One. Two. Three. Four.
The world counts.
Steve Jinx sleeps, and wakes up, and the counting continues, cold and steady and unending.
One. Two. Three. Four.
Steve opens his eyes, and the whole world is Claudia's face, close and worried and much too pale.
"Jinxy?" she asks.
His throat is too dry for words. He waves her away, pulls himself upright, and breathes.
That's the idea, anyway. He ends up curled in on himself, coughing.
Claudia all but thrusts a water bottle down his throat. His shirt gets soaked.
"Thanks," he says, when he can.
"Don't mention it."
Her voice is just as hoarse as his. Her red eyes tell the reason.
Steve remembers dying, but Claudia won't talk about it.
He doesn't need her to tell him that an artifact is involved. What he can't figure for himself is where they are, and why. They're not at the Warehouse. There's no Artie, Myka, Pete, Leena. No Mrs. Frederic, and he's sure she would have something to say about this situation.
Claudia leaves him in a dreary hotel room, promising a swift return.
Steve is left with only the counting in his head.
Soon, he can't even hear that.
The next day Steve is fine. Completely perfect. Somehow that's worse than being incapacitated. Resurrection should cost more.
Claudia's relieved. "I was starting to worry something was wrong. That's not standard operating procedure for this artifact."
Claudia doesn't meet his eyes.
Steve can add two and two. Claudia dances around all conversation Warehouse-related, but assures him "we don't have to worry about Marcus anymore."
It isn't hard to guess where Steve's new shot at life came from.
Claudia has him holed up some middle-of-nowhere town. Not Univille, but almost as small. He wonders how he got here, if she just drove with his corpse in the passenger seat like an outtake from Weekend at Bernie's.
That image shouldn't be as funny as it is.
Claudia's gone through some trouble to keep him hidden. Knowing the resources the Warehouse has, he doubts she can keep it that way for long. Steve never finished reading the manual, but he thinks bringing dead agents back to life is against the rules.
He doesn't ask Claudia any of this outright. She talks to him the way people talk to terminal patients: a deliberate optimism masking grief for someone who isn't gone yet.
She looks like she was broken and poorly reconstructed. Steve doesn't want to push her and have her crumble.
There's a caution to their interaction now that doesn't belong.
In a moment of privacy, Steve checks everything he's wearing. All of it is his; there's no new trinket hidden anywhere on his person.
Whatever the artifact is, it doesn't require physical contact. Which is just as well; Steve would hate to remove it by accident, leaving Claudia to discover his corpse (again).
The thought stops him cold.
He distracts himself by tossing the hotel room. As far as he can tell, there's nothing more esoteric than complementary shampoo.
The search over, there's nothing to distract Steve from the question of what he would have done if he'd found the artifact.
Claudia's gone more often than not. Steve doesn't have a car, but he could find a way to follow her.
He stays put. Doesn't try to contact anyone, leave town, solve mysteries. He does nothing more than live.
Steve finds the closest grocery store. Buys razors so he can shave. Gets quarters to do his laundry. Chats about the weather with people walking their dogs.
He knows he's just spinning his wheels, but it's reassuring, making a mark.
Steve walks Claudia around the town.
She lies to him when he asks if she's okay. He takes it as an invitation to do most of the talking.
He's telling her a funny story when they walk past a flower cart. The salesperson pulls out a red rose. "Buy your pretty lady a pretty flower?"
The guy takes it well when Claudia laughs in his face.
Steve hadn't heard her laugh like that in ages. He thinks about the other sounds he misses; her absent-minded strumming on her guitar; the rich silence that settles over the Warehouse; his mother's off-key whistling as she works around the house.
Steve buys a flower, on impulse. Not the rose. Sometime orange and yellow and wild.
"What kind is that?" she asks, and Steve can only shrug.
"Not really a flower person," he says.
Steve hands it to her. "Here. A dead flower from a dead guy."
She doesn't laugh. She looks, in fact, like she might cry.
"You know what we totally should get?" Claudia says, forcing herself back to the brightness of a moment before. "Those little heart necklaces that say best friends, and they're broken in two so you each get half."
Steve can't think of anything he's less likely to own. Then again, he isn't much for buying women flowers, either. "Anything can happen," Steve says aloud.
They walk in silence for a while. Claudia tries to work the flower into her hair, but the stem is far too long.
"You okay?" He breaks his self-imposed rule not to ask her anything she doesn't want to answer. "I was just trying to joke. It wasn't that funny, I know."
"It's fine," Claudia smiles. "I just haven't been sleeping well."
That's true, even if it isn't the truth.
Steve sleeps, if the phrase is acceptable, like the dead.
He ought to have nightmares, but he doesn't. His mind saves its nastiest tricks for the waking hours.
He notices a growing hostility in himself. Losing his temper more easily, having less patience waiting in lines. He writes it off as stress.
Steve begins to worry one night after arguing with the night manager at the hotel. He thinks suddenly about how easy it would be to kill the man. It isn't an idle thought; it's a fully illustrated tableau of violence, committed to serve no purpose.
Steve locks himself inside the hotel room and the thoughts fade. They don't go away.
Steve hadn't seen Marcus eat anything. For all he'd known, Marcus' condition meant he didn't need to eat.
Now the condition is Steve's, and he's ravenous.
Steve's credit cards weren't among the personal effects he had when he resumed living. Claudia brings him money when she stops by, stacks of twenties that makes Steve think of all the things someone could make an ATM do if they just knew how.
There's an Italian place across the street from the hotel room that isn't terrible. Steve eats there every day. Gets to know the servers' names, their stories, without offering much in return.
Claudia nags him about eating too much pasta. "God, Jinxy, didn't you ever hear of a little thing called the food pyramid?"
"So get pizza," Steve tells her. "That's a vegetable now, right?"
Steve schemes with one of the waitresses. The next time he and Claudia eat there, the waitress plops a kid's menu down, right in front of Claudia's face, and follows it with four waxy crayons.
Claudia sputters, just like they were back doing inventory and she was reminding him that she was the senior agent, thank you very much.
It's a cheap joke, but Steve takes what he can get.
Claudia and Steve lie side by side on the hotel bed, watching a bad comedian and eating popcorn. They laugh about how corny the jokes are, and maybe they laugh at the jokes a little, too. Steve feels like he's a kid again, having a slumber party.
Which makes it all the more unreal when Claudia turns to him, smile suddenly wistful, and asks, "Are you happy?"
The answer is immediate. "Yeah, of course."
Claudia bites her lip. "You could tell me. I mean, this has to be really weird for you." She laughs. "I know it is for me."
Steve thinks about lying to her. Thinks about the fact that she hasn't been sleeping. Thinks about the fifty-cent BFF necklace she'd given him as a joke, that he's still wearing under his shirt.
"The artifact." Even though Claudia brought it up, she winces at hearing the word. "I don't know what's happening, but I think its doing something to me."
"Are you in pain at all?" Claudia asks. "Disorientation? Memory loss? Perpetual fudge smell?"
Steve shakes his head.
"You don't have the urge to feed on human flesh, do you? Because that actually happened. We had freaking zombies."
"Claudia. It's changing me."
"I don't know," Steve admits. "But I don't think its good."
"We don't know what it does. We haven't had a chance to see it in action."
"Yes, we have," Steve corrects her. "And I don't want to end up like that."
"That wasn't the artifact," Claudia speaks with the absolute certainty of the ignorant. "Marcus was evil."
Steve remembers the horrible things that Marcus did. He also remembers a whispered apology, just as the needle struck. "He was a cop."
"Okay, maybe he was an evil cop. Happens all the time." Claudia grabs his hands. "Steve, I know you. You're a good guy. You're not going to turn out like him."
"Are you sure about that?" Steve asked.
Claudia doesn't hesitate for a second. "Yes."
She sees what she wants to see. Steve knows better. Whatever 'good guy' means, that's not him. You need to make friends with your inner monster to go undercover. And Steve was good at going undercover. Good enough to trick Claudia.
No one that good at evil should be given immortality.
Steve pulls his hands away. "I can't."
Claudia blinks away tears and turns back to the television.
Maybe its cowardly, but Steve lets the subject go.
When Claudia leaves, he follows her.
She's smart, but she doesn't notice she's being tailed. Maybe because her expertise is in the virtual world, not the real one. Maybe because she's not as much of a suspicious bastard as Steve is.
It isn't too far a drive to Univille. Claudia heads straight to Leena's. Steve continues on to the Warehouse.
Rather, the place it used to be.
Now he knows why the Warehouse agents haven't been tracking him down. They have bigger problems.
He thinks about walking among the wreckage. He thinks about driving back to Leena's and never leaving again.
He thinks a lot of things as he sits in a borrowed car alone, listening to the too-regular beat of his heart.
He isn't alone long. He probably never will be. Bringing someone back from the dead seems to create a particular bond.
Claudia climbs into the passenger seat without looking at him.
They sit in silent vigil over the Warehouse for a long time before Steve speaks. "What happened?"
She doesn't answer. When she speaks again, she sounds casual, indifferent. "You know what dying nobly for the right cause gets you, Steve? It gets you nothing."
"And what about living for the wrong cause?"
He can barely hear her answer. "I don't know."
"Tell me what the artifact is."
Claudia shakes her head. "I can't."
"Claudia, we don't know what it does."
"And why are you in such a big hurry to give up without finding out?" Claudia snaps, and it's a relief, to hear her sound more like herself. It brings out the unvarnished truth.
"Because I'm scared."
Claudia finally, finally looks at him. "I won't let anything bad happen to you, not ever."
"Even if you had to take away what you gave me?" Steve asks. "Even if you had to kill me?"
She hesitates. "You don't – "
"Please," Steve insists. The conversation is wearing on him. He can feel something ugly trying to escape his control. "Promise me, Claudia. If I ever end up like that..."
Claudia watches him. There's something on her face he hates seeing there. It might be fear.
Slowly, she nods. "I promise."
Steve shuts his eyes and leans back. The victory feels more like loss. "Okay then," he sighs, turning on the car. "I promise, until then, not to give up."
"I'm holding you to that."
Steve summons up the last smile he can find. "I think this calls for a celebration. You want to get breakfast?"
Claudia frowns, confused. "It's three in the afternoon."
"Yeah, but I know this great little B&B in town."
Claudia nods, then takes his right hand. He twines there fingers together.
They drive, silently supporting each other, back to the world of the living.