Rowan texts me at around nine the next morning. The chime of the message coming in wakes me up and basically drags me out of the best sleep I’ve had in possibly weeks. It’s kind of messed up that it takes a beating to knock me on my ass long enough to get a decent night’s sleep, but I’m kind of messed up in general, so it’s not like it’s surprising.
Coffee?, the text reads.
I smile as I type back.
Sure :) send the address, I send in response.
Rowan meets me at a little coffee place that’s only a few blocks away from this apartment. A normal League agent in their right mind would probably be a little uneasy about him knowing where I “live” and sleep. I should have that fear, but I am admittedly biased. Knowing Rowan exists is like a breath of much needed fresh air. I think a part of me was beginning to feel like I’m unlovable.
When I get there, he’s already ordered what I told him was my favorite coffee on our first date. I’m surprised he even remembered. I sit down opposite to him and he watches as I do, sipping at his drink patiently while I get situated.
The whole coffee shop “date” is comfortably uneventful. We sip at our drinks and talk about the meaningless aspects of life. My interest is peaked, though, when he suggests we pay a visit to this small bookstore he knows about down the street. I try to keep it cool and not get too excited when I agree. Atlas tells me I can be a real nerd sometimes and that’s not exactly the persona I want to be giving off. Nerds don’t deal drugs. Most nerds don’t, at least. I’m not sure how many “track stars” do, but the number must be greater than the ones who can spend their entire day with their nose stuck in a book.
When we get inside the book store and he tells me how much he loved to read when he was growing up, my heart melts. The truth practically pours out of my mouth.
“I still do,” I say without being able to stop myself, “I actually love books. Like. A lot. I’m a creative writing major.”
His eyebrows shoot up but then he nods and a warm smile spreads across his face.
“Oh, yeah?” he replies before turning and running a finger down a long line of book spines as we walk through the aisle. “I never woulda guessed it. You don’t seem much like the type, to be honest.”
“What’s the type?”
“I mean, look at you, you’re cut,” he says, flashing me a playful smirk, “your favorite pastime is running for longer than the average Olympian and you enjoy it.”
“So I don’t look like a nerd is what you’re trying to say?” I reply as I nudge him slightly with my hip.
“Well, no, but—” he stops and groans in frustration. “You know what I mean, Lake.”
We continue the walk through the bookstore,checking out different books as we go. He finds one with a beautiful cover about cages and holds it up to me. I recognize the author when he shows me the front cover and I remember seeing really great reviews for the book online. I’ve been meaning to buy a copy for a while.
“Your face just lit up,” he remarks. “Do you want it?”
“Yeah, I’ve actually been meaning to buy it,” I reply before reaching out to take it from him. He moves the book out of my reach.
“Let me buy it for you.”
My stomach flips.
“Nah, c’mon, you don’t have to,” I say, shaking my head.
He insists and we go back and forth for a few minutes until I eventually give in. I follow him down the winding aisles of bookshelves until we find our way up to the front counter. He pays for the book and by the time he finally hands it to me when we’re outside on the front sidewalk, it’s book has managed to gain a whole new meaning. It’s a book, of course, but it’s also essentially a gift from my counterpart. I’ll set how cheesy I’m being aside for now.
We walk a few blocks until we find a park and decide to walk a path through it. The paved trail winds around this way and that, past a pond and a large gaggle of geese. We’re making our way past another pond when Rowan grabs my hand like it’s the most normal thing in the entire world. For a brief moment, it’s bizarre, but then he sends me a warm smile
I trip over a crack in the pavement a little way further down the path. He reaches around and catches me like to wonderful guy he is. Well, he tries. The grip he winds around my sides sends a wave of pain across my entire rib cage so he catches me for a brief second until I flop around like a fish and force in turn him to drop me. I still hit the pavement but not as hard as I should since his grip cushions my fall significantly. He helps me to my feet after I take a second to catch my breath on the ground. When I finally meet his gaze, I see the confusion I was expecting to be all scribbled all over his face at my troubling reaction.
“Sorry? I didn’t mean to, um, y’know, grab you or anything,” he says quietly as he shifts sheepishly from foot to foot, “didn’t realize you’d...spaz out like that.”
“No, it’s—it’s fine,” I say, aiming for a humorous laugh but instead landing on a dry chuckle. “Wasn’t you. There’s just some bruises. Ow.”
His face contorts.
“Yeah,” I say before sighing and tugging him along so we can continue our walk. “You know how Valerie makes people. They don’t have the money, they get jumpy and impulsive when they’re denied their fix.” I shrug and feel a little icky on the inside. Whenever I find myself nearly forgetting about my situation with Rowan, having to lie right to his face serves as a harsh reminder.
Rowan looks more devastated than I thought he would at the news. A stony expression takes over just as I notice, his mouth fixing into a stale, expressionless line.
“You know, I really hate this whole thing, right?” he says suddenly. “My dad’s not a good person. You’re the last person I want tangled up in his twisted world.” He says it like I had no idea what I was getting into. It makes sense since that’s the part I’m playing for him and his father’s gang, but I went into this operation with research and data as well as training all under my belt. Rowan’s sincere concern for me is just making me feel even worse about this false front I continue to put up.
“I can take care of myself, you know,” I say, smiling a bit more sadly than a smile should be. “It’s just part of the job, Row.” That last part is true from both perspectives.
I drop by the tower the next to do a mission check in with Max. It’s mostly just a formality since the D.C. headquarters are still so uneasy about putting me in such a high stakes operation. My limited training and experience makes me a liability in their eyes so Scofield was very clear with making sure that Max checks in on me and the mission’s progression. Regardless, we sit alone in one of the conference rooms as per protocol so no one that isn’t involved can overhear anything.
“The number of casualties you’ve witnessed?” Max asks as he stares down at yet another manila folder. There’s a list of information he needs to get from me during every check in so he’s just going right down the list.
“Zero.” Easy question. Let’s hope they don’t get more difficult.
“Assaults?” That’s a strange one.
“One,” I say after a long pause during which I consider the way I saw Alexander treat his own son.
Max looks up at this, checking the box without looking at the page as he meets my gaze head on.
“Rivera’s son,” I reply. “Probably an ongoing situation. Man’s a psycho.”
He nods as he fills something in beside the box he checked.
“Why d’you think he’d stick around if he gets the shit kicked outta him?”
I shift uncomfortably in my seat. To tell the truth or not?
“His sister,” I say finally. “Bella. Kid’s a baby. Mother’s dead. It’s possible the baby’s leverage to keep his son around.”
“What’s the son’s name again?”
“Rowan,” I reply a little too quickly.
Max looks back up at me once again but this time his eyes narrow. He surveys me for a second before speaking.
“You seem to know an awful lot about this kid,” he says matter-of-factly. “Any conflicts of interest that I should know about?”
I swallow thickly. Then once more.
He raises one of his eyebrows.
“Off the record?”
I swallow again, fingers twisting in knots in my lap beneath the cover of the conference table. I sigh and look away to the side.
“I’ve been...sleeping with with him,” I say quietly. “Been getting some good info along with it.” It’s not the exact truth, but it’s as close to it as I can get for now.
“This is not a honeypot operation, Agent Ford,” Max says sternly, addressing me formally for the first time ever.
“Of course not, I know that,” I say, already shaking my head. “He’s my age, hotter than he has any right to be, and I let my dick get the better of me, okay? I wouldn’t be doing anything I’m uncomfortable with. Had enough shit happen to met before.” I add the last bit without really thinking beforehand. It sends Max’s second eyebrows soaring up into his hairline.
“Alright,” he says after a few moments. “Fine. You need to tell me if you get in too deep, Lake, you know that. Any funny business and you put an end to it, understood?”
“Yes, of course,” I agree immediately.
Max continues on with the check in questionnaire. There’s no terrorism activity. There’s obviously major drug activity. I tell him that Alexander is in New Jersey for the next couple of days. I describe the different characters in the gang: Chris, Caleb, Sebastian, and Isaiah. We move onto outlining goals that I need to work towards until our next check in. The biggest one is obviously trying to get the name of their supplier.
“Rowan’ll probably be the one I weasel it out of,” I say thoughtfully. “Shouldn’t take too long, really.”
Even though we’re wrapping up this check in, Max still fixes me with a very serious expression. I don’t even need him to say anything to know what he’s thinking.
“All I’m going to say is be careful,” Max says before signing the sheet and tucking it into the mission file. “It’s easy to get your professional and personal lives mixed in operations like these, kid. Remember what side you’re on.”
I agree with him and nod profusely even though my heart is racing. I’ve already done what he’s so severely cautioning against, at least in part. I’m not sure if it’s love yet but the way my stomach feels every time I think of Rowan is certainly edging toward that conclusion. I am in very deep, deeper than Max knows, but I really can’t see a way out of the hole I’m digging myself. Hopefully if I keep digging, I’ll dig through the other end of the earth and make it out unscathed.
I just have to focus on finishing this mission for now. I can figure out this messy relationship situation once everything is settled afterwards. If there’s something left to figure out, that is.