Lead Me Astray
They move like ghosts through city after city, day after day, and Marta learns to look ahead. She's made her choice, forty-two days ago when she looked into Aaron's eyes and took a burning match from his outstretched hands.
Underneath the blazing heat of the Philippine sun and the salt spray of the South China Sea, Aaron heals.
Marta watches him as he sits out on the deck, bent over a stack of charts and maps, bare-chested and lean, and she takes in the play of sunlight over his bronzed skin, the bruised, red lines of a scar along his left bicep, skin already rapidly knitting together. She marvels, not for the first time, at the regenerative wonder of the human body – at mitosis and hemostasis, granulation and angiogenesis – all working in an accelerated symphony in front of her eyes. She marvels, too, at the part she has played in the creation of this, all those countless hours holed up beneath the bright fluorescent lights of her lab, up until the second she slipped the needle into Aaron's arm in a dank, dark little room in Manila. She wonders what that makes her, what that makes him in turn, but those thoughts inevitably bring up an acrid bile against the back of her throat, something that feels like guilt and fear and anguish, and she tamps down those thoughts before they can arise. She's had enough of those emotions to last a lifetime in the past few days, but not enough time to process the implications or repercussions of everything they've gone through. She's not ready for that – not yet.
Marta takes a deep, steadying breath of fresh ocean air and tilts back against the railing of the boat, lets the breeze tangle through her hair. Aaron looks up at her with eyes that reflect the color of the sea, and Marta thinks that this is a man she can never repay her debt to.
It is day ten.
They share a bunk with the fisherman and his son, three cots in a tiny cabin below the deck of the boat. Aaron sleeps on a bamboo mat on the floor below her, near enough that she can hear his breathing, a steady in and out throughout the darkness of the night. The first several nights after they slipped onboard they slept hard and deep from sheer physical and emotional exhaustion, but the last few nights Marta has been waking up with a jolt in the early hours before dawn, drenched in sweat and terror. She peers over the edge of her cot to meet Aaron's eyes, and he reaches for her hand, runs a thumb soothingly along her knuckles, over and over again, until she falls back into a dreamless sleep.
During the day Aaron pours over maps and scribbles in a battered old notebook he has found. Marta doesn't ask to see what he's doing, what next step he is planning. She trusts him; has trusted him on an instinctive, base level since he found her in a trembling mess on her second floor landing and asked her if she wanted to live. There is one thing that's clear to her: she wouldn't have made it here, alive, without him at her side, grabbing her hand, urging her to run, faster, faster, just a little faster, hide, dodge, fight.
It is day twelve. Twelve days since she had a gun wrestled to her head and was nearly forced to shoot herself; twelve days since she struck the match that turned her house into a blazing inferno; since she came face to face with patient number Five and her life flew apart at the seams.
Aaron. She forms his name with her lips soundlessly, tasting its shape and heft on her tongue. Twelve days ago she didn't even know his name; he was nothing but a series of numbers and measurements in a file on her computer. Now it feels as though she's known him forever: knows the weight of his hand wrapped around hers, knows the calluses along the base of his fingertips, the way the color of his eyes shift to subtle hues of blue, green, grey, depending on his mood.
Already her old life seems like a distant dream, half-remembered, crumbling around the edges of her mind. Flashes of it will come to her – the smell of Chinese take-out with Dr. Foite during a late-night session in the lab, bright yellow splotches of paint against the white walls of her guest room as Peter corners her and playfully dabs streaks across her skin, watching the last rays of the setting sun flicker through the trees and stain her kitchen tiles a deep crimson.
Sometimes the memories seem like they belong to someone else, another lifetime, perhaps (turn of a dime), but more often than not she can feel the mass of them in a rising flood, swelling at the fringe of her consciousness, threatening to drown her with their weight. Marta takes deep breaths and looks in front of her, ahead at the dizzying azure of the ocean sky and the crest of each wave as it breaks along the sides of the fishing boat. She fills her mind with the eager chattering of Tagalog between the fisherman and his son, the flex of muscle across Aaron's shoulders, the intensity of his concentration on the task in front of him.
If she looks back she might never find her way forward.
The fisherman docks at the tourist port of Boracay, and it is time to head off. Marta makes a point of clasping the man's gnarled hands, hugging his young son, trying to convey her overwhelming gratitude. It is another debt that cannot be fully repaid.
Boracay is an island full of sun, sand and deeply tanned foreigners nursing tropical cocktails, and Marta thinks for a quick second of longing that they might be able to blend in here, but Aaron is already looking around shrewdly, suspiciously, and shakes his head.
"We can't stay here," he says, and reaches for her hand. "Let's go."
Marta weaves her fingers through his and they move on.
On day fourteen, the afternoon they arrive in Kuala Lumpur, Aaron knocks softly on the door of their dingy, shared hotel room and enters with two Beretta pistols and a box of hair dye. Marta eyes the guns but says nothing, and he doesn't volunteer any information. Instead, he hands her the box.
"They're looking for a brunette, not a redhead. This was the only color they had," he explains simply, and there's an apology in his eyes. But Marta only nods, and heads into the tiny bathroom. She bends over the sink and runs the dye through her hair, watching swatches of scarlet swirl down the drain, stain her hands in uneven streaks. Out, damned spot, she mutters darkly to herself, and thinks hysterically how apt the words are. How much blood did she have on her hands, while she had her head buried blissfully in numbers and figures? How many men and women did she unknowingly send to their deaths, while she was obsessing over the science of it all? The science that proved to be both her downfall and salvation?
Marta chokes back the uninhibited sob that rises from her throat, grits her teeth and swipes angrily at the tears stinging her cheeks. She looks into the mirror at the auburn-haired woman now staring back, and whispers to herself, "You are in Kuala Lumper, day fourteen."
When she exits the bathroom to face Aaron she is dry-eyed and composed, and he meets her gaze appraisingly.
"You look…nice," he offers shyly, awkwardly, and all of a sudden Marta can see the faintest hint of the boy that was once Kenneth Kitsom, and some knot inside her twists a little bit tighter.
She smiles gently at him in return, and he walks over to her and hands her one of the pistols.
"You know how to shoot." It isn't a question. "The gun they were going to use at your house – " he trails off.
Marta shakes her head. "Yes. No. I mean, the gun was someone else's. He left– left it behind. I've only ever shot it once or twice, badly." She takes a quick breath.
Aaron glances at her and reaches across, slides one hand over hers holding the gun and begins showing her how to dismantle it, check and reload. He is Aaron Cross once more, exuding danger and deadly calm, all business, but his breath ghosts across her skin as he shows her how to aim and fire, and Marta barely suppresses a quiet shiver. If Aaron notices he doesn't say anything, just slides slowly away, no longer intruding in her space.
They share the single bed in the room, and Aaron sleeps near the edge, a clear swath of empty space between them, leaving her most of the room. Marta waits for him to angle over during the night, waits for the first chaste initiation, the feel of his arm pressing against her hip, but when she wakes up in the early morning he is in the same position he fell asleep in, eyes closed, the up, down, rise and fall of his chest light and even.
They stay a few days in every city, unwilling to linger long, doing their best to remain nameless and faceless, ghosts slipping through one port after another. After Kuala Lumpur, day twenty-one, Marta crosses into Singapore as Katie Pierson.
Singapore is hot and humid, but the streets are neat and clean and the diversity of the tiny country astounds her, ethnicities and languages tumbling and bleeding into one another in an assault to the senses. Marta thinks she wouldn't mind staying here, the two of them lost in the meld of humanity, but Aaron's eyes are wary and vigilant as he ushers her through the crowd, his hand against the small of her back steady and unwavering.
In Jakarta, day twenty-nine, she is Jennifer Reeves, wire-rimmed glasses and green contacts; in Phnom Penh, day thirty-seven, she is Marissa Keating, black-haired and tanned.
Even though they are racing against the clock, trying to stay one step ahead of any would-be pursuers, most days it feels as though they have nothing but time on their hands. They stay largely indoors during the day, lying low, stealing out only under cover of evening shadow.
Aaron teaches her the secrets of his trade: how to blend in with a crowd, how to survey her surroundings, to spot anything out of place, how to pick a lock, how to forge a passport. Marta was built to be a scientist, not a spy, but she's a quick study, and Aaron grunts in approval as she breaks out of his hold and jabs an elbow to his midsection during an impromptu self-defense lesson. But in one sinuous glide he's back behind her, an arm crooked around her windpipe, his body solid and unyielding against hers.
"Watch your back," he whispers into her ear, voice course and deep, the rough stubble of his chin grazing her cheek. Marta struggles vainly against him, and he lets her go in one sure movement, turning to face her.
"Again," he says, and Marta readies herself, tenses to spring.
Marta still wakes up with nightmares. They chase her awake, dreams filled with shadowed strangers and echoing gunshots and sterile tiles drenched in blood, and when her eyes fly open, gasping for breath, Aaron is beside her, gripping her hand, anchoring her firmly. She's seen his hands used so often as weapons of pain and destruction, yet with her they are nothing except hushed and gentle, brushing back her bangs soothingly.
"You're okay," he murmurs. "You're a warrior."
Marta looks over at him in the dimness of their newest hotel room, the faint lights of the city outside illuminating flecks of grey in his eyes. She swallows, and gives voice to the question that's been reverberating in her head more insistently with every passing day, now that the adrenaline has worn off. "How long do we keep doing this for? How long can we keep this up? Am I ever going to see anyone I love again – my family, my friends?"
Marta hates the weakness in her voice, the crack when she said the word family, but it's been forty-two days on the run and she can't count the number of times her nerves have frayed and been taped back together through sheer force of will, over and over again, until the next city, and the next. She can feel the tide at the back of her mind, pressing at the edges, waiting to engulf her.
Aaron falls still for a long minute. "Until they stop looking for us. Until we get far enough off the grid," he says finally.
"You said yourself that they would never stop looking for us. And even if we get off the grid, we're going to have be looking over our shoulders all the time, every day. I don't– I don't know how long I can keep doing that, Aaron." Even as she says it, Marta realizes the futility in her questions, understands also that she already made her choice, forty-two days ago when she looked into Aaron's eyes and took a burning match from his outstretched hands.
Aaron tightens his fingers around hers. "Until I figure out a plan, work out who and what's behind this and how far it goes," he amends. He pauses, and then says softly, "I'm sorry, Doc. I was trained to do this, chose to be here. I had nothing left to lose. But you – I'm sorry for dragging you into this, for taking you away from everything you've ever known–"
"No. No. Shhhh," Marta places a finger over his lips, shaking her head vehemently, feeling tiny pinpricks of tears forming in the corners of her eyes. "If you hadn't been there, I would've been dead. It's that simple. I'm the one who's sorry. For being so willfully ignorant, for not caring what my work was being used for, not asking the questions I should have been asking. For being so selfish and so damned wrong about everything. I'm so, so sorry Aaron. For what they did to you. For what I did to you."
Marta can't stop the tear from trickling down her cheek, and Aaron brushes it carefully away with a callused thumb. "Hey, come here," he coaxes quietly, and pulls her into his side, arm draping around her shoulders.
He's quiet for a few moments, and then begins speaking, soft and haltingly. "Before, as Kenneth – I always knew something was wrong with me. That I was different from other people. I just could never figure out what it was. Secure in my ignorance, I guess. When I joined Outcome and started on the chems, it was like having my eyes opened to an entire world I never knew existed. It was like I had been walking around blind, deaf and mute my entire life, unknowingly, and suddenly I could see light and color, hear music and sound, taste and touch and smell and feel. And once I had experienced all that – do you understand? How could I ever go back to the way it was before?"
Aaron raises her chin to meet his eyes, the timbre of his voice taking on a husky, urgent quality. "You helped me stay here, helped me make this possible. Even if it means I may not even be human anymore, I can't go back. I owe you everything. And I might not have a concrete plan right now, but I will, and I will get us out of this alive. Do you understand?"
Aaron's gaze is intense and heated, and Marta notices disconnectedly that only a few inches separates his face from hers. His eyes flicker briefly down to her lips but he glances away abruptly.
"Yes," she murmurs, taking in the cadence of his words. "Yes, I understand."
He does not kiss her, yet tonight she feels as close to him as if he had. Later, as she drifts off to sleep curled against him, his heartbeat strong and rhythmic against her ear, skin warm under her palms, she thinks that she has never known anyone more human.
Occasionally Aaron will disappear without her for a few hours, venturing into the warren of whatever city they're in for supplies or information, Marta never really knows. Before he leaves, Aaron grills her on the contingency plans they've laid out, makes certain she knows them intimately, backwards and forwards – a sequence of locations, dates and times – places to run or addresses to meet at if they are separated or compromised. Aaron changes the order and destinations every few days, and Marta makes a quip about his paranoia, but she observes the glint in his eyes and intuits that it is exactly this that has kept him – them – alive so far.
When Aaron is away, Marta goes through her exercises, push-ups and sit-ups and a series of self-defense maneuvers Aaron has taught her, committing the movements to muscle memory, pushing them to be faster and stronger. Marta has always been more of an intellectual than an athlete, her weekly session in the gym the only training she had ever known, but she can feel the weeks on the run and Aaron's tutelage having a dramatic impact on her body, muscles toughened and taut, senses sharper and more alert. There are days when Marta misses the familiarity of her lab with yearning intensity, of sitting down with rows of data and calculations and losing herself in the patterns and designs only she could see, but still there is something comforting in the repetition of movements she puts her body through now, the strain of her muscles and the pump of blood in her ears drowning out what stray thoughts might creep upon her.
Marta cycles through, push-ups and sit-ups and uppercuts and roundhouses, lungs burning, sweat trickling, the coil of tension in her stomach winding tighter and tighter with each repetition, loosening only when she hears the telltale knock – five rhythmic raps – and rises to let in Aaron, who smirks cheekily at her disheveled appearance.
"Miss me, Doc?" he asks insouciantly, and Marta throws a half-hearted right cross at him that he dodges easily, ducking under her to enter the room.
"Don't worry, I thought of you the whole time too," Aaron teases, and his grin is so infectious Marta can't help but laugh, the tension seeping unobtrusively out of her.
"Jerk," she mutters at him, but for the rest of the day her breathing is calm and steady, the knot of fear and unease retreating to its shadowed, secret corner for the time being.
They're in Bangkok when Aaron returns from one of his outings and touches her arm from where she's been sitting, hunched over an old laptop Aaron acquired, browsing restlessly through medical journals.
He utters her name with complete calmness, but it's a subtle quality in his tone that makes all her muscles tense up, meet his eyes knowingly.
"We have to go."
"Okay," Marta replies simply, and rises up off the bed to grab her already packed bag. It's their unspoken rule – if either one of them says go, whether it be on a subconscious hunch, an uneasy inkling, or an observation of something amiss – it was time to go, no questions asked.
"Hey," Aaron says quietly, and Marta turns around to face him. "I think we need to split up for a bit."
Marta stills, tries to steady her quickening pulse, but the confusion in her eyes betrays her.
Aaron steps closer to her. "It should only be for a couple of days. It's probably better if I don't know where you go at first."
There's a sinking feeling in her stomach, and Marta looks sharply at him. "Why?"
"A hunch I have." Aaron shrugs, averts his eyes. "I think someone might be closer to us than I'd prefer. We need to throw them off the trail, and it's easier to track two of us together than two separate people – "
"No." Marta shakes her head vehemently, the knowledge of what he was trying to do cutting into her like tiny splinters. "No. You're not sending me away out of some fucked up sense of 'protecting' me. I'm not leaving you alone. You said we were doing this together, you said you wouldn't leave – that's not how we're doing this. And if you think so, you're very much mistaken."
"Marta," Aaron says again, patiently, but it's the pain in his eyes that stops her cold. "I'm not trying to send you away. I'm not leaving you. I'm trying to keep us alive. Can you trust me? I need you to do this. Please."
Marta is used to Aaron as closed-off, distant with his emotions. She understands that it was trained into him long ago, this ability to shut down any fear, pain, or empathy and function purely with impassive, analytical focus. The fact that he was openly showing her that this was hurting him rattles her more than anything else.
She swallows hard, closes her hand around his wrist. "How long?"
Aaron wraps his hand around hers and cups his other against her cheek, turning her head to his.
"Do you remember the locations we agreed upon? Stay two or three days in each, and if you sense anything off, even the littlest thing, move on, stay small. Remember what I taught you." Aaron searches her eyes, his own resolute and unwavering. "I'll come find you. I promise you this – I'll come find you."
Marta nods jerkily, and Aaron pulls her closer, rests his forehead against hers. Marta closes her eyes, breathes in his scent, letting the heat of his skin, his simple proximity, flood her senses. She tries to tamp down the rising panic in her chest, the voice telling her that this might be the last time she ever saw him.
"Do you trust me?" Aaron whispers.
"Yes," Marta replies, and Aaron brushes a chaste kiss across her forehead.
"I'll see you soon. You can make it. You're a warrior," Aaron says, low in her ear, an echo to a different room, to a different kind of panic and fear, and Marta squeezes his hand a little tighter.
They are out the door of their hostel within 15 minutes, and Aaron puts her in a taxi and watches as it pulls away, gaze alert and cautious. Marta watches from the rear window as he turns away from the curb and melts effortlessly into the hustle and flurry of mid-morning vendors and tourists.
Marta breathes deep, once, twice, and presses desperately against the tide of anxiety and trepidation threatening to rise up from its dank, murky lair and swallow her.
At the airport she buys a one-way ticket to Tokyo on a whim. Their meeting places were all in Asia, and there was no sense in leaving the region, she reasoned, instantly second-guessing her decision.
It is day fifty-four, and her boarding pass reads Maureen Carter. She is alone.
Marta walks slowly to her boarding gate, placing one foot carefully in front of the other, glancing sideways at the people around her. If she looks back, she might never find her way forward.
She's always wanted to go to Japan, but the Tokyo she finds herself in is too bright, too ostentatious, full of empty echoes. She roams the flashy streets of Ginza during the day, muffled in a pea coat and hat, finding herself drifting in circles. In the early morning hours, Marta wakes up with a jolt, ghosts of gunshots and hooded assassins chasing through her dreams, and she glances automatically to her right, but the edge of the bed is vast and empty, white sheets reflecting dimly under the moonlight.
She pads out of bed and perches by the window, waiting for the rising sun to steal across miles of steel and concrete.
On day fifty-eight, Marta flies into Hong Kong. There is a café in Wan Chai that she has memorized the name of, and she spends most of the afternoon there, flipping idly through magazines, jerking up every time someone enters the door, hoping to see a familiar profile, dark hair and blue-grey eyes. In the late afternoon she notices a man staring at her curiously from the table across the shop, and her skin prickles. Marta grabs her bag and leaves. She takes a roundabout route back to her hotel, checking surreptitiously over her shoulder every few blocks. In her room, she grabs a pair of scissors from the vanity, grits her teeth and shears off a chunk of her hair, the hair she spent months growing out a lifetime ago. She cuts methodically, letting the even snip snip of the scissors drown away the sense of foreboding that won't seem to leave her alone.
Marta looks at the stranger in the mirror, chin-length locks framing a pale face, and tries to plan out her next step, what to do if Aaron misses her at the next stop, and the next. She wonders what city he's wandering, what maze of streets and alleyways he's lost himself in. She thinks of strong hands and a cool, wary gaze, sighting down a barrel. She thinks of sweat and fever and terror, nights of delirious mutterings and blood-soaked bandages. Marta pushes herself away from the mirror and falls angrily into her routine of exercises, sit-ups and push-ups.
Move on, stay small, she repeats to herself, a mantra between breaths.
She's on the next flight to Seoul, day sixty, keeps her eyes peeled in front of her.
Aaron doesn't show up at the hotel in Seoul, and Marta takes a calculated risk by staying a few extra days, hoping every other hour to hear the familiar five knocks against her door. It never comes.
Marta lands in Shanghai on a brittle, drizzling day, the city cloaked in a blanket of gray, smog pressing down against the tips of towering skyscrapers in a solid mass, like the weight of dread and apprehension pushing against her own insides, clawing against her ribcage.
There's a hotel by the waterfront she remembers, and she gets a room there late in the evening. She sleeps fitfully, if at all, these days, and spends the night hunkered on the bed, watching the ghostly outlines of barges glide across the river, the ripple of water reflecting neon and chrome; listening to the noises of a city that never sleeps.
She's exiting a grocery store the next afternoon when she happens to glance across the street and freezes. The man from the café in Hong Kong is standing on the other side of traffic, staring straight at her. He smiles at her, sly and knowing, and Marta drops her supplies and bolts. She tears across a parallel intersection, leaving a trail of screeching tires and blaring horns in her wake. A taxi squeals to a stop and knocks Marta in the back of her knees, and she stumbles to the hard pavement. A hand reaches out to grip her, a band of steel around her forearm, and Marta swivels her head to see him beside her, icy blue eyes boring into her. It's instantaneous, a split second reaction: no time to think or analyze, her body moving of its own accord – she thrusts an elbow into his windpipe, throws her weight against him, dislodging his hold, then drives a knee into his groin. Marta takes off sprinting, zigzagging her way through traffic, not looking behind her.
She runs hard and fast, legs pumping, heart in her throat, breath coming out hitched and ragged. She ducks through alleys, weaves her way through crowds, shortcutting through bustling shopping malls. She makes sharp turns and doubles back, directionless and wild, hoping frantically to lose any pursuers. Spying a rickety, open door at the end of a narrow street, she barrels through it, finding herself in the middle of a teeming marketplace, vendors peddling everything from electronics to shoes in a cacophony of color and sound.
Marta locates an empty stall in a back corner and ducks down behind it, trying to quiet her trembling legs, her shaking hands.
"I'm a warrior," she whispers to herself, heart beating a harsh staccato in her ears. Warrior, warrior, warrior.
Marta peeks around the stall cautiously, eyes roaming over the multitudes of passerby, every sense on alert. There are merchants hawking their wares, shoppers browsing and haggling in pitched voices, but no one on the hunt; nothing that seems suspicious or out of place. It's another twenty minutes before Marta can bring herself out of her crouch and emerge from her hiding place, doing her best to walk smoothly, blend in with the crowd. She strolls around, ducking into random stalls, pretending to examine goods, while her brain goes rapid-fire, trying to figure out where she needs to go. The smart thing to do would be to head straight to the airport or train station, skip out on the hotel, but Marta thinks of her bag filled with cash and extra passports stashed away in the room safe, and curses herself for not being paranoid enough to bring it with her. She needs to go back.
It's evening by the time Marta returns to the hotel via the most meandering route possible, entering the lobby through a side door. She forces herself to walk calmly and purposefully across the foyer to the elevators, muscles taut and rigid, expecting any moment to be grabbed, to have to break away. She makes it to her room without incident, fumbles for her keycard and opens the door to her dimly lit room to see the profile of a man silhouetted against the window.
Marta's got one foot out the door and primed to tear across the hall but there's a firm hand on her arm and it's a few seconds before she can register a voice repeating her name low, insistently. She turns her head fractionally to meet Aaron's familiar gaze, and it's as if all the energy and tension drain out of her in one quick tug; the coiled knot of strain and foreboding she's been carrying around in her chest for the last two weeks loosening their threads, unraveling away seamlessly. She takes two steps towards him and curls her fingers around his shirt, burying her head against his chest.
"Holy shit," Marta chokes out, and she can feel herself trembling. Aaron's arms come around her, secure and reassuring, tightening across her shoulders. Marta can feel his heartbeat underneath her cheek and palms, steady and strong, and she lets the pure solidity of him, heat and muscle and bone, envelop her. But there are alarm bells still in her head, and she pushes herself away to look up at him.
"Aaron, we need to leave, now," she begins urgently. "There's a man chasing me, he followed me here – "
"I took care of it," Aaron interrupts her matter-of-factly. "We're okay."
Marta stares at him, notices the shadow of a bruise blossoming across his jaw, the gash along his temple. She reaches out a hand and touches his face hesitantly. "Where else are you hurt?"
"I'm fine." Aaron covers her hand with his. "He picked up your trail in Hong Kong. I was a day behind. Was stupid of me, I thought he was following me, not you – I would've caught up sooner, wouldn't have left you on your own. Though I don't know why I worried – you did a number on him. Made it easy pickings for me." Aaron grins at her suddenly, and there's something akin to admiration in his eyes.
"Well apparently I was trained by the best," Marta replies solemnly, then adds softly, "You're here now." She tries not to think about the what-ifs: if he hadn't been close, if she hadn't come back, if they had been a little less careful. She knows only too well the treachery of those questions, how long they could hold you under the surface.
Aaron presses on her hand. "Don't worry Doc, I thought of you the whole time too," he quips, and Marta is returning his grin, rolling her eyes, before she realizes with a tremor that he is closing the distance between them, then sliding his mouth against hers.
In a darkened room in Shanghai, sixty-eight days and seven thousand miles from where they began, Aaron Cross finally kisses her.
He tastes just like she imagined he would, only better, musky and masculine and dangerous, and his mouth is hungry, greedy, tugging at her lips, demanding access, and Marta acquiesces, letting her head fall back. Aaron kisses her with a hint of desperation, like he's been thinking about this for a long time, like he's been thinking about the what-if's too, and Marta scratches her fingers against the rough stubble of his jaw, the planes of his chest, curls them around his biceps, any part of him she can reach.
When they pull apart, breathing hard, looking at each other, Aaron tugs playfully at her newly cut hair, and even that sends a jolt of electricity straight down her spine.
"I was always a sucker for a woman with short hair," Aaron tells her, waggling his eyebrows, and Marta laughs, the tension dissipating somewhat, until he leads her to the bed and pulls her down onto his lap. Marta ceases all thought then, loses herself in the feel of him around her, the taste of his skin, the whisper of his voice against the shell of her ear.
Trusts that they can do this, make the leap together, and come out on the other side.
When she wakes up in the early morning, he is curled around her, one arm splayed across her hip, breathing deep and calm. She watches him for a few quiet moments, memorizing the relaxed lines of his face, until his eyes flicker open, a vivid turquoise against the muted gray light of dawn.
"Hey." She smiles at him shyly, suddenly feeling self-conscious and uncertain. Aaron reaches for her and kisses her, slow and languid now, and Marta returns it with aching ferocity.
"We can't stay here, can we," Marta says to him when she pulls away, and it isn't so much a question as a wistful acceptance.
"No," Aaron says gently.
"Where to next, solider?" Marta asks lightly, but Aaron studies her for a long moment, eyes thoughtful and serious, before replying.
"We're going to find Jason Bourne."
When they leave Shanghai, Marta walks with Aaron beside her, fingers interlinked. She thinks of the weight of the past, the fragility of the present, and begins to understand the cost of new beginnings. She's made her choice, sixty-nine days ago when she looked into his eyes and burned her old life to the ground, and there is nothing to do but keep moving forward; see it through.
Marta plants one foot firmly in front of the other, doesn't look back.