly feels better. She fluffs her hair while waiting for Nick at the cashier, thinks about stopping to get some dye. Probably not enough time right now.

She writes them directions. Not too specific, in case someone's watching right now, but enough to get them where they need to go. Step by step, each one in purple pen on the back of a chrysanthemum-bedecked card, slid into their envelopes and numbered. Six of them is enough, she decides, and caps her pen after the last one. "Okay," she says. "Where's your friend at?"

His friend is in an office building, nice little nameplate on the door; Cassie shakes her hand and doesn't ask if Lisa Morgan is her real name. "You have to wait outside," Cassie tells Nick, while Lisa politely doesn't pay attention.

"Why?" he asks, startled.

"Because," she says, "I have to tell her what it is she's looking for. If you know about it, that sort of defeats the purpose."

"Right," he says, after a beat. "Right. I knew that."

"So smart," she says.

"Be quiet." He looks at the door to the hall. "I can just wait out there."

"You can wait wherever you want," she says. "As long as you're ready to go get dinner when we're done. I'm starving."

"Post-memory-loss dinner, check," he says. "I'll be outside."

"Great," she says, and watches him leave. When the door shuts behind him, she turns to Lisa, who's wearing a professional smile. "Okay, let's get this over with."

 

It's—weird.

"Are you okay?" Nick asks, immediately after she comes out the door.

"I'm fine," she says. "It's not like it hurts or anything."

"Cassie—" he says, following her to the elevator.

She relents when they get there, stops and looks up at him. "It's really fine. I can even still remember my mother telling me about it, I just can't remember what she said. You were right, she's very precise."

He relaxes. "Good," he says. "Let's get some food."

"You're buying," she says. "I just paid your friend Lisa enough for a hell of a lot of dinners."

"No problem," he says. "Let's find a diner and start this road trip off right."

 

They take back roads. It doesn't matter where they're going, Cassie thinks: it's going to take forever to get there no matter what, trailing through all of these dusty small towns. The first card directs them south through Ohio and into West Virginia, tiny winding forested roads, and Cassie's struck again, halfway up a mountain with her hands tight on the wheel, by how much goddamn space there is in this place. She's used to crowded cities, to hopping from country to country, Hong Kong to Singapore to Mumbai to Dubai to Istanbul to Athens to Paris, on trains and boats and sometimes planes, watching the people around her and waiting to come out somewhere else. She's driven practically across the whole United States in the last five days, and most of it is long stretches of road and nothing.

"Talk to me," she says finally, after an hour of winding Appalachian roads and Nick staring out his window at the scenery.

"Want me to drive?" he asks, turning away from the riveting forestry.

"No," she says, flexing her hands on the steering wheel, "I want you to talk to me."

"About what?" He half-laughs, like he knows it's a dumb question.

"Anything," she says. "Seriously. Television. Your dad. What you were doing the last four months."

"My dad," he says reflectively, like she caught him on that one and he didn't hear the rest.

"Yeah?" she says, a little more softly, risking a glance away from the road. He's not looking at her anymore, thoughtful.

"Confident," Nick says, after a second. "I mean, I was just a kid. I was twelve when they killed him. But—he always knew what to do, he never hesitated. If he had to think about something, he thought, but when he made his decisions, they were made. I always knew that once he said something, that was final. And even when they came for him—he knew he was going to die, and he told me about—" he stumbles, "he told me some things, and then he sent me away, and that was it." He stops.

"I'm sorry," she says hesitantly, when the silence stretches out a little. "You don't have to—"

"No," he says, "no, it's okay. You know—you should know. He told me about you."

"What?" She can't help looking over at him, one eye on the road. "About me?"

"He said—he said a woman had told him that a girl would give me a flower. And I had to help that girl. And you did, and I did."

"I remember," she whispers. The lotus. The gun. Nick convulsing under the stitch's hands. The line of his back, his shirt rucked up and his skin pale and smooth, healed.

"I think my dad knew your mom," he says. "I think she's the one who told him about you."

That catches her out. It makes so much sense, but. "That's weird," she says finally.

"Yeah." He looks out at the road again.

 

She turns into a small town within the general boundary of their first destination, and finds herself on Main Street. "Perfect," she says, and turns into the Motel 6 parking lot.

Nick gets the room, and they risk sleeping at the same time; the odds of anybody figuring them out, now that they don't know where they're going and barely know where they are, are practically nil. Cassie listens to him breathing in the opposite bed, and it only takes her a few minutes to fall asleep.

 

She wakes up scrambling for her gun, looking for the threat. But it's just Nick, sitting up in bed, sweaty and panting. "Oh, God," he gasps. "Oh, man."

"Are you okay?" she asks, easing the gun back down to rest on top of her bag.

"Yeah." He rubs his eyes. "Just a dream."

"About your dad?"

"Sort of," he says into his palm. "He was there, and your mom was there, and Kira was there, and you were there, and—it sucked, believe me. I just want to forget about it."

"Okay," she says. The second she falls silent, though, the room seems echoingly quiet, and she watches his shoulders rise and fall with his rapid, shallow breathing for a second before she says, "So, you know."

"What?" He lowers his hand, and looks at her.

"I heard a joke the other day."

"Oh, Jesus. This I gotta hear."

"So," she says, "A guy walks into a bar, and he says, 'Hey, bartender, do you have any helicopter-flavored potato chips?' And the bartender shakes his head and says, 'No, we've only got plain.'"

Nick laughs once, sounding surprised, and says, "That might actually be the worst joke I've ever heard."

"Don't speak so fast," Cassie says. "Two guys are in a bar talking about their wives, and one of them says, 'So, I slept with my wife before we were married, did you?' And the other guy says, 'I don't know, what was her name?'"

He rubs the bridge of his nose. “I’m serious, are these going to get any worse? Because—”

"A drunk walks into a bar and says, 'Ow!'" she counters.

"So yes, then." He's leaning back a little now, one hand balancing him on the bed, instead of hunched over his knees.

"A skeleton walks into a bar," she says. "He says, 'Give me a beer and a mop.'"

"Everyone in the entire world has heard these already," he says. "Even you, and you're twelve and you've spent your whole life running from Division."

"I'm not twelve," she says. "So Jesus walks into a bar, and he says, 'I'll just have a glass of water.'"

"Stop," he says, flopping back down and wrapping his arms around his head. "Stop, this is cruel."

"I can do lightbulb jokes instead?" she tries.

"No," he says. "No, you cannot do lightbulb jokes instead. I'm going to sleep. Goodnight."

"Goodnight," she says, and lies back down.

"Thanks," he adds.

"You're welcome," she says quietly. She watches his lumpy shape under the bedspread until his breathing evens out again, and he sleeps.

 

The next card sends them through Maryland to Delaware. They stop for breakfast at a Dunkin Donuts, and get lunch in a truckstop diner.

"I miss Hong Kong," he says when he's halfway through his burger, poking at the fries.

She pauses in between bites of her turkey club. "What about it? Because I mostly remember the part where we nearly died. A lot." And Kira, but she tries not to talk about Kira much, because Kira's done a lot for them, and she's off on her own taking risks right now, and it's really hard for Cassie to mention her without sounding like she hates her super-pusher guts.

Nick shrugs. "I lived there for a while. I had an apartment. Stuff I liked. People I liked. And besides," he adds as an afterthought, "we've nearly died in a few places."

"True," she acknowledges. "Okay. We could go back there someday. When we're not going somewhere else. Probably safer there than a lot of places," she reflects. "We've already been there, Division won't be looking as hard. If sniffers see us there, maybe they think they're seeing the past, and not the present."

"You didn't like it there, though," he says.

"I didn't like nearly dying." She didn't like the watcher with the lollipop. She dreams about her sometimes, and the tiger. She wonders if she's still there, what she remembers, if she stayed after her father and brothers were dead. Rebuilt the crime syndicate, ruling from the top with her knowledge of the future—Cassie shivers, and then steels herself. If Lollipop Girl is still around, Cassie and Nick can take her the hell down, and Cassie will enjoy every second of it.

"We could go back," she says finally. "When it's safer. I don't want to nearly die there again."

"Got it," he says, and smiles down at his fries. Then he looks up. "Let's find somewhere with decent Chinese food soon, though."

"On it," she says.

 

They get to the third card midafternoon, and it puts them up into New Jersey. Nick drives all afternoon, and Cassie thinks about Chinese food, ends up drawing a dragon in bright red on her new black paper.

Nick glances at it. "You know where?"

She shrugs. "Keep driving."

They get to the place around six, and it looks like a hole in the wall but it serves some serious char siu pork. Nick orders three different things and eats blissfully, making occasional pleased sounds. Cassie kicks him under the table when he turns to his duck and the volume increases, and he jumps.

"What?"

"You're making sex noises," she says.

He snorts. "What would you know about sex noises?"

She shrugs, looks down at her rice. She hasn't decided how much to tell him about this yet.

His voice sharpens. "Cassie," he says. "What would you know about sex noises?"

"More than the last time you saw me," she says steadily.

He stares at her. Then he sets his chopsticks carefully down and gets up. "Excuse me a second," he says.

She thinks about following him into the men's room—because what the hell does she care if he's in a men's room?—but decides to give him some space and wait for him to come back when he's calmed down.

It takes about ten minutes, and he doesn't even glance at the rest of his food, just drops money on the table and says, "Are you done?"

"Yeah," she says, and follows him out to the car. "Keys," she says, before he can get in.

A muscle jumps in his jaw. "Cassie—" he says.

"It's my car," she says. "Give me the keys."

There's a beat where she's not sure what he's going to do, but finally he hands them over, although he says, "I'd like to point out that this is not actually your car," as he does it.

"It's more my car than yours," she says, getting in.

"Okay, yeah," he acknowledges, and stays quiet while she drives them in circles until they hit the second Super 8 in twelve blocks.

 

Inside, he paces in a circle, and then turns on her and says abruptly, "Are you okay?"

"Yes," she says, impatient with him and his—ridiculousness. "I'm fine. See?" She holds out her arms, turns in a slow circle.

"Stop it," he says. He sounds like he's actually, really upset, and she stops, looks at his face. His eyebrows are drawn in, his mouth set.

"I'm okay," she says, a little quieter. "He was a pretty good guy, we had a couple of months to figure it all out, and it went pretty well. No complaints."

"A couple of—" he takes a deep breath. "While you were undercover?"

"I know," she says. "That was probably dumb. But I saw it, beforehand. I knew it was going to be okay."

"You saw it. Of course you did," he says. "If only we could all see all of our sex partners ahead of time."

"I hope I haven't seen all of them," she says. "Since so far it's only been Peter."

"Peter," he repeats.

"Yes, Peter," she says. "And you know what? It was nice, to have somebody to hang out with who didn't want me for anything, while I was there. He didn't have an agenda, he just wanted to make his mom happy. Which is something I happen to understand." He'd liked her, she knew—liked her enough to think about something long-term, although since 95% of his other teenage acquaintances were his siblings and cousins, that wasn't that big of a compliment. Still, she'd felt a little bad leaving him behind without saying anything. And she was glad he was a stitch and not a sniffer.

"His mom," Nick says. "Right." He drops down to sit on one of the beds, leaning back on his hands. After a second, he sits upright and says, "You were safe, right?"

"Shut up." She drops her bag next to the other bed. "I know what a goddamn condom is. I'm going to take a shower."

She goes into the bathroom and shuts the door behind her; just before it closes, she sees him fall back to lie flat on the bed, hands over his head, staring up at the ceiling.

 

"Hey," he says when she comes out, wrapped in a towel. "Uh, sorry. That was none of my business."

"Could've fooled me," she mutters, kneeling to rummage through her bag. She doesn't have to look to know that he's staring at the far wall; she could drop the towel and he probably wouldn't even notice.

"I just—" he makes a frustrated noise. "I care about you, okay? I don't want anything bad to happen to you. Sex can be bad."

Her hands freeze inside her bag, caught short by a sudden thought. "Did you—did anything like that ever happen to you?"

A startled pause. "No," he says after a second. "I mean, not—I mean, okay, there's been a couple of times that weren't—that I would've done differently. If I could."

She frowns at him, suspicious. He's still not looking at her. "What do you mean?"

"It's not important," he says. "Look, no one's ever forced me to do anything. Why are we even talking about this?"

"You brought it up," she points out. She's trying not to think of Kira, who could've forced Nick to do anything and made it seem like his idea.

"And now I sincerely regret it," he says, on a blown-out breath. "Okay. Can we just agree that you're fine and that I'm fine and everyone's capable of dealing with their own sex lives?"

"That's what I've been trying to tell you for this whole endless conversation," she says. "I'm getting dressed, don't look."

He's still looking at the wall, of course, so she just drops the towel. He twitches a little, and she thinks about that as she pulls on a T-shirt and shorts to sleep in.

 

They have breakfast in a Denny's the next morning, and Cassie's halfway through her pancakes when she notices the guy at a nearby table watching them.

He doesn't look Division, but that doesn't mean he isn't, and it definitely doesn't mean he's not following them. She watches him surreptitiously as she eats, and Nick starts looking over too, after a minute.

"Do you think—" he mutters across the table, stirring his oatmeal.

"Not sure," she says. "He's really interested in us for some reason."

"Enamored of you?" he suggests.

"Or you," she shoots back.

"You'd be surprised at the compliments I get sometimes," he says.

She digs back into her pancakes; she wouldn't.

The guy keeps watching them, and Cassie gets tenser and tenser, wondering if he's got backup outside, if he's waiting for them to get up and leave before giving the signal, if he has a gun. Nick's just playing with his oatmeal now, his shoulders hunched and his left hand resting where his gun's concealed under his hoodie.

Cassie slips money surreptitiously out of her purse, one eye on the man; he doesn't seem to notice. "On three?" she mutters to Nick.

He nods once, eyes slipping left to check on the guy again. "One," he says.

"Two," Cassie whispers.

"Three," Nick says, and Cassie drops the money on the table and bolts out of the booth behind him, pelting for the parking lot. The waitress shouts behind them, thinking that they're skipping out on their tab, but she's not chasing them.

And—Cassie risks a glance back—neither is the guy at the table. He's watching them run, but he hasn't moved. Cassie turns her attention to the parking lot, scanning for anyone moving, any visible weapons, any cars with drivers waiting to pull out. Nothing, nothing—they get to their car without anybody firing at them. Cassie slides into the driver's seat and pulls out the second Nick's ass hits the passenger's side—and no other cars move. No one's following them.

She watches the rear window as she pulls out into traffic, but there's nothing.

"Don't see anybody," she says cautiously, after about thirty seconds of zero suspicious activity.

"Huh," Nick says, craned around in his seat, checking all sides. He settles back and says, "...I guess he was just a creep."

Cassie starts laughing. She can't help it, it's just—a creep. Of course. After a second, Nick joins in, and they're both just cracking up at—she doesn't even know what. Paranoia and random creeps in Denny's.

"Okay," she says when she catches her breath. "Where to next?"

Nick twists around to grab the next envelop from the backseat. His shirt rides up, and she tries not to look; it was hard enough not to crash the car while laughing until her side hurt.

"West," he reports after a second. "Pennsylvania."

"If we end up back in Ohio after all of this, I am not going to be happy," she mutters, but she starts looking for signs.

 

It starts to rain before they leave New Jersey, a cold fall drizzle, and then when they stop to get lunch from a Stop N Shop, the sky opens up in the parking lot, and they get soaked on the way back to the car. Cassie's hair is in straggles around her face even after thirty seconds in it, and her jeans are soaked. She climbs in the backseat and changes into a skirt and a clean shirt while Nick sorts through their Caesar salads and Pop-Tarts. "Your turn," she says, crawling back into the passenger seat.

"These are the only jeans I have," he says, but he strips out of his hoodie and T-shirt—her eyes catch on his shoulders, his chest hair, the arch of his back as he twists to reach his bag—and finds a long-sleeved blue shirt to wear.

He drives slowly in the downpour, headed into rural territory, two-lane highways twisting through the trees. There is no freaking way, Cassie thinks, that anybody would be able to track them through this, sheets of rain obscuring the occasional sign advertising a town with a population of 543 or the presence of a Shell station. She settles back into her seat and watches the rain tracing patterns down the windows, turning the scenery into a funhouse mirror.

 

But then, of course, they get lost.

It's not the first time, or even the seventh; they've been wending their way around back roads in five different states now, and they're getting used to just going until they see a sign for something, but they've been in the middle of rural Pennsylvania for five hours now, and it's getting dark, and the rain is still freaking sheeting down, and they have no fucking idea where they are.

"Seriously," Cassie says finally, "There hasn't been anything that's on any of these maps for the last fourteen signs. We need to stop and ask for directions to somewhere, or we're going to be sleeping in the car tonight."

"We need gas, anyway," Nick says, glancing at the gauge. "Next station, then."

It's still pouring when they stop, of course. "You stay in the car," Nick says. "My jeans are still damp, anyway. I'll get some food, too."

Cassie gives the barely-visible convenience shack a dubious look. "Okay," she says. "I'll drive next, though."

"Thanks," Nick says, and gets out. Cassie crawls over to the driver's seat, which is also damp. She shivers, and watches Nick's blurred form filling up the car and headed into the convenience store. His hair is plastered to his head, and water's dripping from his shirtsleeves.

He takes almost ten minutes, and when he gets in, he looks dubious. "I asked for directions to the nearest town, and then we had to have a whole discussion over what 'town' meant, exactly," he says. "And I said I wanted somewhere with a motel where we could stay, and he wasn't sure what the closest place would be, and so finally he decided that Bellefonte was the place to go."

"And can we get there?" she asks.

"Well, he gave me directions, but, uh—"

"Seriously?" she says.

"I had him repeat himself about seven times," Nick defends himself, "and I think I reached, like, a threshold of clarity. I know it's southeast of here, and I know southeast is that way, and I can at least tell you that we're supposed to drive until we see a sign for Snow Shoe—"

"Snow Shoe?"

"—and take the next right, which should get us to 80 going east, and then from there we can get to 150 going southwest, and then there should be signs. Apparently."

"Okay," Cassie sighs, and turns the car on.

 

They don't find Snow Shoe. They don't find anything except more winding, forest-lined roads, and more goddamned rain. "I can't see anything," Cassie finally says, when it's ten PM and the rain is drumming like freaking taiko on the windshield.

"Pull over for a few minutes," Nick suggests. "Maybe it'll let up."

She gives him a look, but up ahead, the headlights are picking out a turnoff into the woods; she takes it, and parks twenty feet in or so. She flips the light on overhead and turns to rummage in her bag until she finds her notebook.

"Please draw us a map," Nick sighs, and she sits back down and flips it open, waiting.

It takes half an hour for anything to happen, and by the time she gets something, he's started to shiver, with the heater off, sitting in his wet jeans, his hair still damp. She gets a flash, and starts sketching—not a map at all, she can see the two of them, there's her hair, and his, flat against his head, the two of them close together, heads right next to each other—oh. She finishes it up with a few quick, heavy lines, and shows it to him.

"That's us asleep in the backseat," he says flatly.

"Yep," she says.

"Fantastic," he says, and leans his head back against the headrest.

"Better make the best of it," she says. "I think there's a blanket in the trunk."

"That means going outside again," he says, looking out the window at the sheeting rain.

"I have to pee anyway," she says glumly.

"Fuck," he mutters. "Now so do I."

"Me first," she says, and braces herself before opening the door.

It is freezing fucking cold outside, and absolutely pitch black. She goes about five feet from the car, finds a tree, and does her business with icy rain splattering off the tree branches and down the back of her neck. On her way back, she stops at the trunk, and finds the blanket, which is old and scratchy but at least something, and she mostly succeeds in shielding it from the rain until she gets the car door open.

She sits down in the driver's seat again, tossing the blanket into the backseat. "Okay," she says, and realizes she's shivering hard enough for her teeth to chatter. "Your turn."

"Awesome," Nick says. He takes a deep breath and opens the door.

She strips down to her panties and bra while he's gone; her skin is bone-white. She crawls into the backseat and unfolds the blanket with her hair dripping icy water all over her. She's shivering uncontrollably, and she tries to squeeze her hair out onto the car floor, but her hands are shaking enough to make it hard.

Nick lets in a blast of cold air when he gets back in, and instantly throws up a hand to block his maiden eyes from the sight of her changing. "Whoa," he says, but it comes out weakly; he's trying to close the door behind him, but it's closed without latching, and he's having a hard time getting his fingers around the handle to open it and slam it again. He turns back to get it. "I think it's sleeting," he says after a second.

Cassie gets the blanket around her, and leans down to find the keys. "Turn the car on for a little while," she says, holding them out. "We can't run it all night, obviously, but we have to warm up a little bit."

Nick nods, taking the keys with shaking fingers. His lips are blueish.

"Take your shirt and jeans off first," she adds. "You're going to get hypothermia."

He doesn't even argue, just strips out of his shirt and jeans. He must have already been cold, she realizes, sitting in damp jeans all afternoon. He puts the brake on and turns on the car, turns the heater up high. "Fuck, that is not hot," he says after a second.

"Give it a minute," she says. "It was just running, it shouldn't take long."

And it doesn't; pretty soon there's warm air circulating in the car, and Nick holds his hands over the heater as his shivering subsides a little. Cassie finds an elastic to keep her wet hair from dripping on her any more, and they sit quietly and listen to the freezing rain hitting the roof of the car.

"Okay," she says finally. "Are you warm?"

"Yeah," he says; his voice sounds stronger. "Put a shirt on or something."

She finds a T-shirt in her bag that doesn't smell too awful and pulls it on, then lets the blanket fall down a little and scooches back to make room for him. He turns the car off, hesitates, then turns the overhead light off, too; it's instantly pitch-black. He fumbles his way back, somehow doesn't land an elbow on her anywhere, and then he's sitting right there.

"Okay," she says. "I know this is hard for you, Nick, but we're going to have to be grown-ups about this."

"Shut up," he says, half-laughing. "Just get over here."

He's stretching out on a diagonal, so that he's sitting on the seat with his feet on the divider between the footwells, and she hands him one side of the blanket and curls up against his side, and they tuck the sides of the blanket down around them.

And then they're just quiet, and she can stop purposefully not-thinking about it: she's half-naked, pressed up against a half-naked Nick. His skin is still a little chilly, and she pushes up a little closer. "Still cold?" she says.

He laughs a little. "I feel like I'm going to be cold for the next ten years," he says; his voice is low and a little embarrassed. "Don't worry about it. You mass, like, half of what I do, you don't need to try and give up your body heat."

"We're all in this blanket together," she says. "Laws of thermodynamics."

"You never took physics," he says.

"Had to, at the compound," she says into his side. "Homeschooling. For everyone up to eighteen."

"Huh," he says. "First time you were in school since, what?"

"Mom pulled me out lots of times," she said. "She taught me stuff, though. Made me read." She shrugs. "I didn’t like most of it. Shakespeare's not going to help me avoid Division."

"I don't know, some of the agents can get kind of poetic."

"And you read great works of literature in your spare time?" she says pointedly.

"Well," he says. "No."

"Yeah," she says. "So I haven't read Othello, but I could fix this car if it broke down. You think I'm wasting my time?"

"You never waste time," he says, quiet.

"It's hard when you can see everything you could be doing," she says. "And what happens if you do nothing."

"Yeah," he says. "Your idiot friends might get themselves killed."

"Aw," she says. "Maybe—seriously injured."

He snorts.

It's quiet for a minute, and she leans her head against his shoulder, feeling him breathe. "I'm glad I was there to keep you from getting killed," she says softly.

"Me too," he says, also softly. "Believe me."

"Glad I'm here now," she says, mostly into his arm.

For a second, she thinks he didn't hear her, but then he says, "I'd probably wish you somewhere with heat, if I could."

"Thermodynamics are keeping me warm," she says, and it's true that the air under the blanket is warming slowly. "At least," she shifts a little, "the side closer to you."

He moves against her, then pauses, but when she shifts away to see what he's going to do, he finally lifts his arm, slides it around her shoulders, and tugs her in.

She goes with it, shifts in closer, holding her breath, pillowing her head—"God," she says, jerking back, "your chest is freezing."

"Well—" he says, off his footing now, "the blanket was only so high—and you're a lot shorter, so—and all of my shirts are wet, now."

She looks at the blanket, and at him. There's no way to have it up to his chin without completely covering her head and suffocating her. Unless—

"Whoa," he says, "whoa, no, no, stop."

She stops, one leg on his lap. "Don't be such a baby," she says. "I'm not going to let you freeze all night. I know you can sleep with a girl all over you, I saw you with Kira."

"That's—there are so many things wrong with that statement, I don't even know where to start," he says.

"Then don't," she says, and finishes seating herself in his lap. She puts her back to the door, her legs across his, her feet tucked against his calves. When she lies down, her head is on his shoulder and the blanket hits both of their chins. "See?" she says.

"I feel like my virtue is being compromised," he says.

"File a complaint with management."

He huffs a laugh, and she feels his chest move. His skin is still cool under her cheek, but his thighs are warm under hers, the soft skin of his stomach against her hip. She shivers.

"Cold still?" he asks, totally misunderstanding, but it means that he finally, finally, puts his arms around her and hugs her. She breathes him in, and closes her eyes. "Okay," he whispers, turning his head so he’s speaking into her hair. "Okay."

 

She sleeps in fits and starts, waking up when he shifts under her, when the blanket slips a little, when he makes a sleepy uncomfortable noise in her ear, and she has to move a little. It stays warm, though, in their little pocket under the blanket; her shoulders are cold and her feet are cold, but everything from her knees to her chest is warm whenever she wakes up. She holds onto those long, drowsy moments, feeling him all against her, his chest moving with sleep-slow breaths, his arms relaxed now, one hand curled over her hip. Once, she turns her head enough that her lips brush his stubbly beard, and just that is enough to get her tingling, flushing with heat. Her hands clench where they're resting on his chest, and she has to force herself to relax, calm down, go back to sleep. She doesn't want to wake him up.

 

Finally, she opens her eyes, and light is filtering into the car. She blinks a few times until she can focus, and looks again. Early morning, and it's stopped raining.

And she's still warm, even sweating a little where she and Nick are touching, under her shirt. Her thighs. She shifts, stretching the tiniest bit, trying not to move too much, feeling his chest hair against her arms, slightly damp. She breathes carefully. This shouldn't be sexy, just waking up, morning breath and freezing air and sleeping all night in a crappy stolen car, but he's all hot and sprawling under her, and now that it's morning, she can see his face, asleep. His eyelashes are black against his cheeks, his mouth slightly open.

It doesn't take too long, though, until he starts waking up, too; he moves a little, stops when he starts shifting her a little too, and then his eyes fly open. "Cassie," he says, on a quick indrawn breath.

"Hi," she says, a little breathless herself, and shifts again, not wanting to get out from under the blanket, off of him, but not wanting to stay on his leg if it's asleep or something. "Let me just—" she moves a little more, and braces herself against his chest—she slides inward a little, and feels—

"Oh," she says, almost soundlessly, and shifts a little more.

"Cassie," he says, and she has to do something, before he can finish. She twists, careful not to knee him, and ends up straddling his lap, her hands on his chest, his on her shoulder blades, their skin just lightly slicked with sweat. She hesitates for just a second, her hands slipping up to grip his shoulders, and then lets herself drop down until she's rubbing right up against him.

She can feel his erection through her damp panties, and she inhales sharply, shifts her hips forward, can't help herself. His muscles shift under her hands as his hands slide down her back, down to grip her hips and pull—and she leans in and kisses him hard.

Just for a second, his lips are soft and damp against hers, his beard scratchy, and she hears herself make a ragged noise just before he twists his head away and lifts her up off his lap in one desperate motion.

"No," he says. "No, Cassie, no, I—" he shakes his head, and pushes the blanket off. Goosebumps instantly pop up on his arms, and Cassie catches the blanket before it slides to the floor, and watches him scrambling for clothes, pulling on rain-damp jeans and a maybe-dry shirt, and then he opens the door and he's out into the predawn woods.

Cassie sits in the backseat after he's gone, arms around her blanketed knees, and catches her breath. Then she finds her skirt, which is definitely still a little damp, pulls on her jacket, also damp, and gets out of the car to go find a bush to pee behind.

 

They drive in silence for fifteen minutes before Nick says, "That—won't happen again, Cassie. It just can't, all right? It's not going to happen." His hands are tight on the steering wheel.

Cassie's drawing, silver and brown and more silver, and she says, without looking up, "I thought I was the watcher."

"I'm saying no, Cassie," he says, his voice sharpening. "Hear me?"

"I hear you," she says, filling in the background. She holds it out, looks at it. Hotel room, bathroom door cracked with steam curling out, Nick sitting on one of the beds. His head's in his hands. She bites her lip, looking at it, and turns to a new page.

This time it's just his face, hair a spiky shock going off the page, and he's looking up. She sucks at facial expressions, but she can still see it in her head, the way his forehead had furrowed, the despairing set of his mouth. Nick, when he's at a loss, when he's at the end of his rope and he doesn't know what to do.

She spends the morning curled in the passenger's seat with her notebook; he doesn't look over, just watches the road, and eventually, somehow, he gets them onto the 80, and then he says, "Where next?"

Second-to-last card. She pulls it out, looks. "Vermont. Somewhere between Burlington and Montpelier."

"Okay," he says, and goes back to being silent.

She flips to a new page and starts drawing again. Skin—skin—mouths, hair, hands, and fuck yes, there they are. She looks at it, and looks up at Nick. There's a muscle jumping in his jaw.

She closes the notebook. She can do this.

 

 

 

They stop at another Holiday Inn in some Vermont town, earlier than usual, eat dinner at a deli down the street, soup and sandwiches.

When they get back to the room, Cassie says, "I'm going to take a long, hot shower."

"Sounds good," Nick says, and sits down on one of the beds. Cassie takes in how he's sitting, how the bed looks behind him. Yeah, this is right. She goes into the bathroom.

She takes the quickest shower known to man, just enough to wash the night in the car off, and leaves the water running when she steps out. She pulls on her skirt again, and the tank top she brought in with her, and opens the bathroom door as quietly as she can.

Nick's sitting just like she saw, motionless on the end of the bed, elbows on his knees, heels of his palms pressing into his eyes. Cassie opens the door wider, takes a step back, reaches into the shower and turns the water off.

His head comes up, and she's leaning against the doorframe by the time he's focused on her. "Hey," she says.

"You said you were going to take a long shower," he says, his voice cracking.

"I lied," she says, coming out to stand in front of him. "I saw you," she says.

"God damn it," he says seriously. "You are not fair."

"I saw us, too," she tells him.

He closes his eyes. "Cassie—" he starts.

"What?" she says. "I'm too young? You don't want to? You can't? You're secretly married to Kira?"

He laughs, short and sharp. "You'd hate that."

"You're damn right I would," she says, enunciating every word. "So tell me it's not true."

He opens his eyes. "It's not true," he says, smiling a little.

"Good," she tells him. "Because you may or may not know this, but you're not hers. You’re mine."

The smile fades, and he meets her eyes for a long minute. "What's that supposed to mean?" he says, and maybe he's trying for teasing, but he definitely doesn't make it there.

"What it sounds like," she says flatly.

He breathes out. "Shit," he says finally, and leans his head back to stare at the ceiling.

She watches the lines of his face, the set of his mouth, and says, "It's okay if you don't know what to do."

He half-laughs. "I really, really don't."

She finds her notebook, sits down next to him, not quite touching. Holds up her pen, eyebrows up.

"I don't know if watching is really the right medium for a decision like this," he says after a second.

"Future's always changing," she says. "If you don't like it, make a different decision. I'll draw something else."

He lets out his breath. "Okay," he says. "Draw."

She draws. The bed, sheets pooled at the foot. One pillow. Other pillow partly blocked by Nick's spiky hair. Nick's face blocked by her hair, spilling down over her back. No shirt on her. No shirt on him. Skirt ruffling around her thighs, boxers on his.

He's staring at it when she looks up, and he reaches for it when it's clear that she's done; she lifts her hands and lets it float over to him. He holds it in his hands, looks at it for a long, long minute. "You saw this like a picture, right?" he says.

"More like a movie," she corrects.

That gets him to look up. "A movie?" He glances down again. "How much further did it go?"

"Not much," she says. "Basically just," she waves a hand at the drawing, "that." She looks at it. "Even that's kind of hot, though."

He sighs, rubs his eyes—the notebook hangs in the air, like he's forgotten about it; she doesn't say anything. "Yeah," he says finally.

She contains the yessssss that wants to come out, and instead she just steps forward, puts a hand on his shoulder. "It doesn't have to be tonight," she tries. "It could be—whenever." Although if he says when you're twenty or something, they're going to be renegotiating.

He turns toward her, rests his forehead against her arm. "Okay," he says, but it sounds more like he's talking to himself than answering her question. There's a pause, where she just looks down at him and wants very badly to run her fingers through his spiky hair. "Okay," he says again after a second, and lifts his head again. "If we're actually doing this, there are going to be rules."

"Rules?" she says, eyebrows up.

"Yeah, rules," he says. "Rule number one, you're in charge."

"I like these rules," she says.

"Yeah, I thought you would. Except it's superseded by rule two, which is that either of us can call a stop at any point for any reason."

"Sounds fair," she says, remembering suddenly the discussion they almost had about people forcing other people into sex.

"Rule number three," he says. "Tonight everybody keeps their pants on."

She looks down. "Is now an okay time to tell you that I'm not wearing anything under this skirt?"

"Oh my fucking God." He looks away. "Go put something on. Please."

"One day," she tells him, "you're going to be telling me to please take something off." But she goes to find underwear.

"Sooner than you think," he mutters, and maybe he doesn't mean for her to hear it, but she does.

"Underwear on," she says after a minute. "Anything else?"

"I'll tell you when I can think with my brain again," he says. "For now, per rule number one, it's up to you."

"You know I don't have a whole ton of experience at this, right," she says, coming back over to him and wondering where to touch first.

"Well, it's been long enough for me that I've probably forgotten how, anyway," he says. "Don't worry about it."

"I'm not worried," she tells him, and climbs into his lap.

"Oh, Christ," he says, and closes his eyes as she kisses him.

She's gotten pretty good at this, she thinks, and he opens his mouth for her just like Peter used to—used to, she thinks, the last time was just about a week ago. It feels like years. And now she has Nick under her, groaning softly as he kisses her back, his hands tight on her hips, his tongue hot and soft against hers. She licks the roof of his mouth and bites his lower lip just a little. "Ow," he whispers against her mouth.

"Baby," she tells him, and kisses him again.

They make out like that for a while, him making deep, pleased noises, shifting underneath her occasionally, moving his hands from her hips to her back, playing with the bottom of her tank top. She smiles into the kiss when he does that. "Watch it," she murmurs.

He pulls back to look at her. "You are seriously one to talk."

She raises her eyebrows. "You said I was in charge."

He lifts his hands, smiling. "Whatever you want."

"Well," she says, "I guess I want to do this." And she reaches down and pulls her tank over her head.

He makes a noise that sounds kind of like a strangled laugh. "No argument here."

She glances down. She hadn't put a bra on after the shower, and he's running his hands up her sides, big and warm and rough, until his thumbs are just brushing the underside of her breasts. "Okay?" he asks.

"I really love your hands," she says, helplessly honest. He tilts his chin up to kiss her and runs the thumb of his right hand slowly, slowly across her breast and over her nipple. She squirms.

He breaks off to say, "Good?"

"Good," she says, and he kisses her again, his hand coming up to cup her breast this time, steady but not pressing too hard. She pulls on his shirt, and he pauses to take it off, and now she really can touch him, his shoulders, his chest, his stomach, and then she slides her hand around to his back, remembering the first time she'd seen any part of him at all naked, after the stitch healed him, the pale stretch of his spine, the curve of his hip above his jeans. She fills her hands with him, and kisses him hard.

Eventually she has to breathe, and he turns his head when she pulls back, kissing along her cheek and down her neck. She shivers, and he stops. "Cassie," he says into her shoulder.

She leans back, sitting on his knees. "Okay?" she says.

He takes a shuddering breath. "Sort of," he says. "We should stop, though."

Her hands tighten involuntarily on him, but she reminds herself that they've got every night from now until whenever Division finally carts them away, and makes herself relax. "Okay," she says. And then, "...getting up now."

"Now," he says, and she finds herself hovering for just a minute as he sidles out from under her, and then she's carefully lowered to kneel on the bed instead.

"Hey," she says, contemplating her extremely soft landing. "You're getting really good at that."

He flashes her a grin. "I know," he says, pleased with himself. She smiles helplessly back, and he stands up. "Okay, I think it's my turn for a long, hot shower."

She snickers. He gives her a look. "Rule two has been fairly invoked."

"Sure," she says. "Enjoy your shower."

"I definitely, definitely will," he says, and vanishes into the bathroom.

It takes her about five minutes to bring herself off, after he's gone. She flops down on the bed when she's done, panting and watching the ceiling. The vision hits her nice and slow, just a calendar, the picture a landscape of a field full of purple flowers; it's on May.

She blinks out of it just as Nick's coming out of the bathroom; she stands up and goes to wash up and brush her teeth. When she comes out, he's under the covers, watching her. He has a shirt on, and she hesitates, but he says, "C'mere."

She flicks the light off and crawls in next to him, curls up against his chest. He puts an arm over her, hugs her in close; she feels his nose against her hair.

"Love you," he whispers.

"I love you," she says into the tiny space between them, and closes her eyes.

 

When she wakes up the next morning, the first thing she sees is him, asleep next to her. She's smiling before she even really remembers what happened last night. And then she's really smiling.

"Hey," she says after a second. "Nick. Wake up."

He shifts, groans in the pillow, and blinks his eyes open. "What?" he mumbles. "Someone coming?"

"Nope," she says. She sits up, crossing her legs. He rubs a hand over his face, then reaches out to her, brushing his fingertips down her arm.

"Hey," he says. "Morning."

"Good morning." She catches his hand, touches the knuckles, runs her thumb down his fingers, tickles his palm.

He twitches, pulls his hand back. "Stop that."

She grabs it again, pulls it in, and kisses the middle of his palm where she tickled him. He closes his eyes, curls his fingers around hers. "Do we have to go anywhere today?"

"Yeah," she says. "We don't want a Division watcher to see us in bed at eight PM and get on a plane."

"We're at a Holiday Inn," he argues, but he's sitting up. "We could be literally anywhere in the country right now."

"Wouldn't you rather be somewhere we know is safe?" she asks pointedly.

He shakes his head. "Nowhere's really safe."

She bites her lip. "I know," she says. "But I think—I think it'll be okay."

"Yeah, okay," he sighs, and rolls out of bed. "Dibs on the bathroom."

She has the calendar vision again just as he's coming out, and rummages for her notebook. She draws the calendar, and this time she has some context—it's in a kitchen, there's a window and a sink. It's still May.

He looks over her shoulder at the drawing. "What's that mean?"

"Don't know yet," she says, and hands the book to him. "Gotta brush my teeth."

When she comes out, he's flipping slowly through her drawings; he stops on the one of himself, head in his hands. "When'd you see this one?" he asks.

"Yesterday in the car," she says. "When you were being a dumbass."

"Hey," he says. "I think I was being pretty reasonable, considering I met you when you were thirteen."

"I'm not thirteen anymore."

"Believe me," he says, "I know."

"Besides," she says, "it's not like you got anywhere special with all your extra years." She takes her notebook back. "You're still a dumbass."

"Thanks," he says, and goes to pack his bag.

She catches him before he heads for the door, grabs his arm, and when he turns, puts a hand on the back of his head and tugs him down to kiss. He closes his eyes, kisses her slowly, and when they part, he says, "You know, I never thought—"

"What?" she asks, when he doesn't finish.

"I didn't think about this," he says, looking at her. "But if I had, I wouldn't have thought it would be so good."

She frowns. "Is this a compliment or an insult?"

"I just should have realized that we'd be good together," he says. "We always are."

"Yeah," she tells him, and this time she thinks the dumbass is implied. "Let's go. I'm driving."

"You sure are," he says, and follows her out.

 

The last card takes them to Maine. Nick turns it over in his hands, looking at the address. "This would only take an hour or two on the highway," he says. "It'll take us longer on back roads, but we'll definitely get there this afternoon, unless we get lost again."

"We are not getting lost again," she says.

"I'm on it," he says, and bends over the map.

She's hyperaware of him—she thought, somehow, that now that she can touch, she wouldn't be so conscious of every move he makes, the bend of his neck and the brush of his fingers against the map book, but she is. She drives carefully, hands at ten and two, watching the road. Every so often, he'll say, "Take a left here," or, "Another five miles," and she'll feel his voice like it's a physical thing, along her spine and in the pit of her stomach.

They've been driving for two hours when she finally can't take it anymore and pulls over on a deserted stretch of road. "What?" he says, looking up from the map. "Something wrong?"

"Yeah," she says, and climbs over the parking brake. "Maybe you can help me out?"

"Oh, man," he says, the map book falling to the side of the chair, his hands closing on her hips as she straddles him. "Suddenly my life is a porn."

"You are way hotter than any porn guy I've ever seen," she says, settling into his lap.

"I can't believe you've seen porn," he says, and his hips roll up as she kisses him. He shuts up and kisses her back, and his fingers tighten as they make out, holding her in close. She loves his mouth, the roughness of his beard, the way he tastes. How solid he is under her. The noises he makes.

"Okay," she says eventually, panting as she pulls away from his lips. "Should get back to driving now."

He makes a protesting noise.

"You made the rules," she says unsympathetically, and he lets go of her hips with a sigh.

"Right," he says, as she climbs back over to the driver's seat. "God, that skirt is indecent."

"My jeans still weren't dry this morning," she says, settling in. "Believe me, it's cold as hell out there, I'd rather be wearing them."

"Hey," he says, "if we hang out at this place for a while, we could end up with more than one pair of pants each."

"Shocker!" she says, and turns the car back on, checks for traffic—nothing—and pulls back onto the road.

She had a decent wardrobe at the compound in California, but it was all pretty—decent. Torri liked everyone to be basically sober and well-put-together. She hasn't worn this skirt in months, which was part of the reason she packed it.

They drive until lunch. She has to pull over one more time, but this time it's just because she's having the calendar vision again—she can drive when she's seeing something, but it's not easy and it's not fun, so it's probably for the best that they're avoiding major highways—and this time when she draws it, she sketches in the two of them sitting at a table in the kitchen, next to the calendar.

"Is that where we're going?" he asks, looking at it.

"It's somewhere we're going," she says. "I won't know if it's this place until we get there. Probably, though."

They stop for lunch, and Nick hooks his leg around hers under the table. Her sandwich becomes an afterthought, barely even present next to her awareness of him, his calf warm even through his jeans. She eats without tasting much, watching him. He's smiling.

 

They get there around midafternoon. Cassie watches the house as they pull up and sees curtains twitching, sudden movement in the dirty window where the house and garage connect: paranoia in action. She gets out of the car, stands for a second in plain view while Nick gets out the other side, and then walks up to the front door with him and rings the bell.

The door opens after a second, cautiously. "Can I—" the woman on the other side starts, and then cuts off abruptly, staring at her.

"Hidaka Yoshiko?" Cassie asks. "I'm Cassie Holmes—"

"Cassie," Yoshiko breathes, eyes searching her face. "You look just like your mother."

She smiles politely. After a second, Yoshiko's eyes turn to Nick, who says, "Nick Gant. Nice to meet you, Hidaka-san."

"Please," she says. "Call me Yoshiko. And come in, come in."

They follow her in, and she seats them in a pleasant living room, leaving to, presumably, tell everyone else to stand down, false alarm. Cassie's in the corner of a very comfortable couch; Nick's next to her, but he's keeping his ass firmly on the middle cushion, a good foot of space between them. She looks at him, and he looks back at her, but Yoshiko's back before they can say anything.

"Welcome," she says. "This is Greg," a stocky blond man in his forties, "and Liam," a slender black man about ten years younger. "My daughter Aiko is making tea."

They stand up to shake hands and everyone sits down again. Greg says, "We don't get a lot of visitors up here."

"My mother told me about Yoshiko," Cassie says. "She said she was a friend, and if I ever needed somewhere to stay—"

"Of course you can stay," Yoshiko says. "Your mother was a very good friend. I was extremely sorry when she was captured. And your friend," she hesitates, looking at Nick.

"Him, too," Cassie says instantly.

"I'm in less trouble than Cassie is," Nick says, "so if—I mean, I don't have to—" She kicks him. "Or, never mind," he says.

"You're very welcome," Yoshiko says. “Both of you.”

"Thanks," Nick says. "We really appreciate it."

"It's safe here," Yoshiko says. "I'm a shadow, and Division's been looking for me for a long time without any success. As long as you weren't followed by conventional means—"

"Definitely not," Cassie says. "Unless Division's a whole lot better at navigating central Pennsylvania in the dark than we are."

"I think they would've caught us when we were sitting ducks overnighting in the car, in that case," Nick says. "We took some serious precautions," he assures Yoshiko. "We didn't know exactly where we were going until we got here, we stayed away from main roads."

A girl a little older than Cassie comes in with a tea tray, and sets it on the coffee table. "Hi," she says to them. “Welcome. I'm Aiko."

"This is Cassie Holmes, and her friend Nick Gant," Yoshiko says. "Would you like tea?" she asks them.

"Yes, please," says Nick.

"Thank you," Cassie says, and takes a cup when it's offered.

"How long did you need to stay?" Greg asks, sounding guarded.

Cassie hands her cup to Nick and opens her bag, looking through it for her notebook, and flips through it. "Depends," she says, and holds it out when she finds the right page, the one with the largest view of the room. "Do you recognize this?"

He takes it, looks at it. "That's the kitchen," he says.

"So right now, we'll be here in May," she says. "Whether we're still here, or we go and come back," she shrugs. She takes the book when he hands it back, glances at the drawing again. "It looks peaceful," she offers.

"You're a watcher like your mother," Yoshiko says. "We haven't known any watchers since she disappeared."

"We're pretty rare," she says. "But yeah, I'm a watcher. Not as good as my mom."

"She's good," Nick says, and Cassie glances at him, surprised.

"He's a mover," she says after a second. "And he's pretty good too, when he's motivated." He kicks her lightly.

"I'm a shadow too," Aiko says. "I move around a lot more than Mom does, though. She keeps the house hidden, mostly."

"But since there are two of us, I can leave without endangering anyone," Yoshiko says.

Neither Greg nor Liam volunteers what their talent is, which is understandable. "Anyway," she says, "we're not just here to take advantage of your hospitality. We need to stay hidden until everything dies down, but we can pay you, or help you out if you need it."

"You're working against Division, I assume," Yoshiko says.

"Yeah," Cassie says.

"Then," she says, "I'm sure that we can come to a mutually satisfying agreement."

 

After a little more awkward small talk—Liam, Cassie notices, doesn't speak once—Yoshiko shows them upstairs. "We have one spare room," she says, hesitating. "There's also a couch in the study."

Nick looks at her. "We'll share," Cassie says.

"All right," Yoshiko says, and leads them into the spare room. It's small but nice, with a thick carpet and a bed big enough for the two of them. "I'll leave you to get settled in," Yoshiko says, and leaves.

Cassie drops her bag by a chair and says, "Okay, what's up?"

"What?" he asks. "Nothing."

"You're quiet," she says. "That's not like you."

"Oh, thanks," he says.

"You know what I mean. Is one of them your estranged brother or something?"

He laughs, and Cassie relaxes a little. "No," he says, "no. I was just—you're the one Yoshiko knows, so it was better to let you do the talking at first, and then I didn't know what to say about—" he motions between them.

"Well, we're sharing a room, so I think the cat's out of the bag, there, buddy," she says dryly.

"Well, now I know that," he says. "Next time, we establish roles before we go into foreign territory."

"Sure thing, Mr. Bond," she says. "Now. Lie down before dinner?"

"That better not be code for sex," he says.

She raises an eyebrow. "Can it be code for 'make out'?" she asks.

He hesitates. "Yeah, okay."

"Yes," she says, triumphant, and he starts to laugh.

 

They make out enough to learn that the bed doesn't squeak, thank God, and then Aiko knocks on the door.

"Hey," she says when Nick answers, "we're serving dinner soon. Mom wants to know if you're allergic to anything."

"Nope," Nick says. "We're coming down, anyway." He steps out, holding the door for Cassie. "So when you said you moved around," he says to Aiko, "did you mean working?"

"I do some freelance shadowing," she says. "It pays the bills. We all do what we can about Division. And then," she smiles, "I take a class or two a semester at UMaine."

"Oh, yeah?" Nick says. He looks at Cassie.

"Sounds like a great idea," she says. "I know you've been wanting to catch up on your Shakespeare."

"Maybe they have an art school," he says.

"Shut up," she tells him, and neatly cuts ahead of him. "What are you studying?" she asks Aiko.

"Tell you in a second," Aiko says, veering off to the kitchen when they reach the bottom of the stairs. "Hey, Mom—you guys can sit in the living room or wherever—"

Cassie goes in, takes the seat in the middle of the couch this time. When Nick sits down, this time, his thigh brushes hers.

"Okay?" she asks him. "With all of this, I mean."

"Yeah," he says. He smiles suddenly. "I still miss Hong Kong, though."

"Someday," she says seriously. "When Division's just a memory."

"I'm holding you to that, you know," he says.

"Counting on it," she says, and turns to smile at Aiko coming into the room.