This is a "Traveler" story; there probably aren't many out there right now, but this idea has been bugging me for a while, what with all the teasing hints about Will's background and everything. I wrote this as my explanation for his motivations and history.
If you're just checking this story out, but don't currently watch the show, I strongly encourage you to –it's on ABC Wednesday nights at 10PM Pacific time. There are only two episodes left in the season, and unless ratings go up, it will most likely be canceled, so please check the show out –you won't be disappointed. Enjoy, and reviews would be much appreciated!
Disclaimer: I don't own anything from Traveler.
"Don't do this, Stephan."
The man's pleas went unanswered as Stephan Swift tightened his restraints with a determinedly detached expression.
"Aren't you going to gag me?"
"I need your mouth for now."
"Stephan, you've been my assistant for four years –"
"Where is it?"
"The records, Jansen, the financial records, where is it?"
"What happened to 'Daan'?"
Stephan was impassive as he gazed at his former boss with cold blue eyes. "Unless you give it to me now, you'll be in a lot of pain later."
"You won't –you won't go after my daughter, will you?"
"No," he lied. "It's you we want."
"But what –"
"If you don't cooperate," he said slowly. "I can't guarantee her safety."
Jansen stared. "You know her –"
"Maybe you should have thought of that beforehand."
"Before you funded terrorism."
"I didn't –"
"Give me the records. Where is the keycard?"
He gestured at the ropes biting into his flesh. "All this for records?"
"Four years, Stephan –when have you seen me consorting with terrorists?"
"That doesn't matter!" Stephan descended on him in an instant, the knife in his hand glinting cruelly in the morning light. "I will start cutting if you don't start talking."
Jansen met his gaze. "Stephan Swift. It's not your real name, is it?"
Stephan blinked. "What?"
"What is your name?"
His heart skipped a beat. He had thoroughly checked the entire house –this room in particular– for bugs and surveillance, eliminating what little security there had been. He couldn't have missed a wire on –
No. He knew Daan well enough to see that he genuinely wanted to know. Stephan hesitated; this wasn't in his directive, and was certainly against orders, but no matter how badly his bosses wanted Daan removed, he had been decent to Stephan. More than decent.
"Will. My name is Will."
To Stephan's disbelief, Jansen smiled. "So you like this trend, yes? Of having only one name?"
"I don't have a last name."
"Everyone has a family."
Stephan's instincts were screaming at him to finish the job –he'd already wasted far too much time talking unnecessarily, and the solider in him demanded that four years not be wasted.
"I was Will, became several other people, and was Stephan Swift for four years. That's all."
"How very lonely."
"The records, Daan. Please."
He smiled. "See, Ste –Will. All you had to do was ask politely."
"I'm not a great fan of pain, you know that. Couldn't stand losing to you in chess, could I?"
"Just like that?"
"On one condition –don't harm my daughter. She has nothing to do with any of this."
He lied every day. One more to secure a target's compliance should be nothing. Yet Stephan found it unusually had to find his voice. "Yeah. I promise."
After discovering the keycard's location, Stephan called another agent to retrieve and activate it with the password Jansen had given him. The wait was agonizingly long, with Jansen trussed up and every fiber of Stephan's body on high alert –he was just waiting for something to go wrong, to hear approaching footsteps or have Jansen scream for help.
But he knew he wouldn't. Jansen wouldn't jeopardize his daughter's life like that.
So they sat in silence until the ominous vibration informed them both that a result had been reached. Stephan kept both eyes on Jansen as he reached into his pocket for the cell phone.
"It's done. He told the truth."
Stephan flipped his phone shut. His gaze reached his victim, sitting quietly as a hostage in his own home, a knowing look in his eyes.
"There are more important things in life than business or money, Will."
"Yeah," Stephan said harshly. "Self-preservation."
Jansen shook his head sadly.
"What else, then? My country, yes –"
"Which is not Holland as I'd believed?"
His question beckoned no answer.
"Well, your Dutch is perfect, so I must compliment you on that."
"Will, you don't need me to say it." He straightened his shoulders. "Make it quick."
The last time he'd done a kill in this manner, Stephan had taken his time, blindfolding the South African colonel as he sharpened the knife on his polished desk, remembering the atrocities committed by the colonel to civilians and soldiers alike. Stephan hadn't been able to stand seeing someone in a position of power displaying his bigoted cruelty on civilians who had done nothing to deserve it. One day they went about their lives, and the next winding up abruptly dead or missing an arm. Eye for an eye.
All Stephan needed to do for Jansen was attach the silencer, flick off the safety, and make a clean shot to the head. He made sure he hadn't suffered.
Bending in front of the man who had made him doubt himself, Stephan closed his eyes with gentle fingers.
He hadn't known. He hadn't known how it was going to end when he had been assigned to Jansen. They never did, but at least before Stephan had known that those bastards would deserve whatever was coming.
He somehow found his way to Annika Jansen's bedroom, hushing the girl as she woke up with a yelp.
"Stephan? What –"
"You need to leave. Now."
"Where's my father? What's going on?"
"He can't help you, Annika, but I can. Get your things packed."
"Stephan, you're scaring me."
She stared at him for a moment, groggily taking in Stephan's serious expression, and threw off the covers. She wandered into the bathroom; Stephan could hear clinking bottles and rough fabric. Her compliance caused him an alien sort of pain –she trusted him, just as her father had. He walked out of her room to give her privacy, but kept a careful eye on the door. Taking his alternate cell phone –one he had acquired without Hometown's knowledge– out, Stephan swiftly dialed.
"This is Swift. I need a favor."
Stephan collected the passport and plane ticket before returning to the car, where a puffy-eyed Annika waited, staring down inconspicuously as Stephan had instructed, the plain blue baseball cap shadowing her face.
She stared at what he'd handed her in disbelief. "'Anette Aubrac'? French citizen? What is this?"
"The people who were after your father –"
"The bastards who murdered him, you mean."
He paused. "Yes. They'll kill you too, if you remain Annika. I know it'll be hard, because Anette Aubrac is not you, but this will keep you alive."
"But Paris? I'm sixteen. How do you expect me to survive on my own in a country whose language I can barely speak?"
"You won't be alone."
She raised her head, eyes hopeful. "You'll come?"
"Then where will you go?"
"I have somewhere to be, but I wanted to get you out first. I arranged to have your mother meet you at the airport in Paris."
"My mother? But she –"
"No, I'm not going with her –"
"There must be –"
"There is no one else. She's family, and despite what's happened, she cared bout you, and can offer you anonymity. After all, she's done a fair job of disappearing herself."
Annika blew her blonde bangs out of her face. "How did you find her?"
"Your father had me search for her after she disappeared. Eventually, I did find her, and placed someone to watch her, make sure she was okay."
"You did all that?"
They were silent as they approached the airport. Stephan handed Annika her luggage from the back seat, extremely conscious of the body in the trunk, hidden by various junk. He offered to walk her in and through the line, but she declined. She was used to flying.
Stephan had intended to see her off and leave, to cut ties with a successful mission as well as the blood on his hands.
Annika, however, had a different plan. She rolled her luggage to the sidewalk and, ignoring the distant look in his eyes, wrapped her arms around him in a desperate hug.
"I'm scared, Stephan."
He didn't speak for a moment but, against his better judgment, returned the embrace. "I know. But you have to be strong, okay?"
"Okay." She released him and smiled sadly, blinking away tears. "Thank you for everything you've done for my family."
Stephan watched, slightly stunned, as she entered the airport, keeping an eye on her until she became lost in the crowd.
He was numb as he drove away from the airport, from the planes rumbling overhead. He felt nothing as he dumped the body and returned to the meeting point. He couldn't bring himself to.
"What took you so long, Swift?"
"Excellent job, Will. Very clean."
"Thank you, Joseph."
"I heard you were a little late, though. Did you run into trouble?"
"I had a hard time dumping the bodies."
"But taking care of Jansen and the daughter went smoothly?"
"We won't see them again."
"Well, congratulations again, Will. I think you deserve a break after all your hard work, don't you? There's a dinner party tonight to celebrate our recent victories, yours included. Please come, I'm sure you'll see some of your old friends there."
"I'll think about it."
"Yes, I understand, the work we do is draining." Joseph smiled and lightly patted Stephan on the shoulder. "But now you can be Will. For the time being, at least."
Stephan exhaled loudly. Yes, it would be nice to reclaim what little identity he had.
Will had ended up going to the dinner party, but quite frankly it had been a blur of faces, old and fresh. He did recall having a bit of fun teasing a slightly intoxicated, very attractive blonde woman, but after shaking hands with multiple individuals –or at the very least, decoys– placed at the top of Hometown, Will had hit the bar.
He'd badly needed an extraordinary amount of alcohol, so he hadn't declined when a childhood training buddy had challenged him to a drink under the table contest. "Battle of wills, Will!"
Probably not the best move on his part.
He'd won –obviously– but had paid the price with a splitting headache and a startlingly clear revelation the next morning.
He wanted out.
"Had fun last night, Will?"
Will's eyes snapped open, instantly recognizing the voice. "Alex."
Her lips curled. "You remember me even with a hangover? How flattering. Get dressed; I haven't seen you since you were whisked to Holland."
He continued to glare at her retreating back until the door slammed behind her. Groaning as his head sank back into the pillow, Will reluctantly forced himself to move.
Alex had always been demanding.
"I think somebody's out of shape."
Alex grunted as she blocked Will's kick, pausing briefly to wipe beads of sweat off her forehead. "That's because I'm surrounded by lazy asses –all the good ones are always off on business while I'm on Trader duty."
"So how is waiting on the wings?"
"Terrible. I'd really love to –watch your feet– get in on the action, make a difference, you know? But so far there hasn't really been anything decent for an Asian woman, and they have yet to assign me anything as of late."
Will smirked as he released himself from her grasp. "Think you're getting old, Alex? You're not as young as –"
"Look who's talking! Honestly, four years away and already you forget those fond childhood memories."
"Building bombs and assembling rifles…that was the life."
"You know you love it, Will."
He answered with an elbow to her ribs.
They continued sparring in the empty room until Will bested her with a trick he had picked up from his time undercover in the Russian mafia.
Alex pouted as Will offered his hand, connecting their sweaty palms only to pull him down to the ground as well, panting heavily. "Remember Paris?" she asked. "When we were –oh, sixteen, I think– for that training gig?"
He smiled. "That was nice. After nearly being blown up, of course."
They laid on the blue mat in silence, confident that they were the only people crazy enough to train after last night. Now or never, Will thought. There was never surveillance in training rooms and they would not be disturbed.
"Do you ever doubt?"
"What we do."
Alex's gaze fell upon his face, but found nothing. She hesitated. "Yes, sometimes. Why? Have you?"
"Every place I've been –the people I've killed– were pieces of shit who would eat their own children if it preserved their power. Well, maybe the mafia wouldn't hurt their kids, but you know. Jenson was different; he was good man, loved his family, donated lots of money to charity, and didn't live in a huge mansion with gates and everything. He was good."
"Looks can be deceiving, Will."
"I know, but –this guy let me into his life. I was always babysitting his daughter, for Christ's sake, ever since she was twelve. His wife cheated on him –repeatedly– and disappeared, and even then he sent me after her –"
"No, he sent me to make sure he was okay. Even after she'd betrayed him, he still –even after I betrayed him, he forgave me." His mouth twisted. "He started talking about names and family and loneliness –I froze. That –that's never happened before, Alex. Never."
Alex sighed heavily, training her gaze on the ceiling.
"Those are dangerous thoughts, Will."
He looked at her in alarm.
"I'm not turning you in, Will, I –I've felt it too. But what we do is not always black and white –"
"I know that."
"No, hear me out. There's grey areas, like with your last job, but it's necessary. Don't you see? We were trained, raised, for this, to do what no one else can or is willing to do. We do the dirty work that keeps this world and this country ticking. It's unfortunate that sometimes sacrifices have to be made, but that's orders."
"It doesn't seem fair."
"Nothing ever is, Will."
"What if –what if we went off the job slightly? Would it really be the end of the world if we weren't such –such machines?"
"It would be frightening."
"We don't have all the facts; we never see the big picture like the higher ups in Hometown do. We're pawns, Will, soldiers –we don't know what could happen if we break orders. It's not safe."
"We –Alex, we don't think for ourselves. And since when was anything safe?"
Alex sighed. "It's okay, Will; doubt is natural, it's something everyone goes through. But in the long run, you're making a difference, even if we never exist in the government's mind."
"You used to be so bitter about this, about getting crap jobs and staying put while all the men got the exciting jobs."
"I've made my peace with this life. You should too."
He should, he really should. But he can't.
"Heard about any good jobs, lately?"
Alex laughed, relieved about the change in conversation. "You're a workaholic, you know that, right? An action junkie."
Will smirked. "Yeah. Seriously, though, what do you know? Any jobs that don't require a gun? Writing backdoors or secretly collecting intel, maybe?"
"You're too good for a desk job, Will. Although –actually, there is one that's completely uncharted territory for you."
"I don't know if you can handle it, though –"
"What is it?"
"It's scary, incredibly hard, and has many possible complications, even for you –"
"The wonderful world of –"
"Are you ready? I'll ring you up."
Daniel Taft smiled at the pretty blonde bookkeeper as she slipped gracefully behind the register. She frowned slightly at his selection. "On the Road? Good book. I'm Maya, by the way." She met his eyes, carefully gauging his reaction.
She smiled tightly. "I've been expecting you. I'll just close up shop and we can go back to my house."
As they drove to Maya's house, Daniel carefully observed her; all of her habits and body language clearly showed that she was nervous –terribly so. He wasn't sure if that was simply part of her personality or if it had been encouraged by his presence, but it had to stop.
"I'm not going to attack you or anything."
She fidgeted as she adjusted her shaky grip on the wheel. "I know."
"Funny, because you look –"
"I'm fine," she snapped.
Daniel held his hands up in surrender. "Okay, I get it. Sorry."
There have been very few times when Daniel had feared for his life while riding shotgun in a car, but this certainly was one of them. Maya's grip on the wheel was so tight that he thought it would be crushed underneath her well kept fingernails.
"You really should relax."
She ignored his comment; he gave her up as a lost cause. This was supposed to be his Handler?
Maybe she was having a bad day, because Maya's attitude made no improvement even when they arrived at her home. In a desperate attempt to rid him of her presence as soon as possible, she parked her car and quickly walked through front door, slamming the infuriating slab of wood in Daniel's face.
At least she'd been courteous enough to leave it unlocked. He peered suspiciously at the quaint little home before stepping inside, locating Maya by the noise in what appeared to be the kitchen.
Sure enough, she was busy pouring coffee, her entire posture agitated.
"No thanks." Will crossed his arms and leaned casually against the wall. "Nice house."
"Thanks," Maya said distractedly. "It's been in my family for a long time."
Will's eyes narrowed as he watched her. If he hadn't know any better –
"Do you know what you signed up for?"
Maya scoffed bitterly. "I didn't sign up for anything. If my –well, I know that you'll be doing something illegal. Blowing up Yale, maybe?"
He shook his head. "No, I don't think so."
She finally met his gaze. "You –you don't know what you're doing?"
"Not until I get my directive."
"Then what is this all for?"
Daniel raised an eyebrow. "You really haven't done this before, have you?"
She looked away. "No."
So that was it. He would have gone with nerves about her first job, but there was more to it than just that. Her skittish manner –it was almost as if she really hadn't signed up for this job. But Daniel had never had –or heard of– someone being made a Handler against their will. Though he was extremely tempted to ask, Daniel restrained himself. It wasn't the time.
"Well, we usually try to construct an alias now."
She looked so vulnerable, with her curly head bent and delicate fingers gripping her coffee cup like an anchor. "Do –do you want to sit?" she asked finally.
Daniel nodded. Only two feet of wood and tablecloth separated them, but the distance felt much greater. He actually felt uncomfortable around her; all of his previous Handlers had dove straight into business, discussing details with a formality that reminded them both of their roles and obligations.
Maya wore jeans and a casual shirt, drank coffee to stem her nerves, and was just as uncomfortable around him as he was with her. She had no idea what she was doing, and for reasons Daniel intended to discover later, didn't want to be doing it.
"They –um– they said that you would explain the basics."
"What? Yeah, well, what do you already know?"
"Bare bones facts. That I'm supposed to construct a cover for you, research your two roommates, who –hang on, let me get the file." Excusing herself, Maya left the room, leaving Daniel to his observations. From what he could see of the femininity of the house and a distinct lack of photographs, Maya lived alone. Or –he noticed several indentations in the wall– someone had shared the house previously but had recently moved out –most likely a negative exit.
Maya quickly returned with a relatively thin file in hand. "They gave me this. There's a lot on a guy named Tyler Fog, but the other –"
"Yeah. You know him?"
"I know his father."
"Oh." Maya frowned. "Yeah, anyway, there's a lot of information
there wasn't much specific information on them; when you go undercover, you'll have to determine their personalities for themselves."
If that was the case, then he was very tempted to ask what she would contribute, if at all. Daniel sighed. It looks like he'll be essentially doing the job and constructing the cover alone.
Daniel looked up, frowning.
"You have this look on your face. What?"
"I don't believe you."
"Well, then, that's a problem, isn't it?" he snapped.
Maya pursed her lips as she laid a critical eye on Daniel. Her manner now significantly colder, she dropped her gaze to the file in hand. "There really isn't much connecting Tyler Fog and Jason Burchell together; I still don't see why this is relevant, but I guess we're not supposed to ask questions, so…"
"They can be valuable resources, if this is an intel job. Fog has connections though his father, and Burchell must have some sort of use. If not, then we need witnesses."
"To confirm my alias's existence for whatever it may take the blame for."
Maya stopped fiddling with the papers. "And what do you think it is?"
"Intel. But I have to establish a cover before I get my directive."
They spent the next couple of hours discussing his roommates, attempting to mold Daniel's new identity –on top of the one he had now– so that he fit with them.
"Look, it says here that Fog is a Cubs fan, and –hold on, here it is– Burchell is one too! That means you should get a hat or T-Shirt or something."
Maya scoffed. "What do you mean, 'why?'"
"It means what it means."
"Guys bond over sports; it'd be a huge coincidence that you're all Cubs fans, and it'd give you something to talk about."
"That's a stupid idea."
"Do you have a better one?"
Daniel's face twisted. "So that means that I have to research the team?"
"Yeah, unless you plan on getting caught –"
"I don't get caught."
"Really?" Maya sat up straighter. "Everybody slips up."
"Humble, aren't you, Dan?"
"Don't call me that."
She had been about to argue when she saw his blue eyes, blazing at her with a feral ferociousness; it forced her retort down her throat and made her look away. Yawning, she attempted to be casual. "You know, this has been a really tiring day –why don't we start again tomorrow?"
The anger faded. "Yeah, okay."
Despite her reservations –and downright dislike– of him, she still walked with him to the door. "So, I guess I'll see you tomorrow?"
"Do you need a ride into town?"
"I can walk."
Daniel nodded and parted ways with his Handler. Normally he would have roomed in the Handler's home, but this was just too uncomfortable for his liking.
Anger consumed him as he kicked a rock into the street. He wasn't fleeing; he's faced the mafia, been shot at, killed someone's father –no he wasn't a coward.
So why was he walking alone on the side of the road with his hands in his pockets, with no possessions except the clothes on his back? Well, that and his credit card as Daniel Taft, which he technically wasn't supposed to have.
However, the multiple credit cards were terribly useful, especially in renting a room at Deer Harbor's sole motel. From under his baseball cap, Daniel nodded his thanks to the manager and entered room 48.
It wasn't that bad. Better than places he'd stayed previously, but certainly a decline from his expensive housing in Holland. Still, at least it had a bed.
Deciding to buy clothes later, Daniel collapsed onto the bed and commanded himself to fall asleep. True to form, with a self-discipline pounded into him from a lifetime of military training, he slept, determined not to think about the irritating bookkeeper with sad eyes.
"What's wrong with it?"
"That's a terrible name!"
"It's so –boring. Seriously, how have you survived so far?"
"'John Smith' is not boring."
"It's from a fucking Disney movie. No."
Daniel grit his teeth. "Any better ideas? Aren't grad students supposed to be stuffy and boring anyway?"
Maya shook her head in disbelief. "Some are, but they're people. Grad students can hold pretty wild parties, and they're all individual, different –well– people."
"Don't be condescending."
"Don't give me a reason to be."
"Hey, you're the rookie here."
"Hey, you're the idiot. This is my town, and I'm sort of like your boss, aren't I?"
"Oh. Well, I still know more about this stuff than you."
"Really? Can you assemble a bomb in less than forty seconds?"
"I meant about being a person."
"Right," he said coldly. "So I'm not a person now?"
"No, that's not –I meant normal. Non-military."
"I've done that. I just did that."
"Well, it seems to be that you kind of suck at being a kid."
"Grad students aren't kids."
"Of course they are –it's their last stretch of school before they have to go out in the world. Some may already know about that, but face it, it's Yale –plenty of rich kids like Fog are there."
"Are you saying I can't have fun?"
Daniel smirked. Finally he can get the bookkeeper for all her snide remarks. "Got any alcohol?"
"Let's see who can drink who under the table first. Us anti-fun military types can let loose too, you know."
Daniel's elation faded. "Why not? It'll be –well, maybe not the best time of your life, but interesting."
"I don't trust you."
"What? Come on, I'm not going to stab –oh, that kind of trust." He had to respect her for coming out and saying it, at least.
Maya shifted uncomfortably under his gaze. "I just don't feel comfortable with that."
He felt like he should apologize, but she wasn't paying attention, her glazed eyes lost in some memory.
"We can pick this up tomorrow, if you want."
Maya's eyes focused on him. "What? No, it's fine, we –"
"No, we have time. Take a break."
She looked surprised about his generosity. "Thank you. Are you –"
"I'll just go back into town."
"Wait." She grabbed him by his sleeve. "Are you wearing the same clothes as yesterday?"
Daniel looked down at his wrinkled clothes. "Yeah. I was going to get new ones tod –"
Before he could stop her, Maya had grabbed her car keys and yanked him up by his arm, steering him towards the front door.
"Wait!" Daniel reclaimed possession of his arm. "What are you –"
"Taking you shopping."
"That's really not –"
"Yes, it is. Let's go."
"You should know that –"
"And you should know that shopping is therapeutic."
"Can you stop interrupting me?"
"Come on, military guy, get in the car."
Daniel allowed himself to be led to the passenger seat. This girl was just full of surprises, wasn't she? A second ago she had been moody, but was now smiling contently, her eyes suddenly alive and aware.
"She wasn't kidding," he muttered.
"What was that?"
"About shopping being therapeutic." He watched her as she turned on the radio, enveloping the vehicle with sound.
"It's just that you reminded me of something bad that happened that I hadn't thought about –"
"I didn't mean to."
"No, no, that's good. Never should hold things up inside for too long, right? I've been ignoring it for so long, that –"
She fell silent, finally realizing how freely she had been speaking to this mystery man, who could not be trusted and would probably screw her over the first chance he got. After all, that's what those tall, dark, and –she had to admit – handsome guys did. All of them.
To both of their surprise, they actually found themselves laughing. Maya had insisted on Daniel trying out the most ridiculous outfits; upon seeing them, she would break out into wild giggles. Though slightly put off at first, and only indulging her because he still felt bad about earlier, Daniel found himself laughing along, and even forced Maya through the same process. "If I have to do it, so do you!"
Maya knew the shopkeeper, and since there were no other clients, he allowed them to do what they pleased.
"I haven't seen you smile this much since before the trial," he whispered while Daniel had been changing. "Hold onto this one."
Unnerved by his words, Maya had merely smiled and waited for Daniel to pay. However, by the time they had left the store, she had forgotten what he'd said and made a beeline for the best ice cream shop in Deer Harbor.
She watched in amusement as he stared in wonder at the huge assortment of flavors. "I'll have the usual," she said, turning to Daniel. "Never had ice cream before?"
He smirked. "Of course I have; I used to babysit my boss's kid from when she was twelve to sixteen. Believe me, we made plenty of ice cream and gelato trips. I'm just amazed they have flavors like spinach here."
"Oh, I know. Some people like it, though."
Daniel wrinkled his nose. "Weird."
He'd decided to go with double fudge chocolate with chocolate chips. Maya smirked. "Love chocolate, much?"
"Got to make up for lost time, don't I?"
They walked along the Deer Harbor side streets in companionable silence, savoring their ice creams while their respective shopping bags swung lightly on their arms.
"We should say you're from here."
Daniel smiled. "I wouldn't mind. It's quiet, but nice, especially after –"
Maya waited for an answer, but knew she wouldn't get one. Instead, she glanced up at the cloudless, starry sky. There'd been times when she'd wished she hadn't taken over her father's bookstore, that she'd moved to the city instead; but walking with Daniel, surrounded by serene calm, made her wish she'd never left, never met the boyfriend who'd introduced her brother to drug trafficking and made her indebted to people she'd never met.
She had insisted on driving Daniel to the motel, despite being relatively close anyway. As they pulled into the parking lot, the headlights blinking sheepishly back at them from the reflection in the window, Maya bid him goodbye.
"Good night, Daniel."
He wasn't sure what had possessed him in that moment, or whether or not he had gone temporarily senile, but he'd blurted it out before he could retract the words, the precious offering he should not have given so lightly.
"Actually, my name is Will."
"So, last night, was that a joke?"
Will stood in front of the register, embarrassed and facing Maya's scrutiny. After he had slipped up last night, she had simply stared at him, said goodnight again, and drove off.
It was pointless to lie now. "No, it wasn't."
"So what's Daniel Taft?"
"Another alias. Handlers can't know our real names –few do– and we're not technically supposed to exist, so –"
"Then why'd you tell me?"
"I don't know." The stark honestly of his answer surprised even him. "Maybe I was tired and wasn't thinking straight, or –"
"Or maybe you were tired of pretending."
Maya didn't respond, only busied herself with inventory and various other errands.
"Need any help?"
She hesitated. "Sure."
He was set to restock the shelves; Will wasn't surprised to find that he only needed to replace a few books –it was small town after all. Which got him wondering –
"Do you make a good living with this store?"
Maya didn't look up from her clipboard. "Not really," she said. "Most people move away to bigger cities when they grow up."
"How do you manage the bills, if you don't mind me asking?"
She closed the blinds and flipped the sign to "Closed." "My brother helped out with his job at a software company."
Will frowned, detecting the bitterness in her voice.
"At least, that's what I'd thought," she said absentmindedly, heading for the storage room.
Intrigued, Will followed, knowing the moment he'd shut the door that he was crossing a line long drawn, but he found that he didn't care. He'd killed Daan Jansen for the greater good –he figures they owe him one. Surely having his curiosity sated wouldn't be a huge breach in regulation?
Maya had disappeared amongst the shelves, hidden by boxes of books. When Will found her, her lips were pressed in a thin line, her jaw line stoic with determination.
"Are you okay?"
"Not really." Maya turned, and Will couldn't help but notice how her curls caught in the dim light. "Remember your challenge?"
"The drinking under the table," she reminded impatiently. "I hadn't felt comfortable about it because I'd been taken advantage of before that way."
"I'm sorry. I can kill him for you if you want."
Maya stared at him in disbelief. "Please tell me you're joking. It wasn't that kind of taking advantage of. I meant that I passed out, he grabbed my key to the shop, and used the storage room as a drug stash. Eventually he recruited my brother and –well– got himself his own personal spare key."
"Who was he?"
"He was my college boyfriend. He and my brother were eventually busted, the police searched my shop, and guess what they found? Evidence against me. I hadn't had the money to pay for my own lawyer, but the one the state assigned me said that he could get me off if I work for his bosses –your bosses, I guess– and, well, I took the deal. How could I not? The drugs were in my store."
"But you weren't seen dealing, the prosecution wouldn't have –"
"I couldn't risk it; besides, your bosses pay my bills." Will stepped forward to help her bring down a box, but she slipped on the ladder and sent the box tumbling down on Will's foot. Luckily, his honed reflexes had saved his toes from being squashed.
"Shit. Are you okay?" They both reached for the box at the same time and bumped foreheads.
They looked at each other, their faces two inches apart, and saw into the other's eyes. Maya's cheeks flushed, and even Will felt his neck growing hot.
"Uh –I'll get it."
"I'll get it."
Their hot foreheads brushed again, and they both laughed awkwardly.
"We need to work on our communication skills," Maya joked.
"I'll get the box, so –don't lean over." He easily picked it up. "Lead the way."
When they stepped back into the store, he noticed a distinct tension between them, one that was not necessarily negative. While silently unloading the new shipment, Will couldn't help but steal glances at her, occasionally noticing Maya do the same thing.
Were these the dangerous thoughts Alex had been talking about? He'd already been through this with her, but that's ultimately all it became. "This," what they did when they saw each other to alleviate whatever the satisfaction of the mission could not. To love the danger of the liaison, the thrill.
Protocol forbade this; they were on different levels of the ladder Hometown had built between these people.
When knowledge is shared, consequences arise.
As they backed out onto the street, car tires crunching beneath them, they caught a full view of Maya's store.
She smiled. "I know we both hate 'John Smith,' but –"
"You hate it."
"But how about Will Traveler?"
He stared at the sign. Have Books, Will Travel.
Somehow, it felt appropriate.
As they discussed the details, they argued stubbornly and teased playfully –all normal. But routine didn't stop each of them from becoming extremely conscious of the other; every brush of the hand as Maya refilled his cup and every time she fiddled with her necklace was accentuated to ridiculous proportions.
They weren't entirely unproductive, though. Maya had bullied him into promising to do research on the Chicago Cubs and he'd written down what they had on Will Traveler so far: Will Traveler of Deer Harbor. Likes Cubs.
"How detailed is this supposed to be?"
"Extremely. There isn't room for me to be contradictory."
"Okay, parents –orphaned?"
"And how would he get into Yale?"
"Because of his smarts, hard work, and a full ride scholarship. Couldn't Hometown arrange for a fake scholarship fund?"
"That's an option."
"What would he study? Fog's a business major and it looks like Burchell's going to law school."
Will frowned. Neither option sounded appealing.
"Oh! Chemistry. I think there's –chemical engineering."
That was more like it.
"Okay, so you graduated from Deer Harbor High, graduated and went to the local state school, and got a full ride to Yale because you're such a genius."
They continued to talk and argue until the sun went down, and they were bathed in soft purple and blue.
"It's late," Maya noted. "I'll drive you home."
"I can –"
"No, it isn't safe, even here. Don't give me that look! I don't care how many asses you've kicked, you're not walking into town."
Will relented, not sure whether or not he wanted to squash the elation that came with spending more time with her. However, he found his self discipline crumbling as she dropped him off, smiling genuinely. "See you tomorrow," she said.
He answered with a kiss.
Maya froze, stunned, but gently returned her affection until her hand accidentally hit the wheel. The resulting honk broke them apart; Will slowly returned to his seat, for once unsure of himself.
"Well –bye," he said lamely, opening the car door.
"Hold on!" Maya grabbed the back of his shirt and pulled him back. "Oh no, last time you said your name wasn't Daniel Taft and I just drove away, but not this time, no, you –"
Will's face was inappropriately close to hers –why waste the opportunity? So she closed the gap and they found themselves in a tangle of limbs, imperfect and awkward.
None of this mattered to Will though; her lips were like electric fire, leaving him breathless. It was clumsy because of the cup holder sticking into his side, but so undeniably perfect that he wondered if this was actually happening.
He had not felt this with Alex, or anyone else. It wasn't desperate or temporary or filled with thoughts of how many more years it would be until they saw each other again –
All he could see and feel was her, a foreign emotion driving him to deepen the kiss, to exhilarate his heart with every touch –
A sense of belonging.
Over the course of the next few months they probably broke the record for the most extended amount of time it took to construct an alias; they had not truly finished practicing and polishing Will Traveler until the week before he had to leave, over a glass of wine.
Once, Maya had caught him watching a Cubs game while she had been in the shower.
"Ha!" she exclaimed. "Told you about the male bonding."
"You know this is your fault! You made me into an actual fan. I've never been this excited to see people throw and hit things before."
Maya laughed. "Maybe not such a fan. It's called a 'baseball,' not a 'thing' Will."
They'd also begun planning their escape. As he'd spent more time with Maya, breaking regulation, the more he'd begun to question Hometown and the beliefs that had driven him for so long. He'd already flirted with the idea of leaving before, but never imagined that he'd actually place plans in action –nobody actually left. The only way to leave was death. The life he led, it was for forever, a lifetime of training and missions in back alleys in exchange for a roof over his head and a purpose in life.
But Maya was the reason. She was the single, unexpected factor that enabled him to truly attempt to leave. She was his hope that there was something more than betrayal and guns. He'd seen the worst of humanity, but for him, she was the best.
"Let's see," Maya said as she ran her hands over the smooth, polished wood of their newly purchased boat. "Will Traveler's hobbies –eating ridiculous amounts of chocolate, playing video games, the Chicago Cubs, sailing –"
She smiled. "Always."
"You know," he said, adjusting the rope. "Why do I get the feeling that Will Traveler is shaping up to be more and more like me?"
She leaned out over the side of the boat, allowing the breeze to sweep her curls back gently. "Because he is. He is you. This is your last job, Will –why should you have to pretend that you're something you're not?"
"It's not me."
"It is." Maya grinned. "Besides, you've never had the college experience, have you?"
"No, but I'm not sure I'm sad about that."
"You can't usually make friends in what you do, Will."
Will ran his fingers along the coarse strings of the rope, woven together to achieve a cohesiveness otherwise impossible. "And I won't at this job either."
"Because either way, it's a betrayal. I'm leaving when I receive and execute my directive; I don't know how long that'll be, but eventually, I'll leave. And if I actually listen to you –which I don't know why I would– making real friends is just dangerous. I need to cast the illusion of friendship, but be in control."
"You don't really believe that, do you?"
He did. He was still haunted by the last time he'd let things get personal. Hell, he was doing it now. Will looked at Maya, her face turned towards the sea, dreaming of when they'd be free.
He can't lose her, not this person he had given his all to, dared to be completely and solely Will around.
Not when he had something to protect.
Meeting her worried eyes, he smiled and adopted a dramatic tone. "Let's take this thing for a spin. After all, we don't know how long it'll be until we sail into the great beyond."
"You make it sound like we're going to die or something."
"We are, in a way. Goodbye soldier and bookkeeper, hello Will and Maya."
"That's really corny."
They sailed the Maya until the sun had disappeared behind the endless glitter of the sea, until the time came for Will to leave Deer Harbor and its occupant behind for Yale, where he came to know the rich boy and the soldier's son as Tyler and Jay.
Will gently brushed his fingers against the bloodless steps, the photo of Maya's beautiful corpse in the other hand. He almost wished there had been a spot of blood, a lock of blonde hair –anything to prove that she existed, that she had fallen onto these very steps when Kate had put a bullet through her brain.
He wished that it had been painless but he knew it hadn't. When Kate had played that recording, attempting to wrangle the truth out of him, he had been forced to hear every cry of pain, every gasp, every desperate intonation in her voice as Maya had begged for her life –after all, she was no soldier. She had never been trained in resisting, in separating herself from the pain. He knew the sounds a human being made when their body is persuaded with the right instruments.
After all, he'd used them before.
Will knew exactly what they had done to her as she "spoke" to him, never knowing that she had been crying for a recorder, been reduced to another tool of the organization, a tactic.
He could not remember a time when he'd been as satisfied as when he'd staked Kate through the heart. The organization he knew played dirty, but not like that, not to their own people. Like Kate had said, they didn't make it personal.
Or maybe they did, and Will had been too naïve to see it.
What an irony it was. He'd gone against his own advice, his own convictions, and made it personal. He'd been himself, and Will overrode the solider. He'd made friends without the shield of being someone else and had crossed the line.
He'd killed Maya.
Jay and Tyler were more than he'd expected, more than bits of information on a file. Tyler as rich, but generous, and very determined to prove himself to the father who seemed to expect him to fail. Jay, who Will had envisioned to be a bitter and vengeful person because of what had happened to his father, proved to be kind and strangely forgiving. He'd wanted to fix his country, not condemn it. And Will? Will had learned more about himself in two and a half years than he had from a lifetime of trials.
They were civilians; it should not had been Jay and Tyler framed for the bombing –they should not have been meant to die in that museum labeled as terrorists.
But saving them had cost Maya her life. Will stared at the photograph; had it really been worth it? She had been his hope –a part of him, his identity, had died with her. Perhaps Jay and Tyler had unexpectedly gained possession of a piece as well, but Will doubted they'd be particularly pleased to see him again.
It hurt. Will wondered if this was what it felt like to die, as if a part of him had been ripped away like the crashing seas, leaving nothing but blank, smooth sand. Like he had been erased.
He stared up at the door and suddenly wanted it destroyed. He wanted to smash it into pieces, set it on fire, and watch as they turned into ashes until nothing was left. As if it had never been there.
Will looked up at that damn door and wanted it gone. Determined, he ascended the stairs with a new mission, only to be met with another pawn with a stun gun, who he had bested with his rage, smashing the guy's teeth like he wanted to destroy the door.
He no longer wanted out; instead, he would destroy the puppet master who had watched Will listen to Maya's pain in horror, who had ordered that she, Jay, and Tyler die, who had spoken to Kate, who had manipulated Will.
The Drexler had been his last job, but toppling Hometown and its supporters would be his final mission, however impossible it may be. There was nothing waiting for him anymore.
If Will Traveler is to be erased from history with no record of his existence, then he would make sure he went out with a bang.
"You tell them I'm coming."