Episode Thirty-Four: The Family Affair
As Nikolai shaved (after Jackie’s demands) and changed into a suit, he recapped Jackie on the events of the night. Jackie stayed quiet, watching Nikolai carefully while chewing on the inside of her cheek. Guy took a few painkillers and dropped into bed. The secret agent tied his tie and asked, “Are we driving?”
“Yeah,” Jackie said. “You ready to go?”
“Yes,” Nikolai said. “I will just say goodbye to Guy.”
Jackie rolled her eyes, but replied, “I’ll warm up the car.”
Nikolai went into the bedroom and found Guy asleep. He sat down on the bed, watching the assassin’s eyes move behind his lids. He smiled softly before standing back up. The blond considered writing a note, but he knew Guy wouldn’t like it. If he wrote a note for Guy, it would really just be for himself.
So he left the room, pulled his winter coat out of the dryer to put it on, and then joined Jackie in the car. She drove a blue Toyota Corolla, and when he sat inside he saw dust littering the dashboard and fast food bags at his feet. He breathed in the ersatz pine scent. She started to drive, and he said, “Do you have anything else to say?”
“I think I’ve sworn enough for one morning,” she replied.
The blond sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I did not know what else to do.”
“Do you have the photograph?” Jackie asked.
“No,” Nikolai said. “It is in Guy’s satchel, and I imagine the water damaged it.”
“We’ll check for it when we get back,” she replied. “Do you think Guy’ll stay in the house?”
“You intimidate him,” Nikolai said. “I hope he will stay.”
“He won’t get far on that ankle anyway,” Jackie said. “Have you slept at all?”
“Sleep in the car,” she replied, giving Nikolai a half-smile. “I’ll wake you when we get close.”
Nikolai nodded. “Thank you,” he said. “I am sorry for upsetting you.”
Jackie shook her head. “You make poor choices, Kuryakin,” she replied. “Do you even want to work for A.B.E.L.?”
“While I was tied up in the hotel room, I kept thinking that I could just let it go. I could just wait for Guy to come back, wash my hands of A.B.E.L., and disappear with him.”
“Well, if you had done that, Guy would’ve died,” Jackie said.
“I know,” Nikolai said.
Nikolai turned his head to watch Jackie’s stiff expression. Her eyes stayed firm on the road. Jackie said, “So what made you change your mind?”
“A.B.E.L. has always been there for me. No matter how many times I fuck up, Cox is there to give me a hand up,” Nikolai said. “And I do not know if Guy will even be beside me when I wake up in the morning.”
“You certainly have his attention now,” Jackie said.
“But for how long?” Nikolai asked. “I want him. I want him to be with me. But I do not know if I can handle all this uncertainty. Will I just always worry about whether or not he will stay with me? What if I am still worrying about it twenty years down the road? I cannot live like that, Jackie. I want someone stable.”
“Guy’ll be dead in twenty years,” Grier said. “You’ll know where he’ll be because he’ll be six feet under. Nikolai, he’s pushing fifty. In twenty years he’ll be pushing seventy.”
Nikolai frowned and looked out the passenger side window. He hadn’t thought of that. He didn’t want to think about Guy’s death. Not now when he almost touched it.
“You should talk to him about this stuff,” Jackie continued, her voice softening. “If it freaks him out, maybe you should reconsider your relationship with him. If he’s going to keep acting like a child, it’s not worth it. You could do a lot better.”
Nikolai looked back to his partner. “Really?”
Jackie scoffed. “Of course really. I mean, just to start with, Westermark flirts with you. I realize the guy isn’t perfect, far from it, but he knows about everything you’ve done and he still likes you. You don’t need someone like Guy to overlook your flaws, you know.”
“Are you really trying to set me up with Georg Westermark?” Nikolai smirked.
“No,” Jackie said. She let out a sharp laugh and continued, “God no. Could you imagine? He would treat you like a Ken doll. I just meant that if he likes you and accepts you, chances are someone else will too.”
Nikolai smiled. “Thank you.”
“I can’t believe how often you feel sorry for yourself,” Jackie scoffed.
“What about you?” Nikolai asked. “Why do we never talk about your romantic history?”
“Because it’s boring and you’re dating a sleazebag assassin,” Jackie said.
“I confess I am a little hurt that you will not confide in me,” Nikolai said. He raised a brow and added, “Unless there is a reason you will not confide in me.”
“Don’t flatter yourself,” she replied. “I know you’re gay, and you’re not even close to my type.”
“What is your type?” Nikolai asked.
“He does not exist,” Jackie said.
Nikolai laughed. “Will you at least give me some traits?”
“No,” Jackie said.
“Is it a celebrity?”
“No,” Jackie said. “I said he doesn’t exist.”
“A fictional character?” Nikolai asked.
Jackie clicked her tongue against her teeth. “Fine,” she said. “Augustus Freeman, the Fourth.”
“I do not know who that is,” Nikolai said.
“You’ll just have to look it up when we get to a computer,” Jackie replied. “If you remember the name, that is.”
Nikolai folded his arms across his chest and pouted. “I do not understand why you will not discuss this with me.”
“Do you want to talk to me about your parents?” Jackie asked.
“No,” Nikolai said.
Jackie smirked. Nikolai frowned.
Nikolai braced himself as Grier hit the gas to pass a truck. He watched the truck fly past them. Grier’s smile faded and she checked the rear view mirror. “I want to hear about what happened between you and Hoffman.”
Nikolai shifted in his seat.
“Nikolai, you know I’m not going to leave you at this point. I’ve bent over backwards for you because of this Solo situation, and I deserve to know what happened.”
“I would never hurt you,” Nikolai mumbled.
Jackie laughed. “Yeah, because Hoffman is such a threat to you. The man’s a butterfly. I’m not worried about you turning on me; I just want to hear exactly what happened from your mouth.”
Nikolai swallowed. “I just got overwhelmed,” Nikolai said, his voice low.
“Start at the beginning.”
“You know why we were there,” Nikolai said.
“Yeah, protecting some big shot. Do you even remember his name?”
“No,” Nikolai said. “I just remember all the people protesting. But Hoffman told me that there have been protests against good people as well as the bad. I did not doubt A.B.E.L.’s intentions, but I felt better after Hoffman said that. I liked Hoffman. He was not as strong or as gung-ho as Steele was, but he would grab my arm before I ran into trouble. When I was with Steele, it felt more like a competition, which one of us could be the better agent – and he was, of course. With Hoffman it felt more like we were on a team. It did not matter who killed who or who found what. What mattered was that we succeeded and survived.”
“You know Hoffman is still alive.”
Nikolai huffed. “You have seen Hoffman. He just sits in his surveillance room all day and eats donuts. He is a shell of the man he used to be.”
“Oh please,” Grier snapped. “This Hoffman is the only one I know, and I think he’s a lot more than a shell. It’s a tough job and he-“
“He listens in on us, Grier.”
“And he covers our backs when we fuck up,” Grier said. “You’re going to have to thank him one of these days, and maybe not with a bullet in the neck.”
“He did not let me handle the situation when he heard Guy in my apartment. He told everyone – and look at what happened because of that.”
“How fucking dense are you, Nikolai? He was trying to protect you. No one knew about you and Guy. How was he supposed to know?”
Nikolai folded his arms across his chest and looked back out the passenger side window. “I am not stupid,” Nikolai said.
“Well, sometimes it’s hard to remember that,” Jackie snapped.
The two sat in silence. Nikolai counted the snowy trees as they sped past the window, trying to calm down. His head throbbed. The sound of the windshield wipers moving back and forth weighed down on his eyelids. He blinked slowly and tried not to yawn. His limbs suddenly felt like sandbags.
“I heard gunshots,” Nikolai murmured. “I swear I heard gunshots in that crowd. Hoffman ducked behind a ledge; I think he wanted to get a better view while still protecting himself. Maybe he was checking for a sniper, I do not know. And I do not recall the type of weapon they gave us, but it was definitely an assault rifle. Maybe it was the L85? For some reason I cannot picture the gun in my hand. But Hoffman’s was fitted with SUSAT, and mine was not. Nonetheless, I shouted into the crowd. I aimed my rifle and told them that they were getting violent and that violated the laws of their city. I ordered them to disperse.”
“And they didn’t,” Grier said.
“They did not,” the blond agreed. “I repeated the order. I heard more gunshots. I turned to look for Hoffman, but I could not see him. I checked for gunmen, but I could not see them either. I fired in front of the crowd and ordered them to disperse. They started getting verbally abusive. You must understand, I stood there alone against them. I grew angry. I do not know how long I stood there, but as soon as the crowd grew too close, I shot into the ground again. They started throwing things at me – fruit, stones, whatever they could get their hands on. I wanted to hurt them. I just needed one justification for it, anything that would look good on paper. I rarely moved out of the way of anything they threw at me. If anything looked like it would injure me, I caught it or batted it away. I shot into the ground, but the crowd kept growing nearer. And I just stood my ground.
“Then I heard another gunshot, loud and close to me. So I shot into the crowd.” Nikolai paused to exhale. His palms felt sweaty, but his mouth felt dry. “They told me afterwards that the gunshot I heard was Hoffman shooting the gunman, but that never occurred to me. I just knew the crowd was abusive, and there was at least one gunman in it.
“But they could not stop me,” Nikolai said. “I saw the crowd finally dispersing as I shot off my weapon. I felt success. They finally listened to me. I stepped over corpses. I kept moving forward against the crowd, just like how the crowd tried to move forward against me. I think Hoffman tried to speak to me, I am not certain. I only heard the screams and my own gunshots. I felt the heat of the gun in my hand, I remember that. I remember the kickback. But Hoffman tried to grab me, and I hit him with the butt of my rifle. Then he tried to grab my gun, and I shot him. I just knew he was a threat.
“And I kept moving forward,” Nikolai said, his head aching. “I just kept moving forward and firing. It felt right. I think Steele brought me down. I do not really recall the events well. I woke up with a headache and a lot of bruises. My understanding is that Mags was about to shoot me, but Steele tackled me and knocked me out with the butt of his gun.”
Jackie stayed silent. Nikolai pulled his eyes away from the window, and Jackie kept her eyes on the road. Nikolai lowered his eyes back to his hands. He thought of Guy telling him off for leaving the boy in the pool. Maybe he was a cold, unfeeling person.
“If I had woken up with a bullet through my calf, I would not have blamed Mags,” Nikolai said. “Every day I go to work, I see my mistake. I almost wish Hoffman would punch me or yell at me or do something. But he just sits there.” Nikolai sighed. “I wonder if this is how Steele feels about Mags. Though, I suppose the difference is he wants to see her every day – and that she does not blame Steele for her current state.”
“Just stop talking,” Jackie said.
“I said I would never hurt you,” Nikolai said.
“God dammit Nikolai,” Jackie hissed. “Sometimes you make it really hard to be friends with you. I’m not blaming you for what you did, but would you listen to yourself? Wallowing in self-pity and regret. You feel sorrier for yourself than you do for Hoffman, don’t you?”
“I would do anything to take back what I did to Hoffman.”
“That doesn’t answer my question,” Jackie said. “Hoffman isn’t dead. All you have to do is go up to him and say, ‘Sorry I’m a scumbag,’ and give him a hug and he’s on your side.”
Nikolai doubted it, but didn’t say anything. He knew better than to talk back to Jackie. So he just hunched his shoulders and tried to be smaller.
“You’re worried about being alone, right?” Jackie asked. “You’re chasing after a middle-aged assassin because of it, right?”
Nikolai shrugged. He tried not to think about it. He remembered how alone he felt at the beginning of his exile, but then he met Lars.
“Well, we know Mags thinks the world of you,” Jackie said. “Cox literally lets you get away with murder. Westermark makes it his job to sexually harass you because he thinks you’re hot stuff. Maybe Steele’s a bit angry with you now, but he still stopped Mags from shooting you and clearly respects your opinion. And Hoffman’s still willing to risk his job to cover your ass even after you shot him in the neck. So what if none of the new recruits are willing to be your partner? These people care about you despite all your faults. A.B.E.L.’s your family.
“And I’m going to be here for you even if decide you don’t want to be a part of that family, okay?” Jackie pulled her eyes away from the road to give Nikolai a firm look with her brown eyes. “You’re not going to be alone again.”
Nikolai wiped his eye with his coat sleeve and nodded. He worried he would collapse into some weeping, feminine mess if he spoke. His mind was so cloudy. He was so tired. He couldn’t trust himself to control his emotions. Jackie’s eyes went back to the road, and she took one hand off the steering wheel and squeezed Nikolai’s hand. Nikolai smiled weakly at her. She smiled back.
“You should catch some sleep,” Jackie said, patting his arm before taking her hand back. “You’ll feel better.”
Nikolai nodded and adjusted his seat to try to get more comfortable. Jackie flipped on the radio, and Nikolai fell asleep to the sound of the ice against the windshield and a static-cluttered weather forecast. They predicted a lot more snow.