No one else was training at the shooting range.
She tried not to shiver in the cool, sterile air as she loaded the target. It was, or should have been, like clockwork. Every move as instructed, she emptied half of the clip into the paper target. The center of mass, the center of mass, the center of mass. The faint mantra died on her lips.
The second time around, she tried to imagine a face juxtaposed over the black and white spaces enclosed by circles and dotted lines, and knew she still couldn't.
She was relieved that her hands weren't shaking when she tried to reload the magazine.
"No," a voice spoke.
She turned and saw a soldier leaning against the stall at the farthest corner. She hadn't noticed him when she came in -- she hadn't felt him all along, either, as if he could simply choose to melt into the shadow and resurface whenever he wanted.
He took a few steps to cross the distance between them and offered a hand. There were no insignia on his military fatigues, and he had serious, quiet eyes that were not as young as the rest of him. She didn't remember seeing him before, even though she had made a point of memorizing every face in the agency training facility.
She paused only for a moment before placing the sidearm in his hand.
He took it apart and put it back together in less than ten seconds. He repeated his moves twice, slow at first and faster on the second take, and looked up at her with a question in his eyes. She nodded slowly, took the gun he handed over, and reloaded the mag, copying his each move as exactly as she could.
"Better," he said.
She stared at the target, feeling its imposing presence and knowing she may never be ready for it. Something about the quality of his silence made her turn to him again.
"Does it ever get easier?" she asked, and immediately regretted the question. What if it did? What if it didn't? The answer changed nothing.
He searched her face for a moment. "Yes."
It was a lie, she realized, but a kind one, and she wanted to be grateful.
He nodded at the target. "Try again."
She took a breath, pictured a nameless face, and aimed. She managed to fire six rounds in succession. When the rectangular piece of paper rolled up to the front, she saw all but one round had hit the dead center.
His hand, untangling the gun from her tight grip, was surprisingly gentle. "Why do you do this?"
He hadn't meant to ask; she saw it in the way his face froze at the sound of his own voice.
She knew what she would look like to him, to anyone -- too painfully young and too inexperienced to qualify for field assignments. She'd been asked the same question before, but honesty had never been demanded. Until now.
Because someone had to. Because she needed to know. Because of a star on the wall at Langley. For so many reasons. "There are too many reasons why," she said.
He watched her, and she didn't look away, because she thought she saw understanding in his face. "If there were no need for any of this, if there were no reasons left to do this anymore, would you stop?"
"Yes," she heard herself say.
She wanted to reach up and cover her mouth, to collect the word back from the dead air that now hung between them. It was a wrong answer. No, it was a wrong question, because there would always be reasons for people to die for their country, to kill for their country. She had no illusions about the world they lived in.
Before she could reclaim her voice, a Marine opened the door and called out, "Captain, Dr. Hirsch wants you."
The man in front of her nodded at the Marine, but his eyes were still on her, and she saw the change in them, how they became cinched and tight. Resolute. She watched him disappear through the door.
She didn't learn his name, not then.
And once she did, it made no difference at all, because he didn't remember it, either.
He wakes up alone to an echo of a familiar voice.
He's used to the feel of the cool bed sheet under his skin, to the silence in every room where he might seek fitful sleep, to the very absence of her. Sometimes Marie's warm voice follows him out of his dreams, but it never lingers. Time is no longer measured between his waking moments. They're not lived, but commemorated. Another day endured.
He pushes off from the bed and checks the perimeter of the tiny apartment that he's made his home. He can no longer welcome the vistas of open space without Marie to fill them. In the bathroom, he avoids looking at himself in the mirror and fights the headache dully settling in the back of his head.
Even now, his memories are loose, mercurial, broken things. Reality, even when he's standing still, shifts too quickly for him to sustain a coherent narrative of his life.
He never stops dreaming of the dead.
You can try to piece together your past, seek redemption that may never be granted, but it doesn't help you with the future. And he's learning that fact, with every moment that is endured.
Still, he's here. Everyday.
This time, he wakes up holding onto pieces of his last dream, and it isn't one of the dead. He can't recall every detail of the trembling, pale, small hand he's seen, but he can still grasp at the unsettlingly familiar images.
He thinks he knows who it belongs to.
He walks outside and takes aimed, measured steps. No one is following. No one has. No one has had any reason to, for quite some time. He appreciates this reprieve. To say it's hard-earned is an understatement.
He pauses to face his own graying reflections on the window of a street shop. The man staring back is utterly unremarkable, even forgettable. Running was all he has been once, all that he has done since. He's mastered the way of fading into the background, and somehow, along the way, he'd made himself disappear.
He doesn't return to his apartment. There isn't anything he needs that he cannot acquire on the way, nothing he needs to go back for.
"It was difficult for me," she told him once. Her voice didn't shake, and she didn't look away. "With you."
He follows her footsteps, from Tangiers to Lisbon to Santorini to Zagreb. The evidence of her presence is scattered like breadcrumbs, crumbling in and out of his grasp, all tantalizingly slowly.
(He didn't -- couldn't -- examine her words closely. Instead, he watched her fingers curl around the coffee cup. He thought it might hold a faint echo of a gesture he'd seen before.
The very thought felt like a betrayal to the woman he'd loved, to the woman who was already dead.)
Her trace is faint, fading in and out of the background until he picks it up again in the States, in a medium-sized suburban town. It's a good choice, he assesses -- there are two colleges and a corresponding student population to sink into and disappear, and five interstate lines linking to three different metropolitan cities in case there was any need to run. None of this would sway determined trackers, but it would slow them down.
This is where he finds her.
She had been with the Agency for precisely three months when Danny Zorn told her about the field transfer opportunity.
"A new project is coming down the pipeline," Danny said, rocking back and forth in his chair. They were friendly enough -- he was new, young, and ambitious, and she shared at least the first two qualities with him. "And Conklin's set on heading it himself."
There was a sudden chill at the idea. Nicky wasn't exactly unaware of what the rumor mills were steadily grinding out. "You know what they say about him."
"I doubt Conklin actually eats new recruits for breakfast," Danny said, "though, apparently he rightly earned his own reputation as a bastard. But he is the best, and I intend to learn from him." He leaned closer, and his expression, for a change, shed the ever-present irreverent air. "What about you? Do you really want this? I know you're field-qualified, but once you're actually out there, it's too late to back out."
She put down her mug and looked over the pieces of paper scattered all over her desk. The latest intelligence report on Luxembourg's banking industry needed to be edited, but she'd been drawing circles on the margins instead. "I don't know. Maybe. I think I might do more good that way."
Danny leaned back in his chair again, openly regarding her with a look of amazement. "Your naiveté sometimes truly worries me, Parsons."
She shook her head. "This is all too premature. He might not even want me."
"Of course he'd want you. They can talk about aptitudes and field compatibilities all they want, but it's always easier to teach someone who already speaks four languages how to shoot a little better than the other way around. And you look barely old enough to have graduated high school. You're perfectly field material."
Danny was right. Mostly.
To him, she exists only in pieces. The quiet, soothing voice. The little glimpses of her hands. The pills she offered. She was the one who used to sit and listen. The one who provided and arranged everything he'd needed. The one who relayed orders.
He's not quite ready to forgive her for the last part.
It's only later that he learns she isn't, either.
She's talking to her neighbor, her hair long and warm brown under the sun and her smile incongruent with the fragments he knows of the woman named Nicky Parsons.
He might have caught only a glimpse of that smile, but he feels its sudden loss when she turns and finds him at her door.
She hesitates, but only for a moment. "Would you like to come in?"
She has always been a puzzle, a jagged piece that would not be smoothed out to fit in together with the rest of his known universe.
It's a mistake, he thinks. All of this.
"Yes," he says.
In Conklin's Langley basement office, she tried to repress the apprehension and curiosity thrumming in her chest as she watched him leaf through her personnel file. For the sum of the things that made up what and who she was, it was a thin folder.
Conklin took off his glasses and met her eyes for the first time. She wondered, for a second, whether he was seeing the same person she saw every morning in the mirror.
All of this took less than five minutes. "You'll do," he said.
For what, exactly? She didn't ask. Her thoughts went back to the wall of stars she had passed by that morning. She never did figure out which one was her father's.
After that, the decision was easy to make. Perhaps too much so.
"When do I start?" she asked.
It wasn't her first mistake. It certainly wasn't her last.
There is a blue clay teapot tilted sideways on her kitchen table. The hazy December sunlight spills over the window through thin curtains. There's a small spot of brown stain on the red-and-white checkered tablecloth.
This guileless tableau of life is so foreign to him that he watches it, absorbed, for a moment longer than necessary, a moment longer than he should.
Unlike her previous places, this one is not without life and has little regard for secrecy. He finds landscape photos of mismatched shapes and colors stuck on the door of the fridge. There are also paintings and sketches, written notes on pieces of paper and scribbling on the margins of paperbacks in the familiar handwriting that he's sometimes encountered across several continents, all strewn across her living room in an organized chaos.
A crumpled book of poetry is lodged between an apple-colored cushion and a beige couch. It's a mistake, the trained and ingrained part of him insists, but he picks it up and thumbs the well-worn pages. There is no secret to be gleaned from them, but it feels precious, even without knowing its meaning.
He watches her in his periphery, her careful and unwavering hands, almost invisible ways she moves in the kitchen.
She's decided to settle and build a life for herself. Unconstructive and small, possibly insignificant, but still a life. Which is more than he can say for himself. He walks through his with death always hovering close.
They taught him hundreds of ways a man can become the death; they never taught him what it means to be the living.
Conklin set up her cover as a student in Paris. She was briefed, trained, and strategically placed in the post as a new handler for a trial project that was already well underway. She improved her French, wrote useless reports and waited.
The first time she found out what this job meant was when Jason Bourne appeared on her doorstep, wobbling and unsteady, a fresh headache tearing him apart. She took him in, handed out the pills as prescribed, and took notes while he recounted, in a stilted voice, every step he had taken, every move he had made in his last mission. She heard without listening, watching without seeing, while his eyes were intent on the crusted, dried blood beneath his fingernails.
The memory of him in an empty shooting range only came to her after, when she was getting ready to type her debriefing report.
She almost didn't reach the toilet in time before she lost all of her lunch.
"If there were no reasons left to do this anymore, would you stop?"
The answer should have been, No. A thousand times no. No, so you don't have to do this in anyone else's stead, let alone mine.
Her reticence is reminiscent of another conversation they had in a roadside cafe. She even has a cup of coffee, her fingers loosely wrapped around it.
The gesture is still disconcertingly familiar, so he concentrates on details instead. Her cup's handle is slightly chipped while the cup in front of him is impeccably clean. Her index finger is callused and smeared with ink. Likely from a pen, he notes absently.
She's a teacher, she has already told him.
"You stopped running," he says, and it barely manages not to sound like an accusation. She has a job, neighbors who would remember her face, friends who enjoy her company. She's left footsteps and fingerprints in her life.
She looks away for a long moment before meeting his eyes again. "I think, at one point, you need to find ways to live with your choices. Even if -- even if it's a luxury that you can't afford, maybe not even deserve."
She's cautious with her words, but not defensive, as if he would assume this to be a foolhardy, frivolous mistake at the risk of her own life. As if he would be justified in his assumption.
He thinks it an evidence of courage, one that he doesn't have.
He's tried. He's still running.
Teach me how to live, he almost wants to ask.
"You're right," he tells her, and that, finally, surprises her.
In Madrid, Neal Daniels asked her whether she knew Jason Bourne.
Nicky saw guilt lined in his face and on his trembling fingertips, and thought about how they all had this coming. "No," she answered, because that was the truth. There was still a bruise on her arm, the fear she'd felt at the Berlin subway tunnel still stark on her mind. She'd never known Jason Bourne, not really, and he had wanted her dead, and she didn't blame him.
When the articles on Blackbriar began to appear in The Guardian, she knew Daniels was behind them. She covered his trails as best as she could. And waited for the fallout, after.
Behavior modifications, Daniels told her.
We've destroyed these men's souls, he said.
They all had it coming.
"Why did you choose to work for them?"
Her hands, cleaning out the table, pause over a half-empty cup.
It's probably the worst kind of hypocrisy, coming from him, but it's too late to take back his question.
"There were many reasons why," she answers. "I didn't know what they meant, not then."
She looks up and searches his face for one disquieting moment. He's beginning to learn that there's a dangerous quality to her silence, all too revealing in the absence of words.
She's waiting, he decides, for something he can't quite comprehend. Before he can stumble around to loosen the thread underpinning the mystery, she shakes her head slightly. "Why did you? How much--" she starts, pauses, and starts again, "how much do you remember now?"
"Enough," he tells her, even though it's not quite true.
There may have been a reason, once, enough reasons to sign his life away. But if there ever has been a single moment of decision or indecision, he doesn't remember it. It makes little difference now. The blood washes off, but there are still scars.
"Enough to remember I have no home to go back to," he amends, eventually. "Not enough to remember the why -- why of it, not entirely.”
She watches him with her always-quiet eyes, and there are enough histories in them that he is compelled to look away. "The file said that you volunteered, that you had a reason," she offers, gentle and reassuring. It's a consolation prize that will never be enough. "You were an idealist, for the cause."
It may have been his decision, at one point. And then, somewhere down the road, it wasn't anymore. "Were you?" he asks, without meaning to.
There's a faint trace of a smile on her face. "No one starts off believing they'll become the villains of the story."
No one starts off being a villain, not Conklin, not Abbott, and not this woman in front of him.
Not even Jason Bourne.
He wants to believe her.
Marie was an overwhelming force of nature, every single moment she shared with him crackling and shining with life, and he felt it, that life, alongside her.
He watches Nicky, her steady hands, her studied and restrained silence, the way she tucks a few strands of stray hair behind her ear.
She does not remind him of Marie, when every other thing that walks on this earth still does.
She watched him beyond the barrel of his gun and thought he looked older. Older, still wearied, still so tightly coiled. There were bits of changes she saw in his face, in his affected stillness. But the eyes -- they were still the same, still so haunted. She wanted to see some hope in them. A bit of happiness.
But perhaps this bit of revelation was as unsurprising as seeing him materialize in front of her, still alive, still breathing.
As unsurprising as seeing him regard her with nothing but indifference.
There is a pleasant, calming rhythm in everyday, mundane things that he's never been able to decipher correctly. She washes the dishes and stacks them neatly on her kitchen cabinet.
"Let me," he offers, with his hand on her wrist, when she reaches for the garbage can.
There's a quiet flinch at his touch, and she drops her hand.
He's held a gun to her face, he remembers suddenly. More than once he’s held a gun to her face, and he even considered killing her while she looked at him with absolute fear that no one should ever have to feel.
So, this reaction is only to be expected.
Wordlessly, he takes out the garbage. He wants to believe it's the chilly, pristine winter air that cuts like a razor in his chest.
"It was difficult for me," she said, before. "With you."
It will be a kindness to leave her to the life she's faithfully put together from the ruins.
Teach me how to live again, he wants to ask. If you can. If you're willing to. Teach me what it means. Because death is infinitely easier. It always hovers so close.
He squeezes out a breath, slowly, and he can almost feel it, the pervasive Death's sickle, and how all feelings can recede on its whim.
In Tangiers, she saw the great Jason Bourne in action. She had seen it before, and yet it still left her breathless and afraid. And it still broke her heart, to stand aside, as always, and watch him fight for his life. To struggle just so he could breathe another second.
After, she saw his knuckles were covered with fading scars. The fight with Desh had left him with fresh ones, and his palms were scraped raw.
She didn't feel she had the right, so she pressed a warm, clean cloth into his hands and didn't dare to touch him again.
And wondered if there would ever come a day when she could.
It will be a kindness to leave her to this life. It will be a kindness that she deserves, so he tries.
Her words stop him at her door.
"I'm sorry," she tells him, and there is no fear in her. Perhaps there hasn't been, not this time. It's the type of hope that he is not used to. "For what they did to you. And for my part in it."
She doesn't offer any excuses. She watches him for a moment, long enough for him to be convinced of her sincerity, and tentatively reaches out and touches his wrist, an echo of his gesture from before.
"I've always, I've wanted--" she comes to an abrupt halt, her words tangled and mashed together, but her hesitation is won out in the end by quiet determination. "I've wanted to tell you that you're allowed to earn your peace. You should believe you can keep your peace, that it's not undeserved for you to stop running. And that I’m sorry. For everything."
She lets go of his hand, but he reaches out for hers instead.
There is still that razor-sharp cut somewhere in his chest.
He thinks about how she does not remind him of Marie, when every other thing that walks on this earth still should.
And he knows with certainty that he's seen this hand he’s holding among the jagged, glassy pieces of his memory.
Her fingers shook just before squeezing the trigger. Every time.
"Does it ever get easier?"
He looked at the trembling hand that seemed too small to take a life and told her a lie.
"Yes," he said.
He studies her hand, no longer just from his memory, grasps it, and remembers it.
"You used to flinch just before pulling the trigger," he tells her.
It's not an apology. He thinks he owes her more than an apology for the lie he told her once. Lies, he corrects, because once again in Tangiers, he's promised her it would get easier. It never has.
But you find the ways to live with your choices. Even if it's a luxury that you can't afford, maybe not even deserve.
When he looks up, a smile reaches her eyes and her tears become nothing but memories. He wonders at the smile directed at him, at the unfamiliar newness of it.
He likes it. He wants to try it for himself.
It's another type of hope that he is unused to, but her hand in his is warm and real, and he thinks this may be earned, if not deserved.
Later, it's her turn to ask the question: "If there were no reasons left to run anymore, would you stop?"
The answer is still yes.
And this time, he does.