Road trip, indeed.
Hannah had never been on a road trip. In fact, she’d never been in a car for more than six hours at a time, since most of her transportations were either on foot or via airplane.
This sudden introduction to civilian life was complicated for her – Aedan was all boyish southern charm and infectious grin, and Hannah followed him and watched in awe as he unknowingly weaseled his way past every person’s defenses better than she’d ever been trained to do.
It was incredible how easily people loved Aedan. Even in larger cities where people were generally too busy to stop and talk, Aedan only had to say a few words in his soothing southern drawl and people would come reeling to a polite halt and do whatever they could to help.
"Aedan, why are you so nice to me?" She asked one day.
Aedan frowned at her, turning the radio down – country, much to her distaste. “What do you mean, why?”
"No one's ever done so much for me as you have. You trusted me enough to let into your life, to sleep easy when I’m well within reach of a weapon. I just want to know what’s in it for you."
He turned to glance at her for a moment. “Rose, I don’t know what kind of world you grew up in, but where I’m from, we don’t help people only because there’s something in it for us. We help people because it’s the right thing to do.”
Hannah frowned. “Do you think I’ll ever be able to do that?”
He nodded. “Rosie, we’ve been riding along in this truck for what, two or three weeks now? That’s an awful long time to be in close quarters with someone. The fact that you haven’t entirely lost your shit at me already shows that you can.”
She chuckled. “Point taken. Where are we?”
Aedan grinned. “We might stop for the night at my hometown,” he said. “We’ll be there in a few hours, it was supposed to be a surprise. I mean, it’s not…” he laughed nervously. “It’s just… a teammate thing, I swear, I’m not assuming – I mean…”
Hannah laughed. “Aedan, it’s fine. I’d love to sleep in a real bed for once. I’m sure your town is great.”
Aedan’s ‘hometown’ turned out to be a picturesque small town. His childhood home was outside the town, a large ranch surrounded by woods and cornfields.
They arrived in the early hours of the morning and had a silent fight over who would sleep in Aedan’s bed and who would take the couch. Hannah won, forcing Aedan into his own room.
Sunlight was streaming through the windows when Hannah awoke with a start at the sound of what seemed to be a large elephant barreling down the upstairs hallway, slamming open a door, and landing on something soft as it screamed: “WAKE UP, AEDAN, IT’S SATURDAY!”
Hannah re-stowed her pistol under her pillow and flopped down into the cushions with a sigh, surprising herself by grinning as she heard Aedan protest “C’mon, Jen, I just got home, lemme sleep. S’ too early for this.”
Aedan’s bed springs creaked loudly in protest, and Hannah assumed that Jen was bouncing up and down on the mattress. “You gotta get up before I tell ma about your girlfriend!” she teased.
“She’s not my girlfriend,” Aedan muttered.
“Who’s she going to believe, you or me? Come on, get up! You gotta make bacon, it’s Saturday! Besides, you already overslept, it’s almost ten!”
“Not getting up until noon, Squirt,” Aedan muttered. “Go away.”
“If you’re not up in two seconds, I’m getting the ice cubes!”
“All right, Jesus, I’m up! What’d I ever do to wind up with a sister like you, anyway?”
A groggy Aedan stumbled down the stairs, followed by an energetic girl in her late teens that looked far too small to have made that much noise. She was short, about five feet tall, with a dancer’s body and dark chestnut hair pulled into a neatly bouncing high ponytail.
“Hey, Rosie,” Aedan muttered. “Sorry ‘bout the wakeup call.”
“It was very entertaining,” she promised.
“Hey,” the girl said. “I’m Jen, Aedan’s sister. Pleased to meet you.”
“Likewise,” Hannah said, surprised to find that she meant it. “I’m Rosie.”
“Where’s Ma and Pop?” Aedan asked from the kitchen, where he was pulling out a pan.
“Vancouver or something,” Jen answered. “Somewhere in Canada, anyway. They’ll be back in a few weeks. They hired Jimmy Anderson to handle the farming. I figure they’ll sell the fields to him when I graduate, he’s been doing it a while.”
“The Anderson kid?” Aedan grunted. “Can’t you farm? What, scared you’ll break a nail?”
Jen rolled her eyes. “They’re giving me time to practice,” she said. “Julliard auditions are in two months, and Oberlin and Berkley are coming up!”
"You and your dancing," Aedan said with a snort.
"Look, just because I'm going to live longer than you," she said
"That may be so, but at least I have a more interesting career choice."
Hannah raised an eyebrow. "You're a dancer?" She asked. "What kind?"
"Lyrical ballet," she said with a smile. "I want to join the New York City Ballet."
"That's wonderful,” she said. “Your parents must be proud.”
Jen smiled. “I think so,” she said, pulling what looked like pancake batter out of the fridge. “Move it, Aedan, lemme try something.”
She took the batter and poured it into the bacon platter. "You are a genius," Aedan said with a grin.
Hannah raised an eyebrow. "I see she stole all the brains in the family," she said drily.
"Try it when it's ready," Aedan said. "You'll love it."
Hannah smiled. "I'm sure it'll be delicious," she said.
"So, how long are you two stayin'?" Jen asked, flipping the bacon pancakes.
"Just today," Aedan answered. "We'll leave early tomorrow mornin' and try to make our way to Virginia by the next day."
"Well, I'm glad I have you for at least today."
Aedan grinned, serving up the pancakes. "Here you go, Jen," he said, turning to Hannah. "Here you go, darlin'," he said. "Eat while it's still hot."
Hannah stopped short. "Say that again?" She asked.
Aedan frowned. "What? Eat while it's hot."
"Not that, the other part."
"You mean Darlin'?" He asked confusedly. His eyes widened in realization. "Sorry, is that weird for you?"
"No,” she answered, ignoring the way the word ran up and down her spine like a shiver. “I’m just surprised, I guess. I like your accent. Very exotic.”
"Why thank you, Darlin. I'll make a note to call you that more often."
Jen raised an eyebrow. "You sure you two aren't dating?" She asked.
"I don't know, are we?" He asked Hannah with a smirk.
Hannah smirked. "Don't think so," she said. "We'll work on that sometime, yeah?"
Aedan grinned. "Of course," he said. "Jen, don't you have to practice?"
"Sure, kick the sister out so you two can keep flirting," she muttered. "Will you two pick the peaches? I don't wanna do it and Jimmy isn't paid for that."
"You got it," he said as he led Hannah out the door. They walked for a short while before they reached the small orchard behind the barn.
Hannah stared in childish wonder as Aedan reached up and pulled a peach off the tree, handing it to Hannah. "Best peaches in Oklahoma right here," he said.
Hannah took the fruit and bit into it, reeling back slightly at the unfamiliar taste. She grimaced. "Why's it fuzzy?" She asked.
"Because it's a peach," he answered. "Peaches do that."
"I wouldn't know. This is my first peach."
"You mean, you've never had one before in your life?" Aedan asked, shocked.
Aedan's eyes widened. "Not even cooked?" He asked. "Please tell me you've had peach cobbler before."
“Not even that.” She grimaced. “I didn’t have the time or means for peaches when I was a little girl.”
“Well, you do now.”
She smiled and took another bite, laughing as juice ran down her chin. “This is delicious,” she said.
He grinned and picked another peach, eating it with messy slurps. “I used to sit here for hours with Jen and James,” he said.
“This must have been a great place to grow up,” she answered.
“Where did you grow up?” he asked.
Hannah chuckled. “You didn’t hear the rumors?” she asked drily.
He shrugged. “What people say about you isn’t my problem. I’d rather know the truth. Half the rumors aren’t worth believing.”
“I grew up in Kiev, in Russia.”
“So they got that part right, you’re Russian.”
She nodded. “I was sent to a boarding school there.”
“To make me useful.”
“What’s it like?”
“Russia, or boarding school?”
“Both? I’ve never been to Kiev. Never seen much of Russia other than bases in Siberia.”
“I loved Russia,” Hannah said. “It was hard for me to grow up there, because school was hard, but I love the country. It’s colder, but the people there make up for it by being kinder. Russians are the most resilient people on earth – their country has been torn down and rebuilt so many times that they’ve learned to live through anything. Hardship only makes them stronger. Kiev is huge, but it’s so beautiful.” She sighed. “I wish people would see it instead of what they show you in the news.”
“What about your school?” Aedan asked.
Hannah stiffened. “It was a bad place to grow up,” she said. “My instructors knew pain was the best teacher, and I had a lot to learn. They made SERE look like a kiddie playground.”
Aedan stopped short, looking at her in concern. “I wish more people could meet you. That way, they wouldn't think so poorly about Russians."
Hannah chuckled. “They see the scars that Russia gave me and see abuse and torture.” She tipped her head forward, showing him the tattoo on the back of her neck. “They numbered me like any other experiment, just a test subject. I was just a number. These are the things this country sees. It’s the choice they make.”
Aedan’s jaw dropped in horror as he saw the mark. “Why didn’t you tell your parents?” He reached out to touch it, but she jerked away with a flinch.
“Don’t touch it,” she said softly. “My foster family knew what was going on.”
“They let you keep going there?”
“They made me.” She shrugged. “I don’t blame them. They had their reasons. I can’t fault the efficacy of their methods. That’s an obsession that America has with the victims. You all ask why I didn’t find a concerned person and ask for help. I couldn’t do that – there wasn’t anywhere to run anyway. Getting help would have just killed more people. But I wouldn’t have if I could. In the end, it was my decision to stay, to let them do what they wanted. I stood still when they beat me, I obeyed when they inked a number into my neck.”
Aedan snarled, pushing down the fire in his chest. “Those monsters,” he growled. “If I ever get my hands on them, I’ll fucking murder them all.”
Hannah sighed heavily. “I owe them everything I am,” she said.
"Not everything. You are a beautiful human being who deserves more than she has been given."
“They raised me.”
“They abused you,” Aedan answered. “You don’t owe them a thing.”
Hannah smiled, leaning her head on his shoulder. “I forgave them,” she said. “I can’t take back the things they stole from me.”
Aedan sighed. “I don’t know how you can just forgive them,” he said. “I’d do anything for revenge, in your place.”
“Revenge won’t do anything but get me closer to them. I may be older, but they’re still able to hurt me. I won’t give them that chance.”
Aedan nodded, standing up and holding out a hand to help Hannah up. “Then you’re stronger than I am,” he said.
Hannah chuckled. “Maybe just more patient.”
“We going to pick these peaches?” he asked. “Jen won’t let us leave until we do.”
“Wouldn’t want that, would we?”
Aedan grinned, grabbing two baskets and tossing one to her. “Don’t think she won’t, Darlin’.”
“Shut your mouth, farmboy.”