Of Endings and New Beginnings
"Marta. Marta, wake up."
Into my subconscious came the warm, husky, yet strong voice I had come to rely on these past weeks, and opening my eyes, I was met with Aaron's face. He was smiling, his eyes soft and meeting mine as though he didn't want to wake me up, but was secretly glad he did just so that he could have the pleasure of my company.
"How are you feeling?" He asked with a look of genuine concern, and his hand twitched as though he was about to reach out and push aside the strands of hair by my temple, but caught himself at the last second.
I breathed out, sitting up and rubbing the sleep from my eyes. The sudden movement made my head pound, however, and I winced. Aaron caught it, and instantly cupped my face in his hands, scanning my eyes for signs of a concussion and tilting his head to peer at the cut on my temple. "Hey, you okay? Do you feel dizzy, nauseous, tired at all? How many fingers am I holding up?"
He removed one hand from my cheek to hold up three fingers.
"Seven," I responded, before laughing at the face he made. "Three. Aaron, really, I'm fine. My head just hurts a little, as is normal. I'm okay, you don’t have to worry."
He hesitated, not entirely convinced and still anxious, before he cleared his throat, nodded and withdrew his hands.
"Its 6:24. Time to meet up with Jason and Nicky," he said, offering a hand to help me up out of bed, which I took.
"What will be involved in this "brush-pass?" I asked, swiftly brushing my hair with my fingers and tying it back in a loose braid.
"I'll write down what I think our best route would be, and pass it off to Jason," he answered, busying himself with packing our things. "If he responds in kind, then we've got a plan."
"And what is our best route?"
"I would say we cross into Elche. The black market and smuggling ring is very popular down in Algiers. It shouldn’t be too hard to secure a ride, provided you know where to look."
I glanced at him. "And of course you know exactly where to look."
He looked up at me, flashing a cheeky grin. "Of course."
I made an attempt to swat the back of his head, and he ducked, the both of us laughing silently.
Three minutes later we were out in the dining car, sitting down to a table by a sunny window. There were small plastic menus already on the table, and with Aaron's direction to get anything I wanted, I took one up and looked it over. Not long after we had taken our seats, the door opened and I watched as two familiar faces entered the crowded car.
"Nikki and Jason are here," I murmured in a low voice to Aaron.
He didn't even look up from his menu, shifting in his seat with a noncommittal "mm," so that I wondered if he even heard me.
I had seen Jason take a quick once over of the room, felt his eyes find our table, and then watched him look away. Not quickly, not as if he had found what he was looking for, but so subtle and casual, it almost made me believe that he had looked us over.
After the first initial glance, I was careful to not stare or make eye contact afterwards, using what I thought would be only the average person's curiosity as my guide. But though I didn't look, I was keenly aware of every movement they made, slowly filing through the narrow center lane between the tables lining the sides of the car, squeezing past other passengers and train attendees, and getting closer every second.
Aaron still had not even glanced up, engrossed in the menu he held in his hands, and lounging with his limbs slightly sprawled over his half of the small booth. He looked like a man who's only big decision he had to make that day was what he would eat. He looked like a man who had been traveling hard and long, and was now taking the time to relax in full vacation mode. If it was a ruse, he was fooling me.
Jason and Nikki were closing fast behind him, and I still wasn’t sure if he was even aware of their presence. Right when I was beginning to worry, and was debating tapping him or something, he shifted in his chair. It was such a natural movement, and still he didn't turn to look, but in that moment, his foot had just turned ever so slightly into the aisle.
Next thing I knew, Jason stumbled slightly, hand instinctually going out to catch himself and latching onto the nearest thing which just so happened to be Aaron's shoulder.
"Sorry, you okay?"
"Yeah, yeah, my bad."
That was it. No second look. No prolonged conversation. They barely even glanced at each other. The whole interaction lasted about two seconds before Aaron was back to looking at his menu, and Jason and Nikki were continuing down the center aisle like nothing had happened. Aaron called over an acting waiter who took our orders, while behind me I heard the car door open and close, Jason and Nikki having passed through and left.
As soon as the waiter departed, Aaron once more sat back in his booth, casually pulling a scrap of paper from his pocket and unfolding it. He spent a half second reading it, before passing it over wordlessly to me, watching my face as I read.
Elche. Maiko - $10,000
I frowned in confusion.
I had watched the entire interaction with a careful eye. Watching for the exchange. But even though I knew it was going to happen, was waiting and looking for it, I had still missed it. It was a subtle reminder just how good my two travel companions were.
"Elche," I murmured. "Two votes to make the count."
Aaron nodded, lost in thought.
"What's this last part about? 'Maiko - 10,000?'"
"Maiko is a smuggler in the black market that works these waters. A mutual friend apparently. His going price for a group of our size is $10,000."
I gave him a look, marveling. "How can you and I both live on this Earth but operate in completely different worlds?"
He shrugged. "I was always too caught up trying to keep it turning."
I had nothing to say to that, and could only stare at him for a time, wondering what a life he must have lived.
If you could call it that.
He must have been wondering it too, for I watched his face fall, and he lowered his head to play with his water glass. A crease developed on his forehead, and I knew he was thinking about his past deeds. Past life. And then a sudden, inexplicable look of sadness came into his face, and I knew he must be considering how close he was to completing his last and final mission. To single-handedly destroying the only life he had ever known. I could tell the prospect of the unknown beyond that scared him. As it did me.
He looked lost.
"I'm going to miss you again."
I watched as Aaron looked up at Nikki with a small smile. "I'm planning on not giving you a chance to," he replied, pushing away from the counter of the small hotel room we were using as home base since our landing in Elche, Spain not two hours ago. "Don’t worry, little sis," he said, pulling her into a hug. "Its always just temporary for us. Besides, once all this is over, we wont have to hide anything anymore. We can see each other as often, and as much as we want."
She exhaled, relaxing against him and threading her arms behind his back, resting her head on his shoulder and staring beyond. "Call me once this is all over? Let me know you're okay?"
He smiled, pressing a light kiss to the top of her head. "Of course."
Nikki pulled away slightly, just enough to look him in the eye. "Do something else for me?"
"Keep Marta close? You never know when you'll need a doctor…."
From where I was watching through the slightly open doorway in the back bedroom, I blushed furiously, wondering what he reaction would be.
But Aaron only chuckled. "Only if you do something for me, you little minx."
He grinned. "Stick around with Jason for a while."
A slight flush crept into her cheeks, and she glanced towards the bathroom door where Jason had disappeared. "Oh I plan too," she murmured quietly, speaking almost as much to herself, and in a sure tone that made me smile inwardly.
At that moment, Jason stepped out of the bathroom, dressed and fresh from a shower, and I decided it was also time I made my entrance, joining the others in the main room, my hair also damp from a shower I had taken before him.
"Ready to go?" Jason asked, approaching Nikki and Aaron, snagging her backpack and scarf as he did so.
She nodded, pulling away from Aaron and going over to him to accept her scarf that he offered, smiling when, instead of just handing it to her, Jason gently draped it about her neck himself.
Goodbye's were exchanged all around; myself giving Nikki a hug, and Aaron going over to shake Jason's hand.
"Good luck," Jason said, clapping Aaron warmly on the shoulder. "Give 'em hell for what they've done."
He nodded. "I plan to. I cant thank you enough for your help. I owe you."
I could see it in his face that he meant it, and I could only imagine that favors and IOU's went long way in the spy world—that there never is any backing out until the debt is paid in full. You either live up to your word, or its your ass in the fire.
But Jason shook his head. "No, I'm glad I could help. You gave me a chance to make up for a little of what I've done. This all started because of me anyways."
"Hey, if not you, then someone else would have done it. You lucked out."
He made a face. "If you want to call it that…."
"Where will you go?" I asked Jason, stepping over to stand by Aaron's side.
He smiled, casting a subtle glance towards Nikki. "I hear Cape Verde is nice this time of year."
Aaron chuckled. "Cape Verde is nice any time of the year," and Jason grinned knowingly.
After a few more goodbye's, Jason and Nikki made it to the door.
"Hey, Jason," Aaron called out, and the ex-assassin paused with his hand on the handle, turning. They met each other's eyes. "Take care of my sister."
The man smiled and a determined light came into his eyes. "With my life," he responded firmly, taking her hand.
And I knew he would.
The silence in the hotel room after Jason and Nikki left was deafening.
Aaron was still standing in the center of the room, staring at the wall, lost in thought. I had relocated to the small kitchen area along one wall, fixing myself a cup of tea just to stay busy.
We both knew what came next, and I was realizing now that I had been dreading the moment ever since we first concocted our crazy plan that day on Lauro's boat.
"I should leave," he finally said after the silence had hung for a full five minutes, voicing both our thoughts. "Now, while we're ahead of everyone."
I said nothing, silently pouring the hot water I had boiled into my mug.
"You should be fine here," he continued, turning to watch me. "As soon as I drop the ball, all the attention will be pulled towards me."
"They'll know exactly where you are," I said quietly, keeping my back to him as I watched my tea steeping on the counter. "They'll have time to prepare an ambush when you come out…" I trailed off, my voice dropping lower. "They'll kill you, Aaron. They'll finish what they started. Even if its only for revenge."
I couldn’t see his face, but I felt the sudden tension in the room. He had come to the same conclusion, probably long before I did, yet I got the sense that he was hoping I would miss it. That I would hold out hope for his odds, even though death was staring him right in the face and he was going to walk straight into it willingly.
"You have to remember there are others," he finally spoke after a long silence. "Others like me. Nikki, Jason….You? You'll never be safe, never have peace, until everything is out in the open. The CIA cant be allowed to operate their own secret autocracy without facing the consequences. The world deserves to know. Let them judge as they see fit."
"And if they don’t judge fairly?"
"I think they will," he answered quietly.
I let out a long breath, resting both palms on the countertop, spreading my fingers and letting the weight of my head hang, closing my eyes. "How do you do it?" I finally asked. "See the good in everything. In everyone. After everything you've seen, everything you've done….You still cling to hope."
"No, Aaron!" I spun around quickly, cutting him off and facing him. "You cant just keep sacrificing your life like it’s a free gift to give, because guess what? You can only give it once."
"Then I'll give it to you," he countered earnestly, taking a step towards me.
"I don’t want it!" I shouted, "I don’t want you to sacrifice yourself for me! I don’t want you to die! I-" I broke off sharply, turning my face away from him to stare at the wall, biting my tongue.
A long silence ensued, and then: "Marta…"
I didn't look at him. I couldn’t.
He took another step towards me, his head stooping, eyes begging me to look at him.
I drew in a sharp breath, eyes flicking up to his, heart skipping a beat. Never before had he spoken my name like that.
And the words came gushing forth in a torrent of quiet emotion.
"Please don’t go, Aaron," I whispered pleadingly, "I don’t want to lose you. I don’t know what I'd do without you. Please, I don’t want you to die."
"Oh, Marta…" he whispered back, his face holding the most expression of his true heart I had ever seen. "You're not going to lose me. Not now, not ever." He cupped my face gently in his hands, eyes locked on mine and full of such a tender emotion, while in his voice lay a fire. "I will never leave you. As long as I'm still breathing, I will fight for you, and I will always be by your side."
I closed my eyes, leaning into his touch until our foreheads were pressed together. "Then don’t ever stop breathing."
He tasted of cinnamon and a spice that warms the soul on a wintry night. He smelled like how he tasted, but with a hint of gunpowder. He felt like home.
His arms wrapped about me, pulling me into him until I was secured in his embrace, enwrapped in his warmth while our bodies fit like a perfect puzzle piece. He murmured my name over and over again like a prayer as we kissed, my hands caressing his face and running through his hair.
I was reminded of what I had long ago suspected: I loved him, heart and soul. I felt it washing over me, through me, making me weak with it. His soul was so beautiful and he didn't even know it. He was kind, and brave, and courageous, and caring, never giving up when it mattered most. He gave me hope. Gave me security. Gave me a sense of worth, and a feeling of belonging.
And I knew in that moment that I belonged to him.
"I love you, Marta Shearing," he whispered as we pulled apart for air, faces still close and his lips a hairsbreadth away from mine.
We were, in a sense, breathing each other.
I opened my eyes to meet his stormy blue ones. We were both smiling. "I love you, Aaron Cross."
His face lit up, and he close the distance between us once more, sealing it in a kiss even more passionate than the first. Together we stumbled back a step until my back was pressed up against the wall beside the counter, and somehow Aaron used this to only bring me closer to him, teasing the hemline of my shirt about my hips and sending a thrill through me as his fingers brushed my skin underneath.
But all good things must come to an end.
After a moment, an alarm on his watch beeped and he regretfully pulled apart.
"I need to go," he murmured apologetically. "Now, while we still can. We're so close, Marta."
My face fell slightly at the thought of him leaving, and what would most certainly lay in wait for him. "I know," I breathed, closing my eyes and caressing his face, holding him close for as long as I still could, our foreheads pressed together. "Just promise me you'll be safe."
"Yes, Ma'am," he whispered back with a slight teasing grin.
I smiled and we kissed once more, before he extracted himself and headed for the door. He paused there though, with his hand on the handle, looking back at me. "If I'm not back in two hours, I want you to move on. Another city, another hotel. Don’t wait for me, Marta, just keep moving until you think its safe. I'll find you."
I nodded, and with one last glance, he turned and I watched him walk out, sinking to the floor with my face buried in my hands when the door closed behind him.