Actions

Work Header

Not the Last Unknown

Work Text:

It wasn't until they were nearly inside the drop's shimmer that there was enough light for Colin to see how bad it was. It wasn't just the blood. There was blood everywhere, but he'd been able to feel that, and he'd spotted the sickening absence of Davies's foot back at the scene. What Colin saw, in the light of the lab--a meter away, a hundred and twenty years, infinitely far--was the gray-white deathly pallor of Davies's face.

Colin recognized it. It transported him back thirteen years at a glance, and he was a boy watching his great-aunt die by implacable stages in a hospital in Oxford, Mr. Dunworthy near death down the hall. He was crying even as he drew breath to speak, clutching the last warmth of Davies's body.

"Don't do this, Davies. Not now. Michael! Michael, stay with me."

Colin stumbled through into the lab, but his eyes were fixed on Davies. Davies shook his head slightly, his lips moving around words Colin couldn't make out, tears blurring his vision too much to even try to lip-read.

The emergency team was there, and one of them slapped a monitor onto Davies's throat, immediately setting off alarms. They snatched him from Colin's arms and Colin stayed where he was at the edge of the net, watching them work as best he could, when he couldn't see properly.

"Not now," Colin repeated, his own words coming out barely more intelligible. "Michael, please." Not now, not on this side of the net, not when Colin had gotten him back to the twenty-first century after all these years.

The medical team's voices were calm, measured, but their hands were moving very fast. Colin wanted to scream at them to hurry. Didn't they know they only had one chance at this? There were too many witnesses now for any future retrieval team to come and snatch Michael out of harm's way. One of them said where's the bleeding and a scanner tech said, everywhere, look at these hemorrhages, he must have been right beside the bomb.

"Not now," Colin repeated, though the croak that came out of his mouth might have been anything.

Someone touched Colin, trying to move him, and Colin shrugged them off, swiping a wet hand across his wet face. The tone of the medical team's voices was changing, their hands slowing--didn't they know they had to hurry? Didn't they understand? Michael was supposed to be safe here, Colin had brought him back. Again someone touched him--grabbed him, trying to move him--and Colin shoved back, stumbled and fell to his knees. His breath went out in a whoop, and it occurred to him that he was sobbing in the middle of the lab.

He was watching Michael die and he could hardly see for the tears.

When he could next see clearly--when he could breathe properly, when he could think at all--his temporal location was obviously different. The lab was still bright but silent now, and they'd pulled a sheet up over Davies's face; the medical team was filing out of the lab except for the lead doctor, speaking quietly and gravely on the phone.

Colin looked around, feeling bewildered, unmoored--they couldn't just give up, they couldn't just leave him alone--and then Kivrin darted through the door with a travel mug in her hands. She took in everything in a sweeping glance--Colin saw her gaze touch on Michael, the sheet, the defeated doctor on the phone--and then came and knelt by Colin, offering the mug. It smelled like coffee, hot and sweet. Kivrin preferred tea, and with lemon only, no sugar.

"Kiv?" Colin said, and she pressed the coffee into his hands and then folded her own hands around his, as if he might not be able to bear the weight. The blood on his hands was still wet. He hadn't traveled very far into the future at all.

"Take a drink," Kivrin said. "Then we'll get you cleaned up."

Colin obediently took a sip of coffee and looked over at Davies again--at the sheet covering Davies--and then, for the first time, down at himself. His uniform was streaked black and red with blood and ink and ash. Wardrobe had been so excited, too, finally getting to do World War II again after all that wretched Seventies stuff, and now it was ruined.

His hands started shaking under Kivrin's, and his head hurt, and his stomach was painfully tight around the little warmth of the coffee.

"Kiv," he said quietly. "Kiv, I ruined it."

"Drink your coffee," was all Kivrin said, and her hands were steady around his. "We'll get you cleaned up, and then I'll take you home."

Colin shivered with sudden memory: he'd been standing beside Mr. Dunworthy the first time he saw Kivrin, in that snowy churchyard in the fourteenth century, and Mr. Dunworthy had said We've come to take you home. Kivrin had stared blankly at them and repeated it back as if she didn't understand English; for the first time Colin thought he understood how she'd felt.

But she wasn't a stranger now, and she didn't let go. Colin was already halfway home.

***

Kivrin sent him immediately to the bathroom to change when they reached her flat; he didn't so much keep clothes there as he was in a perpetual state of forgetting to take something home with him. Colin changed out of the mishmash of random Wardrobe articles he'd put on after Kivrin helped him out of the bloodied coveralls--his hands had been shaking pretty badly, and he'd started crying again when she helped him wash up. He came back to the living room in his pajamas to find Kivrin had already poured them both whiskeys.

He picked his up when Kivrin picked up hers, and stayed standing to clink his glass against hers and say, "To Michael Davies."

"He belongs now to history," Kivrin intoned, and Colin knocked back the whiskey in a burning gulp and held out the glass for more. Kivrin poured a refill, but then held on to it until Colin gave in to her look and collapsed onto the couch.

Kivrin gave him his whiskey and took her place beside him, and Kivrin's dog jumped up to bookend him.

"Did you know him?" Colin asked, staring into his drink and absently scratching behind the dog's ears.

Kivrin sipped before she spoke. "He was a year behind me. I--well, I hardly took anyone seriously, when I was an undergraduate. No one was as committed as I was."

Colin's mouth turned up reflexively; he and Kivrin had sat on this couch and had many, many discussions about the precise degree of unhealthiness of Colin's focus during his undergraduate years and how it compared to Kivrin's at the same age. They had started, actually, in the April of his last term at Eton. He had all but lived on Kivrin's couch until he'd finished his schooling and convinced his mother to sign a waiver for him to participate in time travel research at Balliol regardless of matriculation, and then convinced Finch--acting Head of History in Dunworthy's absence, whatever his title had been at first--to accept it.

"Anyway, he was a modernist," Kivrin said. "A modernist and practically a generalist, all over the Twentieth and well into the Twenty-First. I thought he was kind of aimless, but I think what he was was... well-adjusted."

Kivrin said it in the mystified tone that it deserved; historians were not noted for their healthy attachments to their families and friends. Hardly anyone even pretended that the Pony Express poster in the lab was a joke anymore, even if History wasn't so much ORPHANS PREFERRED as PREFERRED BY ORPHANS.

"He was happy," Kivrin said. "He thought history was really interesting, that it was an adventure he could go and have and report back on. He would have been one of those who got his doctorate and then went and taught and felt a bit wistful about the good old days from time to time. He would have been all right."

Colin shut his eyes and drank off his whiskey again. He would have been all right, if Colin had gotten to him before the V-1 hit, if the drop had been open, if anyone had been willing to send a real retrieval team after an historian who had been presumed dead for at least five years.

Except--he couldn't have gotten there faster, because Polly had been there with him after the V-1, Polly during her 1944 assignment, and her timeline had been laid down nearly eight years ago, before Davies even left. Which meant Davies had always been doomed.

"I hated him," Colin said, not bothering to open his eyes. His hand fell still on the dog's back, and the dog wormed into his lap, a comforting warm weight. "For about two minutes, the day he went back. I thought Polly might have fallen in love with him and I hated him. That's all. That's all I ever thought about him, before."

"But you found him," Kivrin said. "No one else could get to him, but you did."

Colin shrugged. His tenacity was a Balliol byword, and had been for half his life. But he knew perfectly well that it had never been about Michael, and that only added to the guilt of having made such a fatal mess of his first retrieval, because under it all there was the horrible, fragile, lacerating, joyful hope.

"Kiv," Colin said, opening his eyes and leaning forward to get the bottle and pour himself another. The dog didn't budge. "He talked to me, while we were waiting for the drop to open. He told me. Polly's alive, and Merope's with her, and he gave me their address as of January 1941. That's only two months short of the end of the embargo, and Polly knew the safe shelters. She might--they might--"

Kivrin took a fast drink and set her glass down; Colin poured her another even as she said, "Col, did he say anything about...."

He had come straight to Kivrin, after 1976, to tell her about the notice he'd found. The unidentified man, killed on September 10. It had been some sort of overproof honey mead that night, two of History's orphans feeling suddenly more orphaned than they'd ever been. Somewhere near the bottom of the bottle they'd downloaded the deed poll forms to double-barrel their respective last names with Dunworthy, and then sat there killing the bottle and trying to sort out what people would think if they went through with it. Balliol would hardly bat an eyelash; Colin had known people called him and Kivrin the Dunworthy Twins since he was fourteen. But they couldn't decide what Mr. Dunworthy would say about it, and finally Colin had said, "We'll have to wait and ask him, then." Kivrin had nodded and put the forms away in some file folder, and that had been the end of it.

"He didn't say," Colin told her. "I don't know what that means. There wasn't a lot of time, and I was--we were both focused on Polly. And Merope. But Polly--Polly was there, right there, that night. She was with him."

"1944 Polly," Kivrin interpreted without difficulty. "Historians tripping over each other, for God's sake. It's enough to--"

"Please don't say that," Colin interrupted, and they both sat in silence, drinking and thinking of just what Michael's death said about the Ishiwaka theory of violent corrections after damage to the continuum. The drop hadn't opened when it should have. Those minutes could have made the difference, but instead Michael had bled out in Colin's arms, still talking about Polly.

"I've told you what I said to her," Colin said, and it wasn't in the least a question. Kivrin had patiently endured a lot of discussion of literally everything Colin ever remembered saying to Polly, during his first few years at Balliol. She was a far more patient twin-eight-years-removed than he could ever have deserved, even if he had helped save her life once.

Kivrin also, after all this time, knew him well enough to know which one thing he meant. She said only, "And so it came to pass."

Colin shook his head. "It just--every now and then, in the last seven years, I've thought, this is how it happens, this is how you actually grow up enough to--to--"

Kivrin nodded in his peripheral vision, and Colin stopped trying to find an end to that sentence. He looked down and focused on petting the dog.

"And I knew she was an historian, I just--I never put it together, that if I were to age faster than her, that would have to mean that I spent these long stretches of time unable to reach her when she might be in danger, when she...."

Kivrin covered his hand with hers, stilling him, but Colin shook his head.

"I just never thought I--it wasn't supposed to be like this. I wasn't supposed to be here all this time, nothing was supposed to happen here. Not now. I thought I'd go and--"

"Have adventures," Kivrin said softly, "and report back."

Colin blushed suddenly hot, feeling seventeen all over again. He pressed his whiskey glass to his cheek and said, "And instead I'm here, and Michael Davies is dead and his blood is on my actual hands, and there's still this part of me that's tallying up whether I'm old enough for her now."

They were silent for a while, but Kivrin's shoulder stayed steady against his arm, and the dog stayed sprawled across his lap, and he knew that this was not going to be the thing that finally convinced Kivrin to kick him off her couch.

Instead, after a long time, she said, "This is what time travel does to historians, Col. We may not believe in God, but we stake our lives on causality. We keep thinking we're going to find out why things happen, and that makes us think they happen for a reason. And that makes us think the reason might be us."

Colin blinked at the far wall. "Are you telling me guilt is an observer effect?"

"No," Kivrin said, and leaned her head against his shoulder. "I'm just telling you you're not alone."

***

Linna was waiting for them when they reached the college gates, all in black with her arms wrapped around herself though the day was rather warm.

"Colin," she said, "I need you to wait here, please."

Colin wanted nothing but to go find a corner seat toward the back of the Chapel, but he nodded obediently, and Kivrin slipped her hand into the crook of his arm, indicating that she would stay with him.

"Oh, Colin," Linna added, when no one else offered anything to fill the silence; for a moment Colin thought she might hug him, but she contented herself with fussing at the lapels of his suit coat. She would recognize it, of course. Wardrobe had tailored it for him to be inconspicuous from 1950 to the Pandemic; he'd worn it on dozens of research drops. It was the only one he had in black, and it seemed appropriate, for this.

"Is it," Colin said, glancing around the empty pavement outside the college gates. "Do they need another pallbearer?"

Linna gave him a startled look, then shook her head. "Pallbearers are sorted. Mr. Finch asked me to catch you if I could."

Colin winced. He'd been passively avoiding the Head of History since his return. He hadn't thought Finch would resort to cornering him at Michael's funeral.

"I wanted to speak to you, anyway," Linna added. "I wanted to tell you we got the last thing he said."

Colin blinked.

"Michael," Linna clarified. "There's all sorts of monitoring in the lab in case of mishaps, so we had video of Michael and we could see he was speaking. Badri ran it through some analysis to see if he was actually saying anything. We thought--if he had some sort of last words, people should know, and--we're pretty sure--there's a lot of extrapolation, but from the context... you were calling his name. Michael. And the first thing he said, we're pretty certain, is 'That's not my name.'"

Colin nodded. "He was Mike Davis in 1944, and he'd been working in Intelligence--"

Linna was already shaking her head. "The rest of it was--we're pretty sure, because he was one of Mr. Dunworthy's, and he'd been in London, possibly in the vicinity of St. Paul's, so he could have seen--and he'd have heard the same stories we've all heard--the last thing he said was, 'It's Faulknor.'"

She didn't have to elaborate; Colin, though he was younger than the rest, was still a part of the old guard, inarguably one of Mr. Dunworthy's. He'd heard all the stories. He knew what Mike had meant, spending his last conscious breath to call himself Faulknor.

Colin had heard that story plenty of times; he'd even been to see the monument, along with the rest of St. Paul's. Only now did he realize he couldn't remember the name of the poor bastard who'd been standing next to Faulknor when he died. Whoever he was, he had had to take up command of a crippled ship lashed to an enemy vessel, to win a battle firing strange guns, with everyone looking at him as if he must surely know how to finish the thing, because he'd inherited command from a hero. He'd pulled it off, and because he had people remembered that Faulknor was a hero; if he had failed Faulknor's dying effort would have been for nothing.

Colin really wished he could remember the man's name.

"Thank you," Colin said, because there was nothing else to say. It was well done, finding some second chance to understand, if not to change what had happened.

Linna nodded, and then her attention shifted past him. Kivrin turned too, tugging Colin with her, and he watched the hearse and a small procession of other cars pull up. Bracketed by Linna and Kivrin, Colin stood still and watched while the coffin was lifted out and shouldered by the pallbearers. They were undergraduates, Colin thought, all looking younger than Colin could ever remember being, but solemn and steady.

Transfixed by that sight, Colin didn't notice the people who emerged from the other vehicles until Linna moved him into place relative to them, just as if she were setting him on his mark in the net. It was only when Finch reached forward and squeezed Colin's shoulder that he realized he'd been put into the procession, nearly in the position of chief mourner. Only a middle-aged couple--Michael's parents, logically--and a man his own age--a brother?--preceded Colin.

Colin wondered if someone had explained who he was to Michael's family, and what they thought of it. But Finch would have played up the valiantly-attempted-rescue, of course, so there would be no unpleasant scenes within the walls of Balliol.

Colin moved when everyone else did, and found that it was no effort, in this company, to shorten his stride to keep beside Kivrin. He kept his gaze at ankle-height across the front Quad. There was a momentary holdup as the pallbearers maneuvered in the Chapel's entrance passage, and Colin's eye was caught by a bit of rubbish on the ground near the East wall, opposite the Pandemic memorial.

Not rubbish, he realized when he looked directly at it. Someone had affixed a bit of paper there, at the foot of the marble. Below the gold-lettered names of Balliol men dead in the Second World War, neatly hand-written in black, was MIKE DAVIS.

Colin stared until Kivrin tugged him into motion, and they followed the coffin--followed Michael--into the Chapel.

A single pew had been kept open for them; for a moment Colin entertained a horrible vision of the alternative, facing Michael's parents across his coffin. In the event, Kivrin maneuvered herself between the Davieses and Colin, and Finch took the seat on his other side. Colin wanted to shrink down to the size of his twelve-year-old self, to be hidden between them, but his spine stayed straight out of sheer habit. He kept his chin up and barely heard the words of the service, he was so intent on memorizing each individual pane of the stained glass window across from where he was sitting. It was only the clarity of the light that made his eyes water.

When it was over the teenaged pallbearers took up their burden again, carrying Michael from the Chapel, away from Balliol one last time. Colin followed Finch out of the pew and then stood aside in the aisle to let Michael's family pass, but Michael's mother stopped short and looked from Finch to Colin and back. Finch nodded, and Michael's mother took Colin's arm firmly in hers and led him down the aisle; Michael's father offered his arm politely to Kivrin, and Colin could do nothing but go where he was led.

Mrs. Davies stayed silent until they were out of the Chapel, out of the entrance passage and into the light of the front Quad, and then she said softly, "I want to thank you, Mr. Templer. You brought him home to us. We finally know for certain."

Colin couldn't tell her it was his fault, or that it might have been avoided. He hadn't been able to change 1944. But he remembered what Linna had told him, what had not had to be explained among them, the old guard, and that, perhaps, could be a comfort to Michael's mother.

"When he knew he was dying," Colin said quietly, glancing forward at the coffin, thinking of the monument, the figure of Faulknor in the arms of Honor, "all he wanted to tell me was about how I could find the other missing historians. With the information he gave us--there's a chance we'll be able to get to the others and bring them home safely. We'd never have had a chance at all but for his efforts, ma'am, and he--he knew, at the end, that what he'd done might save the others, and I think he was... he was glad he'd done that for them."

She stopped short, staring up at him, and while she had sounded perfectly composed a moment before there were tears in her eyes now, spilling over even as Colin watched.

"I'm sorry," Colin said helplessly, and she shook her head, smiling a horrible sad smile, and said, "Thank you, I--thank you," and turned back toward her husband, who abandoned Kivrin at once and proffered the handkerchief Colin hadn't equipped himself with.

It was only then, looking up and around, that Colin saw the crowed pouring out of the Chapel. They couldn't possibly all have fit inside; half of them must have been in the Common Room, opposite, having the service piped in or just keeping vigil. He spotted Verity's flaming red hair, recognized Ned beside her--Linna was there, of course, with Badri, and Andrews was walking beside Bartholomew. There was a solemn block of undergraduates in sub-fusc, a flock of little black crows in academic robes looking determined not to be put off by this. There were historians who had chucked it all years ago--he recognized a handful who gave it up in '60; Phipps had come back, and so had Atherton. There were men and women Colin vaguely recognized, friends and colleagues of Mr. Dunworthy's from the dawn of the program. He even heard Lady Schrapnell's not-entirely-subdued voice, rattling on about the flowers, carrying across the whole crowd filling up the front Quad and still spilling out the doors.

However orphaned historians were, they did not abandon each other.

At least not when they knew where to find each other, Colin thought, more weary than bitter. Even as he thought it Kivrin returned to his side and took his arm again, and then Colin saw a familiar figure step out of the crowd. Dr. Ishiwaka had come up from London.

Colin felt defeated just looking at him, knowing that he would have heard by now that the drop had not opened on time, that the continuum had killed Michael, which was, of course, a data point in favor of Ishiwaka's theory. The chance Colin had held out to Mrs. Davies--the hope of making Michael's death mean something, like Faulknor's--seemed to shrivel to nothing at the mere sight of the man. Michael's death was a nail in Polly's coffin, in Merope's, in Mr. Dunworthy's.

Colin wanted to turn away, though there was nowhere to go; Mr. and Mrs. Davies were both crying now, and Finch was hovering near them while the pallbearers waited stoically at the gates. But even as Colin looked around Ishiwaka raised a hand and lengthened his stride, all but running through the crowd toward Colin, and Colin knew there was no escaping this.

"Colin," he called out, shaking his head while he was still a meter away. "Colin, it's not what you think."

Colin frowned. "How could it not be--"

Ishiwaka darted a glance toward the Davieses, caught Colin's elbow and towed him a few meters away.

"Tell me," Ishiwaka said, frowning the same frown he'd had when he took Colin implacably through his projections for the first time, years ago. "I was told--is it true that Davies was speaking to you while the drop didn't open?"

Colin stared down at the pavement and nodded. "He insisted on telling me everything he could, while he could."

"About events during the embargoed period?"

Colin looked up at the urgency of Ishiwaka's voice and saw something unfamiliar on his face. It looked like hope; it looked like Colin had felt, when Michael told him Polly was alive.

"Don't you see," Ishiwaka said. "That means information escaped the embargoed period, Colin. If the drop had opened on time he'd have been rushed into medical care, and he might still not have survived. The information wouldn't have made it out to us.

"You never consulted me about what I projected would happen to you if you attempted this retrieval--"

Colin looked away. Of course he hadn't; Ishiwaka would have told him it was futile.

"No, listen to me, I would have told you that if you attempted it, if you succeeded in making contact with any of them, you would also be trapped or killed."

Colin looked back sharply.

"That's what the theory calls for," Ishiwaka said, shaking Colin slightly by his grip on Colin's elbow. "Not Davies being able to speak to you, not you making it back safely. Don't you see, Colin? This is entirely new data. I don't know what it means. I don't know."

Colin opened and closed his mouth a couple of times. He had the sudden, slightly surreal feeling he'd gotten a few times before when returning from a drop. Everything was sharp-edged and beautiful in light of the knowledge of being at the leading edge of time, of stepping out of the confines of history. He didn't know what would happen next. He could change everything.

He was grinning, but his vision was blurring with tears again. Ishiwaka looked a little concerned and offered a handkerchief, but Colin shook his head as he took it, fighting down his smile enough to say, "I'm going back for Polly. I know where she is. If you--if this is--maybe I can get to her. Maybe I can bring her home."

Ishiwaka nodded, looking delighted, like he understood exactly how Colin felt. "Anything is possible."