Nicky Parsons, alias Annie Burgen, grabbed frantically at her keys as she ran out the door. She couldn't afford to be late again.
The projects on the South Side of Chicago weren't what they had once been, but they were still messy enough to hide her. She had dyed her hair so much that it was almost falling out, and her skin was usually the palest for three blocks in any direction; but the agencies with initials never came here. There was plenty of crime to fight, but anyone with international business, or otherwise big enough to get noticed, could afford a room in a better part of town.
She had been here for three months. It would be time to move soon, and she didn't regret it. Her job as a night janitor at the local elementary school was depressing. She regularly found cigarettes and other, less legal, smokes lying around, and she knew perfectly well when they didn't come from the teachers. Not to mention the occasional notes that spoke of poverty, abuse, and other crime written in the large, rounded letters of the smaller children. She hesitated to call them students. It was a place not so much of learning as of safety from the outside world. Which did not mean it was safe.
Her childhood had been far from ideal, but she still found it hard not to weep for these children. She started to consciously close herself off from her emotions as she jogged to work.
The early, glamorous days of being on the run were far behind her. Gone were the days where she could sit in a coffee shop and read away the hours. Now, she could barely keep up the rent on her tiny, sublet, quasi-furnished closet that had more bugs in it than carpet fibers. She couldn't afford a TV and the local library was two bus rides away, so to fill the extra hours she had taken to volunteering at the local battered women's shelter, three blocks from her apartment. She would have exchanged it for another job in a heartbeat, but there were none to be had- at least, that she was willing to take. Running had been hard, but she hadn't had to do any really nasty cracks, or for that matter sell herself, yet and she hoped to get by a little longer. Nevertheless, rent money was running short again, and she worried as she dashed in the school doors just thirty seconds early.
Jason Bourne, currently Victor Calente, adjusted his knapsack as he watched her run along the street from the shadows. It was just past dusk in a very bad part of town, but she seemed to be completely oblivious to any possible danger. A few of the local boys noticed her as she ran past, but they all just glanced at her once and then ignored her. Clearly, they were used to her presence, and just as clearly, they had no intention of causing her trouble. How had she pulled that off?
She looked different. It wasn't just that her hair was dyed, but the way she carried herself, and the look on her face- they spoke of confidence, competence, and exhaustion.
As soon as he saw her get safely to work, he returned to her apartment and broke in. A quick sweep revealed nothing that led to their shared past. He did another, more thorough, search and again found nothing. All she had was maybe a suitcase-worth of thrift store clothing- so different from her earlier, tailored look in Europe, and not at all flattering- a small travel radio and the usual kitchen and bathroom essentials. No books or jewelry and very little makeup. He was impressed- she had struck him as too young to be this professional.
He checked his watch, threw everything in the duffel bag from under the bed, and wiped down the room. It was time to go. He would have just enough time to stash the bag in a locker at the bus station before meeting her as she got off work.
She had just reached the first corner on her way home when a hand gripped her upper arm. She gasped and glanced to her side as she heard a voice she hadn't heard in two years. "Hello, Anne."
It took her a beat to respond as they kept up a quick pace on the sidewalk. "It's Annie. What's going on?" His hair was black now, and he had a small scar on his cheek.
"That's up to you. Where can we talk?" His grip had loosened, and now they were walking together, if still very fast. She mentioned a grubby diner that was two blocks away. It was always empty at breakfast, as no one was entirely sure if the eggs they served came from chickens. They walked there in silence.
After taking a table away from the windows and warning him to only order coffee, she asked again. "What's going on?"
He stared at her for several seconds, his face blank. "I remember."
"That's... well, I don't know, is that good?"
He shook his head in a frustrated motion. "I remember, now. Everything."
She gulped, in horrified realization, and tried not to stare at him. Shit. "I... it was..."
It had been two and a half weeks of the most ego-crushing cold shoulder of her life. She had been young- far too young for the emotional requirements of her job, not to mention almost a decade younger than him- and also deeply stupid, at the time. Which had led to her misinterpreting a few lighthearted comments and the occasional protective flash. Badly misinterpreting.
The first law of being a handler was "Don't date your asset". The agency said it was unprofessional and that it didn't lead to a healthy contact relationship. What they didn't explain was that it was damned awkward to get turned down by a really attractive guy who you spent at least ten hours a week with- discussing assignments, and, more to the point, evaluating his health. When neither of you were terribly up on your social graces, it got even stickier.
And then he had gone to Marseilles, and not come back.
She shoved the memories away and shrugged. "And?"
"I also remember how unusual it was to have a handler who treated me like a human being instead of a commodity. That, your various skills, and the fact that you're good enough to have run for two years on your own, means you could make a good traveling partner. And, when you think about it...," he tightened his lips for a moment, "you're the only person I know."
His face was still blank. This was not flirtation, or even really an offer of friendship. Just-- companionship. Which was still something. She looked him over for a moment. His clothes were neat, clean, and fit properly. They were selected to not stand out in her surroundings, but they were also made to last. So he still had money. And of course she knew from experience that she'd be safer with him than without him, even if in more objective danger. Which might not be true anymore.
And, of course, she wanted to go with him. But she already knew the kind of disaster that could come from that. She sipped her coffee for a moment, considering. "Are they still looking for me?"
"You can't go home."
"I know that." Even though Black Briar had been shut down, and all the major players had been thrown in jail, they dare not return. Knowing such... embarrassing things as they did, tended to be hazardous to the health.
"But if you were careful, your next move could be your last. For several years, at least."
His paranoia, however well-earned, was catching. She hadn't expected that answer. "And you?"
"I move a few times a year. I'll probably have to for a while."
She didn't ask what he wanted. He had shown up. If he had just been checking on her, he would have left a note- or never let her know he was there at all.
If she wanted to, she could have a home. But this was Jason Bourne, and before she had wanted to be anything else to him, she had been his handler. His confidant, his counselor, and his reality check. She still had ghosts of those instincts.
She finished her coffee. "When do we leave?"
He had also been impressed at how well she had hidden her annoyance that he had packed her things for her. She just dug through the bag for a few minutes, pulling out toiletries, clothes and the radio in turn, making sure he hadn't forgotten anything. Finally she shouldered it and raised an eyebrow. "Next?"
"Where's your laptop? It wasn't at the apartment."
"I had to sell it a few months back."
"Wasn't that how you got by?" He couldn't imagine her without it. He hadn't lied- he did remember everything, about them, at least. She had rarely gone anywhere without it.
"Until then, yes. But I had to do the occasional big job instead of regular small jobs to avoid getting tracked, and at one point the money just got too tight. I still have everything I need, though- as long as I can get some fairly private time with an Internet connection." She fiddled with her belt buckle for a moment, and pulled a small thumb-drive out of it. "Four gigabytes." She replaced it.
He took her arm and started walking across the station. "And you can do what?"
She thought about quoting Robert Redford, and then realized he wouldn't spend his free time watching spy movies. "I hire out to various companies and try to break into their computer systems, and then tell them what their weak points are. But getting hired and staying anonymous is a problem."
"You can do that?"
"You can't?" He knew everything else.
"I wasn't trained in computers. They didn't want me to have those kind of skills, just in case."
She snorted. "I can't say I'm surprised."
He stopped dead in his tracks, which meant she did, so she turned to face him. "I am."
"You had access, and I didn't. You could trash their system if you wanted, and I couldn't. Why? You were what, twenty years old?" She muttered she had been 22 and tried to tug him along, but he ignored her. "They made me to be trustworthy, but how did you get so far that fast?"
"The short version is that they raised me. For the long version, I'm going to need food." She tugged gently at his sleeve, and they got moving again. "Where are we going?"
"Geneva." The site of his first official assignment.
They ate quickly in a different diner nearer the bus station, and while her body was screaming for a solid dinner, she made do with eggs and pancakes. Bourne spent most of the meal staring off into space, and she fought back the urge to make small talk, which was easier than it had been two years ago. It was almost eight o'clock and she knew she'd get tired soon. Becoming nocturnal for the janitor job had been a hellish three days- she hoped she'd do better this direction. They each shouldered their bags and left. Bourne insisted on another stop before they caught their bus, and as they walked, she told him her story.
Nicky's parents had met while they were both working for the agency; not as field agents but code breakers. They had hired on near the end of the Cold War, when such skills were in high demand. As time went on they diversified and made themselves fairly indispensable. They had one child- named Nicolette after a great-aunt- and she was staying with a babysitter the night a drunk driver killed them on their way home from a movie. Nicky was seven.
Both of her parents had been only children. One set of grandparents were dead, the other estranged and living on a commune in Arizona. And she had already caught the attention of the agency- it was clear she was gifted. Nicky could do three-column arithmetic at four, had a middle school reading level at six, and when the social worker came to tell her that her parents had died, she was finishing a Rubik's Cube. The agency moved fast. She was "adopted" by an Edward Parsons, who happened to work for the agency. She never met him. Nicky spent the rest of her childhood shuttled from one safe house to another. Various agents tutored her, trained her, and sheltered her from the outside world, but she rarely spent more than a year with any of them. She was discouraged from watching television because they didn't want her distracted. She was forbidden from learning self-defense or how to swim because they lived in horror of her running away. She had often spent extra hours with her math, computer science, geography and history textbooks simply because she had nothing better to do.
Not that everything she learned was strictly about training. They taught her some basic literature so she could blend in and respond to cultural references, which resulted with her becoming obsessed with and nearly memorizing the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. They let her take up ballet, and later soccer, so she could get into the habit of staying in shape. Eventually, she talked them into letting her take art classes, with the excuse that it would help her drafting and mapping skills. She could talk easily with adults from a young age, but she had spent very little time with other children, outside of soccer practice. She often shared real affection with those who cared for her, but she had no family. She was well cared for, physically, but that was all.
She had begun working for the agency in an official capacity when she was sixteen, in data entry and bookkeeping. By eighteen she was troubleshooting parts of their security software, and when she was twenty-one they moved her into logistics. Which was why she had seven years of seniority and clearance to match once she got to Paris. It had been her first solo assignment. They almost forgot to mock up a high school transcript for her in time- as though they had forgotten that she never attended.
And so, she met Jason Bourne.
His face remained blank as she told her story. He made no comment until she finished. "That explains it."
She nodded as he steered her into an electronics store. Forty-five minutes later they walked out with the fastest laptop she'd ever owned, and she was really smiling for the first time in months. Bourne actually told her to calm down as they got on the bus; and for the benefit of the public he worried aloud that people would think he was a cheap groom who had skimped on the honeymoon transportation. She would have come back with a witty retort, but she fell asleep nearly as soon as she sat down.
The next thing she knew, he was shaking her awake. "Wake up." He had barked it out like an order, and she was batting him away before she realized who he was. She opened her eyes in time to see him glance around at their fellow passengers (a few retirees, a few slackers, and one mother and child up front). His voice changed. "Come on now, you can't sleep all day."
"Why not?" Damn, cranky was not how she wanted to wake up around him.
"It's easier to make the switch from being nocturnal to normal if you do it fast. Cat-naps are fine, but don't sleep longer than a half hour." She knew that, of course, even if her body didn't, but she let him tell her. It gave her a moment to gather herself, and she glanced at her watch. The bus had left the station thirty-three minutes ago. Ever punctual, Jason Bourne.
She readjusted herself in her seat and glanced out the window. Just as she was realizing that she had forgotten to bring a book along, he reached in to his knapsack at his feet and retrieved something wrapped in a worn, red bandanna. He removed the bandanna and handed her what was inside.
It was a journal, filled with postcards and bits of other paper. She opened it at random, saw the word "Treadstone", and raised her eyebrows. "What is this?"
"I've been writing it down. Things I remember, things I dream about that I think I remember."
She stared at him in mute surprise.
"If we're traveling together, you should know about that."
She wasn't a chatterbox, but she was rarely struck speechless. This was one of those times. He had offered her companionship and nothing else, she thought- until now. This was a level of trust she had not dared hope for. "Thank you."
He shrugged, pulled out a guidebook of Switzerland and began to read, without a word.
The journal was disjointed, undated, and not entirely comprehensible. As his handler, she had learned his handwriting and his patterns, but there was something new here- clearly the loss of his memory had reshuffled his personality and dreaming habits. His notes were simple and of course he didn't have to explain any of it to himself, so parts of it were hard to grasp. There were several things she recognized, from their shared past, but other parts were entirely new to her. No surprise, she hadn't known about the Neskis either. Still, she didn't feel comfortable asking questions yet. For one, very obvious, reason.
Not all of the writing in the book was his.
There was another hand- not often- in the journal that was spikier and written at a slant. His notes and diagrams were carefully geometric in pattern; this hand was rarely in a straight line and usually at an angle to everything else. And it only appeared in the first half of the book. Marie.
His writing in the first half of the book was frustrated and a bit hesitant. After Marie's handwriting disappeared, it became furious and less precise for quite some time, and only in the last couple dozen pages did it begin to calm.
The message throughout the book was clear. He had killed. For years, and totally without mercy or regret. He had been the ultimate weapon of a government he asked no questions of. And, just as clearly- he now hated himself for it.
After what felt like ages of silently piecing bits together, she closed the journal and turned to him. He was still memorizing Swiss maps.
"Do you ever remember anything good?"
He glanced at the back of the seat in front of him, and his face was set. "I do remember something good. All the time."
He pulled out a another guidebook and handed it to her. They rode in silence for hours.