"Your son belongs to my daughter."
Looking at her skeptically over the hood of the car he was working on, Jonah Gant said, "Slavery was outlawed in this country about a century ago, Elizabeth."
She just smiled faintly. "They're going to take down Division."
"Christ." Jonah hung his head, taking it in. "Shit!"
Elizabeth just watched calmly as he kicked a trash can. "It's good news, Jonah. They're going to do what we couldn't do. They're going to take out the bastards that killed Ezra."
"And what kind of life will they have? Bad enough they'll be on the run because of us, because of how hard we fought a losing battle. No way Ezra wanted generations to have--"
Her eyes hard as diamonds, Elizabeth said, "Don't you dare. Don't you dare tell me what Ezra would've wanted. He would've wanted for this to be his daughter. You got to live to know your child. Because of him, because of the price he paid. We paid."
Rubbing his face, Jonah said, "Fine. So what do you want me to do? Nick's going to be a year old next week, and I should just give him to you and your daughter?"
"She's not here yet. She won't be born for years." Elizabeth shrugged wryly. "What I need you to do is to start getting him ready. He's got to learn Cantonese, and you can't teach him all that you know about moving. He has to be mediocre. Nicole can't teach him anything about her power at all."
"You don't ask for much, do you?" Leaning against the wall with one arm, Jonah looked down at his feet and thought about all that he wanted for Nick, and how impossible it was to give it to him. "What happens if I don't do what you say?"
Elizabeth shrugged. "Division will come for you in less than a year. Without warning, you won't be prepared. Nick will grow up believing what we did, that they're his only savior and shelter in a world where his parents rejected him for being a monster."
A glass shattered across the room, but neither of them flinched. "What happened to you? You're so cold, I don't even know who you are anymore."
"You'll find out soon enough," Elizabeth said, standing up. "Give my best to Nicole. I'll keep in touch."
"Yeah," Jonah said softly as she left the cozy little suburban house they'd been settled in for far too short a time. "Sometimes I wish you wouldn't."
Kira stared at the wall, listening to the sound of the faucet dripping in the next room while someone tried to talk to her. None of it registered until she heard the word "Nick."
"Is he here?" she asked desperately, her hands moving to her hair. She needed to be ready for him. He couldn't see her like this.
"He's not coming." The heavily accented voice was gentle, but Kira reacted as if she'd been slapped, scuttling backwards to huddle in the corner, curled into a ball and rocking slightly.
Sighing, the voice continued, and Kira couldn't help listening to it now, even when she pressed her hands against her ears to try to make it stop. "That's the problem with Pushing people, Kira. You start to lose the power over them as soon as you stop, and they forget, they push back, even without knowing why or what they're doing."
Weakly, she said, "I didn't--"
"You can't lie to me, Kira. I know." He squatted in front of her, a sorrowful look on his dark face. "Do you think I didn't try the same thing when I was young? Everyone is desperate that the person they love should love them back, and we can do something about it - but it's temporary. It's not real."
"No, he loves me, he does," she said insistently, her hands clenching into fists as she straightened up. "I only pushed him a little bit, and only at first."
Laying a hand on her shoulder, he said, "Then where is he? We haven't even moved you out of the city, but he caught a flight for Asia. He's half a world away, when you need him most."
"Nick," she murmured, her skin feeling cold as she tried to tell herself it wasn't true.
Nick stared at Kira, trying to see if there was any trace of the girl he'd thought he knew. In Hong Kong, he'd told himself it wasn't her fault, that Carver had Pushed her into being something she wasn't. The Kira he'd known was soft and sweet, needing him to comfort her and keep her safe.
Now she was looking at him pleadingly, and he could feel the nudge of her will, telling him she only wanted what was best. If she hadn't been surrounded by Division goons that followed her orders unquestioningly, he might've believed it. "Why me?"
"You're the best at getting away from us," she said simply. "You know how to evade Watchers, and you have a strategic mind when you let yourself stop being impulsive."
"I don't buy it," he said, taking a step only to be met with the sound of at least four guns being cocked and pointed at his forehead. "If I was so special, why'd Carver leave me alone?"
Kira's eyes swept down and she whispered, "He didn't see any path other than the drug. He wanted an army."
"So what do you want?" Nick was sneering, but he didn't see a way out. Even if he'd been willing to risk his own life, Cassie and her mother were huddled behind a packing crate, ten feet away. If bullets started flying, they'd die.
"You," Kira said, her voice throbbing. "All I want is you, Nick. It's all I've ever wanted."
Looking at the gunmen behind her, Nick cocked his head and said, "Yeah. You know, there's better ways to ask me out than to bring thugs."
"Do you think I don't know that?" she cried, taking half a step towards him. "I'm a part of Division, I'm not all of it. But I know I can't be selfish like you are, Nick. I have to care about more than just myself."
He didn't answer; the disgusted look on his face said enough. Kira stepped forward again, her eyes intent. "We don't need armies, but we do need order, Nick. We need policemen, to stop people like us from hurting people who can't defend themselves."
Nick's eyes barely flickered as Cassie shot up from where she'd been hiding, shrieking desperately, "Nick, no! You can't!"
Flicking his hand so that she was Moved back to her mother's frail clasp, Nick turned to Kira. "Cassie goes free. Her mother, too. They walk out of here and no one from Division ever bothers them again."
"Done," Kira said, her smile ghastly and triumphant.
"No, no, no!" Cassie flung herself at Nick, having broken away from her mother again, and held on to him as tightly as she could. "You can't do it, you can't! She'll make you do terrible things, she'll make you be a terrible person!"
"Hey," Nick said softly, rubbing a hand over Cassie's hair. "I'm already pretty terrible, right? No loss."
She just cried harder, and Nick leaned down to whisper in her ear. "This isn't about me, kiddo, it's about you."
"I'm not worth it," she sobbed, burying her face against his chest.
Grabbing her shoulders, he held her so he could look at her face. "You're worth everything, you and your mom. So you... Go join the Girl Scouts, and get the lead in the school play, and break some little boy's heart when you won't go to the movies with him."
"Nick..." She rolled her eyes, obviously ready to tell him off for thinking she cared about that Leave It to Beaver crap, but he kissed her forehead and she stopped, because his mind was made up. "I'll be back for you."
He pulled her in for a tight hug, closing his eyes for a moment before pushing her back towards her mother. "Goodbye, Cassie. Have a great life, would you? For me."
Turning away, he ignored her shrieking and, worse, the broken sobs that followed when he kept walking, climbing into the passenger seat of the luxury sedan Kira was driving.
"You made the right decision, Nick." Kira smiled at him, reaching across the console to take his hand. "You'll see."
"Sure," he said, forcing himself to smile back.
She smiled again, more brightly. "It's really sweet how you are with her. It's like she's your own daughter, or kid sister."
Nodding absently, he stared out the window and waited to feel anything but numb.
"We have to get him back!" Cassie was sobbing, trying to break away from her mother's grip. "He can't do this!"
"He has to." Elizabeth let her go, watching impassively as she picked up a gun dropped by one of the corpses. "Cassie, think. What are you going to do against Division, all by yourself?"
"I rescued him before," Cassie said defiantly, although before she'd been scared stiff and it had just been a matter of talking to Carver. Evil he might have been, but he was reasonable; Kira was not.
Her mother sighed, not quite rolling her eyes, and said, "You have to be reasonable, Cassie." In her head, Cassie could practically hear Nick's voice saying, Now that's just spooky.
It made her start crying again, great gulping sobs. "I need him! I need Nick!"
Elizabeth slapped her across the face, shocking Cassie into silence. "He needs you to be safe. Do you want to get him killed? Because that's what will happen if you go after him."
A vision of Nick lying in a pool of blood swam through her mind and Cassie couldn't tell if it was the future or a nightmare. Either way, it made her take a deep, shuddering breath. "I won't always be weak."
"Hold on to that anger," her mother said, approval in her voice. "Use it. Let it build inside you - it's the only way you'll have the strength to do what needs to be done."
Cassie nodded and stood up straight, wiping her eyes roughly. "What do we need to do?"
"Build an army," Elizabeth said. "Right under their noses."
Walking into Division HQ was surreal. He'd fought these people - he thought he even recognized some of them. They were welcoming him into the fold now, like some long-lost hero. Everyone wanted to say hi. Some people even mentioned knowing his dad. He wanted to ask what they thought about their coworkers killing him, but he was too tired. Selling your soul to the devil was exhausting.
He got healed up; even the ankle that had never set right after Hong Kong was fixed. He got a tour, heavy on the rec rooms and carefully avoiding anything useful. They didn't trust him not to blow the place to kingdom come, which was smart of them. If he'd had the chance, he might have. Cassie and her mom would see it coming and run away before whatever remained of Division regrouped.
Not today, though. Today was for enduring the HR orientation from hell. He even had to fill out paperwork, like he was some salaryman in a Taiwanese soap opera. There'd been a weird moment when he'd picked up an I-9 form and wondered how the hell he was supposed to prove he could legally work in the United States, since he sure as hell didn't have a license or a Social Security card. The pencil pusher taking him through the whole rigmarole just opened another folder and handed over a copy of his birth certificate. It looked real. It even had his middle name, Ezra, which he would've been prepared to swear no one knew.
"We're the government," the man said at Nick's startled look. "It's not as if vital statistics are hard to get a hold of."
"It says I was born in Boise." He'd actually been born in some tiny country in South America, useful mostly for the non-US passport it granted him.
The man - A. Johns, according to the little placard that got uncovered when he shifted some papers - smiled thinly. "Because you were. Now, if you could sign..."
Nick really, really wanted to shove the pen up his nose. It started vibrating and he snatched it up, signing and initialing and just generally getting through as fast as possible. What did it matter? They owned him now.
"You'll be placed with a team after your evaluations are processed." Glancing through the stack one last time, Johns tapped the papers together on the desk and put them to one side. "Pending, of course, any remedial training. Preliminary reports indicate extensive work may be necessary."
Nick bristled. He'd more than held his own against everything Division threw at them for a solid year of fighting to get Cassie's mom.
"Your father, Mr. Gant, could fly." The thin smile came out again as Nick just stared. "And your mother was one of our best Porters. We fully expect to test the limits of your genetic potential, even if we could not control the 'nurture' aspect of your creation."
"Apart from ensuring there wasn't any by killing my parents." He didn't know why he said it. Maybe just because it was an alternative to snapping the man's neck as a way to wipe the smug look off his face.
It didn't work. "They were the ones who attacked Division - friends they'd grown up with. You'll see how it is; we're not monsters."
"Could've fooled me. Or was it some other Division shooting at a fourteen year old last week?"
Johns just smiled again. "And yet, you're now one of us. It will be interesting to track your development."
Cassie thought she remembered going to school before, when she was really little and they were living with a Bleeder that would braid her hair whenever she asked. He had gone shopping with her, she knew that, and she remembered being around other kids and pulling a peanut butter and jelly sandwich out of a lunchbox with Mickey Mouse on it. The sandwich had been squashed, but she had a pudding cup and a can of Coke instead of a thermos and so she'd been the envy of the other kids.
Back then, she'd wished that he was her daddy, but he hadn't been, any more than any of the rest of her mother's disposable boyfriends. They had moved away from him shortly after and that had been the end of school for Cassie, at least until now. Pretty much all she was hoping for was a lack of vampires, since they seemed to be everywhere on the teen dramas lately.
The first day was refreshingly free of any supernatural elements. It also completely lacked a horde of boys scrambling to introduce themselves to the new girl, perky and quirky girls popping up as potential sidekicks, or any sort of stereotyped antagonist appearing for a convenient introduction. The teachers were friendly enough, but pretty much uninterested in her or anything else.
"Television lied." There wasn't even an answer to that obvious cue, and Cassie trudged home rather than face the bus again. She was late, but her mom barely looked up.
What did she expect, milk and cookies? She and her mom had never been like that. The closest she'd ever gotten was Nick tossing her Oreos while she did the homeschooling course he'd insisted on buying for her - like she was a seal he was training to clap her flippers and conjugate verbs. "School was fine."
"You'll need to sign up for French," Elizabeth said. "And cheerleading."
"Are you serious?" It was easier to picture herself as one of the vampires she hadn't encountered than as a cheerleader.
Her mother nodded, and Cassie spotted the vodka at her elbow. "It'll be a good way to hone your agility and strength." When Cassie didn't seem convinced she added, "Get good at it and eventually it'll let you get a message to Nick."
"Why can't we just go get him? Then I wouldn't need to worry about messages." Cassie knew she sounded whiny, but she didn't care. Not having him was like not having her nose.
"Grow up." Taking another sip of the clear liquor, her mother went back to scrutinizing a list of classes and activities offered by Cassie's school.
Cassie stomped up the stairs to dump her books and flop on the bed. Closing her eyes, she concentrated as hard as she could on Nick, wanting to see him. As usual, she'd get both of them killed if she went after him now. Hurriedly, she changed her mind to dispel the image, focusing instead on a vision of Nick doing one of his endless workouts.
Someday, things would change and she'd know how to get him back. If she had to take French and be a cheerleader to make it happen, then she'd damn well be the perkiest little poodle ever to roam the halls of high school.
The teams were just a group of powers that might be useful in the field together, with the people behind the powers expected to work together regardless of any feelings they had about each other or the mission. He got bounced around between several, because nobody wanted the new guy after they saw how hopeless he was during training exercises. The sooner he did well in practices, the sooner he'd have no choice but to go out and be another Division goon.
If there was anything he wanted less than to get shot for Division, it was to be the one doing the shooting. The creepy part was that he kept catching himself feeling like he was among friends, like he wanted to do well, to show off. Every time he started to think that way, though, he'd get a picture in his head of Cassie, huddled in some back alley, shivering and saying she was okay even when the bullets flying around made her flinch.
Kira tried to talk to him about it, when she came to his room at night and crawled in bed. He never saw her during the day - he was a half-assed trainee and she was Someone Important, supervising further testing of the drug that enhanced her powers.
Hers and no one else's, so far. It was taking longer for people to die after the injection, but they were still dying. "How can you do it?" he asked one night, staring at the ceiling as she cuddled against his chest.
"I have to." Her voice was small and lost, a whisper in the darkness. "If I'm not useful, I have no power. If I don't have power, bad things happen."
Nick thought about it, struggling with the urge to protest, to fight somehow, despite the overwhelming knowledge that she was right, that this was for the best, that he was among friends, or at least potential friends, if he would just stop fighting. "I hate this."
"Just love me," she said. "Trust me and love me. I'll make everything all right."
It got better. There were even days when she was too busy to think about Nick until she got to bed. She could tell the difference between a dream and a vision now, although mostly because in her dreams he didn't look tired and sad. She tended to remember him smiling.
Days dripped by, so slowly she didn't notice anything beyond the routines. She signed up for art classes on Saturdays; Sundays she spent at the shooting range. Every morning she went to the Y and swam laps before school, and every afternoon she practiced with the cheerleading team and bought a pack of Oreos during the walk home.
She even had friends, of a sort. They were temporary, because she knew she'd leave them behind someday, but it wasn't worth the effort to rebuff them. At any rate, it gave her someone to talk to at lunch.
Sometimes Hook would visit, although not too often and never on a regular schedule. He'd tell her how Emily and Pinky were doing, even though she emailed Emily all the time and Pinky would come visit, too, although not as often. After the first time, when she Saw that her pleading would mean he stopped visiting completely, she never asked him about Nick again.
There were lots of people in and out of their little house, set behind shady trees on half an acre that backed onto a national park. There were no neighbors close by, which was probably why Division had chosen this particular house to give them. When the time came to take them back by force, there was no sense having any more witnesses than strictly necessary.
It was a given that they would someday, just like it was a given that they were watching. Cassie had bought a bug detector and discovered that even her closet was wired for sound, although there didn't seem to be any cameras in there. She still made sure to only change in complete darkness, and she took her showers at school or the Y whenever possible.
Still, people came and went, asking her mom for visions. She actually set up a sign and put an ad in the yellow pages, setting herself up as a palm reader and "psychic advisor." Cassie had gone ballistic when she found out, but Elizabeth shrugged. "It's the perfect cover. No one really believes, and letting people draw their own conclusions about how we can afford a nice house with no visible source of incomes would mean you get asked for drugs or tricks."
It made sense, but Cassie didn't like it much. And she could only imagine what Nick's reaction would be if he saw her mother having Cassie sit down and drink a tall glass of gin at a table full of people. No one doubted it was a test, but Cassie wasn't sure if she was supposed to do well for the guests or badly for the monitors. She chose the latter; if she chose wrong, it'd be easier to convince them she'd improved than to convince Division she'd regressed.
"You are supposed to do what I tell you," her mother said icily as soon as the last guest was gone. "Whatever bad habits you picked up from that boy, forget them now or I'll have all memory of him wiped from your mind."
Cassie looked at her in shock, but quickly got herself under control. Elizabeth Holmes did not respond to anything less than calm logic. "You won't do that. It would slow down your progress and make me useless as a tool."
"You're already useless if you can't obey orders." Sitting back down, Elizabeth took a drink and looked hard at her daughter, until her eyes went blank with an oncoming vision. "You're too attached to that boy," she said when she came out of it.
Fighting a grin, because she could hear the grudging resignation in her mother's tone, Cassie said, "It gives me a reason to fight."
That brought out a strangely wistful smile, and Elizabeth reached out to caress Cassie's face. "So like me. If I'd been strong enough to fight for Ezra like you'll fight for your Nick…"
"Can you tell me about him?" Cassie had never dared to ask before, since any mention of him made her mother sad, and she'd retreat into herself and leave Cassie to fend for herself. Maybe now, since she'd brought him up, it would be all right - and at least Cassie was old enough now not to be scared when her mother disappeared into a bottle for a few days.
"He was the best agent Division ever had." Elizabeth smirked a bit at Cassie's rounded eyes. "Ezra grew up in Division. We all did, Jonah and Nicole and Allan, all my friends that are gone now. They took us away from monsters and brought us up to fulfill our destinies, to use our gifts to the fullest in order to help others."
Cassie stayed quiet as Elizabeth took another drink. "Ezra was the first. The first to be taken in by Division, and the first to realize they're the real monsters. They killed him for it."
"Was he my dad?" Cassie's voice was barely audible, but she forced the question out.
"He should have been." Elizabeth's face crumpled for a moment before it went hard and cold. "He would have been, if not for Carver and Division. For what they cost us, I'm going to burn Division to the ground."
Cassie shuddered because she understood now, as she hadn't ever before, the depth of her mother's hatred and determination. More, she knew she was capable of the same. "I need Nick. He's important."
"Of course he's important," Elizabeth said. "He's the rook."
"Sacrifice him and you sacrifice me," Cassie said, her voice quavering.
With a snort, Elizabeth said, "Don't be melodramatic."
"Cassandra Sybil Holmes, you will obey me no matter what," her mother said. "This is too important for your teenage crush to be allowed to interfere. Both of you will come out alive, unless one of you screws up."
It wasn't as much assurance as she wanted, but it was more than she'd ever gotten before. Cassie nodded and said, "I promise I'll do what you say next time. I was just worried about the surveillance."
"Think. Would I have had those people here if there was a chance Division would know?"
"Only if it would help your plan." Cassie hadn't meant to say it out loud, and she flinched as her mom raised her hand.
A hurt look crossed Elizabeth's face as she finished the gesture and touched Cassie's cheek. "I want what's best for everybody."
"I know," Cassie said. But only if it helps the mission.
Nick kept up with the training, since it wasn't really optional. He watched carefully, going over in his mind what he'd have to do to repeat what he saw, but he didn't try any of it. No sense letting them see that he could do more than they thought; he'd rather be known as the mediocre loser than have them find him useful. They tried different teams, different trainers, being patient, being cruel, demonstrating each step of the process, knocking him around - none of it could get him to respond.
"They're going to kill your girlfriend." It came from the latest team leader, a fragile girl with pink hair and big boots named Jenna. She should've reminded him of Cassie, but she didn't. There wasn't enough going on behind her eyes for that. "They're putting up with your bullshit and with her, for now, but as soon as someone else survives the drug, or she gets too batshit crazy, you're dead and so is she."
Nick shrugged. He'd figured it was something like that from the minute Kira had made her proposition. That Kira had shown up at all, without Carver around, meant that she had leverage, that they were willing to give her a pass for killing him because she meant more to them than he did. Carver had meant a lot - his parents had talked about him in terms he'd had to promise not to repeat, and he had to a large extent been Division as far as they were concerned.
If Kira could kill him and still have enough pull to make deals, then she had to be important. The problem was, how long would Division be willing to put up with a girl in their command structure who traded two world-class Watchers for one substandard Mover? He knew Cassie and her mom were okay, because Hook would've gotten word to him if they weren't - being a former Division agent meant he knew the internal workings of the place and could get a message through if he needed to.
Really, when it came down to it, Nick had been dead for a long time. He'd survived to find a purpose, a mission to accomplish, and he'd done it. Cassie was safe, Cassie had her mom, Cassie was going to get to finish growing up in a real home, without having to hustle and steal to put food in her mouth. She might even know how to live in the real world, the one with jobs and mortgages and... orthodontists, crap like that. The kind of life Nick only knew existed from tv. Eventually she'd forget about Nick and what they'd gone through together, and that was as it should be - she deserved better than to remember the nightmares in her past.
He'd thought once that Kira might be the girl with the flower, but even when he'd been desperately in love with her, she hadn't given him one and so he'd held back. The girl with the flower was the reason he'd lived when his father died. Nothing could interfere with that, not even love.
It was hard to remember what it felt like. He looked at Kira, wanting to feel it. There was time now, now that he'd fulfilled his purpose. The world was wide open, except for being Division's slave. Even that would be easier if he could feel again, could look at Kira and want her. If he could feel anything.
On the morning of Cassie's seventeenth birthday, she woke up and reached for her nightstand. Every birthday, first thing, her main present was a fresh sketchbook to chronicle a new year of visions. Even when her mom hadn't been there, she'd arranged for the book to arrive every year without fail.
Cassie opened the sketchbook to try out some of her drawing exercises, only to find the first page was already full. Nick's face was drawn there with lifelike detail, so perfect that it looked like a photograph. Cassie just stared at it, her eyes welling with tears, until she noticed a time and date on the lower corner, with a number one in a circle.
There was more on the next page, and then next page, the whole sketchbook. Flipping through them quickly made it almost seem to move, and her heart clenched at seeing Nick, sad and smiling and shocked, but trying to hide all of it. When she could look away from his face, she saw a television in the background with the logo of a sports channel and her own face staring back at Nick from the television.
"I don't know exactly what you say to him," her mother said from the doorway, where she stood holding another sketchpad. "But that's why you're a cheerleader."
Launching herself out of bed, Cassie hugged her mother fiercely. "Thank you, thank you, thank you!"
"All right, all right," Elizabeth said, laughing a bit. "Just try once in a while to think of something other than the boy you have a crush on."
"I'll work super hard, I promise." Cassie clutched both of the sketchbooks to her chest, feeling alive again in a way she hadn't for far too long.
Smiling distantly, Elizabeth said, "I know, baby. It's just sometimes I wish I didn't have to ask you to."
They sent him on a mission, shoving a gun in his hand and telling him to just stand there and look menacing. There were live rounds in the chamber; he checked. He could've shot his whole team, could've shot the Pusher they'd been sent to bring in for turning a rude shopclerk into a serial killer, could've shot himself.
In the end, he didn't didn't shoot anybody. Reflex had him shielding the members of his team from each other's bullets, and a flare of anger let him land a punch square on the Pusher's face. The crunch of her nose breaking threw her off, and the team moved in quickly to capture her.
He shrugged off the praise as indifferently as he'd ignored the condemnation, and by the next mission neither was offered. He did what he had to, only intervening if the team was threatened or the target was particularly heinous - picking on kids or taking away people's choices. Someone noticed, since that became most of the missions the team got sent on.
Time kept on passing without him paying attention. He'd eat whatever got put on his tray in the cafeteria, work out, and read the newspapers, because sometimes the oldest methods were the best and there might be a message for him in the ads. Kira showed up as often as she didn't, but always at night.
The first girl he slept with at Division was a stitch. She'd come to his room to heal him from a concussion and had him take off all his clothes, spinning some bullshit about checking for other injuries. He hadn't argued; he'd barely talked, even when she stepped it up with a line about needing to give him a massage to heal systemic damage, even when she'd climbed aboard for a ride on the happy ending express. It hadn't mattered to him enough to stop it, or even to encourage it. She had what she wanted, and that's what he was there for - to be what other people wanted. Nothing mattered.
Kira was upset when she found out. Nick wanted to care, wanted to feel bad because he'd made her feel bad. He'd loved her so much when they'd been together, the pampered princess who hooked up with an alley cat. Back then, he'd hesitated to touch her, because she seemed so good and pure, and he'd been on the streets for a few years by then, surviving by lies and animal cunning and the lessons of his earliest childhood, everything from three card monte to how to catch and eat animals ranging from rats to bears.
It was automatic to wipe her tears away, to hold her. He heard himself telling her he was sorry, that he'd never do it again, that he loved only her. It gave him a splitting headache to look into her fathomless dark eyes and try to wonder why he was lying.
"I love you so much," she whispered, her hand soft against his cheek. "I need you, Nick. Please don't leave me."
"I won't." It was even the truth; where would he go? She needed him. "Has there been any word from Cassie?"
His hand came up again to stroke her hair as she looked at him and murmured, "I don't think so. I'm sure she'll write soon - she was upset with you."
"She'll write soon." He kept toying with her hair and added, "Maybe I could go see her."
"No." His hand stopped in midair as she sat up, but then she was snuggled against him again, looking intently into his eyes. "She and her mother are still settling in. You'd just be a disruption, a reminder of the bad times."
"I just want to make sure she's all right," he said, almost pleadingly.
Kira's eyelashes swept down for a moment and she nodded. "I understand. It was almost like we were her parents - it was so intense. I'd like to know how she's doing, too."
He didn't say anything. He'd never felt like anyone's parent. Kira continued, "I'll see what I can do, but I won't force her to talk to you."
"No," he said, and he was fairly sure he felt guilty at last. "I'd never force Cassie to do something she didn't want to."
Smiling, Kira patted his shoulder, no longer holding his gaze. "You're going to be a great dad."
He didn't see the connection, but it wasn't worth arguing about.
Every day, from the moment she woke up to when she finally collapsed at night, Cassie worked. She prepared all of the week's meals in a single batch when she came home from the shooting range, and ate when the alarms on her cell went off to tell her to. Other than that, she was working on her cheerleading drills or honing her ability to See, and to draw her visions so that others could understand them. Her homework was done between classes so that her grades would stay high enough to go on the trip when the time came, but otherwise she didn't care to waste time on something as useless as the crap they taught in school.
"You're never around anymore," said one of the girls from the cheerleading squad, and it took Cassie a moment to remember her name.
"There's just a lot going on," she said, trying to look like she was heroically holding up under pressure.
Sympathetically, Kristin said, "Is it your brother? I read there was an IED attack this weekend in Kandahar."
"Yeah," Cassie said, leaping to use the excuse she'd made up to explain why she'd known so much about guns and tactics when they'd been watching movies - and when they'd absolutely annihilated their opponents in a game of paintball, back when Cassie had still been trying to fit in and be as normal as Nick had asked her to be.
Frowning, Kristin put her hand on Cassie's arm. "Maybe it'll turn out he can come home. I know you miss Nick a lot - you said his name while you were asleep in history yesterday."
"Nick is not my brother," Cassie said sharply. "My brother's name is… Pinky."
"So who's Nick?" Kristin asked, then broke into a grin. "Is he your boyfriend?"
Stumped as to how to explain, Cassie said, "He's… Nick is special. But he's not my boyfriend. He's, like, ten years older than me."
"Is he cute?" Kristin asked. "Because there's a big difference between a handsome older man and a creepy middle aged loser."
Again, Cassie had to think about her answer, because she was having trouble conceptualizing the question. The stars of the movies they'd watched were 'cute.' Nick was just Nick. "He's really tall, and pretty muscular. Here, I've got a picture."
It was one her mother had drawn, so it actually looked like him. Kristin snatched it up as soon as Cassie dug it out of her pocket and exclaimed, "Hot damn! He's not just cute, he's 100% hot. Is he single?"
Struggling not to snatch the picture back and demand that Kristin never look at him again, Cassie said, "Sort of. There's a girl who says he's her boyfriend, but he still has sex with other girls."
"So, he's single." Kristin was beaming now. "If you don't want him, I do."
"No!" Cassie was surprised at the vehemence of her own response.
"Okay, okay," Kristin said, holding her hands up in surrender. "I won't touch your lover. I'll settle for the juicy details once you bag him."
Rolling her eyes, Cassie said, "I've got to get to the gym."
"Of course you do. Because five hours of practice aren't enough in any given day." Kristin sighed as she watched Cassie stand up. "Just don't forget I exist, okay?"
"I won't," Cassie said, but broke the promise as soon as she turned away and started reviewing her schedule for the rest of the day. It wasn't that she didn't like Kristin, she did, but she couldn't let anything come between her and getting Nick back. There'd be time for making and keeping friends later.
A tiny voice in her head wondered if that's what her mother had said when her own crusade had started, but she brushed it aside. If she skipped the bus today, she could practice her parkour on the way home and get some extra cardio in. She'd have to remember to add extra calories to the weekly meal planning; her ribs were starting to show.
That night, she had a vision of Nick, or maybe it was just a dream. He came home to a nice living room with curtains on the windows and a fireplace with lots of pictures above it. Tossing himself on the couch, he slung an arm over Cassie's shoulder and started nuzzling her neck as she concentrated on her sketchpad and ignored him completely. Her resistance didn't last for long, though, and soon enough the drawing she'd been working on lay abandoned as they stretched out together on the couch, kissing and caressing each other.
Cassie woke up with her face burning and her breath ragged. She'd been making out. With Nick. She didn't know which disturbed her more, the prospect that it could just be a hormone-fueled dream or the realization of how desperately she wanted it to be a glimpse of her real future.
One thing was for sure, she couldn't ask her mother for help figuring out if it was real. Not only would Elizabeth consider it a waste of time, there were some things it just didn't seem right to discuss with anyone. The way she'd felt while Nick was holding her was something private, something that she'd have to think about and consider before she did anything about it. In between trying to decide what she wanted to tell Nick, what he might need to know most, what might help him stop looking so defeated all the time.
It was on ESPN that he got news of Cassie, because her cheerleading team made the national championships. She didn't win - her team was robbed - but the camera focused on her as they went to commercial and it was her. An older version, her hair shorter and straighter and entirely blonde, but there was no mistaking those eyes as she looked straight at the camera and mouthed, "You're still a dumbass."
Her lips moved again, but it was less carefully, the movements hurried, as if she wasn't sure she wanted to talk to him anymore. She might even have been talking to the pimply runt next to her, the one who'd had his hand where it had no business being when Cassie was balancing on his shoulder. It felt like it was for him, though, like Cassie had seen that he'd needed some word from her that hadn't been filtered through Division.
They went to commercial and Nick closed his eyes for a moment, trying to hold Cassie in his mind. By the time he opened them again, he could hear Jenna and Mike arguing over on the couch. "Why are we even watching this? Teen queen sluts on parade - it's not like they're even real people, let alone engaged in a bona fide sporting event."
"Cheerleading is a display of skill and athleticism," Mike said haughtily, holding the remote away from Jenna. Nick felt a flash of gratitude, until he kept going. "And if lusting after young women in peak physical condition is wrong, then there is no heterosexual male on earth who is right."
"You're disgusting, and I'm changing the channel." There was a brief scuffle and the screen flickered to Judge Judy. Nick looked back down at the newspaper he'd supposedly been reading all along and frowned. He'd automatically looked at the cheerleaders and registered them as hot girls, which was why he'd been watching when Cassie came on. The thought of her, like that... The connection hadn't occurred to him. How old was she now?
His mind shied away from it. Cassie was Cassie. No matter what she did, no matter what anyone around her did, no matter how old she got or how long it had been, some things stayed the same - including, apparently, him being a dumbass.
Cassie's heart was still racing as she saw the camera turn away from her, and she wondered if he'd really seen her, if he'd understood what she'd said. She'd planned and planned and finally decided that he needed a kick in the pants more than anything. She hadn't been able to help herself when she added a quick, "I love you," and she wasn't sure if she wanted him to have seen it or not. She'd check the tape, see if it was distinct enough to make out. Maybe it wouldn't be, and she could put off deciding whether she'd actually meant it.
"Come on, we're supposed to head back to the hotel." Cassie looked around blankly, coming back to herself enough to recognize that Brandon had said something. "Cas? What's wrong?"
"Nothing, I'm fine," she said. "I think I'm going to take a walk."
He sputtered something about her being kicked off the squad, amongst other things, but she didn't care; cheerleading had served its purpose, and now she could use the time she'd spent on it for better things. She still couldn't reliably call up visions, let alone of the complexity and depth that her mother could. If she didn't get better, she might not see Nick for even longer, and it already seemed like it had been forever, like it had happened in another lifetime.
More people were trying to talk to her and she just walked faster, breaking into a run when someone tried to grab her arm. She'd worked so hard to get to this, to know that she was connected to Nick, just for a moment, and now it was over and she felt lost and hurt and lonely, and it pissed her off.
He had to be a hero, didn't he? As if "normal" had ever been in the cards for her. Girl Scouts? She'd literally been created to be a weapon against Division - she couldn't remember ever not knowing that, ever being unaware of the whispers and laughs that Elizabeth had ignored because they hadn't mattered to her. The closest she had ever come to knowing anything about her father was when a particularly nasty Sniffer had told her that Elizabeth had just picked out the guy she'd Seen would be the right sperm donor and gotten him too drunk to know she hadn't used a condom.
Bursting out of the cavernous building where they'd held the competition, Cassie started running harder, not seeing anything around her in her desperation to get away from everyone who might want something from her. Maybe she should do what Nick had said. Maybe she should forget all about training, forget about Division, forget about him and his sad eyes as he let girl after girl crawl all over him.
She was becoming her mother, and for what? He didn't even remember her. The thought made an unexpected sob well up in Cassie's throat and she stopped abruptly, bending with her hands on her knees to take deep, gasping breaths.
The shadow of the person behind her barely entered her vision before she was in motion, bitterly regretting that she only had one small knife hidden in her uniform. Her adrenaline was pumping and she fought hard, until it sunk in that the fight was too easy and no one was shooting at her.
"Brandon?" He flinched when she reached out to help him up, refusing to look her in the eye.
With a swipe at the blood trickling out of his nose, he muttered, "I wanted to make sure you were okay. You never mentioned being a ninja or I wouldn't have bothered."
"I don't do well with surprises." Squatting next to him, she looked at his injuries and said, "You should be fine."
"Sure, apart from the broken nose," he muttered. "But, seriously, are you okay? The way you lit out of there..."
Cassie looked at him and realized with a start that he actually cared - and that he had a crush on her. She had no idea what to do about it, and she wanted to laugh at the realization that she'd turned down his invitation to the movies just the day before. Maybe Nick was really the Watcher - he'd told her she'd break some little boy's heart. "Come on. Let's go get some ice and get on the bus home."
The conversation on the way back was stilted at first, and Cassie was only half paying attention anyway. She had options. Brandon wasn't bad looking - Kristen, in fact, had called him the cutest boy in school. She could go out with him, get her first kiss, go to prom. Nick would probably tell her to do it, to be normal and happy.
Screw that. Nick was going to have to tell her to her face, and even then she wasn't going to listen to him. She never did when he was saying something she didn't want to hear, and things worked out for the best that way.
Jenna fucked up a mission. They'd been supposed to go in, grab the target, and get out. She'd stopped to talk, gloating in her best Carver impersonation, and she got caught on the nannycam in living color and with full audio. Her big speech about Division and it being useless to resist and all that went straight to the six o'clock news, hitting the national networks half an hour later.
The awards for excellence in broadcasting on the wall and the teddy bear placed conspicuously in the office of a man with no children should've been enough of a tipoff, but Jenna told him to shut up when he tried to mention it. Nick didn't press the point, just made sure to keep away from the bear and not talk unless he had to.
"You just don't give a fuck, do you?" Jenna stormed into his room as Katie Couric burbled in her most serious tone about shocking allegations of a secret government agency and a presidential spokesman refused to comment. "We're supposed to be a team and you hung me out to dry!"
He looked at her, eyebrows raised, but before he could come up with a retort, she'd pulled out a gun and pointed it between his eyes. "I should kill you, just like you killed me."
"So kill me." He didn't bother standing up, didn't even put up a shield, just looked at her steadily over the barrel of the gun.
Her hand tightened, but her grip shifted and the bullet just creased his ear. "You're going to have to get up the balls to commit suicide on your own," she spat. "I'm not helping you."
"Shut the door behind you." Nick turned away, not watching her as she slammed the door behind her. After she was gone, he Moved the bullet out of the wall and to his hand, turning it over and over in his fingers as he thought.
Cassie woke up the Monday after the cheerleading exhibition to her mother shaking her. "It's almost time."
The statement brought Cassie out of the fog she'd been in, and she frowned as she saw her mom's state, a jittery excitement made her eyes bright and her hands shake. Cautiously, because her mom was unpredictable enough warrant caution even on a normal day, Cassie said, "Time for what?"
"Time to bring Division down," Elizabeth said, and her smile was almost ghastly. "Your Nick started it off - it's not something I predicted but we can use it, it can be insurance that the plan will go off exactly as I've seen it."
"Will he still be safe?" It was the only thing Cassie cared about, and she clasped her hands tightly together as she waited for the answer.
Waving a hand, Elizabeth said, "He'll come out alive, as he always has. I wouldn't change that - couldn't, without everything going wrong."
It wasn't reassuring, and Cassie gathered up her courage to say, "Can you please check? I need to know."
Elizabeth rolled her eyes, but went to the kitchen to pour herself a drink. "Get the pencils."
"Thank you!" Cassie scurried around, getting everything ready, including a backup bottle of vodka and the small electric pencil sharpener. Once everything was gathered, she sat back and waited, trying to fade into the background so that nothing she did, or didn't do, would distract her mother.
Eyes flickering behind closed lids, Elizabeth reached for a pencil, only to snap it between her fingers. "He's changing things. He's changing things!"
Cassie held still, not sure what reaction was called for. Hadn't she already seen that he changed things?
"Go," Elizabeth said. "Leave. I need to get things in place and I don't have much time. Stupid, stupid boy. He's going to risk everything!"
Scrambling to her feet, Cassie tried to stamp down the urge to panic. "What can I do?"
"Get out of my way," Elizabeth said, picking up another pencil and starting to draw. "Go to school. Act like everything is normal, but be ready."
"Ready for what?" There was no answer, and Cassie wanted to scream, to insist on being involved and doing something, but the habit of following orders was too strong. Reluctantly, she started going through her morning routine until there was no help for it but to go to school and try to act like she wasn't terrified.
"I want to try the drug."
Kira stopped running her hands over his chest, the sheet falling away as she sat up. "No."
"The requests are in my file - they've been asking for me as a test subject since before I got here." Johns had been surprised at Nick's request to see his personnel file, but willing enough. Eager, even - he'd said something about it being high time Nick started taking an interest in repaying Division's investment in him.
Still shaking her head, Kira said, "It's too dangerous. It's unstable - I'm still the only one that's survived the process."
"Four others survived," he said. It had been amazing, and disturbing, just how many people in the building were willing to answer questions for him. All of them that he'd talked to, in point of fact.
"Not for long," she said, and she didn't sound at all unhappy about it.
He looked down at his hands for a second and then looked at her directly. "Why don't they survive? Is it because of the drug itself or because--"
"Can't you just trust me?" She took his hands and stared unwaveringly into his eyes, her own glistening with tears. "All I'm doing - all I've done - is what's best for us. You and me, against the world."
Hard as he looked, he couldn't see the girl from Coney Island, the one that he'd loved so much he couldn't think of anything else. He couldn't even remember why he'd fallen for her so hard and so fast. There'd been other girls before her, even pretty ones, ones who would've taken him home and cared for him.
He'd always gotten out before they got too attached, and long before he formed any kind of feeling that would tie him down. Something about Kira hadn't let go of him, not until she'd been the one to leave. He'd been hurt and confused, but when he couldn't find her he'd also been a bit relieved, because it was for the best. Loving someone meant giving the world leverage, a hostage to use against you. Look at what had happened with Cassie.
"Jenna's next on the schedule," he said. "But it was my fault for not telling her, or taking the bear with us."
"You want to throw away your life - our lives - for her?" Kira shot off the bed, jerking her clothes on with stiff movements. "After all I've done, after all this time, you're throwing it all away for some slut?"
"It's not like that," he said, but it sounded weak. He tried to think if Jenna was one of the girls he'd slept with, but he couldn't remember.
Kira's eyes flashed black and she looked at him intently. "You're going to forget this. You're going to stop asking questions. You're going to love me and be faithful to me, and you're going to be a good agent and forget all about that little bitch and remember that you love me. I'm the one you want to protect. Me!"
The blast of Kira's mind against his was staggering, like walking from a freezer into the Sahara. His hands moved uselessly, trying to push away the pain, to hold his head together so it wouldn't crack open from the pressure, pressure that seemed... familiar.
Someone was screaming. He could hear it distantly, but he wasn't paying attention, because he wasn't there. He was somewhere far away from Division, far away from Kira and even from his own body. Somewhere chilly and clean and calm, where he could think, even about things he didn't want to know. Connections he'd never made started to come together, beginning and ending with the fact that Kira was a Pusher.
His mother had said something once about how it was inevitable that Pushers would be spoiled brats, because they could get anything they wanted. If you never had to listen to the word 'no,' you never learned that there were things you shouldn't have, things you couldn't do. At the time, he hadn't really seen the point of what she was saying, since he would've been happy for his mom to let him have more ice cream and invite the kids from the other motel rooms to a pool party for his sixth birthday.
The pressure stopped and he could see again, could feel his strangely shaky body surrounding the calm center of his thoughts. She was smiling and caressing his cheek. "I love you, Nick. Try to get some sleep, okay?"
He just nodded, lying down. She'd try to Push him again if he didn't, and he wasn't sure he'd survive it again. Worse, he might survive but give in to it, and the thought was enough to give him the cold sweats. How much of himself would he have left? How much had she already taken?
Cassie wasn't sure if she wanted to run home or drag her feet, but she'd gotten her daily pack of Oreos and was watching her surroundings, waiting until there was no one around to watch or notice her. Just as she'd decided she was clear, a car pulled up beside her and the door opened.
"Get in the car." Cassie frowned at Brandon's tone of voice, shaking her head as she kept walking. The click of a round being chambered made her look up, and her mind struggled with the concept that he, of all people, was pointing a gun at her. "Believe me, I won't hesitate."
She stopped, crunching on a cookie as she looked at him. "Shadow? I have to hand it to you - I wasn't expecting this."
"Get in the fucking car!" She could see his hand tightening and jumped just as the shot fired, vaulting to the roof of the car and scrambling for her own gun, firing several shots into the engine before taking off.
There wasn't time to think, but her thoughts were still in a crazy whirl as she ran, letting her instincts guide her path. Had he been a plant all along? Was he being Pushed? Was it safe to go find her mother?
She could hear him behind her, cursing as he tried to keep up, and she wondered why he didn't just shoot her. As soon as she could, she got some distance and doubled back, using the parkour she'd practiced to stay out of sight. She knew he'd given up when he stopped, flipping open a cell phone.
"She's in the wind." He paused, and Cassie would have given her eyeteeth to be able to hear the other side of the conversation. "Your pet watchers said she'd come along at a threat - and they didn't mention she can run up walls like a freaking spider."
Another pause and then, "Fuck you, get her yourself if that's your attitude. Yeah, she shot the car, not me - fine. Just get me a new car, a decent sniff, and for God's sake get a watcher on the job that can see something."
Home was the first place that they would look. Even as she ran, Cassie thought through the safehouses and boltholes her mother had told her about. None of them seemed all that safe, and Cassie cursed with as much breath as she could spare from running, wondering how neither she nor her mother had seen this coming.
"Cassie!" Pinky's voice made Cassie's head whip around, and as she climbed into his car, she wondered again if her mother deliberately timed these things for maximum dramatic effect.
Pinky's smile was familiar and comforting as he steered the car around a corner and very carefully kept to the speed limit. "Seems like old times."
"We just need Nick," Cassie said, setting her jaw firmly so that it wouldn't tremble.
"Your mom said that's why I'm here." Pinky took another corner at a sedate speed before whipping through a complete turn and heading in a completely different direction. "She wasn't really big on the details - just said to come get you and tell you to tear up your sketchbook."
Cassie frowned but started digging through her bag, tossing her schoolbooks aside. They were useless now - she was never going to go to class again, never going to eat lunch with Kristen again, never going to drift off to the sound of Mr. Jensen talking about the importance of computer skills in the modern world. It surprised her to feel a pang of regret at the thought.
The fact remained, though, that she'd trade it all, trade everything in the world, just to see Nick again. Quickly, so she wouldn't think about the feeling of loss involved, she picked up her sketchbook and ripped the pages out of the binding.
She hadn't noticed that Pinky was still talking until he abruptly stopped. When she looked up, he shrugged. "Seemed like a heavy moment for you. Plus, I spotted a Dunkin Donuts."
"I've got enough cash," she said, turning back to the sketchbook. "Let's get dougnuts and coffee and keep driving."
"Anyone ever tell you you're kind of bossy?" Drumming his hands on the steering wheel, Pinky said, "So what did you get in exchange for messing up my car?"
Slowly, Cassie unfolded the paper that had been stuck in the binding. It had a series of drawings, almost like a page out of a comic book, and it ended with Nick draped between Hook and Pinky, the three of them stumbling away from an exam table where Nick had been strapped down. It wasn't a guarantee, but it gave her a place to start. "Get a tea for Hook along with the coffee. We don't have any time to lose."
It seemed like Kira would never leave, coming back for one last kiss at least three times, but finally she got a call about a situation - a runaway, from what Nick caught of her side of the conversation - and she left after a quick glance at Nick. He washed his face off after she'd gone to give her time to be all the way gone, and wished he could risk taking the time for a shower. He felt filthy for playing along, for telling her that he loved her and that they'd be together forever when all he wanted was to get away from her. The idea of being trapped with her made his skin crawl, because it wouldn't be him, it'd be some brainwashed nobody that looked like him.
He had thought he was dead, but her attack on his mind had proven two things to him. One, that he was still there and two, that he never wanted to experience that kind of a blast to his mind ever again. The thought of it made him shiver, and there was a small, cowardly part of him that wanted to give her everything she wanted so that he'd never risk it.
Shoving that aside, he made his way through the hallways, wandering aimlessly until he ended up at the infirmary rather than at Johns's office, where he'd originally intended to go. Jenna was already in there, looking terrified as her arm was swabbed with an antiseptic. He took a deep breath and forced himself to push open the door, still thinking about escape even as he stepped into the room. "Hey, no cutting in line. I was next."
The army was small and ragged, but Elizabeth had called and they were there. They came in groups of no more than five and no less than three, most of them bickering with each other in a way that made it seem as if they were one short step from fighting each other instead of Division. Elizabeth herself arrived as Cassie was trying to sort out a group that had actually come to blows. She'd looked around for a brief moment and said, "There's no time for this."
Her voice was quiet, but it had a profound effect. People stopped arguing, stopped talking, and instead turned to face the unassuming building surrounded by a low fence and acres of woodland.
"What about their Watchers?" Hook was the one that asked, and Elizabeth gave him such a withering look that Cassie winced. He just looked at her steadily, calm and at ease, and Cassie wished she could be the same.
With a small, nasty smile, Elizabeth said, "Right now, all their Watchers can see is their own deaths. They don't know whether I'll use a knife or a gun or anything that might come to my hand - I keep changing my mind."
Cassie's involuntary protest was cut short by Pinky's hand on her arm. "So what's the plan?"
"We burn it to the ground," Elizabeth said. "And kill anyone who tries to stop us."
There was no cheer, no affirmation, but the looks of determination as she looked around stiffened Cassie's resolve. They would do this and, no matter what, she would have Nick back.
"Mr. Gant." Johns gave him a thin-lipped smile and gestured for Jenna to step away from the stitch who'd been about to inject her.
She slumped with relief and Nick helped her stay on her feet, leaning in to whisper, "If I die, find Cassie, Cassie Holmes. Keep her safe and tell her... Tell her I'm a dumbass."
The door flew open, cutting Jenna off, and Nick wasn't even a little surprised to see Kira, her eyes black as she looked around the room in a rage. "This is against protocol. I demand--"
With a flick of his wrist, Nick picked up the syringe and held it to his own arm, darkly amused at the echo of the past. "We've been here before."
"Put that down." Kira's voice echoed with strange harmonics, an irresistible command that made it feel as if his skull was vibrating, and the syringe clattered as it fell to the floor.
The explosion rocked the room they were in, making Kira stumble and breaking her concentration just enough that Nick could dive to the ground, ignoring Jenna's scream and Johns talking frantically into a walkie talkie. He didn't wonder why anything had exploded, or worry about the way plaster was falling from the roof, because all he could see was the syringe. Before he could think again about what a terrible idea it was, he pushed the needle into his elbow and pressed the plunger.
"No!" Cassie's scream was echoed by Elizabeth's, and it was only by luck that Pinky managed to pull her down before she was hit by something that was being Moved through the air with lethal force, too fast to be identified. Pulling away from him, Cassie ran to her mother, shaking her by the shoulders. "Nick was supposed to be okay!"
"He changed things," Elizabeth mumbled, her voice slurring as her eyes became unfocused, staring into the future without a drink or a drawing pad to help her. "She didn't burn him out, she was supposed to burn him out before he took it."
Cassie felt cold as her mother's words sank in, the noise and confusion all around them seeming to fade. "You always said he'd live. You never said he'd be all right."
As she turned blank eyes towards Cassie, Elizabeth's brow furrowed. "It's what had to happen to bring Division down."
"You--" The wall above them exploded, and Cassie scrambled to get her gun securely in hand as she turned, feeling the drip of blood down her cheek before she felt the sting of the gash left by flying shrapnel. "Fuck your plan. I'm getting Nick."
"Cassie!" She kept on walking away, swiping at the blood on her face with the back of one hand even as she held her gun steady in the other. "Cassie, we can still make it work! We need to fix it - we need to bring down Division. Cassie!"
It seemed to Nick that it took forever to fall down after he finished injecting himself with the drug, an eternity of inevitability as there was nothing he could do to stop himself. His heart raced and he wondered if he was dying, if the drug was as deadly as it seemed and his suspicions about Kira's need to remain special had been unfounded. His head bounced off the floor as he hit the ground with a crash, and time sped up again, Kira seeming to appear instantly beside him.
"You did this," she spat out, but it wasn't at him or at Johns. Instead she was glaring at Jenna, her eyes entirely black. "Take this gun."
Jenna walked over and obeyed, her movements slow and her face blank. Nick reached up weakly, trying to summon the strength to move her away but not able to concentrate on anything except Cassie. He frowned, moving his hand, and then he felt the tug of his power connecting him with Jenna for a brief moment before she vanished.
"A porter!" Nick had almost forgotten about Johns until the man cried out jubilantly. "Powers can be combined through heredity!"
"What did you do?" Kira turned on him, holding out the gun she'd tried to give to Jenna and pointing it at the middle of Johns's forehead. "What did you do to him?"
Waving a hand dismissively, Johns said, "Go take care of whoever's damaging my building. Mr. Gant and I have work to do."
Kira was the one holding the gun, but she trembled. "Nick is mine. He's always been mine."
The fighting settled into a rhythm, Cassie shouting out things she saw while Elizabeth's army seethed around her, attacking anyone who came near them. At first they'd tried to convince people to surrender or join them, but it very quickly became obvious that no one was going to listen to armed invaders. Cassie had shot someone that she was fairly sure had died, and she'd thrown up into a the trash can of someone's cubicle, the eyes from the happy family pictures on the desk seeming to accuse her of weakness as well as murder.
Occasionally she could hear her mother shouting out instructions and orders, her voice crisp as it floated over the screams and gunshots. Someone had shut off the fire alarms, but the amount of noise was still almost like an assault in and of itself. The smoke from the various fires that had been set made the air thick, and Cassie didn't see the girl with pink hair until she'd literally tripped over her.
The impact sent her sprawling and she scrambled for her gun, fighting against the vision she could feel trying to form in her mind so that she could concentrate on the present. The girl reached the gun first and suddenly all Cassie could see was the barrel of her own gun, a black void that seemed so much larger than it actually was.
"You're Cassie," the girl said, and it was like all of the noise in the room disappeared as the two of them looked at each other. "Nick said to tell you he's a dumbass."
Forgetting all about the gun, Cassie snapped, "Where is he?"
"Call off your death squad first," the girl said, and Cassie snorted. The girl's hand tightened around the gun. "Call them off or I'll kill you!"
"Sorry, sweetheart." Hook's gun nudged the pink hair to one side as he pressed it against the base of the girl's skull. "Put the gun down slowly and I won't be inclined to take any rash actions."
Defiantly, the girl said, "You're killing everyone else here, why not me?"
"Because you weren't supposed to die, Jenna." Elizabeth's voice was calm and steady, even with gunpowder smudges across her face and blood staining her blonde hair. "You're part of the plan."
"Plan?" Hook looked at the chaos all around them. "If this is your fucking plan, I'd hate to see what it's like when things go bollocks up."
That made Elizabeth hesitate, her hand coming up to touch her temple before she shook it off. "You two are due in the infirmary. Jenna and I have somewhere to be."
"I'm not going with you."
Elizabeth's lips tightened and she fired the gun at the floor, barely an inch away from Jenna's hand. "I need you alive. There's doesn't mean you can't bleed."
"Mom!" Cassie wasn't even sure why it bothered her so much, except that the girl had brought her a message from Nick.
"You know where you're supposed to be." Her mother's face was implacable. "The plan can still work if you do what you're supposed to do. I've spent too much of my life working for this to let you screw it up now."
Picking up her gun from where Jenna had dropped it, Cassie said, "When this is over, I don't want to see you again."
Shaking her head, Cassie walked away, ignoring her mother's shout.
"No." Nick had never felt weaker, not even when he'd been most of the way dead, but he still forced himself to sit up. "I don't belong to you. I never did."
"You love me," Kira said, tears slipping down her cheeks as her arms sagged down to her sides. "You have to love me."
Laying his hand on Nick's shoulder, Johns said, "Concentrate on my office, Mr. Gant. Will us to be there and we will be."
Hesitating, Nick said, "Look, this... Kira, I'm sorry. I just, I can't--"
"Nick!" The door burst open and Cassie burst in, stopping abruptly when she saw the frozen tableau. "Nick?"
"This is all her fault." Kira's eyes went black and she focused on Nick intently. "You're going to forget her. She never existed - you never knew her."
Gritting his teeth, Nick fought against the intrusion into his mind, against the feeling of tentacles stealing through his memories and threatening to smother them. "Not... real."
Cassie charged forward, determined to stop Kira even if it meant bashing her face in with her fists. The man next to Nick had his hands around Nick's face, like he was holding it together, and Cassie hoped it would help even as she launched herself at Kira in a flying tackle.
Snake-fast, Kira struck out with the gun she still held, catching Cassie a blow to the head that left her dizzy even as she kept on fighting. It was futile and Cassie despaired as Kira shoved her down to the ground, pointing the gun at her. "You'll see. Nick will--"
The round hole in the middle of Kira's forehead seemed to appear before the sound of the gunshot reached Cassie's ears, and she looked up to see her mother lowering her gun to point at the floor. As Cassie stared at her with wide eyes, Elizabeth shrugged and said, "The plan was fucked anyway."
Her head snapped up, as did her gun. "Allan. You were supposed to be dead."
"And you were supposed to be part of a family, but that didn't stop you and Ezra from declaring war." Keeping his hands out to his side, Johns said, "And here you are again, murdering innocent people."
"Division isn't innocent," she snapped. "Division destroys lives, rips families apart. The worst part is that you pretend not to be monsters."
With a small smile, Johns said, "Then I won't pretend - there's no way you or your people are getting out of here alive. Once again, you led your army into a trap - just like you did when Ezra was killed."
Trembling, Elizabeth said, "You're just desperate."
"Am I?" Pulling out a cell phone from his pocket, he said, "You know I'm too good a shadow for your powers to work reliably, and you're too big a lush to notice anything kept simple."
The last word was lost in the sound of something heavy hitting the back of his head, his eyes rolled up as he fell forward. The basin Nick had used as an improvised weapon fell without him actively using his power on it, and he said, "Was that a bedpan? I kind of always wanted to hit someone with a bedpan."
"Nick!" Cassie ran to him, throwing her arms around his neck but hesitating before kissing him. "You seriously suck at taking care of yourself."
"Yeah?" Groaning as he sat up, Nick said, "A little watcher once told me that wasn't my job, so what do you think about that?"
Putting her shoulder under his armpit to help him stand, Cassie said, "I think you make my job a lot harder when you pull heroic bullshit."
"We should get out of here," Elizabeth said. "If things have gone right anywhere else, the building will be set to blow soon."
"No!" It came from Nick and Cassie simultaneously, and they looked at each other for a moment before she nodded and let him talk. "There's good people here. Johns, yeah, he's an asshole, but a lot of the people here just want to make the world a better place. They're following someone else's plan."
Elizabeth looked at him and let her gaze go unfocused, staring into the future before she holstered her gun. "You have always been a complete pain in the ass. It's like playing chess and suddenly a knight has a machine gun."
"I'm not sure I'm sorry." Nick winced and flexed his arm. "I'm going to have to learn to give shots if I keep doing this."
"You did well enough this time." Elizabeth closed her eyes momentarily and then turned away. "Get out of here. I need to see clearly."
She left and Cassie felt Nick squeezing her shoulders as best he could. "She's probably just busy. She'll be back to normal soon."
"This is normal," Cassie said. "The plan to bring down Division has always been what mattered."
Looking over at Kira's body and then quickly looking away, Nick shook his head. "I don't even know what to say to that."
"Hook and Pinky." It was sinking in to Cassie that Nick's arm was around her and he was real and it would be too easy to be distracted and forget everything else. "They're here for us - we need to get them out."
"Go," Elizabeth said firmly. "I'll take care of your friends."
It would have been reassuring if there had been fewer loopholes. "By 'take care of,' you mean bring them back home alive and in one piece?"
Nick slumped against her, his weight almost bringing her down to the floor, and Cassie cursed. Elizabeth's laugh didn't help. "It looks like at least one part is going according to plan. Your friends will be here soon to get you out."
That left Cassie alone with Nick in the infirmary, his breathing shallow and his heartbeat fast. Cassie struggled to get him into a chair, not wanting to let go of him. "Hey. You can't die. You still owe me twenty bucks."
"I love you, too," he groaned, his eyes still half closed. "And I paid you back when I bought that crappy pizza in Thailand."
Her heart was thumping like a bass drum and she couldn't think of anything to say. He opened his eyes to look at her, a half-smile on his lips that looked almost shy. Leaning in to kiss him didn't require thought, but she pulled up short when his eyes went wide with panic.
As fast as he was in bringing her down to the floor and covering her body with his, she still felt the shock of a bullet ripping through her skin, tearing the flesh from her bicep as they fell. She heard another shot and thought they would die, but then there was a thump and she could see another body on the floor, the man they'd forgotten once Nick knocked him out. The gun clattered out of his hands and she realized Nick must have made the bullet turn in the air and go back to kill the man who shot it.
"You've gotten good." Feeling lightheaded, she looked down at her arm. "I don't like getting shot."
Nick bound her arm quickly, his movements getting more certain as he worked, until finally he picked her up and held her against his chest. "That's never happening again. You're never going to be in danger again."
"I think the odds on that are incredibly low." Gingerly testing out her arm, she found she could move it, but it hurt like hell. Holding still seemed a much better option. "I mean, seriously, I was getting shot at way before I met you."
Shuddering, he pulled her even closer. "I thought I was going to lose you. It's... I couldn't do it, I couldn't keep going if I did. The only way I made it this far was because I knew you were okay."
"I wasn't," she said. "I didn't have you, there's no way I could ever be all right."
"Cassie..." It was a groan and a surrender. He kissed her then, his lips soft against hers until she sank her hand in his hair and tightened her fingers, her nails lightly scratching his scalp. It had been instinctual rather than deliberate, but she vowed to remember it for later when he made a hungry noise at the back of his throat, almost a growl, and then he was kissing her in earnest, his tongue sliding against hers and his arms holding her tight.
It was as good as she'd imagined, better, and she forgot about the pain in her arm as she closed her eyes and kissed him back as best she could, desperate to get as close to him as possible. His grip on her shifted and she slid against the front of his body until she ended up with her feet touching the ground as she melted against him, overwhelmed by the feelings of love and desperation and relief, all mixed up with the sense of rightness that this was Nick, and he was with her.
Her arm moving renewed the pain, and Nick broke the kiss to say, "Are you okay?"
"Fine," she said, reaching for him again but being brought short by the pain.
"You're not fine." He cursed as he looked around, making her notice for the first time that they weren't in the Division infirmary where she'd been shot.
"This is... Isn't this where the cheerleading competition was?"
Ruefully, he said, "And I thought Moving was a pain in the ass. Apparently my mom had powers, too, and their superjuice flipped the switch on."
"We have to get back to Division," she said, feeling her stomach knot. "They have to fix you, before you start coughing blood and--"
"Hey." Taking her by the shoulders, he said, "Look into the future. Does it make me sick?"
After a few deep breaths, she calmed down enough to say, "It doesn't look like it."
"Good." He smiled and kissed her forehead. "Come on. Let's get you patched up and then find out what happened to the others."
"That wasn't a real kiss." She moved to try to claim one, but he held her back.
"You are still in high school," he said firmly. "And under eighteen. I completely and totally should not have done that."
Feeling exasperated, she said, "The age of consent in Maryland is sixteen, and I think events prove I'm way past high school."
Nick sighed and took the hand of her good arm. "I need this, Cassie. I need to know I'm not taking advantage of you."
"Fine." She wasn't happy about it, but she knew better than to argue when he got that tone of voice. "Do I really have to do high school? Can't I just get my GED?"
"That'll be for you and your mom to decide," Nick said, and she stopped.
"No way. No way are you ditching me." And he'd better know enough not to argue with her. "I'm living with you from now on."
His lips tightened and he said, "Can we talk about this when you're not bleeding?"
"Just so you know that we're going to talk about it," she said. "And, by the way, I'm not promising that I won't take advantage of you."
With a wry look, he said, "Just be gentle with me, okay? I'm new at this caring thing."
"You'll get used to it. I did." The smile he gave her as she squeezed his hand was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen.
Cassie made her way past where Hook and Nick were sitting, ostensibly to pluck some herbs from the small garden. The fact that it gave Nick a spectacular view of her ass, barely covered by a pair of cut-off shorts, was more likely the real reason. He tried to stay neutral, but the smug smile Cassie wore as she sauntered back into the house was pretty clear evidence that he hadn't succeeded.
The door had barely closed behind her when Hook, with barely repressed laughter in his voice, said, "What was she wearing this time?"
"Tiny shorts." Nick blew out a deep breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. "Tiny, tiny shorts. And one of my shirts."
"You're doomed," Hook said, lifting his glass of lemonade and taking a sip. "There is no possible way you're going to last until October."
Rubbing his hands over his face, Nick said, "I've tried explaining to her, but she just won't listen."
Hook didn't actually laugh, but Nick could tell he really wanted to. "Did you really think she would?"
"Maybe I could just go away for a while." The thought had barely started to form in his head when he sighed. "Pinky would never agree to hide me, and Cassie'd find me."
"I'll tell you something my late wife told me." Hook turned towards Nick, lowering the sunglasses he was required to wear whenever he was outside in order to preserve what sight he had left. "You can win an argument with a woman, or you can be happy. You can't be both."
"That sounds like the wit and wisdom of Madeline Waters." Emily was smiling when she stepped out of the house and walked towards them, carrying the pitcher of lemonade. With her spare hand, she pushed Hook's sunglasses back on and then ruffled his hair. "I thought I'd give Nick a break and not let Cassie bring out your drinks."
"Can't you talk to her?" Nick ignored the fact that he was whining, just like he ignored the way Hook caught Emily's hand and turned it so that he could kiss her palm. "You're her chaperone. Shouldn't you be telling her to stay away from creepy guys twice her age?"
Sitting down next to Hook, Emily said, "If I see any around, I will. In the meantime, I'm staying away from the romance novel soulmates drama."
"Smart as well as beautiful," Hook said, kissing her hand again. "Go away, Nick. I feel the need to spend some time with my amazingly sexy girlfriend."
There was no use staying; Hook and Emily had proved completely immune to shame ever since they'd started sharing the small suburban house with Nick and Cassie and discovered they liked each other as far more than occasional underworld contacts. Even Pinky had a girlfriend, one of the Stitches that had helped put Hook back together after the fight. Nick was the only one frustrated and miserable.
The fact that it was entirely his own fault was beside the point.
"Here." Cassie shoved one of their burner phones into his hand and flounced away, going up the stairs to her bedroom.
Nick watched her go, wondering again if he was the luckiest or most cursed guy on the planet. "Yeah?"
"You need to get your ass back here and deal with her highness." Jenna's voice was blisteringly harsh, which would have been more impressive if he wasn't fielding this exact phone call daily. "She's going to fucking Congress!"
Patiently, Nick said, "She's a Watcher. She's seen the outcome. She wouldn't do it if it wouldn't turn out well."
"Well for who? What if this is still just part of her obsession with destroying us?"
Rubbing her forehead, he said, "What do you want me to say, Jenna? Do you have a specific idea for how to handle people knowing about Division?"
"It's back to being my fault now?"
"That's not what I meant," Nick said, as he always did, but then he shook his head. "No, you know what, yes. Yes, it's your fault. Suck it up and deal with it, and if you've got something helpful to say, then just say it and stop bitching."
The line was quiet for a long moment, and he started to think she might have hung up. Just before he moved the phone away from his face to check, she said, "She laughs at you, you know. About how you're not fucking your girlfriend or doing anything useful."
"Charming. Pleasure to talk to you, as always." This time Jenna actually did hang up, and he tossed the phone on the counter before pulling a beer out of the fridge. He took a deep swallow, trying to calm down, and then ended up kicking the wall just out of sheer frustration.
"What did the wall ever do to you?"
He didn't look up at Cassie, not even when she lay her hand on his arm and pressed a kiss to his shoulder. They were quiet for a few minutes, with just the noise of the fridge and the soft sounds of Hook and Emily talking outside. Finally, she said, "I love you, you know? Whether or not we ever, y'know... I mean, I want it, but I want you more."
Putting his hand over hers, he said, "Do you know, that's the first time you've actually said it?"
"I was scared." She leaned her forehead against his back, letting her arms steal around his waist. "Sometimes you decide to leave me. I can't tell what you're going to think a lot of the time. I'm never sure what you're going to do."
"Hey." Pulling her around to face him, he kissed her forehead and then tilted her face up when she tried to avoid looking him in the eye. "I am never, ever going to leave you. Not even if you want me to, and that's what scares me."
With a wry smile, she looked up at him and said, "You really are a dumbass if you don't know that'd never happen."
"Careful with that sassy talk. You know what it does to me." Wrapping his arms around her, he buried his face in her hair while she relaxed against him. "I love you, you know. Pretty seriously."
Her eyes flickered in a way he recognized as signalling that she was getting a vision, and she couldn't quite hide the smugness of her smile afterward. "Come on," she said, leading him upstairs.
"Cassie, look, I know you don't--"
She kissed him, pushing him against the wall, and it was the hottest thing he'd ever experienced in his life. When she let him go abruptly, he wasn't sure whether to run away or beg for her to do it again. "We'll wait until you're ready. I just want you to hold me right now."
"What did you see?" he asked suspiciously, but she shrugged and he followed her anyway. That was the thing, when it all came down to it; he'd follow her wherever she wanted to go. Not because she was the girl with the flower, but because she was Cassie, and that turned out to be all that he needed.