April 19, 1925, San Diego, CA
The morning sun was bright, casting long shadows of palm trees across the sidewalk. Maksim was leaning against one of the columns just outside the lobby of Santa Fe Depot. Katherine was standing next to him, her hands in the pockets of her coat.
"Don't you think it's weird that no one told us who's coming?"
Maksim shrugged. "I have never been somewhere when a new Mentor is assigned. Perhaps this is normal."
It was, of course, not normal. But Maksim wasn't going to tell her that. Not now. He was aware that he was playing a dangerous game. Dutch had warned him, but he'd made up his mind already.
He watched Katherine tugging on a strand of hair.
"You seem nervous," he observed.
Kate shook her head. "I'm just thinking about what we're going to do next. I've sort of…run out of time to make a decision, haven't I?"
"Yes and no," Maksim said. "It is a big decision. You should not rush it." Maksim leaned towards her a fraction, just to enough to allow their shoulders to touch, and added quietly, "You know I will support whatever you decide, Katherine."
Katherine just nodded and looked away, focusing her attention on the train slowly pulling into the station. Maksim straightened his shoulders, folding his hands behind his back, and dropped the subject.
They'd had this conversation a couple of times already—whether to go Philadelphia or stay in San Diego. And Maksim had told her the same thing each time. It was her decision. He would be content to go wherever she chose. And she needed to take the time to consider all the options.
Kate had been considering her options all week. On top of cleaning out her childhood home and scattering her grandmother's ashes in the ocean, she'd been preoccupied with trying to figure out how to decide where the rest of her life—and Max's and Dutch's—would be. It had been a difficult week, and Kate had kept to herself for most of it. She wasn't avoiding Max or Dutch necessarily—but she knew she'd been quieter than normal.
"We're looking for two people, right?" She glanced up at Max.
"I was told they were sending a Novice as well," he nodded. "O'Malley had been refusing to take on new Novices."
"He was probably afraid he would get someone he couldn't control," Kate mused.
Max nodded. And frowned.
Kate nudged him with her elbow. "He fooled Tomás, too."
When he raised his eyebrows, she just grinned. "Don't tell me that's not what you were thinking about just now."
His lips twitched, and he shook his head. "Your grandmother's skill of knowing things may be genetic."
"No, I just know you." She had started to nudge him again but stopped herself quickly when she noticed the train finally stopping and porters opening doors.
"They're here," Kate murmured, straightening her shoulders as a fresh wave of anxiety washed over her. She was nervous about meeting this new Mentor, knowing that whoever it was would likely play a large part in the decision she still had to make.
They stood in silence for nearly ten minutes before two people, a man and a young woman, stepped off one of the last cars, both wearing hooded coats of the Order.
Kate nodded to Max and took two steps in the direction of the pair of Assassins—only to freeze mid-step when she saw a familiar smile.
Maksim watched Charles's smile widen as Katherine ran across the pavement and flung her arms around his neck. He followed in her wake and nodded a silent greeting to the young Novice Charles had brought along.
"Hello, Kate," Charles chuckled, pulling away from her.
"Wh-what are you doing here?" Katherine stammered.
"It seems the San Diego Bureau is in need of rebuilding," he replied. "And I happen to be experienced in that sort of thing." Charles looked over Katherine's head at Maksim and winked.
Katherine whirled around to Maksim, her eyes wide. "You knew, didn't you?" And before Maksim could respond, she jabbed a finger in his chest. "This whole time, you've been letting me agonize about where to go, and you knew he was coming here?"
"It was Maksim's idea, actually," Charles chuckled again, completely ignoring Katherine's outburst. "And a brilliant one, if you ask me."
Katherine flashed a glare at Maksim before turning back around and looking to the girl standing next to Charles.
"I'm sorry," Katherine said, holding out her hand. "We're being horribly rude. I'm Kate."
"Grace St. Ledger." The girl shook Katherine's hand. And Maksim's attention turned fully to the Novice.
He took in the familiar shape to her face, the high cheekbones, and the wide, green eyes. But this girl's curls were bright copper, and she was much closer to Katherine's height than Vera's.
"Welcome to San Diego." Maksim stepped in, offering his hand as well. Grace smiled at him, and he found her smile to be entirely sincere and without even a trace of Vera's arrogance.
"St. Ledger?" Katherine repeated, blinking.
"Ah, yes," Charles said, resting a hand on Grace's shoulder. "Vera found her sister in an orphanage near Pittsburgh a couple years back. As soon as Grace was 18, we made her an offer, and she accepted just last week."
Grace looked directly at Kate. "My sister doesn't like you, but she said you would be good to learn from."
Kate was a little surprised—both by the compliment coming from Vera and the matter-of-fact tone Grace used. The statement held no bite, no judgment, none of Vera's attitude at all.
She arched an eyebrow. "And you didn't want to stay there with her?"
"We're family by blood," Grace shrugged. "But she's kind of a bitch."
Kate couldn't help the laughter that bubbled out. She shook her head and grinned.
"I have a feeling we're going to get along just fine."
Kate noticed the look Charles and Max exchanged but brushed it off. She was still annoyed that they had kept this whole thing a secret from her.
"Right," Charles said. "Let's get out of the train station. I imagine we have quite a bit of work to do."
Kate let Max lead the way to the streetcar and hung back a bit, giving her a moment to process this new turn of events. She watched Grace make small talk with Charles and Max as the streetcar rattled its way across the city. And by the time they reached the front door of the Bureau, she'd made two decisions. One was that she owed Max an apology for shouting at him. The other was that she was going to need to do everything possible to keep Grace away from Dutch.
The first thing Charles did was ask Tomás to give Grace a tour of the Bureau and pull Dutch, Katherine, and Maksim into O'Malley's former office.
"This is really for Kate," Charles explained. "But I know she'll tell you two about it anyway. And I figure you're both invested in this affair as it is. This," he pulled an envelope from his pocket and handed it to Katherine, "is from Andrew Miles."
Maksim watched over Katherine's shoulder as she opened the envelope and pulled out a piece of yellowed parchment. She unfolded it and spread it on the desk.
"It's a map," she frowned. And Maksim studied the parchment. It was a map of the Northern hemisphere, but it was cluttered with lines and dots that, at first, seemed to make no sense at all. As soon as Maksim recognized them, so did Katherine.
"It's the map," she said, her voice nearly a whisper.
"It is," Charles nodded. "I took the information Maksim sent me and got in touch with Miles to see what he thought. And he sent me this."
Katherine unclasped her necklace and held the round pendant over the map. She turned it, holding it first over North America, then over Asia, and finally set it down carefully in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
"How does it work?" Dutch leaned forward with his hands on the desk.
"The dots and lines match up, but…" Katherine trailed off and picked the necklace up again. This time, she pulled it off of the chain completely and set it back down on the map, sliding it back to the same spot. And the dots and lines around the outermost part of the disc did line up with a ring of dots and lines on the map.
Kate looked up at Charles again, her eyebrows high on her forehead.
"The hole that the chain was threaded through…it points to a location of a Piece of Eden?"
Charles grinned and nodded. "When I described your necklace, Miles knew exactly what it was. He said the map and some coded notes from Ratonhnhaké:ton had been locked up at the Homestead for a long time. They just assumed the key was lost."
Kate looked back down at the map, sliding the key to a new spot. She almost couldn't believe what was beneath her fingers. All of this trouble, and she'd had it all along.
"You know what this means, don't you, Katie?" Dutch interrupted her thoughts.
She blinked up at him. "That I shouldn't be wearing something so valuable?"
"I was going to say that it proves there's no curse," Dutch chuckled. "But you might be right about wearing it."
She rolled her eyes and turned to Charles. "So what do I do with it?"
"The map will stay in my safe here, but the key is yours to keep safe," he answered. "Like your family has done for generations." He smiled again and said, "Now, let's get this Bureau in order."
And they gathered everyone around the dining room table and began making decisions. A training schedule was arranged. Tomás and Max would set up meetings for Charles to meet some key contacts in the city. Tomás and Lupe would move into Nana's house. And Max, Dutch and Kate would all be staying in San Diego.
Kate let her gaze drift around the table—Grace and Tomás, Dutch and her dad, and finally Max, who was intently listening as Charles assigned tasks for the afternoon. And she wondered what her mom would think if she could see her now.
The rest of the afternoon was a flurry of activity, of moving furniture and making supply runs, of trying to take care of everything O'Malley had neglected. And Maksim had only had a few brief exchanges with Katherine. He had just changed for bed and was headed to get a glass of water from the kitchen, when he found Katherine pacing just outside his door.
"Oh." She blinked at him. "Hi, Max."
"Katherine," he said, watching her tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. "Are you alright?"
She nodded. Then shook her head. Then sighed.
"I don't know. It feels…strange to finally know everything. I thought I would find out who my family was and what this artifact is and go back to my normal life…but I can't really. I've spent months searching for answers, and now that I've found them, there's nothing to go back to."
She bit her lip. And Maksim leaned against the door frame, folded his arms across his chest, and waited for her to gather her thoughts, knowing she had more to say.
"A year ago," she said slowly, "I had a job at the library that I mostly liked. And I had Nana and Dutch and Peter. We went dancing all the time and made money from our booze, and then…I lost…cripes," she sighed and looked down at the floor. "But now I have a place with the Order. And I have my dad and Dutch and…I sort of…lost one family and ended up with another."
She looked up at Maksim then, met his gaze, and quietly said, "Thank you for bringing my dad here. I'm sorry I shouted at you before."
"You don't owe me an apology," he shook his head. "It was…perhaps not the best idea to keep it a surprise. You've had a difficult week."
"A difficult year," she snorted. But then she grinned. "It was a good surprise, Max. It was perfect."
And he watched her grin fade before she dropped her gaze again.
"What else is on your mind, Katherine?"
"I've been thinking about my mom," Kate admitted. "I've spent most of the last year angry at her for lying to me, but she did what she thought was best. She believed in that curse. She believed that we had to choose between love and the Order. And now that we're here, now that I've seen what it's really like, I think I understand."
She sighed and looked up at him. And he was frowning.
"No, wait," she blurted. "That's not…I'm trying to…I meant…."
She let out a huff of air and shook her head. She thought about what she had. She thought about her dad's warm smile and Dutch's teasing. And she thought about the handful of moments she and Max had shared, moments that always seemed complicated by some outside force—adrenaline or fear or grief.
She looked up at him again, his frown having shifted into a slight smile, a hint of amusement in his eyes at her stumbling.
And she thought about what she could have.
"Max, do you remember that day at the Homestead? When you told me I could do this on my own, that I wouldn't need you to catch me once I figured it out?"
Max drew his brows together briefly but nodded.
"I can do things on my own. I know I can. And I know it won't be easy, but…" She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and took a step closer to him, adding softly, "I still want you to be there to catch me."
"Of course, Katherine." Max reached out and pulled the strand of hair she'd tucked behind her ear back out. "I will always be here."
Those words washed away the last of Kate's anxious energy, leaving only a steady sense of certainty behind. And she couldn't help but lean up on her toes to press a kiss to his lips before whispering, "Ya tebya lyublyu, Max."
And Kate's heart stuttered as Max's smile spread across his face in a way she had never seen before.
"I love you, too, Katherine."
When Max kissed her then, it was slow and sweet and full of intent. Kate gave him a gentle nudge backwards, and he pulled away just enough to peer down at her.
"We keep kissing in doorways," she murmured.
He raised an eyebrow, and Kate just grinned.
Max blinked. And then his cheeks flooded with color. Kate let out a laugh and kissed him again, gently pushing him further into his room and kicking the door shut behind her.
A/N: Whew. This is officially the longest thing I have ever written. It was equal parts fun and frustrating, and it feels a little strange to be done with it. But I'm ridiculously happy that those of you who made it to the end enjoyed it. Thanks for all the feedback and encouragement along the way. I've decided the AC fandom is made up of some of the best people I've ever interacted with.
Safety and peace, my friends—or as Maksim might say, mira i pokoya.