She was doing it again. Looking at him. Approvingly.
It had to stop.
“Look. Colonel Baird. I don’t know what you saw or what you think you saw, or maybe what you’re claiming you saw... but it wasn’t real.”
She made no effort to pretend that she didn’t know what he was talking about. Damnit. She was going to make him deal with this. “It was real, Jones. I think you know that.”
“No.” He shook his head firmly. “No, it wasn’t. There isn’t some deathly dull Ezekiel Jones running around, being all on-task all the time and taking responsibility for everyone he meets—“ She smirked. “Okay. Yes, I guess there might be, in some alternate reality… though I’m still not convinced that you weren’t just taking the mickey out of all of us about that.” He shook his head again, irritated at the effortless way she’d distracted him. “Not the point. The point is that we didn’t cross realities this time. There was no alternate me, only me-me, and I’m no hero. I’m the worst version of myself, remember?” He smirked. “The Ezekiel Jones I happen to like best.”
Baird’s smile was an odd combination of sweet and predatory, a look that nobody else in the world could carry off. He had fallen into a trap of some kind, and now he’d have to accept her fondness or pride or whatever the hell it was that she wanted to throw at him. Fuck.
“The Ezekiel I met in the alternate timeline had clearly had a completely different life, with experiences that shaped him into a different person.”
“So you said. Mum.” She glared at him and he grinned.
“Okay. Yeah. Having me raise you—erm, him, probably did play a part in his development. But it was more than that. There were probably a thousand differences in that universe, all of which made him a different person from you. But the Ezekiel from the game, that was you, raised in this reality and shaped by the same forces that have shaped you into the… whatever… you are.”
“Exactly! Which means that he was playing you! He wasn’t the slightest bit heroic; he’d just had lots of practice convincing you that he was. Through the process of trial and error, he'd figured out exactly what he needed to say to you to make you think that he was a hero. Pretty smart, when you think about it.”
She smiled again, a gentle and kind smile. Ezekiel didn’t like it. “No, it means that you will grow into him!”
“That doesn’t follow. How do you come to that conclusion?”
Ezekiel frowned. “HE!”
“You told me that you lost count of the loops sometime around the two hundredth time around, but you guessed that there were at least as many loops afterwards. The only loop that I remember lasted for a little over three hours, but it would make sense for most of the other loops to have lasted longer, since you were working on solving the various puzzles rather than putting yourself in jeopardy. Still, we’ll take four hundred loops times three hours, so a minimum of 1,200 hours in the game. There was no place to sleep and no food that I could see, so you spent that entire time, thinking, interacting, and growing as a person. Twelve hundred hours of straight Librarian work.”
“Hey! I should get paid for that! I wonder how you list hours that never really existed in our reality on a tax form…”
Baird ignored him. “We all put in more than forty-hour weeks, but let's use that as a base anyway. By my guess, you were at DARPA for the work world equivalent of thirty weeks, or seven months. So, by this time next year, like it or not, you should have transformed into the hero we all met earlier this afternoon.” She blinked in surprise. “Wow. Cassandra’s rubbing off on me, isn’t she? I've never been a mental math type of person before.”
“You still aren't; I don't think you got those sums right. But even if you did, your conclusion is flawed all the same. If I know what’s happening—which I do now, thanks to you—I can keep myself from changing. Now that I know what a strong work ethic gets me, I’ll make sure to slack off way more than I have been already. Thanks for the tip. I think I'll ditch work for Disneyworld tomorrow. Wanna come?”
She puffed in frustration. “Why wouldn’t you want to become the guy you were this morning? Or whenever that was?”
He gaped at her in disbelief. “Why wouldn’t I? Why would I?!? I’m awesome. Just the way I am. I am awesome beyond all awesoming, in excess of all that is awesome in any reality. If Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be writing sonnets to my awesomeness. John Lennon would be writing me songs. Why on earth would I want to change that?”
“Okay. Fine. You are.” Ezekiel narrowed his eyes at Baird. He was awesome, but nobody ever agreed with him about that. She was planning something. “You are awesome, but the man I saw at DARPA? He was magnificent!”
“Magnificent, huh?” He snorted in fake amusement in order to hide his panic. Ezekiel didn't want the expectations that would come with the word ‘magnificent,’ and he really didn’t want his Guardian to think that highly of him. She’d be disappointed when he inevitably proved her wrong, and he'd seen enough looks of disappointment on Baird's face to last a lifetime. Time to deflect. “There’s only one reason in the world you would use that word. You took advantage of the time loop—“
“Not a time loop.”
“—game reset function to sleep with me, didn’t you? You saw a chance to experience the full extent of my awesomeness without consequences and you went for it.” He smirked. “It’s a bit awkward now that I know of course but, well, who could blame you?”
His arrogance had the desired effect. Baird looked like she was about to explode. “Sleep with-- First of all, no-no-no-no-no-no NO! Second of all, hell no! Third—“ She paused to look at him. Really look at him. He didn’t like it. “Third of all, you were my commanding officer on that mission, and I wouldn’t do that.”
He thought about pointing out that she slept with Flynn all the time and that he was her commanding officer, but decided against it. Partly because he didn’t know for certain that they were sleeping together (and didn’t want to know, because, well, like who wanted that particular image in his head?), but mostly because he suspected that their problems came from the fact that neither of them knew who technically commanded whom. He'd bet his next three heists that it was a sore subject between the two of them and contrary to Stone's firm belief, he had at least a little tact.
“I was the commanding officer? And by commanding officer, you mean your commanding officer? Since when? Am I still the commanding officer? Does that mean I can send you out to swab decks and guard perimeters and fetch me peppermint lattés?”
“No, no, I don’t need anyone to tell me to do that, and no.” The last ‘no’ was accompanied by a swat to the back of his head that hurt more than Baird probably intended it to. Or perhaps it hurt exactly as much as she intended it to. “But yes, at the lab, you were in command. And not just because you knew what was going on and we didn’t. You were in command because you had it. That… something… that no soldier can define but every person who has ever gone into battle recognizes the moment he sees it. You were the man who understood the situation, who had a plan, and who knew how to carry it out. You knew the best way to marshal your resources and manpower to accomplish the mission with as little loss as possible. You were the leader who would never hold back, who would do anything to bring his troops back alive, and who would never leave a man behind.” She was looking at him again, and her eyes glowed with something that made Ezekiel’s stomach churn. “You could have commanded us to the very pits of hell and we would have followed you without question. I would have followed. And when you grow into that man again, I will follow you anywhere--and I do mean anywhere--you decide you need to go.”
Ezekiel swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat. “Grow into John Wayne overnight. Right. You don’t expect much, do you?”
Eve smiled gently, finally releasing his gaze. “Not overnight, Jones. It will take time. And that’s okay. You had time at the lab—I guess we’ll never know how much—to grow into the man we saw today; it’ll take time to do it again.” She caught his gaze again, and he swallowed nervously. “If I’m honest, I’d have to say I’m a bit jealous.”
She sighed. “Do you remember the Apple of Discord?”
“I think about it every day when I look in the mirror,” Ezekiel proclaimed proudly. She ignored him.
“I know what the worst version of myself is thanks to that damned apple, but I’ll never know the best version of myself. I can try to be my best, but I’ll never know if I’m actually achieving it.” She smiled again. “But I’ll know when you are the best version of yourself, because I’ve seen it, and it is—“
“Perfect,” he interrupted with a cynical sneer.
“Magnificent,” she corrected.
Against all reason, Ezekiel was a bit put out by this. “Not perfect?”
She snorted. “Not hardly! A ‘perfect’ Ezekiel Jones would be much less into self-sacrifice. We need to nip that into the bud before you become your best self!”
“Self-sacrifice? No fear! I told you last year that I don’t do punchy, but I really don’t do self-sacrifice. NOT for Ezekiel Jones, thank you very much!”
“Glad to hear it. I’ll want you to come back alive, Librarian.” He startled, and she nodded in understanding. “Too much?”
“Just a bit. I need to be a Librarian for a while before I’m ready to be The Librarian.” As the words came out of his mouth, however, he realized that the responsibility of the ‘The’ wasn’t as terrifying as he might have assumed. “Maybe someday, though. Maybe I might.”
“I’m sure of it. Good night, Jones.” She shook her head at herself. “No, that’s not right. Good night, Ezekiel.”
“Good night, Eve.”
“Don’t push it.”
“Like that’s ever going to happen.”
She glared at him, but he heard her laughing to herself as soon as the door closed. It was… nice.