A/N: Shameless Nicky/Jason shenanigans. Maybe a smidgen of plot. You know, for variety.
The dogs have bigger prey to hunt, but she isn't taking any chances. Even if Landy, Congress' golden girl, offered some protection, a negotiation, Nicky wouldn't know because she isn't about to give away her position. She isn't taking any chances.
She doubts her boss even cares right now- the CIA has been turned upside-down. Nicky Parsons fell through the cracks, and she would like to keep falling.
Amsterdam was out of the question. So was Paris. Thinking about the desert still gives her nightmares, so she tugs her duffel bag onto a train and heads for Germany. She'd studied the language for a while in college, forgot it, picked it up again while living in Berlin. Her flat voice can't make the language sound very romantic, but it does sound efficient and harsh, which is how she's running her life these days. It's in a little pub that she first hears about Bourne's escape. He isn't dead, she hadn't believed that for a second. His body hadn't been found- that meant he had somehow managed to duck fate and had hidden himself away, like only a Treadstone operative could. She wonders what had happened. She wonders what he knows. What he remembers. She wonders, because she doesn't have much else to do.
She stays in one place for no more than a few weeks. She works for small wages as a waitress, a maid, a clerk, a cashier...meaningless jobs that put money in her pocket. She picks run-down hostels and apartments in shady areas of town (as shady as a German city can be), where people are reluctant to converse with the authorities, and even more reluctant to give away a young girl who never smiles, and who comes and goes at odd hours but never makes any trouble. A month, and she's gone.
She blockades the doors and windows in her apartments. She never owns a landline or a contracted phone, so she never worries about calls being picked up and traced. She tries to spend as much time outdoors as possible, because staying inside a dark, empty flat is a one-way ticket to insanity. She always looks over her shoulder. She never takes the same route twice. Malsfeld, on to Hattert, maybe a stop in France with a fake passport she managed to get her hands on a lifetime ago. She likes being Sandra Goetz. Sandra has red hair and pleasant eyes. Sandra speaks German without an American accent, because why would she? She's been speaking it her whole life.
She goes to parks a lot. She likes to walk in the clean air, surrounded by people who don't know her. It's safer here, with trees and bushes and curving lanes and innocent citizens milling around. She thinks too much, but in between jobs, there's nothing else to do. Occasionally, she'll hole up in her flat and tinker with whatever electronics are around, or she'll cruise the Web in an internet cafe. But mostly, she walks on shaded lanes and thinks about her life. She wonders if this is ever going to end.
For months after Tangier, she wakes up from nightmares about Desh, and has to run to the bathroom to vomit. She will stay up for hours afterward, sweating and crying. Sometimes, she still thinks she can see him trailing behind her. She still sees his face, either fresh, or bloody and slack, in the mirror. She still sees the blood on Jason's hands. For a while, she couldn't stand to take a shower, because all she could see was Desh being choked to death in the corner of the stall.
One thing that never strays far from her thoughts is the guilt. About everything. She never asked questions, and now that she knows the possibilities, the certainties, she wishes she had. How many innocent people had she helped kill? How many directives had she simply read through and delivered, without thinking about who was really behind the photograph, who was behind the name printed so cleanly on the page? What did they do to deserve death? She never asked. She hates herself very much for that.
One thing she can feel good about is helping Bourne. It's hard to think of him as David, the name in his file, because she never knew David. David had been a captain in the military, a fresh-faced kid from Missouri who lived to serve God and country. Jason is the man she knows. His is the face familiar to her. She had known all of the Europe-based operatives. They had all known her, to varying degrees.
She first met Jason when Treadstone was in its infancy. He was the first volunteer as a field operative, and she was the among the first to be recruited from the CIA to keep track of everyone in the field. They would be leading similar lives- each would work relatively alone, and would be sent to somewhere in the world, to be at the beck and call of their government. She didn't know anything about his training, but the first time she laid eyes on him, she had already known he had been trained to kill. He didn't smile. He moved like a tightly-wound spring. Even when he was sitting still, he was kinetic. The intensity surrounding him was contradicted by a cool mein and an intractably calm air. Treadstone boys never panic. They never lose it, they never even come close.
He shook her hand. His grip was just as firm as hers. They both knew what they were getting into.
"I know." She gave him a smile that was friendly, and just a little smug. She did not give her last name, and he didn't ask. He grimaced, but it was just for show.
"Right. Of course."
Other introductions were made. A month later, she set him up in Paris, showed him around, helped him get used to the language and the people. Under her guidance, the last of his accent faded, and they shared dinners and lunches at the sidewalk cafes. She never went to his flat, even though she had the blueprints and knew it inside and out. That was his space. It was the one piece of his life that he could call his own. The phones weren't bugged. No one else had a key except for the landlord. No cameras, no late-night visits from higher-ups. It was Jason's home. She stayed away.
In between missions (which were never discussed), she rang him up, or he found her. She was a familiar face in a world where he wasn't allowed to form attachments. She sought him out. He let her. He hadn't yet taken his first official kill, and everything was going smoothly for Treadstone. She asked about his health, and he kept her up-to-date about his headaches, his nausea, the insomnia, and she recorded it all, typed up reports, and sent them up the line. All normal, the superiors would say, the team psychologists and psychiatrists who kept a hawk's eye on the operatives. Jason would accept her sympathies with a shrug and a dead look in his eyes. She started wanting to do more for him, and that's when she knew she had to pull out. She was letting herself get too close. Jason didn't need her help, she told herself. Don't get attached. He'll probably be dead in a few years. That's his life, and yours. Don't complicate things.
One night, it did get complicated, and she was glad to get her new assignment.
Her base of operations was moved to Amsterdam, Bourne was sent after Wombosi, and everything fractured.
He didn't remember her. He remembered holding a gun to her head, seeing her frightened face in the red emergency light, but that was all. Still, she can't help but feel that he somehow knew she wasn't a threat. He might have turned a gun on her, but he never squeezed the trigger. He asked for her specifically that day in Berlin. She had hope that maybe he hadn't gone crazy, after all. Maybe he hadn't really turned. And then she found out about the amnesia. It was good, and it was bad.
In the diner, he had stared at her blankly when she tried to tell him that he meant a lot to her, that she had always considered them to be friends, in whatever twisted way was allowed in Treadstone. He had just stared.
"You really don't remember, do you?"
He didn't blink. It didn't even look like he was processing anything, because there was nothing to process. He'd already spent months trying, and had nothing to show for it.
Without knowing how much of his memory he's recovered, she pities him. She wants to see him again, if only to tell him how sorry she is for screwing him over when he was just trying to find answers. Sorry for getting his girlfriend involved. Sorry she was killed. She thinks about it every night. She remembers putting Marie Kreutz's picture onto a flyer, and getting them distributed all across Europe. That was before she'd known the reason behind Bourne's behavior, but still. Jason was used over and over again by his country, misused, and she was a part of that.
But not anymore. She doesn't even own pajamas. There's no reason to change every night and morning, when every night and morning there's a chance she'll have to run. She doesn't even unpack. Her jeans have been washed a hundred times in the past three months. She owns a few t-shirts, plain and unremarkable, cotton for easy washing. She changes her hair color or gets a wig every time she moves. Bourne isn't the only one who knows how to run.
"It gets easier," he'd said. It's true, in a sense. Her paranoia becomes routine; she gets used to living out of a duffel bag, used to never giving her name, to always wearing sunglasses or hats, being completely disconnected from the real world. She gets used to not having any friends. She gets used to having no one to talk to. Silence is safety.
A few times, she considers going back to the States, meeting Landy, talking it out, but she never gets past thinking about it. She doesn't want to know what options Landy will give her. She doesn't want to get pulled into more chaos and politics. Maybe her testimony would help at the Congressional hearings, but they've got enough evidence. She can't imagine having any friends left in Langley.
Another two months of unpacked clothes and living without a name leaves her drained. She's talking more to her coworkers, laughing even, just because she's addicted to the sound of human communication. The everday gossip about people she'll never know is soothing.
She knows she is depressed. She thinks about leaving Germany, going to Austria. She could lose herself in more museums.
It is in the Imperial Museum that she runs into Bourne.
He must have planned this, because he comes up to her when she's circling a statue, comes in at an angle that the ancient security camera can't catch. She's removed the sunglasses for now, but her hair is blonde and braided, and her duffel bag is slung over her shoulder. She gave up on cosmetics ever since climbing onto the bus in Tangier. She has aged and lost weight. Her face, which used to be round and gentle, is sharp, and she is more tan than she used to be, thanks to all those long walks in Germany's parks.
She doesn't say a word when she sees him.
"Cafe Elles. Two o'clock?" he asks.
She nods, and he walks away, keeping close to the walls, head down slightly. His stride has not changed. She watches him leave, still at a loss.
Jason Bourne had just....appeared. Out of nowhere. Her mind goes from zero to sixty in a split second.
What could he want? How did he find her? She starts looking around and every which way, searching for other familiar faces, familiar walks and hands moving inside jackets, earpieces, black suits, or parkas and backpacks. There's just the usual crowd of college students and tourists. Her heart is still racing even after she leaves the museum an hour later. She won't go back to her apartment. If Bourne is here, there's no telling who else might have found her.
It's not a question of whether or not she'll meet him. It's a question of what to say, how to act. She is slightly breathless when she gets to ____.
The cafe is still a little crowded at two in the afternoon. Bourne must have known it was a popular place and would be full. Before her eyes can adjust to the dark lighting inside, a hand grips her arm (same place, fingers fitting into the faded bruises from Berlin), and Bourne leads her to a booth in the back. His hand is gentle now, nothing like the painful vise that had circled her bicep in the Alexanderplatz station. He probably doesn't even have a gun.
"She wouldn't want me to."
She takes a seat and immediately asks for a beer.
Bourne orders a water, and the waitress walks away.
"How did you find me?" she asks.
"Accident," he says.
The air between them is silent as Nicky wonders if he's lying, and if so, why. But Jason has that same earnestly honest look on his face that he's always had, and she feels herself relaxing. She'd known he was alive, but finally seeing him in the flesh, in front of her...
"So you're....in Vienna."
"It was a place to go. Besides, I didn't think you'd be in France or the Netherlands."
It took a moment for the full import of his words to sink in.
"You've been looking for me?"
Again, he shrugs, and they are both silent as the waitress comes and sets down their drinks. When she leaves, Jason leans forward, elbows on the table. "No one's been able to find you. I figured....I owe it to you, to make sure you're okay. And like I said, this was a place to go."
She feels horribly guilty again, and also a little glad.
"You don't owe me anything."
"After what I..." She takes a long swallow from her beer. This is one of the most bizarre conversations she's ever had. Her thoughts jump from one answer to the next without stopping to check for relevance. "You knew I wanted out. And I'm glad I left. And you?" she asks, changing the subject, not wanting to get personal again if all he'll do is stare blankly at her and tell her he doesn't remember. "What are you doing? I guess everyone thinks you're dead, or if they don't, they don't really care. Everything is a mess in Washington."
"Yeah. Landy's got everyone by the balls."
"I always liked her."
"Yeah, she's...." he peers down into his water and frowns. "She tried to speak up for me. She's a good person."
"What happened in New York?" she asks softly. She isn't sure if he wants to talk about it, because she knows for a fact that nothing good came out of that office building on 71st. But she's curious. CNN will only tell her so much.
"I met with him. Hirsch. We talked. I ran."
"I know," she answers quickly, not wanting him to think that she suspected anything else. "The news said he was facing charges. I meant, did you get what you were looking for?"
His eyes go distant. He looks as lost as he ever did in that Madrid diner. "I'm not sure."
Without even thinking, she reaches across the table and grips his hand. He looks up and gives her a small smile.
"And you? You're doing a good job hiding out here, you know." He doesn't move his hand away. She is the one to let go.
"You said it'd get easier," she says flippantly.
"That's not what I meant."
The conversation dies. Nicky is still a little bewildered, Bourne is still steady in his attentions. He looks at her for a while, and then drops his gaze to his drink. He's not sure why he came here now. Nicky is....
"Are you scared?"
Her head shoots up and she looks ready to bolt right then and there. Her body language says everything. She's scared to death.
"How could I not be?" she says a little angrily. "I wasn't trained like you. I can't protect myself. My only defense is movement, and-and hair dye, and avoiding eye contact with every single person I meet. I'm so scared, Jason. And I'm not even scared of the boys back home." She realizes she's near tears, not for the first time, but she's tired of crying. She pinches the bridge of her nose. "I'm running from... From all the nightmares, from what I've done."
"You can't run fast enough."
He says it with authority. Of course. He would know.
"For what it's worth, you'd be safe back home. Congress would grant you immunity for testifying. Besides, it's not like you knew what you were getting into."
"I did know. You knew."
"Not everything." He fixes her with an intense look and speaks with the rhythm of someone who has practiced this in their head, or said it to themselves a million times. It's how he always speaks. "Treadstone screwed us over. They turned us into weapons, but then they used us recklessly. They're the ones who should be running. Not you. You didn't know that Conklin or Abbott had been given that kind of jurisdiction. Their discretion was almost nonexistant. That's not your fault."
He puts his head in his hands and forces out a sigh of frustration. He's obviously thought about this over and over, and gotten nowhere.
"I told you. I remember every single one. All of them."
"And their names?"
He nods. "Hirsch. It came back when he started telling me about it, from the beginning."
He holds his head up high and flicks a glance at the ceiling before holding her gaze again. "Everything."
"Jason...." She shakes her head. "I'm sorry."
"No, I'm sorry. For everything I did. I mean, we didn't know why you were running at first, and I, I'm the one who put her name on that flyer, I'm the one who was there with them every step of the way, trying to bring you down. I sent the Professor. He was going to kill both of you. I did that. I was there. I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Jason."
He is taken aback by her candor, and by her confession. He had known, of course. He couldn't blame Landy and her team for coming after him at first, but India....Marie.
"Her death wasn't your fault."
She wonders how he can sound so calm about it. In his eyes, there is ancient pain and anger, but his voice is as cool as the condensation on her fingertips.
"But that doesn't mean I can stop running."
He shakes his head once, a sharp jerk to one side.
"No. It doesn't."
She leans back against the booth's cushions. She eventually orders a water, Bourne gets his refilled, even though he's only taken a few sips.
"Will you tell me about her?"
For a long moment, he looks like he wants to leave. His eyes cover the exits and the patrons in between. But she thinks he needs someone to talk to about it. He does, too. And it's Nicky, the girl who had shown him the best cafes in Paris, the nicest parks, the best views of the river. The frightened woman who had held his hand in some hole-in-the-wall hotel in Morocco, who tried to understand him. Who does understand him, if only just a little.
He pays for her drink, and they go to one of Nicky's favorite walking parks. He spends the afternoon telling her about running with Marie, and the quiet spaces she'd filled with laughter when they had finally been able to stand still.
On a bench, they sit and stare at their surroundings. It is almost dusk. A lot has been said, and for the first time in months, Nicky feels relaxed. She is safe with Bourne. She has excavated the ruins of his psyche and found the man she used to know, hidden beneath all the trauma. He'd smiled a few times when talking about the funny things Marie had said, the ways she'd tried to cheer him up, the music she listened to, the weird clothes she would wear. She never complained about running, he'd said. She resented me sometimes, I know she did, and if I asked her about it, she would tell me honestly. But she would always try to make it better for us. Make it not so exhausting for me.
And now it's her turn.
"I've thought about giving up." She turns her head to the side to guage his reaction. He just sits as still as stone and watches the sun go down. But he's listening. "Some nights, coming home to a place I don't know, to see faces that are never familiar. Even speaking German gets tiring. I've gotten to where I read the CNN scrolling news, you know- the text that runs at the bottom with the latest news....I read it aloud from the TV, just to hear something familiar. To just....feel closer to home. I get so tired. I've wondered what would be so bad about just stopping. Just find a nice place to live, and if they find me, then...oh, well."
He shakes his head.
"There's no way to win. Either you keep moving, or you stay still, and either way you're in danger, either way you'll always be looking over your shoulder."
He cracks a small grin. He looks like a boy from the country, a sweet-hearted young man with an "aw, shucks" blush on his cheeks. Nothing like the picture in his file. She almost can't believe that this is the same Jason who rammed a book into a man's throat, who broke a man's arm just using speed and leverage. This is the same kid who could kill a man with his bare hands, and walk away without looking back. She starts shaking, with grief and guilt.
"I've thought about ending it, too," she whispers.
This time, he looks at her. Watching, listening.
She nods. "I know."
He grabs her elbow. He is in earnest, openly concerned in a way only Jason can be. She looks at him, and knows that he has thought about it, too. She imagines he would know how to do it better than she. If he tried, he wouldn't fail. He'd be as precise about killing himself as he'd been about killing others.
She once spent a whole hour staring at her razor. Debating.
"How did I get into this? I went to college for a communications degree. I studied German because I thought it's be cool. I thought I was going to be a teacher. I thought I was going to be in Europe because I was going to get drunk and have fun, not..." She holds back her tears and stares at her hands, seeing the keyboard on which she typed so many kill directives, so many reports about the mental status of assassins, making sure they were okay to murder people. "I don't know where it all went. My life....what I've done with it...."
She nods. Yes, he understands. She rolls her head side-to-side to get rid of some of the tension and takes a big sniff, forcing back the tears and the depression. She is clear-headed again.
"Where are you staying?"
"Hotel down the street. A few blocks away from your place."
She wants to ask what his plans are. She wants to ask him to get some dinner with her, to stay for a while. She is surprised when he grabs her hand and says that he can help her.
"If you want, I can find you a place to settle. Help you hide."
His words take a burden off of her shoulders. She feels a smile pinching at her cheeks.
He shrugs, all business and all friendly at once. She can tell he's pleased to be helping someone.
"Depends on you."
She lets her smile widen.
"You know Portugese?" he asks, surprised.
"Not a word. But I miss the beach." She quirks a smile that he cautiously mirrors.
"Where will you hide?"
He purses his lips and looks around, then down at their hands.
"I'm open to suggestions."
She laughs, but doesn't read too much into his words. They have connected as only two expatriots can, two Americans in a foreign country, running from the same people, from the same memories, sharing the same anonymity and fears. There's too much in common to let them just go their separate ways. She knows she is admiring the line of his jaw, just like she used to. She knows she is wishing for more than the touch of his hand, old longings that don't scare her anymore, but she also knows she's mostly just lonely and craving a friend. She leaves it at that, takes what she can get.
They get dinner from a street vendor and eat while walking along the Wien. It is still early when she tells him goodnight and makes her way to her flat. She feels safer now, knowing that Jason wouldn't have contacted her if he'd thought they were in immediate danger. She wakes up from one nightmare, but convinces herself to go back to sleep. She works the next day. For most of her shift, she begins to feel an itch in her feet, a crawling sensation that follows her every move. It is the feeling of restlessness. She needs to be moving, out of this town, away from people who know her face and her habits. She isn't surprised to see Jason striding toward her as her shift is ending. They leave the restaurant and again walk the promenade. He's made arrangements. She grabs her duffel bag, takes his hand, and doesn't look back.
For months, she doesn't see him. He left her in Bahia, in a small town by the coast, in a small house that faces forest and a dirt road. She gets used to the language, makes trips to the beach, looks for work. Eventually, she lets herself feel comfortable calling it home. She usually starts her day picking up a dirty soccer ball that some bare-footed kid has kicked, handing it back to him, waving goodbye as she walks to work. She's found a job as a maid for a few local bigwigs. The money is sufficient for food and clothes, which is all she really cares about anymore. A steady supply of turkey sandwiches and sunblock has become her definition of essentials. She is winked at by attractive men, acknowledged by the older locals with the occasional wave. If she ever stops to say hello to her neighbors, she is met with a long stream of conversation, mutterings about weather and politics and football that never requires from her more input than a sympathetic smile and a nod of her head. She loves her new town. She loves the air. She loves the language, which flows now with only the slightest hesitation from her tongue. Her tan deepens. She puts some weight back on, and when Jason shows up at her doorstep one day in November, he says he hardly recognizes her.
Bourne has changed, too, but not much. The lines around his eyes have faded. He smiles more easily. They sit on her front porch and watch the boiling sun turn the air into gold.
"How have you been?" she asks. It seems a safe place to start. She hasn't forgotten him, and has in fact been missing him. But she won't let on. Not yet. Maybe never. Everything depends on Jason.
"Fine, I guess. As good as can be expected for a fugitive."
"Better than me?" He gives her healthy tan an appreciative look and laughs.
"No, not even close." His smile fades, and to her, it seems the sun does, too. "I've been in India."
"Oh." She searches his face for clues on how to respond. He seems rested, no longer carrying the burden of a forgotten past and a frightening future. She knows he's still searching, though. Looking for answers that no one could find but Jason. Or perhaps David. "And now?"
He takes a deep breath, dragging himself from whatever memories he had been reliving. "Now...I don't know."
She asks a question that's been bothering her for a while. From his response, she finds that it's been bugging him as well.
"It feels like it should be wrong, taking the name they gave me. But...it's who I am. I can't run from that. I don't know who David Webb was."
"Neither do I."
"Well, that makes it easier on you."
"Yeah. D'you want another beer?"
He waves it aside.
"One's my limit."
"Never can be too careful, huh?" she says a little bitterly. She still pushes her sofa against the front door, her chest of drawers against her bedroom door, had put sheets with wind chimes tied onto the ends over the windows by the third day after she'd moved in. Jason noticed when he first came in, but said nothing.
Just as he says nothing now. He's just as tired of this life as she is, but is coming to find that the paranoia suits him. He figures, in another life, he would have been the type of dad who lectures his kids on seatbelts, who makes his six year-old girl take karate for self-defense. Safety first, kids. He laughs softly to himself, and shakes his head when Nicky throws him an inquisitive look.
"Glad you find something about this funny," she jokes. Jason toys with his empty beer bottle and after a moment of indecision, she says, "You can stick around, you know."
He looks sideways at her. His right eyebrow cocks, and his lips part; he's got his contemplative face on, the one that makes him look way too keen for her good. She feels herself wanting to blush. He finally looks away and says, "Yeah. Yeah, that sounds...sounds good."
"Alright," she says, resisting the nervous urge to tuck her hair behind her ear. "The sofa is in good working order if you need a place to crash. Although, sometimes the AC doesn't work. I still haven't figured out what the problem is."
He offers to take a look, without accepting or declining her invitation, and she shows him the unit and the thermostat. She leaves him alone to work it out, and an hour later, he comes onto the porch to tell her it's fixed.
She says thanks. Neither of them can think of anything else to say to fill the silence. She's still fighting to stay distant, he's still not comfortable getting close. They eventually sit back down on the porch with a pitcher of sweet tea and two plastic cups. Afternoon turns to twilight.
Tonight, she thinks it's safe to reminisce. She wants to know how much he remembers about her.
"I can't believe you didn't know it was a gay bar," he says, picking one of the few memories that doesn't make him feel dead inside.
"Sorry, I'd never been to that part of that city."
"You were my liaison, Nicky, come on."
She doesn't even bother trying to hide her smile. They pile feijoada into paper bowls and eat with gusto.
"The look on your face-."
"I gave away nothing."
She laughs loudly, because it's true- she can clearly recall the stoic acceptance of his embarrassing situation; for her, it was nothing, but Jason, no-nonsense Army captain from lower Missouri just clenched his jaw, turned on his heel, and walked out. He hadn't even acknowledged what had happened, just asked if the cafe across the street was any good, ignoring her laughter. She hadn't been able to speak for a full two minutes.
It was that night that he first reached over and held her hand, without even thinking. She'd said nothing. They had both known it wasn't a good idea, but they'd let it happen anyway. The feel of connecting to another person was a luxury for Treadstone agents. That might have been one of the best nights of her life.
She is scared to let him remember that part, though. She laughs and brings up another Paris incident that ended up with a frozen computer and an adorably bewildered Jason. It feels so good to think about it, to retrace the puzzlement on his brow as he flicked a finger against the monitor, craned his neck to check out the connections, stared blankly at the screen...She had just watched him for a moment, reveling in his predicament. One expert touch from her fingers had restored his program, and they'd spent the rest of the day going over the finer aspects of his computer training.
"I never forgot that lesson, you know," he says. He sticks his thumb in his mouth to suck off some juices from the stew, and she rolls her eyes and tosses a clean napkin his way. He grins, just like he did when she fixed his computer a lifetime ago. "Saved my life a few times, too."
"I think I'd be happy never seeing another computer for the rest of my life." She is joking, but there's a touch too much reality in her voice and it thickens the air between them. Suddenly, her dinner doesn't look so appealing.
"Uh, when are you going to buy real plates?" Jason asks, searching for distraction.
She shrugs. "Real plates means doing dishes. After cleaning up after other people all day, household chores get pretty annoying."
Earlier, they'd discussed the ups and downs of her new job, and Jason had been satisfied that she'd found some semblance of contentment with it. Now, in the yellow light of her kitchen, she looks tired, and much older than her twenty-five years. He realizes that he's not even thirty. It takes him aback, thinking how much of their lives they have left. It seems wrong, considering all they've done and seen. Just four years or so. That's all it took to completely alter their lives forever.
Another nightmare wakes her up at a quarter past three. She follows her routine- washing her face with warm water, sitting on the edge of the bed and trying to remember all the details of the dream, staring at her hands until she can feel the blood that had never touched them. Tonight, she can alter the routine a little. Instead of screwing her eyes shut and telling herself to go back to sleep, she walks into the kitchen and finds Jason at the bar, fixing a sandwich.
"Hey," he says, slathering some mayonnaise onto a slice of bread.
"You want one?"
She looks at the fixings- turkey, mayo, mustard, lettuce, tomato.
He nods and sets to work on a second sandwich.
"I saw the news tonight, about Black Briar," he says. "Looks like everyone's going down hard. Landy had an interview. She said she thinks the whole thing can be put to rest."
"Is that supposed to mean something to me?"
"She knows what she's doing. I think she's giving up on you."
He shrugs. "Probably. They didn't want anything to do with me before Conklin started that mess with the cover-up. I can't imagine they'd care about me now. I don't have any secrets that haven't been plastered on CNN by now. Or you. Right?"
He pins her with a steady look, one that says not to mess with him in this. For a moment, she's back in Berlin, back in the subway station, that empty room where no one can her her screams, no one but Bourne, who didn't care, who only pressed the gun harder into her skull. She frowns and goes to get a cup just to keep some distance between them.
"Of course. I was just as much in the dark as you were, Jason. You know that." This time, she's the one with the steady look, an angry, hurt look, and he turns back to her sandwich, putting some lettuce on top of the sliced tomato.
"Yeah. Sorry. Things just get...crazy up here, sometimes," he says, with a vague gesture at his head. He pauses to look up and catch her eyes, to give her a sincere apology. "I'm sorry."
She has always admired his straight-forwardness. He was never one for delicacies of conversation, or tact, really. He just said what needed to be said. It's nice to know he's still like that. She relaxes, forgets Berlin and the cold barrel of a gun, and pours two cups of sweet tea. When she looks up, she catches him staring at her, mouth slightly open, eyes fixed on her eyes, sandwich abandoned in his hand. She can't help the blush that burns up her neck and cheeks. She smiles to make light of it. "What?"
His lips quirk up into the half-smile she knows very well. "Nothing."
They never discuss why they're both up and eating at three in the morning.
He ends up staying the next night, and the next. He helps her make minor repairs around the house, and when she goes to work, he hits the beach to run. After two hours and sixteen miles, his shins aching from running on uneven sand, his hands swollen from the salty air, he sits down on the shore and allows his mind to drift. People mill around him. A group of men nearby play a noisy game of checkers. He sees beautiful women tanning and chatting to their neighbors, sweaty teenagers chasing frisbees, elderly husbands and wives wading in the warm surf. It's different than Goa, and in some ways it's not. He used to think he and Marie would have long, happy lives in the burning Indian sunlight. They used to sit on a beach not unlike this one, with different sand and different water, and hold onto one another. He always kept an eye out for trouble. She always chided him for being paranoid.
"Come on, Jason." He loves the way she says his name. He smiles when she smiles. It's irresistible. "Take me to the ocean, huh? Let's go get tanned and gorgeous, and get cancer or something from it. That's what luxury is, you know." He follows the sound of her flip-flops onto the rickety front porch...
He closes his eyes, and sees her red hair turned into gold by the afternoon sun. He sees her smile hidden in shadows, her laughter ringing faintly around him. He chases her into the waves. She screams and jumps onto his back, and they crash into the ocean, and he's loving her more than he thought he could. She is life and energy. She surrounds him more completely than the water ever can.
Before he can pull back, he sees the look of surprise on her face as the bullet pierces her brain. Green water. Hair, arms and legs like seaweed in the sunlight.
He opens his eyes.
The sound of the beach crashes into his ears. He takes a few deep breaths to stop shaking.
The memories come and go with the tide.
Nicky has been home for an hour before Jason comes in, smelling of the ocean and suntan lotion. He gives her a weary smile. She returns it. She's disappointed to see him in low spirits.
"You wanna go out for dinner? There's a great place not too far from here."
She doesn't think he'll say yes, but he straightens his shoulders, swallows back a refusal, and says, "Yeah. Why not?"
They share a plate of the best fried plantains they've ever had. Jason gives in and has a few beers, and in the ensuing hours, Nicky convinces him to talk.
"Everywhere I go reminds me of her. If it's snowing, I think of Paris. If it's sunny, I think of India. No matter where I am, I can always picture her right beside me. Right down to the scarf she'd be wearing or the braids in her hair. If it starts to get difficult, I panic. If I can't remember exactly how her lips turn when she smiles. If I can't remember the exact shade of her eyes. That's the only thing I'm really scared of anymore, Nicky. Forgetting her."
Nicky slides a third beer toward him and downs her own bottle. The more he talks about her, the more despicable she feels. She thinks she must be trying to punish herself, to be asking about Jason's girlfriend so much. The way he talks about Marie breaks her heart. She puts her head in her hands to hide her tears. When she finally looks up, Jason is staring off to the side, face blank but alert, a contradiction only he seems to be able to manage.
"Sorry," she chokes out. He swiftly turns back to her. She fails to keep eye contact, and her gaze falls to the chipped wood table. "I feel like a real...I don't know," she whispers. He can barely hear her over the noise of clattering dishes and loud Portuguese. "I feel like I've got this blood on my hands, from people I never knew. All these people..." He nods, and they take a swig of their beers at the same time.
They don't talk much for the rest of their meal.
A month later. Another nightmare, another early morning conversation. Nicky lets herself cry at the kitchen table, and when Jason lays a tentative hand on her shoulder, she grasps it and says, "I've missed you, you know." She laughs bitterly, the way she's used to now. "When I was moved to Amsterdam, I kept thinking about all the places you would have liked to hang out, the jokes you would make about one thing or another. I didn't know anybody but Carson, and he was a techie, never really liked talking about things not related to the job. I really loved that city, though."
He sits down across from her, their hands still clinging together. She wipes at her eyes. "London was neat," she chatters on, wanting to talk about anything except her dreams. "I didn't get to see much of it. I was stuck in that flat practically around the clock."
"What were you thinking?" he asks. "About me, when everything....happened."
"When you showed up on the grid, out of nowhere, with a failed mission on file, I...I wasn't surprised." He frowns and leans forward. She turns their hands over and looks at them, and then back into Jason's eyes. "I'd always wondered how you could be a field operative. When we were together, you seemed....I mean, you were...you had that air of capability, and you knew your stuff, but at times you just seemed so..." She licks her lips, searching for the right word.
He says it like it's the highest compliment he can be paid. She bites her lip to hold back more tears.
He sighs, and leans back, gripping her hand a bit tighter. It's reassuring, gives her leave to talk more with an increasingly steady voice. "When you came back from the Chaun-Liv job, you were acting...like a turncoat? Crazy, anyway. I didn't know what to think. I thought maybe you'd cracked. It had happened before, with a guy from Michigan, a Marine. He went through the training, but before his first assignment, he ate a gun in Turkey. The people upstairs kept it hushed, but I had to help organize the clean-up and censor the psych report before it went up the line. Conklin was very cautious about this project. If there were mistakes, he wanted them covered up first, fixed later." Jason jerks her hand forward a bit, to get her full attention. This is important to him, this explanation.
"I didn't crack," he says. "I just....managed to keep a conscience. Killing Neski was one thing. That was panic, that was... My training kicked in before I could stop it. But with Wombosi, I was completely in control. I had the gun at his head. I had my exit cleared."
"Why didn't you do it?"
He lets out a rough, terrible, empty laugh. "His son was sitting in his lap, looking up at me. His daughter was right there in the room; another kid was sleeping on the couch. Wombosi...he just looked up at me, like...he knew he was in danger, he knew maybe one day he'd have to face an assassin -- but he never thought it'd be in front of his kids. I hadn't planned for that. No matter how much I knew he deserved to...."
He puts his head in his hands.
She's there in an instant, behind him, running her hands over his shoulders, coaxing him away from his memories.
"You didn't do it," she soothes. "You didn't do it, Jason. It's over."
"No." He lifts his head up and stares at the window, but not at the slivers of night sky; he stares at the black sheet still covering it up. "No, it's not."
She slumps down onto the table beside him, and it gives a faint creak. She runs a hand through his hair, still kept short and practical, still the color of Missouri sand, the same as that night so many ages ago in Paris, when she'd ran her fingers through his hair, and he'd buried his hands in hers. In the weeks before, she had wondered what he would be like as a lover. She had fantasized about his firm touch, his honest mouth on her skin, silent and devoted.
She had been relying on him for companionship all those months, and being in such constant, close contact had done nothing to stop her growing attraction. Or his. But they had been friends, first. They had learned to comfort one another, learned what jokes made the other smile, what foods the other liked and didn't like. They knew each other. Their compatibility had been an accident, but all it took was one night to make it seem like fate.
Her fingertips spark memories that make her breath quicken. She tells herself to stop, to be a friend, not a complication, but then she remembers the way he trembled around her, how he was patient, but not slow. Giving. Seeking. It was friendship on the fence of becoming more, and she's afraid of it happening again tonight.
He rolls his shoulders, leans back and looks up at her.
She's getting too close. Too close.
She stands up on shaking knees, tells him goodnight, and flees to her bedroom. She doesn't go back to sleep, for reasons that have nothing to do with her nightmares.
Another month passes, and Jason is fairly certain that the CIA wants as little to do with him and Nicky as possible. They are the cracks in the government's foundation that led to one of Washington's biggest scandals, and everyone involved is probably too busy trying to wipe their hands clean of agents Bourne and Parsons to bother taking revenge. It's too late to try to hush it up. Landy would raise hell, too, he thinks, if anyone tried to come after him or Nicky. He tells Nicky this over a late breakfast of scrambled eggs and pancakes. She shrugs. She's been thinking the same thing, but every time she tries to relax, the old fears come back hard, choking her with panic. At the very least, she allows Jason to coax her into uncovering the windows.
The Congressional hearings are still a media circus, but neither Jason nor Nicky can stomach more than a few minutes of it on the television. An ethics committee was created to determine the consequences of Black Briar's creation, the Supreme Court was battling the constitutionality of it, and the President was denying knowledge of it at every opportunity.
"This won't be over any time soon," Nicky says, and she turns the channel to some Brazilian game show. She hasn't mastered the language to the point where she can always get the jokes, and trying to understand the rapid flow coming out of the host's mouth is more chore than entertainment. In the more rural areas, such as the village where she and Bourne have settled, the locals speak slowly and deliberately, as if they have all the time in the world to talk about the weather and the price of bread. It oddly reminds Jason of his home in Missouri. Nicky never asks about his family. She tells herself she'll wait for him to bring it up.
She finally works up the courage to ask him if he's staying for good. It's a Saturday night, and they're tired from a day at the beach. They both smell like saltwater, a refreshing, clean smell that has always permeated her small house. On Jason, the scent is more than arousing, and she wonders/hopes/fears he finds her just as attractive. Before he can hit the shower, she lays a hand on his arm.
He is several inches taller than she is. The lighting in the hallway is dim, and looking up, she can hardly see his eyes at all. His face is just shadows and planes, places she has explored but can't touch now. "Are you ...gonna stick around? For a while?"
He opens his mouth, but there is a long pause before he answers. She thinks he already knows what he's going to say, but is searching her face for answers to other questions, the ones that they don't have the courage to ask right now. Finally, he nods, just once, ever efficient in movement. He hasn't lost his edge in all the time he's been in hiding. His body is still humming under her hand, a furnace of potential violence, a spring waiting to be released. She tugs on his loose sleeve, nods and smiles.
His lips quirk up on one side briefly, and they both move in opposite directions, he heading for the bathroom, she for the bedroom, but they stop and pull back, two magnets unable to break completely free. He blinks and swallows, eyes still on hers, and just once, they flick down to her mouth. Her throat goes dry. She waits, but he's not ready.
Neither of them are, she tells herself.
Cautiously, tentatively, Nicky starts befriending some of the people she is acquainted with. There is Therese, a shop owner with two children, a beautiful, practical woman who always invites Nicky over to her home for supper. One night, she accepts, and Jason tells her to enjoy herself. She comes back with an armful of leftovers and a grin on her face.
Maritsa is a fellow maid who always has a snappy joke to make at her employers' expense. Her Portuguese is rough and hard to translate at times, but Nicky makes an effort, and finds it worthwhile- Maritsa is a self-made chef at home, and she teaches Nicky the ins and outs of Brazilian cuisine. She begins to cook constantly at home, testing out her newly acquired skills, while Jason half-jokes that he'll gain twenty pounds if she doesn't ease off.
Two friends. Three, if she counts Jason. Three friends is all she has to show for her new life in South America. She counts them as blessings, and fights through her recent depression to start looking at life with brighter eyes and a more ready smile. It gets easier to enter her home without looking over her shoulder.
Things evolve once more one cloudy morning in January. Nicky begins her day as usual- cereal at the rickety kitchen table, struggling through a tome of Portuguese poetry. Jason breezes in, dressed in shorts, t-shirt, and running shoes. He's already developed a sweat from an earlier workout routine, which she sometimes can't help but peek in on. They say good morning to one another, Nicky comments about the ominous weather without taking her eyes off her book, and Jason makes some reassuring comment, kisses her cheek, and heads out. Before the screen door can finish swinging shut, Nicky is blushing from head to foot. She touches her cheek, wondering what just happened. Her mind goes blank, unable to handle all the complications this has just created. She tells herself, for her own protection, that she's reading too much into it.
When he comes back, they have an awkward moment of silence and averted eyes, more on her part than his. Nicky defuses the tension with an inane comment about the rain that is now coming down in sheets, Jason makes an equally lame reply, and the morning passes with more rain and more unanswered questions.
Nicky lunches with Maritsa, dodging puddles and muddy patches of road to get to her house. There is a soccer ball in Maritsa's yard, probably kicked there by a neighborhood boy and left when the rain started really pouring. She toes it as she passes by, up the concrete steps, into the cool shade of Maritsa's home. Nicky talks slowly and smoothly in Portuguese, and Maritsa makes a few comments in English, with a lot of amused giggling and mispronounced words. An hour passes over good food and laughter. Maritsa asks if Nicky would like to meet her brother, and she says it with a sly look in her eye that leaves no doubt as to her intentions. Nicky laughs and refuses, saying, haltingly, that she's "involved." And the truth is, she wants to be. Very badly.
Jason Bourne has become more important to her than anything else. Through a lot of hard work, they've reestablished the camaraderie they shared in Paris. They've revealed their deepest feelings, intentionally or not, and overcome the worst days of their life together. They are partners in perseverance. She thinks she was starting to really love him back then, and has finished the journey now. She's already seen every shade of his character. She knows him inside and out. She thinks its time to quit dodging the bullet and just ask him what he wants.
On her way home, she thinks to herself that Maritsa's brother never stood a chance.
She comes home to an empty house. Jason left a note, saying that he wanted to check out the market before it closed. She slides her finger across the paper, tracing the boxy, neat handwriting. She paces the kitchen. She eats an apple, but throws it away half-finished. Doubts are creeping into her mind. If she lays it all out on the table now, if he says "no," if he doesn't want her like he did in Paris....She starts to imagine an argument, tears, apologies and closed doors. He would probably leave, at least for a while. Their friendship is too strong to be overwhelmed by this, she hopes, but the possibility of taking a huge step backward from him terrifies her. For a moment, she lets herself see the humor in having such a normal problem. But her smile vanishes when the screen door creaks open, and Jason's light footfall fills her ears.
"Hey," he says, tossing a plastic sack onto the kitchen counter.
"Hey. Just got back from Maritsa's."
"No. Sorry." He flashes her a grin and unloads the plastic bag.
"I picked up some fruit. We were running low."
"Yeah. I think I finished off the apples today."
Such routine, domestic conversation. She wants it to go on all day.
"How is Maritsa?"
"Same as always. Still hates her boss, still butchering the English I've taught her."
"Ah. I ran into some old guy on the way back, he asked if I knew you. Turns out he's one of that group that hangs out on the porch swing on Carro."
"Oh, yeah, I...usually say hi to him on my way to work."
"Yeah, well, I think he's got a crush." She smiles and rolls a tangerine around in her palms.
"He's a little too old for me."
"You'll break his heart, Nicky."
He flicks a lock of her hair over her shoulder and disappears into the hallway. She hears the screen porch door close, and in the ensuing silence, can also hear her heart pounding.
He turns his head to look behind him, over the couch. Nicky is in the kitchen, staring at the floor. "Yeah?" he calls again.
She shakes her head and leaves his line of sight. He blinks at the wall, turns it over in his head. The television chatters on. He frowns back at the spot she just left. Her reticence is nothing new, but tonight, something is different. He gets an uneasy feeling in his gut and decides it's worth paying attention to. He finds her bent over the table, scanning the morning's newspaper. She looks up when he comes in, but says nothing.
"Hey. Everything alright?"
She nods, says insincerely, "Yeah," and goes back to her paper. She waits for him to leave so she can breathe again, but instead he comes closer, and closer, until he's standing beside her in a way that says he wants her attention. She stands upright and gives it to him.
"What's wrong?" he asks. He knows something is up. Bourne was trained to be intuitive, to read people like open books. She feels exposed under his gaze, which is always steady and compelling. She decides it's not possible to try to dodge this anymore. She should have come clean a while ago, anyway, she tells herself.
Nicky takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, trying to figure out the best way to go about this. Jason would make a beeline for the truth, but she's not as brave as he is, so she meanders her way through this minefield.
"You..." she starts, already blushing, licking her lips nervously. "You remember Paris, right?"
His eyes flick to the side once, accessing that range of memories, calculating possible conclusions and contexts, and says, "Yes."
"You remember..." She grabs the hem of his shirt. "Look, Jason, you've always....meant a lot to me." She can go no further. She looks up, straight into his eyes, hoping he'll see what was left unsaid. He does. He seems to deflate and tense up at the same time.
"What are we doing?" she asks.
He shakes his head.
"I don't know."
They look away at the same time, but Jason is the first to step forward, to grip her shoulder, to try to get close. He's also the first to back down, back away. She puts a hand on his cheek. He looks unsure of himself. He looks like the Jason Bourne who didn't know his name or his past, the one who stared blankly at her across a sticky diner table in Madrid. Once again, he doesn't know who to trust. He doesn't know what to do.
"Look, can we just...try? Can we move forward, just this once, instead of standing still? I feel like I haven't moved an inch since you left me at that bus station. I've been running..." She swallows thickly, nervously awaiting his response. His hand moves from her shoulder to her neck, but his eyes don't change. She can see his jaw clenching. "Let's just see," she whispers. "We can do that, right?"
He starts to shake his head.
She sighs and steps even closer, laying her forehead against his chest. He folds her up in his arms. "Nicky..."
She tilts her head back.
"It's still me, you know. We've changed a lot. But, in essentials... I'm still the person you knew from the beginning. We know each other, Jason. You know me."
"Yeah," he breathes. Without thought, they begin to sway, and she moves her face one way, he another, in a dance of uncertainty, until he leans down and touches his mouth to hers. It sends a flush of warmth straight down to her toes, but better than that, much better, it feels familiar. It feels comfortable, and Nicky hasn't been truly comfortable in years. She lifts her other hand to touch his other cheek. Jason breaks the kiss, then leans in for another taste before putting some distance between them again.
They look at each other for a long moment, each trying to process their own feelings and guess the other's. She dares to go in again, but before she kisses him, she asks, implores, "Is this okay?"
He mouths something that must have been a yes, because he meets her halfway. For a moment, it gets intense, but they slow down again, then break apart, to let it all wash over them, to let it all sink in. She takes a step back but doesn't leave his space. She can smell his salty, tangy skin, a scent that reminds her of places and people from long ago, places she's never been and places she never wants to see again, places that scare her. But it's all part of him. She's been accepting his nightmares as her own ever since they met.
"So we can do this, right?"
"Slow. I'm not pushing you, Jason. I don't want to."
"Okay." She leans against him, rests her head on his shoulder, listens to him breathe.
The night passes slowly, and they say goodnight with unsmiling faces, but there are promises in their eyes. It's a slow step forward to something better. Dawn breaks, Nicky rises, and so does a new day.