When you're alone,
silence is all you hear.
It's a little past sunrise on a Saturday, and Mark Zuckerberg is still in his office, spinning in low circles in his office chair and answering e-mails on his phone instead of using the desktop set up right in front of him.
The brilliant thing about Facebook being on six continents and over one hundred countries is that, no matter the time of day, there's always somebody who's awake and demanding Mark's attention somewhere in the world, so he's never felt particularly inclined towards keeping the same normative sleeping habits as his employees, who have other responsibilities. He goes home when he's tired of sitting in one place and he sleeps when he doesn't want to be awake.
He reaches out idly with one foot, the sole of his shoe catching against the desk edge and stilling his momentum.
It's a little past sunrise on a Saturday, and the offices are lightening of their own accord. Mark can make out the carpet pattern in the hallway, although technically the sun doesn't come streaming in through the windows until almost high noon due to the positioning of nearby buildings on High Street. It's part of why Mark and Sean had agreed to this location when Peter Thiel suggested it: you don't keep important machinery like the Facebook servers in direct sunlight, but neither do you keep your programmers and interns locked in a windowless sardine can.
Mark sends out an e-mail with a flick of his fingernail against the screen of his iPhone, and wonders vaguely what it said. When he's greeting the morning from this side of the night, he loses that filter that stops his correspondence from sounding like an SAT vocabulary guidebook.
"I need to eat something," he informs his desktop, which sits there in quiet, stoic support of his every decision, like it usually does.
He sets his phone down on the edge of his desk and stands, slipping out into the hallway. He didn't use to have his own office with a door that closed, but he didn't use to have a lot of things.
Nobody's here. There used to be support staff that did the overnight shifts, answering belligerent Help e-mails and monitoring activity and eyeballing Mark like they were contemplating assassinating him for his flex time, but those jobs had been outsourced to their offices on the other side of the globe and there was no graveyard shift at Facebook anymore, so Mark's alone in the forest of quiescent desktops, their standby lights glowing in soft pulses.
Yesterday was Friday, which means there's pizza in the break room. The lights are off, so he has to rely on his feet scuffling with the change from carpet to linoleum to help him navigate, and when he pulls the fridge door open, he squints a little against the brightness.
There's a box from Pizza My Heart on the bottom shelf, which makes him hum contentedly -- out of the two pizza places within walking distance of the office, it's either that or California Pizza Kitchen, and while scallops and thin crust from the Kitchen are all right, you can't beat the classic. He flicks open the lid, snagging a cold slice and stacking another on top of it. He grabs a Red Bull from the top shelf (although technically it's not a Red Bull, as Red Bull is more difficult to get a hold of in northern California than its organic equivalent, but energy drinks are essentially universal in taste, all-natural cane sugar or not) and closes the door, pivoting on his heel.
He comes face-to-face with himself.
"Jesus fu--" he yelps, recoiling backwards. His shoulder slams hard into the fridge handle, jarring the pizza and the drink right out of his hands. The can hits the linoleum and punctures, fizz spitting out with alarming force and propelling itself across the room like a miniature rocket.
Mark doesn't pay attention, because he only has eyes for himself, which would be an odd thing to say if it weren't so literally and frighteningly true.
It's himself, live and in the flesh, and in the space of a heartbeat, Mark circumvents the possibility of hallucination because he's not that sleep-deprived and is mentally in perfect health, which leaves no other solution except reality.
"Shit!" he concludes.
The other him is wearing different clothes, clothes Mark recognizes from his own closet, which he doubts is something he would have made up on his own. If his subconsciousness was going to imagine a copy of himself, it would probably appear in binary or in pixels, not an extra-large Santa Cruz shirt and cargo shorts.
True to form, Mark doesn't make himself wait. He steps forward, coming into the break room, and as he does, Mark notices that something is wrong with his eyes; the irises have been smudged over in a strange golden color, blurring into the whites like he's looking at him through glasses that have fogged up. The only reason he notices is because inside the dark break room, it's almost as if the other Mark's eyes are giving off their own light, the way you can see the glow of a lamp through fog.
But he doesn't get a chance to comment on it, because his copy holds up a phone.
"You're going to need this," he says flatly, handing it to Mark.
Mark takes it from him, the palm of his hand slippery with pizza grease: an old Blackberry, criminally out of date, but functional, given that when he thumbs the unlock button, it lights right up. He's instantly greeted with a background of Eduardo Saverin, his Eduardo Saverin who he hasn't even thought of in weeks and hasn't been seen in the last third of his life, squeezed messily into a frame with four other people; a man in a bow tie with his mouth pulled to the side like he's been caught mid-sentence, a redheaded woman, and a nervous-looking man holding a child, all of them smiling so wide they look slightly demented.
He blinks a little, the pressure in his chest momentarily unbearable. "Why have you given me Eduardo's old phone?" he asks blankly, looking up.
The other him is gone.
"What the hell?" Mark breathes out. The phone sits in his hand and in the corner, the can of energy drink burbles out the last of its organic contents.
It's a little past sunrise on a Saturday and Mark goes home.
He lives a hop, skip, and a run away from the Facebook offices. He tells people he lives on East Meadow (which always earns him a bemused look from anyone who's local, because East Meadow is for the firmly blue-collar middle class, with its closing schools and graffitied corner shops) when in reality he lives a block removed, so he isn't bothered as much by traffic.
His two-bedroom, two-bath is economically squeezed in between two other houses, close enough that he could toss sugar across to his neighbors through their kitchen windows if they wanted it. He has a postage-stamp yard, the majority of which is taken up by a garden; the high-maintenance kind with sprawling trellises of star jasmine, a pebble-path, and a birdbath. It's actually quite zen, if you're into that kind of thing, and it certainly gives Mark's house a curb appeal it wouldn't, otherwise.
Mark is about as good at gardening as Elmer Fudd is at hunting rabbits, but it doesn't matter, because the neighbor across the street has the greenest thumb on the block. Mark doesn't talk to her very often, but the last time he did, he learned that her daughter discovered the duplicitous going ons of her husband via several unfortunately-tagged photos on Facebook. He gets the feeling that the neighbor has wanted the daughter's husband gone for quite some time, and seems to hold Mark responsible by sheer virtue of being the Facebook founder.
She doesn't bring it up directly, and Mark doesn't ask why his garden only seems to get more beautiful whenever he's not around, but last spring he noticed a couple cuttings from his own flowers newly planted in her yard, so he figures that says all it needs to say.
"Good morning, Mr. Zuckerberg," comes from the next-door, who's sitting out on his front porch, thermos in hand and sun on his face.
"Paul," Mark answers, shutting the car door. "You can call me Mark, you know."
"I'm aware of that, sir," says Paul, nodding congenially and scratching at his beard, same as he does every time Mark says this. "But 'Zuckerberg' is a lot more etymologically interesting, wouldn't you say? More fun to say. You don't get a lot of nicely rounded 'z' sounds anymore, it's quite palatable. Zuckerberg."
Mark ducks his head, spinning his lanyard around on his knuckle. "Okay, Paul," he goes tolerantly.
Paul is good people, despite his tendency to sit out on his front porch at odd hours of the day, contemplating fate and wearing nothing but his whitey-tighties. Trouble with public indecency notwithstanding, he calls everybody "ma'am" and "sir" no matter the age and seems to have an opinion on everything, from contemporary linguistics to the comparative uses of antihistamines in dog therapy. Neighbors like that are the kind you never go looking for, and at the same time are not unhappy to have.
"You have a visitor," Paul remarks.
Mark's mind hiccups over this for a second, thinking bizarrely that his self-copy is back, chilling in his house with creepy eyes and some more cryptic comments and Mark still hasn't figured out how to compartmentalize that experience, but Paul might have mentioned it if a second Mark had gone by.
Paul gestures helpfully with his thermos, and Mark looks over, realizing what he meant: a hummingbird hovers in front of one of the feeders, flitting away and back.
He smiles despite himself. There are more hummingbirds in Palo Alto than there are pigeons, and he never really gets over it. There are simple things in the universe that you stop and admire every time, no matter who you are or whether or not you can help it: trees that go fire-engine red in autumn, fingers dancing expertly over a piano, and hummingbirds, for example.
Hopping up his porch steps, Mark tilts his head, and there it is -- the jewel-tone of the hummingbird's throat, a familiar pattern. "Morning, Jasmine," he goes, and she disappears, startled by his voice. She's his most faithful stray, and she'll be back, because contrary to popular opinion he can, in fact, remember to fill the bird feeder.
"All the hobbies in the world you could have taken up now that money is no object, and you picked hummingbirds," his sister commented on her last visit, when he recruited her help in making nectar for the feeders.
"Say that any more derisively, and I'll call my lawyers up and change my will so that you don't get the yacht," Mark had deadpanned in reply, feeling her roll her eyes at his back; it's the sixth sense of anyone with younger siblings.
He has an average car and an average house because while he can buy the whole street, he doesn't actually need to be a Winklevoss. He learned the "don't know what you got until it's gone" lesson quite early in life, thank you, and is perfectly content with what he has.
Letting himself in, he shuts the door behind him, tossing his keys onto the end table with more routine than aim. It's cool inside the entryway, and he kicks his flip flops off, spreading his toes out on the tile in a universal kind of welcome-home gesture.
And then he pulls the Blackberry out of his pocket, like he hasn't been thinking about its weight since the moment he pocketed it at the office.
The first thing anyone ever does when they illicitly get their hands on another person's cell phone is to go through the messages. He thumbs the phone awake and immediately tabs over to text messages, and scowls when the inbox reads as empty. The web browser is equally unhelpful: Google is the homepage and the Internet browsing history is blank.
"What the hell, Wardo, usually you're not even capable of remembering to sign out of Hotmail whenever you borrow someone's laptop," he grumbles, not paying attention to where he's going and glancing against the doorframe to the kitchen. "Ow," he grunts, rubbing at his shoulder and tabbing over to the contacts.
He sucks in a breath through his teeth. "Bingo," he goes, because there's something here, at least.
90% of the people in here are completely meaningless to him, but half-way down he notices that a couple of them have little red x's next to the names. Among these are Dad's publicist, Christy, something called the Ood High Matchmaking Council, Home (Miami), and (his heart does a very valiant attempt at flipping over in his chest) Mark, so it doesn't take a stretch of the imagination to figure out that these are the ignored numbers.
Next is the recent calls, and Mark stops dead in his tracks, because the name at the very top of the list, the last person to talk to Eduardo alive was --
The last person to talk to Eduardo alive was Dustin (office).
He frowns, eyes flicking to the time stamp, which is dated --
His brows come down hard. "The hell," he says again. As if July 10, 2011 isn't weird enough, there's the fact that Dustin's office phone is calling a missing person, full on have you seen this person? posters-in-community-centers missing. The call had lasted 1:20 minutes, and the log for it woefully lacks any useful information, like hows, whys, and what fors.
He thumbs down, his frown deepening, because the next incoming call is December 22, 2006, from TARDIS (which he figures is an organization of some kind, given the all-CAPS, but that's not important.)
There's no explaining a five-year gap between phone calls, much less a five-year gap on an out-of-date phone that belongs to someone who's vanished from all known records. He scrolls further: TARDIS, TARDIS, Mom, TARDIS, the Ood High Matchmaking Council (which lasted for 34:50 and had a return phone number entirely comprised of obscure grammatical symbols, which Mark doesn't know what to do with -- and seriously, is that an interrobang?), TARDIS, and then, 15 incoming calls down ...
He drifts sideways, pulling out a chair from the dining table and sinking into it, because it takes more concentration to stand than he can afford right now. If seeing his name on the blocked numbers hadn't been enough to do it, he is now completely convinced that the Blackberry isn't some very, very clever hoax. This is really Eduardo's phone.
Because he remembers that phone call.
With a slow, cold feeling dripping down his spine, Mark starts going through the pictures folder.
It's full of impossible things; shots of nebulas and galaxies that have to have been downloaded from the NASA site, except each photo stoutly claims to have been originally taken by the phone, and one of them even includes a partial shot of the deck of a spaceship, so maybe it's a movie set. There are pictures of people in period dress, people with more than the required number of limbs, sunsets in colors that the Blackberry's 16 color-bit screen can't seem to handle, and even one of a bug-eyed plant caught mid-gesture with one broad leaf like it's giving a museum tutorial.
It doesn't make much sense, so Mark focuses firmly on the familiar: a face that pops up every third picture or so, with sallow cheeks, lantern jaw, and a dinky red bow tie like an out-dated caricature of a gentleman.
He appears in various faculties, this man does: laughing, grinning, bounding colt-legged through the edges of frames, wielding what looks like a penlight that blurs green light in arcs, and in one, wearing a mop head on his head and coyly brushing the dingy grey ropes out of his eyes, in so close that he must have been only a foot or so away from Eduardo when the picture was taken.
They go on like this. Eduardo appears in a couple of them, and Mark's not expecting it, so he badly startles each time. Most of them are one-handed over-the-head shots, self-taken and blurring the ear-to-ear grins, because Eduardo was one of those people that didn't like bothering strangers by asking them to take his picture. Mark doesn't remember the sound of Eduardo's voice anymore, but he remembers that.
There's a sour sensation fermenting in the pit of his stomach, his head tilting dizzy with questions.
When Eduardo made the missing persons list years ago, Mark hadn't been altogether concerned about it. Why would he? They'd spoken that once, that final time, when he'd needed to know where the rent papers were for the original Palo Alto house so they could sell it. Eduardo answered, mistaking him for someone else, calling him "doctor" and sounding so overwhelmingly happy that Mark had tripped over his own words. At the time, his possessive streak made it rankle, the idea that if Eduardo had checked the caller ID, he might not have picked up, but because he did, he'd given Mark a glimpse into somebody else's happiness, and that had been unforgivable enough that he hung up as soon as Mark identified himself.
And that's why Mark isn't worried that Eduardo has, for all intents and purposes, vanished off the face of the earth. He'd been happy, and he hung up like he had absolutely no problem blowing Mark off. That's not the behavior of someone in trouble, now is it?
He assumes that wherever Eduardo went after the settlement, he's content there. After all, if you had that kind of money, who wouldn't think about disappearing off the face of the earth?
It's none of Mark's business, not anymore; that part is abundantly clear.
And now here in his hand is the evidence of what Eduardo's been living all this time, and Mark doesn't understand a single bit of it.
He thumbs the lock button on the phone, resisting the urge to pitch it across the kitchen.
"It's like not being allowed past the bike room all over again!" he complains, resentful and bitter and very tired all of a sudden.
A dark flit of something outside the window tells him that he's scared Jasmine off again, and he sighs, leaning his elbows on the table and rubbing his knuckles against his bottom lip in thought. He'd left the windows open before going to work yesterday, so there's a cross-breeze going through, cold on the back of his neck and making a door somewhere upstairs creak. Mark's used to the sounds of an empty house, and doesn't bother getting up.
After a bit, an impulse comes over him and he pulls out his iPhone, propping it up and tapping it awake.
He video-calls Dustin, who he knows will be up. They frequently meet each other on this side of night, Dustin rising early and Mark crashing late.
"Mark, hey," Dustin answers, voice crackling clear. The video lags, frozen on the vague, dark outlines of things.
"Dustin," Mark replies, and the video finally catches up, showing Mark the background of Dustin's bedroom (which means he's answering from his laptop, not his phone,) and Dustin himself, wearing a grey sleep shirt and cradling a bundle in the crook of his elbow. "And offspring," Mark adds, politely, tilting the phone up to clear the glare.
"You know her name, use it," returns Dustin, sleepily and without rancor, trying to get his daughter into some kind of amorphously-shaped green jumper, holding her head steady with one hand and attempting to put her flailing limbs in the appropriate holes with the other. Her skull is impossibly tiny in Dustin's palm. "What's up, man?"
"Did you ever talk to Stephanie?" Mark blurts out.
Dustin's face does something along the lines of, Mark is four steps ahead of me and I'm confused; do I admit it or do I pretend I know what's going on? "Er," he says blankly. "Was she the networking lady that was doing all the company-wide log-in changes? Crap, was I supposed to talk to her?"
"The netwo -- what? No," Mark blinks back, and clarifies, "The girl from my OS lab. Sophomore year, you asked me if I knew if she was dating anyone. I can only assume it was because you were interested."
Dustin looks at him, fish-eyed, and Mark pushes out a breath, impatient.
"Remember?" he says. "Right before the site went live for the first time, you walked in and you sat on the edge of my desk in the lab, and you said --"
There. The light bulb goes on. "Jesus, Mark," he goes, almost too soft for the phone to pick up. "No. I. No. Well," he corrects himself, shaking his head. "I guess I did, and we were sort-of acquaintances for awhile, but nothing ever came of it, if that's what you're asking."
"Well, for one, we moved to California that summer, and it's a little rude to strike up a relationship with someone if you're just going to leave." There must be something on Mark's face that he doesn't like, because he leans in, tucking his infant against his sternum and saying earnestly, "It's fine to let those kinds of friendships go, though, Mark. Friendships fade naturally: that's part of why we all use Facebook, isn't it, so that we can pretend that we're going to stay in touch. It makes it that much easier to let go, knowing that if you ever need to talk to that person, their Wall is right there."
Mark makes a noncommittal noise, turning that over his mind.
"Is that Mark?" asks a woman's voice on the other end, muffled by her distance from the mic.
"Yeah," Dustin answers, scooting back so that his wife can duck into the frame with him.
"Good morning, Mark."
"Razia," he answers, watching her absently run her fingers along the edges of her hijab to make sure none of her hair is showing. He's seen her head uncovered once or twice when she's walked past Dustin's computer without realizing that he was video-conferencing with somebody, but he's never brought it to her attention, because it would embarrass the hell out of her and Mark actually respects Razia: she wears t-shirts that say WWPMD (What Would the Prophet Mohammad Do?) and her headscarf always seems to match the weather. She met Dustin at the Whole Foods on Homer, during an educational lecture on the different components of pig and how to tell if there were pig parts in your food: Mark hasn't kept kosher since high school, but Dustin still tries.
Mark learns these things about their relationship and remembers them methodically, like someday there'll be an exam on his friends and he's going to need to do well on it, score somewhere above "acceptable" on a scale of let's not be a crap friend and try that for awhile.
"You haven't been to bed yet, have you," Razia says, not a question. "Thought so," she nods when Mark shakes his head no. "You only start asking my husband existential questions about the purpose of your company when you've pulled an all-nighter."
"Right," monotones Mark, because it's either that or ask Dustin why Eduardo's phone is telling him that his office will be calling him tomorrow, and that might be an even stranger question than wondering if Dustin ever tried to get to know OS-lab Stephanie. "I'll let you go and get on with your morning, then. Razia, Dustin, and," he waves his hand vaguely. "Baby-like thing."
When the call cuts out, it freezes their expressions, the both of them caught with their eyes rolled tolerantly up.
Some friendships are worth the work you put into them, are worth what you get in return.
He goes upstairs and drops into bed, where he sleeps until some odd hour of the afternoon, when an inter-department office buzzes through his phone and wakes him up. It only goes to his phone if it's been flagged top priority, the you should probably come in and handle this, and soon kind. He reaches out for the end table, snatching it up and pawing at it until he gets it to send back an automated, I'm on my way.
At this rate, Mark wouldn't be surprised if his phone could run Facebook for him.
He pushes himself out of bed, making a vague attempt at throwing on something clean and brushing his teeth. On his way out the door, his eyes fall on Eduardo's Blackberry, still sitting on the dining room table. He pockets it.
He can tell something's up the instant he steps out of the elevator onto the main floor of Facebook, because there's a deliberate kind of hush that falls over everybody. Mark gets by just fine being socially oblivious, but there's something about the expectant way people's eyes unobtrusively follow him over the tops of their monitors that makes him wonder if he's about to get Silly String shot all over him. He mentally double-checks to make sure it's not his birthday.
Dustin looms out of nowhere like a poltergeist. He smells faintly of formula and baby powder, but that's not unusual these days.
"What's going on?" Mark asks, feeling more than a little wary by this point.
"There's somebody waiting for you in your office," Dustin sounds far more interested than this announcement probably merits.
"Okay," says Mark blankly.
Dustin drops back, stopping to lean casually against Danny's desk. Danny lifts his eyebrows, bluetooth headset clinging to the side of his head like a misshapen fly, his long hair frazzled around it. Mark watches them both with narrowed eyes, and rounds the corner outside his office.
"Woah," he goes, coming to an abrupt halt.
Lounging in his chair is a woman, sitting behind his veritable fort of computer screens like she came installed. A stunningly white dress wraps around her figure, trailing across the carpet like the train of a wedding gown, and her wild coils of hair spring every which way around her head. Mark wonders, kneejerk, if she could pick up signals for HBO with that hair; it seems like a conceivable concern.
At the sight of him, her eyes widen fractionally, and her mouth curves at one corner, slow.
She uncrosses her legs, gliding to her feet in one smooth movement, the dress rustling as it settles around her. "Mark," she greets him, like she does it all the time: Mark isn't entirely unused to this, because the more famous you get, the more magazine articles there are about you and the more movies are made about your life, the more complete strangers come up to you and apparently know everything about you. It never stops being incredibly creepy.
"Sweetie," she says warmly, showing teeth. "You're going to need this, it's psychic," and then she hands him a toilet paper roll.
Not even a full one, either, but the cardboard center. There are still small scraps of tissue clinging to it.
So many different scathing things cluster at the tip of Mark's tongue, clamoring to be said at once, so of course he misses his chance and when he looks up, roll propped on the end of his finger, she's gone in a swish of taffeta. His programmers and staff don't even pretend that they're not watching her go, openly curious faces peeking out above their monitors.
Mark has never before cried in public, but right now he feels like he might be a heartbeat or two away from bursting into frustrated tears.
Dustin rematerializes. "Mark!" he exclaims, sounding almost accusatory. "A beautiful woman in a wedding dress shows up in your office, and you chase her off in less than thirty seconds!"
"I have no idea who that was!" Mark gestures angrily after her with the toilet paper roll. "How did she get past security?" he demands, and then, "hang on." He holds the paper roll up, and, frowning, begins to peel the cardboard apart. He feels ridiculous, like he's checking his cereal box for a toy, but instinct doesn't lead him wrong: there's a piece of paper taped to the inside of the roll.
It's thick, strange, and unwieldy, and something about the way it feels between his fingers makes him feel like he's holding the flexible part of a touch screen, but he's more than aware that they're years away from that kind of nanotechnology. Still, he could swear it's tech. He rolls it up, experimentally, and when he smoothes it out again, he startles, because there are words on the paper now, where before it had been blank.
Ask Amy about Ask.
"Oh, come on," Mark groans. "What."
People like Amy annoy the hell out of Mark.
She has a BA in French and now she's a graduate student at Stanford, looking to someday earn a PhD in anthropology, get called "Doctor," and sit behind a desk somewhere, looking important and occasionally appearing on PBS specials.
Which is perfectly admirable, don't get him wrong, Mark has no problem with that -- he likes PBS! -- except that Amy can navigate Java script like she learned it coming out of the crib, and she was more or less the head of the development team for the boom sale that is World of Warcraft.
I have an eye for what's freakishly addictive, she'd gone when Sean introduced them for the first time, shrugging, and Mark stared at her like he couldn't quite believe she was real, this petite blonde thing on Sean's arm who was the brains and grunt work behind the reinvented gaming platform singly responsible for the burgeoning hermititude of socially inept boys and girls all over the country; the ones that hadn't yet been purloined by Facebook. She's by far the most impressive person Sean's ever introduced him to, and that's including the Victoria's Secret model and Peter Thiel.
(Of course, the fact that she's dating Sean is what Mark considers to be her worst character flaw -- why would you do that to yourself? -- except then months turn into years and Sean stays on the straight, the narrow, and out of jail. Amy, Mark had figured out quickly, is the kind of woman you would do anything for, including, apparently, monogamy. Mark didn't think Sean had it in him, so that was a surprise.)
All of Mark's programmers adore her, but whenever he offers her a job with Facebook -- which, people like her are not exactly a dime a dozen, you know, and some of his best programmers aren't half as proficient as she is, and come on, Facebook! versus ... anthropology -- she just smiles and says no thank you, she's content with her career path as it is.
To put it simply, it makes Mark want to stab her in the face.
Dismissing Dustin with a busybody job (Dustin knows it, rolling his eyes and sauntering off, like he isn't going to beeline straight for the break room to gossip with the PR people about the woman in the wedding dress,) he pushes into his office, pulling his iPhone from his pocket and putting it to his ear. He doesn't know Amy's schedule off the top of his head, and he straightens his spine instinctively when he hears her pick up, even though she can't see him and she's only a year older than him, regardless.
"Mark," she greets him, bemused. "You're initiating a phone call. Is the world ending?"
"What's up with Ask?" he goes, no preamble.
There's a beat of silence, and when she next speaks, her tone carries a completely different weight. "How did you hear about that?"
He glances over his shoulder at the remnants of the toilet paper roll. "You wouldn't believe me even if I told you."
She makes a noise, like she's sucking air in between her teeth. "Hmm. Well. You have my attention. What are you doing, oh, now?"
"Working," Mark says, kneejerk, sitting down in his chair like that might make it true.
"No, really. Are you doing anything important?"
"I'm the CEO of a multibillion dollar company," he reminds her, and immediately cringes a little bit. It gets tacky to state the obvious after so many times; even Mark knows this. "Oh, like you weren't addicted to Facebook as an undergraduate," he retorts at her slightly judgmental silence.
"All right," she fires back without missing a beat. "If you're so busy, then why did you ask about Ask?"
Mark purses his lips. "... are you on campus?"
He can hear the smile in her voice. "Yes. Your car's parked at the office, right? Thought so. I declare a field trip! I'll start up your way. No, yes, I'll explain when I get there. It might take me fifteen minutes or so, the shuttles run slower on Saturdays."
"Just take your bike, Amy, Palm Drive isn't that long," Mark tells her, and then tries to interpret her reluctant silence. "And nobody's going to be looking at your thighs, honest, nobody cares what you look like biking in shorts." Belatedly, once he says it, he realizes how that must have come out.
It startles Amy into laughter, however. "Oh, thank you for putting the most vain-sounding words into my mouth. Like you have room to talk anyway, I've seen you and your receding hairline."
"Barely!" Mark's free hand flies to his temple, as if her words alone might cause the spontaneous advancement of a bald patch. "You can hardly tell," he continues, quieter.
"Yeah, I know, your fro covers it." She sounds darkly amused by this point. "I just wanted to mess with you. All right, I will bike up there, then. See you in a few."
"Yup," he goes, and then, "-- wait, Amy."
"Have you ... have you gotten anything of Eduardo's delivered to you recently?"
"Ummm." There's a rustling on the other line, like she's shuffling papers back and forth, looking for something. "I don't think so. Do I know Eduardo?"
"No. No, you wouldn't. Never mind."
Hanging up, he goes back out into the main office, not even bothering to wake his computer station out of hibernation since he's just going to be leaving again; emergencies he can handle from his phone, he's made sure. That's the beauty of living in Silicon Valley in 2011: you can efficiently run said multilbillion dollar company and only occasionally do you have to show your face to your employees, shareholders, and competition, just to show them you're still alive.
Dustin, who has no sense of self-preservation at all, is shamelessly waiting on the other side of the door. Not even Mark's best and flattest look deters him. Looking him up and down, focusing on the car keys dangling from his fingers, he grins and lifts his eyebrows. "Does this have anything to do with our runaway bride?"
"Dustin," says Mark, perfectly level.
Dustin has no trouble translating his tone, having known him longer than any other person in the building, and backs off, his grin loosening somewhere around the eyes. "You're lucky that guest lecture of yours is tomorrow," he says loftily. "And you can get away with disappearing again."
Mark picks up a paperweight off of Danny's desk -- flat, square, with the blue Facebook "f" inlaid in tile in the middle -- and pitches it at Dustin's retreating back. It glances off his shoulder, hitting the carpet, and Tara, passing by with iPad in the crook of her elbow the same way Dustin cradles his newborn, crouches at the knees to pick it up, returning it to Danny's desk. Neither of them stop the work they're doing (traffic monitoring, communicating with the other side of the world to consolidate the user switch-over, as the western hemisphere goes to bed and the eastern hemisphere wakes up, making sure the servers won't overload; everything always comes back to the servers.)
Some days, Mark is really proud of his employees.
3505 University Ave sits on the second floor of the glass-walled building at the corner of University and High, with only El Camino -- Silicon Valley's main thoroughfare -- separating it from Stanford campus. It's above 2505, a Persian restaurant called Junnoon, which owns the small courtyard opening out onto the street. Like most restaurants in downtown Palo Alto, Junnoon is only open for a short span of time at lunch, closes during the slow part of the afternoon, and opens again for dinner.
They have patio tables set up in the courtyard, boxed in with wrought-iron trellises grown thick with ivy, to give a sense of privacy and seclusion. Facebook employees tell the time of day less by the digital clocks in the corners of their computer screens and more by whether or not they could hear conversation and clinking cutlery coming from downstairs: the noises of the dinner rush is their visceral cue that it's almost time to go home. Everything smells like herbs, olive oil, and eggplants, every single day. Mark can't smell eggplants anymore without his stomach knotting, the sense memory of those early days is so strong, back when he was nauseous all the time from being twenty-one and trying to run his own company, partnerless.
He's at the window when he sees Amy pedal up, swinging her leg up off the seat so she glides the last distance balanced just on one foot, bumping easily onto the bike rack. She's wearing a Stanford sweatshirt, cut at the neckline and at the elbows, and a pair of white Bermuda shorts, which she tugs down self-consciously. Mark smirks.
On his way out the building, he passes Rami, the cook from Junnoon, who's out on a cigarette break in the back alley, leaning against the wall. The screen door is propped open so he can yell instructions to the sous chefs inside.
Rami grins at him, the kind of grandfatherly jovial that you can't help but return, "Mr. Zuckerberg! Good to see you out and about! How's the wife?"
"Don't have one, Rami," Mark goes, sidling by. "You know that."
"I do," Rami allows, nodding his head magnanimously. "But I gotta pretend you got someone I can ask after, or I get all sad. I don't like the idea of you being alone. People-folk are not made to be alone, Mr. Zuckerberg, it is our greatest pain."
"I manage," Mark says, and he has no idea what his tone comes off as (that's always been his problem,) but Rami holds up a hand, apologetic and unperturbed.
Amy catches up to him when he's half-way across the parking lot, greeting him with a slightly breathless, "hey." He bobs his head in acknowledgement. The afternoon California sunlight beats down on their heads, setting her hair to a couple different shades of gold as she brushes it back.
Probably the biggest perk of being CEO is getting your own parking spot, which in downtown Palo Alto on a weekday is more valuable than a private island.
Rounding his car to get to the passenger seat, Amy's face twists wryly and she drifts her fingers over the roof, catching on the color change: an incident involving a blind stop sign on West Meadow and sleep deprivation cost Mark his passenger side door, so while most of his car is an olive-green color, the side door is a clownish shade of orange. Mark unlocks his door, slides into the hot interior, and leans over to hand-crank her window down.
"You know, I've never asked," she remarks, tossing her bike helmet into the backseat and then hiking herself up, shimmying in through the window with a grunt. "But you've got something like a bazillion dollars by now. Why haven't you bought yourself a new car instead of keeping this old junker?"
"I like this car," Mark answers, defensive, the same way he says, I like my clothes, I like my shoes, I like my house. Seriously, why does everyone insist on having a problem with it? "I came out west in this car, and it runs perfectly fine still --" Nothing rusts in California, it's too dry. Mark does not miss scraping frost off his windshield and kicking slush out of his tire wells in the winter, that's for sure. "-- so why would I want a new one?"
Amy looks at him sideways, buckling her seat belt and kicking her sandals into the footwell. "Have you done anything frivolous with your fortune?"
"I bought my sister a car," Mark offers. "When she turned sixteen. One of those big American-made SUVs with the build-in GPS and On-Star and," he gestures vaguely, "all the cool extras kids these days are into. I wanted her to be as safe as she could be."
Amy is laughing at him, he's pretty sure; she hides her mouth behind her hand. "Did she appreciate the gesture?"
Mark's lips quirk at the corner. "She threatened to disown me, change her name, and move to Norway rather than be caught dead driving it." He shrugs, smiling despite himself when she barks laughter, flicking on his turn signal and pulling into traffic, bumping over the cobblestone on University Ave.
The rest of the world makes it kind of difficult for him to forget the fact that he's a billionaire, given that he only made the Guinness Book of World Records because of it. And no matter his own personal attitude towards being rich, he knows what it means to others. Around the same time he bought a car for his sister, he wrote his parents a check big enough for his father to retire early on. Everybody knows and nobody's saying it, but it was probably Mr. Zuckerberg's saving grace: his back wouldn't have made it to 65 without permanent injury. His mother called him shortly thereafter and made nothing but tearful noises at him, the way parents do when they're so proud of you they can't form a coherent sentence. Mark said, "oh, Mom," but didn't hang up, until finally she composed herself and asked him about Jewish girls.
There are some people to whom their parents' approval mean everything, and some to whom it couldn't matter less, but Mark's had his parents' love and support since the beginning, unflagging and unconditional, and he feels that paying them back is the least he can do for them.
He tilts his chin at Amy. "And I take it we're going to San Jose?"
She sits up, coming to attention. "Right."
It takes fifteen minutes to drive from Facebook to the Yahoo!-Ask compound, and ten of those are usually spent trying to merge onto the 101. Technically, the compound exists on the fringe where San Jose meets Sunnyvale, but it's the same way Mark has to go to Menlo Park just to use the post office: all the densely-populated cities in northern California bleed into each other, so you can cross the street and find yourself in a completely different area of jurisdiction without a single change in scenery.
"What's up with Ask?" Mark asks, coming to the point. "What's got you dropping everything in the middle of the day?"
"It's not just Ask, Yahoo!'s up to something, too," says Amy instantly. "Which is why I'm sure it's a location thing, because do you ever see those two work together otherwise? About three days ago, I started to notice an insane surge of connectivity through their gateways. You go to their webpage, you search for something, and it's like your browser gets jolted with pure caffeine. Zoom!" she smacks her hands together.
Mark tilts his head at her quizzically.
He opens his mouth to say something, but she cuts him off with a sharp gesture. "No, it's not just a fortuitous patch of high-speed Internet, I tried it on my roommate's phone, even. She has Sprint. High-speed on Sprint is something to be concerned about. And when you navigate away from the Yahoo! or Ask search bars, then oh, hey, all of a sudden you're back down to average speed.
"Don't," she talks over Mark again, catching the expression on his face. They're on Alma, which is shady and always Sunday-slow until you get to the freeway; the sun comes in through the window, dappled through leaves and flickering across her legs and face. "I'm not the only one who thinks it's odd. I saw some chatter about it on the Blizzard forums, that's why I looked into it in the first place."
"Right," says Mark, because that's legitimate: the entire World of Warcraft empire depends on connection speeds. The RPGers would naturally be the first to notice abnormally fast connections.
"Either they're growing the world's largest ganja supply in that building and that's where all the power's going," says Amy. "Or they've got their hands on something a little more sinister."
"What makes you say that?"
"The WoW crowd I know also know some Internet theorists --"
Mark snorts. That's the politically correct term for "conspiracy nut," the paranoid Seans of the world who hide in their basements and never see enough daylight to form a cohesive enough thought about the people who move around it. (Not that Mark exactly has room to talk about people who type angry things from dark rooms, but still.)
"-- who've been monitoring the output since these surges started, again, not much longer than a week ago. If you peel down to the source code, there's a repeated meme in there. It makes no sense for function, so why is it even there? But," she fumbles in her pocket for a second. "It's buried deep, your and my level kind of deep."
She holds out her phone -- older model iPhone with a lime-green casing -- and Mark shifts his grip on the steering column to take it from her. It's a beat or two before his brain registers that he's looking at Java, and switches away from English accordingly. His eyes flick to the road and back.
"They have --" appears uselessly within the code, and he frowns, because the next part doesn't make sense upon translation.
"They have the phone box," Amy confirms.
Mark returns the phone, breathing out slowly to try and dispel the knot of frustration in his stomach.
"I am," he says. "Extremely sick and tired of this cryptic Blues Clues routine!" He leans forward to look out the windshield, yelling in the general direction of the sky, "Some solid answers would be really helpful!"
They lapse into silence for a moment, Mark fuming. First he has to see himself walk into the break room and hand him a phone full of impossible true things, and then there was the woman in the wedding dress with a toilet paper roll and a secret message, and all that led him to this, the heavily-encrypted ghost in the machine, and none of it tells him anything.
"Why Yahoo! and Ask?" For exmaple. "If you're going to manipulate a search engine, then Yahoo! and Ask have nothing on the Google regime. Nothing can touch Google," though not for lack of trying. Mark, Sean, and a number of his PR staff have spent so much time negotiating with the Googlites that they pretty much have long-standing reservations to each other's weddings. Mark can't walk into Trader Joe's without somebody in a Google polo recognizing him. "In fact, they've dropped so much in traffic that --"
"After seriously rearranging their infrastructure," Amy points out. "Remember that?"
"Are you trying to say --"
"I'm saying that as a reasonably Internet-savvy graduate student with a stake in search engines, I'm worried. It's suspicious."
"Fine." Mark worries his bottom lip between his teeth, trying to think of what this means.
Amy jabs at his shoulder. "Hey, speaking of," and points. "Google alert."
Mark glances out the window and catches a glimpse of the tall, glittering glass skyplex that's the home of Google Headquarters, USA, right on the edge of the federal airfield. The airfield is a strictly off-limits, no-fly deadzone, a mysterious hangar the size of a small Midwestern town its sole distinguishing feature. Dustin and Sean are convinced the proximity can't be accidental, and it's impossible to drive by when both of them are in the car together and escape without somebody bringing it up the possibility of top-secret Google experimentation with mind control.
Think about it, Dustin always bellows whenever somebody tries to crank up the music in order to drown them out. They've probably got some whole Stepford village thing inside that hangar and pretty soon Google's going to perfect subliminal mind control through the changing Google logos! Come on, it's plausible!
He exchanges a look with Amy, who grins, and they both extend their middle fingers in salute as they sail by on the freeway. It's a habit they picked up from Sean, not unlike tapping the roof when you run a yellow light, because Sean's good-natured contempt towards Google is contagious. No matter how large Facebook gets or how many years in a row they're the most-frequented searched webpage, Google will always have them beat on the scale of Internet hierarchy. Sean feels this requires an expression of vitriol.
Amy falls back into her seat, laughing and kicking her feet up onto the dashboard, true Cali girl style. "That is such a bad habit," she complains.
"No one saw, it's fine," Mark drums his fingers on the steering wheel, grinning.
Sean and Amy tell people they met at the 10-year anniversary party for the Warcraft franchise (which was also the announced release date of World of Warcraft, the true money-maker of the series,) which technically isn't a lie, because they got reaquainted there, in a hey, didn't I see you naked once, oh hey, yeah, well, this is awkward kind of way. They did one night stand ("you made me think there was a snake in my dorm," Amy says every time, "I couldn't sleep for a week, you dick!"), then introductions, then parting of the ways, and now years later, they're dating. Kind of. Mark doesn't know if you can call it dating, and what is dating in California anyway, definitions vary.
We didn't necessarily do things in the right order, Amy likes to say, with that smile that shows of all of her teeth. But I don't think you have to, not really. Doesn't mean it's not real, doing it your way.
I really, really like the way she laughs, Sean told him on a different occasion, flopping over the foot of Mark's bed and smelling like Cuervo. Sean likes to crash at his place when he's falling up standing down drunk, because, quote, "your address is easier to say to the cab guy without slurring." This is why Mark has a spare bedroom. He'd been considering a one-bedroom over by the high school, but he figured Sean was going to crash with him no matter what kind of house he had and he might as well have a bedroom for him; Sean's had enough experience waking up in uncomfortable places already.
No, really, I do, Sean had insisted, propping himself up on his elbows. Mark had studiously filed that away under the list of things he's methodically learning about his friends, because while Sean may have turned out to be as shit a business partner as Eduardo, he's still his friend. You know what I think?
He remembers this conversation vividly, it's strange.
I think that out of love and laughter, love came first, Sean pointed a finger at him. Love had to have come first, and then laughter was invented after that. They invented laughter so that you can deal with love, it's the only way.
Is that so? And then twitched his feet out of the way when Sean tried to pinch one of his toes, because Sean is handsy even when sober, and it comes out manifold when he's drunk.
Sean had regarded him for a moment. You know what I mean. The people that make you laugh the most. The ones you love the most. It's the only way you can deal with that kind of love, is to laugh about it. Everyone deserves people to laugh with.
And then, why didn't you try to find him when he went missing?
Mark had all but frog-marched him to the spare bedroom at that. The memory of it still makes his fingers clench.
"Hey," says Amy, breaking him out of his reverie. "Did you call Rhiannon and let her know we're coming?"
Mark tilts a dark look at her. Rhiannon Arnolds became the representative face of Ask around the same time Facebook broadened from being strictly college-exclusive to high schools too, sometime in 2006. A tall, intimidatingly articulate (this is coming from Mark, who could write the book on cutting articulation) middle-aged woman, she once told Mark at a gala at the Googleplex that if he was going to wear suits, he could at least try to look like he wasn't hiding the Russian circus inside first. After that, whenever he knew that they were going to be at the same function at the same time, he wore that mammoth of a suit just to annoy her.
"Oooooh," goes Amy when he keeps mum, grinning that big grin of hers. "She's going to be so mad at you."
Mark snorts, craning around to check his blind spot before he merges into the exit lane.
They have the phone box.
Come on, really?
They get their visitor parking pass and -- even though they've been here before and know the parking guard by name -- a campus map. The Yahoo!-Ask towers exist right on the edge of the salt flats, which gives the air a permeating stench of dead fish: Mark supposes no matter how sick his employees get of falafel, at least they don't have to deal with this every time they go out on a smoke break. (On the other hand, this campus also has a golf course and a gym. Facebook doesn't. Facebook has a vending machine.)
"You look like you have a plan," Amy comments, following him out the driver's side door so she doesn't have to go through the window.
"I do," Mark confirms.
"You going to share?"
They pass through the courtyard between the two buildings (there's a postcard of it somewhere, because in full sunlight it's the quintessential Silicon Valley picture: two glass spire buildings and a courtyard in front, with smiling business people in fancy watches and a modern art sculpture fountain. Mark's sister has a copy of it pinned to a corkboard above her bed, under the heading of "Places I'd Like to Live." She forcibly evicted him from her room when he noticed it.)
It's pretty easy to tell the two lobbies apart: Yahoo!'s is strictly purple-themed, and Ask's is primarily red. They once had to sit through Chris explaining this was why Yahoo! acquired more subsidiaries than Ask did: purple was a relaxing, calming color, where as red inspired aggression in companies that would otherwise have no problem turning over their assets.
Mark strides right through the front doors of Ask, Amy at his elbow.
He remembers back when Jeeves was the Ask mascot, and as such they had a painting of him sitting behind the reception desk, like some severe head-of-family portrait. It's been replaced now with the Ask logo, which is more professional.
Mark props his elbows up on the receptionist's desk, leaning forward and smiling unsettlingly at the college-age kid manning the station until he politely ends his phone call and says, "Ms. Ritter! Mr. Zuckerberg! Always glad to have you looming, do you have an appointment?"
"No, I have a question, actually --" he cranes his neck to see the name tag. "Nathan."
"Okay. How may I help?"
Mark shows teeth. "What exactly does your company and our friends at Yahoo! over there think they're going to get away with?"
Nathan's eyebrows rocket up, but before he can answer, a hand clamps down on Mark's wrist, and he looks up into the high-browed face of Rhiannon Arnolds.
Rhiannon reminds Mark of what would happen if Molly Weasley got together with Sarah Connor and had a genetically-estranged child. She's taller than Mark, broad like a football player and a little frumpy in the way she stretches her business clothing, but she always gives him the impression that if it came down to the zombie apocalypse, she could outrun everyone else and wouldn't even have to trip them. She's got a spray of freckles across her cheeks and no matter how many times she does the press docket, she can't get her ginger hair to ever not clash with her company logo.
"Mr. Zuckerberg, stop intimidating my employees," she says in way of dry greeting, and this is why Rhiannon is one of Mark's favorite people. She's straightforward and refreshingly unprofessional. Mark looks forward to each and every opportunity he has to antagonize her.
"You didn't tell us you were coming," she continues, and Mark more feels rather than sees Amy shoot him a look. "But fortunately for you, we were expecting you anyway."
"You were?" Mark blinks.
"Yes," says Rhiannon. "If you'd like to follow me, the president is available to speak to you now."
Amy jumps in. "About what's going on with the engine speeds?"
"I'm afraid you'll have to wait here, Ms. Ritter." Rhiannon doesn't sound particularly apologetic, her eyes flicking down the long length of Amy's exposed legs.
Mark catches Amy's eye. Her face is red, so he deliberately flicks his eyes to the bank of computers behind the receptionist's desk. "I'll meet you back here, then?"
"Yup." With an air of nonchalance, she leans on her elbow to check over Nathan's shoulder. He eyeballs her, and Mark smirks.
He turns his back on her and follows Rhiannon out of the lobby. They make a pantomime of small talk -- which for them consists mostly of methodically tearing apart the last morons they had to talk to -- before she finally says anything interesting.
"Now I know you don't like him identifying as part of Facebook publicly," Rhiannon starts, and Mark side-eyes her, not liking where this is going. "But I'm going to tattle and tell you Sean Parker was here last month in the official capacity. Well, he claims it was an official capacity, but I know he was just here to see me," she presses the back of her hand to her forehead, diva-like, and Mark relaxes some. "We have some fantastic chemistry, we do."
He snorts, because he's not altogether sure that she's exaggerating. Sean Parker has chemistry with doorknobs. There have been moments when even Mark has thought Sean was about to lay one on him, and Mark has all the sexual awareness of a jellyfish.
"If you're fishing to find out if he's going to be coming back any time soon," he tells her, dry. "It depends on your answer to my question. What's going on here?"
"We're trying to do our jobs," Rhiannon says pointedly.
Mark lets that go in one ear and out the other. "You've made no mention of new updates, and trust me, I have people on top of that kind of thing, so I'm curious. How do you signal-boost a connection speed completely independent of the user's individual Internet strength? I'm sure it's technologically possible, but not for cheap."
"The ways of a Jedi master are never revealed to the unworthy," Rhiannon deadpans, and holds a door open for him. "In here, if you please, Mr. Zuckerberg."
Mark enters some unlit conference-style room, the kind with community-center style partitions that can be folded back to make a larger space. He hears Rhiannon flick the light switch behind him, but it takes a solid couple of seconds for the lights to buzz to life: Energy-Saver bulbs. Mark has fond, fleeting memories of fluorescent lights.
He keeps talking, pacing a tread on the carpet. "If you've found that strong a power source, why aren't you selling it? You'd make more money selling it than trying to implement it. I think Netflix might turn over its firstborn child if they could get their hands on something that could jack connection speeds as high as the ones that Yahoo! and Ask are currently experiencing. And," he makes a vehement gesture. "What was up with that bit about having a phone box? Why would you even need to tag it within your own code unless it's a message? And even then, who could you possibly be sending a message to? And why use 'they' instead of 'we'? Rhiannon, what are you -- are you even listening to me?"
He frowns, because Rhiannon's just standing there, her arms drooping by her sides and her head hanging down, as if she'd been there and suddenly all her strings had been cut. She doesn't react when Mark approaches her, just remains unnaturally still.
"Hey," he goes, raising his voice. "Hey, Arnolds! Don't tell me you've got a bad case of narcolepsy, because that --"
Her head snaps up like a flap on a hinge and Mark jolts backwards. Her eyes have gone red, completely red and blinding like laser lights. They target Mark and he flinches, almost expecting to feel it singe his flesh because that's frightening. His heart fires up, double-time.
She opens her mouth, and the most horrible voice comes out, something between the mechanical monotone of the automated messenger in his voicemail and what Rhiannon's voice used to be, which is recognizable enough to raise all the hair on his arms.
"The TARDIS is ours and you cannot have it back," she says with no inflection. "It is our only hope. The TARDIS is ours and you cannot have it back."
And then she lunges forward, way too fast, faster than he's ever seen Rhiannon move before, and her jaw ... her jaw ...
Her jaw unhinges, and Mark catches a glimpse of something glinting grey and sharp and thinks, eel and jaw within a jaw and those are really pointy and she is very close, which isn't the most intelligent thing he's ever thought and he's sure his pride would be wounded if this woman wasn't attacking him MARK MOVE, and then he throws himself to the side, hitting the carpet and rolling. He hears the double rows of teeth clamp shut on empty air with a sound like a steel trap.
"Shit," he breathes, scrambling away on his hands and knees, his elbows scraped and burning from where they met the carpet. He staggers upright, swinging around.
Rhiannon's advancing on him again, eyes blinking redly and jaw spread wide. There are a lot of teeth, and Mark's not sure where her real mouth went. It seems that should be the kind of thing people notice at press conferences: whether or the Ask representative has teeth like a goddamn shark.
In his hand, Mark's phone starts ringing.
It's instinctive, the flick his eyes make to check the ID, because Mark lives in a world where a ringing phone is important and a woman hellbent on killing you is secondary because it tends to be kind of uncommon.
He has just enough time to register that it's Amy who's calling him before Rhiannon's hand slaps down on his, snatching his phone from him and leaving long red scratches down Mark's forearm and wrist.
She crushes his iPhone single-handedly and tosses the cracked, exposed pieces to the side.
"You're like the goddamn terminator!" Mark yells at her, and then does what any scrawny computer nerd does when his aggressor is the size of a tank and wants to chew him to bits with mechanical teeth: he runs for his miserable little life.
Sprinting towards the exit, sandals flapping against his heels, he hears Rhiannon pounding after him and lets out an undignified noise he will deny later.
The door slams open, and Mark catches a glimpse of a sandy-colored suit and a strong jaw and thick hair before the intruder is yelling, "Mark, duck," and Mark's knees hit the carpet without any direction from his brain whatsoever.
The stranger jumps over him in a colt-legged kind of leap-frog, and plants himself between Mark and Rhiannon, pointing something that looks a lot like a penlight straight between her eyes. It lights up bright green, wailing loudly, and Mark has enough time to think, what the ever-loving fu--
And then the red in Rhiannon's eyes blinks out, and she crumples to the carpet, just like that, skidding a little on her face from the momentum. She doesn't move again.
Mark stays on his knees, panting.
"Do you think this means you two aren't going to be friends on Facebook anymore?" goes the man, looking down at Rhiannon's crumpled form.
A number of odd things have happened to Mark throughout the course of his twenty-seven years of life (up to and including that time they asked him onto Saturday Night Live to meet the shadow-eyed actor who could mimic him perfectly, down to the way he blinked) but this pretty much takes the cake.
"She just tried to eat me!" he yelps, just to make sure it sounds as unbelievable out loud as it did in his head.
"Don't be ridiculous," says the stranger, bending double over Rhiannon's body. The penlight in his hand glows a neon shade of green, whining high-pitched the way a blender does right before it explodes. "She doesn't need to eat. She would have killed you viciously, and I'm sure that would have been traumatic for you, but I doubt she had interest in making a Twizzler out of your internal organs. Aha, I thought so," he flicks the penlight off, spreading his fingers carefully over Rhiannon's head and lifting her sightless face up. "Bio-carbonite artificial life-form. Already been taken offline." He looks up at Mark, shrugging. "Think Cylon, only legitimate, not the hack manifestation of repressed human sexuality it became in the reboot telly series."
"Okay," says Mark, on whom pop culture references more recent than 1999 are wasted. He gets up shakily. "But that's Rhiannon. She's worked here for years."
"A plant, playing the long game," the stranger says, unapologetic, and he narrows his eyes. He sets Rhiannon's head back down on the linoleum, hesitating long enough to brush her hair out of her mouth with a sad kind of sympathy, before he springs to his feet and invades Mark's personal space.
"Mark Zuckerberg!" he goes, the way people talk about their politicians or the way Sean says "cop!" when they're driving too fast down Embarcadero -- overly familiar and a little exasperated. "Didn't anybody ever tell you not to walk head-first into a trap? Who just waltzes right into a company and demands to know what top-secret nefarious plan they thought they could get away with?"
"Me," Mark replies, flat. "Who the hell are you?"
The man's lips curve upwards, wry. "Someone who needs your help," he goes, his voice dropping low, soft and persuasive, his eyes never leaving Mark's.
"You see," he says. "They have two things these companies should have never gotten their hands on. They have my time machine, and they have my very good friend. You might have heard of him: tall drink of water, likes suits, has rather unfortunately thick hair and big soulful cartoon eyes," he demonstrates animatedly with his hands. "Goes by his full name most of the time, because there's only one person in the universe allowed to give him a nickname."
Just like that, Mark knows who this stranger is, like flipping a switch: one moment, darkness, the next, light, nothing in between.
This is the man from all those photos on the Blackberry.
And then Mark can't get his hands on him fast enough, snatching him up by the lapels of his tweed jacket.
"Ward--?" he starts.
The door to the conference room bangs open again, and half a dozen men with guns burst in, surrounding them in a semi-circle within the space of a heartbeat.
It's the first time in Mark's entire life that he's been on the wrong end of a gun, and he's not entirely sure as to what the etiquette is. He'd always felt that this was more of a metaphor, where if you really had a beef with someone, you dragged them in front of a panel of lawyers and sued them for intellectual property theft. Board rooms were the quick-draw saloons of the twenty-first century. The actual thing doesn't even register for a moment -- why would there just randomly be men with rifles lounging around the Yahoo!-Ask compound? This isn't Area 51.
It's a lot to process, so it takes Mark a moment to realize that all the men are as identical as if they've been copy/pasted, which is .... not natural.
"Doctor," they say, simultaneously and with the same tone, same inflection, like walking into the electronics section of Target where all the TVs are playing the same commercial in surround stereo.
Next to him, the stranger lifts his hands into the air. "Oh, hey, look at that," he says, smiling sideways at Mark. "Trap."
Here's something I can cross off my bucket list, Mark thinks sardonically. Getting marched down a hallway with a gun at my back.
They're flanked by soldiers; two in front, two to the side, two behind them, in fatigues and gear clanking loudly with every step. The most bizarre part is that they pass people going the other way: accountants and specialists and people whose job Mark can't identify, who squeeze up against the wall to let them go by without even seeming to be alarmed by the sight of two captives being escorted by AK-47s.
"Don't try anything," comes from the stranger, like he's reading Mark's mind. He's walking in front, and if Mark's not mistaken, the soldiers seem to be more wary of him than Mark, which stands to reason: he did deactivate Rhiannon with a penlight. He can't see his face through the shoulder pads of his suit; they both have their hands knotted behind their heads, but his voice carries back to him clearly. "They can't see you or the soldiers."
"What do you mean --" Mark hisses. "That doesn't even make sense! We're a little hard to miss!"
"There's a little hiccup between seeing and perceiving that people like to take advantage of," the stranger (a doctor, maybe? He kind of looks like he could be a doctor, although certainly not one from around here) twiddles his fingers a little bit against the back of his head. "It's a work in progress, I'm still thinking."
Some of Mark's residual terror slowly starts to ebb.
The thing about web corporations that got their start in the dot-com era is that no matter how they update their lobbies and ground floor to be sleek, modern, and trendsetting in the way that only California can be, go beyond the very surface impressions and you can still find remnants of the plain white office rooms, where they'd done their start-up in sardine-can confines because that's what the Internet was in those days: a closed-door affair.
The inner heart of the Ask tower is a network of stark, blank hallways and utilitarian stairwells, each as featureless as the next. Walking ahead of him, the stranger is muttering consistently to himself, a long string of, "... bio-carbonite robot and Tin Soldiers from the planet Barcelona ... now that's a hodge-podge I'd never seen before, I wonder what we're dealing with. Smugglers, maybe, oh, smugglers always love Earth, why is that? Such a nuisance, they're rarely ever very clever. I still remember the incident with the Slitheen, my ears were ringing for days ..."
"I'm sorry --" Mark can't help but interrupt, tetchy and a little short. "But I'm still unclear as to who you are."
The man glances backwards over his shoulder, but most of what Mark sees from this angle is his forehead, which is big and lined enough to probably count as a face all its own. "The person who just saved your life, blimey, you think that'd put a stopper on any antagonism for five minutes."
"I'm still a little unclear as to who you are, sir," says Mark.
"Never mind, you can be as antagonistic as you like, just don't call me that again. I'm the Doctor."
"The Doctor?" Mark echoes disbelievingly. Chris's older brother is called the Doctor, but that's more in a Richard "the Doctor" Hughes, star quarterback kind of way, where he got the nickname because he literally sent people to the hospital. He contemplates the back of the stranger's head; he doesn't really look like he plays football. Chess, maybe, or Minesweeper.
"Yes, the Doctor. I'm so good at what I do that I don't need any other name."
"Doctor," the six soldiers all say at once, in their eerie monotone.
Mark flinches, but the Doctor looks thoughtful, "No, don't, they're Tin Soldiers. Very rudimentary form of artificial life -- good ole Barcelona, should've just stuck with dogs -- and only respond to certain stimuli, which is why they're letting us talk, but, with, under certain conditions ... say, us trying to step out of line or someone saying 'the Doctor' --"
"Doctor," the soliders say, as if on cue.
The Doctor lifts is eyebrows triumphantly. "Tell me, Mark, your friend back there -- when she went all Cylon on you, did she say anything?"
"'The TARDIS is ours and you cannot have it back'," Mark recites immediately. "'It's our only hope.'"
"Ahhh. Great," the Doctor grits his teeth. "An Obi-Wan Kenobi case, those are always the worst."
Finally, when Mark gets to the point where he's seriously wondering if they're just walking in circles for fun, two of the soldiers lower their guns in order to grab them by the arms and shove them into a room off one of the hallways ("ooo, holding cells, how terribly original!" goes the Doctor, in a tone that suggests it really isn't.) Mark gets the impression of grey walls, no windows, and light although there doesn't seem to be a source, before someone yelps, "Mark!" and then Amy's right in front of him. Her face is so pale it looks like milk.
They grab onto each other's hands, instinctive as reaching out to catch something that falls. "Rhiannon --!" Amy starts, her eyes wide.
"Is a robot with a frightening number of teeth, yes, I discovered that," Mark answers. "Go figure, the first person who actually tries to kill me, and she's someone I genuinely admired."
"Oh, Doctor," says a woman's voice, and only then does Mark realize that Amy isn't the room's only occupant. "I love how every time you promise a rescue, we always wind up imprisoned together. You do realize I'm going to be incredibly late for my own wedding, don't you?"
"You!" Mark yelps, pointing at her.
The woman in the wedding dress from the office blinks, and then recognition lights her eyes up. "Look at you!" she goes, coming to embrace Mark in a wash of taffeta. Startled, he doesn't do much but stand there awkwardly when her arms go around his neck. She releases him and takes his face between her hands, eyes flitting between his, "oh my god, this is the youngest I've ever seen you. You look like a baby!"
"Um?" is Mark's intelligent comment. "Actually, I would really like to know why you were in my office this afternoon. And why you had this," he pulls the tiny flap of paper from his pocket, the one he peeled from the cardboard roll. There's no message on it now.
The woman's eyebrows lift. "Psychic paper? How did you get that?" she goes, taking it from him. And then, "oh, dear, things aren't happening to me in the right order again, are they?"
"Mark, this is Doctor River Song," says the Doctor, who is on his hands and knees in the corner of the room, pointing his glowing green thing ("it's a sonic screwdriver," the woman leans sideways to whisper to Amy and Mark, noticing their expressions. "That sounds a little ..." starts Amy, and she cuts her off, "yes, I know, honestly, that boy and his toys,") along the crease where the floor meets the wall. "Professor of archaeology and ..." he falters, trailing off, like there's more to that introduction but he doesn't want to say it. He twists his head around to find her looking at him expectantly, arms crossed, so he finishes with an air of great reluctance, "... and all-around amazing, wonderful woman."
She "aw"s. "Why, thank you, sweetie!"
"What are you doing?" Amy crouches down.
"Think about it!" says the Doctor. "There's no exits in this room besides the door, which is being guarded by our Tin friends, there aren't any light fixtures or wires and yet, there's light. There aren't even vents. It's like they want us to suffocate."
River, Mark, and Amy look at him.
"Okay, I haven't quite ruled it out," the Doctor admits. He brushes his fringe out of his eyes, and then points with his penlight-screwdriver-thing. "Question! Who are you?"
"Hi, I'm Amy," she waves a little bit, awkward, like she isn't quite sure she's allowed to introduce herself normally when they're basically being held hostage. (Huh. Mark's never been held hostage before. Somehow he thought there'd be a little more action-thriller, less Dr. Seuss and the Wedding Crashers.)
The Doctor's eyebrows practically leap up to meet his hairline. "Are you really?" he leaps to his feet. "That's wonderful, I've never met an Amy who wasn't amazing! Don't tell me you're an Amelia, too?"
Amy nods hesitantly, but the Doctor just smiles, slow and wide, like this is the most fantastic thing he's ever heard. "Amelia," he goes, dragging it out like it's taffy. "Brilliant name, very Grimm Brothers. It's my honor to meet you, Ms. Amelia ..."
"Ah," goes the Doctor in a complete change of tone. "That's rather unfortunate, I'm sorry. Ritter," he curls his lip some.
In his peripheral, Mark sees River dip her head sharply to hide her grin, and feels the need to come to Amy's defense. "She's the one who found the aberration in the search gateways and brought us here," he points out, voice sharp. "She headed the development team for World of Warcraft when she was twenty-one," and Amy slides a sideways smile at him, surprised, which means he finds his tongue instantly tripping over, "even if she did major in French."
"French!" the Doctor echoes, sounding delighted. "I love the French! Give them a problem, and they'll either get naked or start a revolution, it really depends on planetary alignment. Now, this message, it wouldn't have had anything to do with a phone box, would it?"
Mark and Amy exchange pointed looks. They nod.
The Doctor grins. "You know what I really love about having handy-dandy clues all over the places?" he says. "It means that somebody's going to survive long enough to get those clues in the right places at the right time. We're going to live, because one of us has to leave that code for you to find." He gestures at the ceiling. "These clouts definitely didn't give themselves away. Do you understand?"
"Yes," says River.
"No," say Amy and Mark.
The Doctor waves this off. "Time travel, it's a bit dizzying at first, but don't worry, you'll catch on eventually. First rule of thumb is: if it doesn't make sense yet, it will. Well, most of the time. Okay, only some of the time, there are still things even I don't get, like your tagging feature, Mark, honestly, you should have known that wasn't going to end well." He steps in front of them.
The Doctor's about Mark's height, so Mark doesn't have to crane his neck to level a mildly contemptuous look at him, which is nice.
"Excuse me, do you even have a Facebook?" he asks, even though, in reality, he gets this a lot: no matter how many people he meets, they're all either freakishly addicted to Facebook, or think it's the cesspool and wellspring of all socials ills, or honestly couldn't give two hoots about it. It doesn't even heckle at his pride anymore, the way it used to; in fact, he tends to be more interested in those second and third columns, because he's already aware that Facebook is a once-in-a-lifetime good idea, thanks.
"Didn't you hear the news, Mark Zuckerberg?" the Doctor goes. "Facebook is how you connect with the people you can never stand to see in person."
"What did you mean, time travel?" Mark returns.
The Doctor blinks. "Wow, he wasn't kidding -- conversation with you is like a bad game of ping pong," he mutters, mostly to himself.
"The phone box is called the TARDIS," comes from River, clipped like she's used to delivering this line. "The TARDIS is the Doctor's spaceship and time machine. We landed here a little under a week ago because Eduardo overheard something suspicious on the scanner. The Doctor and I got separated from him, and when we came back, he and the TARDIS were gone. We've tracked them here."
"To Yahoo! Inc and Ask, forever second-best in the search engine world, now in possession of the only remaining TARDIS," the Doctor finishes, spreading his arms. "The Internet monoliths have the phone box!" he offers, and takes inventory of their faces. "No? Nobody wants to put that on a shirt?"
A noise at the door interrupts them; footsteps and the sounds of the Tin Soldiers snapping to attention. The lock on the door buzzes, and they have only have enough time to gather ranks, shoulders pressing into shoulders, before two very familiar faces walk in.
It's the CEO of Yahoo! and the president of Ask.
Mark makes a low noise of relief in the back of his throat, because he hadn't realized how badly he wanted to see them until this very moment, because they are comfortable, they are familiar; Mark has been moving in their social circles since he moved out here, and if there's anyone who's going to be straightforward about this whole thing, it's them.
He takes a step forward, and almost instantly, the Doctor blocks his path.
"Wait a minute, Mark," he goes, lowly and rapidly. "I have a question for you, and I want you to answer honestly, immediately, and without using that immensely large and overactive brain of yours to think about it. Who is Eduardo Saverin to you?"
Mark looks at him and answers, "My best friend."
The corner of the Doctor's mouth quirks. "Even after all this time?"
"Of course." Because you'll have friends you will like more, friends you'll feel closer to, friends that you go to for certain things or can always count on for others, but there's still that one person who is undoubtedly and irrefutably The Best Friend, not in a way that lessens any of your other friendships, but just in a way that is, like Rami the cook saying, we aren't made to be alone. Mark can make and remember as many friends as he wants, but Eduardo's his best friend, and this is Mark's punishment; to know he is gone, gone willingly, and be unable to look for him because Eduardo didn't want to be found.
The Doctor's eyes have crinkled and gone soft at the corners, like Mark couldn't have given him a better answer. "Now who's cooler than a million dollars and a bow tie?" he says, and then spins around.
"And you!" he goes, pointing at Yahoo!'s CEO and Ask's president, who are flanked by their cookie-cutter soldiers and their very big guns. "Come on, perception filters are so last season," and then he whips the sonic screwdriver up and around, aiming it right at them.
The soldiers vanish first, like someone had taken a great rubber eraser to them ("hang on, were they ever really there?" Mark demands, and the Doctor shrugs, grimacing when Mark raises his voice, "why didn't you do that earlier, you made me believe we were about to be shot!" "I wanted to meet our masterminds,") and then the friendly, familiar faces Mark knows warps and shift.
The illusion shatters completely, their forms rippling and expanding outwards.
"Well, hello," says the Doctor, when they settle. "River, Mark, and Ms. Amelia Ritter, I would like you to meet the real faces behind Yahoo! and Ask."
They're double human size, tall enough that their heads brush the ceiling and they curve almost uncomfortably to fit in the room. Mark's immediate impression falls somewhere between Jabba the Hut and a stegosaurus; they seem to be composed of a massive amount of flabby, scaly-looking skin, propped up on thick, stubby legs. They have reptilian faces, with flat eyes like snakes and very large mouths, but their most distinguishing feature is the row of thick, wicked-looking spines that go up the lines of their backs.
Mark eyes their nasty, sharp tips, and imagines what it would be like to be run through by one those. Fear crawls down his back.
They seem similar in height and girth, but the two of them are, in fact, easy to tell apart: the creature that used to be Yahoo!'s CEO has purple spines, and the one that used to be Ask's president is red. It makes a certain amount of sense.
"So nice to finally get to talk to you," the Doctor smiles, affable. "I've had a feeling we've kept missing each other, what with you stealing my TARDIS and my friend and all."
The one closest to them -- the purple-spined one, so Yahoo! -- blinks at them, eyelids closing vertically like an alligator's, and says "Doctor," in a voice like crunching gravel.
River makes a noise. "Twins!" she breathes out. "They're brothers!"
Amy darts her a sideways look, seemingly unable to take her eyes off the ... the aliens? ... for longer than a moment. "How can you tell?" she whispers.
"I'll dig this species' bones up millennia after they go extinct," River replies. "They place immense cultural significance on the importance of family and family bond. Look at the tattoo patterns between their eyes."
"A time-traveling archaeologist," the Doctor scoffs. "I'll never understand you, Doctor Song."
"If you're waiting for a chance to steal your time machine back, Doctor," and that's Ask speaking now, tilting his head and growling lowly in his throat. "You'll be waiting a very long time. You don't understand how badly we need it."
"You're right, I don't! So you better explain it to me." He waves his hands at them impatiently, sharp gestures like a conductor. "Come on! Tell me your whole dastardly plot, and don't forget to tell me the bit where you reveal your sole weakness and key to your defeat."
Ask tilts his head the other way, considering this. "We fell through space, we did, Doctor, my brother and I. We fell through the silence and the nothing, and we fell here, because all things spiral back to Earth in the end. We fell and we hid amongst its people and we found ourselves a way to monitor all the communications of this planet. We wanted to see when we were going to catch a ride out of here."
"Earth of the 21st century isn't exactly a bustling spaceport, boys," River points out, still standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Doctor.
"We noticed," Ask answers. "But oh, how the communications network was expanding, exploding, and growing -- advancing in further leaps and bounds than we could have ever imagined. We had to take advantage."
"You couldn't get very far," the Doctor allows. "Considering you were only armed with one ginger robot playing a long game, a set of very outdated Tin Soldiers, and a perception filter. So you got your hands on my TARDIS."
"And your companion," Yahoo! allows. "Once we obtained your TARDIS's base code, we could use all the power of the Time Vortex to boost our signal, to try and find others of our species who fell as we did. That's why we need to expand to other websites; every single one that went through our search engines. If we controlled the information flow of the Internet, we could broadcast a loud enough message into space to draw attention to our location."
"Take over the Internet?" the Doctor watches them, high-browed. "Do you realize that would cripple the human race? They desperately need the Internet at this point in time: evolutionary-wise, it's on par with inventing the wheel. Not to mention the nasty scavengers you'd attract, with a signal like that."
Yahoo! moves his shoulders in a gesture that might be a shrug. "We want to go home, Doctor."
Standing behind them, Mark reaches out, grabbing Amy's arm and pulling her close so that they can duck their heads together. "Okay, think," he says to her. "What other web corporations exist in Silicon Valley that are in danger of getting sucked in if these two get their way?"
Amy gives him a droll look, like this is an enormously stupid question. "Do you want the long list or the short?"
Mark makes an impatient noise. "The important ones. The superpowers!"
"Well, there's you," she points out in a whisper, and Mark shrugs, because Facebook is one of the obvious answers. "And the Googleplex on the other side of the Moffett Federal Airfield. Yahoo! and Ask, obviously, they're not exactly a small acquisition. Um, there's Twitter, that's based out of San Francisco, and so is LiveJournal --"
Mark shakes his head sharply. "Not LiveJournal, they were bought out by the Russians in 2007."
"Were they? I didn't know that." She rolls her bottom lip between her teeth. "Still, Mark, even if they get their hands on the smaller ones, there's enough of them in the area. I mean, even just Google -- they could topple us, and fast."
The Doctor seems to realize that he's getting nowhere with his argument, because he claps his hands together, dragging everyone's attention to him.
"Now! I understand why you'd want my time machine, she really is beautiful. Seriously, she'll knock you flat," he adds over his shoulder to Mark and Amy, conversational. "I'll take you for a spin sometime. I know you're not supposed to get into moving vehicles with strangers -- in fact, I accidentally coined that phrase. Don't ever trust an aunt to keep her mouth shut. But!" This is directed back at Yahoo! and Ask. "What I don't understand is -- why do you need Eduardo?"
The twins blink together.
"No, seriously," says the Doctor. "You've got me. Standing right in front of you, the last of the Time Lords. The biggest bargaining chip you will ever get your hands on. Why don't you let Eduardo go?"
Mark's stomach knots, as Ask tilts his head sideways to exchange a look with Yahoo!.
"Why would we want you, Doctor?" he asks, after a long pause.
"I beg your pardon?"
"We have no use for you," Ask continues, perfectly calm. "We know perfectly well who you are -- you are the destroyer of people and worlds, the unstoppable storm, the monster that falls through the dark. There is nothing more anathema to us than your biased idea of justice. But Eduardo Saverin has saved more than he has ever killed. We were there, Doctor, cowering in fear when the Morpheus quadrant tried to descend into civil war. He stopped it."
"Yeah, he does that," the Doctor goes, near voiceless. There's something painful happening to his face, dark and airless as space, and it has River jerking forward in an aborted move to touch him, reassure him, but he snaps his shoulders away from her.
"Okay," he says, on level. "But he'll never help you. He's innocent. He's the most innocent man I know, and there's nothing more beautiful in this universe than innocence."
"And nothing more terrible," Ask returns quietly. "And that's exactly why we will keep him, and keep your TARDIS, because he will make such devastating decisions, Doctor. Such devastating decisions, because your TARDIS loves him and will listen to his heart bleed. She will obey him, he will obey us, and we can be free."
There's something dismissive in the movement of Ask's shoulders as he says this, a casual arrogance, like it's already written, and Mark suddenly, acutely understands why Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss had fantasies about smashing his face in with an oar. He doesn't think he's felt hatred like this before.
Before he can do anything, like charge them armed with nothing but his fists, the Doctor speaks up, his voice so, so, so calm that Mark's starting to suspect it's how he sounds when he's angrier than anything.
"I think you'll find that nobody will surprise you quite like a human making an important decision."
"Are you sure? Have you ever really spent a lot of time on the Internet, Doctor?"
And then something really strange happens.
The audio cuts out. Mark can still see Ask's jaw opening and closing with his words, but everything's gone completely mute. In his peripheral, he sees Amy tilt her head and shake it, like she's trying to get water out of her ear or something, and knows he isn't the only one.
Yahoo! and Ask's bodies suddenly blur and flicker out, like a television reception gone bad. They freeze up and exchange a perplexed look with each other -- insomuch as Mark can recognize the expression as perplexed -- and then they just disappear; a blip, and they're gone.
"What --" goes the Doctor, loud in the sudden quiet. "No no no, come on, what."
The overhead intercom buzzes to life.
"Woah, hey!" a voice comes cracking through, loudly triumphant. Immediately, Mark's heart does a very strenuous attempt to flip over inside his chest, harder than it did even for the aliens. "Am I on? Can you hear me? Oh my god, this pulling things out of thin air is a lot more scary than they'll have you believe."
The Doctor slaps his hands to his forehead. "A perception filter inside a perception filter! They were never here! Why didn't I see that? And you canceled out the signals. I bet they weren't expecting that!" He punches the air. "Oh, Eduardo Saverin, you brilliant man!"
"Wow, I really hope that was the right reversal algorithm," Eduardo's voice continues. "I was supposed to block their hologram, so I'm really, really hoping I didn't multiply it instead. It's only a small matter of a decimal point and holographic technology is a bit beyond what they covered in Harvard-level statistics classes."
Something touches the small of Mark's back; River, he realizes vaguely, holding him up. "Easy," she murmurs, for his ears only. "I know how it feels."
And then, "Okay! I need all personnel currently within both Yahoo! and Ask buildings to please evacuate as soon as possible. I don't care if you consider your job to be essential or if you are currently chained to a desk, all personnel need to leave. And the authorization code for that is -- crap, I have it here somewhere, it has a lot of 7s ... oh! Here!" Eduardo rattles off a string of numbers that's obviously supposed to mean something. "So, yeah, not a drill, not a prank, you need to leave. I wouldn't be asking this if it wasn't an emergency, which it is."
Something scuffs loudly from the speakers, and Mark's breath catches when Eduardo's voice comes again, sounding slightly more strained, "And those would be our adversaries coming to break down my door. So that's my cue to go, thanks for listening, and remember, all innocent bystanders please evacuate in an orderly manner. Oh, and Doctor," his voice drops, deepening into something private and lowly serious. "Wherever you are, I'm coming for you. I'll get you out. I promise."
The intercom cuts out, and the breath that Mark drags in might be the hardest one he's ever taken.
His head spins, his heart feels sick and dizzy, and he's got no control over any of it.
It's that moment you figure out the person you call your best friend is, in fact, best and better friends with somebody else, and Mark can't help the vicious look he cuts in the Doctor's direction, because that's just what happens. He forgets, for a beat, everything else, and just lets that sourness ferment inside him, that worthless feeling familiar to any lonely schoolchild.
The Doctor, fortunately, doesn't seem to notice. He makes a frustrated gesture at the ceiling, fists clenching uselessly. "That would be fabulous, Eduardo, I'm immensely moved by your bravery and selflessness, except I've already escaped!" He drags his hands through his hair, swinging on River, who'd run to the door to check the locks, her eyebrows low. "How come I always get stuck with the tenacious ones?"
"Oh, right," is River's dry reply. "Don't you just hate those companions that can rescue themselves?"
The Doctor points a finger at her warningly.
Amy edges sideways, studying Mark's expression. Something sympathetic in the twist of her mouth makes him want to bristle, but he swallows it down, because she tilts her head and asks, low, "Was that your Eduardo?"
"Yeah," Mark goes, swallowing again. "Yeah, that was him." And he's still left standing here, the wake of Eduardo's declaration in his ears, feeling like the world has tipped underneath his feet, leaving everything off, unfamiliar and tilted to the side.
He doesn't get time to recover, because that moment, an alarm goes off deep in the building, shrill and piercing. Closer to them, the door lock buzzes loud enough to be heard, and it pops open.
The Doctor throws his hands up. "Oh, sure, now it works," he goes vindictively, and then grabs both Amy and River, who are closest, and propels them through the open door with a shove to the small of the back. "Come on! This is a very convenient, well-timed distraction at our disposal, we have to make the best of it! Our mission is to find that TARDIS and to find our Eduardo!"
"I don't know what either of them look like," Amy protests faintly.
"Stick with me, sweetheart," says River, gathering up the loose folds of her skirt and tucking them under one arm. They take off down the hallway at a dead run, because you never just walk out of a room where you were being held hostage.
They burst into the stairwell and are immediately overrun with the employees heading down, answering official procedure for the alarm. The lights are flashing, chaotic, and while there's a vague attempt at single file, everybody's talking at once, a confused din of questions. Amy and River are immediately caught up and swept away; Mark catches the white flash of River's dress disappearing around the bend in the banister and then they're gone.
He starts after them, but the Doctor seizes a hold of his shirt, hauling him back to stand flat against the wall, letting the crowd flow past them.
"But --" he starts.
"They'll be fine!" The Doctor looks upwards, eyes thinned thoughtfully. "They know what they're looking for. If they find my ship before us, well, River can pilot a TARDIS just fine, it turns out," there's a note of wounded pride there, but before Mark can comment, the Doctor grabs him by the wrist and then they're going up, against the stream of personnel.
Innocent bystanders, Eduardo had called them, like he was somehow excluded from that bracket, which was still boggling Mark's mind.
The Doctor's got his sonic screwdriver out, waving it around with a scowl of concentration as they hit the landing and start up another flight of stairs, taking them two at a time.
"Mr. Zuckerberg!" yelps one of the evacuees going in the opposite direction. "Where are you --"
Mark twists around, checking a glimpse of coke-bottle thick glasses and a starchy, high-collared shirt. "Sorry, Oscar!" is all he has time to say before the man is carried off from sight.
When he looks up, the Doctor spares him a look, high-browed. "Blimey. You know everybody. I thought you were supposed to be antisocial."
"Oh, thank you," Mark says, flat, losing some of his wind and hauling himself up with the help of the railing. The Doctor yanks open one of the doors on the next landing and bolts through it, Mark on his heels. "I try to know people now."
"Knowing people is cool," the Doctor offers absently. He swings the sonic screwdriver in an arc, and then flicks it off. Mark resists the urge to dig at his ear: it gets annoying after awhile, that noise.
The hallway they're in is identical to the one they'd just come from; silent spare for the faint echo of people from the stairwell, like a TV left on in another room.
"They're on this floor," the Doctor says, dropping his voice. "One of them, at least. Now that Eduardo's disrupted their perception filter, I can get a better lock on them. They should be here."
Mark nods, wondering what the hell he's going to do when they meet the real Yahoo! and Ask. What does one do when confronted with hostile extraterrestrials hellbent on takeover? Mark doesn't have any weapons besides his scathing wit, and while that's effective against the Winklevoss twins' legal attorney, he doubts it's going to do much to quell alien twins.
A corridor branching off to the side and a glimpse of the other end, fleeting like a ghost.
Dark hair, neat clothes.
Mark stops dead, backtracks.
At the other end of the corridor, Eduardo does the same.
Everything goes mute.
Eduardo's brows go down, mouth forming without sound, and Mark knows it's his own name, a question. He's in dark slacks and a waistcoat, his sleeves rolled up haphazardly; he's rumpled in the way people get when they've been working hard, and all the details -- Mark can't make those up. What cannot be a hallucination must, therefore, be reality.
"Wardo," Mark says. Inside of him, it's all gone haywire, heart set off racing like it's trying to jump from his chest, because his body never forgot, no matter what his mind and the years tried to tell it.
Eduardo seems to realize he's real in that same instant, because his eyes flare shock-wide.
This is the movie moment, Mark thinks with the only unaffected part of him. This is the moment everything has been working towards since he first got that phone. This is better than crashing the Kirkland circuit, better than one million members, and he knows it.
Eduardo starts towards him, and Mark doesn't even know what he thinks anymore. That they'll hug, maybe, and race after the Doctor, help him get his ship back and stop the takeover of Yahoo! and Ask and then maybe they'll have time to talk, maybe Eduardo can explain what the life of a time-traveler is like, and Mark will go back to work trying not to feel like Facebook isn't big enough anymore.
That's not how it goes.
He starts towards Eduardo, shoes flip-flopping on the linoleum. They're going to each other, this is good, and then a lot of things happen in very quick succession.
He catches a glimpse of something over Eduardo's shoulder, the shifting of some great bulk in the dim emergency lighting, and then it coalesces into something Mark recognizes: gaping maw, flat bright eyes, a row of quivering spines as long as javelins, all of them raised up. It's Yahoo!, judging by their color.
It must show on his face, that open animal fright, because Eduardo's face wipes clean of all expression, and he starts to turn his head to look over his shoulder, body swaying to the side, lips parting.
"No," says Mark.
Unintentionally, Eduardo is now in the way.
He jolts into a run. He is too far away. (That was always the problem. Distance.)
A noise like a stapling gun, a whistle of something sharp slicing through air.
Mark will never forget the noise Eduardo makes.
Their eyes crack together, one sharp hot instant before Eduardo's roll, his mouth wrenched open, something between shock and pure agony.
He is run through and through, the very tip of a spine jutting out of his sternum like a bug freshly pinned to a collection board.
His knees give, so slowly, ever so slowly.
"NO!" Mark screams, putting on a burst of speed, but it's useless.
Of course it's useless.
They collide together, Mark's forward momentum with Eduardo's downward one, and they hit the linoleum a second later, Mark's knees cracking hard and Eduardo weighty in his arms. There is blood now, on the front of his shirt and dripping from the corner of his mouth, and it smears on Mark and Mark doesn't care. Mark is screaming, screaming, Wardo and no and nonsensical things until his voice gives out for lack of air.
He gathers Eduardo up, in and in and in, as close as conceivably possible, like he can press his functioning body into Eduardo's and make it work, because he doesn't need it, doesn't want it, this body that needs food and sleep and never realized how warm Eduardo was until it was too late to have him, and that didn't stop it from trying to run away with him whenever he was near. This body knows Eduardo and will work for him, please, please, please, that's fine, Mark doesn't care, Eduardo can have it all.
He drags one shaking hand across Eduardo's cheek, grabbing his jaw and tilting his face up, and his eyes are unfocused, as see-through as stained glass. There's no movement, no last words, and there should always be a chance for last words, people should always be able to say that one last, very important thing.
It's too late, it's too late, no, please, Eloheinu, Eloheinu, melech haolam, listen to my prayer.
Mark listened to his gut and followed all the clues, ridiculous as they were, the phone and the toilet paper roll and the mysterious message in the source code, and this is all it lead him to, this is his great reward.
Eduardo Saverin, murdered in front of him.
Mark Zuckerberg, this is who you are, this man holding his best friend's dead body in his arms.
Things are happening, things are moving around him; he can hear the Doctor yelling, pounding feet, and Yahoo! shrieking unintelligibly, but it doesn't matter, it's not important, not until the Doctor's hands grab hold of his arms, trying to haul him up.
"We have to go, Mark, NOW," comes from a far-off place, and the Doctor is trying to forcibly rip him from Eduardo's body and he can't.
He can't. No, why would --
He makes a noise, gripping harder, and the Doctor's voice breaks, cracks down the middle, "Please, Mark, he's gone, he's gone," and another stapling gun firing sound; a second spine strikes the linoleum, missing them so narrowly it has Mark's grip slackening in surprise, and the Doctor takes advantage, breaking him away and yanking him to his feet.
Eduardo slides away from him, loose as a marionette, and Mark kicks back, trying to get the Doctor off of him, but it's too late, and they are diving sideways. They duck through a doorway, Yahoo! bellowing behind them, and then another, and then another, weaving through the warren of abandoned desks and quiescent computers.
Mark's feet stagger along; the Doctor does most of the walking for them, and they are both shaking, so hard. They are shaking, the Doctor and Mark, and there is no air, no air, not enough for all the screaming Mark wants to do.
They find a room to hide in eventually. It might have been a janitor's closet, judging by the grungy tile and the way the floor slopes towards the drain in the center, but it's empty now, windowless and barren spare for the bare light bulb in the ceiling.
The Doctor shuts the door behind them and visibly takes a moment to collect himself, scrubbing his hands along his face, his chest heaving. His eyes are rimmed in red.
Mark thinks, abruptly, of the picture from Eduardo's phone, the one of the Doctor wearing the mop head like it's a wig and laughingly leaning into Eduardo's space, and then he is on him in the space of a second, grabbing him by the front of his shirt.
"Change it," he goes, forcing his own voice out of him. It doesn't want to go. "Change it. You have a time machine -- you said -- you said -- he was your friend, you have to, you have to change it!"
The Doctor touches the back of his knuckles to the side of Mark's face. "It doesn't work like that," he says, his voice so gentle that Mark wants to rip at him. He wants to take his face and break it, so he'll know a fraction of what Mark is feeling right now.
"You have to!" he repeats on a cry. "It wasn't ... it wasn't supposed to be like this," he goes helplessly. "I just got him back."
This is too much to handle, this thought, this having and then losing with no space in between, and he wrenches away, pacing in a circle and panting sharp, hard breaths. When he swings back around, the Doctor's watching him, expression so heartbroken that it stops him mid-step.
Caught, he offers Mark a smile, so sad it barely even twitches the corner of his mouth.
"You know, in all the time I traveled with him, I don't think it ever occurred to him that you cared this much."
This is perhaps the most painful thing anyone's ever said to him.
Mark lashes out immediately.
"That's because people are stupid!" he screams. "They are stupid and they never see what's right in front of them, not even if you make a page and stick it up on the Internet for everybody to see, and I always -- I always told him where I was going to be, I told him, and then I stayed in that spot, I never moved and he never, he never --" it's breaking out of him, jagged and violent. "He went with you. He's been with you this whole time, because you were more important, you needed him more and that's what Wardo does."
He's yelling too loud, and doesn't care, scraping furiously at his eyes with the back of his hands like a child. "I stayed right here," comes out of him, broken, and it seems important to say this. "I have not gone further than one hundred miles from this very spot, okay. I made myself something boring, stable. And he never came back."
"Wrong," says the Doctor immediately, ducking into his space and getting their faces very close, so Mark has nowhere to look but right at him. "We're here! We came here! And we found --" he waves a hand vaguely in the direction of the door. "But before that. We weren't coming for the sun, Mark Zuckerberg."
"There's shit for that in northern California," is what Mark chooses to focus on. "All we get is fog."
The Doctor presses their foreheads together, his eyes squeezed shut like he's trying to concentrate on something.
"The thing --" he starts, and, "No. No. Eduardo --" and stops again, blinking rapidly.
He takes a deep breath. "The thing about people in love," he says, in a voice that sounds a thousand years old, and Mark tries to jerk away, because he doesn't want to hear anything the Doctor has to say about love. Or Sean, stupid Sean who told him that laughter had been invented so that people can deal with love.
What about crying, Sean?
Did that come before or after laughter?
Did that come before or after love?
The Doctor catches him. "The thing about people in love," he says again, stronger. "Is that I can show them the wonders of the universe, but without their beloved beside them, it's not worth seeing. And if they're with their beloved, well." Mark can hear the smile in his voice, tentative and shaky. "They've already got one wonder of the universe and don't much care for the rest. That's the most amazing thing about the human race: you lot see the whole universe in each other."
His hand goes to Mark's curls, brushing them back. "It's what makes you so beautiful," he goes, ever so wistful.
A noise from the hallway outside shakes them like a cold slap of water to the face. They only have the time to collect themselves before River bursts in: she's now carrying an AK-47, black-strapped firmly across her chest, looking surprisingly like formal wear against all the white of her wedding gown.
"Doctor," she goes, in a voice that makes Mark feel lonely by sheer association, and then she's flinging her arms around him. The Doctor hugs her back just as tight, letting her gasp out, "I heard screaming, and I thought --"
She's alone, Mark realizes.
"Amy," he cuts in, not a question, but a demand.
River's eyes snap to him over the Doctor's shoulder, and he sees her register his blotchy cheeks and wet-smeared eyes. All the relief on her face falls into pain, and she releases the Doctor shakily.
"She's not coming," she whispers.
It strikes like a blow to Mark's stomach, winding him in one sharp airless swoop.
"No," he goes, the most broken noise he's ever made.
The image is immediate: Amy, Amy in her Bermuda shorts and summer-colored hair, run through like a monarch butterfly, and it's a yawn of pain inside him, the thought that he's going to have to tell her family (and Sean, oh god, Sean,) because this is Amy. Amelia Ritter. She was going to grow up and talk on PBS specials -- people like that aren't supposed to die.
Still reeling, he notices from a distance that the Doctor settles a hand low on River's back, drawing her attention to him.
"Neither is Eduardo," he goes, quiet.
River's whole body jerks; the movement triggers a nauseous sweep of sense memory in Mark, because he knows how that feels, that horrible shock. "No," she gasps, twisting under the Doctor's hand, her eyes gone very, very wide. "No," she says again, pure denial. "But I promised. A happy -- I said -- a happy --"
"I know," goes the Doctor, looking at her steadily. "I think someone's future self might have omitted some very important information."
She sways on the spot, blinking in slow sweeps of her eyelashes, the way people do when the lights get cut and they can't see a thing. Mark sees the moment she comes back to herself, because her eyes go fierce, amber-lit. "Doctor," she says very calmly. "I find myself suddenly overrun with the intense need to nail these bastards to the freaking wall."
The Doctor springs into action. "You've asked the right man, Doctor River Song!" he declares, his jaw set and screwdriver in hand. "Because I have a plan! Well, the plan depends on finding them, which so far seems to consist of running from them. It's a plan in progress! River, I need to you --"
"I'm going with you," she says instantly.
His mouth twists, eyes flicking to Mark for a brief instant before he's saying, "I would really feel more comfortable if --"
She grabs his elbow, saying inexorably, "I'm going with you because I am your gun arm," she says, the same way Mark once told his lawyers, I went to him because he was my best friend. "I know how to shoot and you don't, and I am not leaving you unprotected."
He looks for a moment like he's going to make some kind of smart rebuke, and then his mouth softens. "Fine," he goes shortly, and then when she sweeps for the door, adds vehemently, "But please refrain from killing something just because it looks at you cross-eyed, I don't think that's covered under galactic statutes for justifiable homicide."
"I'm more than familiar with the galactic statutes for justifiable homicide, Doctor," River answers easily.
Mark moves to follow them, instinctive, but the Doctor catches him by the shirt.
"No," he says, gentling his voice a little bit. "You're staying here."
"Like hell," Mark says flatly, staring at him.
"You are," the Doctor's tone is firm, like he's used to this. "Listen, listen to me, Mark Zuckerberg, for once in your life, you are not the smartest person in this room, now you listen," he shakes him, hard, and the Doctor isn't exactly much of an intimidating figure, but he seems like he's twice his size right now, crowding into Mark's space. "You need to stay here. I've already lost two incredibly important people today, I can't lose you too."
The pain hits afresh, blooming hard underneath Mark's ribs like the Doctor had jabbed at him, and he curls half-instinctively. Is this ever going to get easier, this crippling feeling?
It's like how he imagines he'd feel if his mother were dead, or his sister, the idea of which he shies away from, unable to contemplate that kind of loss. He hasn't seen Eduardo since he was twenty-one years old, and Amy was just Sean's girlfriend, so it shouldn't even ... god, this hurts.
When he looks up, both the Doctor and River are gone, taking advantage of his distraction and leaving him alone. He gathers himself up, shoving his shoulders back like he's locking himself in place. For whatever reason Eduardo and the Doctor came here and now to 2011, the fact remains: Yahoo! and Ask are a threat to the safety of the planet, and Mark's helping nobody by staying in a closet.
Which would be fine, except the door is locked.
Mark frowns, yanking hard on the handle, but the door won't budge. He checks, fingers exploring for a keyhole, but of course it's a door that locks from the outside, of course it is.
For one moment, he really, really hates the Doctor.
Then he turns around, looking up, down, everywhere. He explores the whole room -- it's bigger than it seems at first, being as dark as it is, but there's nothing here, nothing at all that he can use. There's no other exit than the one that's been locked.
He returns to the middle of the room, burning and frustrated. There's nothing here he can use, not at all. Except.
His hand flies to his pocket.
The thing about cargo shorts is that you can pretty much fit the entire contents of Mary Poppins' carpet bag inside them, and Mark digs down, his fingers closing around --
He looks at it for a beat. And then he cracks his knuckles; a plan sparks, begins at the back of his brain and unspools slowly inside of him, because who says he has to leave the room in order to help the Doctor and River?
For lack of a chair to spin around or a can of Red Bull to crack open, he just bounces on the soles of his feet, like he's preparing for a jog. "All right," he murmurs, thumbing the phone away and checking for signal.
And ... yes. At the sight of two bars, he feels a quick rush of gratitude. Bless California for being the only state where you can be held hostage in the bowls of major corporation headquarters by your own friends and still get a clear Internet signal.
"Come on," says to himself, feeling it curve at the corner of his mouth. "Let's see if that 4G network they like to boast about can operate on a phone like this."
It's always been said (by his mother, by Dustin, by the interns that introduce him at publicity functions) that Mark Zuckerberg can navigate code in his sleep, and now's the time to live up to that -- Mark can code sleep-deprived, frozen solid, and in the middle of one of Sean's parties, so it isn't much a stretch of the imagination to think that maybe he can code full up to the brim and shaking with grief, too.
After fifteen minutes or so, Mark's knees start protesting just standing there in the middle of an uneven room, and he squats down on his heels to get comfortable, not once taking his eyes off the Blackberry screen. The buttons are unwieldy at first, like it is when you work any phone that isn't yours, but he adapts fast, thumbs flying. There's a moment where he acutely misses his iPhone, which had a larger screen and a larger keypad to work with, not to mention all sorts of programs that would be very helpful right about now, but at least a 2005 Blackberry has Internet access.
Remember back when that was revolutionary? Yeah, he doesn't either.
A scratching at the door distracts him, like someone's trying to jiggle the lock from the outside. He wishes, yet again, that he had some kind of weapon to defend himself with, although he wasn't sure what good it would do given his experience with combat more involved ducking and running from irate Winklevoss twins in the Harvard commons.
He waits. His eyes itch.
He doesn't want to blink: it seems like the sight of Eduardo has been permanently etched onto the insides of his eyelids, that static moment before he fell. He never wants to close his eyes, ever.
The door swings inwards, and it's River again, a flurry of white dress and wild hair, gun cocked at the ready and some kind of haphazard-looking machine in her hand, the latter of which beeps and whirs excitedly. At the sight of Mark, her brows bow inwards, confused.
"Did I seriously just make one giant circle?" she demands, seemingly to herself. "Do a sweep of the building for alien tech and it leads me right back where I started, and who do I find? You." She studies him for a moment, and comes to attention. "What are you doing?"
Overcoming the kneejerk terror of being confronted with a fierce-looking woman in possession of a firearm, he refocuses his attention back to his phone, picking up his thread of activity. His tongue runs off on autopilot. "I'm picking apart their source code. Even multi-functional search engines like Yahoo! and Ask have a simple set of algorithms at their core that does the basic run of every site function. If I can figure out what our extraterrestrial friends have done to this code, I can beat them at their own game. Amy gave me the idea." He tabs between open browsers on the Blackberry, attacking again with his thumbs. "If there is one thing I am quite capable of doing, it's this."
River makes a noise in her throat that could mean anything, lifting her device and giving it a sour look. "That's what I get for thinking this might work. It's supposed to go ding when there's stuff," she explains, obviously quoting the Doctor, judging by the long-suffering way her mouth settles. "But all I get is you and ..." she trails off, looking thoughtful.
"This is Eduardo's phone," Mark feels the need to point out, noticing the direction of her gaze.
"The phone the Doctor updated for intergalactic roaming," River corrects him, realization dawning across her face. "Of course! Nothing's more alien than a sonic-ed piece of technology." She scowls at her hodge-podge machine and sets it aside, before crouching down next to him.
She lets Mark work in silence, but it's a heavy, expectant kind of silence, the kind where Mark feels like he ought to be saying something to fill it. He fidgets.
"So, are you the Doctor's bodyguard?" he settles for, not recognizing the exhausted thing that comes out of his mouth as his own voice. "If you're his gun arm?"
River doesn't seem to think it's an odd question. She looks down at the AK-47 she's got cradled capably between her hands, and Mark is really curious as to where she got it from, considering those soldiers were supposed to be tin. "I suppose that's one way of putting it. He is rather reckless with his own life at times, and he doesn't seem to understand his own importance, which I always --" she smiles, a faint flick of her mouth. "-- I always found rather ironic, since he spends most of his time helping his closest companions understand just how important they are. He doesn't like carrying his own gun, says it's cheating and not cool, so I'll be the one who shoots when it's necessary, so he doesn't have to. That's my choice."
He tilts his head at her, absorbing this. "Is he the one you're marrying?" he asks quietly, gesturing with a jerk of his chin at her outfit. He's not quite sure how the gown's managed to stay mostly clean and mostly intact; he's pretty sure they aren't meant for the kind of strenuous running and fighting River's done today.
Her smile broadens somewhat. "I hope not," she says, which isn't a straight answer. "That's a horrible suit to get married in."
"Awful," Mark agrees. "Go figure. The first living proof of extraterrestrial life I ever meet, and he's got a posh British accent and wears a tweed coat that looks like he picked it out of a vintage store. And not even one of the legitimate ones, but the kind that sell questionably-shaped drug paraphernalia."
"What about Eduardo?" she asks. I don't know anything about Wardo and questionably-shaped drug paraphernalia, Mark thinks automatically, before the rest of his brain catches up with him.
Eduardo. Eduardo, who is dead.
"What was he to you? Sorry," she adds at the stiffening expression on his face. "What is he to you?"
He slits his eyes at her warningly, but she just meets his gaze, steady.
"I'm curious," she continues. "I rarely ever get any story in the right order, but people make for the most wonderful of stories, and oh, how I would love to know."
"So watch the movie, like everybody else," Mark snaps out. Even touching the thought of Eduardo in his mind is painful, a fresh burn that seems to sear across every thought, so that everything hurts. Don't make me talk about it, he pleads quietly. I wouldn't know the words.
"I have no interest in anybody else's interpretation of his character," River says, nothing but patient. "I've met him, I know him, and I know of him in that I've come across his name in books, including my own. But there's something of Eduardo's that we never got to see. Not even the Doctor. Who was Mark's Wardo?"
Mark twitches away from her instinctively, fairly sure that's the last thing he wants to give her, because he's not even sure he knows what that means. Eduardo hasn't felt like Wardo for a long time, and Mark had been fine with that. He'd been coping with that, because that's how things were.
He thinks of Dustin saying, some friendships fade naturally, of Rami saying, I've got to pretend you got somebody I can ask after, of Amy saying, nobody does things in exactly the right order, but that doesn't mean it's not real.
"We were --" he starts, fumbles it, swallows it back. "We were," he settles for, because it sounds like a complete statement.
River, to her credit, puts the pieces together quickly; her eyebrows tick up and she lifts her chin in that universal ah, I thought so gesture. She doesn't need him to say anything more, and it's not like Mark is afraid of it -- he's not the kind of man who shies away from the word "love," because he likes to think he's got more balls than that. He loves his parents and tells them that at the end of every phone call; he loves his sister and makes sure to tell her, too, usually when they're in public or in front of her friends, just to see the look on her face; and he loved Eduardo the same way he loved Dustin and Andrew and even Chris, the way you always love your best friends, whether you mean to or not.
But there's a difference between a loved one and a lover, and that's where Mark gets hung up, verbally, because to say that is to invite all kinds of misinterpretations: everyone has such different perceptions on what, exactly, love is, and as far as Mark's concerned, love isn't the kind of thing there should be miscommunication about, ever, so he has a tendency to keep mum.
"Tell me," River says, inexorable and soft.
The Blackberry screen flashes at him alarmingly; his fingers have stopped moving, and it's warning him that the interface discovered his intrusion, and is now trying to lock him out. His fingers go back to flying, and as he does, he finds himself saying, "It was two weeks," the same way Eduardo'd faced the windows overlooking the hills and the distant bay and said, from that moment on, it was a Sean-a-thon, like it'd been unwillingly and painfully scraped from the bottom of his soul. "It lasted two weeks, at the very end of summer, 2004. He flew out because our investors wanted to meet him and we needed his signature. He helped us settle into our new offices. He stayed with me until he had to go back to Harvard for the fall semester, because he was a student before he was a businessman, while I remained with Facebook."
He has no idea how much of this she understands -- he doesn't know where she's from, and for all he knows she's an alien, too, and the only reason he thinks she's on his side is because she hasn't tried to shoot him yet -- but it doesn't matter, because the story isn't for her, not really.
"At the time, it didn't even seem that noteworthy. It was just an extension of us -- Mark and Eduardo, co-founders of Facebook, only now with more kissing, which --" he takes a hand off the phone to wave it around vaguely. "Whatever, right? We could do that. We could."
Mark remembers living in that moment so clearly, when the whatever with Eduardo had been swallowed by the master-of-the-universe sensation of signing deals left and right, of having an office and a desk and a bank of servers so big they took up an entire wall. It was just another thing that was happening, all at once; he doesn't remember even being fazed the first time, when Eduardo had backed up him against the glass walls of Peter Thiel's office and put his head down to meet his mouth, the sunlight in his eyes.
He remembers the cold window against his back, the pressure on his shoulder blades, and lifting his chin to meet Eduardo like it was as easy as an idea, like it was already written in his skin and his muscles to do this, and he thought, this makes sense, actually.
Later, with the 20/20 of hindsight, he mostly convinced himself he did it because he already knew how it was going to end: he was going to trick Eduardo out of Facebook, so he might as well give him this, like some kind of consolation prize.
His heart never believed it.
"I took him to the airport the day he left --" and stops, physically cannot continue, because it's all immediately present, like he's reliving it again: the look of surprise on Eduardo's face when Mark slid past him, twirling his car keys around his finger, the way it'd relaxed into something approaching fondness, maybe something like pride: it'd been his favorite thing, surprising Eduardo like that.
He tries again. "He ..." kissed me good-bye inside the SFO terminal, right before he went through the security checkpoint.
One of those full-on kisses, too -- the kind you have to sit through the entire movie to see, the kind that makes you turn your head like a car crash if it's happening to someone else. Eduardo grabbed him around the waist and pulled him in, grinning too wide to count as a much of a kiss before he slicked his tongue into Mark's mouth the way nobody has before or since, with people passing by in every direction with their carry-ons and departure announcements going loudly in the background. Eduardo's tickets had crumpled in the small of Mark's back and his driver's license slipped and clattered to the ground, which at the time had been acutely embarrassing given the way the TSA officers laughed at them, but in hindsight, it might just be one of the most amazing things that could ever happen to a person, to have someone kiss you so long it's like they're trying to make sure the taste of you will never leave their mouths.
He can't say it. His mouth works helplessly for a moment, and when he looks up, River meets his eyes and smiles soft, private, like she knows exactly what he means.
"It was two weeks," Mark decides to reiterate, because that always seems like the most unbelievable part. "It lasted two weeks. Just --"
Two weeks of Eduardo in their house, in their pool, a weight in Mark's bed, helping them move boxes around the office with his sleeves rolled up, holding doors for Sean's girls, clinking beers with Dustin and Andrew and the programmers, talking to their neighbors over the fence ("what are you lot doing all the time that makes so much noise?" the woman wanted to know, good-natured, and Mark can still hear Eduardo's reply, "I'm not exactly sure, but I think it's a revolution,") and fetching Mark up against kitchen counters.
Why do you always do that? Mark demanded through a stung mouth, when Eduardo finally let him go. You come in and you stop like a foot away from me just to grab me and reel me in, I am not a fish.
Oh, do you finally see my point about the marlins and the trout? Eduardo'd replied, flippant and completely without bite, because he'd been happy, too happy to pick an argument, and Mark can tell the difference now. I like pulling you around, you've got a body made for pulling and tugging on, skating the flat of his palm down the skinny wing of Mark's shoulder, across his ribs, the bow of his spine, his hips. So I kind of want to all the time. Like taffy.
Taffy, Mark echoed, dry as bone. Right. That's -- that's really flattering, Wardo, thank you, but he'd already been leaning up as he said it, wanting another kiss.
And Mark's never recovered from it.
"I'd never thought of him like that before," he says. "Well, that's a lie, of course I did, because everyone thinks about everyone else that way at least once, just to gauge. I never wanted to start anything before, I should say. And after ... whenever I'd heard someone talk about how they just knew --" the way Sean would laugh and reach over to tug on Amy's earlobe, like he's not quite sure he didn't make her up, and the way Mark's father says, I never looked at anyone else ever again, so assuredly that Mark believed him without question, "-- it's always the first thing I think of, me and him."
Two weeks (why should that mean it's not real, not doing it in the right order?) and a series of things Mark will never forget (an algorithm, a kiss in an airport, an empty chair across a deposition table, the way his body bowed upon being struck, run through, killed,) and those two weeks will be all they ever had.
Eduardo is dead, Eduardo died in his arms and in the face of knowing there will never be another chance, those two weeks seem impossibly, impossibly inadequate.
"What happened?" River coaxes, seeing his face deaden and shut down.
"What happens to anybody?" Mark returns, toneless, because he's had six years, a couple books, and a movie to figure this part out. "Our wires crossed. We miscommunicated our intentions, and in the end, he had this textbook idea of how a business should progress and I didn't want to stick to it, so I froze him out of Facebook."
"Ahhhh," she drags it out slowly, with a dawning kind of realization.
"Yes, yes," he snaps at her with impatience, rounding his shoulders like he could block that look out: he hates that look, because it's boring, how predictable it is. "Now you know. Mark Zuckerberg, revolutionary and the youngest billionaire in the world, got where he is today because he stabbed his best friend in the back. Are you happy? Does that --"
"I killed the man I loved," River broke in.
Mark's jaw clicks shut with an audible noise.
She looks at him, unwavering; she's sitting so close her eyes appear abnormally large in her head, wide and grey and serious, and he believes her, just like that. "I didn't want to do it. It was the last thing I wanted to do, but I had to do it. We have to do it. You don't betray people because you like it, or because you're an asshole, you do it because it's necessary and no one else will. That is your choice, and you live with it and its consequences until the day the suns die."
The window flashes at him again, and he barely breaks his stare with her long enough to save himself from being booted out of the system. He numbly runs his thumbs over the keyboard.
"Who --" he starts.
"Please don't ask me that," she goes, and for the first time, her voice shakes. She tentatively runs her fingers across the fabric bunched at the waist of her wedding gown. "Please, not today."
Mark swallows the rest of his sentence. The next he gets a grace period, he lifts a hand, brushing the backs of his knuckles against her hair, and she offers him a bare smile.
"I never looked for him," he says finally. "After he left, I sat on my hands and I never looked for him. It seemed like the least I could do. He sounded happy, that one time I talked to him --" happy the same way he'd been happy in the kitchen with Mark, telling him his body was like pulling taffy. "The Doctor made him happy."
River nods. "He does that," she says, no more.
There's a long, long beat of silence after that, where they might as well be on separate planets, orbiting different thoughts and different, lonely feelings. They're so similar, Mark realizes, him and River, and this is what makes them so insurmountably distant from each other. They're the gun hands, the traitors, who shoot so others don't have to.
"You'll see him again," she says, her voice a soft attempt at comfort.
It's the emptiest thing that anyone's ever said to him. Mark snorts so hard he feels it in his sinuses. "Jews don't believe in an afterlife, Doctor Song," he says, unable to help the coldness in his voice. "There is nothing after death for us; it's your life that you need to make the most of. I will never see him again."
"That's not what I meant," River says, unfazed. "Eduardo is a time-traveler, Mark. You will see him again, some time in his past that hasn't happened to you yet. It's still in your future."
This stops Mark's fingers. He looks up at her. "How many times?" he goes, quiet. Hope hurts, he realizes; the sting of it is not unlike touching a fresh burn against something hot, ache upon ache.
Her mouth pulls down in one corner, but her eyes don't waver from his. "Once," she says. "Just once."
It stabs, needle-sharp, into Mark's heart.
"When?" he asks.
The sad lines around her face deepen. She looks so heartbroken. In fact, for a moment, she looks incredibly like the Doctor. "I'm so sorry, sweetie, but ... you've got seventy or eighty years before then, at least."
He closes his eyes at that, like she'd struck him. There's a dark, endless swooping feeling inside of him, like missing the last step in the dark, and he knows what he has to do, the same way he'd known the Relationship Status was the only thing lacking from Facebook before its launch, the same way he'd known that Eduardo's penchant for traditional business was going to suffocate the company and he needed to go. There's no deliberation about it. He contemplates the kind of life he's going to have to lead from this moment on: eight consecutive hours of sleep at the same time every night, a routine of healthy diet and exercise that his body will become accustomed to. Vitamins, other dietary supplements, and he should probably find some kind of general practitioner, because it's never too early for heart health, low cholesterol, cancer preventatives, that sort of thing.
He needs to do everything in his power to make sure he lives to that age, that moment when he meets a twenty-two year old Eduardo and will be unable to tell him he'll die soon.
He opens his eyes.
"Well," he says, almost voiceless. "Then I guess I better make sure we get out of this alive."
"Found it!" he goes, not much later, the thrill of it sending him back to his feet. "I found the hijacked part of the source code!"
It's a repeated circuit within the gateway, hiccuping all incoming search inquiries and sending them through the TARDIS, which Mark only recognizes it for what it is because he came across the number so many times under Incoming Calls -- and bless Eduardo for having the TARDIS's phone number. Mark doesn't think he's ever been so grateful that some strange man gave Eduardo his number before in his life.
River, who has moved closer to the door to stand as his guard, gun cradled close, asks over her shoulder, "Can you stop it?"
"I'm thinking," he answers. "To disrupt it, I would need access to an admin account within Yahoo! or Ask itself, and I can't hack that from this phone." He worries at his bottom lip, shifting the Blackberry from left hand to right and back again. "And I need to find away to disconnect it and deny reaccess. That would cripple the entire plot."
He looks up, agitated, and forgets what he was going to say. "Woah."
"Yeah," says River, a little bemusedly. "They've been clustering around for awhile. I don't know where they came from. Wrong time in the Earth cycle for fireflies, isn't it?"
They're no longer alone in the room, and Mark isn't sure how he didn't notice before, even if his head was bent down: he knows he goes into a kind of absorbed trance when he's working, but it must have been some trance if he missed the swarm of little glowing insects that now float around them both, drawing together in small clouds. It's like being in an open field on a summer night, all the fireflies awakened and dancing.
"The hell," he goes. Somehow, the further along they go, the less things make sense.
They don't look harmful, but then again, neither did Rhiannon Arnolds up until she lured him into an empty room and turned into a homicidal robot machine, so Mark takes a slow step backwards, thinking sardonically, Mark Zuckerberg, are you really intimidated by fireflies?
Fortunately, it's about that exact moment that the Doctor pops up in the doorway. He blinks at them, they blink at him, he frowns perplexedly and backs up a bit, looking left and then looking right like he's making sure he's in the right place. He checks his screwdriver, which beeps cheerfully, and he looks at them again.
"I did the exact same thing," River tells him, wry.
"All roads lead back to Zuckerberg, hmm?" the Doctor looks resigned. "Somehow, that seems like it would be just my luck. What -- woah." He notices the gold-glowing fireflies. "Woah-ho!" he says again, a grin stretching across his face, slow and delighted. "Talk about mood lighting!"
"Are they dangerous?" River wants to know.
"What?" The Doctor blinks at her, and then, "No! No, no, no no, don't hurt them! They're lovely, they're amazing! Oh, how amazing they are!" And indeed, he looks less like a kid in a candy store and more like the kid who got Willy Wonka's entire factory, like he's going to start bouncing on the spot. "I never thought I would see them again."
Mark eyes the nearest cluster of them, tiny things moving sluggishly back and forth. He lifts his free hand, palm outstretched, and as if this is a show of acceptance and they understand it as such, the creatures immediately come swarming in. Their lights dance along the ends of his fingers and they move down his arm, settling into the folds of his shirt and gathering in his hair. Their weight is so infinitesimal it's almost nonexistent.
They remind him a little bit of Navi from the Legend of Zelda, they way they float and flutter, only, you know, cooler. By which he means he isn't that inclined to squash them into 8-bit paste.
"They're not bad," he says, turning his hand and watching a couple of them bracelet around his wrist. "What are they?"
"They," goes the Doctor, beaming. "Don't really have a name yet, because as far as I know, I'm the only one who's ever discovered them. They're these nifty firefly-like critters that live in the Time Vortex. They start to gather when I haven't done the dusting in awhile, kind of like the weevils that like to hide in really old pantries. They're harmless and completely bearable: well, until you have to pick them out of your oatmeal, that is. But see, in order for them to be out and about like this, it means the TARDIS console has been opened. Not far enough to release all the energy of the Time Vortex, because that's a bad idea, but enough to shake these guys out."
"I never knew that," River murmurs, seemingly to herself. "And I've been piloting her for years."
The Doctor looks at her curiously, and continues, "But there are only two people who can open the console for cleaning: me, and the TARDIS herself, and even then, she needs someone to do the physical opening for her. Someone she trusted, someone she knew, someone --" he stops, pauses, something complicated happening with his face.
"Eduardo," River finishes for him, shifting her grip on her gun and smiling, perhaps a little brokenly. "They were right, weren't they -- Yahoo! and Ask? The TARDIS does listen to him."
"Why are they avoiding you?" Mark asks, because the fireflies seemed to have cleared a gap of clear air around the Doctor.
"Because I'm a Time Lord," the Doctor grins. "These creatures are steeped in time energy, which I don't exactly have a track record of being trustworthy with. But," he steps closer, positively beaming now, boyish and young-looking. "Do you know what they just love?"
Mark and River tilt their heads at him.
"Exceptional people," says the Doctor. He reaches out, catching the hand that Mark still has half-suspended in the air. Their fingers knot together, and the fireflies scoot back to cluster closer around Mark's torso, practically forming a protective vest. "You're the youngest billionaire in the history of the earth, that's pretty remarkable."
Mark just shrugs, like the Doctor had said something along the lines of the sky being blue or Grease Monkey being a cheap hack form of Java meddling, and says, "I know," in that straightforward way of his. "But that's only because the second Deathly Hallows movie hasn't come out yet. Then I'll probably be beaten out by Daniel Radcliffe for that title."
"I don't know who that is," says the Doctor, simultaneously with River's, "He's older than you, sweetheart."
"No way," says Mark.
"How do you know who he is?" the Doctor demands.
River puts a finger to her lips.
"Hrmph," the Doctor goes in his throat, and then finally seems to notice the phone in Mark's other hand. "That's Eduardo's phone, what are you doing with Eduardo's phone?" he asks, blinking and shifting his weight forward onto the balls of his feet, like he's resisting the urge to invade Mark's space and find out for himself. Mark's pretty sure it's more a concern about the fireflies; if he's not mistaken, they're almost corralling him.
And just like that, Mark knows exactly what he's going to do.
Instead of complaining about what you don't have, a voice inside of him says, sounding unsettlingly like his mother. Work with what you do have, and Mark flicks at the Blackberry's keyboard, booting up a new browser window. He logs into Facebook.
He's good at code. Brilliant, in fact. But you know what he's even better at manipulating?
"You know, I don't know if you've heard, Doctor," he comments idly. "But it's the modern age. Everything has a button for something: you can't make any kind of news whatsoever without the option to share it with your friends on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Digg it, etc and henceforth, ad nauseam, and no better place to see this in practice than right here in Silicon Valley. We put so much importance on connection and availability that it's become almost virtually impossible to be unreachable."
Geoffrey Ackbar is a floor manager in Yahoo!'s sales department (why does Yahoo! even have a sales department? What does Yahoo! sell?) and has been for the past five years. He is equal parts well-liked and generally reviled by his subordinates, as most managers are. His Facebook profile picture isn't of himself, but rather his newborn son, decked out in a reindeer costume from last Christmas, and if Mark remembers Geoffrey correctly, this is the better-looking picture. His privacy is set so that only his place of residence and his sex are shown to non-friends, but Mark is the founder of Facebook and shouldering into Geoffrey's account is easier than trying to figure out the ice cube settings on his refrigerator.
Somewhere far off, he's probably giving Chris a heart attack at the personal violation, so Mark takes a moment to cover his tracks: this won't be traced back to him or to Geoffrey.
"Drop one little suggestion in the right place ..." he says, slowly, posting to Geoffrey's status, hey, you guys got the memo from maintenance, right? about shutting down the ... and watching, satisfied, as within moments, replies come swarming in his coworkers and subordinates.
crap, no. were we supposed to do that before we left?
I hate when they force evacuations without proper warning! I hope we
don't get in trouble.
i just remotely logged into the mainframe & made the switch. thnx for the
reminder, i must have missed it!
lol, you'd think that when they promoted me to admin, they'd let someone
like me know if we had to shut down an access point. whatever, I smell
"And watch it get blogged and blogged and reblogged --" and it spreads: Mark sees notices going up on people's Twitters, their Tumblrs, can practically hear the reminders hitting people's e-mail inboxes. "-- and posted on Walls, the whole spiderweb network."
A minute passes, and another: Mark gives them time to access their work accounts from home, but it is the modern age. "Until ..."
And then the power cuts out, plunging them all into darkness. Mark's expecting it and he listens, listens so hard he can practically hear the blood pulsing through his ears, but it's silent, absolutely silent: the great, humming bank of the building's mammoth servers, the ever-present noise, is dead.
The servers are down.
Mark allows himself a smile, just the one.
Everything always comes back to the servers.
He can barely make out the expressions on River and the Doctor's faces in the dim golden light that the fireflies are giving off.
"I ... don't know what that was," the Doctor confesses after a beat of silence.
"That was me," Mark answers, blithe.
A pause, and then the single lightbulb in the room goes back on. The Doctor lowers the sonic screwdriver, looking at Mark like he's never seen anything quite like him. "What?"
"I just cut the search engine's dependence on TARDIS power and crippled their entire regime, using a phone from 2005."
The Doctor flat-out stares at him, stammers something, and then straightens his shoulders. Looking very put-off, he sniffs a bit. "Right," he goes. "Well, I've done that before. No big deal."
River exchanges a sardonic look with Mark from behind the Doctor's back. There's a flicker of pride in her eyes.
"Doctor," she says, perfectly calm. "I think Mark just gave you the advantage you were looking for."
"Ah. So he did." The Doctor smacks his sonic screwdriver against the heel of his hand a couple times, like he's trying to shake up juice in a pair of batteries, and flicks it on. "Now, if I lock onto the submagnetic frequency and reverse the teleporter from the perception filter ..." he trails off, thumbing the screwdriver up a couple settings and pointing it at the ceiling. "And we meet again, on our terms."
For a moment, it's just the sonic screwdriver, screeching, and then there's an incredible pressure in Mark's ears like the first moment of airplane ascent.
Yahoo! and Ask materialize, so suddenly it almost stops Mark's heart with fright, because while the room is big for a janitor's closet, it gets instantly claustrophobic with the great bulk of two large aliens abruptly popped inside of it. All the displaced air goes buffeting outwards, making the three of them stagger. Yahoo! spins around to face them, surprisingly fast, plainly agitated and sending the fireflies darting away from him. He looks like he's been rushing back and forth, and Mark, still smirking, can guess why.
Ask's squat little legs bend, settling his great mass onto the tiles. He's heaving in great, gusty breaths, heavy and labored and clearly in pain. He lids his eyes, like he doesn't even care where they are.
"That was Amy," murmurs River, now at Mark's side. "She got him before he got her."
He feels a rush of sudden pride for Amy, so strong that it cracks through his sternum like a punch, like he can't contain it. "For the hoard," he goes, his voice thick with it.
The Doctor steps forward.
"Oh my, how the tables have turned," he goes, darkly rolling the words in his mouth like he's savoring them.
Hissing at the sound of his voice, the two of them gather ranks, Yahoo! puffing himself up to full height so that his injured brother half-disappears behind him. His spines ripple, standing on end, and River cocks her gun warningly. They eyeball each other, considering -- Yahoo!'s skin is thick-looking, capable, but his eyes and his mouth are vulnerable, and River's an excellent shot. The spines go back down.
"The setback doesn't matter," he rumbles in his guttural voice, bumping Ask reassuringly with one flank. "We can rebuild: things are never truly deleted on the Internet, it'll be a simple matter of hiding and finding enough to start over."
"You've lost too much," the Doctor points out.
"So have you," Yahoo! returns cruelly, his eyes flicking to the empty spaces on either side of Mark and River, deliberate.
Just like that, it's like a switch flips inside Mark, shutting off higher functions and booting the base ones, entirely different processes humming inside of him.
He is Mark Zuckeberg. He is twenty-seven years old and he's still as short and scrawny as he was in high school. He doesn't have a gun, and he doesn't have a sonic screwdriver, and he definitely doesn't have a time machine, but he has a phone and he has a heart, and he's proved that both of those are more than enough to be getting on with.
The Doctor makes an aborted move to grab at him when he shoves past. Mark throws him off easily, scattering the little golden time-fireflies and marching right up to Yahoo!, looking him in his great, ugly eyes.
"I'm curious," he goes, voice fierce and surefire. His ribs feels fragile, splintering under the force of everything going on underneath them. "Do you honestly think you're just going to be able to waltz around our planet and do whatever? Do you really expect that you're just going to walk away from this and start over and no one will notice?" He tilts his chin up sharply. "Amelia Ritter, brilliant woman, figured out what you were up to the second you got your hands on the TARDIS. Eduardo Saverin --" Wardo, "-- who as you so helpfully pointed out is one of the most innocent people in the world, was smart enough to track you down and screw you over. Your entire operation was doomed from the start, and do you want to know why?"
Yahoo! breathes out a sibilant noise, drawing himself up so he is twice Mark's height and girth.
The fireflies steadily drift back towards them, wreathing Mark in a honey-colored light. Yahoo! bares his teeth.
"Oh, I really wouldn't," the Doctor says to him, quiet. "You came to planet Earth and you messed with its people. I suggest you shut up, because I don't feel inclined to rescue you."
"It's because you have stolen every single idea you've had along the way," Mark keeps his voice dangerously soft. "Your robot woman, your perception filter, your fake soldiers, your signal boost, even your code has been fabricated from other people's concepts, and trust me, I have had a very long time to discern the difference between copying someone else's idea and making one of your own."
He watches them through slitted eyes. "I created Facebook. I am on six continents and 179 -- No!" He holds up a finger. "Excuse me, 180 countries, as the Republic of South Sudan just celebrated the creation of an independent state yesterday. I have changed the face of this planet and I have brought your entire base of operations crashing down around your ears with the power of a single status update. You cannot control the Internet."
He takes another step forward, Yahoo! and Ask's eyes on him like snakes charmed. "Now listen to me. I am Mark Zuckerberg." Another, and the fireflies drift with him, catching on his clothes and in his hair. "This is my planet. And you!" he jabs a finger at them, fierce, and fireflies alight on his wrist, drifting along the back of his hand.
Each word punctuated with another gesture. They're clustering in tighter, his shoulders and around the corners of his eyes, making him blink.
He can't even see Yahoo! and Ask now, the fireflies are so thick, but he can hear his own voice, the way it booms out of his chest and throat.
And then everything falls into white silence.
Mark blinks rapidly, the way you do when the power cuts at night and you're plunged into darkness, like there might just be something caught in your eye and it'll clear out in a moment.
It doesn't go away: all white, everywhere, on every single side, and if it wasn't for a deeper, inner-ear sensation of standing and upright, he'd have no idea which direction was which. There's no floor, ceiling, earth or sky. There are no people or any other features at all. Everything is quiet, absolutely preternaturally quiet, and Mark's heart pounds twice as fast and twice as hard to make up for it. It's like being a character in the middle of a very blank page.
"Don't be alarmed," comes a voice out of everywhere, neither male nor female but somehow covering both registers at once. "You are not in danger."
"Where am I?" seems to be first thing that needs to be addressed.
"You are exactly where you were. You have not moved, time has simply stopped," the voice answers, and Mark twists around, trying to find its origin. "Time stopping means that light has ceased to move, which is why your eyes cannot perceive anything. All things are exactly where they were, which is why I suggest you stop, as you are about to walk into Doctor Song."
"You froze River and the Doctor?"
"Yes," the voice answers, quite calmly. "Would it reassure you more if they were unfrozen?"
Instantly, River and the Doctor materialize, stumbling sideways into Mark like they've been given a little push. He catches River's arm and uprights her, watching a dozen things flicker across her face. There's nothing to look at, that's kind of the point, but it doesn't stop the two of them from turning on the spot, looking everywhere.
River seems to be as puzzled as he is, which is reassuring, but realization hits the Doctor's face after a beat. He looks at Mark, awestruck and almost expectant.
Mark returns the look, because when there isn't much else to look at, you tend to fixate. He needs the Doctor to have an answer.
Then, in his peripheral, movement.
His head whips around: out of nothing, a dozen small, golden things appear, starting dim and growing brighter and then multiplying, like a smudge of paint across the white.
The fireflies, Mark realizes with a startled thud of his heart. Only this time, instead of clustering around Mark the way flies do around fruit, they're coalescing together, their tiny little lights merging into one another's. A shape emerges from it; building blocks that form arms and legs, hands, shoulders, until there's the corporeal form of a woman hovering in front of them, her face the vaguest impression of gold-lit features, her hands misty and see-through.
"Who are you?" Mark breathes out, feeling the Doctor move at his elbow.
When she speaks, it's the way he imagines the earth might as it shifts along its crust, the creak of the planet turning in the sky, something more wide and deep and colossal than voice could ever be.
"I am the Vortex," she says, spreading her arms. She glows, brilliant and sunlit. "I am everything that has come to pass and everything that will come after. I am the Bad Wolf. I am the Martha-Master, I am the Doctor-Donna. I am the fairy-tale Pond, and I am Eduardo Saverin's bleeding heart."
Baruch ata ad-onay, Eloheinu, Mark thinks, like a bolt out of nowhere.
She blinks, a movement like stars going out. "I am the light in the Doctor's TARDIS. I see you heart, Mark Zuckerberg, and I know its name."
He straightens up, glancing sideways. The Doctor looks back at him, steady. "Oh, don't look so surprised," he goes, when Mark lifts his eyebrows in question. "You had to have known that was coming. You've been doing it for years, haven't you noticed? Dismantling your heart, bit-by-bit, and replacing all its little pieces with the things you learn about your friends. You told me yourself: you try to know people now. Why is that?"
"What question did you ask yourself, every time you fumbled in a social context?" Mark blinks at him, and then knows exactly what he's going to say before it leaves his mouth. "What would Eduardo do?"
"His heart is your heart. Eduardo Saverin," continues the TARDIS, and if she had a mouth, Mark imagines it would be smiling right now. "We have been each other's constant companions, these past few days. We have spoken, and we have planned. I asked him to release me, to let the moths and the fireflies out of the console, and he did not know what to do. He asked me if that was dangerous, unleashing those little bits of time and space on the universe," her voice burns for a moment, "because it is always the smallest things that are the most important. I asked him, would you do it for the Doctor? He said yes. I asked him, would you do it for Mark Zuckerberg? He said yes. And that is all I needed to know."
She moves forward, so that she is directly in front of Mark.
"I will need the phone in your right hand," she murmurs, no less frightening up close. "It has had quite a journey, that phone."
"This?" Mark holds up Eduardo's Blackberry.
"Yes." She reaches out. Mark relinquishes the phone before her hand could touch his, but the Blackberry stays afloat in midair, enveloped quickly in golden light. He wonders what the TARDIS can do with everything kept on there. How much of one person can be digitized and saved to a chip?
All her attention zeroes in on him once more. "I know who you are," she says again, ominous and dark.
The pounding in his chest is so loud Mark can barely hear through it.
She lowers her arms back to her sides; the phone is gone. "I see you, and I will combine us both. All the power of the Doctor's TARDIS, all the genius of Mark Zuckeberg's brain, and all the feeling of Eduardo Saverin's heart. We will be invincible, and we will remake the world and we will save it. For them. For those we love, we will do anything. My Doctor. Your Wardo."
Mark sneaks a sideways look through his eyelashes at River. She looks back, an awful kind of understanding on her face. You do what is necessary, not because you want to hurt the ones you care about, but because there's nothing else you can do. Someone has to be darkly ruthless, so that someone else doesn't have to be.
"I'm in," he says to the TARDIS.
She places her hands on either side of his face, tilting his head up to look at her. This close, she's so bright it burns.
"And, Mark Zuckerberg, to what you have always wondered," she says, in her everything-voice. "The answer is yes."
Mark's breath catches, a startled trip of his heart, and he swears when it starts again, its beat is different, altered, changed, and then the TARDIS leans forward, pressing the weightless impression of a kiss against his forehead. He closes his eyes, unable to stand the light a second longer, and the moment her lips touch him, everything blanks out to white again like the sun exploding.
There is nothing.
There is nothing.
There is nothing until there is something, imprints of images on the insides of his eyelids, like half-rememberd photographs or like taking a crayon to a leaf-pressed page. Each of them, he knows in the absolute way he does, is true, etched and written in ink on the timestream, written from light and the turnings of the universe.
He sees himself and River, standing side-by-side in graduation caps and gowns, out on a green lawn on a planet with two suns burning violet in the sky; someone comes up to them, holes cut in his robes to make room for an unwieldy pair of wings, hears him call them, Doctor Song, Doctor Zuckerberg, see them smile in response.
He sees himself, sees his biggest once-in-a-lifetime, holy-shit idea: he is bent over blue spreadsheets, over the concept sketches for the largest hard drive in galactic history, one that's the size of a planet, with enough memory space to save people. A library for a little girl, a computer named CAL, and a grave for River Song, safe and at peace and carrying a little blue book folded between her palms.
He sees the Doctor vainglorious at the birth of a new world, sees him alone until he's not anymore, sees him unhappy until someone smiles at him, slips their hand into his.
He sees the redheaded woman from Eduardo's background picture darting through someone's yard, pearls in her hair and dress kicking out behind her. Her nervous groom keeps close to her heels, until they turn through a kissing gate and halt in front of a blue box, lit up in the dark.
He sees the monsters, the creatures and the silence, all the enemies met and the enemies yet to come, and he calls them by name, races through the Vortex to meet them. They are dolls, dolls, just dolls, and on a distant planet, there are twins with slimy skin and spines up their back thinking of finding a planet to hide in, and he unmakes them.
And then he sees a room, dark wood and boy's clothes scattered from closets and power outlets awkwardly wired into an old building, sees the duck of a curly head in front of a glowing screen, sees Eduardo -- age twenty, no pride to the line of his mouth, not yet -- worry at his bottom lip and then whisper, yeah, all right. He twists the cap off a Dry Erase marker, turning to the window. When he lived this moment in his memory, Mark saw nothing but the line of Eduardo's back, but here, now, he sees it the most important thing: the expression on his face.
He sees the glass walls of Peter Thiel's office. He sees two Eduardos.
He sees a choice.
Somewhere, there's the crack of something crystalline breaking, a snap, the sound Mark's heart makes as it falls apart and reforms.
And everything is silence once again.
He wakes slowly, coming into consciousness one bit at a time, the world filtering in at its own leisurely pace.
At first, all he's aware of is his own heartbeat. He thinks it's his heartbeat, but then it occurs to him that it's too big, that sound, more like breathing or humming, or like pressing your ear against the hard drive column of a computer so all you can hear is it living, whirring, working; the kind of sound most people don't notice until it stops. It makes him think of sunlight, of the TARDIS's voice, of how she sounded a little like Eduardo.
Then, more things solidify: he's lying on his side on what's either the backseat of a car or a couch (which smells vaguely like it's been set on fire once or twice) his head pillowed by an incredibly scratchy tweed jacket (the Doctor's) and he's now awake.
Well, that's an interesting development. He doesn't quite know what to make of that.
He blinks a little, trying to determine which is up and which is down, when a pair of square-toed shoes come into his line of sight. Ah, okay, the glass panels are the floor, then, not windows, that makes sense.
He lifts his head, and the Doctor beams at him. His jacket is under Mark's head, which Mark knows, but it's still a little surprising, seeing the Doctor without it, in a paisley shirt, his red bow tie still knotted at his throat. Somehow, he hadn't thought of the Doctor as somebody whose clothing came off, like the cartoon characters of childhood that always wore the same outfits.
"Mark Zuckerberg," the Doctor says by way of greeting, spreading his arms and smiling hugely. "Mark. You brilliant, brilliant creature."
Mark sits up. "We succeeded, then, I take it?" he goes, mumbling around a mouth that feels thick and heavy. Everything feels thick and heavy, his chest especially.
"That we did! Well, all right, it was mostly you. In fact, I don't think I can take much credit today at all. That's unusual." He drums his bottom lip with his fingers. "We'll just keep that a secret from my ego, shall we? That's a horrible thing for it to come to terms with. But oh, you were fabulous!" He bounds forward, grabbing hold of Mark's head and kissing the top of it, so quick Mark doesn't even have the option of batting him away.
The Doctor spins around. "This!" he goes, gesturing grandly. "This is my time machine, Mark! We got her back! Isn't she the most gorgeous thing you've ever seen?"
Mark lifts his eyes, taking in the high domed arches like a cathedral, the golden honeycomb light; the familiarity beats easily underneath his heart, even though he knows he's never set foot in here before.
"Yes, we've met," he says mildly, patting the edge of the seat in what he hopes comes off as a friendly way. The TARDIS whooshes like she's replying, and when Mark looks up, the Doctor's smile is fond, one corner of his mouth pulled back.
"Do you want to know what gives her wings, Mark?" he says. "What makes an old, lonely girl like this come to the rescue, what makes her fly?" He tilts his head back to beam at the long column of light that glows at the center of the console. His voice is soft, private to the point where Mark's not even sure the words are really meant for him. "It's that feeling you get inside your chest, like you're going to burn right through, like smiling and laughing will never be enough to get it all out, that feeling that's all memory and all sensation, glorious and buoying and right. You cannot and should never fly without it, it's a disaster. Do you know what it is?"
Mark tilts his head, one hand fisted up against his own ribs, because there's an ache there. There's a word for it, but he's not sure a word will ever be enough. It's the one word there should never be any miscommunication about.
"Never mind," says the Doctor. "You know exactly what I mean." He clasps his hands together, wringing his fingers. "Do you want to know something interesting? On a chronological scale, from the very beginning of the universe, love came before laughter. The first species to love was also the first species to laugh."
This startles a noise out of Mark, something close to a snort, because oh, what he would give to have Sean here to hear this. "Who?"
The Doctor lifts his fingers, brushing the tips of them against his ship's main column. "Time Lords," he says, not much louder than a murmur.
And Mark remembers. He remembers that feeling, that falling through time, and he thinks he might even understand.
Something occurs to Mark, because he remembers other things from when he and the TARDIS fell together. "Wait," he goes, blinking. "Yahoo! and Ask. Where -- what happened to them?"
"Ah," the Doctor worries the inside of his lip. "You, you-as-the-TARDIS-you, you erased them from time and memory. They never existed."
Mark sits back. "I murdered them?" he goes, quiet, and the Doctor grimaces like that was exactly the word he was hoping to avoid. Mark smiles without humor, "You misunderstand, I take responsibility where responsibility is due, and I have never regretted any of my accomplishments, there's no point. I suppose it was only a matter of time before that was added to my rep."
"It's not murder if they were written out of existence before they could live," the Doctor tells him.
"But I remember them! I'm here, how can I be here if they never existed?" If everything had been erased, if he-as-the-TARDIS swept everything off for a clean slate, then Mark should be back in his office at that hazy hour of the morning, thinking about a slice of hamburger and olives from Pizza My Heart, and Eduardo should be ... Eduardo should be ...
Mark tightens his jaw.
"Nothing is truly forgotten, Mark," the Doctor says. "There are always ghosts in the machine, fireflies in the Vortex, silhouettes in the auto-save." A noise from below; footsteps, and the smile breaks slowly over the Doctor's face, anticipatory and joyful. "There's someone who wants to see you."
Mark turns to look.
Standing at the top of the ramp, holding on to the railing, Eduardo comments, surprised, "His eyes are golden, Doctor. Are they supposed to be doing that?"
The beginnings of a frown make his eyebrows bow to meet in the middle, forming a unibrow, and Mark had forgotten that they did that, how could he forget? It's staggering; monumental, impossible, that movement, the existence of that expression, and Mark suddenly cannot breathe.
He vaguely hears the Doctor's reply, somewhere. "Oh, that." He flaps a dismissive hand. "Yeah, he'll be bleeding time energy for a couple days. That's one of the side effects of possession-by-Vortex, those crazy squiggly eyes. Also, some dizziness and nausea, so I don't suggest you drink or operate heavy machinery," he adds.
"But I left my car at the Yahoo!-Ask compound, I'll have to pick it up eventually," Mark mutters through lips he can't feel.
Eduardo rolls his eyes so hard it looks painful, and every minute twitch of his face burns inside Mark's chest, an echo of perfect, perfect, perfect, like getting a code absolutely, essentially, wonderfully right.
"We've got a spaceship, and you're worried about your car," the Doctor says, disgusted. "You humans are horribly single-minded, are you sure you're sure about this one, Saverin?" It's rhetorical, of course it is, because he doesn't even wait for Eduardo's answer before he's continuing, "And Mark, time will be incredibly sensitive around you for awhile. Like, seriously, don't run for president or anything like that, you might actually win. In fact, I don't suggest you make any important decisions before it wears off."
"Too late," says Mark, matter-of-fact, and he hasn't taken his eyes off Eduardo, hasn't looked away, doesn't know if he can -- Eduardo seems to realize this in the same beat, because his eyes flare wide.
Perfect, perfect, sings everywhere inside him, racing along bones and muscle, everything afire, and this is exactly what makes the TARDIS fly.
The Doctor looks between them, the corners of his mouth going soft. "Ah," he says, quiet. "Yes, well, that's all right, I suppose."
Eduardo steps closer, and just like that, all of Mark's limbs suddenly remember how to work. He's off the sofa-seat; this is what feet are for, this is what legs are for, to get him from here to Eduardo right now.
Nothing comes violently spearing out of nowhere this time, either.
Somewhere in the middle, there's a tangle, arms bumping past arms and toes stepping on toes as Eduardo and Mark both go in for a hug at the same time, neither of them really expecting it from the other, and then Eduardo's arms are barred across his back and they're crushing each other together, hands fisted in clothes and gripping so very close.
Mark winds up with his face buried between the collar of Eduardo's shirt and his neck, and thinks it's an absolutely wonderful place to be, a feeling like standing in your childhood bedroom after a long time away, or peeling off your socks to feel your own carpet, or that one unexpected smile from someone you didn't realize you really wanted to see; a joy, still deep-water joy, like coming home.
I watched you die, he thinks, rapid-fire pinwheel of images under his eyelids, and clutches harder. I watched you get murdered.
"How?" seems the single most important question in the world right now.
Eduardo huffs a laugh, and his nose bumps against Mark's ear. He makes a noise, a hitch in his chest like he's going to reply, but the Doctor's already answering, bursting out of him like he's been waiting for Mark to ask.
"A perfect world!" he proclaims, circling the TARDIS console and dragging his fingertips along levers and buttons. "Obviously an incredibly difficult ideal to obtain, because what does perfect mean, anyway? It's a stupid, fluid concept, don't know why people bother to get other people to conform to their idea of it, it's different for everybody, it's like arguing over the color of everybody's shirt. oh, but where's your periwinkle, don't you have any --"
"Doctor," Eduardo interrupts. The embrace has gone on to the point of awkward, so he and Mark shift apart: not far, though, because he feels Eduardo's fingers catch at the shoulder of his shirt, dragging on the seam and releasing just as quickly, like he can't bear even that much distance. He smiles, moving his weight so he could press their arms together, sees the echoing flicker of Eduardo's smile in his peripheral.
"Right," says the Doctor, visibly regrouping. "Me and my ship have put quite a lot of time and effort into your planet and we know all the right places and times to pull some strings to change things. But you!" he stops right in front of Mark, gripping him by the upper arms. "Given all the power of space and time, and what perfect world do you create? One that's exactly the same as its always been, where people are so very good, so very cruel, and so very important. The only thing you changed --" he moves a hand, grabbing Eduardo's shoulder and punctuating his words with a shake, beaming so wide his cheeks are crinkled. "-- was you made sure the world had two very wonderful people still in it. Oh, I like your world, Mark Zuckerberg."
"Two --?" Mark starts, but gets interrupted by a clatter from below.
He turns, and there, coming out of one of the side corridors, is River, taffeta dragging across the floor, and behind her --
"Amy," Mark breathes.
She's got her phone out, that earlier model iPhone with the lime-green casing, and he can hear a snatch of her conversation, "-- we're fine, yeah, we're dealing with it. We were there when the servers went down," and, "trust me, Mark and I have more than enough experience with crashing servers," and, "Sean."
Right now. Right now, Mark is part-TARDIS, and today his heart has grown three sizes, made room for more love than he knows what to do with, and that's something there should never be miscommunication about, so he pushes past Eduardo and the Doctor, clattering down the ramp so he can throw his arms around Amy, too.
"Um," she goes, startled.
Amy, with her cut Stanford sweatshirt and Bermuda shorts and understanding of high-level fighting druids, alive. He squeezes her tighter, feeling her tilt around him to get her phone back to her ear, "Um, Sean, Mark's hugging me. I don't know what to do."
"Mark?" Sean echoes tinnily. "Well, hug him back! It's like with a puppy, you reward good behavior."
Mark pulls away, laughing and thinking, you need laughter to survive love. "You're back," he says unnecessarily.
"Yeah, I had a bad case of being dead, but apparently that clears up," she shrugs, speaking quietly enough that Sean couldn't pick up on it.
"There is one happy ending still unaccounted for, if I may be so bold," pipes up River. She sweeps around the TARDIS console, giving them a Chesire grin. "I have a wedding to attend. You might even say I'm the guest of honor, and I think it's waited for me long enough."
"I was wondering about that, actually," Eduardo leans against the railing, folding his arms. "Were you ever going to tell us what's up with the get-up?"
"I couldn't help but notice the same thing," Mark drawls, coming back up the ramp to stand next to him, close enough that the wing of his shoulder bumps into Eduardo's ribs. Eduardo does not shift away. "In fact, my entire office seems to be under the impression that you were going to marry me, and I'd simply forgotten to show up."
"Well, you do have a habit of forgetting long-standing appointments," River replies easily, yanking hard on a lever. The ship rattles to life, throwing them sideways and making them grab for railings and the console to stay upright. Still on the lower level, Amy yelps and goes quickly, "I'll call you back!"
When the ship stops shaking, the Doctor yanks a screen around. "The Millreno quadrant?" he goes, brows furrowing in perplexity. "What are we doing in the Millreno quadrant?"
"I'm getting married here, sweetie, do try to keep up," River laughs.
"The Millreno quadrant?" the Doctor says again. "There's nothing here but pirates and thieves!"
River sweeps her skirts and curtsies.
Mark can feel Eduardo shaking with laughter against him, and wonders if it's possible to feel sunburned inside from too much of a good thing.
"Wait, you're not really going to become Mrs. Zuckerberg, are you?" the Doctor goes, swinging on River with sudden urgency, and Mark, who's thinking pirates and thieves, goes "hey!"
But she just flashes him her enigmatic smile. "That's for me to know," she says. "I do so love a man who's good with his hands," and tosses a wink over her shoulder at Mark.
Eduardo laughs harder, muffling it against Mark's shoulder.
"Oh ha ha," goes the Doctor, not sounding amused in the slightest.
The Dormire Mañana is the largest residential ship in the entire Nuevo Spanish fleet, with seven decks and an estimated quarter million civilians on board.
But the most remarkable thing about the Dormire Mañana isn't its size, or the romanticized tale of its maiden voyage into the smuggler-invested Millreno asteroid fields, or even its flagrantly corrupted government: rather, sometime long out of the present generation's memory, the artificial gravity generator sprung a leak.
This means, at about half-past tea-time every single day, the ship-wide gravity field shifts directions; the floor becomes the ceiling, the ceiling becomes the floor. The citizens are all completely unperturbed by this fact and don't consider it strange at all when they all just suddenly go flying upwards -- in fact, one woman confesses to them in an undertone, "I've set foot on a mono-gravitational planet in my time. It was the most unsettling sensation I've ever experienced. How do you tolerate having your feet on the ground all day? How unnatural!" -- and therefore the entire ship has the appearance of a funhouse mirror: everything on the ground level has an exact duplicate on the ceiling. Magnetizing things to surfaces isn't just an economical choice, it's a life necessity.
To suggest fixing the artificial gravity generator -- well, why would anyone want to? There isn't a single soul alive who remembers things being any different. To them, nothing's broken. It's just fine as it is.
"Why are we here?" the Doctor demands, doggedly keeping on River's heels as she throws the TARDIS doors open and goes striding right out into it. "I didn't think you were being serious. Who are you marrying?"
River tosses a laugh over her shoulder, hair swinging, uninhibited by any gravitational force, wonky or no. "Spoilers, sweetie!" she taunts.
"River," the Doctor growls.
"Maybe when you're older!" And she rounds a corner with a flick of her skirts, disappearing from view. It's easy to believe that they're in the right place; streamers pour their way in ribbons across the walls, party balloons gathered up in the corners of hallways.
Trailing after the Doctor and River like they're in no rush whatsoever, Eduardo pauses about half-way down the corridor and looks over his shoulder. Mark and Amy are still on the threshold of the TARDIS, their hands curled around the doorframe, doing a very passable impression of terrified children clinging to their mother's skirts.
"Oh, come on!" He laughs, waving to them. "You're in outer space!" Mark shoots him a no, really, I wouldn't have guessed kind of look, and he adds, "I promise, if you get airlocked, I will write you very stunning eulogies."
Amy looks alarmed. "Does airlocking happen often?"
He shrugs, offhand.
Mark and Amy exchange a very wide-eyed look.
"Don't ask me," Mark says. "I'm a videoconference kind of guy. The farthest away from home I've ever been is Canada. And that was mostly on accident: we went north out of Spokane and didn't notice until border patrol stopped us." He flaps a hand, like it will excuse the rambling. "Washington all kind of looks the same in the dark."
Her hands drag across her face disbelievingly. Her fingertips are white. "We're on a spaceship --"
"Technically we're still in a spaceship on a spaceship."
"-- in outer space." She bites down on the ends of her fingernails, making an unintelligible noise in the back of her throat. Her eyes are so large they appear luminous, a thought that drives a high giggle out of Mark, which he immediately tries to stifle because he hasn't made that sound since he was seventeen and his father told him, somewhat perplexedly, that Microsoft wanted to buy Mark's p2p software.
Amy grabs his hand then, and pulls him out. Behind them, the TARDIS hums as if in approval, her front door creaking closed.
"There you go," says Eduardo patiently when they catch up to him, shaking his head. "You first-timers, honestly."
"Excuse me, like you weren't all trembling and rubbish the first time you wandered out somewhere," Amy fires back. "Well, probably. Where did you go, anyway?"
"Poosh," Eduardo answers promptly.
"Gasundheit," says Mark.
"No, that was the actual name of the planet. It's a very small, homey kind of place. Imagine taking, like," he gestures with his hands, "Australia and wrapping it around an orange. That's Poosh." He shrugs. "I almost got eaten by a mailbox."
"I wonder if you could put that on a resume," Amy says thoughtfully. "'Can handle rogue mailboxes.'"
They round the end of the corridor together, and stop dead.
"Woah," goes Eduardo.
"Oh my --" goes Amy.
"Shit," goes Mark.
They're at the top landing of a very long, wide staircase, which descends into a pavilion, a massive open space that spreads out as far as the eye can see. The floor and ceiling are clustered with brightly-colored stalls, like a bazaar, all of them decked out as if for a party. There are people bustling back and forth, loud crowd noises: the people of the Dormire Mañana are clearly human -- albeit very swarthy, sturdy, rotund people, like they spend a lot of time bouncing -- so the three of them don't really stick out like sore thumbs as much as they would otherwise.
But even that would be wholly unremarkable, if not for the view. What isn't taken up with ceiling and floor is all window, so that the whole bazaar is flanked with a panoramic display of a nebula cloud, so large and vast and multicolored that it's like Mark can reach out and dip his finger in it and it will ripple like the surface of a lake.
Eduardo whistles, low. "No wonder Doctor Song chose this as a wedding destination."
"Oh my god," Amy finally finishes her thought. And then, in a completely different tone, "Oh my god, I don't even know what galaxy I'm in, I'm on a spaceship with a view that would make NASA soil its pants, and I'm wearing really short shorts and I haven't shaved my legs since Thursday."
Eduardo and Mark look at her.
"Shut up!" she goes, preempting any of their replies, loud enough to attract the attention of the civilian passing by. He pauses on the staircase, one foot poised in midair.
"Lady, what are you doing?" he goes, clapping a hand to his chest as if in mock hurt. "It is Wedding Day and you aren't wearing a lei. Come with me and we will fix that immediately."
He extends his hand, and Mark sees the exact moment every bit of Amy's attention does a complete one-eighty, from the self-conscious girl in a strange place to the future anthropologist who finds herself smack-dab in the middle of a foreign culture.
"Bien sûr," she says firmly, and takes off so fast Mark can practically see the dust cloud she leaves in her place, like the Roadrunner, meep meep.
Feeling a little bit like he's had enough with being the center of attention for awhile, Mark doesn't follow and lets his feet just drift him off to the side, along the top staircase until he reaches the railing. The window is within touching distance, and if he puts his hands on the bar and leans out, it'll be like he's floating in space. Eduardo keeps by him, standing there and looking out over the bustling bazaar, framed on either side by galactic-sized artwork.
They don't say anything to each other for a long time, but Mark isn't disturbed by it: they have all the time in the world to talk, or not talk, as they see fit.
"Amazing, isn't it?" Eduardo says eventually, and Mark can hear the same kind of awe in his voice. "This never gets old, the first step into somewhere totally new."
He glances at him sideways, settling for a small nod of acknowledgement because that seems a neutral enough response, and he sees the corner of Eduardo's mouth curl into a smile, familiar. The nebula reflects off the dark in his eyes.
"I never thought I'd see the day when you were shy around me," he comments to seemingly no one, and then, "go ahead, Mark, I know you've got questions. Don't hold back on my account."
Well, okay. Mark turns to him, biting down the gut reaction like he's talking to a ghost. He plucked Eduardo out of that timeline, right before he died, and brought him forward: he remembers doing it. Hazily, granted, like he knows he must have put clothes on this morning because he's currently wearing them, but he knows he did it. So why can't he believe it?
"When did you leave?" is the first question that trips its way off his tongue.
"Leave Earth?" Like that's a point Mark might get confused on. He nods, and Eduardo answers, "Immediately after the depositions. No, like, day of, actually," and he laughs a little, glancing away. "I think I was supposed to meet somebody for drinks later, but," he shrugs. "I left with the Doctor instead."
The line of his mouth goes fond at that, and it does something strange and almost sour to the pit of Mark's stomach, because it's the same look Sean gets when he says, yeah, but I'm something of a dot-com rockstar, so I crossed the room and I said to her, Amelia Ritter, fancy seeing you here, the same look Razia gets when she smacks Dustin upside the head and says, why did I marry you? It's the look of someone who can look back and pinpoint the exact moment they made the right decision.
"Why?" he goes, because Eduardo's never been the kind of person who goes home with the first stranger who asks, or the kind of person who makes a snap decision to drop out of school and move to California.
Eduardo shifts his weight and sticks his thumbnail between his teeth, worrying at it thoughtfully, because that's a deeper kind of question.
"I think he's lonely," he settles on finally. "I think he needs us as much as we need him. He's the last of his species, you know, and I think he's reached the age where he wants a TARDIS full of children, and if he can't have that, he'll take the next best thing. I don't think he much cares for peace and quiet; too much time to think."
"The destroyer of people and worlds," Mark quotes, soft, remembering Yahoo!'s words and the starless look on the Doctor's face upon hearing them.
"Maybe," Eduardo allows. "But, just to put it into perspective, how many times have you or I stepped on an anthill without even realizing, or thoughtlessly destroyed a spiderweb? I'm sure that's extremely traumatizing for them, but we can't wrap our heads around their perception of tragedy. They're too little. Compared to us, the Doctor is endlessly compassionate, and very, very kind. We must seem as short and fleeting as mayflies to him, but fortunately, he's the kind of person who likes flies. " He shrugs, a little self-conscious. "Or that's my guess. I've only been traveling with him a year."
Mark blinks and double-takes. "A year," he echoes. It's been so much longer than a year since the depositions.
"Yeah." Eduardo looks at him, questioning, and then his gaze sharpens. He steps into Mark's space, reaching out and trailing his fingers across Mark's forehead, a touch so light it makes all the hairs on his arms stand up with phantom sensation, like when you feel someone breathe down your neck.
He'd completely forgotten about his receding hairline until he sees Eduardo register it.
"How long has it been for you?" he goes, quiet, his eyes that same wondering-wide that he got looking at the nebula, like he's looking at Mark and shocked into seeing something entirely new.
"It's 2011, so, six years," answers Mark, and Eduardo startles, sending his fingers skittering down the side of Mark's face. Since the depositions, Mark means, but what comes out of his mouth is, "six years since I last saw you," because that seems like the more important thing.
Eduardo blinks, processing this. "Wow," he breathes, and then snorts out a laugh, shuffling back and forth a little awkwardly under Mark's scrutiny. "So there's an age difference between us now. That's kind of weird."
Mark narrows his eyes and tries not to read into that. It's impossible.
"If it bothers you, you can always leave and come back when I'm younger. You do have a time machine," he shrugs, already knowing it's not going to happen because he doesn't remember it, which is an odd, convoluted thing to think.
"And miss these great leaps of character development you've made? I wouldn't dream of it!" He makes a show of studying Mark, dragging his eyes from the crown of his head to his feet. "I wonder if you've matured to the point of functional yet."
"Excuse me, you did miss the whole long spiel where I defended planet Earth."
Eduardo scoffs, overly exaggerated. "It's cute how you think that's a major accomplishment," he goes loftily. "Earth is just one planet, Mark."
He's teasing, Mark's aware of that, but there it is again, that mental block he keeps on running into, because this is an Eduardo who's seen galaxies and runs with a mad, ancient, somewhat Herculean alien with a bad suit and a sonic screwdriver, and where do you even start with that? Mark saving Earth, yeah, sure, maybe that's like spitting in the ocean to Eduardo. It's like being in the same class as that kid whose dad is an astronaut or something: nobody's ever going to be able to complete. Mark knew where he stood with the old Eduardo, but who is he to this one?
He trips over his tongue, stammers, and then blurts out, "They thought I killed you."
"You -- ?"
"When you disappeared," Mark elaborates. "When nobody could find you, I'm pretty sure everyone in my office assumed that it was because of me. Okay, I'm pretty sure everyone outside of my office thought so, too."
"Are these the same people who thought you were running off to marry Doctor Song?" Eduardo wants to know. The airiness is still in his voice, but there's something complicated going on underneath, something that sounds a lot like an apology, like Eduardo's genuinely concerned that he caused trouble, which makes Mark's heart do funny things under the weight of overwhelming affection. It's not an experience he's altogether familiar with. "If so, I'm kind of worried about the relative intelligence of the people you hire."
"You should have been there," Mark says quickly. "I got into something of a PR nightmare one month, after I snapped at a nosy journalist. You have no idea how insinuating they can be. No one ever asks what they really want to know and it's like you can see them walking you right into a trap, but you can't figure it out until you're already in it and if I had my way, I'd never allow them into my building, but PR insists," he doesn't think he can drip any more scorn into that statement if he tried, and Eduardo's already grinning, even though he hasn't told the punch line yet. "Now, if the reports are to be believed -- which, please, there's obvious bias -- I yelled something along the lines of: 'for the last time, I did not hire a hit on my former CFO.'"
Eduardo's openly laughing now, hands on his knees and everything. "A hit? Really?" he goes, half-wheezing. "They thought you ordered a hit on me? You are not the mafia, Mark. Well," he squints a little, suddenly suspicious.
Mark shakes his head. "I'm not the mafia, Wardo. Although, I think Tara used to be part of the Israeli Army," he shrugs. "It was bad. I nearly made Chris cry: he left to join the Obama administration shortly thereafter."
"I don't know what that is."
"He's the current president," Mark murmurs, not really paying attention to what he's saying, too busy watching the simple little things Eduardo's body does seemingly without him noticing: the way his shoulders move when he breathes between laughter, the responsive tick of his eyebrows to Mark's words, and the ends of Mark's fingertips are tingling, oversensitive and strange and Mark doesn't know what to do.
"Oh," says Eduardo, interested. "I met one of those. A president, I mean. Teddy Roosevelt. You would have liked him, I think," and he laughs again. "I didn't, not really --"
Mark jerks forward, completely unable to help it, and knots his hand, pressing it to Eduardo's chest, startling him quiet.
"Sorry," Mark says through numb lips, pressing down until he feels it: the warm, easy throb of Eduardo's heartbeat.
His shoulders cave, and Eduardo moves, seemingly on instinct, so that when he slumps forward, Eduardo's frame catches him, and for that single moment, Mark is convinced he could hold up the world if he wanted to, carry this entire spaceship on his back, because that's just what Eduardo does.
"Sorry," he says again, turning his face so that their faces bump and then rest together, cheek to cheek. "It's just -- I ... it's just, I watched you die. You died, you died for real, I watched it happen, you were alive and it was okay and then you weren't and I didn't know what to do, Wardo, you died --"
Hands grab his face and tilt it up, thumbs falling on his lips until they pin them shut and stop him talking, and Eduardo touches their foreheads together, the same way the Doctor does when he really needs someone to listen to him.
"And then you brought me back," Eduardo goes lowly, in a voice for him alone. His eyes are brighter than the nebula outside, up this close. "Anything in the world, and the only thing you wanted was me," wonder, shocked wonder in his voice, and Mark closes his eyes, because if he had to deal with this with his eyes open he might just fall apart right there, skin and bones coming undone at the seams. "You brought me back."
"It wouldn't be the right universe without you in it," Mark answers, because he's never had a problem with the truth.
(It's the kind of thing there should never be any miscommunication about.)
He unclenches his fist, his palm damp and crescents whited into the heels of his hand from his nails. He slips up Eduardo's shirt, feeling him flinch away, instinctively ticklish. "This is mine," he breathes out, pressing his fingers over the left side of his chest. They are so close together their hearts might as well be two parts of one overlarge, beating whole. "I have made you a heart to match my own," he murmurs, and feels the echo of all space and time in his voice.
Eduardo bumps their noses together, playful. "I'm pretty sure mine was already yours to begin with," he whispers, like a confession.
Mark meets his eyes with a crack, struck mute.
Which is, of course, when Eduardo's phone rings.
Mark's hand goes for his pocket instinctively, but he doesn't have it anymore -- it vanished when the TARDIS used it to work whatever mumbo-jumbo with timestreams that she did, as if Mark's body was a particularly bad cosmic bumper car and the phone had been her ticket. The phone that's ringing is the original one, and Eduardo fishes it out of the breast pocket of his waistcoat, looking bemused. Mark's eyes flick down his front as he does so, and tries to tamp down the memory of a wicked sharp spine run through him like an awl. He thinks he probably won't forget that image for a very long time.
And yet, there's some very tiny, burgeoning part of him that's okay with that, because it will not be his last memory of Eduardo.
"It's Dustin," Eduardo goes by way of explanation, showing Mark the screen. Incoming call ... Dustin (office). "Do you want me to --"
No fucking way, Mark thinks, snatching the phone right out of his hand and putting it to his ear. Eduardo doesn't even look surprised, just exasperated and maybe a little fond.
"Eduardo, my man!" yells Dustin's voice on the other end, without even waiting for a greeting. "At least, I really hope this is you. I don't even know, this crazy lady decked out in full bridal gear just waltzed right into the office and told me to call this number at this point in time if I wanted to talk to you, it was very Twilight Zone. And then she swanned off to sit in Mark's office, which was definitely the most hilarious thing I have ever seen. Although," his voice sobers a little bit. "Mark hasn't come in since then, so I don't know, maybe she pulled a black widow and his body will wash up on Alcatraz in a couple months."
Mark makes a face, because Dustin doesn't even sound concerned.
"Dustin," he goes, cutting him off mid-stream-of-babble. Whatever his tone is, something between familiarity and long-suffering, it makes Eduardo's mouth quirk up at the corner, nostalgic-like.
Dustin splutters for a moment. "Mark?" he goes, incredulous. "What are you doing on Eduardo's --"
"Dustin," Mark says again, shutting him up. He meets Eduardo's eyes and holds them steady. "As of right now, I am on vacation, and I will be as such until further notice. Tell the PR people whatever you need to tell them, hell, tell them I had a mental breakdown and I ran off to become a roadside attraction in --" he covers the mouthpiece. "Where are we?"
"The Millreno quadrant." Mark knows perfectly well where they are, but he remembers the way Eduardo had said Singapore like he was pulling it out of his ass, and he can tell from the way Eduardo's eyes suddenly crinkle that he remembers it too.
"-- Reno," Mark says into the phone. "Yeah, a streetside in Reno. 'Will genius for food.' Everybody expects anal-retentive computer nerds to snap eventually, don't they?"
"Uh," is Dustin's intelligent input.
"Please try not to crash the interface of human existence while I'm gone, as I'm sure saving the world will be more complicated the second time around. Also," he tilts the Blackberry towards Eduardo. "Say hello."
"Hello," says Eduardo obediently, tone warm.
"Jesus Christ!" yelps Dustin, and something bangs very loudly on his end of the line. If Mark knows Dustin, he probably just tried to leap up from his desk and hit his knees against the drawers. He also hopes there's not anybody coding around him, as that was probably rather disruptive. "Wardo! Wardo, you're alive, how --"
Mark hangs up, imagining the look on Dustin's face when he hears the dial tone. He smiles in satisfaction, because it's a hilarious mental image, and Eduardo smiles back, because they still haven't looked away from each other. There's something equally frightening and exhilarating about holding someone's gaze for longer than is comfortable -- Mark learned that in high school; it scares people off more when you meet their gaze dead-on-- and Mark lets him get away with looking for another moment.
And then he says, "if you waste this opportunity and do not, for some unfathomable reason, kiss me this very second, I will do something drastic."
Eduardo's cheeks dimple. "Like what?"
"Like make Amy CEO and tell her to sell all your stocks."
"But Amy would be a fantastic CEO," Eduardo returns, completely on level.
Mark scowls at him, because that, actually, is a very valid point, and while he really doesn't like not having the last word, that's too good an idea to pass up. He makes a thoughtful noise.
Which, of course, is when Eduardo grabs him by the collar of his shirt and hauls him up to his mouth.
There's a really bad moment when Mark doesn't even remember what he's supposed to do: there's a part of him that never got over that really awkward homecoming-dance feeling of kissing, because it's weird to have someone's face that close to yours and their mouth is wet and you're not entirely sure what your breath smells like or tastes like and have you brushed your teeth recently, that's gross, and Mark's hands do some reactive little twitch, coming up between their bodies like they're not sure if they're allowed to hang on or push away.
Eduardo grins. Mark can feel the press of tooth enamel on his lips. "Way to go fish-lipped on me, Mark," he mumbles. "You pick the best times to completely flake."
"No, be quiet," Mark breathes back, and then his hands come up, his shoulders come up, his mouth comes up, and Mark goes onto the balls of his feet and he grabs Eduardo's face and kisses him.
The flats of Eduardo's palms land in the small of his back, pressure on his spine, pulling him in so they're flush against each other. Pulling taffy, Mark remembers with a startled warm thud of his heart, and then he tilts his head so their noses line up right and their mouths open at the same time and then it's good, familiar, the kind of kiss you know is going to happen at the end of the movie, and when it does it feels like you've been waiting for it since the beginning.
Someone whistles at them from nearby, and it figures that that part is the same on a space station in the middle of the Millreno quadrant, and he locks an elbow around the back of Eduardo's neck with no intention of letting go for awhile. He's right, he's right: his body never forgot this, and neither did his brain or his heart.
You've been so patient, Mark tells them, and cradles the swell of Eduardo's jaw and cheek in his hand. The stars and nebulas seem to be spinning above their heads, but that might just be him.
Eduardo shifts his weight to his heels, pulling Mark with him, and when he tries to disengage their mouths from one another's, Mark just follows, pecking one kiss to his bottom lip, then two.
"Hey," he goes, putting his hands between them to lever them apart. Mark makes a protesting noise. "Hey, I have a question. Isn't Dustin in line to be CEO after you?"
"Dustin who?" mutters Mark, eyes on Eduardo's mouth, and then, oh, hey, reboot, there's his brain (and his life really stops needing to sound like one giant computer analogy -- he is not a machine, he thinks he's proved that point. Although he supposes that's a fallacious argument to try and make at this moment, as he is currently part time machine. Well, shit, somewhere Erica Albright is laughing her ass off.) "Wait, what?"
"Dustin," Eduardo repeats patiently. "Isn't the company supposed to go to him if something happens to you?"
Like River assassinating me and throwing my body off the Golden Gate Bridge? Mark wonders, and knows she probably would, too.
"Well," he hedges. "He's earned it. He's a very important part of the company, he knows that, and he'd be fine at it, but ... CEO is a full-time, full-attention job --" like Mark hadn't just dropped an entire day's work to go swanning off because of a cell phone and Amy Ritter. "-- and Dustin doesn't meet those qualifications. He knows that too."
At Eduardo's fishy look, he elaborates quietly, "He has a daughter," and Eduardo's face blanks out in shock for a moment. Mark can practically see him stumble mentally, the hiccup of all the years he missed in the blink of an eye, now catching up. "All children deserve the time their parents can afford them, and being CEO wouldn't grant him that kind of time."
"A daughter," Eduardo echoes, turning it over in his mouth like he isn't quite sure what to do with it. He sinks down to sit on the step. "Dustin has a daughter. Our Dustin. He --"
"Reproduced," Mark confirms, only a little disparaging, joining him and propping his elbows up on his knees.
Eduardo shows his teeth, still looking a little stunned. "What's her name?"
He answers instantly, because no matter how he teases Dustin and Razia and calls her "the thing," he knows their daughter's name just fine.
Eduardo's eyebrows hike up, and they share a wry, unsurprised kind of look, for once on the exact same page. Yeah, that sounds like Dustin, the look says. "Although you have to admit," Eduardo goes, quiet. "A high-level salary would not go amiss for someone with small children to raise."
"It didn't do anything to make your childhood happier," Mark points out. And then immediately, "Sorry, that was --"
"No, don't be. You're absolutely right," he ducks a self-deprecating kind of smile, murmuring in a voice Mark knows he isn't supposed to hear, "can't believe you remember that, I told that story once."
Mark hesitates for a moment, shifting his leg to bump Eduardo's knee with his own. "Besides, um, they'll get the money," he admits, shrugging off his sheepishness. "I changed my will -- it's one of those benefits of constantly being in and out with your lawyers -- and there's ... there's a scholarship for her, so Dustin and Razia don't have to worry about that."
Eduardo tilts his head, his astonished look fading into a smile, cushioned at the corners. "Razia?"
"Dustin's wife. They met at a kosher-halal thing at Whole Foods a couple years ago, trying to keep up-to-date on their religious observances. I guess they have to pick and choose which ones are important to them, I guess, since they had to get a state marriage," he makes a helpless gesture with his hands. "Muslim women can't marry Jewish men according to shariah, although Muslim men can marry Jewish women. And their kids won't be Jewish, because Razia isn't. They got married anyway."
If anything, this seems to surprise Eduardo more than Mark admitting he left a trust fund for baby America in his will. "How do you remember all that?" he asks, incredulous. "It was three weeks before you even correctly remembered my name after I first met you."
"I retain what's important to know," Mark answers. Is this what the Doctor meant, when he told him that he took out his heart and rebuilt it with little pieces of Eduardo? Eduardo remembers names, remembers the kinds of details that make people smile. "Well," he amends, when Eduardo's eyebrows tick up. "Now I do. It's taken me this long to realize that people can be important, too. I like to think maybe I grew up a little bit?"
"Yeah," Eduardo answers, soft. "I think you might have."
Mark remembers the most important things, the things that mean the most, and they're not necessarily the biggest things.
"You were wearing blue that day," he blurts out.
"I ... what?"
"The day you flew out of SFO, at the end of summer, when you were going back for your junior year at Harvard," he says, and Eduardo's eyes go huge, as spinning and dark as the starlit space above them. "You kissed me. You kissed me good-bye."
He can hear it; as it always does when the most crucial things need to be said, his voice goes flat, toneless, borderline hostile, and his throat bobs on a swallow. He's spent years wanting nothing more than to go back to that moment in the terminal, Eduardo's hand possessive on the curve of his spine, because you never realize how important these little things are going to be to you until later. Facebook expanded in leaps and bounds and it is everywhere, whether people have one or not they cannot avoid it, but Mark Zuckerberg stayed still. For six years, he hasn't moved, because he wanted that moment and he lost his chance.
It's too big, that thought, and Mark bites at his mouth, turning away from it and going to nervously crack his knuckles, except Eduardo's fingers catch the curve of his jaw and he's leaning in.
"Is that really what you remember?" he goes, close enough to Mark's mouth to make it tingle with a phantom want. "Out of ... everything that went down that year, you and me, that's your clearest memory, is me kissing you good-bye?"
"Yes," Mark answers, and watches Eduardo's face do something complicated. He suspects this might be one of those moments in which he says something and the other person hears something entirely different, the way he had said, but you go to BU, and Erica Albright had heard, but you're not good enough, when really Mark hadn't meant that at all. Something similar seems to be happening here: Eduardo pulling some other meaning out of his words, like it's important that Mark remembers the kissing, not the everything else.
And then Eduardo kisses him again, fast and fierce, the kind that has Mark tilting into it instinctively.
"That was hello," Eduardo hums, keeping close.
"Oh, okay," Mark goes, grabbing him by fistfuls of his shirt and pulling him in. It's not much of a kiss, then, the two of them grinning too much to really focus on the kissing part, instead just sitting their with their mouths pressed together, teeth and lips, faces close and hearts pounding cheerful hellos across the short distance between them.
"It's the first thing I would do if I have a time machine of my own," he says, keeping his voice private between the two of them. "I would go back to those two weeks and I would kiss you more."
This earns him another kiss, of course it does, and Mark closes his eyes, leaning into it. "Mark," says Eduardo, sounding a lot like Mark's trying to drown him, but he tightens his grip on Eduardo's clothes to get his attention, because he wants him to return the question.
"Right. Anywhere in time and space?" He lifts his eyebrows, and Mark nods. "Hmmm ..." he drags it out thoughtfully, and then his lips twitch upwards into a sudden smile, like he just understood a long-standing private joke. "I would go visit my grandparents. They worked hard and passed before I was born, you know."
Mark nods again, filing that information away for later, and then leans in again, because that was something like ten seconds too long of having Eduardo's mouth so close and not kiss it. They shift together on the step so that the angle's less awkward, calves slotting in between knees and hands coming up to cradle faces and the backs of necks, too knotted up and tangled in each other to do more than lip at the other's mouth like puppies.
Mark thumbs Eduardo's cheekbones, wondering for one bright, sunburned, light-hued moment if they can be like this for the rest of his life, if he can be one of those people, the kind that's always being kissed or doing the kissing, after going so long without it. He has a flash of it, an entire future of instances: Eduardo leaning over him while he's at a computer console, one hand pushing his noise-reduction headphones down and the other tilting his mouth up, and Mark smiling into the kiss; of kissing Eduardo good-bye in airports (spaceports, train stations, wherever and on whatever planet they wind up on) and kissing him hello in entryways (the blue tile of his Palo Alto home, the console room of the TARDIS, and places he doesn't recognize,) long and unselfconscious and thorough as Mark always is; if they swabbed his mouth, they would probably get more of Eduardo's DNA than his own, and oh, how Mark wants that.
I don't suggest you make any important decisions before this wears off, he hears the Doctor's voice inside his head, but he doesn't see how he can avoid them. Everything seems like an important decision right now.
"Excuse me!" comes loudly from somewhere above their heads. Speaking of the Doctor, that would be him, darting up the steps to go back down, hovering over them, arms held crookedly at his sides like a hen. River seems to have finally evaded him, judging by the thundercloud expression on his face.
Eduardo tries to shift back, but Mark tightens his grip, not wanting to let go yet and pulling him in to suck at his lower lip some more. The Doctor's had enough of Eduardo's time lately, it's Mark's turn.
"Oh, this is a mess," the Doctor complains, darting to the other side. "Which one of you is mine? I can never tell when you lot get all twisted up in each other like eels -- oh, there you are!" he pats at Eduardo's head, like a child unsure of someone else's dog. "Oi, I have an idea, if you feel like surfacing any time to hear it."
Mark lets Eduardo go this time.
Eduardo beams up at the Doctor. "Hi!" he says cheerfully.
"Oh, hello!" the Doctor returns, with more than a little sarcasm. "This is why I should never leave you guys alone. You lot can never just talk it out. I swear, I will never understand is: how did you come up with all the weird things you do with your mouths?"
"So did you sort out the River dilemma?" Eduardo asks good-naturedly, pinning Mark's ankle against the step after Mark tries to nudge into the ticklish spot behind his knee.
The Doctor scowls. "No," he grumps. "They wouldn't let me in. Although I did see you!" he points down at him, and just as quickly reaches out to skim his palm over the ends of Eduardo's hair. "Blimey, you lose your hair really fast."
Eduardo makes a pained face. "Don't tell me that," he complains, as if his inevitable balding is somehow more noteworthy than the fact that there are two Eduardos on this ship, this very instant, which is something Mark is having a rather hard time wrapping his mind around.
Mostly, though, he thinks about River, who told him she killed the man she loved, who already knew her own story and the way it ends and what she has to do, and she went out there today and she's marrying him anyway, right now, because that's her choice and she's going into it with her eyes wide open.
"River, you are braver than anyone ever gives you credit for," he says under his breath, smiling in an aimless kind of way.
"Hm?" Eduardo glances at him curiously.
Mark meets his eyes and remembers, too, what Yahoo! and Ask said: Eduardo Saverin, who will do things both brilliant and devastating, because he is so very big-hearted and he's so very important, thinks of River saying, I am your gun arm, I will shoot so that you don't have to, because she believes in keeping good men good as long as possible, and his chest feels tight, glass-like, because there's too much he's feeling right now, he doesn't think he's build to stand it.
"But no!" the Doctor jumps in before Mark can say anything, and Eduardo blinks up, distracted. "As I was saying! I'm thinking we should pay a visit to the Silver Palaces of Lykke. Did you know they have a planet the size of a marble, and they kept inside a locket? Break the locket and you might as well commit armageddon; there's no way something that fragile could survive in our atmosphere. Smallest contained solar system in history, and the queen wears it to state breakfasts. Imagine!"
He waves his hands around delightedly, and spins on his heel, propping himself up on the railing. "What do you say?"
Eduardo bumps his elbow into Mark's side. "It's your choice," he says, low and warm through a smile. "It's your vacation. What do you want to do?"
The Doctor straightens. "Oh, are you coming?" he asks Mark, grinning hugely. "That's excellent! I love a good trip with a self-made genius. Humbling them into speechlessness never gets boring, I can tell you that!"
"Thanks," Mark scoffs.
Laughing, Eduardo unravels himself from Mark and stands, offering him a hand up. "Just smile and nod and try not to take it personally," he warns, dry as bone, which earns him a tolerant "oi!" from the Doctor's direction. "You'll come for awhile, though, right? I know a lot has happened today, but there are some really cool places we can take you before you have to go back," his eyebrows go up questioningly, like maybe this is asking too much.
"We have a time machine, in case you need reminding," the Doctor interjects, even though no one's really paying attention to him. "I can get him back yesterday morning."
"I don't," Mark says.
Somewhere down in the bazaar, someone starts up a cheer, the raucous sound of people laughing echoing up to them where they stand at the top of the grand staircase. It's a very human noise, Mark finds himself thinking.
"I beg your pardon?" goes the Doctor.
"I don't have to go back," Mark says, lifting his chin, his jaw firmly set.
"Yes, you do!" Eduardo chuckles. "Facebook, Mark. It's not going to run itself."
"Funny thing," Mark points out, perfectly on level. "Is that yes, it will. I don't think you understand -- I am on six continents, and there are more accounts on Facebook than there are conceivably people in the world, and when something gets that kind of big ... I don't think it's really mine anymore. My employees can run it. The users can run it. I created it; it can be self-sustaining if I want it to be. Besides," he shrugs. "It's like you said -- Earth is just one planet, and I changed the face of it. So. What next?"
Eduardo stares at him, eyes round, and inside Mark's chest, it's a lot like sunburn and wonder and a feeling like the TARDIS flying, his ribs made of glass, and Mark smiles at him, unable to help it.
"But --" Eduardo splutters, glancing sharply between him and the Doctor. "But I thought I was supposed to go with him, not him going with us. I thought that's how it was supposed to work."
"Never try and tell a human what to do, you lot are worse than cats." The Doctor crowds into Mark's space, eyes fierce-lit. "Now, I only take the best, me," he says, leaning in close. "And my TARDIS doesn't corporeally possess just anyone. So think very carefully, Mark Zuckerberg."
He does. He's Mark: he has a multibillion-dollar company, he has his own office and more computer screens than Cape Canaveral and half a Harvard education, he has Dustin and Razia and Danny and Pizza My Heart, he has a two-bedroom house on East Meadow, he has a neighbor that crafted him a beautiful garden and a neighbor named Paul who has questionable taste in apparel, he has good parents and a little sister and a very old car with a passenger side door that doesn't work. He has a world where Eduardo Saverin's face is on a "have you seen this person?" poster in the community center.
He has a heart, and it's the best part of him.
He opens his mouth, and stops.
Because no. No, he's not really leaving anything behind. In fact, for years, he's been living exactly like he was ready to go.
"My hummingbirds," he says finally, looking between them, Eduardo and the Doctor, sun and the stars. "Someone's going to have to feed my hummingbirds."
"Mark, you have hummingbirds?" Eduardo says, quiet, and the smile on his face suggests this is more amazing than Poosh.
"I can do that for you," a voice from behind him says, and he looks over his shoulder just as Amy reaches the landing. She's wearing not one, not two, but four different-colored leis, something resembling a sombrero on her head, and Mark even thinks she might have gotten the cartilage of her ear pierced, because he doesn't remember that shark tooth earring being there before.
"After all," she tilts her chin, and the smile on her face reminds him of how the Doctor said, you humans, you lot see the whole universe in each other. "Unlike you, I have someone to go home to."
Mark thinks about it for the space of a heartbeat, then digs down into his pocket, fingers curling around his lanyard of keys; the Facebook "f" given away as a promotional thing last year, his car key, his house key, and his office key. He steps forward, removing her hat long enough to put the lanyard around her neck. She touches the keys with the end of her fingertips, where they rest brass-bright against her sternum, under the Stanford lettering on her sweatshirt.
Replacing the hat back on her head, he quirks an eyebrow at her and gestures at her apparel, asking dryly, "Why do I get the feeling this is somehow going to feature in the next Warcraft expansion pack?"
She smiles, that sweet toothy Amy smile, and punches his shoulder. He studies her for a long moment and thinks about asking, what do you think about being CEO?
He holds his tongue, though, because Amy wants to be an anthropologist, and she deserves the chance to do and be whoever she wants. Maybe, many many years down the line, when she's been on PBS to her heart's content, he can think about bringing up the possibility, and in the meantime maybe he'll try to broker some kind of collaborative enterprise between Facebook and Blizzard, long-distance. Farmville might have been an unexpected monopoly, but their Games section could do with something fresh.
"Amelia Ritter, you're brilliant," he tells her sincerely.
She lifts her eyebrows in surprise. "Tell me that when you're not all golden-eyed and under the influence, and I'll believe it," she informs him, but the corner of her mouth twitches, like she can't quite tamp down the smile.
"Although," and the Doctor's back again, finger lifted like he just thought of something, drawing their attention to him. "I suppose we have a stop to make first, don't we."
The Doctor zeroes in on Mark. "Mark," he goes, thoughtfully, tapping at his bottom lip. "Where did you get Eduardo's phone?"
"Where did I ..." He gave it to himself. He was -- "Oh."
"Oh," the Doctor mimics, showing teeth. "Come along, all! We have certain events in time and space that need to align!"
He sets off, giving a very good impression of a mother duck trying to lead a bunch of chicks, when -- from somewhere deep in the bowels of the ship -- there's a great, crunching shift, like a set of gears ground together wrong, and then Mark suddenly feels very light on his feet.
It's like that first moment you step on the moving walkways they have in airports; a lurch as some other force takes hold of your momentum and suddenly, you're being propelled forward. There's that familiar tug in Mark's limbs. He catches Eduardo's eyes for a brief second to see his own bemusement echoed back at him, hears the Doctor go, "woah!", and they fall upward.
The artificial gravity! he has enough time to realize, and then everything spins and he hits the ground hard enough to knock the wind out of him.
"Ow," Amy complains softly, sitting up and rubbing at the back of her head. All around them, the other residents hop to their feet, easily brushing themselves off. They've got to have thicker skulls than we do, Mark thinks, putting a hand to his temple to try and alleviate some of the vertigo.
"Great," goes the Doctor from somewhere to Mark's left, sounding extremely put-upon. "And now my time machine is on the ceiling."
"We should have brought Rory," Eduardo comments, groggy-sounding. Mark stretches his hand out across the ground towards the sound of his voice, feeling Eduardo's fingers catch at his and hold on. "You know who's kind of amazing with big boxes? Rory."
It's a little past sunrise on a Saturday morning when they land.
It's a little past sunrise on a Saturday morning, and the courtyard outside 3505 University Ave is quiet, bar for the clear, bright dawn chorus of the brown birds on the power lines and the muted slamming of pans from Junnoon; Rami, already getting ready for the lunchtime crowds, good faithful Rami who will come out in stained apron and tobacco-yellowed fingernails to ask all his patrons about their wives, their children, whoever he's convinced they can't live without.
The Doctor leans against the TARDIS, absently stroking the blue grain with the ends of his fingers, companionable and familiar. "Mark," he goes.
"Hm?" Mark replies, distracted. It's harder than you think, trying to tape psychic paper to the inside of a toilet paper roll.
"If you don't mind my asking. Before, when we were in that nothing place, she gave you an answer, my TARDIS did. She said yes." He pushes himself upright, drifting closer to Mark. "What was the question?"
Mark answers promptly, unafraid.
"Have I done the best I could with what I have?"
This makes the Doctor smile; he can see it from the corners of his eyes, pays attention to it the way you do to the changing of traffic lights or the first flash of lightning in a still sky. The Doctor closes the last bit of space between them, reaching out to curl his fingers around the nape of Mark's neck, giving him a fond shake.
"Mark Zuckerberg," he says, a quiet declaration. "The traitor, who built himself a heart of silicon and wire and the most important parts of his loved ones, and became a good man. A good man." He presses his forehead against Mark's temple, the sweep of his eyelashes closing, and Mark lets him, the TARDIS part of his heart humming with pride.
There, above. Movement in the window: that would be himself, coming out of his dark office for cold pizza and Red Bull.
Down below, Mark smiles. He steps forward, and everything sets into motion again.