God DAMN this was hard to write. I'm sorry it's taken so long, but I really hate writing angry scenes, and that's pretty much all this chapter is. But no worries, they get it sorted in the end. Mostly.
Also, when I said before that this would be over in about two chapters? Yeah, I think I kind of lied. I had a brainwave that's going to take at least on extra chapter to write out, hope no one minds.
And lastly, thanks so much for all the encouragement. You guys have all been wonderfully patient, and I really appreciate it. I hope this chapter is worth the wait.
Marta and Aaron woke up at almost exactly the same time the next morning. Wrapped up in each other as they were, there was no way to tell who began shifting first. After just a scarce few minutes, they were both wide awake, and Marta rolled over to look Aaron in the eye.
"Back with me?" she said.
Rather than answer, Aaron crashed his lips onto hers. Startled, she opened her mouth under his, but instead of venturing where he had not been invited, he pulled back.
"You. Are. Brilliant." He punctuated each word with a short kiss.
"So that's a yes?"
"Thanks to you."
She smiled, and he smiled back, and for one short second, their world was good.
And then Aaron jumped to his feet.
"Come on, we need to leave. The sooner we get on our way the sooner we can get to Manila."
Marta's eyes flashed with a hint of concern, but she decided right now wasn't the time. They could talk in the car.
They were packed and in the car in less than 15 minutes, but Marta waited until they had gotten onto the highway and had driven a ways before she approached the elephant in the room. Or, well, car.
"I didn't lie to you, you know."
"The promise I made to you yesterday, that I would let you come down off your blues before I viraled you out."
"Wh- Don't be ridiculous."
"Marta, I appreciate you doing what you had to in order to get me to take my chems, but you know perfectly well that if we're going to survive I've got to viral off."
"Actually, I don't know that, Aaron. It seems to me like we could pretty easily find a remote location to settle in for a while where they couldn't find us. And we wouldn't have to evade them forever, surely after a year they'd quit looking."
"Quit looking? Quit looking for an asset that knows every detail of seventy-one of the country's most covert operations and a specialist with in depth knowledge of multiple extremely illegal human experiments?"
"Well, okay, fair enough. But tell me we wouldn't be able to find a remote enough place to hide."
"No. Sooner or later, they would find us. And kill us. We could be the Swiss Family Robinson and they would still track us down eventually."
"What about a boat? If we spent most of our time at sea, it's not like they could comb the Pacific Ocean to find us."
"No. No, Marta, stop it. Do you understand what you're saying? You're talking about spending the rest of your life in isolation with only an imbecilic oaf for company. You don't want that."
"It doesn't matter what I want, Aaron!" she very nearly shouted. "We're talking about what's right. You told me you don't want the cognitive enhancements; I can't just ignore that."
"No," said Aaron, jerking the steering wheel over and pulling to the side of the road. "Kenneth told you that. And maybe you didn't notice, Marta, but Kenneth is stupid. You're the one who said I wasn't able to make decisions in that state, and now you want to take his choice over mine?"
"Well, he was here first."
Aaron's face flashed with intense anger, and then he opened his door and got out of the car, slamming it behind him. Marta followed quickly, finding him standing with his hands on the trunk, breathing heavily.
"It's not like I'm a separate person that took over his body. I'm him, I'm just smarter. What you're doing now is like saying I'm a sober person who's only qualified to make decisions when I'm drunk."
"No, it's just the opposite. The chems are like a drug. No, scratch that, they are a drug. Just because they're enhancing instead of detracting doesn't change the fact that they're altering your natural state." He started to interrupt her, but she plowed ahead. "Aaron, there's only one thing I care about. Answer me this: are you unhappy living like this?"
Aaron let out a growl, and in a second he had her pinned between the car and his body.
"You ought to concern yourself less with my happiness and more with your own," he whispered roughly, and then his mouth was on her neck, suckling the skin of her throat. Instinctually, she tilted her head back to give him access, her brain not quite caught up to the pleasurable sensations.
"You think I'd be able to do this to you if I regressed?" he said against her skin, the weight of him pressing against her from chest to thighs. "You think that stupid, fumbling, infantile version of me could ever make you feel like this?" He nipped at the sensitive spot under her ear and she let out a soft involuntary moan. She was trembling with fear and not a little arousal. Aaron seemed out of control, and she dimly knew if he'd step back and let her think for a moment that she'd be upset.
"Aaron…" she began, and he was kissing her fiercely. His hands were wandering, not anywhere too inappropriate, but one had moved under her shirt to caress the dip of her lower back, threatening to slip beneath the waistband of her pants. The other fisted in her hair as he continued to kiss her. She stood there as still as possible, not responding to his touches beyond the most involuntary of reactions.
"You have no idea how good I could make you feel," he whispered as he went back to her neck, and with her mouth free, Marta spoke again.
And he did. Sort of. He took his mouth off her neck and leaned his forehead there instead, panting. The hand in her hair unclenched, but didn't move. He was still pressed hard up against her, and she could feel the beginnings of a very impressive erection through his jeans. They stayed just like that for a few moments.
"Fuck," he said, very softly, in a voice laden with regret. "I'm sorry, Marta."
Usually, this would be the part where she told him it was fine, that he hadn't gone too far. But it wasn't fine. He'd scared her. And he still hadn't let her go.
"You know," she said, forcing her voice to be as cold as possible, "It's funny, you've been so careful not to coerce me into sex, but it seems like you certainly aren't above using sex to coerce me into other things that I'm uncomfortable with."
He released her like he'd been burned.
"I'm trying to save my own goddamn life here, and yours too, so forgive me for not upholding your moral standards."
"You have yet to convince me that we couldn't hide safely."
"Only because you're too caught up in your own guilt trip," he spat the words disdainfully, "to listen to sense. I am sorry you feel bad about your involvement in Outcome, Marta, even though, as previously mentioned, the chems saved our lives. But it's done, okay? What the hell gives you the right to tell me I can't stay this way now that I'm here?"
"I'm the one that made you this way."
"And does that mean I should just bow to your wishes? Not question your authority, just fall on my knees and pray that my benevolent creator deems me worthy to live, is that what you want?" He pushed away from her and knelt, arms spread wide, his posture a contrast to the hard, angry look on his face. "Do you want me to worship you, Marta? Because I will. I will beg and supplicate for your favor. Tell me what you want from me."
"Stop it," she begged, close to tears now. "You know I didn't mean it like that; I don't want anything from you."
When he saw the anguish on her face, something inside Aaron broke. He stood up and crossed the distance between them in one step, gathering her gently into his arms. She immediately turned her face into his shoulder and began crying.
"I'm sorry," he murmured. "I didn't mean it. I understand where you're coming from, but you have to see it my way." There was a pause as he gathered his thoughts and searched for the most persuasive thing he could say.
"You'd be killing me," he whispered desperately, the words ghosting over her skin. "Lobotomizing me. Just because that's how I was born, doesn't mean that's how I'm supposed to be."
"I know. I know," she replied gently. "But aren't you unhappy living like this? All that guilt all the time?"
"That isn't necessarily a bad thing," he mumbled.
"I mean, the guilt isn't… I don't want it gone."
"Why not? Don't you want to be able to forget—"
"No!" Aaron pushed back and turned away from her sharply, and Marta was shocked to catch a hint of tears in his eyes.
They were silent for a minute, Aaron standing with his back to her, no sound but the occasional rush of a car hurtling down the highway.
Then he spoke again, roughly: "Kareema Safar. 34, wife of Nasim Safar, a Syrian Awali governor. She had two children, ages 3 and 5. Her death was blamed on Sunni terrorism, leading to a significant increase in support for American intervention in Syria." He turned to her, his face a mask of anguish and regret. "Don't you see? If I forget about her… if I forget about any of them… it's like killing them all over again. It's right that I should feel guilty. I am guilty. Ignorance may be bliss, but I don't deserve bliss, Marta. Not after everything I've done."
"Aaron…" she whispered. And then, because she had no words, she pulled him into a tight embrace. By the time he had stopped clinging to her, she knew exactly what needed to be said.
"Am I at fault for my part in Outcome, Aaron? Should I feel guilty because I'm the one that enabled you?"
"No! No, of course not. I told you yesterday, you were manipulated. You thought you were doing good, helping people… oh. I see your point."
"But it's still not the same! I killed people. Actually, physically pulled a trigger and killed them."
"I did too," she whispered.
"What, that security guard in Sterisyn? It was self-defense, that doesn't—"
"No, I mean, with my work at Outcome. There used to be nine program participants. Counting you, only six are still alive. One was killed in the field, but the other two… viral genetic alteration isn't really an exact science, you know. It's very hit and miss. Most of the misses don't have serious consequences, but occasionally…" Marta was starting to shake. She was losing it again. What had begun as an attempt to pull Aaron's focus away from his own guilt was spiraling out of her control. "And at the time I didn't mind too much, because I assumed-" she gulped, then sobbed. "I assumed they knew what they were getting into. But they probably didn't, not really, and I killed them."
"It was an accident," he reminded her.
"It was recklessness. It was a disregard for life that sickens me to think of now. If you're guilty of the bad things that you did under Outcome's influence, then so am I. If you had the chance to relieve me of this guilt, would you take it?"
"Of course, yes."
"And now you see where I stand."
Aaron was silent for a long minute, staring at her.
"I still don't want to die," he said, in a broken voice.
"I know. And, in a totally, horribly selfish way, I want you to stay like this. But it's not right. Not when Kenneth doesn't want it. And I don't know how to convince him to consent; he's very difficult to argue with."
"So it has to be one of us, and you're saying it has to be me because he's harder to reason with? How is that fair?"
"It's not. I'm sorry. I just don't know what to say to him."
There was a pause, and suddenly Aaron jerked his head up, realization in his eyes.
"But I do. I'm him, I know how he thinks, I can help you. We can figure it out, everything you need to say to convince him to say yes."
Marta eyed him doubtfully. "Do you think we could?"
"Between the two of us, I have no doubt. Come on," he said, suddenly alight with the energy of someone with new purpose. He hurried to his side of the car and got in, Marta following suit. "I've got one more blue, which gives us about 36 hours to get this figured out and get to the Philippines at the same time. Easy."
As he pulled onto the highway again, Marta found herself wishing she had Aaron's confidence.