Before he met Ryan, Nick wasn’t much of a man at all. He was a thing, a weapon. He didn’t live, he didn’t even survive. Survival carried connotations of struggle, of fighting tooth and nail and claw against the inevitable end. That was too passionate a word for what Nick was then. Perhaps endured, but that also has some essence of standing against hardship.
No, before Ryan, Nick simply continued. Like the simplest bacteria, he lived, and he avoided negative stimulus. He killed so he could have money so he could buy food and medical supplies to avoid hunger and pain.
He was nothing. Empty, hollow. Seeking only to prolong his existence another day because laying in a corner somewhere and dying was against his base instincts. He killed, he ate, he healed, he killed. That was all he was.
And then Ryan knocked on his door and offered him something no one else ever had: simple kindness. Cold beefy-mac and a quietly rasped welcome back.
It was unprecedented.
It was fascinating.
Suddenly Nick cared if he died on a job, because that meant that his strange, kind, neighbor would wonder where he was. Would knock on his door and not be answered.
When he returned injured, Ryan came out of his apartment, and in his pain, Nick didn’t recognize his footsteps. Perhaps before, he would have been fine with being killed, but now, no, he had to live. He had to see Ryan again, had to understand him.
And then he realized it was Ryan he was pointing his gun at and he put it away. Ryan had helped him to his apartment, had done his best to heal him.
Nick recognized the signs of trauma. He’s never cared before, but when Ryan disappears for days he worried. When he came to Ryan’s apartment, he realized that Ryan was what he was not.
Ryan made Nick into one too. Made him sharper, better, gave him a goal, a reason to live, not just continue. For that, Nick owed him a debt.
Nick was not a man who owed debts, before, but now he owes Ryan many. For awakening him, but most of all, for allowing Nick into his family.
Children are precious things, even when he was nothing, Nick knew that. He never took a job that hurt a child. And now, thanks to Ryan, Nick has two of his own.
One here. And one lost.
Nick has never regretted killing anyone before, but he does now. Not because he thinks Barnett deserved to live, but because he clearly killed the man far too quickly.
It isn’t as though he has hidden Alex through some exquisitely crafted, perfect cover. The foster system is just so badly managed that Nick would probably have a hard time finding Alex even if he was listed under his real name and birthdate.
He knows that it will be changed, they changed Chris’s, luckily he was old enough to remember his actual name and look up Ryan’s contact information.
Alex was only two months old when he was taken, there will be no help from him. Nick has to do it on his own.
He should have found him by now. Days have slipped into weeks, weeks into months, months into years.
Nick is one of the most accomplished assassins in the world. He has taken down governments single handedly. But he is no match for this.
Ryan’s son, Nick’s son, is out there, somewhere. Stolen. Nick has to get him back. That is the mission, and Nick always completes his mission. It nags in his mind, leaving it incomplete. Every time Ryan looks at the empty fourth chair at the table, every time there is still a tupperware dish with one portion in the fridge.
Their son is missing, the mission is incomplete.
Nick asks Ryan over and over for any details that might make it easier to find Alex. Nothing, over and over again, nothing.
Nick is failing his family. Failing the mission. Failing to pay his debt.
There are hundreds of thousands of boys with blond hair and blue eyes in the Foster System. Any one of them could be Nick’s son, Ryan’s son.
He will test each and every one of them if he has to, but the process is long and time consuming. He has to find the kid, travel to them, keep his presence subtle and discreet while he waits for a chance to get DNA, a process that can take days, weeks, or even months. Once he has the DNA, even with his connections, it takes four to six weeks to get results.
He has to check ever Alexander, Alex, Andrew, Aiden, and a hundred thousand more. All the while aware that Barnett could have changed all of Alex’s name and he could be looking in the wrong place entirely.
More years slip by.
Alex is lost.
Nick’s mission is incomplete.
He thinks it will drive him to madness. He understands why Ryan is desolate, the gaping, shattered hole of his loss consumes him. Nick has to get his son back, has to fix it, to repay his debt, to reunite his family.
That is the mission.
The only mission that matters.
He takes other jobs, to sustain Ryan and Chris, to keep them safe and fed and as happy as they can be. That is also the mission. It…helps, that they are well.
It makes something bright and warm burn in Nick’s heart when Chris hugs him. When Ryan looks to him for guidance, for help, for a shoulder to lean on.
Even though Nick can’t find their son.
It gnaws at him.
He stays up late into the night, pouring over foster care files. Looking at child after child, hoping to see Ryan’s chin or Toni’s nose.
In the end, its Chris.
He shows Ryan a video on his phone, laughing at a baby trying lemon for the first time. Ryan laughs too, and holds the phone with desperate gentleness.
“We did that with Alex,” he says, “Toni and I. I was making…fish, I think. He wanted the lemon so we let him try a bit.” He laughs softly, sadly, his eyes heavy with memory. “He made a terrible face, and then he burst right into hives and that’s how we found out he was allergic to citrus.”
Nick’s slowly lifts his head.
“He’s what?” Nick repeats.
“Allergic to citrus,” Ryan says slowly. “I’d–I’d forgotten until now. Oh god, I forgot. That–could that–?”
“It’ll help,” Nick says, he hates to dim the hope in Ryan’s eyes, but he doesn’t want him to get too excited. Its been nearly thirteen years of searching. Nick doesn’t know how many more times Ryan can stand to have his heart broken.
Ryan takes a shaky breath and nods, and holds Chris close. “We’re gonna find him,” he murmurs into his hair.
Chris clutches him back, just as tightly. “I know. I know dad.”
Nick gets up and goes down to his office. With the new criteria, his list is cut down from hundreds, to just five.
One by one, he goes down the list. The mission is nearly over, but he can’t get sloppy now. If anything he has to be more precise. He can’t risk something happening and Alex being moved or hidden again.
Aaron M. Archer is removed from the list. He’s easy, he’s the wrong race.
Alec H. Greene is removed from the list. He’s hard. He has Ryan’s blond hair, but green eyes, Nick spends weeks stalking the kid to get a sample. He isn’t Alex, but Nick reports his foster parents anyway. And arranges for Adam’s foster father to break his arm, a taste of his own medicine.
Adam C. Potter is removed from the list. He’s a big kid, a bully. Nick would have loved him despite it if he were Alex, but he isn’t.
He comes to Alexander D. Maxwell. One of two names still on the list.
He’s a wild kid, loud, in the way of someone trying to get attention. Someone desperate for attention. For care.
From the state of his clothes and bag, from the state of that foundation that’s two shades off from the rest of his complexion, Nick will be making another call to Social Services when he leaves here.
If Nick looks, Alexander might have some things in common with Ryan and Toni. He doesn’t let himself look. After years of searching for Ryan and Toni’s features in stranger’s faces he is very good at finding them.
He wants to find him, but he has to be sure. He can’t give himself, and especially Ryan, hope too soon. Ryan wouldn’t recover from something like that.
Finally, Alexander spits a bit of gum into a trashcan, and Nick has his chance. He carefully wraps the sample and sends it off, and returns home to wait. He doesn’t call in Alexander’ foster parent’s behavior yet, as much as he hates to leave any kid there. If this is Ryan’s Alex, if this is Nick’s Alex, he needs him where he can find him again.
He spends a week home with Ryan and Chris. Chris is looking at colleges, but its a half hearted business. He’s only just turned eighteen, and now there is the chance that his brother will be home soon.
Even still, Nick doesn’t think any of them are ready for Chris to go anywhere, they probably won’t be for awhile. Maybe never. The thought of Chris being out there, alone, makes Nick’s hands itch. He imagines Ryan is even worse.
Its a good week, August is slipping away and October is taking its place. Chris wants to decorate for halloween again. Even though nobody comes out to the safe house–the safe home Ryan and Chris call it.
Nick is going to let him decorate anyway. It makes him happy, and there is no reason to deny him the chance to be happy. When he was younger they used to do a modified sort of halloween where he and Ryan hid candy around the mountain and they would go find it. It was a good way to teach Chris wilderness survival and tracking.
The results still haven’t come in.
Nick should check out the last kid on the list. Andy T. Roberts
He finds himself not doing it though.
If it isn’t Andy, and it isn’t Alexander, that means he’ll have to start all over again. Search through more kids. The mission will continue.
Nick wants so desperately for it to end.
He wants to bring his son, Ryan’s son home. He wants to repair–as much as he can–that gaping hole in Ryan’s heart.
Nick takes another job instead of looking into Andy. Its long, and messy, and difficult, and Nick ends up staying a couple nights longer than he planned, letting himself heal in a hotel so Ryan and Chris won’t worry.
He stops by the dead drop on the way to the safe house.
There’s an envelope waiting for him there. He missed Alexander’s results coming in by a week. Annoying.
He finds himself reluctant to open it. There’s only one more chance after this, and then he will have to expand his search. He brings the envelope home, maybe it will be easier there, with Ryan and Chris nearby.
He hugs his family, sits with them, gives them the souvenirs that he brought back from his trip. They eat dinner, they play board games. Eventually, Chris and Ryan slip off to bed.
Nick stays awake.
He takes a deep breath and turns off the lights and slips down to his office. Under the light of his lamp, he opens the envelope. The paper sits, folded before him, waiting.
His hands don’t shake, his hands never shake, but they sort of want to. He hasn’t felt this much hope in a long time. Hope that the mission is nearly over, that soon he’ll be bringing Alex home.
He takes a deep breath. In for four, hold for seven, out for eight.
He unfolds the paper.
Nick takes a deep breath. In for four, hold for seven, out for eight.
He opens his eyes.
Probability of Paternity: 99.9998%
He stares at the text.
Nick can read fluently in eight different languages. He can scrape by in about ten more. He can figure out where the bathroom and the exits are in many, many more.
English isn’t his first language, but it has become his most common one.
The words make sense, he knows what they say. He knows what they mean.
He stares at them, as if they will change.
Its been eight years.
Eight years, that he’s been waiting to see these words. These numbers.
His hands shake.
“Nick?” Chris asks softly. They don’t knock, in their house. Ryan doesn’t like it. “Nick its time for breakfast.”
Nick looks up. His eyes feel strained. He’s tired. He’s stayed up longer than this, but that doesn’t mean his body doesn’t need rest. He’s…not gotten any, apparently.
He looks at the paper.
Probability of Paternity: 99.9998%
“Nick?” Chris asks softly. The door creaks and clicks as he turns the handle. “Are you okay? Do you want me to go get dad?”
Nick takes a deep breath. In for four, hold for seven, out for eight. “Yeah,” he says softly, “get your dad. Both of you come here….Actually, let’s go to the living room. I’ll meet you there.”
“…okay,” Chris says warily. “Are you…okay?”
“Yeah,” Nick says, and to his horror, his voice shakes. He clears his throat. “I’m okay kid. I’m–I’m good, actually.”
Chris’s footsteps don’t retreat. He steps into Nick’s office and hugs him gently. Tension he didn’t know he was holding melts from Nick’s shoulders. He pats Chris’s arm where it hooks around his chest.
“I’m alright kid,” he says, “I promise. I’ll explain in a second. Go get your dad.”
Chris squeezes him one last time. “Alright. We’ll be waiting for you.”
Nick takes a deep breath. Inhale, hold, exhale.
He gets up and follows in Chris’s footsteps.
Chris and Ryan are sitting on the couch, Ryan’s arms wrapped around his son. His dog is doing her level best to crawl into Chris’s lap, her tail wagging, she’s whimpering and licking at his chin. .
The paper feels heavy in Nick’s hands.
He sits in his chair.
Ryan and Chris look at him, fleeting, feeble hope in their eyes. They probably think he has bad news.
Nick knows no other way to say it.
He holds out the paper. “I found him,” he says softly.
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