The morning was clear and cold and Nicky's tiny apartment smelled like her favourite vanilla caramel coffee, hot and black and percolating through her senses as it brewed in the kitchen.
Nicky took a deep breath as she pulled her long, now-auburn hair up into a ponytail with a long, flowered scarf and smiled wryly into the mirror.
There was a single, quarter-inch wide section of her hair that was a bright turquoise, pulled up into the ponytail, and barely visible at the nape of her neck. It was the last reminder of the 22 months she had spent in Hong Kong. Almost 2 years of walking and jogging through the long, hidden trails of the Hong Kong highlands, on her rare days off from housekeeping at a fancy hotel.
She'd managed to stay in Hong Kong for 184 days longer than she'd lasted in Nepal, the previous record-holder for the longest she'd been in one place since New York. Since him. And since she'd had to stop living her life under government-assigned aliases and assignments. Since she'd started calling the shots. She'd stepped off the plane from Nepal, dyed her hair bright turquoise in the airport bathroom, and had stayed until her blonde roots had grown past her shoulders.
And then, there it was, the note. The same note that had been neatly folded into quarters and carefully tucked between Chapters 3 and 4 of whatever novel was on the nightstand, next to her bed, in so many bedrooms in so many countries that she had almost lost track.
That same note had her moving from Monacco to Mumbai and bleaching her hair from black to blonde in a bus station in Dahanu. And dyeing her hair fire-engine red in the bathroom in the basement of a cheese factory in Bern. And cutting her newly brunette hair in the bathroom of a high-speed train between Madrid and Seville. And, of course, dying her hair the deep blue-turquoise colour she'd purchased on a whim from a tourist-shop near the airport in Hong Kong. Among others.
And, as soon as she'd seen it, Nicky had sighed, closed her eyes and dug through her bathroom cupboard for the box of auburn hair dye she'd hidden there. Time to move on. Again.
She hadn't been planning on staying in Hong Kong for any appreciable length of time, and she certainly hadn't intended on having her hair the colour of peacock feathers for longer than a few days. But, then, the opportunity to work less-than-legally on the housekeeping staff of a luxury hotel had presented itself and it had just seemed so normal and so easy and Nicky had found herself settled before she'd managed to track down her missing luggage. And then found herself uprooted at a moment's notice on her way across Asia towards Europe.
On a cool, clear December morning, two weeks after Christmas, Nicky's day started as it always did: flipping through the dog-eared copy of The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe that was on the table next to her bed. She breathed a sigh of relief that the only thing that fell out of the book was the receipt for her dinner last night that she was using to mark her place.
She'd been in Hungary for almost 6 months, and the long journey in the cool air to the castle at the top of a hill had become her favourite way to start her mornings. She filled her large travel mug with coffee and put a textbook in her bag. She was taking some art history classes at the university and her new term was just getting started.
She arrived at the top of the hill and took a moment, like always, to admire the morning view. She had settled in her usual spot, earphones in her ears with no music playing, half of her attention, as usual, on listening to her surroundings. She set her mug next to her, and pulled out her textbook. She felt her heart sink and the world around her go suddenly silent when a small, carefully folded piece of paper fluttered out of the book and landed on the ground, between her feet. Trying not to let her emotion show on her face, Nicky reached over and carefully picked up the paper off of the cold, damp ground.
She tucked it into the front cover of her book and methodicaly turned one page every 3 minutes. She stopped to take a sip of coffee after every second page that she turned, and then, after 4 sips of coffee, she pulled the folded paper out of the book and unfolded it, reading it while she obstensibly placed it into the spine of the book to mark her current page.
She felt the heavy book slipping from her fingers and watched, unable to stop it, as it slid to the ground, almost in slow motion. Instinct kicked in instantly and Nicky heard a familiar directive ring in her ears.
RESPONSE IF NORMAL: EVEREST
She was more grateful than she could ever say, for each of the warning notes that he had risked his life and his anonimity to get to her, wherever around the globe she happened to be. She hadn't actually seen him since New York, but he had always managed to find her before anyone else did, probably saving her life more times than she knew, really. But, this unexpected twist in the game threw her for a loop. She racked her brain trying to think what this new message could mean. She closed her eyes, bit her lower lip and breathed in a long, slow breath of the cool morning air. She really didn't want to leave Budapest. Not yet. Not while, for the first time, in a long time, she had actually started to feel like she was home.
She opened her eyes and slowly opened the book to the page she had marked with the note and opened the book to read the reverse side of the paper.
Unconsciously, she reached up and twirled the small section of hair that was still turquoise around her index finger, threading it through her fingers. She didn't catch herself staring, transfixed, at the note until she heard someone clearing their throat behind her and noticed that there was something blocking the sunlight from behind her. She stiffened when she felt a light brush of fingers on her hand, stopping her hand suddenly.
"Excuse me, Miss. I was wondering if you could tell me where I might find the nearest bank. I just got into town and I really need to exchange some Euros."
Nicky gasped, barely audible. "I'm sorry," she began, shifting slightly so that she could look to the man behind her. "I haven't lived here that long, I don't really know my way around very well yet and I'm much better at finding things than explaining where they are."
She saw him smile very slightly as he shook his head. "Well, then, perhaps you would give me a guided tour and would allow me to treat you to a cup of coffee for your trouble?"
"That's a pretty confident assumption about my beverage of choice," she continued, motioning to her travel mug and carefully keeping her facial expression neutral.
"You remind me of a girl I knew once, in Paris, who couldn't start her day without at least 2 cups of strong, black coffee that she used to start making at the crack of dawn, freshly grinding the beans every morning and singing along to the radio, even if I was still sleeping. It's because of her than I own a French press that I have no idea how to use."
"That's," Nicky heard her voice falter for the first time as her mind swirled with memories of a time that she thought was lost forever, except in her memory. "She sounds like a woman after my own heart."
"Likewise." Jason's voice was uncharacteristically quiet.
"Well," Nicky began, standing up and brushing off her peacoat. "With an offer like that, who could refuse? I'm Kate. I'm a student at the University. Art History." She held out her hand, holding her breath.
"Well, Kate, it's a pleasure to meet you," Jason replied, taking her hand and shaking it quickly, giving her fingers a light squeeze. "I'm David." He shoved his hands into his pockets with a small smile. "I'm between jobs right not. I'm not sure what I do. But, I'll let you know."