Cassie’s been with her mother for two weeks when she has the first vision of him.
It hits her in the grocery store, standing in the health food section, trying to decide between almond or soy milk, and suddenly she’s somewhere else, in a bar with sticky floors and country western music pounding in her ears, there’s a whiskey shot by her left hand and an old man with grey hair is leaning over the bar in front of her, speaking in Spanish.
She says something back, she doesn’t understand because it’s Spanish but it’s Nick’s voice, Nick’s hands rubbing her chin and picking up the shot, Nick’s lips that purse around the glass and Nick’s throat that burns as it goes down. And as quick as it starts it’s over, and Cassie is herself again, standing in the grocery store, fighting vertigo and feeling suddenly very drunk, very lost, and very, very alone.
“Sweetheart,” Elizabeth says, when Cassie gets back to their small apartment. That’s it, that’s all. She does that, Cassie has noticed, will leave her sentences half-finished, trusting Cassie to know what she means.
“I’m fine,” Cassie tells her. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Elizabeth is thin, so thin, Cassie feels a tiny lurch of sickness every time she glimpses her mother’s delicate wrists, the stringy mess of hair, the bones that are clearly visible beneath her pale skin. Cassie has to bite back a protest as Elizabeth joins her at the counter to help with the groceries.
“How is he?” Elizabeth asks, taking out a loaf of French bread, inspecting it closely. She does that too, Cassie thinks. Like, examines everything. Even Cassie. Especially Cassie.
“I don’t,” Cassie starts, at a loss. “I said I don’t want to talk about it.”
Elizabeth hums once, setting the bread aside as a can of creamed corn catches her eye.
“I don’t,” Cassie says again insistently. There’s a great push of emotion against her sternum that almost feels solid in its intensity, rebellion and resentment and impulsive, almost childish, anger. “Mom.”
“Then don’t talk about it,” Elizabeth says, as if it’s obvious. Maybe it is. “Ignore it, if that’s what you want.”
Cassie wants to snap at her, in fact has to turn away to stop herself. There’s nothing to be angry about, really, it’s ridiculous to be angry. Her mom’s not the one pushing this. It’s stupid to be angry. Why is she angry?
“It was just a vision,” she says helplessly.
“They’re never just visions,” Elizabeth says chidingly.
Her hands are shaking, Cassie notices. She shakes them out angrily and sticks them in her armpits. “Well, this one was.”
“Okay.” Cassie hears Elizabeth move, feels the barest brush of a hand against the back of her neck. “It’s fine.”
Cassie stares at the stove for long after Elizabeth is gone, watching the numbers on the digital clock change.
It’s almost eight o’clock, where he is, she thinks.
They hadn't said goodbye, because Cassie couldn’t bear it and they didn’t have a lot of time. They hadn’t had much privacy either, hadn’t since they’d finally caught up to Elizabeth and Choi in Schönert. So it was, six years that ended with an awkward hug and a promise to keep in touch. It was fucking awful.
She’d pressed her face against the window of their taxi to watch him leave, kept her eyes glued to the bumper of his pickup until long after it’d disappeared into traffic. Kept checking her phone, even though she knew he wouldn’t call until it was safe, knew it wasn’t safe yet, knew it’d probably never be safe. Not for any Specials, but especially not for them.
Three days later she’d found a flower tucked in-between the pages of her sketchbook, in the section they’d always used for tic-tac-toe and hangman games on long train and plane rides.
Her mother had crawled into bed with her that night, wrapping her thin arms around Cassie’s shoulders and pressing their cheeks together beneath the blankets. She’d called Cassie ‘sweetheart’ and had rocked her as she cried, humming under her breath until dawn creeped through the curtains of their hotel room.
“You don’t have to do this,” she’d said to Cassie in the morning, as Choi was getting their ferry tickets, “I would never blame you. I want you to be happy, you know that.”
Cassie hadn’t known what to say, so she hadn’t said anything. What could she say?
It was too late at that point, anyway.
She has three more visions in as many days. Nick washing his hair, Nick driving on an interstate, Nick cleaning a gun. All three are overwhelming in their intensity, leaving her gasping for air, out of place in her own body.
She thinks she’s Seeing him in her dreams, too, although she doesn’t remember so she can’t be sure – but she wakes up like – she wakes up feeling insanely light, confined, small, running her hands over herself and being somehow surprised at what she finds. Her hair feels strange on her shoulders, and there’s a gross, uncomfortable feeling of wrongness that doesn’t fade until well into the morning.
Elizabeth gets steadily angrier, because of course she knows, of course Cassie doesn’t have to tell her. By the fourth day of this, she’s not even speaking to Cassie anymore, just storming around the place slamming things and glaring furiously at anything that crosses her path.
Choi comes back that afternoon, with the forged citizenship papers she’s been working on and a bag of candy from London for Cassie. She always does that – brings presents for Cassie, like she’s her fucking grandmother or something. Cassie can usually ignore it, but today it grates on her nerves something fierce.
“What’s going on?” she asks Cassie, folding herself up on their small couch, peering with curious eyes into the kitchen where Elizabeth is angrily making coffee. They both wince when they hear something glass shatter.
“Nothing,” Cassie tells her dismissively. “Family stuff.”
Choi raises an eyebrow, looking unimpressed. And rightly so. “Should I ask Elizabeth?”
“If you want.” Cassie shrugs, deliberately arranging her face to seem impassive. She’s being unfair, she knows, but there’s something about Choi that rubs Cassie the wrong way – maybe it’s how long Elizabeth has known her, or how much they obviously trust each other, that visceral evidence of the entire life her mother lived in Cassie’s absence. Or maybe it’s because she reminds Cassie of Kira, with her proprietary way of talking to Elizabeth, the way she condescends to Cassie without meaning to, expecting her to be a good little sister and thank her for her help and gosh, thanks for the presents, Aunt Choi.
Choi gives her a cool look, rising from the couch and gliding into the kitchen with that smooth, graceful way of moving she has. That reminds her of Kira too, Cassie thinks, the way she makes Cassie feel clumsy and awkward just by breathing. It’s not any easier to deal with at nineteen than it was at thirteen, she notices bitterly.
The apartment – flat, it’s a flat – feels oppressive all of a sudden, with Elizabeth and Choi’s low voices in the kitchen and the wind battering at the window and all their secondhand furniture crowding up the room like unwanted guests. Cassie sits there and twitches for a few minutes, glaring at the ceiling, and finally mutters a quick curse beneath her breath and goes for her jacket. Fuck it, just – fuck everything.
They live on the outskirts of Leeds, in a bland apartment building full of young twentysomethings who leave en masse every morning in pantsuits and silk ties, pack themselves up on trains to London with their faces buried in iPhones and tablets. Cassie feels out of place here, but then again she feels out of place everywhere. She used to take heart in this, get strength from it somehow. Nick used to tease her about it, too, how she could draw people’s eyes everywhere she went. Now it just feels dangerous. And suffocating.
There are bars – pubs, whatever – everywhere, of course, and they sit mostly empty during the day. She thinks about going into one, getting a drink, thinks about the stares she’d inevitably get. Thinks about going to a coffee shop instead, where she’d probably fit in better. She could get a latte or a mocha or whatever, something girly and age-appropriate, and like, a muffin or a scone or whatever the fuck. She could sit by a window and read a book or something. Stare into space or contemplate her navel or whatever people do at coffee shops.
She hates coffee. Nick was the coffee drinker, he was always dragging her into those places, sending her out for his stupid, frou-frou drinks, bitching in the morning about how he couldn’t function without caffeine, please go get me a latte Cass, please, I’ll love you forever. God, he was such a drama queen. Like she hadn’t seen him function perfectly without it a million different times. One time, in California, he’d woken up at five in the morning and had hacked into someone’s bank account, booked them plane tickets, cleaned their guns and hot-wired a car, all before Cassie had even woken up. Without coffee, Cassie might add.
Cassie stops short in the middle of the sidewalk, realizing belatedly that she’s been walking in the direction of the train station on pure instinct. She turns on her heel and heads back the way she’d come, chest burning in frustration.
It’s stupid and cruel, that’s what this is. Like the universe, or her power, maybe, is taunting her, showing her what she can’t have. She knows she misses Nick, that’s not exactly a surprise. How could she not know that when it’s all she thinks about – where he is, what he’s doing, is he safe, has he found that Shifter they were tracking down yet, is he eating right, is he drinking too much – forever, like this, an endless scroll in her head that never shuts off.
But she knew that would happen when she made this decision. She expected it. She knew how hard it would be, knew that she would probably regret it a million times, but – but.
That she feels like a shitty person, that the guilt is so strong it chokes her, that she feels like she’s betrayed him somehow – all that, she wasn’t expecting. Maybe she should have. Probably should have.
She has a vision halfway back to the apartment. Nick’s on the move again, sitting on a bus, thumbing through Cassie’s old sketchbook, running his fingertips over her drawings. She hadn’t even known he’d kept that thing, and it really shouldn’t make her feel better that she can literally feel how much he misses her too, but it totally, totally does.
(She’s never claimed to be a good person. Just a powerful one.)
Choi’s a Shadow, that’s what makes the plan work. That, and the fact that Division thinks Elizabeth is dead.
Nick was the one who’d come up with the idea originally, and he and Choi had worked out the details together. It was simple, like the best plans are: go somewhere with little or no Division presence. Hide. Live, rest. Exist.
Cassie was almost deliriously happy at first, envisioning a place somewhere with Nick and her mom where they could all just be for a while. Maybe they’d get jobs, maybe Cassie could take some college classes or something. Elizabeth could take up a hobby, something to keep her mind busy and occupied – knitting or button collecting or krav manga or something. They could decorate and cook dinner and like, grow a garden, and all that other normal shit. That lasted for about a day.
“I can’t come with you,” Nick had told her, expression pained.
“The fuck you mean you can’t,” Cassie replied. Elizabeth and Choi, sitting on one of the twin beds, exchanged significant looks and immediately stood up, almost in unison.
“We’ll leave you two to talk,” Choi said, taking Elizabeth’s hand. Cassie glared them right out of the room.
“Cass,” Nick started. Cassie didn’t wait for whatever the end of that sentence was, already fed up with all of it.
“I get it. No, it’s fine. Whatever. Thanks.” She moved to the window, furious and embarrassed, something tearing in half in her chest.
“Don’t be like that,” Nick said, “please.”
Cassie pressed her forehead to the window, watching the cars driving past on the highway. Her throat felt too dry to speak.
“I can’t,” Nick started, sighing audibly. “They’re not going to stop chasing me.”
“But they’ll give up on me?” Cassie asked, whirling around. “I was right there next to you, Nick. They’ve seen my face as often as they’ve seen yours; they want me just as bad as they want you – “
“But it’s not personal, with you,” Nick said. Cassie’s mouth snapped shut. “Kira – “
“Fuck Kira,” Cassie snapped. “Fuck you, too. You know what you’re asking me to do?”
Nick looked down, expression drawn. The answer was written all over his face.
“Fine,” she said, voice breaking. “Fine. But don’t act like you’re doing us some big favor, like you’re trying to protect me – us. You don’t want to stop. That’s the truth. Isn’t it.”
“We’re getting close,” Nick said. “We’ve been making progress, real progress. I can’t give up now.”
“That’s what you think this is, giving up,” Cassie said furiously.
“That’s not what I meant.”
“But it’s what you think,” Cassie replied stubbornly. Nick shook his head once, brow furrowed.
“I want you to be happy,” he said helplessly. “Cass, look at me. Look at me.” He stepped forward, pinning her gaze in place with his own. “I want you to do what you want to do. I want you to – fuck.”
Cassie took a step forward, wanting to touch him but unsure of her welcome, like always. She thinks she’s wanted to touch him since before they met. She’s known he wouldn’t know what to do with it for just as long.
“I want you to be able to have this,” he finally said. Something I missed my chance on, he didn’t have to say. “But it’ll be easier for you if I’m out there, making noise. And you know they’ll be more suspicious if we both disappear at once. They’ll start to add things up. This way, I can distract them – you’ll have more time, won’t have to move around as much.”
Cassie collapsed on the bed, buried her face in her hands. Her head was spinning, like it usually did after visions. Like it wasn’t quite connected to the rest of her body.
“I don’t think I’d last long anyway,” he said, trying to joke. “I’d drive myself crazy. Or you.”
“Okay,” she said numbly, blankly. “Okay.”
“Cassie.” She felt him sit next to her on the bed, felt him reach out for her shoulder, then change his course to her elbow instead. “I’m sorry.”
Cassie thought, there are two ways this could go. She thought, this is going to fucking suck. She thought, I’m never going to find anyone else that will measure up to him, ever, for the rest of my life.
“I need a drink,” she said, and physically felt Nick relax.
“You’re too young to drink,” he said.
“Your face is too young,” Cassie shot back, and he rolled his eyes and called her a brat, and she stole the half-empty bottle of orange juice in his backpack to make screwdrivers, and they didn’t talk about it again.
That night, Cassie sneaks back into the apartment with a bottle of rum in her bag, feeling like a rebellious teenager for the first time in her life and kind of pissed off about it.
The TV is on, and Cassie can barely make out her mother’s head, lying against the back cushion. Choi is sitting next to her, her arm around Elizabeth’s shoulder. They look like they’re asleep.
Cassie stands there and watches their silhouettes for a long, long time. She thinks about waking them up, saying something, turning the TV off, anything. In the end she picks none of the above, goes to her room and drinks half the bottle straight.
She’s not a healthy person in any sense of the word, but especially in her relationship to alcohol, which is both dependent and destructive. Nick hated, hates it, used to monitor her intake like a parole officer, would give her hell whenever she crossed whatever arbitrary line he’d drawn for her in his head.
Her mom doesn’t do any of that shit. She either thinks Cassie can handle it on her own, or that she doesn’t have the right to say something. Either way, Cassie’s about four shots past being okay with it.
Part of what makes booze attractive is that it keeps away the visions, dulls her senses, and so for an entire blissful night, she doesn’t See Nick, doesn’t wish she would See Nick, doesn’t regret Seeing Nick, and maybe doesn’t think about him either. Or okay, she totally does, but it doesn’t hurt. As much.
The next morning, she passes Choi in the hallway on the trek to the bathroom. Choi is wearing sweatpants and a flannel robe, and Cassie sort of wants to punch her in the face.
“Good morning,” Choi says. She smiles. “Did you have a good sleep?”
Cassie runs into the bathroom to puke.
“Morning, Mom,” Cassie mumbles, finally emerging from the bathroom. Elizabeth gives her an empty smile.
“Feel any better?” Choi asks. She’s scrambling eggs at the stove. Cassie shrugs.
“Did you hear me last night?” she asks. “Mom? I didn’t mean to wake you up.”
“Mr. Freeman across the way has three daughters,” Elizabeth says, apropos of nothing. Cassie’s stomach sinks. “His second eldest is named after his grandmother, Dorothy, but everyone called her Dottie. She’s a waitress in Gloucestershire. She’s married to a barrister and Mr. Freeman is worried that he’s not treating her well. He wants to go visit her, but he doesn’t have the money yet.”
“Mom,” Cassie says uncomfortably.
Choi shoots Cassie a sharp look, cutting her off. “That’s very sad, Lizzie,” she says. “Is he saving up for a trip?”
Elizabeth looks over at Choi, something faraway, almost lost, in her gaze. “Six people are going to die in a three-car pile-up in Harrisburg, Illinois on March twenty-third.”
Cassie clenches her fists beneath the table, staring blankly down at the salt and pepper shakers.
“That’s very sad, too,” Choi says. She walks over to the table, frying pan in hand, and spoons out a generous portion of eggs onto Elizabeth’s empty plate. “Don’t you think, Cassie?”
Choi always does this, just goes along with whatever Elizabeth says. It drives Cassie up the wall; she always wants to grab her mother by the shoulders and just shake her, snap her out of her head and back to the present. Always wants to grab and pull until she’s back on solid ground and not out in the ether, in danger of slipping away forever.
“Yeah, real sad,” she chokes out, holding out a hand to waylay Choi and her pan of eggs.
“Did Nick and Cassie call?” Elizabeth asks vaguely. “They said they’d call. They’re in India, you know. Hyderabad.”
“I’ve never been partial to India,” Choi comments, glancing at Cassie out of the corner of her eye. “Too hot, not enough moisture.”
“I’m right here, Mom,” Cassie says, digging her fingernails into her palms. “I’m not in India.”
“Don’t be silly,” Elizabeth says. “They’re in Hyderabad. Nick texted me just this morning.”
Cassie’s face flushes with heat, her hands start to shake again and she thinks she might be about to cry, which is not an option sitting next to Choi with her sympathetic face and her perfectly scrambled eggs and her stupid fucking flannel robe. Not even an option at all.
“I’m going back to bed,” she announces. Choi opens her mouth, then shuts it again.
“I’ll wake you up in time for lunch, Hye-Su,” Elizabeth tells her. Cassie’s eyes fly to Choi, who’s looking at Elizabeth, eyes soft and sad.
“Fine,” Cassie manages, and escapes.
Here’s the thing: Cassie’s in love with Nick, she knows that about herself just as sure as she knows that he’s currently in West Texas, working his way towards California, sitting in a motel room drinking a frou-frou latte and thinking about calling her.
Six years, they stuck together. They blew a lot of shit up, made a lot of trouble for a lot of Division agents, slept in crappy hotel rooms and stole cars and credit cards and bickered like cats and dogs and worked hard, tried so badly to carve out something like a life, always kept telling themselves that they could make things better, one step at a time.
And they did, at least for their part. There was still Kira, and the machine she operated, much larger than they could hope to defeat on their own. But they did little things – broke out three little kids, a Mover and two Bleeders, from a lab in New York. Blew up a lab in Panama. Stole some research from a facility in Burma that set the Division scientists back a couple years. Little stuff, but also big, in context.
So what other way could it have gone, Cassie wants to know. How could she have avoided it, at the end of the day.
Nick, who is goofy and stupid and reckless. Who bitches constantly and nags her about everything, who bought her a fancy gown once because she’d complained about never getting to dress up, who’s never abandoned her, let her down, betrayed her. Nick, her partner. Nick, who she left.
She wants to go back, but she also wants to stay. She wants to not have been forced into this choice, the choice between the two people she loves more than anything else in the world. An apartment in Leeds with her mother and her mother’s Shadow, or the world, with Nick.
She wants a lot of things, but Cassie doesn't often get what she wants. That’s another thing she knows.
Choi finds her in the small park a few streets away, sitting at the base of the slide and staring at the toes of her combat boots. Cassie doesn’t look up until Choi has sat down a few feet away, on the edge of one of the swings.
“I didn’t know Hye-Su was your given name,” Cassie comments, when it becomes clear that Choi is content to sit there and say nothing for the next ever.
“I didn’t tell you,” Choi replies. Cassie smirks at her. “I go by Choi, usually. You can call me whichever you like.”
Cassie thinks they might have a few hundred miles to go before she feels comfortable calling her anything but ‘Choi’ or ‘ugh, you.’
“I’m sorry I’m such a bitch,” Cassie says, thinking of the way her mother had said Choi’s name, the way Choi had looked back at her mother in turn. “I don’t know how to do any of this.”
“Does it seem like I do?” Choi asks, sounding surprised. “I improvise, mostly.”
Cassie sighs, falling back against the slide and tilting her face towards the sky.
“You don’t want to be here,” Choi says. Cassie jerks slightly, bristling, but Choi’s tone is mild, an observation rather than an accusation. “You know she’s Seen you with him. Earlier, in the kitchen – that’s what triggered the episode. She’s told me about it.”
Elizabeth is never wrong, Cassie thinks with a sick thrill. It’s followed by an equally sick surge of guilt.
“How am I supposed to just leave?” Cassie asks sickly. “She’s my mom. I looked for her my whole life, practically.”
“Who told you that it had to be one or the other?” Choi asks gently. “You stay, you have to stay. We’re hiding, not running. But if you leave…” Choi trails off. “You would see us again, no? This is England, not the moon.”
Cassie presses the back of her hand to her eyes, blotting out the sun, weak as it is on such a cloudy day. She feels like screaming, a little.
“I will let you think,” Choi says decisively. Cassie hears her rise to her feet slowly.
“Choi,” she says, letting her hand fall to her side. She still doesn’t look, but she hears Choi stop. “Thank you. For – watching out for her.”
“I didn’t do it for you,” Choi tells her.
Cassie kind of feels relieved at that, if anything. “I know.” She lifts her head up in time to catch the barest hint of a smile before Choi walks off, silently padding back down the sidewalk, still wearing the robe and – fucking slippers. Jesus.
Cassie stays on the slide until the clouds clear, watching the grey dissipate slowly into blue.
Nick sends her a new disposable cell number every two weeks, to be used in emergencies. She’s not supposed to call just for anything, and definitely not just to talk. She does it anyway.
“Cass?” Nick sounds tense. Cassie knows he’s just getting back from a McDonald’s run. She can still taste the grease from the fries on her tongue. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” Everything. “California, huh?”
Nick is quiet for a long moment. “Cassie,” he finally says, “I miss you and everything, but shut your face, you judgmental snob.”
“What, are you going on vacation?” Cassie asks. “Sun and surf and McDonald’s?”
“I really hate it when you pull that Watcher stalker bullshit,” Nick complains.
Cassie covers her grin with one hand, feeling like she could hide it for some reason.
“Are you okay?” Nick asks, more serious than before.
“Yeah.” Cassie sighs. “Dude, I think – " she can’t finish.
“Oh.” Nick clears his throat. “Really?” He’s obviously struggling to control his tone, not seem too eager. Cassie rolls her eyes.
“Nick,” she says, “we could set up some kind of rendezvous, right? Some neutral third ground where we could see them. Couldn’t we?”
“Sure,” Nick says slowly, “if that’s what you want.”
Cassie makes a frustrated noise. “I’m asking if it’s possible.”
“Cass,” Nick says firmly, “we’ll make it possible.”
Cassie leans against the inside of the phone box, her knees feeling suddenly weak.
“So, yeah,” Nick continues, lighter. “Couldn't stay away, huh?”
She grins. “In your dreams.”
(That means yes.)
Elizabeth is waiting in Cassie’s room when she gets back from the phone box, running her hands through the piles of dirty clothes, lying abandoned on the bed. Cassie stands in the doorway and hates herself.
“Sweetheart,” Elizabeth says. That’s it, that’s all.
They hug for what seems like hours, and Cassie tries to memorize the way her mother’s arms feel, the smell of her hair, the press of her chin against Cassie’s head. She thinks of nights when she was young, sleeping alone or pressed up against Nick, wishing so fiercely that her mom was there by her side, trying not to think or wonder about where she actually was for fear of losing hope completely. Her mom, her cross, her past, her vendetta. She can’t actually believe she’s doing this.
“I’m sorry,” she says helplessly, “I’m sorry.”
Elizabeth just shakes her head, scratching lightly at Cassie’s scalp. “Don’t be.” She gestures for Cassie to sit up. “Listen to me.”
Elizabeth smiles. “You think we were apart, all those years? We’re Watchers. We’re never apart. I See you every day, every minute.” She taps Cassie’s forehead. “One day you’ll be the same. You’re already so strong, baby, like a warrior. I look at you sometimes and wonder how I got so lucky to make someone like you.”
Cassie feels her expression crumple. “I don’t want to leave you behind.”
“You could never,” Elizabeth swears. “Don’t you know? You could never.”
"Mom," Cassie whispers, because she hadn't been able to say it, for so long, because Elizabeth hadn't been able to hear it. "Mom."
"Always," Elizabeth whispers back. "Always, always, yes."
Six months later, Cassie and Nick blow up a Division lab in Hyderabad, India. Nick texts Elizabeth from their hotel with an update. Cassie sits on the bed, braiding her wet hair and watching him, grinning.
“What?” Nick asks suspiciously, looking down at himself, then over his shoulder, like he's looking for booby traps or something.
“Nothing,” Cassie says. “Just something I Saw.”