Before the return flight from Rome, ASI had already directed Aaron to continue on to Denver and await another set of orders from headquarters. Luckily, he still had a place to stay there. Some good friends had seen to that decisively not too many days ago; he was anxious to hear that story from Eva and Charles.
Once the Rome team had extracted Gina, and Aaron and Natalie had reported the situation back to Elijah Sharpe, Elijah had sent a private jet to Italy to pick up Gina and bring her back to New Jersey. The plane had included a heavy security detail, replete with armed field agents in full riot gear, a few psychics from Gina’s own pool of contacts, and some archivists with arcane widgets that could detect and repel any extranormals who might try to interfere with her extraction. Aaron got the distinct impression that Gina was angry with him and the others for pulling her off the throne and out of the Vatican, but Natalie assured him that would pass the moment Gina got home and held her soon-to-be-born grandchild. He hoped so; Gina was one of his favorite people, and one of the last folks he ever wanted to be mad at him given her unique suite of talents.
When the Empire Foundation jet touched down in Denver, Aaron and Natalie picked up the cheapest rental car they could find on short notice and sent Simon notice that they were inbound. He sent a group of older kids from the caern to meet them on the edge of the bawn; the youngsters acted strangely when they drew near, circling Aaron warily and sniffing at him, as if unsure whether he was actually who he said he was. Aaron recognized one of them: a teenaged boy who was on the cusp of early manhood the last time he’d seen him, corralled in the center of the caern with the theurges when Carver’s mercenaries had attacked the Farm last year. And what a year a difference could make: the boy had added easily twenty pounds of muscle mass to his slight form, and he carried himself like a warrior. A brand on his chest marked him as one of Dain’s junior pack members.
Once they’d thoroughly assessed him and deemed him not to be a threat, the teens led them through the bawn and into the caern proper, to Simon’s cluttered cabin packed full of electronic surveillance equipment, satellite linkups for secure internet connections, and other technology far beyond Aaron’s basic understanding of computers. “Simon’s not in right now,” said the young garou, who was clearly the alpha of the hunting pack that had escorted them, “but this guy said he’d show you around and get you up to speed.” A brown leather chair in front of a broad spread of flatscreen monitors swiveled around to face them. In it sat Charles Powell, looking a bit more like his old self now that he’d let his hair grow back out and shaved the scraggly beard he’d grown to duck the authorities after the incident in New York a few months ago.
“Charles? Omigosh, how are you?!” Natalie dashed forward and threw her arms around the burly ex-cop, who barely managed to stand up in time to keep her from plowing the desk chair into the monitors. Charles grunted as she squeezed his midsection like a stuffed animal; she was strong for a small woman.
“Alive, which is pretty damn good these days,” he said jovially, turning to Aaron. “What’s up, Mathias? Enjoy your vacation in Rome? ‘Cuz we sure missed you here.” The sarcasm was laced with friendliness; Charles held out a hand. Aaron shook it, clapping Powell on the back in a quick man-hug.
“Sorry I couldn’t be here, man. We were halfway across Europe before word got out about the attack—and about Alex. And I was needed there.”
“Eh, don’t beat yourself up about it. Shit happens. Besides, we took care of it all. You two must be starving if you’ve had nothing but airline food since you left Italy. Chow line should be open; Granger’s on kitchen duty, and the man makes one hell of a good colcannon and corned beef casserole.”
“Granger’s here? I haven’t seen him since the museum in San Diego! Yay!” Natalie exclaimed. “It’s like home away from home, with booze and weed and a cafeteria!”
Charles quirked an eyebrow. “She always this cheery?”
“So far as I can tell,” Aaron said through a lop-sided grin. “It’s one of the perks of keeping her around.”
“It’s true—I’m a girl of many talents,” Natalie said with a devious, toothy smile, putting her arm around Aaron and nipping at his shoulder playfully. “You should be thankful, mister.”
The pair fell into a familiar routine over the next few days, one they’d not been accustomed to since their last visit to the Farm so long ago but which quickly returned, alternating days patrolling the bawn with the other hunters and the packs, digging latrines and patching up damaged structures, preparing food for the massive communal meals of garou and wolfkin, and watching the cubs while the other adults worked. It was simple living, and hard work, but the aches and pains of the days were easily soothed by baths in the cool rivers running through the caern, all sorts of homebrewed spirits, Leanna’s exquisite buds, and nights spent by the bonfires with good friends.
Nearly a week into their stay, Natalie had gone to attend to some cubs who needed supervision while their parents went on patrol. Aaron had intended to join her, but Taz told him he needed to come to Simon’s cabin right away—a message had arrived for his eyes only. He logged into his ASI email through the secure satellite link and and read through the message, which was encrypted and codelocked. His stomach lurched. So it’s finally time, he thought. And I have to go tell her, right now. He left the cabin and headed for the inner bawn, just north of the caern’s center and south of the main farmlands.
Aaron heard Natalie before he saw her. He followed her laughter to the tall tent of sunflowers the pack had grown as a playhouse for their pups. “Now you look like a real princess!” He heard a small voice proclaim. “True. I was but a mere peasant before with the face of a hag,” Natalie playfully replied. “You may have made me beautiful but you were not able to destroy my appetite for adorable children!”
The tall sunflower stalks began to shake and three children came screaming out of the opening in the front with huge grins on their faces. Natalie burst out after them barefoot and holding up the long skirt of her light blue cotton dress. She wore a crown made of woven flowers and a pretend snarl on her face. She snatched up the smallest child and began tickling her, then she looked up and saw Aaron. She blushed and set the laughing child down on the ground, “Go play without me, sweetie, I think Aaron needs to talk to me.”
Aaron dropped to one knee in an exaggerated fashion. “Run, little one, before she catches you again! I’ll hold her off!” He grabbed a stick from the well-trodden ground and held it at the ready in faux-fencer pose in front of him. The girl dashed off toward the camp in hysterics, shrieking in delight.
“Oh no! Not the handsome prince! I can’t resist his dashing good looks!” She covered her eyes in mock terror.
He stood up and dropped the stick in his right hand into a lazy downward guard, resting his left on his leg. “This game makes no sense. Are you a child-eating hag or a princess? You can’t be both, I’m pretty sure. Those are the rules. And around here, fairy tales could have a very different meaning depending on who you talk to. You might even be disparaging someone’s grandmother,” he said with a grin.
“Well from what I know of fairy tales, a curse that turned a princess into a child-
eating hag could only be broken by true love’s kiss.” She pressed her hands to her chest and fluttered her eyelashes in an attempt to look as much like a princess as possible.
“Uh huh,” he said, his smile growing wider. “I bet you say that to all the boys.” He dropped the stick and strode toward her, pulling her close and pressing his lips to hers, meaning to do so briefly but finding it harder to pull away than he’d intended. “Nat…sit down.” He gestured to the small chairs in the center of the sunflower tent.
Her eyes were closed, still under the spell of his kiss, but they quickly opened and her smile was replaced with a look of worry when she heard the tone in his voice. She followed him back into the canopy of the bright yellow flowers. “Babe, what is it?” she perched on the edge of the small table, facing Aaron.
Aaron settled into one of the low chairs and took her hand as she knelt to the ground to join him. “Several communications have just been issued to all Contingent affiliates. They come direct from Sharpe. I have to go into the field in a few weeks.” His eyes drifted downward to the surface of the plastic table in the center of the tent.
“What? No! We were going to take a break…be normal!” Her voice rose in a mixture of anger and sadness.
“I know, babe—believe me, you have no idea how much I want that.” His gaze returned to hers. “Look, Natalie, whatever we stopped from happening in Rome, it’s having repercussions. I couldn’t leave Gina on that throne; none of us could. But those fae were trying to seal something away by turning her into the oracle. Something powerful enough to worry them. And it came from a Cloverleaf facility in South Carolina.” His grip tightened on her hand. “Nat, there’s mass hysteria in Las Vegas. People are hallucinating, falling into comas.”
“There’s always mass hysteria in Vegas, it’s Sin City!” Natalie’s pathetic attempt at a joke did little to mask how upset she was. She was silent for a moment, then looked at him, tears rolling down her cheeks. “But why you? Why does it always have to be you? I can’t go this time. I can’t be there with you.”
A pensive look of calculation crossed his face. “Oh damn. I forgot. The show’s off hiatus soon.”
“Yeah. I have to work, babe. I’ve got rent and you know I send money home to help with Papa. I’ve stayed away longer than I should have. If I don’t report to the set I’ll be fired.” She pulled her hands away from him, reached up and slid the crown off of her head and into her lap. “It’s not fair. I shouldn’t have to choose…” she picked the white petals off of a daisy.
“Nat, you should go back to work. Honestly, you don’t need to be in on this mission. Cloverleaf is bad news, and they have a facility on the edge of the city. It’s been shut down, but SecFreq hackers pulled some files off their cloud infrastructure. They determined that Cloverleaf was researching oneiric agonist compounds at that lab. Dream drugs. And with everything we’ve seen lately—Gina’s spontaneous dream omens, the reports of hysteria in Nevada, Alex falling into that coma—Nat, it has to be connected. Sharpe wants me there; no one else has insight on these phenomena like I do, and Gina’s in no shape to go back in the field right now.” He moved behind her, his fingers stopping hers from tearing more petals.
Natalie stood up, pulling her hands away, the crown fell to the ground. Her left hand moved to her forehead and her right to her stomach. “I just can’t do this. It’s too much not knowing if you’re safe. I really thought we wouldn’t have to do this again. I feel nauseous! I have to get out of here!” She pushed through the green stems into the field outside, taking a deep breath.
She heard Aaron’s footsteps crunch dead grass and twigs behind her as he approached. “Nat, Sharpe sent out other orders. Not all of us know about them, but I was given access. There’s a team headed for the source of that contract your team retrieved in Dallas, and another one scheduled to hit the Air Force observatory in Flagstaff at the same time we carry out our orders in Vegas. Elijah’s got something planned. He’s been waiting for the dominos to line up, and this is our shot to knock them down and end this for good.” He laid a hand gently on her shoulder.
“I know. I know, in my head I know all this. But my heart? My heart is saying that I have to do normal alone, and right now that’s louder than any request Sharpe has.” She leaned her cheek against his hand, “I’m sorry, I know I’m being a brat right now, I just hate that I can’t go with you.” Her shoulders began to shake as she broke down in sobs.
Aaron’s arms encircled her from behind. “Nat, I’m so tired of this. So tired of everything being on the edge of a disaster. And I won’t lie to you and say I could walk away from what I do forever. I made that decision when I wished to control my dreams instead of getting rid of them. But if we finish this job, I can scale back. Elijah already offered to keep me on as an intelligence consultant—no field work. I think he’d accept my resignation if I handed it in today.” He moved to stand in front of her, placing a single finger under her chin. “But if I refused to do my part in all this, a part that maybe no one else can, then I’d be giving up the fight for the world we both want to live in together.”
“I know, it’s because you’re the dashing heroic prince.” She smiled weakly at him. “I just don’t know if I have it in me anymore. Maybe I am the child-eating hag.” She vainly attempted to wipe off the mascara that has started to run down her cheeks. “I need to get cleaned up. It’s almost dinner time.” She kissed his cheek and turned to walk towards their cabin.
Aaron watched her walk away into the dying light of the late afternoon sun, out of the fields of the bawn and into the wooded camp at the center of the caern. No, you’re definitely the princess, he thought. Which must make me the fool—because only a complete fucking idiot wouldn’t go with you.
After dinner, the various packs retreated to their own quarters of the caern, gathering around the many bonfires they’d lit. The chill of the night had not yet fully descended, but the temperature had dipped into the 70s after sunset and was sure to cool steadily as the evening passed. A first quarter moon hung heavy in the sky—a philodox moon, Simon had explained to Aaron, which the garou considered a time for reflecting on truths and decisive action.
Charles, Granger, and Taz had wandered off with Forseti, Leanna, Dain, and Ed to another part of the caern; evidently they’d been accepted into one of the other packs, which was only rational given their huge contributions to the defense of the caern in the preceding weeks. Nat and Aaron decided to fall back with the pack they knew best among the Denver wolves: the East Coast Exiles, who had dragged them and the other hunters into the caern last year while they’d been here investigating the VALKYRIE washouts on Carver’s payroll.
Drake and Marissa had spread out a blanket a few feet away from their pack’s firepit, taking turns at playing checkers with Promise. Keppler was perched on a tree stump in the shadow of a massive fir, just within reach of the light from the flickering flames, honing the edge of his claymore with a whetstone. Harms sat somewhat closer, less sullen than usual and almost jovial, thanks in no small part to a hearty meal and a massive after-dinner spliff of the Farm’s finest. A few other werewolves gathered around the fire pit, many holding either musical instruments or jugs of homebrewed ale and mead, and Drake led them in a series of songs on his loveworn acoustic guitar.
Eva had stalked over to the fire after the meal as well, pulling two frosty bottles of Forseti’s brown ale from a repurposed six-pack carton. She popped the top off one of the bottles and handed it to Mal, who was laying out a blanket for them near Drake and Marissa, then grabbed a second for herself. Aaron and Natalie had found a spot on a large boulder opposite the troupe of garou musicians, not too far away from Eva and Mal; Nat reclined against his chest, her hands clutching his tightly in her lap.
“It’s too easy to get used to this,” Eva said. “At first it was a shock being out here in the middle of nowhere after living in L.A. for so long, but this place grows on you.” She tipped back her beer bottle and swallowed with gusto, wrapping one arm around Mal’s shoulders.
“It’s a nice change from Manhattan,” Mal agreed, “but I miss my lab. I’ll be glad when things calm down and I can resume my research again.” She leaned over and kissed Eva on the cheek. “But at least I get to enjoy a getaway with you in the meantime, though.”
Natalie leaned back further, nuzzling Aaron’s cheek and neck; he buried his nose in her hair, savoring her scent and lightly kissing her neck. “I missed this place too,” she said. “I can’t believe it’s been over a year since we first met you guys!”
Marissa smiled. “I definitely enjoy the company a lot more when we don’t have to spend all our time fighting bastards with rifles and flamethrowers,” she joked.
“Not that there was much of a fight to be had this time,” Drake added between chord strums. “You Contingent folks helped us shut down that shitstorm before it started raining down on us. That’s two we owe you now.”
“Nah, we’re square,” Aaron said. “Simon keeps sending me weed, and no one complains when I ask to crash here for a week or two. I’m just sorry I wasn’t on hand to help out, too.”
“Meh, no worries man—you had your own hands full in Rome, from what I hear,” Drake said with a quick dismissive wave of his picking hand as he returned to playing the lead melody in the song the werewolf musicians were playing. “We’re good as far as I’m concerned.”
A few bottles of beer and passes of the mead jug later, Natalie slid out of Aaron’s lap and off the boulder. “I gotta pee—that mead’s running through me like wildfire. Anyone wanna come with?” Marissa and Mal stood and walked off with her toward the camp latrines, chattering the whole way there.
Aaron hopped off the rock and moved away from the fire, taking a minute to savor the cool air away from the flames. As he stepped into the shadows, a familiar voice intoned a greeting. “You don’t call, you don’t write—what, are you too good to even hit a guy up for a round of Heroes any more, Mathias?” Simon Davis stepped out from behind a tree and smirked.
“How the hell have you been, man?” Aaron hugged the smaller, wirier man, clapping a hand on his back. “I was afraid you’d be gone all month!”
“Nah, just had to run into town for a few days to upgrade the security systems on some of the dispensaries, pick up some parts, see some friends…you know the drill.” Simon nodded toward a torchlit path that led deeper into the woods, indicating Aaron should walk with him. “So what’s new with you, Mathias? I haven’t seen you in months. You look different. Smell different, too. The way you carry yourself, your expression…you’ve changed, kid.”
Aaron smiled ruefully and caught Simon up on the highlights of what had transpired since the last time he’d visited the caern. “So, now I’m going back into the field again…and Natalie’s upset. I can’t blame her, either. She wants us to be together and try to live a normal life worse than anything in the world. I can’t give her that right now. And if…if something happens to me, I know it’ll break her.” He stopped in his tracks and looked at Simon. “Did I mess up? Should I have quit, and just told the other hunters to go deal with this themselves? She must love me, because I can’t imagine any woman letting a man put her through what I’m doing to her right now.”
Simon regarded Aaron with a cold stare, unblinking. “Aaron, you’re making a lot of hard choices these days. I’m not gonna lie to you and tell you that they’re bound to get any easier. They’re not.” He stepped closer toward the younger man and inhaled deeply. “No one else here is saying it to your face, Mathias, because you’ve fought to defend us before, which makes you a friend and a guest—but we can all smell the scent of the wolf on you. I know what Sharpe’s doctors did to heal you when you got shot.”
Aaron’s eyes widened at that. What? Scent of the wolf? Does that mean they gave me…no. It couldn’t be. That’s not possible…is it?
Simon continued; if he had taken note of Aaron’s surprise, he didn’t show it. “So that means you have a part of us in you now. Got parts of lots of other things in there too, for that matter. You’re still human, but you’ve got so much shit mixed up inside you that you’re not entirely a part of this world anymore. You’ll never be normal, Mathias, even if you do settle down. You have to accept that, and so does she, or it’s going to drive you both insane.”
“So does that mean I can never give Natalie the life she wants? The one she deserves?” Aaron said, his throat swelling with sorrow as he choked back a wave of emotions.
“Fuck no, it doesn’t.” Simon laid a hand on Aaron’s shoulders. “Listen, kid, just because you have a purpose to fulfill doesn’t mean you can’t live and love. Hell, look at us. We’re a family here. Husbands, wives, lifelong friends, blood brothers, hunting partners…our struggle doesn’t define us. It doesn’t mean we can’t fall in love or enjoy each other’s company. And none of us can fight forever. Dain and Forseti aren’t getting any younger, and the more battle scars they pick up, the more I worry about them going back into the fray again. Everyone’s role changes. Maybe it’s time for yours to change, too.”
“So you do think I should have quit, then,” Aaron said.
Simon shook his head and crossed his arms, leaning back against a tree on the trail. “I didn’t say that. There’s still a job to be done, Mathias. And as much as I absolutely fucking hate to say it, I agree with Sharpe—you’re probably one of the best people to go check out this shit in Las Vegas.” He inclined his head. “You know our charge, Aaron. You feel it echo in your blood, too, because our blood is your blood now, for better or for worse. Hunt the evil beneath every moon. Track it into the darkness where it lairs. Kill its spawn wherever it breeds. Rage against it with your dying breath.” Simon looked up again and smiled. “But in the meantime, stop walking around in the woods with surly old dudes like me and go show that girl how much you love her…and remind yourself of it, too, so that you remember all the reasons you have to come back to her alive.” He turned and stepped off the trail, firing back one last piece of advice. “Everyone’s good for a song and a story, Mathias. Make yours epic, and then get home in one piece to tell it.” With that, Simon disappeared into the treeline. A few seconds later, some hundred feet away, Aaron spotted a lean, brown-furred canine shape on a moonlit hilltop; it howled up at the half-moon overhead before disappearing into the darkness.
Aaron sighed heavily, composed himself, and began to walk back toward the firepit. When he got there, he found Natalie seated on the blanket with Marissa, playing with Promise. Eva and Mal were lost in each other, nearly oblivious to what was going on around them; only their clothing prevented their behavior from being outright lewd by most standards, but then the caernfolk weren’t exactly what you’d call prudes. Aaron couldn’t help but laugh at them as he sat down next to Nat. Promise was beginning to nod off; Marissa gathered the young girl into her arms and stood up. “I’m gonna go put her to bed. Be back in a bit.”
A few of Drake’s musicians, well into their cups by then, also stumbled off from the fire in search of either privies or bedrolls. One of them thrust a beaten-up six-string into Aaron’s hands as he passed, slurring at him in an Irish brogue. “Keep this warm for me, would ye, friend? I’ll be wantin’ her back once I’ve had a right and proper piss.” He stumbled off into the woods.
Aaron smiled and began to strum at the strings, grimacing at the dissonant tones. He turned one of the tuning pegs, ratcheting up the ever-errant B-string a quarter tone or so until it sounded true. Natalie gazed at him in astonishment. “What the actual fuck, Mathias? I had no idea you even played guitar.”
He grinned. “What can I say? I’m full of surprises.” He fingered a chord and strummed again, nodding in satisfaction at the tuning. “My dad used to play in a funk band in college. Nothing serious, just frat house gigs and stuff like that. Anyway, he kept all of his guitars, so I messed around with them a lot growing up, and I learned the basics from watching and playing with him. I have a cheap one of my own stashed away somewhere in the apartment. I dig it out every now and then—usually only when I’m really drunk.”
Drake nodded and grinned wolfishly through his beard. “Best time to do it, if you ask me. Play us something, then. I’ll follow along.”
Mal and Eva ripped themselves away from each other to watch and listen. Aaron blushed, and began to move his hands across the strings. “It’s in F Major,” he said to Drake. As he launched into the chord progression, Drake matched his movements, adding solo fills and licks to flesh out the sound.
Natalie didn’t quite recognize the song at first, but then it came to her. His custom ringtone for my number. I’d only hear it when he’d ask me to call his phone if he lost it. We sang this song together so many times during hunts or on vacation, riding the highways. And then it came on the night I went to his apartment and turned on the music before he got home from work, right after he got out of the hospital…the night I realized how badly I needed him. The tempo was slower, the arrangement a series of drawn-out arpeggios and strums; Drake’s notes wove into Aaron’s chords beautifully, finding the sweet spots in the cadence and stretching them out. She closed her eyes and swayed along with the music, letting the wave of happy memories crash over her, leaving her euphoric. When Aaron and Drake finished, she hopped up and ran over to him. Moving the guitar out of the way, she placed herself in his lap. Grabbing his head with both her hands, she pulled him in for a kiss. The kiss went on much longer than their audience probably felt comfortable with.
Coming up for air, Natalie gasped, “Cabin…now!” Then she climbed off his lap, grabbed his hand, and led him back to their room for the night.
Marissa was just returning to the campfire as Natalie was dragging Aaron off. “Did I miss something?” she said, regarding Drake quizzically.
The shaggy-haired werewolf smiled and re-tuned his guitar. “You gotta love how music brings people together.”
Natalie opened her eyes as the early morning sunlight came in through the thin curtains hanging over the cabin’s only window. She stretched and looked over to see Aaron sound asleep on his back. She rolled over to rest her head on his chest, her hand absentmindedly caressing his chest and arm. Closing her eyes, she inhaled deeply. Her flight back to L.A. was later today, and she didn’t know when she’d get to wake up next to Aaron again. She tried to take in as much of the moment as she could—the feel of his skin, the warmth of his body next to hers, his scent—to file away for the upcoming nights when her bed would feel too big, too cold.
Too few minutes later, she felt his chest heave in a yawn; his eyes had opened. “Hey gorgeous,” he said huskily, coughing lightly; being on the farm didn’t help his usual suite of bad habits one bit. “Did we miss breakfast?”
“I don’t think so. I bet you’re starving between the farm’s specialty and the workout I gave you last night.” She rolled over, draping her arms on his chest and resting her chin on them so she could look at him. There were circles under her eyes that hinted at the restless night she’d had.
Aaron ran his hands down the smooth skin of her back, his fingers tracing the outline of the red and blue jellyfish on her shoulder almost instinctively. “It does keep my appetite going. At least the chores keep us in good shape, though.”
Natalie winced reached over to rub her bare shoulder, “Yeah, the chores. That’s one thing I won’t miss when I leave today. Eva said she’d drive me to the airport, I know you really need to start mission prep.”
He averted his eyes. “Guess so. I’ve got sword practice with Dain and Keppler right after breakfast…but after that, I think they’re gonna go easy on me so I can spend some time with you.” He kissed her, first on the forehead, then on the mouth. “Come on, let’s get some clothes on and fuel up. Harms showed me a really neat hiking trail the other day on patrol that I want us to check out before you go.” He slid sideways out of the bed, pulling on a pair of black nylon tac pants and heavy-duty boots and reaching for a t-shirt that had been catapulted onto the windowsill the night before.
Nat stretched out one more time, then slowly stood up. Walking towards the bathroom, she mumbled mid-yawn, “I’m gonna shower. Meet you at the dining hall?”
“Wait,” Aaron said. He pulled his shirt on and leaned down next to the bed, rummaging through his satchel and withdrawing a sealed envelope with her full legal name typed on it; the return address on the envelope was for ASI’s in-house legal counsel. He turned, a somber expression on his face. “Natalie, you need to hold on to this.”
She frowned and turned towards her bag that she’d tossed on a nearby chair. “I feel like this is a conversation I should be wearing clothes for.” After slipping on a purple linen sundress, she grabbed the envelope from his outstretched hand. “Aaron, what is this?” She held it in both of her hands as if it contained the weight of the world.
“Something I hope you never have to open. My will, signed and notarized. Dispensation instructions, and some additional requests, in case…things go bad in Las Vegas. You’re named as executor. A notarized copy is on file with ASI’s lawyers, but this is the original. I don’t trust anyone but you to have it.”
She raised an eyebrow. “What the actual fuck, Mathias? You’ve seen my apartment. I am the worst person to give something like this to.” She looked at him with a wavering smile. Her brown eyes glistened with tears she was willing not to fall. For the first time in her life she understood how her mom must have felt all those times her dad left for his shifts at the fire department. She silently prayed that she would never have to receive a call in the middle of the night about Aaron.
“I know, that’s why I’m doing it,” he said with a wry laugh. “If I started doing sensible, rational things now, people would know I’ve lost my fucking mind instead of just suspecting it. Gotta keep the pattern going so nothing goes astray, right?” His expression turned serious again. “Like I said: I don’t intend to ever let you open it. But, always have a backup plan. Mal got me thinking about it, actually; she said it’d be a good idea to get my affairs in order.” He couldn’t suppress a grin and a wide-eyed stare. “She also asked how I wanted to dispose of my remains in that eventuality; I don’t think she liked my answer very much.” He pulled her close, locking eyes with her. “It’s just a precaution. I plan on fighting like a hellhound to get out of there alive if I have to. And I’ve got a really solid team going in with me. We’ll watch out for each other.”
My dad was with his brother, cousin, and best friend, and he still had a building collapse on him. Natalie looked back down at the envelope, unable to fight the tears anymore. One by one they fell onto the envelope, spreading moisture across its surface. “Oh fuck!” She exclaimed and started frantically trying to dry it off on her dress. “See? I’m already screwing this up!”
He couldn’t help but laugh, even through his own tears. “I’m pretty sure it’s still legally binding. Look, Nat, I’m sorry to put a pall over our morning with this, but I had to…and you didn’t really give me the chance to do it yesterday. So, the needful is done. It’s over. Let’s just forget about it and enjoy our day.” He wiped the tears from her cheeks with the tail of his shirt and kissed her. “I love you. So, so much. One last mission, to end this thing once and for all. And then things change.”
Natalie hugged him back as tight as she could. The entire time he spoke, she couldn’t shake the feeling that even if he did make it back to her, this wouldn’t be his last mission.