Author's Notes: Okay, y'all. I really have no excuse for this story except to say that seriously, the entire time that I was watching Push (yeah, so what, I watch movies like Push in my free time – don't judge me) all I could think of was that when Cassie turned 18, she and Nick were totally gonna get it on.
And as much as I love Camilla Belle, her character was boring and had no chemistry, so, my (clearly perverted) mind went this direction instead.
Does this make me a bad person?
love, love to ease my mind
I. HONG KONG
At the Hong Kong Airport, Cassie buys a map from the gift shop and they take turns throwing Jolly Ranchers at it until one of them sticks (it's Nick's, but Cassie suspects he Moved it and cheated). They buy their tickets at the counter and squabble for fifteen minutes over who gets the window seat. Eventually they flip a coin for it, and this time Cassie wins (but she's still pretty sure Nick cheated).
As it turns out, Nick is one of the those people who falls asleep within three seconds of sitting down to travel, so Cassie entertains herself by doodling in her notebook. She likes to draw, when she's not Seeing things. She's a crappy artist anytime, but it's better when she's not frantically trying to keep up with the flashes in her head. When she has time to actually try and make a shimmery bead look like a shimmery bead.
About two hours in, the stewardess comes around with dinner and free cocktails, and Nick wakes up like he can sense nearness to pretzels. There's some minor bickering over who gets the chicken dinner and who gets the vegetarian, and the stewardess smiles at them with wrinkles around her eyes.
"Are you family?" she asks, as Nick grudgingly hands over the chicken and stabs morosely at the eggplant. He takes both bags of pretzels in the deal, which he guards with a sullen jealousy.
Cassie opens her mouth to spin some tale about distant cousins and hired nannies, but Nick doesn't even glance up from his dinner as he says simply, "Yes."
The stewardess moves on, and Cassie stills, blinking dumbly at him. After a moment, he glances up at her and frowns. "What? If you keep making that face, it'll stick."
Cassie feels something big and important in her chest but she doesn't let her expression change. "Nothing," she tells him, and snatches one of his pretzels. "It's nothing."
They land in Reagan National Airport and, like the Jolly Rancher told them to, drive to Virginia. Well, Nick drives; Cassie unlaces her boots and puts her feet out the window, trying to block out the radio. Nick - to her great surprise - listens exclusively to Motown. And not even the badass motown, like Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder, but like the girlie motown, Diana Ross & the Supremes and the Temptations.
"So, Seeing my ears bleed was like a metaphorical thing," she says from behind her sunglasses, keeping her eyes closed. "And here I was thinking Bleeders were responsible."
"Cassie," Nick says, turning onto Highway 29, "we're stuck together for now, but if you insult Diana again, I will Push you over a cliff."
They stop at a 7/11 around midnight, and Cassie waits in the car. She hasn't Seen anything since before the Night of the Red Cards and she's been hoping it will hit her: she doesn't care what, just a flash of Chinese food or a plane ticket, but without anything she feels unprotected. She can't know what to do without knowing how it will turn out.
Nick comes back with "supplies" of beef jerky, Smart Food, and diet soda. Her Mom had been a health nut, all salads and vegetable wraps, but Cassie has been living on takeout since she was twelve. Nick holds up the Smart Food in one hand and the jerky in the other.
She chooses the jerky, and he grins.
"You need to beef up," he says, cracking up at his own pun, and she rolls over lazily to hit him. "No, seriously. You look like a nine-year-old wearing hooker boots."
She looks at the lump of leather on the floor. "They're not hooker boots!" she cries, reaching down to clutch them to her chest. "They're protective leg wear."
"You know what else is protective leg wear," Nick says dryly, "Pants."
Cassie rolls her eyes. Her skirt is hiked way up her thigh and she tugs it down self-consciously. "Shut up and eat your popcorn," she grumbles.
Nick laughs, so she laughs, and she bobs her head as Diana sings: you can't hurry love. No. You just have to wait.
They spend the night in a Best Western somewhere outside Charlottesville. The check-in girl gives them a weird look until Nick casually mentions what an annoying little sister she is, and how he's going to make her sleep on the cot if she doesn't stop pissing him off.
The girl's name-tag says Dakota, and at the word "sister" she flashes Nick a 1,000-watt smile. Suddenly it's super hot in the hotel lobby and she's got to unbutton her shirt a little bit, shake out her hair, and lean over the computer while she takes Nick's credit card.
Cassie slams her hand over her eyes, but she Sees it anyway, the flashes of skin and lips, and it would be weird except she's been seeing glimpses of scenes like this for years. It's usually the same sequence: Nick's back with small, painted fingernails raked across; knees and legs, tangled together; the flash of a neck, Nick's mouth pressed to it. She's not sure why her visions have always been centered around Nick, but they have, so she's used to this montage.
Nick's kind of a slut.
Cassie sighs and hauls their suitcases into the room while Nick leans casually against the counter and says something that makes Dakota laugh.
They settle on Winchester. Cassie would have preferred a city, but the Jolly Rancher landed where it landed. The townhouses there are cheap, and Cassie has just enough stayed up to be able to put down three months worth of rent on one of them. They won't be staying long, anyway; they're mostly killing time until Kira finds them.
Nick gets a job at a construction site, because Moving huge chunks of cement is good practice for his powers. The first couple of days, he leaves her at the house; then she almost burns the whole thing down trying to make herself popcorn ("there's a button that says 'popcorn' on it, Cassie, Jesus"), so she starts going with him, hanging out with her notebook and a Walkman (because Nick is too stingy to shell out for an iPod, even though she technically bought him a house). At night they order take-out (because, hello, apparently they can't even use the microwave, much less the stove).
Technically, she's not allowed to be there, but usually she can See the foreman coming, and when she can't, she pretends to have just showed up with Nick's lunch (a peanut butter and marshmallow fluff sandwich, the best of all sandwiches). The rest of the workers like her because she's sassy and because she reads their fortunes. Nick says loudly and often that she's just hustling them, but they don't mind; maybe she reminds them of someone they love, someone they've lost, someone they haven't yet met (and that's another thing she's learning: the future effects the past as much as the past effects the future).
There's a lot of sunshine and a lot of ice cream for dinner, and it would all be great if she weren't dreaming of death every night, around every corner.
Nick signs her up for tutoring at the local church when he finds out she doesn't know the Pythagorean Theorem. Cassie doesn't know what's so bad about her not being able to find the third side of a triangle, but, whatever. When Nick gets an idea in his head, he basically just does what he wants.
"This is stupid," she mutters with a scowl as they pull onto Main Street. She kicks her feet up on the dash because she knows he hates it and because the insides of her legs are sweaty and it pushes her skirt up, getting them some air from the windows.
Nick keeps his eyes on the road and doesn't look at her. "No, not knowing geometry is stupid," he says. "I use this shit like every day."
She raises her eyebrows. "You figure out the area of triangles every day," she repeats slowly.
"Okay, no, but the point is I could." He's got his jaw set.
Cassie sighs and looks out the window. It's easier for Nick to hold onto the hope that this ends, someday, that they go back to whatever normal lives they would have had if it hadn't been for all the Pushing and the Moving and the Seeing and the Bleeding (dear God the Bleeding). He doesn't see the thousands of ways that they die (that he dies), every day: by Division officers, by a local bartender, by construction accidents.
"The Pythagorean Theorem is not going to save the world," she grumbles sullenly, leaning her head back on the seat. The breeze from the window feels good on her face, the sunshine hot and inviting. (Sometimes she misses China, though it was always raining.)
"You don't know what could happen," Nick answers. She lolls her head to look at him, lips pursed. He shrugs. "Okay, you do know what could happen," he amends. "Whatever."
He parks, and Cassie sighs, stepping gracelessly out of the car and grabbing her cheetah print messenger bag with a grimace. "You should know that I hate you," she says flatly.
"Love you, too, Sunshine," Nick answers with a bright, sarcastic grin.
She hooks her bag over her shoulder. "Don't take the main road home," she tells him over her shoulder. She doesn't have to turn around to know that he'll wait until she's inside to leave. "Take the back way. Behind the Sheetz."
He doesn't answer, but her mind flashes to him safely back at work, hat on and hammer coming down, so she knows he makes it. Her stomach tightens; this is how she likes to think of Nick, when she isn't too busy hating him for being an overbearing asshat: arms raised, his shirt fitted and tight on his arms and his face pulled in concentration, but smiling, too, relaxed and engaged, already thinking of what's going to happen next.
It's cold inside the church, and the woman tutoring her, Julie, is impossibly young—Nick's age, maybe. She has a sunny smile and a Southern accent and talks about Geometry like it's exciting!
"You just never know what you'll be able to do once you've learned this," Julie says brightly. "Just wait 'till you get your license—geometry is an absolute Godsend when it comes to defensive driving."
Cassie wants to ask her if Geometry will help her get better at running over Division agents, but she thinks it's an inappropriate question for a church.
"How was school, honey?" Nick asks jokingly when he picks her up. "Did you meet any boys?"
"I'm not going to troll for hookups in a church, Nicholas," Cassie laughs, turning on the radio. They've compromised: Motown on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; Cassie's choice on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Saturdays they flip for it, and Sundays they press the seek button and have to listen to whatever it lands on.
Julie emerges from the church with her sunflower dress and a huge, wide-brimmed hat; she walks to her car, which turns out to be a yellow VW Bug.
Nick peers at her over his sunglasses and smiles to himself. Cassie closes her eyes against the sudden flash of skin and heavy breathing - it's always the same. The hand, the legs, the mouth.
"This isn't going to end well," she sighs.
Eventually Cassie starts to think that maybe her mind is just messing with her, because the constant visions of Nick's death become stretched, almost comic: death by blender, death by bubblegum, death by banzai tree.
She draws them all anyway, every one of them, until they start taking up too much space in her regular Watcher notebook and she has to buy a separate one. She writes Geometry innocuously across the front cover to keep Nick from spying.
It fills up quickly.
The story of Nick-and-Julie gets as far as her wanting to use the word boyfriend; then suddenly, Nick's feeling itchy, like it's time for a change, like they've been settled too long and need to keep on the move.
Cassie doesn't care. She's all right in Winchester, but she was all right in China, too, and Maine before that. She's been all right in a lot of places.
They're packing up the rental townhouse when Nick finds the Geometry notebook tucked beneath her pillow. "I don't think this is something you can learn through osmosis," he teases, dangling it in front of her.
Before she can think her movements through (never show interest: it only encourages him), she makes a desperate grab for it. Of course he's faster, and pulls it out of her reach, flipping it open.
There's a long, horrible silence as he turns the pages, brow furrowing deeper and deeper at each page. After a while, he says, "Wow, either they've, uh, changed a few formulas since I was in high school, or this is not Geometry."
Cassie flings herself into the nearest chair and slouches into it, covering her face with her hands. "It's not anything," she mumbles through her fingers, refusing to look at him. "They're just dreams. Not like, Dreams-dreams, just . . . the regular kind. I think."
"So they're not, like, a back up plan in case I don't stop leaving the toilet seat up?"
Cassie lowers her hands to glower at him and gets up, walking over to snatch the journal. "It's not funny," she snaps, and maybe her voice squeaks up an octave. Maybe.
Nick raises his eyebrows, flopping back onto her bed and tucking his hands behind his head. He's spectacularly nonchalant for someone who's just seen the hundreds of ways he could die every day. He reaches up and tugs her hand until she drops down next to him. "It's a little funny," he argues, and wraps an arm around her shoulders as she curls into his side. "I liked the one with the nickels."
Cassie wants to stay grumpy, but she laughs. "They aren't nickels, you retard," she retorts automatically. "They're carrot circles."
"I don't know, they definitely look like nickels. They've even got faces on them."
"No, they don't, because they're carrots. And unless the Face of Jesus is appearing on vegetables these days . . . "
"Well, either way, you're stupid, because I totally don't eat vegetables," Nick responds cheerfully, grinning.
She rolls her eyes at him, looking up from where her head is resting on his shoulder. It's almost like they're cuddling, and it would be weird except that the same rules of personal space don't apply when literally Nick's whole life is a death trap. It's faster this way, explaining comfort and reassurance through touch and now words. It's easier.
"You don't eat nickels, either," she points out.
"That you know of."
She hears herself laugh. Nick's an idiot, but she feels better. They lie in silence for a little while, and Cassie feels her breath evening out. Winchester isn't so bad, maybe. She feels Nick's breath against her ear: "Draw however many you want," he whispers, "but I'm not going anywhere."
It's not a promise he can keep, but she sleeps for the first time without dreaming.
They hit the road in the morning. Nick has never seen the snow, so they drive North.
The apartment they get in Queens is tiny, dingy, and there's a hole in the wall between Nick's bedroom and hers so she can hear him snoring every night.
He's given up on the whole 'school' thing, swearing off her tutors once-and-for-all, but he makes her sign up for online classes. Sometimes she hates that he treats her this way, like she's some normal fourteen-year-old (they celebrate her birthday in the normal way of companions with a 10 year age gap and no relation to speak of: she pays for dinner and he treats himself to a beer and awkwardly shoves a card into her hand) who needs to know things like how to spell agoraphobia.
Nick doesn't get a job; instead he goes out and cheats at dice every night, and brings in way more cash for considerably less trouble. Cassie, obviously, cannot go with him, so she mostly kicks around the apartment. Sometimes she goes to the New York Library and spends the day reading, or sitting in the huge leather chairs and soaking in the quiet.
Sometimes it feels like an actual life, a life where she is living with Nick in their weird, indefinable relationship and not running from something. Not hiding.
She makes friends with the Chinese lady that works at the restaurant across the street, so she makes a little extra cash money washing dishes and gets free dinner.
Ms. Cho asks four times who the man is that Cassie lives with; at first she says her guardian, but it feels weird, so she tries brother, but it doesn't fit. Eventually she settles: "He's a friend of the family."
It's been almost nine months since they left Hong Kong. They haven't heard from Kira. Nick gets quiet about it, sometimes, when he comes home, and Cassie can tell that he's worried, that he misses her, that he's thinking of Coney Island. On those nights she makes him play Trouble or Monopoly or Egyptian Ratscrew, and they both cheat so that it's fair. She's learning how to make him smile when he doesn't want to; she's learning a lot about how to be with someone every day for the rest of her foreseeable future (and she can see a lot).
"You're like a little spider-monkey with those fingers," Nick groans as she sweeps the stack of cards into her own hand. She always wins at Egyptian Ratscrew: she has the speed for it. Nick has a longer reaction time. "It's unnatural."
"No, you just suck," she answers cheerfully, and pops a dumpling into her mouth.
Nick scowls over his chicken fried rice and throws a chopstick at her. "Whatever. You can See what cards are coming. You have an unfair advantage."
"I wouldn't if you'd learn to count cards."
He ignores her, like he always does when she has a valid point and he doesn't like it, and on the next turn Moves her hand so it misses the pile.
"Ass," she mutters.
She still has dreams of him dying, but she's getting better at separating the future from her fears about the future. (She's also getting better at drawing: beads, carrots, nickels. Choose your circle.)
At some point, she realizes that the neighbors think they're living together, as in living together. She feels them looking at her in the laundry room, or by the vending machine, or when she and Nick stumble in late a night after they've spent six hours trying to hunt down one Shadower or another.
It makes her uncomfortable that people think she and Nick are . . . like that. But she doesn't correct them. It's easier this way, to let people assume what they want to assume, rather than to build a lie.
Predictably, Nick, with his girlish sensibilities, freaks out when he realizes that their neighbor thinks he's some huge minor-loving creep. What happens is that Cassie is folding their laundry as they walk up the stairs and Nick is carrying the basket (shared loads are shirts and pants only: no underwear, which is washed in the sink because combining that would just be too weird) and a condom falls out of Nick's pant pocket.
They both sort of stare at it, frozen, and it's times like these that Cassie wishes with sickening strength that she was with her mother, with her father, with anybody other than a twenty-four-year-old male non-relative.
The man who lives next door is walking up the stairs behind them; he picks up the condom and hands it to Nick. "Always good to be safe," he says with an approving nod, and smiles at Cassie. "Too young for a family, for sure."
He goes into his apartment. Cassie cringes and doesn't meet Nick's eyes, because this is easily the most uncomfortable moment they've ever had together.
They don't say much for the rest of the night, and skip dinner. There's no such thing as privacy in an apartment where there are holes in the walls, but Cassie goes to bed a hour before Nick so that they don't have to deal with awkward good nights.
In the morning, she keeps her eyes trained on her leftover take-out and waits for him to speak. Finally, he says, "I'm going to talk to Mr. Wrong Impression today."
Nick drops his fork and his voice hits puberty when he squeaks, "What?"
Cassie sighs and makes herself look at him. "I know it's weird. But it's better to let people draw their own conclusions about us than to try to convince them of something that's not true."
"But — that's not true!"
"Yeah, but they already believe it."
He doesn't say anything for a long time. It's not until he's putting on his jacket that he looks over at her. "I didn't really think about it, when we left Hong Kong," he murmurs, almost to himself. "I took for granted that we'd stay together. It's like I assumed that everyone would understand this . . . relationship."
She smiles. He's sweet, sometimes, when he's not paying attention. She realizes that her heart is beating faster than usual, and makes a conscious attempt to slow it down. It's just Nick, for God's sake. She shrugs. "Well, they won't," she says flatly. "Just let them believe what they want to believe." Then she grins. "And if it makes you so uncomfortable, next time we'll introduce ourselves as a brother and sister traveling band on tour together. Our group name can be Division."
He rolls his eyes, but he's more relaxed. "Cute," he says, before pulling the door shut.
He doesn't talk to their neighbor, but he's more conscious of her in public: they don't touch much, not even accidentally. He's acutely aware of where she is at all times, and avoids that space like she's going to burn him.
They decide to leave Russia about ten seconds after they get there.
When she turns fifteen, they go out to a nice dinner that he makes her pay for and he gives her a necklace that she never takes off. She notices things about him sometimes, like the way he fills out his t-shirts and the way his jaw looks when he forgets to shave, but Nick is Nick, and he doesn't get it or notice or care or all three.
They get a letter from Kira six weeks after moving to Amsterdam. It doesn't say much, just that she's been trying to track them down since Hong Kong and that she's killed Carter but staying undercover in Division. She's helped a few of the Specials escape, but the more she helps the harder it is to do, so she's waiting for the right time to bring them in to get Cassie's mother.
Cassie doesn't read the rest. Her mother is alive; that's the only thing she cares about.
Amsterdam turns out to be a hotspot for the Specials underground; there are whole networks of them, operating specific nightclubs and restaurants and bars.
Cassie gets her first job, waitressing at one of the local dives, while Nick bar-tends. The owner says they make a great team; Nick calls them the Wonder Twins, which makes no sense because they were born ten years apart and Cassie is way prettier.
"What are you talking about?" Nick asks, sounding offended as he pours some tourist a drink. "I am easily the prettiest person in this room."
"Absolutely you are," Cassie agrees as she waits for the cook to hand her over the sandwich and chips she's waiting on, "assuming you don't count at least three of the woman and that whole party of boys from Michigan."
"They're from Michigan," Nick defends sullenly. "That's an automatic disqualification."
Cassie grins, shaking her head at him. One of the Michigan boys is looking at her with lidded eyes, and it makes her feel warm and sort of tingly. She's not an idiot: she knows that this is that whole 'your body is changing' thing, but the idea of flirting and talking to boys that aren't Nick or specifically related to the whole 'free Mom' thing seems . . . pointless.
Nick goes out sometimes and Cassie is bombarded with the usual snippets of his evening, but she can't imagine herself ever doing the same, even once she's old enough. The more it happens, the more pathetic it seems, the more desperate, like he's treating their lives flippantly because he's getting more and more tired of their weight.
Nick sleeps around to relax; Cassie draws.
"Okay," she relents. "If you disqualify the ten more attractive people in the room, then yes, that makes you the prettiest."
"Are all teenagers this mean?" he grumbles.
They get sort of . . . settled. It's different in Amsterdam than it was in Winchester or even Queens—they branch out here, get involved. It's hard not to, with Specials walking around like ducks in a barrel; Cassie can only work part-time at the diner because she's so busy the rest of the time hunting down Sniffers and Pushers and Movers and trying to change their futures.
They take a Job, like an actual underground Job with a capital J, after six months or so. It's fairly simple; there's a girl being held in one of the more popular hotels, and she's carrying the ledger of one of the local underground bars. The numbers in the ledger aren't records of money, they're code, some complicated communication and categorization of the Specials in the area. For Division to find it would be the end of the whole organization.
Personally, Cassie thinks it's dumb to put all of that information in one place, but, whatever. They take the Job.
"They'll come out the back at around 10," she tells Nick as they get on the tram towards the park. "The girl won't be with them. She's sick - I think they gave her Kira's drug."
"They've been doing that more and more," Nick murmurs, sounding worried.
Cassie shrugs. After Kira survived, they used her as Patient Zero. They've been making improvements, adjustments. More people are surviving—at least for a couple of weeks. The mortality rate after twenty days is . . . not promising.
"It's no one we know," she continues. "And there's only four."
He flashes his grin at her and pulls a dark t-shirt from his back pack, looping it over his arms and head. Cassie rolls her eyes — Nick loves to have an audience when he gets dressed. Of course he'd wait until they were on the tram to finish his outfit.
"You're such a girl," she teases, nudging him with her shoulder.
"Says the one with pink hair."
"It's pink streaked, first of all, and secondly, I am a girl. I'm allowed."
"I'm not sure that hairstyle is allowed anywhere, regardless of gender."
She hits him. He catches her hand and shakes his head, clucking his tongue.
Her heart speeds up for a second--it's been doing that a lot lately. Cassie can already See the trouble it's going to cause.
At nine forty-five, they head through the front of the hotel, still bickering. Nick puts Cassie in a headlock and throws a nod to the check-in girl, jiggling his hand in his pocket. "This little twerp left our keys in the room," he says with an air of a long-suffering caretaker. "D'you think you could make an extra?"
The check-in girl leans forward and smiles. Cassie wonders if Nick ever checks into a hotel without getting laid. "What's the room number?"
Cassie closes her eyes and then says, "401B. The reservation is under the name Nova."
Nick palms the key and smiles at the girl behind the counter; when they round the corner, he lets Cassie go and they take the stairs. Elevators make Nick nervous—a small space, and no escape route.
There's one Division agent standing outside the room, but Nick takes care of him by Moving his head into a wall. Inside, the girl is limp on the bed. She blinks blearily at him with heavy, terrified eyes, and Nick slings her over his shoulder. "We're going to get you out of here," Cassie murmurs.
The girl mumbles, "Watcher?"
"Am I doing to die?"
Cassie hesitates and meets Nick's eyes, giving a barely perceptible shake of her head. She swallows quickly and then says, "Not today."
The girl dies fifteen minutes later, at 12:01 AM, one minute after Cassie turns sixteen. They leave her body with her family and return the ledger to the underground.
Cassie is used to dreaming about death, but she's not yet good at experiencing it, so that night she crawls into bed beside Nick and lets him curl his arm around her and hum Diana Ross. His breath is steady, and it's comforting, and when she falls asleep she dreams of skin.
After that, they stop getting stupid paying jobs; they stop getting houses. They spend a lot of time in the car or sneaking into government buildings. They're good at it: they're a perfect team. Cassie Sees and Nick Moves and together they're synced like foreign movies and subtitles.
Cassie stops dreaming of Nick's death and starts to dream of her own: by bus, by sea, by Division bullets. She doesn't draw these, because that would risk Nick finding them, and somehow the thought of him seeing a notebook full of Cassie's broken body makes her woozy.
She reminds herself of the tiger, the tiger that had predicted not Cassie's death, but the pop girl's, and that the future isn't always what it seems. She dreams of pain in her side and vomit in her mouth, Nick's face hazy around the edges, and black on his hands. It's nothing new, but more fragmented and less detailed than usual.
She ignores it. Death is for dreams and other people.
"Put me down!" Cassie hisses, curling her hands around the dumpster.
Nick grins. "Say it."
She folds her arms over her chest. "No. Motown sucks. Trick Daddy rules."
"If you say that again, I will hit you. Don't think I won't, just because you're a girl."
They're in an alley, waiting for a few Division agents to stumble out drunk. Cassie was perched on the edge of the dumpster, with Nick leaning on its side, until he'd Moved her into the air and suspended her above a particularly gross patch of garbage.
"Once of these days, I'm going to let you die," Cassie grumbles.
There's the sound of doors slamming, and Cassie feels something rip across her side. She yelps and lands in an unceremonious heap in the dumpster. She can't see anything, but there's shouting and scuffling, and all she can focus on is the sharp pain in her side and the heavy smell of days-old garbage.
She feels bile in her throat and presses a trembling hand to the spot where it hurts. She feels wet.
Dimly, she hears Nick calling her name and feels him Move her out of the dumpster and onto the cement. She tries to smile at him. She's not sure if she succeeds. He presses his hands feverishly to the pain, and it flows away for a second before coming back strong.
His hands are coated in black, and Cassie realizes that it's her blood. Black in the light, in the shadows.
She remembers the dream: pain and vomit, Nick's face and hands. Oh. "That's my bad," she tries to say, but her eyes fall shut and she passes out.
She wakes up on a train. Her side is bound tightly and Nick is sitting rigid next to her, mouth clamped shut.
Her voice is gruff when she speaks: "Where are we going?"
He goes nearly limp as he turns to her, grasping her face in his hands and kissing her firmly on the forehead and both cheeks. "Why didn't you See it?" he asks, nearly snarls, "Jesus Christ, Cassie, how could you miss something like that?"
She looks away guiltily. "I didn't," she mumbles. "I thought it was just another dream. I'm sorry."
He rattles off a shaky breath and rubs his hands over his eyes. "Jesus," he murmurs again. "Do you have any idea how close you - if the bullet had been half an inch . . . "
"Nick. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you."
"Well, you did." He rips viciously into his bag of peanuts. "You scared the shit out of me, and don't you ever fucking do that again, okay."
They sit in silence for a while, and she knows he forgives her when he wordlessly hands her a beef jerky.
Kira is waiting in the In-N-Out Burger outside of LAX, hiding behind a burger the size of her face. Nick blows out a breath and sinks into the chair across from her, but not before helping Cassie gingerly into her seat.
They'd taken the train to Spain and rested up for a few weeks before tossing the Jolly Rancher and heading home - 'home' being a relative term that meant the United States, which wasn't a home so much as the place they both happened to be born.
Nick and Kira do that thing where they stare into each other's eyes and don't speak; Cassie rolls her eyes and takes a bite of her burger. "Surprise," she says with a mouthful of meat.
"What did I tell you about surprises?" Nick asks without looking away from Kira.
"You said to do it at every possible opportunity."
He ignores her and reaches across the table for Kira's hand. Her eyes are wet and full and she looks at the table. "I've been looking for you for such a long time," she mumbles. "I couldn't - I've been staying undercover, but - "
"It's okay," Nick interrupts. "We're all here now."
"Gag me," Cassie mutters sullenly. Nick kicks her under the table.
Kira clears her throat. "Cassie's mom is in the city," she whispers urgently. "I can't stay long. But be at Warehouse 56 at eight o'clock tonight. We have to do it then or we never will."
She stretches across the table and kisses Nick firmly on the mouth, pressing into him like she wants to make herself stick, then tears herself away and flees.
Nick sighs and drops his head into his hands. Cassie slaps his back cheerfully and says, "That went well, I think."
He doesn't say anything, so she squeezes his shoulder and tries to smile genuinely, even though she wants to throw up all the food in her mouth.
She wants to save her mother, but she's gotten used to planning for this, gotten used to working for it. She doesn't know how to take it now that it's right in front of her, waiting.
Later, in the shower, she'll admit there's something else: Nick. Nick is her whole world, and after tonight . . .
He'll have Kira. He'll have everything he wants. He won't need Cassie anymore.
She rests her head against the tile and lets the water run over her face. It's six-thirty. She can hear Nick's shitty Motown music playing in their hotel room. She wonders if she can stay in this moment forever, in the warmth of the shower and the warmth of Nick, but her watch turns to six thirty-one and she sighs.
She Sees her mother on a hospital bed staring tiredly and joyfully up at her, and her breath catches. You make decisions, her mom used to tell her. That's all life is.
She gets out of the shower.
Breaking her Mom out of Division goes pretty much like Cassie expects it to. There are a lot of explosions, a lot of fake memories, and at least three times when she fully expects to die. Kira does her Pusher thing, Nick does his Mover thing, and Cassie does her Watcher thing where she freaks out and follows instructions.
Afterward, sitting in their crappy hotel room and nursing their wounds, her Mom laid out on the bed looking pasty and dry in her hospital gown, Cassie watches Kira curl up against Nick's side and plant a kiss on his neck. "I told you I'd see you soon," he whispers.
Cassie curls her hand tighter in her Mom's and looks away. She feels sick. She wants to cry. She thinks she might have the worst life of any seventeen year old, ever, and that includes Harry Potter and Joan of Arc.
Eventually Cassie extricates herself from her mother. She's still sleeping off the drugs Division gave her, so she doesn't wake up even though Cassie never quite grew into her long legs and skinny arms and accidentally elbows her twice.
She goes to the basement to get a soda. This thing isn't over yet, though they have her mother and Kira and some semblance of a plan. This is only the first step.
Cassie is tired. She is so, so tired of running and dreaming and living with Nick, because the older she gets the more she understands that this feeling in her chest isn't going to go away.
"Coke Zero? Seriously? You're an embarrassment to soda drinkers everywhere."
She laughs weakly, leaning her head against the cold plastic of the vending machine window. Her hair is matted and stuck to her neck and cheek, and she limply lets Nick tug her into him. "It's like I'm feeling everything at once," she murmurs, and tangles her fingers in his shirt, pulling herself closer. "I'm happy because I have my Mom back but I'm scared because it's going to be so much worse from now on and I'm tired of having to fight all the time when all I want to do is own a house and have a yard and go to the movies or something and I'm sad because now I'm losing you, and Jesus Nick, sometimes you're like, the only thing I have."
Maybe she hadn't meant to say that last part out loud, but she's not entirely mad she did it; now it's out there and he's heard it and the necklace he gave her when she was fifteen burns against her chest.
Nick pulls away and looks down at her with a frown. "What are you talking about?" he asks. "You're not losing me."
Cassie steps away, pulling her hair back into a low ponytail and breaking open her soda. She leans tiredly against the vending machine and smiles at him. "Yes I am," she says, rubbing at her forehead. "Right now it feels like it's just us, like always, but my Mom and the love of your life are like twenty feet away, and you can't say that's not going to change everything." She shrugs. "I'm not saying I'm not glad we got them back. I am glad - even for Little Miss Trouble in there. But you're - the past four years have been - "
She breaks off helplessly, looking at him. "You have to know that I'm in love with you," she says at last, almost exasperated. "There's no way you can not know that."
He just kind of stares at her and doesn't say anything, his jaw a little slack, and Cassie rolls her eyes. "Oh my God, you're so stupid sometimes, it's like seriously mind-blowing," she tells him with a sigh. "Seriously."
She shoves the Coke Zero into his hand and walks back to the hotel room. She feels unsteady on her feet, but lighter, too, so she crawls into bed between her mother and Kira and falls asleep.
She doesn't know when Nick comes back in.
In the morning, Nick is awake by the time Cassie gets up. Kira is in the shower and her Mom is sitting on the sofa.
"The first flight leaves in six hours," Nick says without looking at her, "so be ready by then."
She rubs at her eyes, struggling to push herself up onto her elbows. She feels her heart speed up and push ferociously against the sudden, painful weight in her chest. It's all over. She and Nick are -
They never were anything, not in the way she wants but they were something, they were family if nothing else. And now. She studies the mattress. It seems the easiest place to look.
"Where am I going?"
Nick is suddenly beside the bed, crouched so she has to meet his eyes. "We're going to Yemen," he tells her, taking her hand. "All four of us."
It's not an I love you too, but it is an I love you, so Cassie lets herself smile and flop back onto the bed. "Then Little Miss Trouble had better get her ass out of the shower, because I smell like death and taxes."
He grins and ruffles her hair, and Cassie heads over to the couch where she curls into her mother's side and doesn't let go. They sit that way until Kira gets out of the shower and Cassie's mom pushes her gently. "Go on," she murmurs. "You smell."
Kira scolds them for being loud and annoying on the plane, and Cassie has to restrain herself from reaching over and punching her in the face.
This is how they deal, Cassie and Nick, together, with the way things are. They fight and they banter and she insults his music because if they do that, everything seems . . . manage-able. Normal, even.
When they land, Cassie, her mother, and Kira have to buy burkas to cover themselves. Nick hasn't really met her eyes since L.A., since that moment when he had said we're going to Yemen, but when she comes out of the bathroom covered head to toe, he doubles over in laughter.
"Say goodbye to your itty bitty skirts," he teases, reaching out to flick the back of her leg.
She makes a bold move: "You'll miss them more than I will."
He falls silent and they sort of just look at each other, waiting, until he relaxes into a smile and shrugs. "Nobody will have time to miss them. We won't be here that long," he says noncommittally.
Kira actually looks good in hers, which is salt in the wound, but Cassie is preparing to get used to being out-shined. She takes her mother's hand.
The house they stay in is pretty; small, but light and airy. Cassie gets her own room, which is a first.
She hates it.
She hates the silence and the emptiness, hates not knowing everything that's happening in the house, hates that Kira and Nick are pretending to be married, hates that she can't keep her eyes on her mother every moment of the day to make sure she doesn't disappear again, hates that she can't See everything, only flashes.
Every night the dreams are the same: the hand, the legs, the mouth and the neck. She gets tired of it.
Kira uses her Pushing ability to get them most of the things they want, and it's nice for a few weeks (except for Cassie's persistent hatred of everything; maybe this is what it's like to be a real teenager, for once).
They don't stay long. Four weeks after moving in, Cassie's mother wakes up and tells them that she's Seen Division agents in Zabid, the next town over. They don't pack, they just move, not buying tickets or knowing where they're going until they're waiting in line.
They end up in France.
Cassie and her mother get their own apartment in Paris. It's the first time she's been away from Nick for more than forty-eight hours since she was thirteen (almost fourteen). The first night, she has a panic attack, lying in bed next to her mom in this beautiful apartment complex that overlooks a garden.
It's quiet and pretty and safe, and Cassie starts heaving and shaking and thinking she's about to die.
"What's wrong?" her mom asks frantically, gathering her in her arms. "Cassie? Cassie. Talk to me."
"I don't know," she wails helplessly, pressing her hand to her chest and trying to get her heart to slow down. "This has never happened before."
Her mom gets Nick on the phone and he shows up in two minutes, which means he was out and nearby because his apartment is ten minutes away by car and he's on foot. He crawls into the bed next to her and she rolls in to bury her face in his chest until the shaking stops.
She doesn't pull away, because she likes where she is and because she's embarrassed, ashamed to be acting like some six-year-old on their first sleepover.
Nick must understand, because he whispers in her ear, so low that she's the only one who hears it: "Me too."
They're eating lunch; Kira and her mother decided to go shopping for less conspicuous clothes and Cassie had told the both of them that she's successfully avoided clothes shopping for the past three years: no way in hell is she starting now.
Nick shakes his head. "Don't be," he says with a grin. "Kira snores."
She hits his arm. "So do you," she informs him, stealing a chip as she pulls her arm back. "You're like a freight train or a rhino."
"Says the girl with restless leg syndrome. And don't steal my chips."
"I wouldn't have to if you'd get me my own."
He glares at her and she relaxes against her chair, smiling. Her heart rate is steady and normal. She'll be fine going to sleep tonight without him, but for now she's glad they still have this. She's glad for the way he's looking at her. She's glad for the way his breath had felt on her ear. She's glad that their knees are brushing underneath the table and he isn't pulling away.
Their waiter smiles at them and Cassie smiles back.
Three months into their France stay, they've gone on three Jobs and Cassie has a boyfriend. Maybe. She's not sure; her French isn't great. But he takes her out a few times and buys her flowers--she's never done this before, never had the time or the opportunity to flirt and toss her hair and do things that normal girls do.
He takes her to see movies without subtitles, and spends the whole time translating into her ear, his voice low and gentle and giving her the chills.
And he kisses her, slowly, softly, with one hand on her cheek and one around her waist, and sometimes Cassie wonders what he would do if he found out that she killed people on a weekly basis, but mostly she just closes her eyes against the visions and lets herself enjoy it.
Her mom and Nick hate him; Kira thinks it's great. They stay up sometimes after dinner and talk about Pascal, about the way he holds open doors and says her name.
"I just don't think he can be trusted," Nick says one night over dinner, glaring fiercely at her. "Nobody can be."
"Don't be a retard," Cassie retorts, and kicks him underneath the table. "You've had sex with like four million women since Hong Kong."
Kira is in the kitchen, and Cassie's mom looks back and forth between them before excusing herself. They sit in sullen silence for a while.
"You don't get it," Cassie mumbles after a pause. She sighs. "You've had a normal life before."
Her voice is pleading, and she hates it, but she has to make him understand. He folds his arms over his chest. "I'm not saying it doesn't suck," he says, "but that's the way it is, Cassie. You can't have things just because you want them. Sometimes they're off limits."
"He's not a vespa, Nick!" she cries, throwing down her fork. "I can't just return him!"
"He could be Division!"
"That's retarded, of course he's not Division, he's a damn bus boy you ass! And what about all the check-in girls? What about Julie the Geometry tutor?"
He scowls at her. "Those were different."
"They just were."
Cassie pushes herself away from the table and stands. He's still glaring at her, but with this oddly pleading look, like he's begging her to understand something he's not saying.
And it's not fair, she thinks, eyes suddenly wet and vision blurry. It's not fair that she has to be this close to what she wants and know she can never have it, not fair that he can demand something like this from her and give nothing back, not fair he's poisoning something that makes her happy just because he's not ready to - what? Let her go?
"You have Kira," she snarls at him, and throws a roll at his face. He catches it. "And I'm not thirteen anymore, okay, I can do what- and who-ever I want!"
His jaw drops and she leaves him there. She walks the fourteen blocks to Pascal's and doesn't come back until morning.
It's all right. It pinches a little. It doesn't feel good, exactly, but it's not awful, either. He makes her pancakes in the morning and she eats them before breaking it off.
When she goes home, she lies that she's Seen Division agents and they need to move.
Her mom casts her a look but doesn't say anything; they're on a plane by midnight.
Cassie and Nick still aren't speaking three weeks later, and everyone's tip-toeing around the tension like it's impolite. Kira asks one time at dinner why they're fighting and they both tell her to shut up in nasty voices before going back to glaring at each other.
"It's like bickering siblings," Kira sighs in defeat, raising her hands in surrender.
"I wish it were like that," Cassie mutters under her breath.
Nick kicks her under the table. It's not something that they mention, her confession or the unacknowledged fact that in a lot of places they've been, people have assumed certain things about their relationship. Usually Cassie doesn't mind, but now she wants to scream it at Kira and her mother, to say it loudly and firmly and with as graphic language as possible (in New York they thought we were fucking every night, our neighbor thought Nick's condom was meant for me), just to rub it in his face and watch his horrified expression.
Of course she doesn't. She just slouches sullenly in her chair and wears short skirts.
They all take a Job for the underground that's a three-guys-go-into-a-bar situation, and Cassie's not old enough to get in so she plays lookout. She sits on the hood of the car and waits to hear gunshots, so that's where she is when all three guys stumble out with Kira in a headlock, her eyes on the ground so she can't Push.
"Hey!" Cassie jumps at them, not really thinking, but of course she's a gangly almost-seventeen year old and they're forty-five year old trained killers, so pretty much she's fucked from the beginning.
Her mom and Nick come out quickly, and there's some back-and-forth about who is going to shoot who first.
"Come on, Nick," the Division guy with his arms around Cassie says. "Come with us and no one has to get hurt."
"It's not all that bad in Division, is it, Kira?" the second asks, and from the corner of her eye Cassie sees him pet the brunette's head. "We miss you in the ranks of the good ol' US of A public service.
Kira spits on his shoe. Nick hesitates. "Listen," the third guy says, sounding almost apologetic, "We've got orders to kill the Watchers no matter what happens. But you can save Kira, at least."
Cassie's heart slows, and she tries to breathe deeply and See something. She doesn't get any farther than Nick lowering his gun. "I'll come if you don't kill the blonde," he says after a long pause.
"We have our orders."
"Then you'll have to drop all four of us."
She jerks her head up to stare at him, and he looks calmly back. She wants to smile. She wants to cry.
What she does is bite down hard on the arm that's holding her and cover her head with her hands as Nick and Kira take care of business.
Afterwards, in the car on the way home, Nick sits with her in the back. Nobody says anything, but when they come to a red light and stop, she reaches over to take his hand.
A couple of nights later, Kira slips into her room to wake her up.
"He would have let me die," she murmurs. "He said he was bluffing, that he knew they wouldn't do it, but he wasn't."
Cassie's expression doesn't change. "No, he wasn't."
"You're the most important person in the world to him," Kira whispers, and her voice breaks. "I spent - I spent years looking for him, doing terrible things so I could get back to him, and you're the most important person in his life."
"It's not fair," she agrees gently, and reaches out to take Kira's hand. "It's not fair that he loves me so much but it's not the way I want him to. I'm the most important but you're the one he wants."
Kira's expression softens and she squeezes Cassie's hand. They sit in the dark until Kira gets up and pads back to her room.
It takes Cassie a while to fall back asleep.
When Division finds them in Rome, there's one of those Big Moments where Cassie is pretty sure that everything is finally over, and it's not the way she'd hoped it would end.
She's not sure how many times she's seen a gun pointed at her head, but she's really tired of it. They're at a dead end in an alley, just her and Kira, and she thinks distantly that these are not the last people she wants to see before she dies.
But Kira is getting better and better at Pushing, so pretty soon there are six dead bodies and she's not one of them.
Kira covers her face with her hands. "I hate this," she mumbles tiredly, sagging against the alley wall. "God, I just want to go back to Coney Island."
"Yeah, well, I want a pony and a high school diploma," Cassie says flatly as she removes the dead Division officers of their weapons.
Kira casts her a pitying look that Cassie ignores. Kira has the luxury of memories like the ones she has with Nick; Cassie has been doing this since she was twelve and known it was coming since she was five. She drops the six weapons into her purse and zips it.
Outside their apartment, Cassie steps in front of Kira and holds her gaze. "Ten thousand, four hundred and forty-six," she says quietly. "That's how many times I've seen him die. Five years of nightmares and visions, and thirteen of confusion before that. He and my Mom are the only things I have in this world, Kira, and every day I have to See the hundreds of ways that I am going to lose them."
She takes a deep, shuddering breath, and does her best not to hate the person in front of her. "My point is that at least you had a Coney Island."
She goes inside. Two weeks later, Kira leaves a note saying that they draw too much attention as a group, that splitting up is safest. The note says I'll always love you.
Nick reads it and is quiet for a long time; then he crumples it up and throws it away.
That night, Cassie wakes herself up at four-thirty and sneaks into his bedroom. She crawls into his bed the way she used to and curls up easily next to him as his arm slides automatically around her shoulders.
"Cassie?" he mumbles blearily, blinking awake. "What are you doing?"
"I think it was my fault," she murmurs, burying her head in his chest.
"What are you talking about?"
"We were in this alley and there were these agents, but Kira Pushed them. And then she started talking about how she just wanted to go back to Coney Island and I said that at least she had Coney Island because all I have is four years of dreaming about you, dying and otherwise, and I just . . . " she sniffs. "God, Nick, I'm sorry."
He shakes his head and doesn't say anything. After a while, he pulls her a little closer and says, a propos of nothing, "Do you remember Pascal?"
Cassie snorts. "You mean the guy that gave me my first kiss and took my virginity? Yeah, vaguely."
Nick stiffens. They have, maybe, never spoken about that before. Oops. She feels herself flush and is thankful for the dark. Nick's voice is pained. "He probably wasn't a Division agent. I just . . . I don't like the thought of you . . . "
He shifts uncomfortably and Cassie laughs. "Nick," she says gently, "I'm seventeen. Almost eighteen. People say I could pass for twenty-one."
He turns to look at her, face shaded. She can taste him breathing. He's laughing. "No you couldn't, you still look twelve with those legs of yours."
She smiles, pressing closer. "You look at my legs? Pervert."
He doesn't move away, but his voice drops an octave in warning. "Cassie . . . "
"You said it."
They're still looking at each other, faces close, and then suddenly Nick is rolling over, hand winding up her arm to her cheek, pressing his leg between hers. He keeps his face just half a breath away and she stares at him, motionless, frozen.
He doesn't move, doesn't seem able to or willing or maybe he's just being Nick, always making sure she's okay.
Cassie pushes her head up and kisses him.
It's . . . not great, a little awkward, both of them acutely aware that they are Cassie and Nick and thinking of that day four years ago when she had said put the gun down. Where's your chicken?
And then she opens her mouth, a little, and suddenly Nick is working his Nick magic, the magic that got him check-in girls out his ears, and they're melting together until Cassie can't breathe or think or move.
He rolls off her.
"Hey wait," she grumbles as a familiar montage of images flash through her brain (hands, legs, neck. So much skin).
He shakes his head. His breathing is unsteady, but he gathers her up like she used to and they just lay there. "Just . . . take it easy on me, okay," he murmurs into her hair. "I'm . . . this is . . . just take it easy."
In the morning, he's awake by the time she gets up and he doesn't act any differently. Her mom tells her to pack up because they're moving; too many Division agents in too short a span of time.
When they get to the airport, her mom hands her and Nick their tickets. "Okay," she says. "Good luck."
Cassie blinks. "What?"
"Kira was right, baby girl. This . . . the three of us together is tempting fate. It's safer if we split."
Cassie's jaw drops and her heart freezes. She thinks she might have fainted if Nick's hand hadn't suddenly been on her arm, holding her up. "What," she repeats dumbly. "Mom. No."
"Cassie - "
"No! I spent three and a half years looking for you - "
"And you don't want them to have been wasted, do you?"
Nick's hand slips down her arm until their hands are linked. His voice is soft. "She has a point, Cas. It's just for now."
"No," Cassie says again. "No. I'm not - you can't - Mom, please. I just found you again."
"Oh, my baby." Tears spill out of her mom's eyes as she drags Cassie to her, holding tight. "Oh. My little girl. I love you. I love you. And I want you to be safe, do you understand? I can't keep you safe as long as we're together."
"I don't care," Cassie whispers thickly. She's shaking. "We'll chance it. Please. Please."
She hears the words echoing in her head (please, please, please, please, please) as her Mom pushes her gently away and turns, walking towards a nearby gate and never turning around.
She strains against Nick's hands but he holds her until she goes limp, and then he lets her sag against his shirt and cry.
"We'll see her again," he murmurs. "Cassie. We will."
"You don't know that."
"No. But you do."
She closes her eyes and tries to See, but all she gets is black.
India is sunny, all the time. Nick decides that after Kira, after her Mom, after everything (she thinks he might mean That Time They Sort Of Made Out On His Bed, but she's not sure), they need a vacation. They buy a little bungalow and wait, just for a few months. She doesn't mind--she's so tired of moving and running and doing Things of Utmost Importance that she breathes a sigh of relief when Nick makes the executive decision to just … stop.
"This feels like cheating," Cassie remarks from the porch. She's wearing a sari, not her usual skirt and boots. Her hair is plain and blond, no more streaks of pink. It makes her feel grown-up: sometimes she likes it. Sometimes she doesn't.
Nick is sprawled in the yard, sunglass resting on his nose. "So kind of like every game of Risk we've ever played," he says without opening his eyes.
"When have we ever played Risk?" Cassie asks, raising her eyebrows.
"There was that one time," Nick answers vaguely. He sits up and lets his sunglasses fall off. "You know. In . . . "
It takes her a minute to realize that he's not finishing his statement; she shifts her attention to look at him. His expression is unreadable. His eyes are shaded by one hand and he's propped up on his elbow. She feels awkward suddenly.
He'd looked at Kira this way, that first night on the pier, when she'd shot at them. It feels like a Big Moment, and she gets a hundred quick, ungraspable images of things she can't quite understand yet: shoulders, hands, a leaf, her shoes. Then they pass, and she's back looking at Nick looking at her and the warm sun on her skin.
She walks over and drops down next to him, twining their hands. This is the sort of thing she can maybe do, now.
He turns his head and waits, and she presses her mouth to his. It's less awkward this time. They're learning. He keeps his hands pretty tame, just her shoulders and her face, but Cassie is all adventure, roaming, tickling, learning him, scooping her fingers beneath his shirt and along the waistband of his pants.
He drops his hand to pulls hers away. "Jesus, Cassie," he breathes against her mouth, "what happened to going easy?"
"I went easy," she whines. "And you forget, I can See everything that's coming. So. Let's get this tugboat a-movin'."
He sighs. "Cassie," he murmurs, dropping his head away from hers to rest it on the grass, "there's an age issue here."
She slumps against the ground with a world-weary groan. "Oh, great, you pick now to go all Mr Thoughtful on me. Where was this shit when I was fourteen and wanted my own room so I could write in a diary and doodle hearts on my pillows?"
"Who doodles on pillows?"
"You're missing the point, Nick."
He shrugs. "You have to admit, it's kinda weird. We met when you were thirteen."
"But like twenty-five at heart. I'm the most mature person you know."
"Cassie, you're like, the only person I know, with the exception of your Mom, and ohmygod, your Mom. She would kill me."
"Nick," she explains, semi-patiently, running a hand up to his shoulder, "she. is. a. Watcher. She already knows. She probably knew before you did." She settles on his shoulder and tries to make shapes out of the clouds.
He doesn't say anything for a moment, and then he turns to kiss her forehead. "You'll be eighteen in six months. Just give me until then."
A couple of weeks later, she's looking at herself in the mirror when it hits her.
The hands, the painted fingernails. The legs, with the little scar beneath the knee. The neck, pale and white and fitted to his mouth.
She wakes up from the now-memorized span of images like a string of polaroids or a slide from a photo booth. And she realizes: it's the same woman. All this time, it's been the same woman with her skin yellow in the dimmed light, the same woman with her darkly painted nails and exposed neck, her mouth spread wide into a laugh.
It's been the same woman, because it's been her. She hasn't been Seeing Nick with every woman he meets (and she means that the way it sounds, because really, sometimes it actually seems like he sleeps with every. woman. he meets), she's just been seeing him with her, over and over, each time a little different because each time the circumstances have changed.
But it was always going to end like this. When they were in Hong Kong, and Virginia, and New York, and Moscow, and the Netherlands, and California, and Yemen, and France, and Germany, and Italy, and all the other places they've been or will be. It was always going to end with his mouth on her neck, smile stretched wide and warm as the Indian sunshine.
A few weeks before her eighteenth birthday, Nick buys her a ring.
She stares at him, jaw loose. "Are you, like, proposing to me right now?" she splutters, horrified, trying to shove it back at him. "Because. I know you have a problem with the age thing. But are you kidding?"
He pushes her hand back toward her, rolling his eyes. "It's not a ring," he grumbles, popping the box back open. "It's . . . an elaborate necklace dangle."
"It's got a diamond on it."
"So it's a nice necklace dangle."
She rolls her eyes, but threads her fingers around the back of her neck and undoes the clasp of the only piece of jewelry she's worn since she was fifteen. She drops Nick's "elaborate necklace dangle" onto the chain and it comes to rest next to the small St. Christopher medal he'd given her three years ago. "How did you even afford this?" she asks conversationally.
They're packing. The vacation is over: back home, the war is starting. They've gotten summons from her Mom and Kira and the underground, all of them urgent and scared and determined. So they're leaving the safety of India for the certain death of the States, but hey. What can you do.
"I sold my soul and at least three-quarters of my body."
"Ha, ha. Only three-quarters? Cheap-ass."
"Hardly. Do you know what this kind of beauty costs me in maintenance?"
She laughs, and turns to mock him and/or his general parentage. But then he's so close, his hand circling around her wrist and tugging her forward, free hand cupping the side of her cheek and toying with the hair that's fallen into her face. She stops breathing, maybe.
He leans in, slowly, mouth just barely brushing hers, nose nudging up against her own. He stays where he is, but she doesn't push forward: he's never kissed her, not really; she's always had to make the final move. So she holds her breath and waits.
He lets go of her wrist and snakes his hand around her waist, pulling her gently but firmly against him, from toes to chest, and doesn't say anything. He looks at her for a long time.
"I'm not eighteen yet," she murmurs against his mouth, reminding.
"Does that bother you?" he asks.
"It was never me who was bothered in the first place."
He meets her eyes and smiles, and then their mouths crash together and he is everywhere: hands, mouth, legs, and they are falling onto the pile of clothes spread out over the bed, knocking her suitcase to the floor. The trails of his hands are goosebumps on her skin as he pulls her shirt over her head and undoes the button on her pants.
He sits up, slowing, breathing deeply and looking down at her. He's smiling. "Wow, a polka-dot bra. That would be cute if it didn't make me feel like a pervy child molester."
"You are a pervy child molester," she reminds him happily, and reaches up to pull his mouth back to hers.
She rakes her darkly-painted nails across his back as their legs twine together and his mouth finds her neck. She feels herself laugh and he smiles in echo.
In the morning, Cassie wakes up still curled up against his side, arms encircling her. It's the same way she's woken up a thousand times, except this time they're naked and he's not snoring.
"Are you freaking out?" she asks into the dark. The "elaborate dangle" (and yeah, it's totally a ring, and they both know it) that he'd given her the day before feels heavy on her neck.
He's quiet for a moment, and then shrugs. "Nope," he decides. He looks down to meet her eyes and smiles. "The thing is . . . I kind of love you. It was always going to end here. You had me at 'hello . . . where do you keep your chicken'."
She grins. "Yeah, well. I've been in love with you since I was like, twelve, so. I win."
"Is this going to devolve into a no-I-love-you-more situation? Because I'm not sure I can handle the cuteness factor."
She rolls her eyes and punches him in the arm. "And Kira said you weren't romantic," she laughs.
Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, Cassie takes the ring off her necklace and puts it on her hand.
When Nick raises his eyebrows and tries valiantly not to smirk at her, she shrugs and steals his pretzels. The stewardess comes around with cocktails and beams at them, wrinkles around her eyes.
"Are you two engaged?" she asks, nodding at Cassie's hand. Nick steals Cassie's pillow and grudgingly agrees to share the blanket.
He readies to launch into their typical song and dance about bands and tours and distant cousins, but Cassie just settles her head on his shoulder and says calmly, "Yes."
She can feel him startle and can't keep herself from grinning. "I told you, it's not a ring. It's an elaborate necklace dangle," he says in an amused whisper.
She shrugs. "Maybe it was when you bought it."
He laughs and laces their hands together, kissing the top of her head. "You're the most annoying person in the world," he tells her fondly.
"Are you not counting yourself? Because let's be honest, it's like the one competition you can actually win."
"I win every competition."
"Against who? The blind and the deaf?"
"I'm going to strangle you in your sleep. No, seriously, I'm actually going to strangle you in your - "
She cuts him off by kissing him soundly. He promptly gives up on the argument and loops an arm around her shoulder. She can feel him looking at her so she opens her eyes and asks, "What? Is there something in my hair?"
He pulls her a little closer. The armrest between them is digging into her side, but she wouldn't move for the whole world. "Nothing," he tells her, and kisses the top of her head. "It's nothing."