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It doesn’t take an intellect the size of Artie’s to conclude that his association with Helen, Dave, and Mell will end up getting him killed sooner or later. Until today, he thought he’d made his peace with the idea. It isn’t as though he hasn’t lived a long, full life of adventure and accomplishment far beyond the vague, alfalfa-scented dreams of the average gerbil. And it isn’t as though they’d be doing it out of malice; Helen in particular has a hard time remembering that most squishable sentients prefer to admire explosions from a distance. Besides, he’s sure that as long as something didn’t come along to distract them, they’d do their best to resurrect him. In fact, he already knows how far Mell would go.

That more than anything, he hypothesizes in a brief instant of clarity granted him between blows, is what makes this particular impending doom so hard to accept: even more so than the belated realization that six year old Mell may be deadlier than her adult self. This is personal for her. And the beneficiary of this rare gesture of protection isn’t himself or Helen or Caliban, but a scrawny, unassuming classmate whose admittedly remarkable intelligence he doubts she fully appreciates, especially given that she’s only known the boy for a few hours.

“You’re not taking Sergio away!” she howls, landing a punch to his gut which derails this and all other trains of thought for the moment.

Through his one unblackened eye as he curls up in a vain effort to pull himself and his cracked ribs back together, he catches sight of Sergio. The boy stands silent amid the throng of cheering first-graders, wringing his hands and watching the fight with an expression of mingled distress, awe, and guilt-tinged gratitude. Artie recognizes the look instantly, despite never having seen it before: it is the perfect summation of his own feelings whenever Mell takes up arms on his behalf. All the more reason to remove Sergio to an environment where he’ll be surrounded by peers who will present him with challenges other than ethical dilemmas.

Except…can Artie honestly say that his life has been made worse by being forced to assess his beliefs on a practical level? Will Sergio be better off fighting to have his ideas recognized by experts predisposed to dismiss the contributions of someone small and adorable? (Artie knows that feeling well, too.) And what of Mell? Loath though he is to allow Sergio to put a promising future on hold in order to serve as what may be the sole civilizing influence of her formative years, he cannot deny that it may be for the greater good.

Besides, if the boy has chosen the role, he’s not in a position to judge.

“All right,” he gasps. “All right! I won’t. You have my word.”

Mell appraises him, still poised to strike. “Not good enough,” she declares finally, pulling back her fist.

“Mell!” Sergio, apparently having found his voice along with an astonishing reserve of courage, interposes himself between the two combatants. “He promised.”

This time, Mell’s hands fall to her hips. “Fine,” she says, a tad peevishly, and Artie knows he’s made the right decision.

Sergio rushes to undo the jump ropes, babbling an apology, but Artie is no longer listening. Instead, he focuses his remaining strength on the task of retaining consciousness and, by extension, control over his form. He has no desire to wake up in a laboratory cage surrounded by dangerously inquisitive scientists – or worse, as the class pet. Scientists, at least, he is still confident he can handle.

-

“Look on the bright side,” says Dave, powering down his latest invention with one last ominous hum and laying a hand on Artie’s shoulder which, remarkably, feels like only a single knife of fire instead of several. “Now we know the time-travel process and the sub-dermal regeneration ray work. You should probably keep the neck brace on for a day or two just in case, though.”

“For all the good that will do me if I change in my sleep,” Artie grumbles.

“I could loan you an experimental version of—”

No,” says Artie, grumble shifting to a growl: a sensation which, however useful, still feels slightly at odds with his genetic makeup. “I still don’t know how I let you trick me into visiting the past in the first place.”

Dave shrugs, pulling a modified smartphone (to what purpose, Artie isn’t certain he wants to know) from his lab coat pocket and tapping at the screen. “You’re the one who said, and I quote, that you were not going to allow me to destroy even a universe full of unevolved slime and paramecia in order to bend time to my whim or put unwitting innocents at risk. Didn’t leave me with a whole lot of options for test subjects. Besides, I pulled you out of there before they could do any poking around at the hospital, didn’t I?”

Once again, Artie finds himself missing the Dave who spent less time creating lab experiments and more time being one. Pointing this out will have as much of an effect as telling himself that next time he’ll spend summer break elsewhere, though, so he settles for changing the subject. “When did you start working on medical contraptions, anyway? Biology is more Helen’s line.”

“Hmm?” Dave looks up from his tapping. “Oh. Helen and I have been talking a lot about having kids lately. Human ones, that is. I just want to be sure my pregnancy goes as smoothly as possible.”

“You mean her pregnancy?”

The smartphone makes a noise like a blender operating at top speed and projects a column of figures onto the opposite wall in what appears to be purple ink. Dave barely blinks. “I keep telling you, I’m trying to be realistic about this.”

Also not for the first time, Artie finds his nostalgia superseded by a reminder that as long as Helen is around, Dave will never forget what it means to be an active component in the scientific process. He is about to offer sympathy when he hears the clomp of high heels as worn by someone more accustomed to combat boots and has to fight the urge to either flee or curl up into a ball again.

By the time Mell pokes her head around the corner, these impulses have been subdued for the most part, and her clear delight at seeing him eases him all the way back to his usual levels of caution. “Artie! Have you seen Dave? I was gonna tell him the latest on Lovelace’s emancipation…” She takes in the neck brace. “What happened?”

Artie glances around as best he can, but Dave has either teleported away or chosen this moment to test some other evasion technique, saving Artie the trouble of having to forcibly remind himself that he’s supposed to be the good one. “You, a couple of decades ago.”

Her eyes go wide. “Oh, holy cheese. I can’t believe I never…I mean, we had a lot of subs that year, but still…”

“It’s all right, Mell. You couldn’t have known.”

She shakes her head. “I’m gonna make this up to you,” she declares. “That’s a promise.”

Artie isn’t sure that being owed a favor by Mell is any less dangerous than owing her one, even without the strange, appraising look she’s giving him, but he’s not about to argue with her (again) while his ribs are still throbbing. “If you insist. Just, please…no need for anything dramatic.”

-

Artie settles back in his chair and lets the words of the current presenter wash over him, feeling fully relaxed for the first time in months. That Mell of all people would choose to apologize by way of a fully paid registration to the Modern Language Association Annual Convention still baffles him, but compared to some of the scenarios he’d envisioned while reminding himself just how strongly their definitions of “dramatic” diverge, he’ll take it. Besides, it’s saved him the trouble of having to find funding on his own.

And while some of the sessions and networking have almost made him wish he could attend the mad scientists’ convention with Dave and Helen again instead, he would have hated to miss this lecture. The content is very nearly enough to distract him from the speaker’s slim build and Latino good looks, which are only enhanced by a charmingly bookish pair of spectacles. Nearly.

Nonetheless, he persuades himself he has nothing but professional admiration in mind as he approaches the podium at the end of the session to offer his congratulations. “Brilliant talk,” he gushes, studiously ignoring the thrill rushing up his arm as he shakes the speaker’s hand. “After a whole morning of pedagogical techniques on developing analytical skills, I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to hear someone who recognizes the importance of aesthetic appreciation. Tell me, have you read–?”

Then he spots his new acquaintance’s nametag, and freezes in mid-sentence.

Sergio looks him over, quizzically at first, then with a dawning smile made all the more beguiling by its open innocence. “Either I met your father once, or you’ve aged well.”

So have you, Artie thinks, but does not say, because he already feels enough like a dirty old man. Reminding himself that “old” may be the least inaccurate part of that characterization despite the fact that he and Sergio must be nearly the same subjective age doesn’t help in the slightest. Nor does the realization he still has Sergio’s hand in his grip. He disengages as quickly as he can without making his discomfiture obvious.

With a sudden flash of added panic as he remembers who completed his registration, he steals a glance down at his own nametag and notes the surname for the first time: “Meriono,” his alias from the past. Damn, damn, damn. Why does he keep underestimating Mell?

“Your…uh, friend made quite an impression,” he says at last: the closest he feels he can come to addressing the implied question without outright lying.

Sergio laughs, a joyful sound with a husky tinge to it that sends Artie’s innards into new paroxysms of conflicted giddiness. “Mell does that. She’s mellowed, though. Or at least directs her energy toward more productive causes. You should see her arguing a case before the bench.”

“I’m sure.” He’s seen her negotiating skills, at any rate, and he doubts many judges or juries would represent more of a challenge than the Malebrache. Besides, he can’t afford to prolong the conversation. “Well, just wanted to extend my compliments. Enjoy the rest of the conference.”

Before he can make his escape, Sergio catches his arm. “Wait. Please. I haven’t had much opportunity to hear the education sessions, and the afternoon symposiums aren’t for another hour. If you’re interested, we could go to the coffee shop across the street and compare notes.”

No, Artie thinks. I’m sorry. You have no idea how interested I am, but it’s not possible. The circumstances are completely wrong, and coming from someone who spent his formative years in a mad scientist’s lab, that’s saying a great deal. So thanks – honestly – but no thanks…and you can tell Mell I said so.

“I’d love to,” he finds himself saying.

And somehow, though he suspects it has something to do with the three pints of microbrewed witbier obtained from the hotel bar after the coffee shop closes for the night in the middle of Sergio’s impassioned critique of asemic writing, he finds himself still in the hotel elevator as it closes on his floor. He watches as his vision takes on the hazy edges of a dream, and the elevator slowly empties except for Sergio. He watches his own profile in the lobby mirror as he follows Sergio out and into the hallway. He watches the numbers on the hotel room doors pass by, until they come to a stop in front of one, and there is nothing left to watch but Sergio as they face each other in expectant silence.

As long as he doesn’t have to take the initiative, he can rationalize away whatever happens next. Claim to be caught up in the moment, overcome by his human instincts. The next morning might be awkward, especially if he wakes up with fur and a tail, but he won’t have to think about that yet. Won’t have to think at all, for once.

But Sergio seems every bit as hopefully hesitant as he is, which leaves him no choice as the seconds drag on but to think about the next morning, and all the mornings after.

“I--I’ll call you,” he stammers at last, and bolts down the hall before Sergio can point out that they haven’t exchanged contact information.

-

“Mr.–er, Artie?” The education department’s new undergraduate assistant has a familiar note of panic in her voice as she raps on the wall of his cubicle. “I know you asked not to be disturbed, but your…friend is quite insistent on seeing you.”

Artie turns around, and is only surprised to see that Mell appears to have accomplished this reaction without resorting to weapons or other physical force. “It’s all right, Selena. She can stay.”

“Sergio wants to know why you haven’t called,” Mell informs him once Selena has fled.

He is not surprised by the topic of conversation, either: only by the intensity of the regret he feels at this news. “I don’t have his number,” he says in clipped tones, turning as far back to his desk as he deems safe.

“You could’ve gotten it from me.”

“Fine. Leave it on the desk, and I’ll get in touch with him as soon as I’ve finished this bibliography.” Which, as it happens to be the bibliography for his masters’ dissertation, should be in approximately two to three years. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’m in the middle of—”

“Nuh-uh,” Mell interrupts, spinning his chair so that he faces her head-on again. “See, you could’ve gotten it from me, but you didn’t even ask. So obviously, you’re not going to do anything with it unless I make you.”

Artie sighs. “Mell, it doesn’t matter how many of my bones you break – and no, that’s not a challenge,” he adds hastily, remembering who he’s talking to just in time. “The point is, you cannot force me into a relationship.”

“He likes you, and you like him. Don’t try and deny it,” she warns as he opens his mouth to protest. “Dave told me your type once when he was drunk. So what’s the problem?”

You’re the good one, Artie reminds himself sternly. That means no thinking about how you should have let Mell kill Dave while you still had the chance. “You know how I feel about dating outside of my species,” he says instead.

Mell snorts. “Oh, please. If ANTONIO SMITH, FORENSIC LINGUIST turned up on your doorstep sobbing about how he couldn’t live a lie any more and was filing for divorce, you’re telling me you wouldn’t invite him in for some hot, hot tea and sympathy?”

“Not in the manner which you’re implying.” Not until after the divorce was finalized, anyway.

When her skeptical look fails to draw this admission from him, she presses onward. “Look, Sergio won’t care about the whole trans-human thing. Before he found out he got into grad school, he interviewed for this government job where he’d have been assisting a whole buncha mad scientists’ creations. Still says he wishes he could trade in his department head for the swarm of bees who ran the place. Now, I know you’re gonna say that working with someone isn’t the same thing as wanting t’goink them, but–”

“I was his first grade teacher!” Artie blurts, immediately following this outburst with a silent prayer that Mell’s presence has discouraged Selena or anyone else in the vicinity from eavesdropping.

“For one freakin’ day!” Mell yells back, which is no help whatsoever. “Why are you fighting this so hard? You’re two of my best friends! Two of the only real friends I’ve got! I’m just trying to make you both happy!”

“That’s what scares me,” he mutters, realizing as he says it that it’s the only point he’s made so far that isn’t just an excuse. “The last relationship I had any kind of hand in was Dave and Helen’s, and I almost botched that completely. I only managed to save it in the end by staying as far out of the way as possible. What if I wreck this one, Mell? What if we end up making each other miserable?”

Mell’s expression softens. For an instant, Artie thinks she’s patronizing him, the way Dave described her acting to gain her college classmates’ trust, but there’s still that spark of iron determination in her eyes that he considers quintessentially her. He wonders if this is the Mell who Sergio sees: the one whose acts of kindness, though often brutal, are anything but rare or random. “You’re the two nicest, smartest guys I know. And don’t forget, that list includes mad scientists, computer intelligences, and an ex-fallen angel – who agrees with me, by the way. If both of you working together can’t figure it out, then fine. It’s not meant to be. But I’m not gonna let you be stupid enough to not even try.”

“That’s a split infinitive,” he says weakly, and Mell’s spark of determination changes to a gleam of triumph. When he’s reduced to correcting her grammar, she’s won, and they both know it.

“So you’ll call him?”

“No.” He smiles, and Mell, picking up on the plotting in motion behind the simple gesture, grins in response. “I’ll do better than that. Give me his address.”

-

You can do this, Artie tells himself for at least the fifth time since arriving on Sergio’s doorstep. He’s lost count of the number of times he’s repeated the mantra since devising the plan in the first place. You have the intelligence of 1.17 Stephen Hawkings. You’ve stared evil in the face and given it a stern talking-to. You went to the trouble of assembling a picnic basket. Now raise that arm and knock.

He does, tentatively. Judging by the speed with which Sergio opens the door, however, he suspects his struggle has not gone unobserved. “Erm. Hi.” Composure all but fled, he holds the basket out in front of him like a shield. “I brought a token of apology.”

Sergio accepts the basket and peers inside, nodding approvingly at the wine and raising an eyebrow at the bouquet of small purple flowers. “Alfalfa?”

“Something you’ll have to get accustomed to, if we’re going to be…better acquainted.” Clumsy euphemisms? Oh, for heaven’s sake. He should have started with the sonnets. No turning back now, though. “That is, if you want…assuming I haven’t…”

His fumbling is mercifully, blissfully cut short as Sergio reaches out with his free hand and pulls him in for a kiss. “Mell gave me some encouragement, too,” he says, once they’ve both caught their breath.

Artie takes a reluctant step back. “I really do need to explain the alfalfa before this goes much further. Quite a few other things as well, most likely.” Then he registers the significance of what Sergio’s said. “Wait. ‘Too?’ How much did she…?”

“Oh, nothing direct. But between what I know about her internship and my ongoing correspondence with ANTONIO SMITH, FORENSIC LINGUIST, I think I’ve pieced together the key details.” His warm brown eyes chase away Artie’s compulsions to ask what Dr. Smith had to say on his behalf. “And while I wouldn’t dream of offending your…heritage by saying it doesn’t matter, the only detail I care about as it relates to me…us is that you’re nervous. I am, too. Obviously.” Artie is about to scoff, until he sees Sergio’s composure wavering. “I mean, ‘heritage’? Here I am trying not to offend, and instead I come up with a lousy euphemism like…”

This time, Artie puts a stop to the insecure babbling. “We’ll figure out a better one,” he says, once he’s certain he’s communicated his lack of offense. “But since my original talking points no longer seem necessary, perhaps we could continue our discussion on semiotics instead? I’ve read some of the essays you recommended, and I think they have tremendous implications for my own research.”

Sergio beams. “Of course.” He hoists the basket onto his shoulder. “Follow me.”

A part of Artie still wants to run, back to the safety of the university, the lab, the cage. But he’s glimpsed the world beyond those confines, and whether he dies tomorrow or in a thousand years (which is not so out of the question, if Helen or Dave are involved), he wants to die secure in the belief he’s lived his life to the fullest, having pursued every bit of knowledge worth knowing. If he can do so in the company of someone who desires the same, so much the better.

He follows Sergio inside and shuts the door behind him.