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Shermer's Theory

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There was a hunger in me to see everything and do everything. I wanted to be everyone I saw.
I wasn't enough for me.
Can you understand that?

- Sidney Sheldon

 

- ☀ -

His bedroom is exactly how he left it, down to the petrified remains of a Butterfinger and the cellophane wrapping from a DVD in the trash can.

Everything looks a little muted underneath the layers of dust, and Mark, in turn, can't shake the sensation like he's standing in the middle of a museum exhibit, looking at the remnants of some paleolithic lifeform, unfathomable and strange. He doesn't want to touch anything, so he just stands there, arms at his sides, tracing everything with his eyes.

Objectively, he recognizes everything, because it was once his. His desktop set-up is the biggest and most prominent feature in the entire room -- a bank of cannibalized hard drives stacked precariously on top of each other, wires naked and twisted together, and two monitors hooked up to each other. It used to make him feel like he was directing traffic at Cape Canaveral; not quite like the master of the universe, but more comfortable here, in front of his computer, than anywhere else.

There, on the bookshelf: his collection of Isaac Asimov books, their spines peeling from wear. Next to them, a dozen assorted McDonalds toys, propped up on top of each other. Randi used to try to swap them with her own when they were little, so he took a Sharpie and etched "MZ" on each one of them, somewhere, and displayed them like trophies so she knew she couldn't take them.

A string of decorative lights frame the window, shaped like planets -- a gift from Erica, who worked at the dollar store off of Hamilton Rd when he first met her, and used to bring over this kind of miscellany because it fascinated her, and Erica fascinated Mark, so it worked well. The walls, painted off-white, are bare of anything resembling a poster (because he wasn't plebeian, for god's sakes,) with the exception of his acceptance letter to Harvard, pinned proudly into the plaster above his bed. The text on it is faded from exposure to sunlight, ghostly and grey.

"Ah," he goes, catching sight of it. He pulls the chair away from the desk (a hand-me-down from the neighbor across the street, who babysat Mark and Randi when they were little and tried to feed them Marmite for reasons Mark is pretty sure constitute as malicious torture, and it's weird to remember these things so clearly and still feel like he's touching somebody else's property) and sinks down into it.

"Honey?" And that's his mom, now shadowing the doorway. "Is everything all right?"

Mark nods without looking up. He lifts his keyboard and finds a couple torn envelopes, which puzzles him for a beat before it clicks; these must be graduation and birthday cards, which he put here in the vague, optimistic hope he'd get around to writing a thank-you note for the money they contained at some point.

"We haven't touched anything since you left," his mother continues, like he'd said something. She lets out a slow breath, and continues on a wistful note, "It's so nice to see you sitting there again. It's almost like no time has passed at all."

Mark puts his hands back into his lap and nods again, careful.

The silence between them stretches for one awkward beat, then two, and then Randi comes pounding up the stairs, shoving up underneath their mother's arm in order to say, "Hey, Markellina, has Mom shown you what we did to the bathroom yet?" She doesn't wait for an answer before she beckons him imperiously, "Come on!"

His little sister has gotten taller since the last time Mark set eyes on her -- he'd only been half-way through puberty when she came along and unceremoniously outstripped him in height, and now it's even worse. She's wearing a championship shirt for junior varsity basketball, and the frames of her glasses aren't any that Mark's ever seen before.

As soon as he comes within reach, she wrestles him into a headlock and hauls him down the hall.

"Mostly," she continues, cheerful, even as they stumble together, trying to keep their balance. "I just want to see all the tattoos you got on the inside. Did anyone try to recruit you for their crew? Did you run a crew? Please tell me you have a crew."

 

- ☀ -

The bus schedule has changed, so Mark winds up arriving for his appointment twenty minutes early by some fluke of cosmic coincidence. Not ready to go inside yet, he sits on the steps and eats his tuna out of a pop-top can.

What he lacks in readily available silverware he makes up for by discovering an ancient ketchup packet in the inside pocket of his winter coat, so he stirs that in and eats with his fingers, licking around the cuticles to get them clean.

There's a middle-aged woman in fingerless gloves squatting at the corner, feet tucked up under her like a child. She's painting, he realizes after a moment or two, when she shifts down to mix her paints and he finally gets a glimpse of her canvas. The trees and buildings in her landscape are still just skeleton outlines, not yet filled in, but her sky is strikingly blue, with the edge of the setting moon just barely visible beneath the heavy curve of Earth Two.

It's a good spot to paint it from, he acknowledges -- the way the buildings are arranged, Earth Two peeks out of her painting like some cloudy, curious eye.

Mark lifts his head to look at the real thing.

There'd been a guy in A block who used to, like, actually read the newspaper and so was always giving them updates on Earth Two even before they really knew what it was. He told them that since Earth and Earth Two were completely synchronous in their rotational orbit, you were only really ever capable of seeing one side of it, depending on your location on the globe. Kind of like how nobody's ever seen the dark side of the moon.

Using the can of tuna to shield his eyes, he squints at the half-lidded shape of Earth Two. He can just make out the dark, rich color of the Arabian peninsula, but a heavy bank of clouds obscures most of India and the Himalayas from sight.

"Doesn't it blow your mind that it's already been four years since we first saw that thing in the sky?" comes from behind him.

Mark cranes his head back to find a young professional in sheer black nylons standing behind him. She's wearing a peacoat the color of martini olives, and she cradles a take-away coffee close to her mouth, using it to fend off the cold. She's staring up at the sky, too.

"Yeah," he says shortly.

Her eyes fall to him, doing a familiar assessing flick over the same winter coat he's had since he was fourteen, layered over a hoodie and pajama bottoms with the Mountain Dew logo all the way down, to the peeled-open tuna can in his hand, the other wiping ketchup and tuna juice ineffectually off on his pants.

"Remember?" she says, commenting on none of this. "They announced it at some bizarre hour of the night, but back then it was just some tiny little blue fleck in the sky. Do you remember what you were doing?" She smiles, showing teeth around the lid of her coffee cup. "I was coming home from a bachelorette party and the DJ was going on about how it could probably support life. Didn't that turn out to be a joke?"

Do you remember what you were doing?

Mark sets his jaw. He can't forget what he was doing when they discovered Earth Two -- he'd been in police custody until dawn. They'd been trying to get a statement out of him, but for hours, the only thing Mark could coherently ask was, the family -- did they make it? Did they make it? Are they okay?

"Yeah," he says again, and unfolds himself from the steps. Without meeting her eyes, he brushes past her to go inside.

The appointment with his parole officer goes well, he thinks (mostly because it requires very little participation on his part, just a lot of nodding and pretending to listen, which was also Mark's key to getting a reduced sentence in the first place,) up until Sy brings up the subject of possible employment.

He sits up and says, "No."

Sy gives him a patient look. There's a tiny replica model of the solar system on his desk, in the place where family photos would be -- someone's attached a wadded-up ball of pipe cleaner, suspending it half-way between the little Earth and the little moon. He reaches over to give it a whirl so that he doesn't have to look Sy in the face.

"No?" Sy echoes, droll. "So you're you telling me you're perfectly content with bumming off your parents for the foreseeable future?"

"No," Mark answers immediately, because he's never felt less like his parents' house is really his own. "But I don't want what you were going to suggest, either," he says, slumping back into his seat. "I don't want to go back to school."

This seems to be too much for Sy.

"Mr. Zuckerberg," he goes, incredulous. "You got a 1600 on your SATs, your IQ is frankly formidable, and you were accepted into the most prestigious college in the country. You don't want to go back to school?" Mark doesn't answer, and Sy lays his hands flat on the table. "I'm not even talking about going back to Harvard, or any school where you might run into people you knew. There are programs already in place at community college to help kids like you get back on their feet. It'd be a waste of a brain like yours to not get a degree."

Mark gives the model sun in the center of the solar system another spin, making all ten planets and the moon quiver.

Sy sighs. He'd wanted to move to California and become a corporate business lawyer -- that was one of the very first things he ever told Mark, after enduring ten minutes of Mark's uncommunicative silence upon hearing he was eligible for parole. Mark wonders if he ever regrets staying in Massachusetts instead.

He slides his bifocals back into place and glances at his computer screen. "Let's play to your strengths then, shall we?" he says. "What sort of employment are you looking for?"

"Something where I don't have to talk to people," Mark answers. Sy could look a little more unsurprised by that, but he'd have to try pretty hard. "I'm good with --" with computers, he almost says, but swallows it back, because the Mark who lived in the bedroom with the Asimov books was the Mark who was good with computers, not the one sitting here in this chair. "With my hands," seems like a good compromise. "I'm good with my hands. I like to build things."

Sy clicks around some.

"Well," he says after a long pause. "The best I can offer you is a janitorial position at St. George's."

Mark lifts his head. The name's familiar. "The high school?"

"Yeah."

He thinks about it, but not for very long. "Sure. I can do that."

 

- ☀ -

Jack and Luna Nelson have been in charge of maintenance at St. George's pretty much as long as Mark's been alive. They're planning on retiring to Florida in a year, so they're looking for someone to train up to replace them.

"I didn't think they'd hire somebody so young," Luna holds up a faded off-blue uniform against Mark's shoulders. It's too long in the arms, and he'll need to roll up the cuffs if he wants to walk without stepping on the hems. "How old are you?"

"Twenty-one," says Mark.

She harumphs deep in her throat. She has fly-away hair done up in tight cotton candy curls like someone twenty years older than she actually is, and the threads are unravelling from the "L" on the name patch on her uniform.

"Well, you look like a baby to me," she tells him, turning away and spreading the spare uniform out on the work bench. She pulls a tape measurer out of a drawer and faces him again, nudging at his arms at the wrists to get up to lift them. "Why aren't you in school?"

It's mostly rhetorical, so Mark just shrugs at her.

"Have you ever worked in maintenance before?"

He'd been a cashier at the Kum n' Go right off the highway, a job that mostly involved sitting around hoping he didn't get shot (ha ha ha) and pretending he didn't see any maintenance concerns, so he wouldn't have to do any paperwork on them. He shrugs again, and she studies him over the tops of her glasses.

St. George's is old school, the way he and Dustin used to make fun of whenever they drove by; an old-century brownstone tucked up at the top of a long, gravel path, locked away behind a knight-and-dragon coat of arms. Ivy crawls across the facade in the early summer, verdant green and springy, just to complete the picture of grandeur, like there should be men in dove-tail coats strolling across the lawn, carrying monocles and humphing out, "hmm, quite right"s periodically. Instead, there are small, pimply kids in starched uniforms sitting together in clumps, bent over their cell phones.

A hundred years ago, it used to be a mental institution, so it's full of various nooks and crannies and secret staircases that didn't translate into a high school layout very well, but it makes it easy for Jack and Luna and Mark to disappear mysteriously and reappear on the other side of the school. A master key is one of the best benefits of being part of the janitorial staff.

There's a nifty little alcove right behind the furnace in the back room where Mark tries to spend lunch by himself on that first day, picking at cold, leftover rice and drinking the soy sauce straight out of the packet.

This lasts about ten minutes before Luna finds him, hands on her hips and a kindly knowing smile on her face, and she all but frog-marches him into the empty cafeteria to eat with her and her husband. He drums his fingers against his knee, incessant, eyes tracking back and forth to follow their conversation about ... football? Maybe? Eventually, when it becomes clear they aren't going to try to get him to participate, he relaxes.

"Come on, kid," Jack says to him, when they're finished. "I could use a young set of eyes."

Jack's gone almost entirely bald (with the exception of a few salt-and-pepper tufts around his ears, which he says he keeps around for character and Luna says he keeps around so he can pretend he can't hear her) and walks with a limp he earned in Vietnam; he's got three steel pins holding his knee together, which he proudly rolls up his pant leg to show Mark as they're emptying out the recycling bins. It doesn't stop him from traipsing up and down the creaky, narrow staircases, getting up on ladders to change light bulbs and catch the tiny bats that try to squeeze themselves into the rafters. He brings them down cupped in his heavy gloved hands as they tremble, terrified by the noise and the light. Since Mark isn't afraid of small vermin (it would be too much like the pot, the kettle, and the color black to be, he figures,) Jack shows him how to stroke the soft spot behind their ears to get them to settle.

Randi's out salting the driveway when he gets home that afternoon, late enough that it's more twilight by this point, and she brightens when she sees him, pushing her hair out of her face with red, cold-bitten hands in order to grin at him.

"Hey!" she says. "So how's cleaning up after high school shitheads?"

"You're in high school, too," Mark points out, stepping around her to get to the door.

"Like I said. Shitheads."

He stops, tilting his head and pretending to think about it. The Nelsons have a cart covered in bumper stickers that say, Proud Gryffindor! and my other cart is a broom and this is my TARDIS in disguise, so he figures they're okay people to work with. It's a lot of labor, but it also means a lot less time to think.

"I used to change your diapers, remember? It's not really that different. Less smelly."

Randi squawks in protest and throws a handful of salt at him.

 

- ☀ -

For the rest of the month, Massachusetts goes into a deep freeze; day after day of interminable slate grey skies and air so dry and cold that it makes the hairs inside his nose stick together.

The new boiler-man coveralls they measured him for arrive after a week, and that helps. It's a thick canvas fabric like the kind they use for army fatigues, olive green like he's fighting his way through a far-off jungle and not the rose-colored bathrooms of a formal mental hospital, Mark Z. stitched helpfully into the breast. The best part is: they're incredibly warm, so in the morning, he pulls them on over his shorts and the old Harvard hoodie he found in his closet, the neckline cut out and yellowed around the edges from where Mark had proudly sweated in it the whole summer before his freshman year, refusing to take it off because Harvard, man.

They told him the best thing for him to do after he got out was to immediately establish a routine, the same way you're supposed to do after a loved one dies or you relocate to the other side of the globe; something to keep yourself busy so that you don't have time to get lost inside your own head.

Intentionally or not, a routine is exactly what Mark forms. He's up before dawn every morning, Monday through Friday, because it's a half-hour walk to the bus stop and another twenty minute commute to the school if he wants to get there before first bell at 7:55.

His mother leaves the coffee pot on for him after she goes out for a run, so he fills his thermos with black French roast gone only slightly acrid and tugs on an old pair of construction boots with steel-lined toes; like everything else he owns, he initialed the tongues of each boot so Randi wouldn't steal them, although she probably did anyway.

Out on the porch, with warm mist rising in front of his face in a pale and phantom-like etching, he worms his hood out from under the collar of his coveralls and flips it over his head, rounding his shoulders against the cold. Nothing stirs in the suburbs at this time of the morning, so there's no sound at all -- no cars backfiring in their driveways, nobody hacking away at the ice frosted over on their windshields, no squirrels rioting through the yards. Just Mark's boots crunching through the hard crusts of snow.

He remembers being sixteen, hopping through the drifts like a magpie to get down the driveway, where Dustin idled at the curb in a beat-up Buick that was held together with duct tape that whistled at any speed greater than 30mph. Mark always held the opinion that anybody who owned a car in the city was doing it wrong, but Dustin inherited that thing from his grandfather and loved it in the all-consuming way he loved everything; it always smelled a little like old people, although Mark could never tell you what, exactly, old people smelled like, just that it did.

Jesus Christ, Mark, don't you own any other pair of shoes? Dustin used to demand every now and then, and Mark had to check his feet to determine what he was wearing; the Adidas slippers, usually, covered in a dusting of ice crystals.

They were closest to my bed, he answered defensively, fiddling with the dashboard and trying not to make it too obvious that he was redirecting the heat vents to blow on him. The Buick had rattled underneath him, familiar.

You're a very special boy, Dustin reassured him, as patronizingly as possible.

Mark misses Dustin, the way you always do your best friends when they stop being your best friends, the same way you'd miss a minor internal organ, or a TV show that's been running almost as long as you've been alive.

They'd requested to room together in the Harvard dorms. Better the evil I know, Dustin joked, and Mark wonders if Harvard housing ever figured out what happened to him, or if Dustin wound up getting a whole room to himself.

By the time he reaches the bus stop, the fog has banked back to the tops of the trees, lightening the sky to the color of undersea pearls. There's a woman in the corner house who always has a lamp on in the upstairs room, which he can see from half-way down the block. The curtains are drawn back, and as far as he knows, she's the only other person awake in the whole neighborhood at this hour, curled up in her armchair with a book cracked open over her knee, her hands wrapped around a mug that steams, curling the wisps of hair around her temples.

Some days, she's crying, her face covered with a hand, and Mark stands in the bus shelter across the street and watches the trembling line of her back, the straps of her slip coming down her arms, and never knows what to do. She never looks down at the street and never sees him back, so it's almost like they inhabit entirely separate worlds.

Once, just the once, he drowses while waiting, propped up against the glass, which has gone opaque from years of being scratched with layers on top of layers of keyed-on graffiti.

He falls immediately into a dream, a disquieting jumble of details swarming up underneath his eyelids, of being crouched behind the counter at the Kum n' Go out there on the highway, the overhead lights unnaturally bright and making everything look strangely like paper mache. His shoulder and elbow aches with the phantom memory of kickback, though when he looks down, his hands are empty. He never could clearly remember what he did with the gun afterwards.

There's blood, too, of course there's blood, even on the backs of his eyelids there's blood -- the steady slick spread of it across the linoleum in front of him, carrying with it dark-soaked chunks of unidentifiable flesh and dustbunnies from underneath the shelves, a memory he has replayed so often that if anyone should someday unravel his genetic code, they'll probably find it there right in the middle, dirt and dust and blood.

The slushie machine hums away in the background, the loud whine of crushing ice increasing in volume until he jerks awake, and it's not the slushie machine, it's the bus engine, gustily wheezing to a stop at the curb. The advertisement on the side declares the metro area buses to be 25% more energy efficient by running on a new ethanol formula, thanks to the environmentally-friendly policies of the Boston Department of Transportation.

Erica and Dustin used to sneeze at whenever they saw something like that, declaring themselves to be allergic to bullshit, and Mark glances automatically to his right side, but of course they aren't there.

He breathes in through his nose, cold air stinging, and tells himself he's imagining the sharp tang of copper.

He doesn't fall asleep at the bus stop after that.

 

- ☀ -

There's a bad moment when his mother tries to come upstairs to tell him that she and his father are going to go out to see the Christmas lights festival downtown, if he wants to join them, and finds the door to his bedroom locked shut. It startles her badly, because the Zuckerbergs have never been a family of locked doors before, not even when Mark was at his most obstinate and confrontational and moody. Even as a testosterone-poisoned teenager hating the world, deliberately keeping out his parents just wasn't something that crossed his mind.

He endures a single approximate heartbeat of hearing her voice do that when she calls his name through the door, and Mark rolls himself off the mattress, crossing the floor in order to lower the trapdoor.

"Mom," he says, and she releases the doorknob like it's hot enough to burn her, twisting around to look up at him, wide-eyed. There are streaks of pure silver in her messy hair, done up in a big style that never quite left the 80's, and he can't remember if they'd always been there.

"Honey," she breathes out, blinking like she's caught in a strong wind. "Why are you up in the attic?"

Instead of answering, he pushes the trapdoor down the rest of the way so that the ladder uncoils and touches the carpet.

"Oh," she says, after she climbs up, coming to stand beside him. The old floorboards creak with her every step, not quite weathered into silence yet. "This is ... I like what you did."

Everything they had in their attic had accumulated there in messy, disorganized spurts over the years: boxes full of their parents' old college textbooks, Mark and Randi's baby clothes, their Hebrew reading primers full of crooked letters and badly-done scripture illustrations, furniture and old belongings that they'd inherited after their grandmother passed away and didn't have the heart to give to charity (because nothing gathers up memories like your grandparents' things,) an old vacuum cleaner, a freeze box with a cord chewed clean through by mice.

All that's still there, only now it's been stacked all to one side, leaving the other side of the attic bare, except for the mattress that Mark's shoved up under the eaves. The only thing that followed him up here from his room is Erica's string of planet-shaped lights, his laptop, and a standing reading lamp with a long, bent neck, from which hangs his work coveralls and a couple spare sets of clothing on hangars.

"It's very ... Spartan," his mother decides. And, "I'll tell your father to wash some new sheets for you the next time he does laundry."

Mark nods, not bothering to tell her that he's already done that. Why would she expect this Mark to do laundry, when the old one had been content to let his parents do it for him? The Mark they expected to come home was not the one they got, but they like to forget, he supposes.

She makes a wistful noise, pulling her pastel-colored cardigan tighter around her. "I suppose it's for the best," she tells him. "A new start and all that?"

He nods again. He's glad he doesn't have to explain it to her, how his bedroom felt like the tomb of somebody deceased, how it was impossible to move from one end of the room to the other without feeling like he was disturbing something ageless and trapped in amber, a memorial of some kind.

"Oh, honey," and, her tone changing completely, his mother captures his hand in hers, holding it up to the light to inspect it. She frowns and grabs the other one; the lesions are identical on both, red welts opening up on the backs of his knuckles and the heels of his thumbs. "What have you done to your hands?"

He shrugs. "Work," he says, and her forehead creases.

The kids at St. George's like to use the bathrooms stalls as an unofficial kind of forum. Before going home for the weekend, Mark scrubs and bleaches down whole conversations done in graffiti and Sharpie and scratchy lines of ballpoint pen -- recent developments on what he assumes are television shows, song lyrics he'll find himself humming unconsciously on the bus home, dire warnings about tests from particular teachers, and so on -- and then the following Friday, he does it again. It's easiest without gloves because he can feel what he's doing, but it leaves his hands cracked and sore over the weekend.

His mother's bottom lip makes a frightful shape, and, suddenly very touched by her concern, he leans his weight into her, resting his cheek on the ball of her shoulder in apology.

"The Christmas lights festival," he prompts her. "Is Randi coming?"

"I think she's out with her boyfriend, actually," she says, and ticks her eyebrows up at the expression on his face. "What?"

"I don't like him," says Mark instantly, although he'd never actually met the guy. It's just weird, especially when you consider that when he left, Randi was thirteen, and now she's doing things Mark never expected he'd have to deal with his little sister doing, like developing relationships with people who have Y chromosomes. His mother's eyebrows just lift higher, so he elaborates, "He wants to go to Yale. I mean, please, why even bother."

It works. She laughs and gives him a sideways hug.

The lights festival over in the Cambridge area is exactly what he remembers it to be, both unexpectedly beautiful and a little haunting -- the bare branches of the trees are near-invisible in the dark, leaving the lights looking like they've been suspended in intricate midair whorls, colored in white and green and blue like a seastorm just making landfall. Mark doesn't have to ask to know where the inspiration for this year's design comes from, not with the half-moon curve of Earth Two clearly visible between the buildings.

He still doesn't know how to compartmentalize the experience, of waking up every day with the fresh shock of seeing a new planet strung up in the sky like a paper lantern -- a feeling in his stomach not unlike an astronaut tossed loose in weightless space, seeing the earthrise for the first time -- and realizing that it's just, like, old news for everyone else.

The prison yard hadn't been in the right position for any of them to get a clear view, so before he was released into general population, the only time Mark saw Earth Two was when they crated him and a couple other young offenders up and trucked them to a center on the other side of town to get yelled at for six hours by some big muscled army-types in an attempt to scare them straight or whatever, and Mark stretched his cuffs so hard he felt like he was going to come apart at the sockets in order to put his face to the window and catch glimpses of the planet as they drove.

Supposedly, in the beginning, it'd been this tiny blue-green thing, no bigger than the dot of a moving airplane, striking astronomers and astrophysicists speechless and leaving them dumbfounded, because where even had it come from?

It's much closer now, four years later, larger even than the sun, a haloed shape with an outline that's visible even through a cloud cover.

A lot of people believe that Earth Two is going to destroy them -- it's almost a logical thought, when you consider that Earth Two is getting closer where most objects in the universe are moving away. Both planets have mass, rotation, gravity. What happens when they collide? Because at this rate, it's looking kind of inevitable.

Mark sees those people sometimes, standing on the platform with their signs, warning others about the measures they should take to ensure redemption in the face of catastrophic destruction.

It's funny, because he remembers apocalypticism always seemed to come with a lot more yelling. Repent, repent, Lord Jesus, something something something, just ignore them. This wide-eyed, sort of downtrodden silence creeps him out, and he walks by them with his head down to stand further down the platform.

He doesn't know what to believe.

Randi comes up into the attic one day with a laptop problem she wants him to fix, her hair pulled up underneath a spring-colored scarf dotted with sequins, a white Macbook slim between her hands. She settles down onto the mattress next to him on the floor, passing it over, and he turns it over helplessly.

Dust motes swirl around her head as she pillows it on top of her knees. "Did you hear about SETI?" she asks finally.

"SETI," he echoes, and settles for popping out the laptop's battery, getting a look inside the casing.

After a moment, he goes to find a jeweler's screwdriver in a toolbox they'd inherited from the previous owners of the house, and returns to tighten some of the screws, because at least that way it looks like he's doing something. It's really handicapping, being so out of touch with something he used to love -- he has absolutely no idea how to work a Mac OS, but the body he can figure out. Mark has a maze-runner's brain.

"SETI," he says again. "Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence."

"Out of Mountain View, California, yeah."

"I know what they are. They listen for radio waves coming out of outer space, since mathematics and the wave spectrum are universal modes of communication."

"Right," she agrees. And then, "you really need a haircut. Did you cut it at all while you were inside?"

"No," he replies. "Hair just stops growing after awhile, you know. Each follicle has a maximum length it will grow to before it falls out. I would be willing to grow a shag carpet like yours, but much like the rest of me, my hair underachieves," and Randi's mouth pops open to immediately protest that Mark has never been an underachiever in his life, which is true, but not anything he wants to hear while being outsmarted by his little sister's laptop, so he continues quickly, "What about SETI?"

She lets herself be distracted. "They picked up radio waves from Earth Two," she says in a voice like gravity. "Not anything they can unscramble yet, but ..."

His hands still.

"But there are people there," he finishes for her.

She nods.

He leans back against the wall. "There's life on that planet. We're not --"

"I know," she goes. "I mean, we figured as much, since the formations on the continents look much like our own, down to the cities, but Mark. Mark, we could contact them."

On Monday, Earth Two is the only thing Luna and Jack want to talk about. The weather's been doing that bizarre thing where it can't quite decide whether it wants to be real winter or not, temperatures drifting tantalizingly close to above-freezing, and Luna's rubbing at her knees in a fairly obvious way.

Wordlessly, Mark pulls her cart from the back and starts filling the basin with mop water. He swirls it slowly, watching the iridescent gleam of soap shimmer over the surface, letting her words wash over him. His fingernails are peeling from where he forgot to wear gloves on Friday while bleaching (again,) so he picks at them.

Jack walks out before first bell, but he leaves the radio on. Some talk show crackles out, the host and a call-in going head-to-head about how it's an astronomical impossibility for there to even be another planet within the same orbital sphere, sharing a moon and sporting compatible atmosphere, much less a planet that's pretty much an exact replica of Earth, down to the cities and a developed civilization that's chattering as loudly as the girl's bathroom at lunch break.

Both the host and the call-in seem to be on the same page in that regard, but they're yelling at each other anyway. He supposes that's what talk shows do.

"I always forget you missed a lot of this in the beginning," Luna comments, watching Mark move to refill her bottle of window cleaner since he's already done his own.

She nods at the radio, and he nods back.

The Nelsons know he's a felon, of course -- it'd be kind of hard not to know, since Mark had to fill out more paperwork than is probably necessary to run a small European country just to prove he was fit to scrub toilets in some hoity-toity college prep school, thanks so much, bureaucracy.

The record's sealed since he was only seventeen at the time the alleged crime occurred, so they have no idea what he went to prison for.

Mark doesn't volunteer the information. He's found that "I fired a gun point-blank at a middle-aged couple and their son," is the kind of thing you only need to say once, and then the novelty wears off pretty much for the rest of your life.

He dreams bloody restless dreams, and he never forgets what it's like at those scare-you-straight sessions, standing with a bunch of other violent and fucked-up kids, most of them there on drug possession charges or battery-and-assault, and then there's the big guy in your face, breathing foul breath on you and demanding, What about you, Goldilocks? What are you going to do when you get out?

And Mark had cut him a look so hateful it felt like it was peeling off reels of flesh inside his own ribcage like stripping paint from a wall, and thought acidly, Not kill people, sir. But he said nothing.

Prison's supposed to make you hard, but all it did was make Mark quiet.

You also don't get a lot of news from the outside world, so you'll excuse Mark if he wasn't really up to date about Earth Two while serving four years in a four-by-eight cell.

 

- ☀ -

A giant smily face is carved into the seatback in front of him, half-overlayed by a spray-painted stencil of a Futurama character, and Mark sits by himself in the back of the bus and engages it in a staring contest.

The kids sitting a few rows ahead of him are being too loud for him to ignore, and he winds up watching them instead; five teenagers wearing the ties and plaid uniform skirts of one of the other Catholic schools in the area, which has a name that Mark doesn't know, on account of it being one of St. George's rival schools, and therefore the only names he hears in the hallways are derogatory derivatives of the real thing. They're laughing way too loud and too hard, with all the burst-loose boisterous joy of kids fresh from final exams, with nothing but winter break ahead of them.

He feels the sting of it sharpen into needle points underneath his ribs, because you never really feel as lonely as you do when you're surrounded by other people who are happy.

It takes four stops before they get off, still discussing some convoluted question they hadn't been expected and mostly just guessed on, sounding unconcerned in the way that students do when they know it's over.

In their wake, Mark leans his head against an advertisement for Clorox wipes and, feeling incredibly low, thinks that maybe it wouldn't be so bad, calling Dustin or Billy or Erica -- they'll probably be around for winter break. Maybe he could go see them, because right now, his desire to sit with them and laugh till soda came out his nose the way he used to is greater than his desire to never have to deal with them seeing him.

It's late afternoon, and Sy is finishing off the last of a burrito when Mark comes in, wiping his fingers with a napkin and picking at a spot of salsa on his tie.

He smiles, self-deprecating, when his attempts to draw Mark into small talk is just met with Mark clicking his tongue against his palette, producing a sort of glottal stop: he used to do it to Randi when they were kids, and without fail, it drove her to homicidal impulses.

"Mr. Zuckerberg," he says patiently, and with great effort, Mark tears his attention away from the planet model swinging lazily on Sy's desk. "What about your hobbies? No, really, I'm serious," he says, when Mark goes to tune him out again. He doesn't see how acting like a child in front of Sy is a disadvantage: murderer or not, Mark is still just barely of legal drinking age, and it would be nice if people remembered that. "I actually have to put this one in your file, so ..."

He frowns. Hobbies?

As if full-time employment isn't enough progress at it is? How many hoops is he expected to jump through before the county is convinced they've made a successful caricature of a functioning human being out of him?

Sy gestures with his pen. "What do you do when you're not at work? What do you do for fun?"

When he's not at work, he's usually up in the attic. With the exception of mealtimes, he makes a point of not seeing other people, and every time he thinks about getting up and picking up something to work on -- every time he pops the lid on his laptop, thinking today's the day he's going to get caught up -- the feeling of can't and too late and the humiliation that both those feelings have taken complete and utter mastery over him, that he isn't somehow stronger than that insidious part of him, drives him to roll over and try to sleep to get away from it.

He shrugs. Sy just looks at him for a moment, and then he flips the file shut without writing anything down.

"You know," he says, and his tone is gentle. Mark resolutely doesn't meet his eyes. "It doesn't have to happen immediately. I know adjusting to the real world and work is hard enough without demanding that you take up water polo or something," he chuckles weakly at his own joke. "Start small. Do something you think is fun. If you're not capable of fun, then do something important. It sounds trite, but," he shrugs. "It will make you feel better."

He doesn't say anything back, and eventually Sy lets him go.

A long hallway separates Sy's office from the stairs; it's a county building, so the granite and the marble columns are all older than the American Revolution, and there aren't anywhere near enough outlets, so extension cords are snaking every which way. Snow that's been trampled into slush soaks the mats and paints grey patterns across the floor, making everybody's shoes squeak as they walk by.

A man argues with a county official outside the unemployment office, and the rising volume catches Mark's attention as he passes them. His eyes snag across brown hair, swept up from a forehead with very thick eyebrows, and sense memory strikes him as hard and fatally as a hammer blow to the temple.

He stops dead in his tracks.

Inanely, he thinks, Why didn't anybody tell me you woke up?

In the next second, while Mark's still reeling, the man loses his temper.

"I have been in a coma for the past three years!" he yells, his vowels rounded and his consonants strange-sounding and mushy, like someone who has difficulties with a speech impediment. "That doesn't make me stupid or incapable!"

The woman regards him calmly. Her name, Mark's pretty sure, is Gretchen; she's in and out of Sy's office a lot, seemingly for the sole purpose of stealing his cup of coffee and sharing rueful looks with him over the filing cabinet, since the parole and unemployment divisions often go hand-in-hand.

"I'm aware of that, Mr. Saverin," she says. "However, with the state of the economy, the jobs --"

Whatever else she says, Mark doesn't stick around to hear. Without being entirely certain what happens to the intervening time, he finds himself standing outside on the curb, cars driving by close enough to splatter his feet with slush. The world, he's pretty sure, is falling down around him: the sun careening in a headlong rush for the ground, the sky burning, buildings crumpling in his peripheral.

Everything is screaming, screaming, screaming, and inside, very quietly, Mark starts to scream back.

Eduardo Saverin is awake.

 

- ☀ -

He walks home.

He knows the route, but after a while, he forgets, traipsing through the snow in fields he doesn't know, sun-crusted and hard and each footstep crunching.

Eventually, when the screaming dies down, he becomes aware of the fact that he is tired, and when that happens, he sits down right where he is.

He takes off his shoes and his socks because they're wet and he doesn't like the damp, clingy sensation, and then he takes off his coat and his shirt and his pants and his underwear and he stretches out on his back in the snow, naked as the dirt and the quiet growing things. He doesn't know how it became night, but the sky above is moonlit, midnight-colored, dotted with stars and moon and the heavy monolithic curve of Earth Two. He stares at it for a long time, imagining he can see the movement of the clouds skittering across its surface.

Are there really people there?

Are there children chasing soccer balls on playgrounds?

Are there gardeners sweating under wide-brim hats? Students hunkered inside, stressed and ignoring the sunlight completely?

Is there a boy looking back at him from another Earth?

Is that boy's parents alive?

Eventually, it becomes too much effort to shiver, too much effort to stargaze, cold and crystalline and preternaturally still, and Mark closes his eyes. The ice on his skin isn't even painful anymore.

Everything has become blessedly quiet.

 

- ☀ -

This is what he'll never forget.

The day began, for him, in the afternoon, when Erica let herself in through the open screen door, and he heard her chorus out a greeting to his father, who was squinting through his bifocals at a Google search for the lottery numbers on the family desktop. He doesn't remember anything about the day before that; it's like he only began to exist the moment he looked up when his girlfriend drummed her knuckles on his doorframe, already smiling before she even saw him.

He spent the afternoon with her and didn't even complain that much, because she laced her fingers with his and told him that move-in for Harvard students was tomorrow (like he didn't already know) and school for her didn't start for another two weeks, and who knows how busy they were going to be? So she just wanted a lazy, golden day with him before they went to college, wasn't that crazy, and he curled the ends of her long hair around one finger and smiled at her when she laughed.

His shift started at eleven, and he'd been running late, because Erica wanted to keep him with her and kiss his mouth until there was no one else around except for the waving cattails and their stupid suburb streetlight, clicking on-and-off red.

"Why did they schedule you for the graveyard shift right before your orientation?" she asked him, resting her head on the ball of his shoulder.

"Because I tell them these things and then they nod at me and go ahead and schedule me whenever they feel like it, because I need the money and they know it, so they get away with it."

"That's not fair. Especially not when you can think circles around your managers."

He shrugged and kissed her again, tracing his fingers up the ladder of her spine through her summer tunic. He definitely wasn't going to get there by eleven, but he'd been passive-aggressively trying to quit for awhile, so whatever.

"You know that's one of my favorite things about you, right?" Erica pulled away to tell him, smiling fondly.

"That I'm smarter than everybody else?" he lifted his eyebrows.

"But see, you never really act like it."

He blinked at her. "I don't need to prove anything. It's enough to know that I am."

She had laughed at that, he remembers, which baffled him and pleased him at the same time, because he didn't realize he said something funny, but who doesn't love making their girlfriend laugh? He accepted the kiss she gave him for it, feeling accomplished and a little proud.

Wrapping her arms around his ribs, she buried her face against his sternum and then she had said (technically, her last words to him were, "Shalom, Mark!", but he's always going to remember this as the last thing Erica Albright ever said to him,) "Don't let Harvard change you, okay? I'm scared you're going to become somebody I don't recognize."

He forgets what he said in return. Something inane, probably, like, please, like Dustin's going to let that happen. He's too attached to me as I am.

He'd been late to work, but happy despite the passive-aggressive chewing-out he got. He sat propped up on his stool, reading I Am The Messenger behind the cash register as the neon-green clock ticked away the early morning hours. His manager went home at midnight, taking the key to the lockbox with her. The service station he worked at fell half-way between the airport and Boston proper, so sometimes he could even tell when the international flights arrived, based on who came in with rental cars to pick up metro maps and then paid in hundred dollar bills.

They got robbed a lot, which is part of why Mark didn't have the key to the lockbox that night.

It was 2:31 AM, and the only other people in the store had been this family -- man, wife, and son. They were all very nicely dressed, if a little rumpled around the edges, and talking in a language Mark didn't recognize, the woman and the son both trilling as they filled up identical slushies from the Freeze-eeze machine, and the man smiling over at them occasionally, fond. These are the details Mark will never forget, because he was watching them (here for university move-in day, probably, and he looked at the boy and wondered if he was going to be a classmate at Harvard, potentially, thrilling with the thought that he was one of them,) and folding down the paperback cover of his book and thinking about the Microsoft offer he had sitting in an e-mail back home, when someone dressed in a Halloween skeleton costume walked in and pulled a gun on him.

"He pulled the gun first," he tells the cops, over and over again, because that detail he was sure of. The guy came at him first, grinning white skull pulled over his face and eyes sunk far back behind it, with a .9mm in his hand.

"And then?"

"The usual, I guess. Told me to empty the cash drawer, hand him everything, and if I tripped the silent alarm, he was going to make mincemeat out of my brains."

There hadn't been much in the cash drawer. $100s went in the lockbox automatically, and Mark didn't have the key, remember? The best he could offer was three hundred, tops, most of that bundled into twenties and fives, which he explained to the robber, very calmly.

And then.

And then the guy spun on the family, the father, the mother, the son, and leveled the gun at them. Desperately, he demanded the watches on their wrists, the jewels on the mother's neck, her wedding ring, all the cash in their pockets, his voice terrifically loud and booming and intimidating as fuck and Mark felt it down in the center of his chest, that tight knot of terror, because you go into a service station and you rob it and you leave the customers alone, that's how it works. That's how it's always worked.

He remembers the way the father inflated, like he was going to pick a fight or start a lecture, just who does this guy think he is trying to demand anything of them, when the mother put a hand on his arm and he looked at her and saw the fear writ large on her face. Mutely, he unclasped his watch.

The son edged sideways, open calculation on his face, telegraphing his moves so plainly that Mark knew he was going to do something stupid.

He'd tripped the silent alarm as soon as the robber turned his back, but help wasn't going to arrive fast enough, and there was a gun by the lockbox.

"The managers didn't trust us with the key to the big money," he told the cops. "But they trusted us with firearms. You have to understand -- the guy was going to hurt somebody. The kid was going to play hero and, like, tackle him or something and he was going to shoot --" he doesn't know why he kept on calling him that, because he knows the "kid" is two years older than him: Eduardo Saverin, born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, nineteen years old and just about to start his sophomore year at Harvard; Mark knows these details like he knows the backs of his own teeth. He will never forget them.

"So you opened fire first?"

And Mark confessed, "Yes."

Until the day he dies, some part of Mark never leaves that moment.

He closed his eyes, took the gun in both hands, swung it around, and fired twice.

The first bullet grazed the side of the robber's head, spraying blood and fabric everywhere, and went straight through Manuel Saverin, shattering his sternum and shredding his heart. He died instantly.

The second bullet took Eduardo Saverin's jaw clean out of its socket, which slowed it down enough that it only passed through Susenna Saverin's lung before lodging in her ribs. She died too quickly for the ambulance to get to her, but it wasn't immediate. She had time to lie on the linoleum and gasp through the blood filling her throat and look at the discounted sweet buns on the shelf, and Mark had time to watch it happen, the sticky red pool spreading out from underneath her, the floating bits of dismembered flesh and drowning dust bunnies.

Eduardo was put into a medically-induced coma to save his life, and he survived.

Mark Zuckerberg served four years in prison for involuntary manslaughter.

 

- ☀ -

 

When he wakes up, it's to a white even brighter than the snow, and the pain of it lances sharp behind his eyeballs.

He slants his eyes against it, shifting around in protest, and in the next moment, becomes aware of two things: one, that he's currently wrapped up in aluminum like a baked potato about to be popped into the microwave; two, there's an arm draped across his chest, weighing him down.

He makes a questioning noise, and Randi sits straight up.

The hospital bed creaks alarmingly under their combined weight. She's too long and too lanky to be able to comfortably share it with him, but fortunately he's a rather small person, so she's somehow managed to make them both fit, tucking her limbs into the spaces and narrow crevasses around his. Her face and arms are creased with bright red marks from where she's used Mark's aluminum blanket as a pillow.

He doesn't need to ask. She responds to the look on his face by telling him, flatly, "You took all your clothes off and laid down in the snow and almost froze to death. An old lady found you when she took her trash out early. She thought you were a corpse."

"Oh," he says, faint.

"Mark," and her voice sharpens hard, reprimanding, and Mark knows her anger is real, just like he can feel the terrified trembling of her hands like she's on a tightrope, and knows that's real too. "Mark, you were in Dover. Why were you all the way out in Dover?"

He blinks a little at that. The baked potato wrap makes sense -- it's as insulating as newspaper, and would have warmed him up gradually. Anything heavier or warmer, and the abrupt change in temperature would have sent him back into shock; he remembers reading that in some article National Geographic did on Antarctic explorers.

Dover, though? Did he really walk all the way out to Dover?

Maybe it isn't surprising. Mark would have walked a lot farther than that to escape the way Eduardo shouted, it doesn't make me stupid!, his words blurring hard as if his whole mouth was numb with beestings.

He didn't have a speech impediment before Mark shot him in the face.

With a sigh, his sister rearranges herself back into position next to him, wrapping herself as close as possible, like she could lay all her bones along his.

"I saw the kid," he tells her, and she makes a small, startled noise. She doesn't need to ask who he's talking about, and she doesn't interrupt, because he's probably never going to have the strength to ever say this again. "They rebuilt his jaw. He sounds kind of funny, but other than that, you can barely tell."

She turns her face against his neck and doesn't say anything for a long moment. Her hair is loose, caught up in heavy golden whorls around her head and shoulders, and it's a little greasy at the roots, like she'd been pulled straight out of bed without a shower. The ends keep on tickling his nose with every inhale.

He wonders if she would still love him if he sneezed on her. Murder wasn't enough to shake her faith in him, but who knows, people get kind of weird around boogers.

Finally, she says, with this voice that is such an awful little thing, "Please don't ever do that again. You really -- you really scared us, Mark."

He flinches. "I didn't mean --"

"No, no," she says immediately, putting a hand over his chest through the slit in his aluminum wrapping and pressing down, like she can ground him. "No, that's what the suicide guy said. He said that when you're in a place that dark, you never think about the people you're leaving behind, and it's wrong of us to try and make it about us. It's not your fault, just ... just let us know the next time you feel like sleeping naked in the snow, okay?"

He wishes his arms were free, so he could wrap them around her, the way his mother told him to do whenever they fought and he made Randi cry. Give her a hug, Mark, all she wants is to hang out with her big brother, okay?

"Yeah," he goes, and stretches his neck so that he can press a kiss to her forehead.

 

- ☀ -

 

School reconvenes on January 3, because Catholic schools don't believe in freedom, happiness, or giving anybody a chance to recover from the week-long hangover extravaganza that is New Year's Eve.

The Nelsons had gone to visit their daughter and her husband in upstate New York, and when he comes into the custodial office, shaking fresh snowfall out of his hair, they present him with a big bag of salt water taffy with the air of those who have absolutely no idea what to get you as a gift, so you wind up with something they spotted at a gas station on the drive back. Mark was born in New York: he's pretty sure salt water taffy isn't their specialty.

"Hey, thanks, guys," he says, startled and helplessly touched. He didn't get anything for them, but he pops the taffy bag open and offers them first dibs.

Luna doesn't even hesitate, fishing in for a peppermint one, but then she frowns and grabs his wrist, turning it so that she can look at his fingers. The look on her face reminds him of how his mother reacted, the first time she caught a look at the bleach sores on his knuckles. His fingers are wrapped in clean white gauze, but what isn't covered is clearly raw and cracked, ridged with sticky ointment. They are the last parts of him to heal. They hurt, which the doctor mentioned was a good sign.

Trust me, Mr. Zuckerberg, she'd said. This is one of those instances where we could rather you feel pain than the alternative.

"What happened?" Luna asks, reaching for his other hand. It's in a similar state.

"Burned my fingers on the cupcake tins," he deadpans at her.

Jack barks laughter in the background, but Luna gives him a look like she's about to call his bullshit.

Mark unwraps one of the neapolitan taffies and pops it into his mouth. "It's just frostbite, Luna," he tells her. "It's okay. I haven't lost any, look, no blackened stubs or anything," he wiggles his fingers at her, then offers the taffy bag to her husband. He digs around until he gets to one of the cinnamon ones at the bottom, and Mark tries not to scowl. He likes those, and it hadn't looked like there were an overabundance of them in the bag. "I'll just ... have really cold hands for the rest of my life."

She clucks at him concernedly.

Honestly, he considers himself lucky that nerve damage in his fingers was the only lasting effect of having gone to sleep in the snow. It's more surprising that it hasn't happened sooner, with the way he used to always go outside in Massachusetts winter armed with nothing but a hoodie and a pair of flip flops, always trusting other people to have warm places and cars he could duck into. Prison cured him of that one.

A moment later, Luna turns around to check her supply cart, changing the subject and bringing up how big and empty her daughter's house looks and how much she, Luna, wishes she would fill it with spawn.

(She doesn't actually say "spawn", of course. That's Mark's interpretation of the events.)

"You know she's never really liked kids," Jack inputs mildly, his titanium knee propped up on a chair to rest it before he's on it all day.

"I know that," Luna waves it away, like it wouldn't ever occur to her not to put her daughter's interests first. Mark understands the implicit notion that the daughter has never heard Luna's wishes and never will, because she doesn't want kids and Luna would never make her uncomfortable by bringing it up. "I just ... It always just seemed like it would be one of those rewards you got when you survived life's bullshit and got to old age. You'd get to see your grandkids."

"When we retire to Florida, we can spoil everybody else's grandkids," Jack says stoutly, and Luna flashes him a smile so fond that Mark quickly busies himself with the mop water, feeling like he's intruding.

If, throughout the day, they turn up and good-naturedly nudge him over just as he's about to start on something really hard, something he wasn't looking forward to doing with his hands in the state that they are, before he can even ask ... well, the Nelsons are nice people, and he isn't 100% sure what he's done to deserve their kindness.

After work, he goes back into the furnace room and picks out one of the mason jars sitting on the shelves.

(Why they have this many mason jars, he isn't really sure, since canning peaches isn't really a common high school pasttime, and he ... isn't really sure what else you're supposed to do with mason jars.)

He rinses the dust out of it and tucks it deep into his pocket, then steps out into the chill afternoon light and cuts across the soccer field.

On the other side of the hill from St. George's, across the street from the property line, is the train station. There's an organic smoothie shop-juice bar combo strategically located inside the terminal: it's the best thing to happen to St. George's since no-uniform day became the tradition for the first Fridays of every month, and during the warmer parts of the year, the place is packed with high school students drinking wheatgrass shakes and munching on spinach spanakopitas. In the winter, they offer cinnamon-spiced hot chocolate made with fair trade cocoa from Sierra Leone, and students cluster together in chairs that wobble and make faces at each other with hot chocolate mustaches.

They have this environmentally-friendly idea that, every time you bring back your mason jar for recycling, you get a dollar off your drink. They don't use any paper products, not even napkins -- all their drinks come in the jars they recycle.

It's a cutesy, homey place, done up in rich forest greens that fade into pale blue towards the ceiling like it's trying to be reminiscent of some shady woodland glen. It's clustered with mismatched tables, tucked around bookshelves that offer rentals on books about oxygen treatments and healthy eating and mastering Tibetan meditation, and there's a bar counter from which you can watch the employees fix up your drink.

When Mark slips inside, fishing his jar back out of his pocket, he's greeted with the sight of at least thirteen different people, all wearing green alien masks. They're nonchalantly sitting cross-legged in their chairs, facing the wall like children in time-out, and from what he can see, they're all drinking the exact same thing.

Blinking, he sidles up to the counter and tilts his head questioningly at the barista.

Propping her elbows up, she leans in to whisper to him, "I think there's an LARP going on. You missed it earlier: one of the Martians made eye contact with one of the other Martians and they had to go outside to duel it out."

He blinks at her some more.

She shrugs back, like, nerds, man, what are you going to do?

"I thought LARPs usually involved, like, D&D and maybe a Renaissance element," says Mark, whose knowledge of live-action roleplaying only extends as far as the video footage that Dustin got once at a sci-fi convention in Balitmore. He'd tried to get Mark to go with him to that (presumably so he could dress him up like a Stormtrooper and then ask people if they thought Mark looked a little short,) but while Dustin has been Mark's best friend since they were eleven, there are some indignities no man will endure.

"No, LARPs can be anything, really -- and besides, with Earth Two hovering around, how can anyone focus on anything other than --" she waves a hand at the backs of the role-players in their masks.

"Martians," they finish together, and share a conspiratorial smile.

The barista's name is Christy. Mark makes it a habit to come in when she's on shift: she works closing Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, because she's a full-time student and scheduled all her classes to be Tuesday/Thursday. Sometimes she'll have her textbooks spread out in the back, getting blueberry stains on the corners of the pages and making her coworkers quiz her on terminology, striking up a rhythm to it as they cut rinds of melon and grind up almonds, mason jars clinking together like windchimes.

She's a Harvard student -- because that's just how Mark's luck works -- and she tried to do the fancy corporate ladder thing for exactly four months before she met Alan, said "fuck that," and got a job making strange smoothie concoctions that she bribes Mark into trying. In exchange for having the nondiscriminatory tastebuds of a twenty-one year old ex-con, she gives him tidbits of material from her classes. She's a CS major and when Mark got put behind bars, all he knew about Steve Jobs vaguely correlated to games of Number Crunchers on a temperamental old Mac in Dustin's basement, so it's the strangest feeling, something almost nostalgic, listening to Christy talk OS with the fluency of a native language. That used to be him.

He sets the mason jar down on the counter, next to a display of quippy buttons that a local artist is selling (the one that catches his eye has the shop's logo and then: "I just wanted a milkshake. Why are all these boys in my yard?") and she makes a show of holding it up to the light and inspecting it.

"Hey," he protests.

She gives him a wide-eyed look, unrepentant. "I know you keep the brains of your victims in these. That can't be sanitary."

"I use bigger jars for the brains," he deadpans back, and she grins and goes, "the usual?"

"Surprise me," he agrees.

Today, she's wearing a black tunic that's more of a dress, held together in the back by a lacy white pattern etched in the shape of vertebrae, going down her spine. He's pretty sure she isn't wearing pants: her tights have multiple runs in them, laddering that exposes bits of her shins and thighs, all the way up to the tunic's hem. She ties different colored beads onto the ends of her dreadlocks every day to match what she's wearing, and today, they're shaped like crystal stars, see-through and glassine and clinking with every step.

The first time Mark came in, it was during lunch break, and the only people in the shop were a couple of St. George's kids using their senior privileges to leave campus. He had no idea what he wanted, so he just shrugged at Christy's every suggestion, until she lost patience with him and grabbed a jar off the shelf and said, "sit down, I'll make something for you, and you're not going to complain about what you get."

When she came back, it was with a lurid green hot cider that was so puckeringly sour that Mark almost choked on his first swallow.

"What --" he got out. The cider stung his nose, and he coughed.

"It's an appletini, Your Highness," Christy told him, completely blithe. "That will be $5.19, please."

He fished out his wallet and paid, then sat there at the counter and determinedly drank the rest. She glanced over at him every now and then, eyebrows raised, and Mark gave her his best poker face in return until the sour apple cider was gone.

"Do you always try to poison your customers?" he wanted to know, when she came back over to recycle his jar from him.

"Only the ones that grunt at me like cavemen," she retorted. So he came back the next day after he finished work, and she made him a smoothie that was on such an extreme end of sweet that it left his teeth aching for the rest of the night. Between the two of them, they test the boundaries of good taste, and even have managed to come up with a few things that the shop might want to put on the permanent menu.

After this had been going on for about two weeks, she tilted her head at him in consideration one day and said, "You know, if this was two years ago, I would totally be dragging you into the bathroom for sex right now," and when Mark sneezed yerbe mate out his nose in shock, she frowned at him thoughtfully and continued "-- do you give cunnilingus? You've got a tongue like you'd be good at giving cunnilingus."

"Nngnhnn," Mark managed.

She waved him off. "Doesn't matter. I'm trying out that monogamy thing, and I'm actually not that bad at it, so we'll see how that goes," and then she calls Alan over to introduce them.

Alan works at the shop too, his midday shift overlapping with her closing shift usually around the time Mark stops in, so Mark's seen him unloading crates in the back and cleaning out the blenders, but he hasn't actually spoken to him. Christy's boyfriend is a willowy, almost effeminate man who's even shorter than Mark, a trait that endears him to Mark almost immediately. He has snakebite piercings in his lower lip and about twelve brightly-colored Live Strong bracelets around his wrists, all for different causes.

Today, he sidles up to Mark, rubbing Purell into his hands and asking in his softspoken way, "Did you hear about that essay contest?"

Mark tilts his head.

"Yeah. Supposedly, you enter this essay contest online and you can win a seat on the shuttle they're going to send to Earth Two in the summer."

"But we don't really know what's over there."

Alan looks at him. "Isn't that why you would go?"

"For all we know, they could all be like these guys." He jerks his thumb over his shoulder at the LARPers in their masks, who are slowly trickling out to start their next assignment, still being very careful not to make eye contact with each other, the way you don't make eye contact with snarling junkyard dogs.

"Maybe." He snaps his fingers. "Space Adventures! I was trying to remember the name of the company that was running the contest. Sean Parker founded it with the help of SETI and they're putting together a pioneer program. It's not that far a distance to send a shuttle -- Earth Two is closer than the moon at this point, and we've put people on the moon before, supposedly -- but it's like you said, we simply don't know what's over there. Science has been completely useless in terms of explaining why that planet is there, so everybody's second-guessing the calculations as to how to put a spacecraft down."

Alan is a physics major at Harvard and hasn't specialized yet, and he gets the same starry-eyed look when he's talking about astronomy that Erica used to get about cantering in the synagogue or Mark himself got about giving Microsoft the middle finger, so he continues on in a soft babble, musingly, while Christy delivers a tray of hot chocolate to some junior girls in the back, chunks of dark brownie showing through the glass jars like fireflies, but Mark's stuck on the earlier part of his sentence.

"Sean Parker?" he echoes, frowning. That's the last name he ever expected to hear. "What does Sean Parker know about space travel? He's just an Internet music mogul."

"But a rich one," Christy pipes up from behind him. "Have you ever tried telling rich people what they can and cannot do?"

She circles the counter, and Alan touches her ribs when she drifts into range, trying to get her attention with the familiarity of people who are completely comfortable with each other's presence.

"We are entering that essay contest, right?" he asks her.

"Of course we are." She glances over her shoulder at Mark. "What about you? Sound like something you're interested in?"

Right, because felons are totally acceptable candidates to be astronauts. "I highly doubt I'm their type," he hedges.

"It's open to the average citizen," Alan pipes up. "They're very clear about that on their website. They want anyone willing."

Mark makes a noncommital noise in the back of his throat, and lets Alan and Christy talk themselves in circles about what they're going to mention in their submission essay ("the word limit is 500, sweetheart," Christy interjects gently, and Alan looks pained, cut off mid-saga,) and waits for whatever mess of fruit and flavor she's going to put in a jar for him today.

Later, when Sy regards him pointedly over the tops of his bifocals, Mark offers, cutting right through a discussion about salary, "I have friends now."

"Good," says Sy, and presses on.

 

- ☀ -

 

Mark thought he would have to do something crafty to get Eduardo Saverin's address, like remote access his way into the Suffolk county DMV (he's out of practice, but hacking isn't that hard once you've done it once or twice,) or find some way to sneakily lift a file from Gretchen's office. He doesn't think this is what Sy meant when he said "get a hobby," but.

In reality, it's a lot simpler than that: the Saverins are in the phone book.

He lives way far south, in a tiny coastal town that Mark has paid approximately zero attention to in his entire life, and it looks like it doesn't have anything more than a co-op, a post office, a couple churches, and more "historic" inns (cue Dustin and Erica's allergies) than people, which kind of explains why Eduardo needed to come all the way up to the unemployment office in Boston. The decision to go requires absolutely no aforethought, and on Friday, after work, he gathers up all his loose change, pulls his hood up over his hair, and walks down to the train station.

He has company along the way; a couple of freshmen keep pace with him, walking along the low, stone wall that gates St. George's property on the other side of the soccer field. They have their arms out, wobbling hilariously in their gangly, newfound bodies, like they're on stilts.

"Hey, MZ," one of them calls down, and it takes Mark a moment to realize that they're talking to him. The custodial staff are invisible, nameless, not-people -- that's how it works. He's not used to kids addressing him like he's a real person. "What did you do to your hands?"

He glances down, as if he expects to find something else at the ends of his wrists rather than his own hands, the bandages around his fingers now limned in grime and peeling off from a day's work.

"Too much jerking off," he says casually, and finds himself grinning at the way their eyes go wide, like nobody outside of their little group of friends had ever joked about that with them before. Mark's seen what they try to pass as Sex Ed in an institution that's pressed to be conservative religious. Maybe they think they're the only ones. Before they can come up with a response, he crosses the street. He thinks about ducking into the juice bar, but Christy swapped shifts with someone else and getting a drink without her colorful commentary isn't appealing enough to make him stop.

He takes the Red Line all the way down to the Quincy station, and from there, he waits at the bus shelter. The transfer costs 25c more than he's expecting, which might put him out of a return ticket, and the buses here mostly definitely do not run on ethanol, hissing and wheezing at every stop.

The route is a block off the schedule they had posted in the shelter, but Mark has a maze runner's brain and he isn't worried.

All around, the trip takes a little under two hours, and Massachusetts in the wintertime means that the sun is mostly set by the time he gets there. It's colder out here, by the sea, and he hunches his shoulders against the wind. There's a one-lane coastal road, snaking along the dunes that overlook the surf, and branching off of it, a gravel road, guarded by a mailbox with "Saverin" stenciled into the side, the letters a burnt gold color and beginning to peel.

He isn't entirely sure what he's doing here.

He wants to know what it's like, he supposes. Arguably, out of the four of them, Eduardo is the only one that survived: his parents are dead and Mark is the pathetic skeletal remains of a functioning person, so maybe it's important for him to see what happens after you live. It's the hardest part, living.

He stands there at the end of the gravel path, looking up at the house, and his heart is pounding, like he's about to go on stage or about to meet a date for the first time.

It's obviously not the same, but it's the closest parallel he can draw to how he's feeling right now, his heart going hummingbird fast inside his rib cage and his stomach knotting itself up with nerves. It really does feel like he's about to meet a long-distance lover, or meet an actor from a movie he's never been able to forget. That's how often Eduardo has been in his thoughts.

It looks like a vacation home. Easterly windows face the sunrise, and the siding is as white as a church's, peeling from decades of exposure to harsh, salty sea air. The yard is completely overrun, and to reach the front porch, Mark has to wade through grasses high as his hips, his outstretched palms skating over the fuzzy tops of the cattails.

On one side of the house, he catches a brief glimpse of an oil-barrel trash can, rimmed with ash from having been used as a fire pit. Next to is a bench, long-abandoned and bent into the shape of a butterfly, whimsically designed and grey-colored as a stormy sea.

He's still looking at it, feeling something aching underneath his sternum that he has no name for, when somebody behind him says:

"Can I help you?"

Mark doesn't quite jump clean out of his skin, although not for lack of trying. He spins around, and for one low, blow to the gut moment, he thinks that he was wrong, that this isn't who he thought --

And then Eduardo Saverin takes a step closer, shielding his eyes from the sun.

Mark's breath catches in his throat, which is the only thing that stops him from blurting out, I knew they fixed your face!

They did: they completely reconstructed Eduardo's jaw, and they did it beautifully. Looking at him, you can't tell, not immediately -- it's in the stilted movement of his mouth when he speaks, the strange puckering pull of a very thin scar that bisects his left cheek. Mark can't look away from it, because he remembers the mess of bone fragment, flesh, and teeth his bullet had torn in Eduardo's face.

He had four years in prison to memorize it.

"Hello?" Eduardo ticks his eyebrows up impatiently, then flinches and pulls the teal-colored beanie cap he's wearing down further on his brow. Mark catches sight of the bloodshot streaks in his eyes and realizes that he's hungover. It's five o'clock, and he's hungover. "Do you want something?"

"Um," goes Mark, startled back into himself. He ducks his head down, mind racing. He hadn't been expecting this. He hadn't expected to actually have to talk to Eduardo. How do you prepare for something like that? What do you say? Hey, I heard you woke up and I wanted to come over and apologize for murdering your parents, please don't be angry?

He stutters uselessly for another moment, and Eduardo huffs out an impatient noise.

Mark tugs impulsively at the fabric of his bleach-stained coveralls, and then suddenly knows what he's going to say.

He looks up and lies through his teeth, "Hi. Mr. Saverin. I'm here on behalf of ... of Merry Maids, the Boston division. We're looking at expanding our clientele, and I'm here to offer you a free trial of our cleaning services --" He fumbles to a halt, because Eduardo's instantly shaking his head, moving like he's going to brush past him and continue up the gravel path to the house.

Then he stops, and gives Mark another look.

"... you're a maid?" he goes, speech laboring in a cumbersome way that is half an effect of the alcohol and half an effect of the wound.

Mark blinks once, twice. "Merry Maids is an equal opportunity employer," he offers blithely.

Eduardo gives him a once-over, head to toe. Mark momentarily wishes he'd taken a pick to his hair or something.

He then shrugs and steps aside.

"All right, then," he mumbles, gesturing for Mark to follow him. "My house could use it, who am I kidding. Just let me know if you need to burn the place down, I'd rather not be inside when you do."

"Ha," is all Mark can manage in response to that.

They climb the porch steps and Eduardo lets them in. From the unshaven, hungover ruin that is the house's owner, Mark had a vague idea of what he was going to find inside. It's that, and more: the front door opens into a large space that, in another life, would be friendly and airy, light pastel-colored walls and matching furniture, the kitchen tile a dark Spanish blue offset by the light formica-topped counters. But now, the shades are all drawn, plunging the house into the same dark, dank feeling of an underground cave. It smells like stale alcohol and rot, and neither of those things are Mark's imagination.

Eduardo, Mark realizes with the sudden crush of defeat, isn't surviving. He isn't surviving at all.

He stands in the doorway, uncertain as to whether or not to take off his shoes. He's fighting the voice in the back of his mind that sounds a lot like his parole officer's, saying, don't follow somebody bigger and angrier than you into their house! He wonders if now is when he should say that he's just kidding, there's no trial, and flee, or if he's going to have to keep up the charade.

"I'm assuming you're available today?" Eduardo asks, and Mark's head jerks in a nod before he can think about it. "Good. See that cabinet right there?" he points in the direction of the kitchen. "There's a mop and a bucket in there. You can start in here." He begins to walk away, and then adds, almost as an afterthought, "I'd really appreciate it."

Then he leaves Mark alone.

Mark obediently gathers up the mop and bucket and sort of hovers in the middle of the kitchen until he hears the soft whumph of Eduardo's body setting into what sounds like a sofa in the next room. Carefully, he cranes his neck around the doorframe to check, and sure enough, in what looks like a TV room, Eduardo's curled up on his side against the cushions, beanie pulled down over his eyes like a sleep mask. In the gloom, what's visible of his face looks colorless and corpse-like, and the table in front of him is cluttered with thin bottles whose brands Mark recognizes even from a distance.

Breathing out through his nose, trying to dispel the panic that's still coursing hot in his veins, Mark sets the mop and bucket aside and tip-toes for the door. He curls his fingers around the doorknob and starts to turn it as slowly as he thinks he can get away with, so it doesn't make a noise when he makes his escape.

He really needs to get out of here.

In the other room, Eduardo shuffles around, the sofa creaking under his weight, and Mark stops.

He settles back onto his heels, and looks left and right, truly taking in Eduardo's house for the first time, because ...

Because he lost the chance to make something out of his life, to build something and stick his name on it and to never let anybody take that pride from him. He never got a chance to tell Microsoft to suck it, they can't have his p2p music program, and he never got a chance to go to Harvard and surround himself with people just as clever and driven as he was. Mark Zuckerberg's life, for all intents and purposes, is over. The most he will ever amount to will probably be the head of maintenance at St. George's Academy, and he'll be happy with that. He really will.

But right here, right now ... this he can do. Mark may be responsible for ruining Eduardo Saverin's life, but maybe he can do something to make it just a little bit better.

He takes a deep breath, and turns around.

Dishes first, he decides -- you always do the dishes first, they're the most important of the household items to keep clean, and the quickest to get dirty again. He touches his wrist, and yes, he does have a rubber band there, so he peels it off and uses it to gather his hair up and tie it back in a ponytail so that it's off his neck. He makes a mental note to steal some of Randi's ponytail holders later.

Then he gets to work.

 

- ☀ -

 

So this is what Mark does:

Every Friday afternoon, after the Nelsons let him go for the weekend, he makes the commute out to the coast to clean the Saverins' house. Jack and Luna both seem to be laboring under the delusion that he has some kind of social life, which is cute, but considering he utilizes teachers' free periods to his advantage to get their rooms clean and finishes all of his assigned duties by the time school lets out, they can't actually do anything to stop him.

He never really intended on going back after that first meeting, but Mark started a project and god, he hates leaving projects unfinished; it's like having an itch in that one spot in the middle of your back that you can never crane your arm around to reach.

So the following week, he raids the stock room for extra supplies to make a basic cleaning kit, and makes a quick run by his house for the things St. George's would probably frown upon him stealing. Randi's in the kitchen when he blazes through, working on something that involves an entire fruit platter and, weirdly, waffle cones, her iPod in a dock by her elbow.

She lifts her eyebrows at him. "I thought you were done with work," she comments, watching as he zips his coveralls up to his throat, fishing the hood of his sweatshirt out from under his collar. The bucket at his feet is mostly full.

"I am," he says. "Well, with the high school. I got ... another job, kind of."

"Kind of?" she echoes. It looks like she's making fruit sundaes, almost -- arranging the fruit inside the waffle cones so that they look like ice cream cones, filled with slices of kiwi and pineapple and liberal on the blueberries.

"Yeah," he says. Then, "Hey, can I take some of those."

He has to go back twice, first for seran wrap and second because he can't remember seeing toothpicks in any of the Saverins' drawers (there's really no other way to eat a fruit cone, except to spear them out,) and he leaves one on the porch of the lady in the corner house, because it had been one of her crying days and she could probably use a whimsical gift today.

Eduardo, when he finally drags himself downstairs to open the door to Mark's knocking, just kind of gives him a look that Mark can't identify. "Do you all usually carry fruit platters with you?" he wants to know, voice raspy. "Is that a Merry Maid thing?"

"Thanks for hiring me," Mark returns, blithe, and passes over the plate of fruit cones.

Mortifyingly, his hands are shaking -- his body is strung up as tight as piano wire, caught on a fear response, and he can't control it. He doubts he will ever feel normal around Eduardo; his heart thrumming underneath his skin, double-time, like it's trying to live both their lives for them.

Here's the thing, though: once he gets a really good look around, Mark discovers that he really, really loves Eduardo's house.

It's a two-story built in the old New England style, with a stately, unassuming exterior and an interior that twists in every unexpected direction, like a smaller version of St. George's. There are all sorts of little rooms tucked into places where he least expects them to be; small studies and storage and linen closets and a library, bedrooms and bathrooms and a widow's walk overlooking the sea. He finds one on the first day that you can only access by going through the pantry, a room that he thinks used to be a solarium, except now it's just filled with a dozen dead plants still in their pots.

His favorite is the upstairs bathroom. Its walls are dark, oceanic blue, matched by a seahorse-shaped toothbrush holder and a bath mat cut into a coral reef design. There's a collection of short fiction by the toilet that makes him smile, Eduardo's name printed neatly in the inside cover, and the shower curtain highlights the progress of the Paleolithic age, as determined by various fossil remains.

Eduardo catches him while he's sniffing the soaps, so he puts the bar down and says, "I like your bathroom," and Eduardo, who is picking small bits of cantaloup out of his fruit waffle cone, gives him a level look, like he's not 100% sure what to make of that.

Then he smiles. "My boss is convinced this is where I do most of my work," and he nods at the toilet, fishing in his pocket for his cell phone and holding it up, as if in explanation. He has a Blackberry. Mark doesn't know anybody who has a Blackberry.

"Is he trying to tell you that the quality of your work is shit?" he says.

This startles Eduardo so much that he snorts out a half-laugh, like he can't help it. "She," he corrects. "My aunt got me a job in the family business. Long distance," he adds, saving Mark the trouble of trying to come up with a politically correct way of asking why Eduardo never washes his hair or does his laundry or seems to leave the house if he's got a job.

On the way out the door after that second visit, Eduardo gives Mark two things: a check made out to Merry Maids (which he rips up and tosses in the recycling the second he gets to the train station) and a key.

After that, Eduardo is almost never awake for Mark's comings and goings.

He's usually laid out face-down on the sofa, his cheeks shadowed with stubble and his shirt riding up from the back of his sweatpants, exposing the dimples in the small of his back. Although he's out cold with the stupor of someone who probably has a higher blood alcohol level than an entire college fraternity, Mark tries to be as quiet as possible as he cleans up the bottles. Eduardo's gone and switched the lids on everything, which makes organizing the liquor cabinet a pain in the ass, but Mark does it anyway, in the hope that actually having to get up and travel to get a drink will be enough to discourage Eduardo from doing so.

The smell turns his stomach, because four years of forced abstinence in prison is enough to make anyone leery of alcohol, and whatever tolerance he had before has been shot all to hell.

Every week, Mark does certain tasks: cleans the bathrooms, takes out the garbage, does a load of essential laundry, does the dishes, and then focuses the rest of his attention on deep-cleaning at least one room each week, and each time, he tries not to the judge the wreck of the person who lives here.

Eduardo is grieving, Mark knows -- the hardcore kind of grieving where you struggle all day just to perform the most simple of things. You feel like shit about yourself all the time, because everybody is their own hardest critic, and you think you should be better than this nonfunctioning slug that cannot get yourself out of bed. Knowing it doesn't make it any less impossible.

Mark knows exactly how that goes, because he's been there too: some days you wake up and it's like a light bulb has been turned on, and other days, you try to make a snow angel wearing nothing but your birthday suit and wake up in the hospital wrapped in tin foil like a microwavable burrito.

So he does what he does best: he cleans.

It goes on like this for two weeks, then three, and then it's the first week of February, and Mark's doing a deep-clean of the upstairs bathroom and thinking about calling it quits for the night when he hears the distinct thud of a body falling downstairs, followed by retching.

He pauses. "Eduardo's awake," he says to the scrubber in his hand, and then puts it down and goes downstairs to the creaking protest of his knees, which tell him in no uncertain terms that he's been on them too much today. When he passes the front room, he catches a glimpse of the heaving set of Eduardo's shoulders as he vomits into a wastebasket, and it's not the most attractive sight, but Mark has no room to judge. In the kitchen, he fills up a glass of water and waits until the sounds have mostly just faded into feeble spitting as Eduardo tries to get the taste out of his mouth. You always want company after you vomit, when you still feel awful, but never while you're actually vomiting.

He slips in. Eduardo doesn't look up when he approaches, eyes closed with the back of his hand pressed against his mouth, but Mark just sets the glass of water down on the coffee table in front of him. He hovers for approximately two extremely awkward seconds, before he remembers the washrag in his back pocket and crosses to the china cabinet, like that's what he meant to do all along. The china's already been cleaned, but Eduardo doesn't need to know that.

"Thanks," comes a rasp.

"It's all right," he says, stealing a glance over his shoulder. Still on the floor, Eduardo's got his back propped against the sofa, taking careful sips of the water. "It's like rebooting, except you're rebooting in safe mode, with the parental controls on and no complicated processes are allowed while the C drive is defragging. Basic functions only. Right now, yours is: drink water."

The look Eduardo gives him is red-rimmed, but aware. "Hangover a lot, do you?"

Mark isn't really sure if you can use "hangover" as a verb, but instead of saying something about it, he sets a small, ornamental teacup down on its platter, straightening it so that its handle faces the same way as its comrades. "Not really. It's no fun when you're as tiny as I am -- two beers in and I'm doing stupid shit like sending multiple e-mails to Microsoft telling them I can build an eggbeater that's more intelligent than their latest Windows Media Player update. But," he turns, resting his shoulder blades back against the cabinet, a big plate in his hands. "I got hypothermia here recently and spent a couple days doped up in a hospital, and let me tell you about crazy rebooting sessions."

Eduardo's look is shifting into one of mild amusement. That's good. Improvement.

Mark's mouth keeps going on without him. "I think at one point, I was asking my family if we could celebrate Christmas this once, just to try it -- something about babies and hay. I got really emotional about babies and hay, because, like -- the manger thing, right? That seemed like something worth taking a holiday for, even though I'm pretty sure I made generations of my forefathers turn over in their graves. And I've been reliably informed by multiple sources that I have a full range of about three emotions, none of which ever show on my face, so the fact that I got really emotional about babies and hay kind of alarmed everybody. You're doing great, comparatively."

"You're talking very fast," observes the lump on the floor.

(Seriously, the dude has limbs like a spider and hair that vaguely resembles the toppings you usually see on cupcakes. How do humans even turn out looking like that?)

"I do that," Mark admits, and wipes unnecessarily at some intricate blue whorl on the china plate's surface. Distantly, he's aware that this is the most he's ever said to one person at one time in ... a very long time, and he's talking about Christmas, to someone who'd probably spent the holiday season alone and failing miserably at putting his own life back together.

He cringes slightly. Well done, Mark.

Eduardo sets the glass to the side. He didn't actually drink much of it, but that's good -- it's never a good idea to try and fill your stomach up right after it's been emptied, even if it's just with water.

"I think I might shower," he says, and it doesn't matter if he's talking to Mark or not, because Mark sets the plate back into the cabinet and closes the cabinet door, giving up the charade that he was ever actually cleaning them. He goes to clear his stuff out of the bathroom, and find somewhere on the other side of the house that still needs work.

What he winds up doing, though, is taking one look at the inside of Eduardo's fridge -- which is empty except for butter sitting in a tray and a jar of hollandaise sauce -- saying "hmm" to himself, and then checking his back pocket for his wallet before he leaves. He's careful not to let the screen door bang too loudly behind him, even though he can clearly hear the shower running upstairs.

His feet crunch the gravel as he sets off down the driveway. The coastal road is lit by the phantom light coming from Earth Two, and about one half-mile of pavement down is the start of town. The co-op overlooks the cresting white breakers: it's a cheerful, well-lit place, full of organic whole-wheat loaves and Ethiopian pancakes in take-away lunchboxes and fair-trade coffee from Columbia. The people who work there are all of Christy and Alan's ilk: dreadlocks and piercings and hemp shoes and necklaces made of recycled newspaper from Thailand.

He realizes as soon as he grabs a basket that he's out of his depth -- he doesn't know Eduardo's likes or dislikes or what he's allergic to, but he figures that for somebody whose regular diet seems to be composed of Jim-Bean and Jameson, Eduardo doesn't get to complain.

There's a licorice display by the registers, which makes him slow down, running his fingertips along the packages. A fond kind of nostalgia pings at the soft spot in his stomach, because he hasn't had Red Vines since before his incarceration. He'd forgotten he even liked them.

He picks a package and drops it into his basket, thinking he and Eduardo can split it at some point, when a voice speaks up from behind him, pitched incredulously high.

"Mark?"

He looks up. Unloading a cart onto the conveyor at one of the registers, wine bottle half-extended in one hand, is a man that Mark doesn't recognize for one hollow heartbeat, then another, and then --

"Oh," is all he can manage, too paralyzed to say anything else.

"Hi," Dustin says back, blinking and dazed-looking, as if he'd just been smacked in the face with a dead fish.

Mark swallows, feeling a stunning absolute kind of terror running hot underneath his ribs, the kind familiar to anyone who's ever gone out of their way to avoid seeing a friend in the halls when they were on the outs. He never wanted to see Dustin again, talk to Dustin again, even confront Dustin with his own existence, because the Mark who was Dustin's best friend should never be the same Mark that shot and killed two people, and that's the Mark who is standing here now.

"What's with the -- the small winery there?" he hears himself say.

Dustin looks down at his hand, like he forgot what he was doing. The cashier flips a switch, sending the several bottles of champagne on the conveyor belt rattling their way down to her. He puts the bottle in his hand down with them and turns back to his cart, saying, "Oh, that. I'm ... I'm celebrating, actually. I have a room at the Rock Cove Inn, it's just a ten minute drive down that way. I --" he gnaws at his bottom lip for a second before his eyes flick up to meet Mark's, astonishingly bright and glowing. Mark had forgotten the color of Dustin's eyes. "I got a job in San Mateo, with Capcom. I'm moving out to California in May."

"... Megaman?" Mark's voice comes out of him like it's surfacing from somewhere very deep. "You got a job with the creators of Phoenix Wright and Megaman?" Dustin had freaking cosplayed those characters for every single convention he went to, without fail.

"Yes," Dustin's voice trembles with pride. "California, baby, here we come!" He does a John Travolta shimmy.

Mark opens his mouth to say something else, maybe something inane but heartfelt like "congratulations" or something sarcastic like "I take it you were too weird for Nintendo to want to hire you," but he doesn't get a chance to say anything, because a woman with cornrows slips by him with an enormous bottle of aspirin in her hand, which she places down with the wine, saying quietly, "Because one of us needs to keep our best interests at heart."

"You're brilliant," Dustin enthuses, catching her hand as she retracts it and giving it a flourish of a kiss. He doesn't let go, using his grip to pull her into a twirl. She goes, laughingly -- she has a pattern tattooed into her shoulder that curls up from underneath the fabric of her dress like a waterfall, done in silvery-white ink so that it shows up against her skin when it catches the light.

He catches her by the waist, pulling her tight against his side, and he says, "Mark, this is Stephanie Attis. She's my --"

"Common sense and logical reasoning," the woman, Stephanie, cuts in effortlessly. "Since he has none of his own."

"I resent that remark," he says mildly, without any resentment whatsoever. "I know what you're thinking," he adds, and Mark isn't thinking anything in particular, too overwhelmed to even know where to begin. "But it turns out I am, in fact, completely capable of getting my own girlfriend. Well, okay, so I really had nothing better to do -- ow!" this is directed at Stephanie, who'd pinched the soft, fleshy underside of his arm in punishment. "That's not what I meant. I meant that, like, Harvard was super boring and I didn't have any projects demanding my attention, thank god, so I got to work extra hard at finding the courage to woo the girl in Art History."

"Oh, please," says Stephanie, leaning into his hold. "Like I wouldn't have chased you down for an introduction."

Dustin, clearly touched, makes a face at her. His eyes drift back to Mark. "So where are you working now?" he prompts, adding for Stephanie's benefit, "Mark moved here in the fifth grade and we went to high school together. Dude legit got nothing wrong on his SATs."

"Ohhh, one of those," Stephanie goes, wrinkling her nose up like she's talking about mold, even though Mark can spot a Harvard grad at ten paces and he's willing to bet she got nothing wrong on her SATs, either.

"St. George's," he says. "The high school."

"Right on, that's awesome!" Dustin beams, delighted. "What do you teach?"

Mark flinches back from the question as if Dustin had slapped him with it, shifting his weight in a fight-or-flight response. He hears his his own caustic works scrape from his throat when he answers, "Janitorial sciences." Dustin blinks, uncomprehending. "I clean, Dustin."

"Oh," Dustin manages, his smile faltering and starting to slip sideways off his face before he summons it back. "That's ... good for you! That must be really therapeutic."

Mark smiles thinly. The cashier steals Dustin's and Stephanie's attention long enough to know if they want to add $1 to their bill to support the World Wildlife Fund, and in the moment of privacy it lends him, Mark reels and folds in on himself like a deck of cards. He looks down at the Red Vines in his basket. Numbly, he picks them out and sets them back on the display.

When Mark is almost to the exit, Dustin calls after him, "It was good seeing you, Mark!"

"Yeah," Mark manages, and then, because best friends are best friends even when they've grown up and changed and have nothing to do with you anymore, he calls back over his shoulder, "Good luck with your video game."

"Who was that again?" he hears Stephanie say.

"Mark. He's ... we used to be pretty close, actually, in high school, but ... Oh, well, what can you do. Hey, did you bring your credit card?"

 

- ☀ -

 

Eduardo comes to investigate when Mark lets himself back into the house.

"I thought you left," he says. "I came downstairs and you were gone."

"Date with my drug dealer," Mark deadpans back, stepping around Eduardo to go grab his bucket of cleaning supplies. That excursion to the co-op took longer than he thought it did, and now, even if he runs, he's not going to catch the last bus of the night. It means he's probably going to have to walk all the way back to the Red Line station in Quincy, and even then, he might not even make the 12:48.

Eduardo obviously puzzles some of this together on his own, because he blocks Mark's path and says, "I know you don't drive. It's too cold out there to walk."

Mark blinks, tilting his head back to hold Eduardo's gaze. His eyes are as hazel and amber-lit as alcohol, and he smells like shampoo and chamomile soap.

"I don't mind the cold," he replies, with full awareness of the irony.

This earns him a quick shake of the head. "I'm going to drive you," Eduardo insists.

Which is how Mark finds himself in the passenger seat of a dusty old midnight-blue Cadillac, which still has its original upholstery and smells like someone drove it right out of the 70s, patchouli and all. He drums his fingers on his knees, jittery and awkward and still deeply shaken by his encounter with Dustin, and he mutely shakes his head every time Eduardo asks if he needs to adjust the heat vents or if he wants to listen to a different radio station. The one they're on is an AM station, delivering a news update with the latest SETI report.

Eduardo's mostly recovered, flinching every time a truck that sits too high up on the road casts headlights right into their eyes, but his hands are steady.

"I missed most of this in the beginning, you know," he says after a long while, startling Mark.

"Most of what?"

Eduardo takes a hand off the wheel and points upwards, where the shape of Earth Two has settled low enough in the sky that it looks like it's rolling along the roof of the K-Mart they're passing. "Apparently you guys went and discovered a habitable planet while I was drooling into my pillow and developing bedsores."

Mark's mouth skews to the side, because he knows exactly how Eduardo feels -- it's like you fall asleep, and when you wake up, the entire world has changed. Everybody else had a head start on dealing with the reality of Earth Two, the strangeness and the scientific impossibility of it, and people like Mark and Eduardo are still caught in that first-stage wonder with nobody to share it with.

Speaking of which. "You were in a coma for three years, right?" he goes, testing.

Eduardo nods.

"That seems like an excessively long time to be in a coma. Don't most people just not wake up if they've been asleep for that long?"

A shrug. "They had me on a cocktail of something to keep me there, but you're right. They wanted to wake me up sooner, because, when I slept, it was hard to gauge just how much brain activity I would have when I woke up. But ..." he frowns; Mark catches flickers of a deep kind of hurt on his face every time they get caught in the swoop of a passing street light. "With both my parents dead and my citizenship being up in the air like it is, it took the hospital and the embassy forever to figure out that my aunt would have to make the call and how to get in contact with her. And she --" he cuts himself off.

"The same aunt that's now CEO of your father's company?" Mark flinches as soon as it's out: there's no way he should have known that.

Eduardo doesn't seem to notice. "She was busy. And if I woke up and I didn't ... if I wasn't ... I don't think she wanted to deal with it, if I became her dependent, so she put off making the call and just ... kept me in limbo until she could deal with me."

Mark frowns.

"Don't," Eduardo says immediately, correctly reading his expression. "I don't mind. It sounds lonely, but it isn't. She takes the time to call me, and she trusts me with the company's interests. That means the world to me."

Mark thinks of Eduardo's idea of affection, and then thinks of his own nervous hovering parents, the way his sister slept by his side in his hospital bed until he woke up. He supposes everybody's families are different and prioritize their responsibilities differently, and maybe Eduardo prefers being allowed to recover where nobody but Mark sees him or pesters him or expects him to conform to any kind of standard, but it still doesn't feel right.

Commuting, it's a two-hour trip each way to and from Eduardo's house. Driving, it takes barely half that, even in Friday night traffic.

It still makes Eduardo frown, glancing at the dashboard clock as they turn into the outlying suburban maze that Mark calls home. "How long does it take you on the train and the bus?"

"Not long," Mark shrugs, because it really never feels that long. "An hour and a half, if I time everything right."

Eduardo looks over at him, incredulous. "Why would you do that?"

It's Mark's turn to stare back. "You asked me to," he says, flat as a flipped coin. Then, because Eduardo's still looking at him, a little stunned, he embellishes, "Merry Maids wants to keep ahead of the competition. They might open a satellite office closer to you. I don't know, I don't ever know what administration is doing. Now, slow down at this one -- you don't have the stop sign, but they do, and nobody ever pays attention to it. Good, nobody's coming."

They pull up to Mark's house, and Eduardo leans over the steering wheel to get a better look at it, curious.

"You still live with your parents?" he asks, correctly assuming that there's no way Mark would be able to afford someplace this nice in such a big, quiet neighborhood by himself.

Mark nods. "Mother. Father. Trained monkey that likes to pretend she's my sister."

He grabs his bucket and gets out, but Eduardo leans over and goes, "Wait." He fumbles his words for a second, looks impatient, pauses, and tries again, enunciating slower. "My short-term memory is shit and it's not what it used to be. I ... I'm not certain what your name is. Remind me?"

Mark freezes.

He hadn't realized he'd been doing it until this very second, but he'd been very careful to avoid having to introduce himself, because what if Eduardo recognizes his name?

After all, he knows Eduardo. He knows everything about Eduardo, just like he knows everything about Manuel Saverin and Susenna Saverin. He couldn't forget those details even if he tried. So why wouldn't Eduardo Saverin know Mark Zuckerberg's name?

Overwhelmed with panic, the only thing he can think to do is pull the fabric of his coveralls taut, turning it to show Eduardo his nametag, the stitching that says "Mark Z." He really, really, really should have thought this one through before he leapt into it.

"Oh," says Eduardo, and then he nods. "Well, thanks, Mark. I'll see you next Friday?"

 

- ☀ -

 

Almost all college applications are due at the beginning of February, too, which means that at St. George's, the week is packed with last-minute visits from college representatives, who set up camp in the college counselor's office armed with pamphlets and sample catalogues and reassuring smiles for the seniors who come in beating themselves up for not having started working on these sooner.

Mark hears the announcement that morning that the representative from BU would be available during the lunch break, and doesn't think anything of it until he goes in to change the trashcan afterwards, while the students make a mad scramble to make it to fifth period before the bell rings. The walls are draped with banners from every one of the Ivy League schools, because never let it be said that schools like St. George's don't have very transparent expectations for their graduates. The college rep is still in there, going through her briefcase with her back to the door, and Mark sees a long waterfall of brown hair and a white beret and the back of a sorority sash, and then he sees the old paste-on glow-in-the-dark stars on the briefcase lid and he stops.

He remembers finding those in a bin in the dollar store where she worked, and asking her if she ever had them in her bedroom growing up. He bought her three packages for her sixteenth birthday, and they wound up with paste-on stars on every available flat surface for months afterwards.

It's too late to try and make a stealthy escape, so he makes a grab for his hood and flips it up over his hair in precaution, and keeps his head down as he ties off the trash bag and fetches a new one. Do you know how noisy trash bags are?

"Oh," he hears Erica say behind him, fluty and soft, making him cringe. "Thank you, sir!"

His heart is firmly lodged in his throat, which is probably the only reason why his voice comes out strangled and nothing like itself when he half-turns his head and answers, "No problem."

He doesn't know if he wants her to recognize him or not, dread and exhilaration both running hot under his skin, pulling him painfully in two different directions. He doesn't want a repeat of the emotional turmoil that came from seeing Dustin happy, healthy, and extremely successful. He doesn't know if he can handle seeing it in Erica, too, but ... but it's Erica. Sometimes, the dream where his head was back in between her legs was the sweetest thing that happened to him in prison.

He slinks back out the door, because he's a coward, and she doesn't magically recognize him from that movement alone or call after him.

He steals one last look over his shoulder, catching a glimpse of her frowning profile as she counts through a number of papers she has in her hand. His heart thrashes, but it's back in his ribs where it belongs, and he ignores it.

Tucking the image into some quiet file in his mind for safekeeping, he grabs the Nelsons' cart and pushes it off down the hall.

When they were younger, running around as knobbly-kneed kids in shorts whose biggest idea of adventure was to steal the "Do Not Enter" sign off of Hamilton Rd and stick it in front of the Presbyterian church just in time for Sunday service (a crime for which Mark is fairly sure he and Erica are still highly-respected for in some seventh grade circles), Erica told everyone that she wanted to be a rabbi.

She kept this on all the way through high school, even though she and her family went to the Orthodox synagogue by the fire station, and they stick to ... well, they call it tradition, but Mark suspects that their idea of tradition and everybody else's idea of tradition really have nothing to do with each other. It strictly forbids her from reading from the Torah in synagogue, even though "there's nothing in the Talmud that specifically forbids it! How stupid is that? What's so threatening about members of your own congregation participating in worship?"

Mark never asked why it was so important to her, the dream and the Orthodox version of it specifically, because he didn't need to. Her grandparents claimed to be Albrechts until the day they died, and they came out of Germany during the war. The only thing Erica wants is to regain the heritage they had to pretend never to be a part of.

Before Erica, he had never really been put into a position before where he had to give serious thought to the role of women in the synagogue, but that's the thing about dating girls who are as brilliant and driven as you are: you learn. One of his fondest memories of Erica is the time she stood in the middle of the Zuckerbergs' kitchen and gave that spiel about the Talmud -- this shy, brown-haired mouse of a girl suddenly coming out with a commanding voice and line-by-line knowledge of scripture -- and Mark's mother and father stared at her until their dinner went cold.

After she left, his parents sat there quietly for so long that Mark started to feel a little defensive, watching them communicate in that near-silent way of theirs. Finally, his father looked up at him and said, "You should marry that girl."

Mark rolled his eyes as expressively as possible and escaped upstairs, but it's not until years later that he realizes that might have actually been his plan. He hadn't imagined a future for himself that didn't have Erica in it -- even the silliest of his daydreams had her somewhere, a familiar sweet, proud face in the sidelines, the same way Dustin was always there, too, spouting off nebulous commentary in the background or standing at Mark's right-hand side.

The computer lab is next, and Mark empties the trash and notices that one of the Macs has been left on, the school's own e-mail server still pulled up onto the screen.

Sighing to himself (come on, learning how to sign yourself out of public property is the most elemental lesson of computer safety, weren't these kids supposed to be the smart ones?), Mark ties the trash bag off and sets it down. He goes over to close the window and shut the computer down, when he's struck with a sudden whim. The browser's already open, so he pulls a chair up and flips over to Google, typing in: Space Adventures essay contest [2008].

There's a silly animation he has to watch, where a shuttle with smiling faces shining out of the portholes launches itself across the divide between two identical Earths, and then it pulls up an entry form for him.

It's exactly what Alan said: they want an essay on why he wants to go to Earth Two, 500 words maximum.

That's what I love best about you, he hears, sense memory in his ears, and feels the phantom weight of Erica's arms looped around him, the press of her cheek against his sternum. You're smarter than everyone else, and you never act like it.

Don't let Harvard change you.

He stretches his fingers out against the keyboard in casual greeting, the keys smooth and strange underneath his fingertips. His knuckles and his nail beds are purple still, the circulation in them never recovered from the frostbite.

He's never used a Mac before. He's not going to need all 500 words.

He types:

My name is Mark Zuckerberg. I am a felon and I clean toilets in a Catholic high school in Boston, in an old brownstone building that used to be an asylum. I'm an unlikely candidate for a lot of things, but not, I think, for space. There are many things I'm simply not allowed to do, like control my own finances or vote or file for discrimination if I'm turned down for employment or housing. As an ex-con and janitor, I'm the kind of person that nobody wants to be around or even acknowledge until there's something they need to get done. And I do it. I don't complain, because if I don't do it, then who will?

I'm not a scientist or a programmer or an athlete or an astronaut, but I know what it's like to face the unknown and have everybody tell me that my odds are nonexistent, and to go ahead anyway.

What you have to understand is that for people like me, who once were prisoners and now are the silent ghosts that do maintenance and menial work, we're so disconnected from everyone else that it's like we're already living on Earth Two.

It's already familiar to us, so we might as well be the ones that go. At least there, we won't feel like aliens.

It'll be like coming home.

Laughing at himself, he fills out his contact information and hits Send.

 

- ☀ -

 

Mark's running late on Friday, and when he gets out to the coast, Eduardo's actually sober, awake, and completely articulate for the first time since Mark met him.

"Did you come straight here from another job?" he asks, skulking in the kitchen doorway when Mark thunks his bucket down on the tile. His eyes track up and down Mark's body, taking in the grease stains smeared along the thighs of his uniform.

The school's furnace broke down in such a manner that baffled even Jack, so they had to call somebody in to fix it, and even though it's probably rude to hover over somebody who's just doing their job, Mark had stuck as close as the guy's shadow until finally, the furnace inspector -- he had a handlebar mustache that Mark isn't used to seeing anywhere except black-and-white spaghetti westerns -- offered to show him a few tricks, in case the machine got temperamental again in the future.

So even though he fell behind on his other tasks, he's feeling good today, high off having learned new and valuable information.

"Yes," Mark says. There's no point in lying about that one.

Eduardo tilts his head, curious. Mark stacks the dirty dishes up in one sink basin and fills the other, and as he waits for the water to suds, Eduardo slips around him to pick an apple out of the basket at his elbow. Crunching into it, he crosses the room, folding down into one of the sofas by the window.

"How many hours do you work a week?" he wants to know.

"A lot," Mark responds, droll, because it's definitely more than forty, if you include the couple hours he spends at Eduardo's ever Friday, which he doesn't. It's that guilt thing.

"What do you think about?"

You, Mark doesn't want to say.

"I solve problems." He shrugs. "Mine, even, sometimes. I imagine witty conversations in which I verbally eviscerate anyone who's ever talked down to me. You should try it sometime, it's very inspirational."

Eduardo's lips curve into a smile, briefly showing a dimple in the right side of his face that Mark didn't know he had.

The silence doesn't last long, because Eduardo brings up a consultation his boss called him out for that morning. It's clearly been on his mind all day. Eduardo used to be an economics major, and he's trying to catch up on everything he missed while he was -- as he put it -- drooling attractively into his pillow and developing bedsores, and prove to his aunt that he's still a valuable asset. Mark gets the feeling that it isn't really a job for him: he throws himself into everything he does, sink or swim, efficient and clean and thorough as possible. There's nothing he can't make a portfolio on.

"Do you know what this company chain in Queensland is trying?" he asks. "A 21-hour work week. Wouldn't that be nice?"

Mark lets him talk -- apparently, if Eduardo is to be believed, changing to a 21-hour work week (while desirable and entirely beneficial in terms of personal health, happiness, and availability to further stimulate the economy by having more free time every day) would require a complete economic overhaul if they tried to establish any similar kind of program in the United States, so that employers would absorb the additional wages and insurance coverages they'd be paying out for taking on more employees. The whole concept of what a living wage entailed would need to be renegotiated: it wasn't going to happen overnight.

After about twenty minutes of this, Mark tilts his head and asks, amused, "You really like this kind of stuff, don't you?"

He's done with the dishes now, and has been for awhile. He's wiping down the sink again, getting the faucets and the basin to gleam as bright as newly-minted nickel, and he hopes that Eduardo -- busy ruminating over the value of capital in an economy that runs on sheer population -- doesn't notice that he's dawdling.

Eduardo pauses, mulling it over. "I guess I do," he acknowledges, and then cranes his head back, seeking Mark out and blinking a little, like he's trying to reconcile the upside-down shape of him into a person. "What's your passion, then?"

"Soap scum," Mark deadpans, holding up his sponge, and is rewarded by a flash of Eduardo's teeth.

"Cleaning?" his voice tilts up questioningly. "Cleaning is your one true enjoyment in this world?"

"Hey," Mark fakes offense, flattening his face out into his most haughty look. His sister always told him he looked like a lizard when he did that. "Don't discriminate. Cleaning is a perfectly legitimate passion to have."

Eduardo scoffs back, light-hearted. "Don't give me that. I've seen you judging me and my taste in literature, alcohol, and sleeping patterns." His tone turns dry. "I get the feeling that you judge everything. Mostly yourself, so I guess I figured you hated your job."

Attention skittering away, Mark bumps his funny bone against the edge of the counter. He hisses, and then, pressing his elbow close to his body like somehow that's going to stop the pain radiating up and down his arm, he offers very quietly, "I used to be really into computers."

At that, Eduardo sits up, looking interested. His eyes find Mark again, his eyebrows lifted. "Used to be?" he echoes. "Why not anymore?"

Mark rounds his shoulders, darting his eyes away from the shape of Eduardo on the couch like he'd been dealt a glancing blow. He went to prison, that's what happened. That's why he's not into computers anymore. You know how it is -- the longer you're away from an up-and-coming field like that, the harder it is to get back into it. Every time he thinks about it, popping open the latch on his laptop lid while sitting on the floor in the attic, he runs up against that great mental block that is, Do you think even Microsoft wants anything to do with you now?, at which point he usually gets the urge to go to sleep or to scrub something until his brain turns to static.

That's too much to express, though, so he just shrugs. "I like cleaning," he says again, running the sponge under the faucet to get the last of the soap suds out. "Some people build computers, some people build houses, and some people clean houses."

"I tell people what to do with their money," Eduardo contributes, and Mark can't help the smile that twitches at his mouth.

"There you go," he says. "I ... personally, I cannot imagine anything more dull."

Eduardo laughs, sending a pleased flush to the bottom of Mark's ribcage. "Everything sounds dull up until you try to learn about it," he says.

"True," Mark allows, and since he's now really run out of things to do, tosses the sponge back into his bucket and scoots it into the next room with his foot to start the process over again.

He's still straightening things up to clear a path for a quick run-through with the vacuum when Eduardo drifts in, a stack of mail tucked under one arm and a letter opener in the other, the handle cut into the shapes of the planets all in a row (minus Earth Two, of course, but including Pluto.) Mark watches out of the corner of his eye as he settles in front of the TV, the tangerine-colored sunlight coming in through the wide window and catching on the odd angles of his hair, the creases in his shirt.

He thinks that's that, until Eduardo turns around, hooking his arm around the back of the sofa, and prompts, "So tell me, Mark, what's so interesting about cleaning?"

Mark bends down to pick up an afghan from the floor, which gives him a moment to sort out the emotions going on in the pit of his stomach, something triumphant and pleased and grateful, before he stands with an audible crack in his knees. He folds the afghan, and launches into a story about the kinds of things high school kids will write on the insides of the bathroom stalls; the good, the bad, and the grammatically incorrect. Mark probably knows more about what's going on in their lives than their parents, their teachers, or even themselves.

At the end of the night, it's almost companionable, the way Eduardo says good night, stay safe, and Mark doesn't even cringe that much when he hands him that week's check.

 

- ☀ -

 

The first week of March is bitterly cold, colder somehow than all the previous months combined, or maybe Mark feels it more because he's sick of it, the soil gone cracked and hard like it doesn't even remember what it's like to be warmed by sunshine.

On Tuesday, he helps his dad layer lasagna and listens to him talk about how this is his least favorite time of the year, because there aren't any good golf highlights on television. It's hibernation season for golfers, apparently.

"It really should be one of those year-round sports, you know. I guess there's something to the idea of retiring to Florida," Mr. Zuckerberg grumbles, and Mark chuckles at the way he wrinkles his nose at the thought of migrating down south. His dad has a deep-rooted kind of New England elitism like nobody else Mark knows.

By the time he's setting out the silverware, he's clued in to the fact that something's going on, because Randi is flitting in and out of the dining room, checking on them and all but vibrating with excitement. Mark exchanges bemused looks with his dad, but apparently his mother's in on it too -- when they sit down to eat, she eagerly fetches down the good glasses and fills them to the brim with thick red wine, the kind that comes from the bottles that her former sorority sister sends her during high holidays that they never know what to do with, setting them down at each place. Mark gives his one sniff and immediately sets it aside, grimacing.

His mother sits down at her place, lifting her own glass up in a preemptive toast. "I believe," she says grandly. "That Randi has some news for us."

Mark and his dad look at Randi. She ducks her head, chewing at her bottom lip. She can't quite control her smile, her cheeks burning red and her dimples cutting deep.

After a beat, she says, "I got my acceptance letter from Yale today."

Mark freezes. In attempting to leap up from his chair, Mr. Zuckerberg falls right out of it, hitting the floor rather impressively. Exclaiming, his wife and daughter both get up to haul him back to his feet, and he uses the momentum to yank Randi into an enormous bear hug, congratulating her endlessly.

Meanwhile, Mark just tries to sort out the whirlwind of what he's feeling.

When they were really young and their father was going to school to get his masters, their mom would use his student ID to get them into the university gym so they could go swimming, and Mark thought that all colleges must be like that, so cool and big and full of people who got to do awesome things whenever they felt like it. He never got to find out for himself, and there's a part of him that's jealous of the way his parents are looking at Randi right now, because that used to be him, red around the ears under all the praise.

"Markellina?" Randi goes, questioning, and he realizes that he's staring, his fork poised half-way to his mouth.

"Yeah," he goes, putting it down. He takes a breath, and fixes a smile to his face. "You're going to have to come back a lot, you know, and tell us what it's like to be surrounded by people who are stupider than you all the time."

"I manage at home just fine," she retorts, but the corners of her mouth are twitching.

"Oi," says their mother.

"Congratulations, Randi," he offers, quieter, and then something occurs to him. "Wait, are you just going because that's where your boyfriend's going?"

She widens her eyes at him, exasperated. "I haven't send them my confirmation yet. I just got the acceptance letter today. More importantly than that, he's my friend. So sue me if going to college with my friends sounds appealing to me."

"I still think you can do better," he says mildly, and waits a beat before adding, "and I don't mean the school, but congrats on that, too."

Their father barks laughter, seemingly before he can help it, and Randi kicks Mark's shin under the table.

The next day is one of those periodical teacher conference days, which means it's a half-day for everybody except the teachers, who complain good-naturedly about how they thought going into the education field would give them more breaks than the usual nine-to-five job. Classes are shortened to twenty-five minutes, which means nothing productive of any sort gets done, and at one, Jack and Luna let him go after all the bathrooms have been done, telling him they can manage the rest and he should go get some sunshine.

"You've worked your ass off since you were first hired," Luna points out, putting a hand between his shoulder blades and propelling him towards the door. "Which is far more than we expected. Go. Photosynthesize."

Even if Mark did possess the ability to produce chlorophyll, which he does not, there isn't actually enough sunlight today to photosynthesize with. Instead, he crosses the street and pops into the juice bar. Christy doesn't come in until four, but Alan's already on shift, and he offers Mark a shy smile, sidling up to the counter and asking him if he wants to try a new menu item that he's been working on and is really hoping the bosses approve so they can it on the summer list.

"I call it Come to the Dark Side," he says, taking a mason jar down off the shelf. "It's got fair-trade dark chocolate and raspberry and --"

"Coffee?" Mark finishes, impressed, watching Alan fetch the pot over.

"Not just any coffee. The darkest, richest coffee we could justify spending our money on. It's as black as your soul." Alan manages this with a completely straight face, dashing a shot of it into the blender. He mixes it with the usual almond-soy ice cream that they make their milkshakes with, and hands it over. The resulting drink is bitingly bitter, but Mark can't deny that it's good. There's something almost ... burnt and swarthy to it.

Alan watches his reaction, thin-eyed.

"The bitter kind of overwhelms," Mark offers, not entirely sure what he's looking for, because he's used to banter and dick jokes with Christy, not actual culinary critiques. "You can taste the raspberries, but not for very long. It could use a ... kick, maybe?"

"Orange peel?" is the immediate suggestion, like this is something he's thought about at length.

"Yeah, that might work."

Alan nods, thoughtful. "We also thought about substituting the dark chocolate for Nutella. But we'd have to do something about the name, because 'Come to the Dark Side' sort of implies that there's something, you know, dark to it."

"Nutella is basically the Dark Side," says Mark with all the confidence of someone who lives with a seventeen-year-old girl.

He screws the lid back on the mason jar and tucks it into the pocket of his coveralls. He waves good-bye to Alan, who lifts a hand in farewell even as he's cheerfully talking nutrition with a new costumer (it's silly how good that acknowledgement makes Mark feel,) and stands outside the juice bar for a moment, looking at the train schedule. On a whim, he crosses the station terminal and sprints for the Cambridge-bound train, making it just as doors slide closed.

He hasn't been on the Harvard campus since he did the college tour thing back in high school, like there'd been any doubt in his mind where he was going to apply.

He finds himself standing in the middle of the Square, taking slow sips out of the mason jar that's turning his fingers numb and spinning in a slow circle. The pang of nostalgia isn't as strong here and now as it was last night, listening to his parents congratulate Randi onto getting into the Ivy League, probably because Mark never got the chance to view Harvard with anything other than anticipation, so there's not as strong a connection here. He was arrested right before orientation.

So he doesn't really feel like the students crossing the quad or coming out of Dworkin like they aren't sure what day of the week it is, and nor does he feel like the tourists clicking around with their disposable Kodak cameras. It's a strange, disconnected feeling.

He's seen Harvard on the news, of course, because it becomes a meeting ground every time the Earth Two fanatics get their feelings on and come stand around with their tin-foil hats and their signs that beg God to spare them from insanity and ruin and mind-control. They're not here today, but there's a young man sitting alone at a card table, looking miserably cold. His head comes up, Pavlovian and hopeful, every time somebody walks by, but nobody slows down to talk to him and he goes back to shivering. Mark drifts over.

The table is covered in pamphlets and clipboards. Mark flicks his eyes over one, then another, and just as he's figuring out what it's about, the Young Democrat stands and says, "The Massachusetts primaries are coming up in May. Have you thought about who you're going to vote for?"

Mark shakes his head. "I don't know much about local politics, but for the presidential elections, I am liking the look of the Senator from Illinois for the Democratic ticket."

The man gets his teeth to stop chattering long enough to give Mark a brilliant smile. "Me too!" he says. He has a name tag that says Hello, My Name is: C. Hughes. "Is this your first time voting?"

"I can't vote," Mark tells him blithely, licking the lid of the mason jar for remnants of milkshake.

"Oh?" says Hughes, curious. His eyes flick across Mark head-to-toe, disbelieving, and it's funny, because Mark can physically see the moment he tells himself not to jump to conclusions. "Are you not a naturalized citizen yet? Where are you from?"

Mark looks at him, droll. "Suffolk County Juvenile Penitentiary," he says flatly. "Out in Dover."

Hughes blinks once, blinks twice, and then his brain catches up with the words and he huffs out an awkward laugh. "Yeah, that would do it," he says, and cuts Mark a sympathetic look. "Sorry to hear that, man."

Mark shrugs back, unperturbed. The fact that, as a felon, he has absolutely no say in the bureaucracy that dictates every part of his life seems like the least of his worries, to be honest. He lets Hughes get him caught up on all the local politics -- who wants to get reelected for Senator even though he's a dinosaur, who's fresh-faced and ready to take over the utilities board -- mostly because Hughes looks genuinely happy to be doing it, and it doesn't hurt Mark to learn these things, even if he can't do anything about it. Along the way, they find out that they're both Jewish, which launches them into a whole new discussion, mostly about who had the strangest rabbi growing up and how they only really contemplated joining the Jewish fraternity because their mothers told them to.

By the time he catches the T home, Mark's surprised to find that, altogether, it hadn't been a bad day.

 

- ☀ -

 

The room that Mark saves for last is one of the smallest, and also the most cluttered; it's no bigger than a cupboard, tucked in between two of the downstairs bedrooms, with only a cracked window that leaks rainwater to call its own.

He knows the Saverins used this house mostly just as a summer vacation home, because the evidence for that is everywhere. It's not a residence that was ever meant to become permanent, and this room is the only one that holds anything in the way of history, which makes it the hardest one for Mark to tackle. The guilt that that's all it will ever be, history, overwhelms him at every turn, leaving his hands helplessly shaky.

It might have been a study in another life; there's an old desk with chipping varnish tucked into the corner like an embarrassed schoolchild, and the rest of the space is stacked with boxes that are full of memorabilia of the Saverins' summers here: photographs, mostly, but Manuel's business portfolios and Eduardo's summer school assignments, too. While he's clearing out one box, Mark finds a poster done for a class; there's a poorly-drawn Crayola rendition of North and South America, and overlayed is the erratic path Hurricane Gordon took in 1994 -- one of the most erratic paths ever recorded for a hurricane-strength storm in meteorological history. Eduardo even drew the hurricane itself, a black amorphous mass out in the Atlantic, with big red eyes and an angry face.

He also finds a family portrait, tucked into a manilla envelope that just barely escaped the water damage that destroyed the rest of the box it was in. Manuel, Susenna, and a very young Eduardo, dressed in a miniature suit with a gold medal around his neck, lean into each other and smile delightedly for the camera. Something's written on the back, but Mark doesn't know Portuguese, so he doesn't know what the medal's for.

Feeling a lot like he's stealing a memory that doesn't belong to him, he pockets the picture.

The rest of it he redistributes slowly to the rest of the house, hoping Eduardo will be able to appreciate having these memories in the house he's spent so long recovering in. He scrubs down the rest of the room, caulks the leaky window, and replaces the overhead light bulb.

And ... that's it.

Mark gathers up his supplies slowly, and sets the bucket down by the door before he goes to find Eduardo, who is one of the upstairs rooms on his laptop, flipping impatiently between three different Excel spreadsheets and rubbing at the bridge of his nose like he's staving off a headache. He stands in the doorway for a moment, and then he drums his knuckles against the doorframe and says, quiet, "Wardo. I'm finished."

Eduardo turns around and gives him a smile. "Thanks, Mark. Check's on the table."

"No, I mean I'm finished."

"Oh."

There's a moment of silence, and Eduardo scratches at the back of his head uncomfortably, like he isn't sure what to say. He'd hired Mark to pick up the house and put it back into working order: fixing rusted-out pipes and cleaning off years of dust from old furniture and re-hanging cabinet doors. The smaller things -- the laundry, the dishes -- Eduardo had started doing on his own again, so Mark doesn't know where he stands in terms of employment.

Well, "employment."

"Hmm," Eduardo goes, skewing his mouth to the side, and nods.

Mark nods back, and then he hears himself blurt out, "I garden, too."

Eduardo's eyelids flutter, surprised, but the expression on his face doesn't change. "I beg your pardon?"

"I can garden, too. I noticed that your flower beds are barren and overrun," he shrugs. "I 'm just saying, I could fix those up for you, if you want."

He stands there, long enough that his skin starts to crawl with discomfort. He's never gardened a day before in his life (well, outside of occasionally dumping out dead houseplants whenever his mother remembered that they were around, because that's the closest any of them got to having a green thumb) but he's also extremely intelligent and gardening's just another thing to do with his hands. He can already feel the itch in the center of his palms that comes with the prospect of starting a new project.

"I ..." Eduardo's cheeks are red, but he's smiling. "That would be ... you don't have to if you don't want to, but that would be fantastic, Mark."

"Good," says Mark.

And, next Friday, he gets to work.

He doesn't know a goddamn thing about gardening, but it's probably not something he's going to have to worry about until the spring thaw comes, so he has time to Google it or pester his sister about it (without ever telling her what it's for, because he wants to tell Randi about Eduardo on the 34th of Febru-never) or somehow figure out what he's going to do. Mark likes learning, he'll work it out.

Instead, right now, he focuses on fixing things up and making the outside of the house look presentable. He doesn't cut down all of the long grasses that choke the front of the house, since they provide a nice, cheap privacy screen from the road, and the sound it makes as it rustles around in a sea breeze is practically Zen-like. But he does clear out enough space in front and behind the house to count as a yard. He uncovers the garden bed, digs up all the brown, cracked weeds, and re-stakes the knee-high perimeter fence so the rabbits won't get at ... well, whatever eventually goes in there.

Eduardo helps out, some. It's debatable. Mark's trying to clean up the debris underneath the porch, and Eduardo insists on stomping into the wood directly above Mark's head. He claims he's shaking loose the spiders. Mark replies, very calmly, that he doesn't want spiders in his hair, thank you very much.

Eduardo laughs and, just as Mark thinks he's going to leave him in peace, gives one last deliberate stomp. Sawdust showers down on top of his head and Mark hollers.

There's a day when it gets warm enough that Eduardo throws open all the windows for the first time this year, letting the fresh air carry away the winter-long reek of grief. His face is stained red, vigorous and happy, running around the house.

He talks down to Mark in the yard as he airs out the linens, bedsheets billowing and catching white in the fading sunlight. Mark's working on the area around the fire pit, and when he's done, they sit together on the butterfly-shaped bench, fire blazing cheerfully in the barrel in front of them. Eduardo brought out beer, for himself, and an old, dusty bottle of sarsaparilla from when he was a kid, for Mark, and they knock glasses together and drink to a hard day's work.

It turns out that, behind the house and beyond a stretch of marshes, there's a boating yard where the summer vacationers keep their motorboats and little skips until the season begins. Most of them are still under tarp: little blue-wrapped figures hunched against the hill, but one's been taken out recently -- Eduardo grabs a flashlight and goes to investigate, staggering tipsily around in the mud, and comes back to tell him that the boat's name is Miranda's Fault.

They grin to themselves and think up all the different ways that name could have come about, and on the train ride home, Mark finds that he's still smiling.

The knowledge sneaks up on him, and before he knows it, there it is: this, here, what he has with Eduardo ... it feels a lot like having a friend. A good one.

It's scary.

If Mark slows down, if he stops and lets it catch up to him, then he starts feeling a little crazy all over again. Think about it: Mark shot and killed Eduardo's parents. Eduardo is an orphan because of Mark. Eduardo is also one of Mark's closest friends, because he doesn't know.

When you break it down into neat little facts like that, Mark gets that itchy feeling like he wants to file his skin off with a nail file so that he's unrecognizable, even to himself, or just go back to Dover and ask to be locked up in prison again for everybody's own good.

Because they're not actually unintelligent people, Christy and Alan converge on him one day and invite him over to their place under the pretense of a dinner party, because they're looking for an excuse to break in their new rice cooker.

Mark's been over to their place before, but the novelty of being welcomed into somebody else's home still hasn't really worn off yet, so he hovers in the living room awkwardly by himself, before he sits down cross-legged on the floor to make friends with their cat, a one-eyed tabby named Murray, who loves the fabric of Mark's coveralls and gleefully uses him as a new scratching post.

"Ten more minutes on the rice," Alan informs him, coming into the room. There's a softness to him when he's at home that Mark doesn't see in him when he's at the shop. "Here, Goldilocks," he adds, bumping Mark's shoulder with a can of Mountain Dew.

Everything underneath Mark's skin cringes away from the nickname, and he hears himself say, too sharp, "Please don't call me that."

Following on Alan's heels, Christy blinks at him with her big eyes and says, "Woah, there, sudden scent of Eau du Issues."

Mark opens his mouth, and -- what? Explain that Goldilocks had been his nickname in prison, and there are memories associated with that that he really doesn't want surfacing here, in this context?

Fortunately, Alan settles down on the floor next to him, crossing one leg over the other, and asks interestedly, "Do you have any nicknames? 'Mark' isn't really conducive to any that I can think of."

Murray abandons kneading at Mark's thigh and leaps nimbly into Alan's lap, pushing his head against his stomach delightedly, as if thanking him for bringing in a new toy, even if said new toy does smell overwhelmingly of bleach and pets him against the grain. Those are forgivable offenses.

"Well," Mark offers after a moment. "My last name is Zuckerberg, and there's all sorts of things you can do with that 'uck' combination. Trust me, I've heard them all. But. My sister calls me Markellina. Like Thumbellina, because I'm so short, see?" At the looks on their faces, he raises his hands, defensive. "Hey, there's only one person in my family who got the cleverness gene, and it's --"

"Not you," Christy and Alan say simultaneously.

"-- me," Mark finishes, and then scowls at them.

He takes the can of Mountain Dew and pops the top just as Christy says, "So, tell us all about your boy troubles," and he's really glad he hadn't actually drunk any of it yet, because he tries to choke anyway. She laughs, sitting with her back propped up against the coffee table: there's a sofa they're all ignoring in favor of sitting on the floor like children, and she nudges his shin with her big toe. She has miniature planets painted onto her toenails.

To his immense surprise, he finds that -- even when he gives them a completely abridged version of the story, leaving out the critical elements like involuntary manslaughter and extreme guilt issues -- when it comes to Eduardo, there's no shortage of things he can talk about: his drinking habits and his sleeping habits, the house of his with all the little rooms that Mark adores maybe as much as he adores the time spent with the person himself, the clothes in his closet, the things he says, the good-natured humor in him that always catches Mark off guard.

Eventually, Alan gets up to go get the rice, dislodging the cat, and Christy curls her toes thoughtfully.

Mark realizes he's been talking almost nonstop, and swallows.

"You know," says Christy, gentle. Today, the beads she's tied onto the ends of her dreads are viridian green, and she pulls one in front of her so she can restring it. "The flaws in people run deep, and there are usually a lot more of them than anybody's willing to confess. But it never actually stops people from loving each other. Whatever we may think, nobody is really better than anybody else --"

"Lie!" calls Alan from the kitchen. "Rush Limbaugh is the scum of the earth and we're all better than him!"

Christy makes a hand gesture, like, okay, point. "But," she says to Mark. "Love isn't ... you don't love people because they're perfect. Rather, love is when you see people as perfect even though they're not. Right?"

"Okay," says Mark, not quite sure where she's going with this, and to be fair, he's not sure that she really does, either.

She studies him. "You're afraid of the judgement of an unseen audience, aren't you?" she wants to know. "That's what makes you so afraid. Somebody finding out and telling you that you can't have it for whatever reason you think you can't have it. Okay, listen," she scoots closer to him, folding her legs up and reaching out to drum her fingertips against his knees, a staccato beat. "There's nothing wrong with going for what you want. Even if you dress the way you're supposed to, act the way you're supposed to, do everything the way you've been told to do it, somebody is still going to give you shit for doing what you like to do. Trust me," she touches a hand to her chest. "I'm a woman. I know this."

"Oh my god," says Mark suddenly, as the light bulb goes on. "You're giving me relationship advice."

Christy blinks.

"Wow," she says, after a moment. "You are super intelligent."

"A million years of evolution," Alan adds, dryly, coming in with plates for each of them balanced on his arms. "And we get you."

"Shut up," Mark retorts.

Later, though, Christy falls asleep with her head propped up on Mark's hip, her empty plate balanced precariously on top of her stomach. Murray settles into the space between Mark's legs, curling up with a deep, rumbling purr. Mark holds still and tries not to jostle either of them, feeling fond and warm and thoughtful.

 

- ☀ -

 

By the time Mark reaches the coast on Friday, there's a thunderstorm brewing out to sea, flung out across the sky as wide as a painting.

It's not the cold, dull, steady rain that often comes to drizzle and drown the New England coast during the winter, and it's not the five-minute showers that happen regular as clockwork at the same point five miles inland from the sea ("oh!" said Eduardo. "You're talking about what happens when the land breezes and sea breezes meet the effects of orographic lift. You should let me ramble to you about them at some point, they're amazing," and Mark rolled his eyes, complaining, "is there anything you don't know?") but a full-on thunderstorm, rolling up full and heavy from the south.

Thunder booms, cracking the sky with sound.

Mark's got his headphones in, the cords tangling in his hair, Fall on Your Sword playing tinnily in his ear, the crashing of symbols a percussive counterpoint to the flashes of lightning out to sea.

He watches the sky, standing at the end of the driveway. The beach spreads out in front of him, the waves white-tipped and frothing at the shore. Above his head, Earth Two is enormous in the sky. He catches a glimpse of it, looking down on him like some benevolent, cloudy eye, before the incoming clouds swallow it completely.

In the distance, on the other side of the dunes, he finally spots a little figure, pelting across the sand at a dead run. It's another several moments before he realizes that it's Eduardo, and he frowns. He doesn't think he's ever seen Eduardo down on the beach before.

His shoes dangle from the ends of his fingers, feet sinking wide-toed against the sand and trying to find purchase. His pants are soaked up past the knees.

"Eduardo --" Mark starts, surprised, but Eduardo crests the top of the dune and grabs him by the elbow, dragging him across the road and towards the house.

"Come on!" he's shouting, panting, sounding delirious and excited and half-laughing. "Quick, quick, come on, the rain will be here in a second!"

It's infectious, the delight of someone outrunning the rain. Mark smiles without being aware of it, letting himself be pulled.

Like children throwing themselves into a hiding place, Eduardo flings them inside the house, tossing his shoes across the floor and getting the door shut behind them as fast as possible, like the rain is some snarling, vicious dog right on their heels. Scarcely a heartbeat later, the soft pattering of raindrops start up, drumming on the eaves. Tucked extremely close in the doorway, half-pinned by the door and Eduardo's grip on his elbow, Mark feels giddy, unable to look away from him in this moment.

Exhilarated, laughing, looking both soft and gorgeous as sunlight, Eduardo leans his weight back against the screen door, haloed in the muted grey ghostly pattern of rainfall, his head tipped back. Mark watches his eyes track all over the spotless kitchen, the tidy chairs and sofas, the glistening windows. It looks completely different than it had months ago, and that's all thanks to Mark.

"You have no idea what this would have meant to my father," he says, quiet.

Mark shrugs at him. "Sure I do," he goes.

He has no idea what makes him say it, and, caught, he sneaks a look at Eduardo from under his eyelids, fast as a lightning strike, and sees an expression on his face unlike anything he's ever seen before. It's broken open, scattered as wide and atmospheric as an oncoming storm, and he's looking at Mark in a way that Mark feel like he's never really been looked at, not like this, like Eduardo could peel back his skin and see everything, like Mark is one of those glass-skinned Amazonian frogs with all his internal organs on display.

"You --" he starts, and it's going to be one of the biggest mysteries of Mark's life, what the rest of that statement was, because Eduardo never finishes it.

He shifts his hold on Mark's arm, thumb rubbing in a slow circle, a movement that Mark feels with sudden, stunning, acute clarity. It's like every single nerve receptor in his body is tuned into that one point of contact.

Eduardo edges towards him along the door, moving slowly and carefully and holding preternaturally still, like he's balancing something precarious and doesn't want to send it crashing down, telegraphing his moves. Eduardo always telegraphs his moves.

Mark lives whole lives in the seconds it takes Eduardo to lean the rest of the way in; lives in which he lets this happen, lives in which he doesn't, lives in which it was never a possibility, and all the lives in which it is, lives in which it ends horribly, and lives -- painful, beautiful, golden lives that hurt to think about -- in which nothing ever goes wrong . Everything Mark knows about the world rearranges in an instant, constellations spinning and becoming strange and unfamiliar.

This is happening. This is something that can happen, something Mark hasn't even dared to consider, and now it's here. Now he has to make a decision.

After all, what makes you decide to kiss someone? What makes you decide that they are a person you want to kiss, a person you want to risk kissing?

Eduardo's other hand comes up, hesitant and shaking with sudden nerves, and the touch of his fingertips to Mark's jaw lights him up from the inside, as if it has turned the blood in his veins to music and starlight both, singingly hot, and, like it's absolutely no decision at all, Mark catches Eduardo by the face when their mouths touch, and pulls him in.

They step back against the doorframe, the handle catching Mark in the small of the back and the screen bending with the pressure, but Eduardo braces them both and turns his head, kissing Mark again. It's exploratory, the two of them learning how their mouths fit and waiting for the other one to be the first to pull away. The second they both realize that they've thrown their cards in completely, Mark's hands come up, fisting in Eduardo's hair and holding him still so that he can kiss him, open-mouthed and demanding. Eduardo tastes like brine, like something mythical he pulled from the sea.

Eduardo breaks away for air, eyes luminous and hovering close as specters. Carefully, Mark pushes him back one step, then two, so he can relieve the pressure on his back.

He steps past Eduardo into the house, feeling stunningly aware of everything, every sound, every tiny movement he makes. He toes out of his boots without pausing to untie them, the shoestrings choking and strangling, and then he straightens up, lifting his fingers to his zipper. He peels his coveralls back to his waist, fishing underneath for the hem of his sweatshirt. It's effortless, stripping it up above his head and tossing it aside, and Mark doesn't have the energy to be self-conscious, standing there bare-chested in the middle of the Saverins' old seaside house, feeling too much already.

"Mark," whispers Eduardo, like it's the only word he knows how to say.

Without blinking, he goes to toe out of his shoes, too, scraping at the backs of his heels before it finally occurs to him that he's already barefoot. He breaks eye contact long enough to check, and it seems to throw him, before his eyes snap back to Mark, and within two coltish strides, he is in Mark's space and Mark is stretching to meet him.

Everything becomes a mess of mouths and hands and Mark yanked as close to Eduardo's body as physics will allow, Mark up on tiptoes and the flat press of muscles and warm, warm skin where their chests are pressed together.

He knows, just from the hard, seeking press of Eduardo's mouth on his, the sloppy open edge of teeth and the dig of his fingers into his exposed hips, that this isn't going to last very long. He lets himself be turned, protesting only when Eduardo's mouth lets go of his. He wants this in a way he's scarcely wanted anything before, the way he remembers wanting Harvard, the way he remembers wanting just to see Erica and Dustin (before he actually did): a haunting, urgent, heady feeling right under the surface of his skin.

They back up, shuffling together, and then, with a stinging bang of elbows, Mark finds himself hoisted up and in the next second, is on his back on the kitchen island with a suddenness that leaves him blinking up at the pots and pans suspended above his head. That had been a practiced move.

"You've thought about this before," he observes. It's not a question.

Eduardo has the decency to look embarrassed, and Mark tilts his chin to regard him as flatly and with as much dignity as he can muster, laid out on the island with a cutting board by his ear and Eduardo pressed in snug into the space between his legs.

With a nervous lick of his lips, Eduardo says, quiet as a confession, "Since the very first time you came back. Your second visit here," and Mark startles. "You came back. I just ..." he dances his fingertips up and down the outside seams that run down Mark's thighs. "Liked the way you looked in my house, I guess," and Mark remembers getting caught sniffing soaps in the upstairs bathroom, and the way Eduardo had looked at him. "It took me weeks before I realized just how much I wanted you around, and in what capacity. Sorry I didn't say anything sooner."

Mark thinks about this.

"I like the house," he acknowledges, and Eduardo, hearing the "but" in that statement, stays silent as Mark picks at the front of his shirt, gripping a fistful of the fabric and using it to pull himself upright, hooking his ankles behind Eduardo's legs and fitting them close together, flushed as tight as blood and bone. It takes all his courage to put his mouth to Eduardo's ear and say, "I like you more."

Eduardo turns his head, and Mark's mouth is already open, making it easy for them to catch each other up in a kiss, the kind you can drown in, airless and dizzy.

It takes them a silly, uncoordinated moment to get Mark out of the rest of his suit, stripping him down to his boxers, and the funny noises his skin makes when he slides against the counter make him laugh and tilt his head to drop that laughter into Eduardo's mouth.

"Have --" Eduardo's saying, hands skating restlessly against Mark's skin in a way that makes him burn. "You. Have you --"

And Mark's shaking his head. "I -- I haven't since before --" and his words slur, making the rest of the sentence unintelligible.

"Oh, god. What if we're really horrible at it?"

Mark snorts. "That's impossible, Wardo," and the look Eduardo gives him before he pushes Mark back, spine and shoulders lying flat against the cold countertop, and dips his head down to Mark's chest could spin the constellations and turn the stars on their head. It's overwhelming, heartstopping, that movement, that touch, because Eduardo has been the center of his universe for years, and the reality of his mouth, kissing shapes into his sternum, sends the planets spinning behind Mark's eyelids.

It's weird, he decides when he reflects on this later, how he's felt like he's been off-kilter, spinning in an erratic elliptical all this time, and the moments in which he has Eduardo under his hands are the only times the world feels like it's right side up.

When he gets a chance, he slithers his hands up Eduardo's shirt, and then startles when Eduardo spits out an expletive, his whole body flinching away from Mark's touch in a way that makes Mark's whole world just freeze on the spot, before he catches Mark by the wrist, the muscles in his abdomen shivering.

"Your hands are freezing!" he exclaims, breathless.

Oh, right. "Frostbite," Mark explains, fingers curling back into his palms. What will he do if he can't touch Eduardo?

Eduardo frowns. He's still holding Mark by the wrist, so he holds it up, using his thumb to make Mark's hand splay out like a starfish. "You're always coming in with welts and sores, though. I wish you would take better care of yourself. Have you ever paid attention to your hands?"

Blinking, Mark shakes his head.

"It's not really ..." he starts. "I've lost feeling in the ends of a couple of them. My beadwork and sewing have really suffered," he adds, dry as bone.

"Hmm," Eduardo makes a thoughtful noise. "Thats too bad, I was thinking about sucking on them. I've been watching them for so long," which is such an absurd thing to hear that it doesn't sink in for a moment.

"Wardo," Mark manages to say, as level and matter-of-fact as he possibly be under the circumstances. "If you, at any point in your life from here on out, want to put your mouth on me in any capacity and you do not do so, so help me, I will --"

He doesn't get to finish the threat, because Eduardo's surging up to meet his mouth, and that is much, much, much better.

 

- ☀ -

 

When the clouds outside finally break, sending in moonlight the color of cotton in through the window, Mark curls his hand into a claw, making a creature out of it: a long, sinewy neck out of his index finger, a thick club foot from his thumb, and the three outer fingers as supporting legs. He crabwalks it up Eduardo's shoulder blade, the three legs rolling in a movement like a spider's. The creature raises its head regally for a beat, before it stretches out to investigate the nape of Eduardo's neck, brushing the knob of his spine with the flat of his nail.

Then Eduardo murmurs, "I was nineteen, you know."

Mark startles, dropping the creature entirely. He thought Eduardo had fallen asleep: directly on top of Mark's arm, sure, but with Mark spooned up against his back, which was infinitely better. Although it did mean he had to find a way to entertain himself.

He hesitates, and then carefully wraps his arm around Eduardo's chest.

"When this happened to me. I was nineteen, and I was just about to start my sophomore year at Harvard," comes out, barely above a whisper.

An uneasy feeling settles in Mark's stomach, but he listens.

"As weird as it is to think now. I used to go to Harvard, isn't that crazy? I still need help remembering my social security number these days, but I was going to be president of the Business Association. How's that for ironic?"

He drags in an unsteady breath. "My father was so proud. That's what hurts the most, I think. My father was so proud of me. He said it swelled him up like sausages to see a son with such promise. He said that he just knew I was going to be famous and wealthy someday, and wouldn't that show Auntie back home, who said it was impossible to raise anything except cowards in America? And then ... and then were driving up here from the airport, to this house, and we stopped for cheap American snacks and blue slushies at a service station so we could get pictures of ourselves that we would smugly send back home."

Mark suddenly, abruptly, really doesn't want to hear the rest of this story.

He forces himself to keep his grip on Eduardo as relaxed as possible.

"And ... there was this robber. This ... I don't know who, but this man came in and demanded money, but there wasn't ... wasn't enough for him in the cash drawer or something, I don't know, so he rounded on us. I've never been so scared in my entire life, I couldn't even ... but, you know, I thought it was going to be okay. Maybe it was so surreal or something, I don't know, but even as it was happening, I thought it was going to be okay." His voice flattens out, then, and goes gratingly hard. "And then. The kid -- that stupid kid, the one behind the counter, with the pumped-up need to be a hero, pulled a gun and --"

His throat closes up around the horror of it; that familiar horror Mark knows all too well. He's lived with that lump in his throat for four years, choked himself on it and couldn't speak around it, the lump that said, shot and missed and killed two people who didn't deserve to die.

"Stupid kid," Eduardo breathes again, with a vehemence that turns Mark's stomach to ice. "Some stupid, fucked-up kid shot and killed my parents because he couldn't fucking aim a gun. He got me, too," and Mark feels Eduardo reach up, fingers tracing along his own jaw. "I forget sometimes, and then I remember. I was in a coma for so long that when I woke up, the court order had been handed down and the record was sealed. He was a minor at the time, so I never even fucking learned his name."

He huffs out a harsh breath through his nose.

"Good thing, probably," he mutters. "I've had so many dark moments, even before you found me, and ... I still don't entirely trust myself. I don't know what I'd do if I met him. I don't ... I don't even know if I could recognize him. All I remember is that he had really short, curly hair --"

And Mark fights the instinctive urge to reach up and touch his hair, tied up in a ponytail at the back of his neck like it usually is. He vows never to cut it. Never, never, never.

"-- and he was, like, tiny. Tiny, stupid kid hyped up on a superiority complex. I've spent so long hoping he'll die miserable and alone, I don't know how to feel anything else. I just want him to suffer as much as I did. I want him to die alone like I will."

The silence after that pronouncement stretches forever.

Mark feels flattened, steamrolled, like he wants to light from this sofa and run, run to Dover and die in the snow, surrounded by the shining stars. He wishes feelings were something he could shed as assuredly as ice, and he has no idea what's going on inside his head, when Eduardo's hand finds his wrist.

"Mark?" he goes. "Mark, don't tell me you fell asleep on me," and Mark forgets all of that, lets it pass right through him as easily as starlight.

He wraps both arms around Eduardo's abdomen and squeezes, tight, as tight as he can, because really, who is he kidding?

"You're not," he says into the nape of Eduardo's neck. "You're not going to die miserable or alone."

Eduardo's breath stutters out of him, catches, holds sharply. Their fingers lace in between each other over his sternum, right over the soft place beneath it where they can feel the steady pulse of his heartbeat. Mark nestles in, tangling their legs together and burying his face between Eduardo's neck and the pillow. Eduardo lets the breath out, rattling and shaking, but holding it together, another breath more.

 

- ☀ -

 

Mark goes home.

He puts down his bucket and unlaces his boots and leaves them in the entryway, and he walks into the kitchen and then forgets why he did so. He stands at the window and looks at the Saturday morning gloom, color lightening over the tops of the trees, and finds that he's shaking like a leaf.

He grips the edge of the sink, still sticky with soap residue from last night's dishes (you haven't eaten yet, a voice reminds Mark, but the only thing that does is make him dizzy, like his body is just now remembering what it's supposed to do when he's hungry,) and he feels like he's not enough. There's too much inside of him, shifting and amorphous and stretching out like a child making a monster shape with its blankets, and the skin he's in is simply not enough to contain it. He wants to be anyone but who he is, be anyone on the street, even the lady in the corner house who cries when she thinks nobody can see her, because surely at least one of them would have skin that fits better than his does right now.

Just ... tell us next time you feel like taking a nap naked outside, Randi's voice murmurs out of his memory, and Mark pokes carefully around in his head.

It's dark: every single memory of what Eduardo said cuts at him like shards of glass, but the urge in him to flee is gone. He doesn't feel as awful as he did that time he tried to walk all the way back to the jail in Dover and fell asleep in the snow, because that had been born on guilt and horror, and guilt and horror are only the smallest, loudest fraction of what Mark's feeling right now, sinking like stones in his stomach.

It's more than guilt now. It's more than horror.

When he thinks of Eduardo, when he gingerly probes at the space in his head that Eduardo has occupied for the last four years of his life, it's no longer just the memory of his jaw shattering on impact, it's no longer just blood staining his vision every time he closes his eyes. He thinks, too, of Eduardo's stick-up hair and the dimples in the small of his back and the book of short fiction by the toilet and the noise Eduardo makes when Mark drags his teeth against his bottom lip and the way he said you came back.

The memories can't be separated. Mark thinks of Eduardo and he feels everything. How can one little heart, one little body, be enough for all of that?

Eventually, his father comes downstairs to put on a pot of coffee for his mother, and he blinks a little bit at the sight of Mark standing there in the unlit kitchen by himself, still wearing yesterday's clothes. He doesn't say anything, just maneuvers around Mark, fetching cups down from the cabinets and shaking out coffee grounds into a filter.

Mark joins him when he settles himself down to wait at the kitchen table. His father looks at him levelly, eyes kind behind his smudged-up bifocals, and they just sit there in silence as the coffee drips and Mark quietly reassembles all the shaken-up parts of himself.

He'll be okay.

It's funny, though, because what Mark goes through that morning isn't the most chaotic thing that happens to them that Saturday.

He wakes up just barely after noon, remembering abruptly that Sy wanted him to have a form filled out and postmarked by today. Swearing quietly and cursing adult responsibility up, down, and sideways, he shrugs into his winter coat and passes his mother, father, and sister in the living room, where they're all gathered around the television. CNN is on, but Mark doesn't stop to check it out, too busy trying to find mailing labels.

He trudges down to the post office, his shoelaces untied and his hair a frightful mess. He tugs his fingers through it when he's waiting in line for stamps, but it probably doesn't help all that much.

On the walk home, he can feel an inaudible buzz in the air, tension strung tight like the entire world has tried to balance itself on a piano wire. He passes people standing out on their porches, or nervously pacing with their cell phones to their ears, or bundling their kids into their cars in various states of undress. Even in the middle of the summer barbeque season, Mark doesn't usually see so many people outside, and he frowns, quickening his pace.

Mr. and Mrs. Zuckerberg are out on their porch, but Randi is halfway down the driveway when Mark finally reaches his own house, her neck craned back and her hair a loose tumble all the way down her back.

Mark follows her gaze: Earth Two is a pale visible halo in the sky.

"What's going on?" he asks.

She manages to pull her eyes away for the briefest moment, eyelashes tipped with sunlight, before they slide back again as if they've been magnetized.

"They made contact with Earth Two," she murmurs, sounding as lost and faraway as the stars and planets all. "They established stable communications. They just did a live broadcast of the director of SETI trying to speak directly with a denizen of Earth Two. And she did. Direct contact."

"Oh," goes Mark, glancing up, unbidden, like Earth Two might suddenly look different in the light of this or something. "Is there intelligent life over there, then?"

She blinks, rapid, and then fixes him with a longer look.

"Mark," she says, airless. "Mark, she talked to herself."

"... What?"

"She talked to herself. Earth Two has a SETI. The director of SETI on Earth Two is the same director of SETI on our planet here. Same name, same date of birth, same place of birth, same language. They have the same memories that only they would know. She started crying on television, Mark -- you can't fake something like that. It's real. It's really happening."

"So ..." No wonder people are freaking out, he realizes, and the noise of this revelation cancels out the mess going on in his own head. "For every person on this planet ..."

"There's an identical person on the other planet. A replicate. Think, Mark. There's another you on another Earth."

Mark stands there with her, letting that sink in for a moment. He cranes his head back to stare at the silhouette of Earth Two, same as everybody else is, probably everywhere around the globe. It's impossible not to. The significance of the moment is staggering.

I wonder if the other Mark and Eduardo had sex last night, too, is, stupidly, the very first thing he thinks, and then he finds himself laughing helplessly. Randi looks at him like he's crazy, catching his arm and supporting him when he tries to double over, wheezing, and that's refreshingly normal; his little sister looking at him like he's growing bamboo out his nostrils. He laughs harder.

On Monday, Jack pulls him aside and mentions that he and Luna are trying to bump up their retirement date.

"Not that we think we can escape it if we annihilate each other," Luna adds, catching the expression on Mark's face. The conversation isn't uncommon: it was seemingly everyone's initial reaction, which baffles the hell out of Mark, because why is violence the immediate first thing on everyone's mind? If Earth and Earth Two are exact replicas of each other, then who would be able to destroy who first? It's all anyone can talk about. "It's more, we want as much time in paradise as possible before somebody does something ill-advised."

"Somebody's always doing something ill-advised," Mark remarks, droll.

The Nelsons are serious about it, though, because later that week, they make a production out of presenting him with a brand new cart of his own, complete with a viridian green bumper sticker with a coiling silver snake on it that says "Slytherin is where you'll make your real friends." It makes him feel the way normal people would feel, he supposes, when finally given an office of their own.

He's refilling the paper towel dispenser in the girl's bathroom by the gym when he hears students approaching. They're talking loud enough that Mark can distinguish individual words, even around the music coming from his headphones.

" -- serious, Rin," one is saying. "What would you do if you could meet yourself?"

"What would you do?" another girl retorts. "Who are we kidding, what would any of us do? I always thought the world would be so much simpler and happier if I could just have sex with myself, and now it looks like I'll have the opportunity. No more messing around with other people who wouldn't know where to stick their fingers even with a diagram -- oh, damn, this bathroom's closed. Does anyone see the janitor?"

Pointedly, Mark thunks the top of the dispenser back into place. The noise reverberates off the tile walls.

"Ugh, I hope it's not that guy," Rin mutters, with absolutely no concept of volume. "The new one, whatever his name is. Have you ever gotten a look at his face? He is such a creeper. I don't ever want to be alone with him. He looks like he's going to skin you and wear you for --"

She cuts herself off suddenly, because Mark's snapping up the "closed for cleaning" sign in the bathroom doorway, clattering it on top of the cart, and Luna, surprisingly, has materialized out of nowhere, standing on the other side with the master set of keys in her hand. Rin herself suddenly goes fire-engine red, freckles standing out on her cheeks like dots of cinnamon. The other girls just look scared.

Mark doesn't blame them. He forgets, because Luna is generally a sweet, amiable person with no qualms with anybody, but she's a tall lady when she draws herself up to her full height, 200lb of muscle and fat, and she's glaring Rin down like she's imagining flattening her.

"Luna," Mark says. "It's all right, I don't mind," and he doesn't, because Mark is many things, and a lot of different people have looked out at the world through his eyes; the Mark that shot Eduardo's parents, the Mark that puts that hatred in Eduardo's voice, the Mark that cleans high schools and the Mark that would have been a Harvard freshman with a chip in his shoulder the size of a Cold War superpower, but Rin has nothing to fear from him. Ever. Because that's a person Mark is too. A good one.

Later, he finds a box of Christmas lights in a bin in the Dollar General, with big lantern bulbs shaped like the planets. They're identical to the ones he still has hanging in his attic room.

He sticks them into a flat-rate postage box and, using the St. George's return address, sends it to the college representative's office at Boston University.

 

- ☀ -

 

The next week slinks in warmly: the arctic winds ease off long enough for the continental fronts to move into the area, giving the New England coast soft breezes and sunshine it can actually feel again.

At the bus stop, Mark gets too hot and actually has to peel his coveralls open to the waist, knotting the sleeves around his hips. He twists his hair up in a bun so that it's off his neck, and relishes in the wind he can feel against his nape.

His mother mentioned something about attending a work conference up in Baltimore tonight, and she was going to take his dad because she anticipated it was going to be mind-numbingly boring ("like we're going to be able to focus on anything but Earth Two, after that shock we got!"), and somehow after 21 years of marriage, they hadn't yet managed to defeat each other at intense duels of tic-tac-toe under the table. So Mark isn't altogether surprised to see their car missing from the driveway and to hear voices upstairs when he lets himself in.

One of the voices is male. Mark has a very hard time containing his smirk.

Being deliberately overloud, he fills a glass with ice and fetches a Mountain Dew from the back of the fridge. After a moment, he hears Randi cut off mid-sentence and then go, crystal clear, "Oh, hey -- my brother's home!"

Mark takes a long chug, then sets the glass down on the counter and crosses to the foot of the stairs, almost colliding with Randi and her boyfriend.

Randi's boyfriend is dressed in lumberjack plaid and is a little amphibian-looking around the face, pale-veined with a nose so flat and squashed it makes Mark think of toadstools. He's not bad-looking, really, which is frustrating, given that Mark doesn't really want to like him on principle -- but she could do worse. Mark catches Randi in a half-hug, giving her a light shake, deciding their kids would have horrible hair, and saying cheerfully, "Hey, you, is your rash doing better?"

Her face wipes clean for a moment, and then she hits him. Hard.

"Jerk!" she exclaims. "Don't do that, he'll believe you. Charles, this is my brother, Mark. Mark, this is Charles."

Mark nods politely and promptly forgets the name. The guy extends a hand, looking down at him with a faint air of surprise, like he hadn't actually expected Randi's brother to be shorter than her.

"Harvard man, eh?" he goes, and Mark realizes as they shake on it that yeah, with his coveralls peeled down, his (admittedly rather gross, he's been sweating all day) Harvard sweatshirt is exposed, whereas this guy is going to go to Yale with his sister. Randi switches arms, tucking herself against her boyfriend's side and giving Mark a very pleading, pointed look. Don't fuck this up, she means.

He fixes a smile on his face. "Yeah, I was going to be."

The Yale dude nods expansively. "Right, I remember. You just got out of prison, isn't that right?"

Mark nods.

"No kidding, G," he makes a face. Mark's willing to bet he doesn't actually know anybody who went to prison, much less somebody like Mark, who wouldn't even tip the scales at 140lb, could maybe bench-press two laptops and a textbook, and has a death glare like a petulant teenager. "Hey, they really missed you around here while you were gone. Fucking hell," he goes, but it's just a statement. "Did you get any tattoos on the inside?"

Mark deserves a medal for the amount of willpower it takes not to roll his eyes. Randi had asked the same exact thing, after all. "No," he says.

"Nah, didn't think so. You're too much of a pussy for prison tats, aren't you?"

He blinks, but the boyfriend doesn't actually sound like he's trying to be insulting. He shoots a look at his sister, who grimaces back at him, pinched-faced and apologetic, and smiles uncertainly.

The guy doesn't really notice their discomfort, because he grins, lips peeling back off his teeth. "Hey, though, you know what they say about Harvard guys. You probably bent over and took it in the showers, am I right?"

"Is that what they say?" Mark replies, very icily.

Randi recognizes the look on his face, because she steers them both away from the staircase and into the living room, trying to distract them. Mark is bristling, but he tamps it down: he isn't really too piqued by the implication. He's had four years of being locked up with hundreds of other angry young men and women to come to terms with his fluid sexuality, but he doesn't usually tell people that for fear of the inevitable question about what happens to not-heterosexual men in prison.

It doesn't work, because the guy ribs Mark a little bit and says, "I probably shouldn't say that, huh? But you know how it is. I don't say, I do." He wags his eyebrows, eyes sliding deliberately towards Mark's sister. "You know?"

Silence.

It doesn't register for a moment, what the guy said.

And then, turning away from him, Randi's face does something Mark never wants to see it do again.

The moment stretches, highwire, and the only thing he hears is a sound like a tuning fork on very fine glass, piercing through his skull and leaving behind a ringingly high silence. Obviously seeing what is written plain and large on his face, Randi starts forward, saying, "Mark --" but it's too late.

Very calmly, Mark steps around the arm of the sofa. He leans over and grabs the end of his father's golf club, which was presumably tossed there after the last game of the season and in the intervening months worked its way deep underneath the cushions. Yanking it free, he pivots neatly on his heel, adjusts his grip, and strikes Randi's boyfriend clean across the skull.

The momentum of the blow sends him crashing backwards, all but falling down the entryway steps; every detail is fine-tuned, like Mark is seeing everything magnified, and so he takes note of a tooth as it goes pinging off the end table and skitters across the floor, crusted in red.

Words come spewing out of the guy's mouth as he finds his balance again, hands cupping the side of his face, each a peppering percussive blast of rage that Mark feels more than hears.

"You lunatic, you fucking fucked lunatic fucker -- fucking faggot kyke --"

"Oh, classy," snaps out Mark, disgusted.

-- and the guy's fingers probe at his cheek, no doubt finding the ragged hole where his tooth used to be, his eyes crashing back to Mark's. His shoulders bunch up like he's going to go for a tackle, an enraged snarling junkyard dog of a future Yale undergrad, so Mark lifts the golf club again, and it's almost comical, the way the guy cringes backward, full-body.

Mark laughs, a sharp bark of a sound, and then feints to the left.

The guy jerks sideways to compensate, and Mark cracks him again with a perfect swing, full across the back of his legs and sweeping them straight out from underneath him. He hits the floor like he'd been flung that way, shoulders first, the crash of it making the china rattle audibly the next room over. Randi makes a stifled noise, high and sharp, and Mark throws her a look over his shoulder, sees the brilliant, sun-radiant look in her eyes, and swings around again as if shocked, burning with it.

He gets the boyfriend underneath him, sitting astride his chest and planting the golf club down next to his ear like a man sticking a flag in a foreign country for the first time. Using it to prop himself up, he leans in close, grabbing the guy's chin with his other hand.

"Fucking --" he spits, wriggling underneath him, as grotesque as an earthworm that's been trod upon.

Mark digs his nails in, hard, and he shuts up.

"Do you want to know why I went to prison?" Mark tells him, conversational, looking down on him with his coldest, most reptilian look. "There was this man and this woman, see, and I put a bullet in each of them. Him then her. They'd never done a thing to me in their lives. They had a son, even, and I shot them and killed them."

The guy's eyes are as wide as a foreign country, and when Mark thins a look at him, needle-sharp, he flinches, blinking as fast as someone stepping out into a snowstorm.

"Now," Mark continues, dropping his voice and leaning in closer still, so the guy has nowhere to look but him. "If I can do that to an innocent couple, what the fuck do you think I'll do to you if you ever come near my sister again?"

He lifts his eyebrows, and lets that sit for a moment so it can sink in, and then he shifts his weight back.

"Now," he says again, patting the boyfriend's chest, like good talk, bro. "I believe the door is right there, should you require any aid in finding it."

He stands, keeping his feet planting on either side of the guy's ribs and his hand casual on the handle of the golf club. In a flash of white polo shirt, the guy slithers out from underneath him, scrambling to his feet. He doesn't look back, not once, hauling the door open and slamming out onto the porch, hands flailing out like he's flinging himself out to sea.

Mark leans the club up against the wall, and follows.

Folding his arms, he stays there on the front porch until he sees the guy stagger across the street like he's wobbling on broken legs (bitch, please, like Mark hit him that hard) and get into a gleaming silver slug of a Lexus. The windows are tinted, so Mark has no idea what he does in there -- calls the cops, maybe, or makes some whiny post to MySpace from his phone, or checks out his face in the rearview like nobody's offered to mess it up for him before, or something that takes up several long moments -- before he sticks the key in the ignition and the brake lights come on.

He waits until the Lexus peels off down the street, taking a left at the stop sign without signaling, and feels even doubly vindicated. The kind of assholes who can't be bothered to signal (like somehow the rules of the road apply to everybody but them) are also the kind of assholes you don't want around your sister. Mark feels justified.

When he goes back inside, Randi's sitting at the bottom of the stairs, knees drawn up to her chest and her arms crossed over them.

Her head jerks up when he shuts the front door, lock snicking shut behind him, and then she's on her feet and flying at him, fast as a terrified creature. He thinks, kneejerk, that she's going to hit him too, and braces himself for a blow, but then she flings her arms around his neck.

The momentum staggers them; his hip bumps the umbrella stand, making it rattle hollowly and almost fall over, but then he catches his balance. He has Randi's hair in his mouth, and she's saying, fast, streaming words, "you are so dumb, you are so stupid, what is wrong with you you freak of nature why do you think it's okay to do things like that you -- you -- you --"

She's pushing into him so hard they're in danger of toppling over again, like she's trying to climb into his skin, so he touches the small of her back and returns, trying for dry and missing by a mile, "I'm always trying to play-act the hero, remember?"

"You're stupid," she says again, and her voice shakes in a way that makes Mark's stomach hurt. "That's what you are. I'm a big girl, I would have taken care of it myself --"

She breaks off into a squeak, near-involuntary, because Mark chooses that moment to wrap his arms tight around her, crushing her as close to him as she is him to her.

"I know," he tells her, fierce, pressing his mouth against the side of her face in something that's a little too hard to be called a kiss. "I know you are, I know that, but you --" he rocks her, back and forth, like he did when she was four and pudgy and hadn't yet learned how to tattle on him for everything and he thought his little sister was cooler even than puppies and earthworms and Nerf guns. Her fingers clutch fistfuls of his hoodie. "You are my little sister. Stuff like that --" he shrugs. "It's what you have me for, okay?"

"What, to break up with my boyfriends for me?"

"The crummy ones especially. We could charge admission for the show and make a lot of money," he informs her solemnly.

"Stupid," she mutters, more affectionate than if she'd used his name.

The hug loosens up a little bit, so they're just sort of cradling each other there in the entryway, surrounded by their winter coats on pegs and boots tossed haphazardly over each other, summer flip flops languishing dustily in the corners and umbrellas folded up and tossed everywhere except the umbrella stand where they're supposed to be. Mark tucks his face closer to Randi's, wrinkling his nose as her hair tickles up his nostrils, and says, very quietly, "Don't go to Yale."

She squeezes him. "No," she agrees, just as quiet. "I'm too good for them anyway."

(Later, in the master bathroom with his parents safely ensconced downstairs unwinding from work and reliving the glory days of the 90s with a Full House marathon, he just stands there and stares at his mother's make-up kit in helpless confusion, and then he winds up calling Christy, phone tucked into the hollow of his shoulder as he describes what he has in his hand to her and she tells him what to do with it, tone completely mild like men call her up for make-up tips all the time. So when his mother leans around the banister and calls "dinner!", he goes down with his hair pulled neatly into pigtails and his face done up like a Bratz Doll, too much blush and thick cakes of eyeliner like something half-rotted, and Randi takes one look at him and squirts milk out her nose. His parents look like they aren't sure what to do, and Mark refuses to drink out of anything but a teacup for the rest of the night, pinky coyly extended, just to see the face his sister makes. She laughs herself sick. It's a good night.)

(Mr. Zuckerberg never does get a straight answer on what happened to his golf club.)

 

- ☀ -

 

The next time he has an appointment with Sy, he's ten minutes late because of a water main break on Pike's Hollow, the water flooded across four lanes and frozen thick and shiny like the lanes of a bowling alley, as the early April trees hesitantly begin to bud. The bus has to inch through, the driver stretched up to her full height so she can see and her hands careful on the wheel, the DJ on the radio chattering excitedly about how Space Adventures is going to release the name of their first winner later tonight.

The first of twelve available seats on the shuttle to Earth Two has been won.

It doesn't really feel all that long ago that Mark first heard about it, so it disconcerts him, a little, that they're already picking the winners. When he filled out his submission to the essay contest, he hadn't been thinking about the person inevitably reading it; at the time, the prospect of actually picking the winners had seemed nebulous, far-off, like the idea that in ten thousand years, the Earth will tilt on its axis like a top that's been left to wobble, so that due north will wind up pointing straight at the star Vega. It was just something that would happen sometime.

He thinks, briefly, about his own entry, and his chances, and then he stops thinking about it because he's sitting down in a chair across from Sy, who looks at him over his bifocals and startles a little bit, like Mark is the last person he actually expects to see, which is dumb because this is Mark's appointment time.

Then he puts the heel of his hand to his forehead and sighs, "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph."

"No," Mark answers. "I'm Mark. We've been through this before."

Sy levels another blank stare at him, the silence between them stretching out long enough that even Mark clues into it and then rewinds his sentence backwards, trying to figure out what he said wrong. He blinks back at Sy, realizing he's never actually demonstrated a sense of humor to the man before; he's been nothing but monosyllabic cooperation and childish glottal noises since the very first day.

Then, another heartbeat later, Mark remembers Randi's boyfriend.

"Oh," he says, frowning, because that's probably something you should address with your parole officer, right? "He tattled on me, didn't he?"

Sy's mouth flattens out. "Tattled -- ?" he starts, and then his shoulders heave on a sigh, like this is too much. "Charles McMann has leveled two counts of battery and assault against you, Mr. Zuckerberg, and that's just in the last week." When Mark just shrugs at him, not quite sure what he wants him to say, Sy leans his weight back in his chair, one hand covering his face, like someone with a migraine shielding themselves from a very bright light. "I know a lot of kids like you," he starts, exhaling heavily. "Who think the hard part is over when they get out of jail, but I don't think you appreciate just how easy it is to get yourself sent back. There's only so much I can protect you from --"

"He implied that he would have sexual relations with my seventeen-year-old sister," Mark cuts in, cold, and Sy's jaw shuts with an audible click. "And that whether or not she consented was not something he took into account. He said as such. To my face."

Sy lowers his hand and looks at him for a long moment.

"So I ..." Mark makes a vague gesture with his hand. "Hit him over the head a couple times."

"You ... hit him over the head," Sy echoes, sounding deeply unsurprised.

He lifts a shoulder. "With a golf club," he amends, and scowls at the expression that immediately crosses Sy's face. "What? He survived, which is pretty impressive, considering my track record."

"Mr. Zuckerberg --"

"No, sir," and Mark sits up straight, spreading his hands out in front of him imploringly. "Please," and that, if anything, is what shocks Sy the most -- he actually visibly double-takes in his seat, blinking rapidly.

Mark balls his hands into fists, glancing down at the skin straining white over his knuckles, and exhales, relaxing his grip. Distractedly peeling a long hair from the fabric across his knee and tossing it aside, he addresses the ground, quiet, "I'm doing okay. I am. I work full-time. My job is ... rewarding, and pays well. I have a boyfriend --" he stutters only slightly over the word, making Sy's eyebrow tick up, but he doesn't take it back, because it's true, isn't it? They never actually said the word to each other or about each other, but if someone grabs you by the wrist when you try to leave and pulls you back in for the sole purpose of kissing your mouth, nipping without intent, like they can't imagine you anywhere else than within arm's reach, then on some cosmic level, you're boyfriends, right? "-- I have friends, I spend time with my family, I have hobbies. I'm doing okay."

Sy watches him for another moment with that bullfrog stare of his, until Mark sighs and steeples his fingers, resting his forehead against them.

"Don't send me back," he says, barely above a whisper, a confession.

He doesn't look to see, but eventually, Sy's chair creaks as he sits up, flipping Mark's file open. Mark gathers the strength to lift his head, and finds Sy regarding him calmly, pen poised.

"We'll see what we can do," he says, his voice coming out stiff, which is Mark's only clue that he's affected at all: Sy's the kind of person who gets smooth and oily when he's annoyed, and tends to lose that when something's actually getting to him. "About getting those charges dropped."

Mark nods at him, too stunned to speak for a moment. Belatedly, he recognizes the dismissal for what it is, and gets to his feet.

"Oh, and Mr. Zuckerberg?" Sy's mouth curves wryly in one corner. "Next time, you should bring your young man around. Or would you rather the opportunity to introduce him to your dad first?"

"Oh my god," Mark says, horrified, and escapes to the sound of Sy's laughter.

 

- ☀ -

 

Mark has thirty or forty photographs spread out on the kitchen island -- almost everything he could salvage out of the water-damaged boxes in the last room he deep-cleaned -- and Eduardo stands next to him, hip pressed into his, pointing out certain faces and telling the stories behind each photograph.

"My grandmother," he taps his nail against one; an overexposed shot of an old woman in a Lakers jacket, standing by the side of a road and wearing a sunhat that hides most of her face. "She's tribal, you know, although they had to cede a lot of that identity. She tried teaching me the language, but I only remember a couple words. My dad could speak it. He was good with languages, my dad: tribe, English, Spanish, Portuguese, money and politics, and he could swear a blue streak in Klingon."

Mark grins. "Sounds like your dad is someone I would have liked."

"Meh, he was all right," Eduardo goes for nonchalant and fails miserably. He pulls another photograph close; a man with a bushy mustache and a three-piece suit, standing with an enormous pair of scissors in front of a ribbon. Manuel Saverin. "He was so proud of me," Eduardo murmurs, quiet. "When a parent's just so proud of you like that, it ... it can bolster you through anything. To be fair," his smile turns a little self-deprecating. "I never tried to do anything to piss him off. Why would I? I loved my dad."

"And your mom?" Mark leans forward on his elbows to reach a third -- a woman in front of a birthday cake, smiling for the camera in a put-upon kind of way. Eduardo inherited her dimples.

"I loved her too," Eduardo says feelingly. "My grandmother didn't want my dad to marry her, did I tell you that? It's because she was only a third-generation Brazilian, and she was ..." His smile quirks. "Completely unapologetic about it. Spanish Jew, she was, through and through."

He gingerly picks up another photograph by the edges.

"I miss them," he confesses.

Mark has never been more grateful for his poker face in his entire life. "I know," he says, and distracts Eduardo with a kiss.

Kissing Eduardo has easily become one of Mark's favorite things. Sex is on that list too, immediately thereafter. It's like having a new project, only this time, instead of music sharing or cleaning or gardening, the project is seeing if he can put his mouth on every part of Eduardo's body.

Mark doesn't even really pretend he's coming over to clean anymore.

It's one of those impossible, impressive, strange things about the human race: how anyone is capable of leaving their beds in the morning, of getting dressed and going to work and running errands like that's somehow important, when they have somebody to wrap themselves up in, someone who will kiss them even with morning breath? How is anything worth getting up for, compared to that?

Even after he dreams of blood and wakes up with his stomach churning, Mark will still take Saturday mornings with Eduardo over anything else in the world -- Eduardo lets him run his fingers along his jaw, and helpfully guides him along the places where his bones were reconstructed or replaced with titanium. It grounds him, feeling the hiccups where metal meets the remnants of bone.

"No, stop," he grumbles now. "Put your hand back where it was," and Eduardo laughs, a convulsion Mark can feel through the places where their bodies are connected, before he slides his fingers underneath the waistband of Mark's boxers, curling around his hip.

He kisses underneath Mark's ear. "I do like what you've done with the place," he murmurs, and Mark pulls away to find him studying the kitchen and the front room. "I think you deserve a bonus."

"Promises, promises."

Eduardo dodges the kiss. "I had someone come out and appraise the house last year, you know. He told me he thought it would take $18,000 to fix up this old ruin, and you did it in just a few months, without me even really asking you to," his nails scratch lines into Mark's skin, affectionate.

Then he pulls away, gathering up the photographs with reverence. He glances over his shoulder at Mark.

"Do you want $18,000?" he asks idly. "I could write a check for that."

"I don't want a check," Mark responds without hesitation. He thinks he should probably be offended, because ... well, okay, yeah, it is a little skeevy, since technically, on paper, Eduardo is his employer and Mark's on his payroll, but fuck that, Mark feels too good right now to fuss with it. Christy's right: do what you want and ignore what anyone says. Go ahead and drag that boy into the bathroom by his ears.

"Oh?" Eduardo lifts his eyebrows. "Is that why none of my checks to Merry Maids have been cashed?"

Mark levels a look at him, giving nothing away. "You caught me," he deadpans. "I saw you in the city one day and I said 'golly gee, I have to have that man' and I followed you back to your place and pretended to be a maid just so I could set myself up around your house in a number of bendy, suggestive poses, just to get your attention. The only foil to my plan was the costume rental shop didn't think I would fit their French maid outfits. I was never part of Merry Maids." He extends his arms, wrists up. "Arrest me, officer."

Eduardo's holding onto the edge of the counter to hold himself up, bent double with laughter.

"I have seen you with a feather duster," he manages. "And let me tell you, it's the most unsexy image I have ever seen."

"Blasphemy," Mark drawls. "I am a porn star."

Eduardo's knuckles whiten. "Your mouth, maybe," he says, which derails Mark's train of thought so spectacularly he's pretty sure he's not imagining the far-off sound of screaming and explosions.

"Wardo --" he starts.

Eduardo smiles over at him, as guileless as he hadn't just shaved off a year of Mark's life. "I like it when you call me that," he confesses, low, before his mouth tips upward. "Even though it does sound like you're calling me a weirdo."

"Dude. You think Jack Daniels is an acceptable breakfast food and you haven't even read one of Isaac Asimov's books," Mark points out, rolling his eyes. "You are a weirdo."

"I work it," Eduardo admits, spreading out his hands. He does some kind of shimmy around the table that makes Mark snort; he looks up at Eduardo as he draws near, sees the brilliant doe color of his eyes and the smile on his face, and only then does he flick his gaze at the minute disfigured tug of scar tissue that bisects his cheek. Same as he always does every single time, he thinks two things: I killed your parents, and I love you more than winter snowfall and language and all the small, beautiful chaotic things.

He reaches out, grabbing fistfuls of Eduardo's shirt and using them to rein him in. He lifts his chin and Eduardo tumbles into him, laughing and pressing their mouths together, sticky and warm as salt water taffy.

They plan to go out on a weekend once, just to see what it's like -- that dating thing.

It's the kind of ordeal that Mark thinks he should probably, like, comb his hair for and maybe find a nice shirt, except he stands in the middle of his attic room and realizes that he doesn't actually own anything that isn't his boiler man suit or the kind of sweats familiar to everyone who's ever seriously contemplated declaring their computer to be their significant other. "Damn," he mutters, and goes fishing for the cordless phone.

His best bet for nice clothes is Alan, since they're the same size and roughly the same shape and, unlike Mark, nobody has to tell Alan that purple and orange don't go well together in the same outfit. He and Christy have separate closets because, between them, they have more clothes than the Beaudelaire orphans have dire and unfortunate circumstances, and Murray pokes his head sleepily out of the tangled mess of the bedsheets when Alan lets him in, watching them with his one eye. He's made a nest out of something flat with a number of hooks that Mark frowns at for a long moment, wondering if maybe it's some kind of corset.

"You should wear those," Alan says, and Mark looks in the direction he's pointing: a pair of black pumps discarded at the foot of the bed, with the chain of ten planets carved into the heel. "You'd look good in heels."

"Of course I would," Mark admits, modest, and he peels off his socks so that he can slip into them. The way he wobbles makes Alan laugh so hard Mark thinks he's going to be sick; Alan has the kind of smile that takes up his entire face, all teeth. Mark thinks it might be his best feature.

He almost trips over a power cord, and decides that's enough.

"Maybe I'll break those out on the third date," he says, stepping out of them.

The bulk of Alan's closet is exactly what Mark expects it to be: hipster flannel, old band shirts that have frayed through at the collar, jackets with the elbows worn through, and several pairs of jeans that look like they came from the women's side of Abercrombie. Something sparkly and sequiny catches Mark's eye: Alan has ... okay, Alan has a couple dresses, too, it looks like; slinky black numbers and one that's pure silver sequins and another that looks like an old prom dress.

Granted, they're on the polar ends of the rack, where you push things that no longer fit, but just as Mark's deciding on whether or not to compliment Alan's taste, Alan holds up something navy blue with a lot of buttons to his chest, and Mark forgets about the dresses.

After approximately fifteen minutes of enduring Randi's ceaseless teasing, Mark decides that going out is for losers, and so on the way out to Eduardo's, he takes the Blue Line over so he can get take-out from Wok n' Roll over by the campus.

"I didn't know you liked sushi," Eduardo said, clearly delighted by the treat. "I always thought of you as kind of a steak and potatoes kind of guy."

"I don't like sushi," Mark agrees, wrinkling his nose in distaste. "This isn't sushi. This is Wok n' Roll. If you get sushi anywhere else in Boston, you're doing it wrong."

Eduardo laughs, and fishes the chopsticks out of the bag. He hands a pair to Mark, and they break them apart: Eduardo's go cleanly. Mark's don't.

"Good luck for me," Eduardo crows, taking his evenly-broken chopsticks and pulling over one of the take-away platters. "And none for you."

"Because that will be an enormous change of pace," Mark says, expressionless. "Hold me, I think I'm going to faint."

They eat on the sofa, Mark half-sitting on top of Eduardo's legs so they don't have to reach very far to pass the platter back and forth to each other. Mark's careful not to spill anything incriminating on Alan's borrowed shirt; a button-up that's as dark blue as a midnight, with skinny silver stripes that "bring out that impossible color in your eyes," which he'd delivered so seriously that Mark hadn't been able to tell if Alan was being sarcastic or not.

"This was a good idea," Eduardo says. "It's too cold to go out."

"You know, these are these wonderful inventions called winter coats, you might have heard of them ..."

"Oh, please, like I've seen you wear a winter coat even once. Besides," and Eduardo's lips curl off his teeth. "I have a completely selfish and ulterior motive for keeping your hands warm tonight."

Staying indoors is a good idea in theory, but it doesn't really work in practice, because Eduardo catches sight of lightning through the kitchen window, and not even the promise of sex from Mark will stop him from banging out on the front porch to watch it. Mark gathers a couple cushions off the sofa and goes out there with him, and they settle in to eat the rest of their food, shoveling avacado rolls into their mouths. Eduardo good-naturedly bitches about the soy sauce stains on his shirt. They sit there together, after, the take-out containers discarded beside them. They can't see the waves, but they can hear them; the ferocity and the crash of the high tide.

They watch dry lightning flash fast as heartbeats out at sea.

The wind picks up, stirring the grasses into a whisper, and Eduardo turns to him, murmuring, "Storm's coming." Mark makes a noise in the back of his throat, leaning back to let him slide a hand up his shirt. He stretches out on the wooden boards, toes curling, and thinks there's no end to the ways he loves this man.

 

- ☀ -

 

When the whole world gets flipped upside down, it's on a Monday.

St. George's is still on Easter break, so Mark enjoys his day off by sleeping in and doing absolutely nothing useful with himself, which really makes for a fantastic holiday. Although the weatherman promised it was going to drop back below freezing after nightfall, right now it's not so bad, so Mark props open the small, dusty window in the attic that overlooks the street. The birds are returning home -- he can hear them settling among frost-frozen branches, chirping back and forth questioningly. Questing, hungry squirrels scrabble across the roof.

Around mid-morning, while he's sitting cross-legged on his mattress and indulging in a second bowl of cereal, Randi comes up to visit him, hauling herself up the ladder.

"Randy-man," Mark goes, putting his bowl of now mostly milk to the side. "What brings you to my lair?"

"Markellina," she returns, but there's no tease to the jibe. Mark straightens up -- in the light coming up from the hallway, she looks peaky, nervous, and deeply unhappy, her mouth drawn up tight as a walnut. She's carrying an envelope in her hand, holding it by opposite corners and spinning it between her fingertips. She glances around the attic -- not that there's ever been much to look at, since Mark has the decoration sense of a prison inmate -- and her eyes linger on the photo frame Mark put on top of an old, broken dresser, before she finally looks back to him.

He thinks he might know what's up. "Hey, is this about Mrs. Marejavo?" he goes, moderating his voice. "'Cause Mom already told me. Do you want to go to the wake?"

"Mrs. --" her brow creases in confusion for a second before it smoothes out again. "Oh, our kindergarten teacher. Wait, wake? She died?"

"Yeah. Kidney failure." It's incredibly odd news to hear: Mark hasn't thought about Mrs. Marejavo probably since he left her class, and he never thought of her as a particularly old woman, but ... it's been fifteen years since Mark was in kindergarten. You don't really ever think that time has the same effect on other people that it does on you. It's weird, how people go and die while you're busy not paying attention to them while they're living.

"Oh," her mouth makes a sad shape for a moment, before she shakes it off. "No, no, that's not what I was -- here." She extends the envelope, not meeting his eyes.

Mark unfolds from the mattress, getting up and crossing over to take it from her.

It's addressed to him. There's a company logo in the corner that makes his stomach drop out the second he recognizes it. He feels the weight of it in his hands, thick and chunky. There's more than one piece of paper in here.

"Randi?" he goes, voice only slightly unsteady.

She rounds her shoulders, defensive. She's looking back at the picture, and he hopes she doesn't recognize the people in it: it's the family portrait shot of the Saverins that he stole. "Well?" she goes, belligerent. "What does it say?"

"I already know what it says," says Mark, which is true, but he's not going to think about it, not yet, it's too big. Oh holy shit, there's no fucking way --

He looks at her again, a horrible suspicion clamoring for attention. "When did it arrive?"

"How do you know what it says? You haven't even --"

"Randi!" He doesn't mean to shout. Randi shrinks further in on herself, eyes dropping down to her toes. "When did it arrive?"

"The Friday before last," she mutters, almost inaudibly, and at the noise he makes, something high and sharp like an animal caught into a trap, she blurts out, "You were at work or whatever it is you do on Friday nights that you never come home, so I took it out of the mail --"

"Why would you --" he chokes out, staring at her. Fury begins to bubble up underneath the shock. "Randi, you can't keep something like this from me," he goes, grinding his teeth. "Why would you keep that from me, you have no right --"

"I don't want you to go away again!" explodes out of her, silencing him. Shaking hard, she presses the backs of her hands against her eyes, trying to pull herself together.

Stunned speechless, he just looks at her, and for one moment, all he can see is the little girl she used to be, visible in her hunched shoulders and the downturned, wobbly line of her mouth; the little girl whose diapers he used to change, the little girl he goaded until she was crying, again and again, hiccuping sobs that she tried to stifle even when their mom made him hug her in apology. His little sister.

His little sister, who looks back at him, her eyes haloed in red and fierce. "The last time you went somewhere, we didn't hear shit from you for four years. We visited -- they told you that, right? Every two weeks, we drove up to see you, but you wouldn't see us. We thought fine, he's got things to work through, we'll give him space, but ... but it was four years. It was like we buried you, with the way people kept treating us. I don't want that to happen again, so I hid the letter. I hid it. I thought if you didn't answer, then they would have to pick somebody else." Her mouth curves, rueful. "Everyone always wants a piece of my stupid genius brother."

"Randi," he tries, at a complete and total loss. "I can't just --"

"Shut up," she hisses, and it's easy, then, to open his arms for a hug. They crush each other close, and after a long moment, she sighs and says in the manner of one completely defeated, "Just come back, okay?"

After she leaves, he settles back down onto the mattress, folding his legs so that he has something to brace his elbows on, and opens the letter.

He gets as far as big, bold "CONGRATULATIONS" proclamation on the front cover sheet before he has to fold it back down and bury his face in his hands. His breath rattles in and out of him, shaking every part of his skeleton. When he's ready, he picks the letter back up again and reads through it. Twice.

Swallowing against a completely dry throat, working around it like it's made of sandpaper, he fetches the cordless phone and, with trembling thumbs, dials the number presented to him.

It rings once. Twice.

"Hello thank you for calling Space Adventures," blurs out of the phone without pause, and Mark's heart makes a valiant leap in some startled direction that isn't inside his body. "My name is Ashleigh how may I direct your call?"

Shit. What do you say? How do you --

"Uh," he manages, because he is, in fact, an incredibly intelligent person and picks the absolute best times to demonstrate it. "Hi. Um, this is Mark. Mark Zuckerberg. I got --"

"Oh!" Enthusiasm lights her voice up. "Of course, hello, Mark! Would you like to speak to Sean?"

"I --" Sean Parker? Music mogul, billionaire, front face for Space Adventures? Talk to Sean? "I ... Yes?"

"Excellent! Let me go get him for you, if you will hold for just a moment, please."

"Just a moment" actually turns into forty-five minutes of being on hold, but Mark gives approximately two flying fucks, and neither of them are very serious, as far as flying fucks go. The guy became a billionaire when he was nineteen and he's about to irrevocably change Mark's life, he's allowed to leave people on hold for forty-five minutes. Mark slurps at the now room-temperature milk in his cereal bowl and listens to the hold music.

And then, without warning, there's a voice in his ear.

"Mark Zuckerberg, I presume," it says. "We were beginning to think we weren't going to hear from you."

Mark's brain short-circuits with panic. "Uh," he goes. "Hi. Mr. Parker?"

"Oh, please, it's just Sean. I'm not 'Mister' anything. I must say, Mark, the essay you wrote for us was ... impressive. And heartfelt." A chuckle escapes the soundpiece pressed to Mark's ear. He's having trouble believing that Sean Parker is actually on the other end of the line. "Did you know, when I was very little, my mother sat me down and she said to me, 'Sean. When you grow up, you're either going to go to jail or become a millionaire', and man, let me tell you how happy I am that I wound up one and not the other.

"But what I don't think other people understand," he continues. "Is just how thin that line really is. Don't think I'm not sympathetic to your circumstances, because I know that line better than anyone. I remember being bankrupt, being sued by anyone who'd ever won a Grammy. I remember how dark it gets, and don't think I'm not grateful every single day of my life that I got out on top. But this crew, the crew I want to brave the unknown and go to Earth Two -- I want them to be people like me. A little reckless, maybe, but a lot willing to roll with the punches and get back up again. I want to know what a good thing I have when I got it."

There's a pause.

"Mark," he says, and Mark startles, having forgotten that he's actually a participant in this conversation. He'd just been nodding along, heedless that he's on the phone and there's no way Sean can see him. "Why shouldn't a felon get to go into space? So many other things are denied you, but not this, I promise you, and I need a crew independent of their shortcomings. Are you that man, Mark?"

Sean Parker does know how to deliver a speech, that's for sure.

"Do you want to come with us to Earth Two?"

Mark breathes out. There's no conceivable way to ground himself against this, not something so insanely monumental, but ... it doesn't matter, does it? He doesn't need to be grounded to get flung into space, so he supposes that it's fitting that he already feels like he's been tossed amongst the stars, floating there with a supernova heart and a mind scattered far as galaxies.

"Yes," he says.

"Good," says Sean warmly. "And, just as a side note, I must confess that it's very convenient for me, the fact that your records are sealed. Even if you've lived your life like the Dalai Lama -- and you and I both know that we sure haven't -- then the press is going to find something, and if they don't, they're going to make something up. You're going to be the center of attention for awhile before takeoff, and I apologize for that in advance, but it's good that they're not going to be able to hash out your crimes in front of the world. Nobody wants that kind of publicity."

Through his general starstruckedness, Mark hears himself say, still operating completely independently of his brain, "You're welcome. I totally went to jail at seventeen on purpose."

He clicks his jaw shut, horrified.

But Sean just laughs. "That's my man. Well, you have your ticket, and your instructions. We'll need you to sign a few forms -- or, you know, about a hundred -- but that will be taken care of at training camp, which you have the dates for. So with that, I will let you go. I'm looking forward to seeing you, and --" his voice does that grand thing it does. "Let me be the first to say: welcome aboard, Mark Zuckerberg."

Then he's gone.

Mark's still sitting there on the mattress, staring down at the phone in his hand, completely dumbfounded by what just happened, when it suddenly lights up and starts ringing.

He jolts in surprise, and for a moment, is unable to connect the sound to the thing in his hand and the fact there's something he can do about it.

He manages to hit the button. "Yeah?"

"... hello, is Mark Zuckerberg there?" says a voice. It is light, airily pleasant, and Mark cannot immediately make a distinction between masculine or feminine. It doesn't sound like Ashleigh from before, but Mark doesn't know who else would be calling him.

"This is he."

"Mark!" Immediately, the voice is recognizable again.

"Alan," says Mark, a little surprised. "Hey."

"Hi," Alan breathes out. "Listen, I ... I am so glad I got a hold of you, I hope you don't mind I still have your number from when you needed a shirt and I'm really sorry to bother you, I swear I wouldn't unless it's important --"

"Alan." Alan doesn't sound okay: his voice is wavering all over the place, deeply shaken. There are noises in the background that Mark can't identify. "What is it?"

There's a trembling inhale on the other line. "Something's happened."

 

- ☀ -

 

Mark stands in the doorway for several long moments, arms uncomfortably crossed over his chest, pinning his shaking hands against his ribs. In the hallway behind him, someone shuffles by, laboriously dragging their IV pole with them. The lights are down dim in this ward, so the computer displays cast long, faded blue hues across the tiles.

He waits, uncertain, until Alan sees him. He straightens up from Christy's bedside and comes over.

"Thank you for coming," he says, and Mark makes a dismissive gesture, because it wasn't even a choice, not really. "I wouldn't have -- I have to go into work, nobody could cover my shift for me, and I ..." he glances over his shoulder. "I don't want her to wake up and for nobody to be here, you know? You're her best friend."

"One of them," Mark acknowledges.

On the hospital bed, hooked up to four separate readers and a long IV drip, Christy is unrecognizable. Her face is wrapped from chin to crown in gauze, thin white fabric gone translucent with gel, and her ears are covered in thick pads like earmuffs. Her eyes are hidden from view, and her head has been shaved down except for a small cluster of dreadlocks, gathered into a ponytail at the nape of her neck.

"They called her parents," Alan continues. He looks exhausted, and he smells -- Mark realizes with an unpleasant lurch in his stomach -- like campfire smoke. "They're coming in on a morning flight. It's the earliest they could make it."

"Where are they flying from?"

Alan shakes his head. "Somewhere in the Midwest? I don't know," and they shrug at each other with all the cluelessness of those who've lived in New England all their lives and aren't really sure what exists in the Midwest besides, possibly, corn and maybe a person or two. "I've never met them. They send us gifts all the time, though -- I don't think the novelty of having a daughter who goes to Harvard has quite worn off for them yet."

They're both quiet. The machines beep, continuous.

Finally, Mark swallows and asks, "What happened?"

A frown creases deep between Alan's eyebrows, a fresh hurt. "We won't know until she wakes up and get her version of things," he says, very softly. "But I was in the bedroom, and she was in the kitchen, and when she started screaming, I ran out there and -- and she was burning," he shakes his head, making a low mournful noise, and Mark wishes he hadn't said anything.

"Go," he nudges Alan with his elbow. "I'll stay with her."

Alan flashes him the weak-wattage skeleton of his usual smile. "Thanks, man," he goes, and sets off down the hall with a heavy-shouldered trudge.

Mark drags the bedside chair as close as he can, and, when he finds an angle that works with both their wrists and the obstacle of the bed railing, settles in to wait with his hand wrapped around Christy's.

It doesn't take long. It's the slight increase in the beeping of the machines that alerts him, perhaps an hour or so after Alan leaves, and when he lifts his head, blinking himself out of his daze, he sees Christy's head shifting back and forth on her pillow, restless, like she's trying to look around. She won't be able to see anything, obviously, not with the gauze around her eyes, and she might be disoriented enough to think she's in the dark.

He stands up, fingers tightening around her hand to call attention to them, and with the other hand, he touches her shoulder.

She stills, head turning sightlessly in his direction, and then she smiles and rasps out, "Mark," which hurts him somewhere deep inside, painful and a little sweet, too, and it's a good thing he's such a small person, because he doesn't think he could have been able to squeeze himself lengthwise into the hospital bed with her otherwise. She scoots over to make room for him, not letting go of his hand, and he settles in, resting his head on her shoulder.

He opens his mouth to say something, and then shuts it again. She can't hear, either.

She bumps heads with him gently, a groggy movement that makes her groan, but then she says, in a voice that's all stumbling syllables, the same way Eduardo's voice gets when he forgets to enunciate, "You want to know why I did this, don't you?"

Did this? She ... she did this to herself?

He nudges her with his chin, and she chuckles; a wet, chesty sound like a bullfrog. "They were talking about Earth Two on TV again, about how close it's coming --" she coughs on the rest of the sentence, turning away from him, and falls quiet for a long moment, leaving them with nothing but the steady sound of her machines. Then she says, "I'm so sick of seeing myself as I am. Why would I want to meet another me?"

He runs his thumb over the back of her hand.

"No," she agrees. "Two of me? I can't imagine anything worse. So I figured ..." Careful, she touches the gauze that obscures her features, feeling the edges.

Mark can piece the rest of it together. He doesn't need to be told, because he can understand the impulse to make yourself unrecognizable, to make yourself somebody you can actually stand to be.

Using both hands now, he smoothes out her palm, kissing the center of it.

It surprises her into laughing at him. "Charmer," she slurs, shoving at his hands, and then, slyer still, she says, "so I suppose now would be a bad time to ask for that cunnilingus, huh?"

Mark bites the heel of her hand.

She laughs harder, and he nestles in beside her, nudging her ankle with his toe. She quiets, and then she reaches over, touching his ribs gently, like she's making sure he's there.

"Do you want to know what else they said on TV? It's really interesting." She pauses for a beat. "Have you heard of Shermer's theory?"

He shakes his head, bumping against her shoulder.

"It's been four years, you know, since Earth Two first appeared in the sky, and science is no more capable of explaining why it's there than when we first spotted it. So there's this theory -- it's kind of sci-fi, but what in our lives isn't, really? Everybody makes little decisions every single day, right? Walk down this hallway because so-and-so might be there, or turn left at this intersection because traffic might be lighter. Every decision we make has consequences, so every time we choose differently, it's a different consequence."

She pauses a second, licking her lips. Her voice is as raspy as sandpaper, and Mark glances over at her saline drip worriedly, but the bag is still mostly full.

"So every different consequence creates a separate world that runs parallel to ours. There are hundreds of thousands of parallel worlds, all of them layered along ours. Shermer thinks it explains Earth and Earth Two. We're parallel worlds, but we can see each other because the differences between us are too enormous and we've become visible, whereas all the other parallel worlds are too close to our own and we can't see them. Earth Two jumped its track. It's a broken mirror. All it would take is one person, one moment, with disastrously different consequences, to break the synchronicity between our parallel worlds.

"Somewhere on Earth Two," she murmurs. "Something doesn't add up. Something's different."

Mark isn't sure what to say, so he squeezes her hand again.

"Well," she admits. "Okay. It's kind of a stretch. I like it, though. It's nice to think that somewhere out there, there's a parallel world where you could have had a happier ending. Maybe it's on Earth Two. Maybe it isn't."

She's slurring harder. She's falling asleep again, and Mark is careful not to jostle her awake, because she needs the rest. He doesn't think people are supposed to talk so much when they've woken up blind and deaf, but Christy takes the expectations and shoots them in the face as a matter of course.

"Thanks for being here, Mark," she says when she's mostly gone.

In his entire life, Mark hasn't felt a single emotion that he did not feel so acutely that he thought it might kill him, crack through his face like fine china, and he loves her so much in this moment that he feels spindly, crystalline, and entirely breakable, like if she puts pressure on him in the right way, he will shatter into a dozen pieces that she can use to rebuild herself.

He thinks that maybe that's the key -- you find enough people to love you more than you hate yourself, and that's how you survive.

Mark stays, long after Christy has fallen back into a fitful sleep, and keeps the back of her hand against his mouth; a half-forgotten kiss he hopes she'll remember.

Eventually, he lets her go, slipping out of the bed to sink back into the chair. He removes the Space Adventures envelope from his pocket, turning it slowly between his hands and thinking about what she said. Somehow, in the midst of everything that has happened today, it hasn't sunk in yet that yes, Mark won, and that means he's actually going to go to Earth Two and meet the other Mark Zuckerberg. Of course they'll want him to meet the other Mark Zuckerberg.

What do you do when you meet yourself? How weird must it be, to stand outside yourself and look at yourself, moving independently of yourself.

What will he say? What will he do? Will it drive him as crazy as it did Christy? It just might -- Mark spent so long hating himself, and it's hard to shake that, even though Mark never had to look himself in the eye before. Can you have that much self-loathing in the same room?

A touch to his shoulder, and he startles. It's just Alan returned, though, ghosting up beside his chair, still wearing his shop apron with stains showing and dark circles bruised into the skin underneath his eyes. He's looking at the envelope in Mark's hands, and the whites of his eyes are showing.

"Is that what I think it is?" he asks, voice low and stunned.

Mark smiles up at him, self-deprecating. "Congratulations to me."

"Holy shit," says Alan. His eyes go wider still. "It's you. You're the last winner."

"The last golden ticket." Mark slips it back into the envelope, tucking in the flap. Straightening his shoulders to the creaking protest of his back, he nods at the restless figure in the hospital bed. "She's awake. She's all still there, but now I think she thinks that her outside matches her inside." Alan's face creases with pain at that, and Mark nudges his side with his elbow. "She talked to me awhile about Earth Two, and now I can't get it out of my head. I mean, I'm going over there ... but that means I'm going to meet myself. Alan, I don't know if I want to meet myself."

Alan willingly takes the distraction. "Too weird?" he offers, sounding a little hoarse.

"That, and ... the identical thing aside, it'll be like meeting someone who knows all my secrets. I don't even know all my secrets, dude, I don't want somebody else knowing them all. That's why they're secrets." He shakes his head. "I don't want to meet myself."

Alan's fingers touch Mark's temple, brushing back a lock of his hair that's escaped from his ponytail. "That sounds like it'll be mildly embarrassing, I'm sure, but you're not a bad person, so it's not like --"

"I killed two people."

Alan's fingers stop.

"I didn't mean to," comes out of Mark in a rush. "It was an accident. I -- I -- it was an accident, and two people died because of me, and every day, I think about what they accomplished, who they loved, who they left behind. I did time for involuntary manslaughter. I haven't even been back in general population for a whole year yet, Alan, and now they're sending me into space." He looks up at him, and is vaguely surprised to find that his heart is pounding. He laughs nervously. "I haven't told that to anybody before, not seriously. Can you see why I don't want to look myself in the eye and see that looking back at me?"

After a moment, Alan sits down on the arm of Mark's chair.

"Do you think it's possible," he starts, going back to smoothing down Mark's messy hair in a manner that makes him feel like he's being petted. "That your other self probably feels the exact way you do? Maybe it'll be a relief to finally talk to him."

Mark doesn't respond, but he leans back into Alan's weight, grateful.

Looking again at his girlfriend, Alan asks, "She's really all right?"

"She will be," Mark says. "She's got us, you know. We'll stubborn her back into good health," and Alan convulses with a laugh.

He wraps his arm around Mark's shoulders, pulling them together so that his head rests on top of Mark's, and Mark has to slide an arm around his waist to anchor him on the chair. He feels Alan's ribs expanding into his with every sharp breath he draws in, like he's starting a sentence, but then it goes out of him and he doesn't. Mark waits -- he doesn't need to be told that Alan's trying to find a way to tell him something he rarely ever tells anybody. Secret for a secret.

Finally, Alan turns his head, and when he speaks, Mark feels the movement of his jaw against his scalp.

"My name isn't Alan," he says. "Up until two years ago, it wasn't, at least."

Mark blinks, pulling away to look up at him.

"What?" he says.

Alan smiles. "The name on my birth certificate is Alice."

 

- ☀ -

 

Eduardo's standing out on the porch when he gets there, beating out the rugs from the mudroom against the railing. His hair is disheveled and there's sand crusting his feet up to the ankles. The air smells like ocean, sea salt sharp on the wind.

He looks up at the sound of Mark's footsteps crunching on the gravel path. A grin breaks across his face, a flash of teeth like sunlight, and he straightens up, putting his hands on his hips.

"I wasn't expecting to see you today!" he calls, and then, quieter, he mutters, "fuck." Distractedly, Mark sees the way his mouth forms around the word, and in the next second, Eduardo jumps coltishly down the steps, closing the distance between them in order to catch Mark's face between his hands, pulling him in for a kiss that Mark cants himself into, unable to help it.

"Stop that," he mumbles in half-hearted protest when he gets the use of his mouth back, but Eduardo just hooks an arm around his shoulders and hauls him closer still, catching him off balance so he has to step in between Eduardo's feet. "No, stop -- mmphh," and he wonders if there's a way to perish from too much physical affection. "I actually came all this way to tell you something."

"I do have a phone," Eduardo returns, willingly taking the distraction of Mark's head turning away in order to kiss at his pulse point. "Contrary to what my aunt may tell you, it does work."

"Hm, well," Mark says, noncommittal, because he is the kind of person who will make any kind of commute -- Boston to Quincy, or Boston to Dover, or Boston all the way down to California, for all he knows -- and be absolutely convinced it's the right thing to do. Eduardo probably wouldn't get that, he figures, since Eduardo is the kind of person who'd second-guess himself and turn around at the half-way marker, once he'd found a more expedient, cost-efficient way of doing things. Mark wouldn't make a phone call when he can make a visit in person. He didn't know that about himself before.

For all that he wears his emotions on his sleeve, Mark thinks that maybe Eduardo's heart isn't as big as it pretends to be. Not as big as Mark's, anyway, and isn't that an odd thing to think.

"It's only been a couple days since I saw you last anyway," he goes in a low murmur. Eduardo is kissing the ball of his shoulder now, close-mouthed and gentle through the fabric of his jacket, deeply affectionate and without intent, and despite everything that's happened, Mark can feel the warmth of it, pooling low in the pit of his stomach -- he loves nothing in this world so much as he loves this man, and it's an old thought, comfortable, familiar in the way it settles around his brain, and Mark isn't scared of it.

"You," Eduardo returns, "underestimate just how much you're on my mind."

It startles through Mark as if carried by an electric current, just how very true that statement is, and, discomfited by it, he grabs onto Eduardo's elbows, either to balance himself or Eduardo or maybe both of them together.

He'd been so concerned with how much Eduardo's taken up his entire universe, sun and stars and planets all, that he hasn't stopped to think it might also be true in reverse; that the two of them are the only other people they know in the whole world, the only other people they can relate to. Mark is Eduardo's only friend, and Mark isn't entirely sure what Eduardo does when not in context of whatever Mark's doing for him.

He does long-distance portfolio and economic management for his aunt and he's looking for other employment, which gives him a frustrated relationship with Gretchen in the unemployment office.

For a moment, Mark thinks about inviting him to hang out at the juice bar during Christy's shift, and just as quick, decides against it. He likes Alan, he really does, but in Mark's highly biased opinion, not even Alan could stop Christy from dragging Eduardo into an empty bathroom stall by the ears. He's not doing that to her.

A heartbeat later, a sickening swoop in his stomach reminds him what, exactly, happened to Christy, and maybe he will introduce them when she recovers. Eduardo and Christy can bond over loss of motor control and dribbling canned peaches down the fronts of their shirts. It'll be the start of a beautiful friendship.

Eduardo seems to realize what he said, because he gets flustered, the tips of his ears staining crimson. He loops his arm around Mark's shoulders, pulling him in the direction of the house. He chatters busily about the consultation he'd mediated that morning between the Boston zoo and a zoo back home, working as a representative of his aunt's company. The Boston zoo has the kind of capital available to open negotiation with the Brazilian government about importing in some endangered animal or another, whose name Mark doesn't recognize.

"I mean," Eduardo acknowledges, grabbing a dishtowel out of the kitchen and using it to brush the sand off his feet. "I know the zoo in Omaha's got dibs on it, since they're the ones that can boast about having the highest species diversity of any zoo in the United States, and they have the world's largest indoor jungle, but let's face it, their location sucks. It's better publicity to put endangered species in places like Boston, where you get more tourism. Kind of like the Chinese government giving pandas to DC, you know? Mark, are you listening to me?"

"Sure I am," Mark replies on autopilot. There were a stack of napkins sitting on the edge of the counter, left over from the laundry, so he found the basket of napkin rings in one of the bottom cabinets and is working on sliding the napkins back into them. They're all shaped like tropical fish.

He glances up at Eduardo, whose cheeks are flushed with color. "You're happy."

"I am," Eduardo acknowledges. Then he smiles, his eyes flicking between Mark's own. "Good things keep happening to me."

Mark puts the napkins down.

There's more kissing after that, of course there is, and he gives himself over to the slow, firefly pulse of it, until Eduardo's hands drift low enough that he remembers the shape of the envelope in his back pocket and the reason why he came out here. His heart jolts inside his chest, a palpable throb he swears Eduardo must be able to hear, and he pulls back, laying his hand flat against Eduardo's sternum.

Drumming the tip of his index finger against the skin at the open V of Eduardo's shirt, he says, careful, "Do you remember hearing about that essay contest? You know, the Space Adventures one where you could win a trip to Earth Two?"

"Yeah, sure," Eduardo goes easily, giving him a curious look. "Sean Parker is a tool with a bank account that's too big and a dick that's not big enough. What about it?"

Mark bites at his bottom lip. "Wardo, I won."

Eduardo blinks once or twice, like he's expecting more forthcoming information to follow. Mark can see the moment he gets it, the word won and what it means, understanding making him jerk as sharp as if he'd just been struck, because he grabs Mark by the arms and goes, "What. Are you serious. Are you -- you? You --"

He loses coherency for a bit, syllables blending into one another, and Mark gets Eduardo's skin under his hands again, giddy with it and feeding off the joy radiating out of him.

"You're kidding!" Eduardo manages, and he's thumbing at Mark's face, turning it up to him, and Mark's smiling too hard to see him properly, but it doesn't matter, because he can find all the equilibrium in the world in the cradlehold of Eduardo's hands. "How many people --"

"Eight hundred thousand," Mark answers immediately. "Eight hundred thousand people entered, and they picked twelve of us. I got the last ticket."

"You got the last --" Eduardo doesn't finish his sentence, because his mouth descends on Mark's again, dragging a deep kiss out of him that Mark somewhat ruins by laughing into it, helplessly. "Food," he goes when he yanks back. "Oh my god, this calls for a celebration! Food, food, food," he spins away, touching the fridge like he needs to assure himself that it's there. "Do I have any food -- of course I have food, you were here a couple days ago. We could go out," he offers suddenly. "Drinks are on me!"

"I know," Mark answers. "But you have steaks defrosting in the bottom of the fridge. Let's cook those."

"I do?" Eduardo blinks, and opens the fridge door. "Huh, so I do. Steaks it is!" He turns around, brown-wrapped beef shanks in his hand, and he says in wonder, "My boyfriend is going to be an astronaut."

And Mark throws his head back, laughing, the flush of triumph and rightness singing all the way through him. The tight binding of fear that had closed around him at the sight of Christy's wrapped-up face bursts loose.

They don't have a grill, so they broil the steaks in the oven, fetching down Worchestershire sauce and making instant mashed potatoes, which are promptly smothered with butter and salt, because there's no better feeling in the world than making the arteries in your heart scream for mercy. They lean against the kitchen island while the steaks sizzle, and Mark shows Eduardo the Space Adventures ticket, which he holds reverently between his hands for a long moment, before he hands it back and fetches a bottle of red wine from inside the fridge door.

Mark feels an anticipatory thrill go down his spine, and he can't help his smile, turning to fetch the bottle opener out of the drawer.

He has seen Eduardo in all stages of drunk. He gets mellowed out and lazy when he's beer-drunk, a person-shaped lump trying to attain symbiosis with his sofa. There's a slow, seductive roll to his throat at every swallow that Mark loves to watch, but there's no amorousness to a beer-drunk Eduardo: he doesn't like being touched. An Eduardo that's drunk on hard liquor is the Eduardo that wakes up hungover at five o'clock in the afternoon, unshaven and vomiting into the potted plants, his eyes hooded and his speech near unintelligible.

But Eduardo when he's drunk on red wine is the most gorgeous creature, flushed with color the same way the world does after it rains, with a mouth stung red by merlot. He tastes as priceless as artwork, breathless in the way he runs his hands up and down Mark's skin.

Sober wakeful Eduardo and red-wine Eduardo are Mark's favorite Eduardos.

As they eat, Mark tells him about his phone call with Sean Parker (Eduardo is completely appalled on Mark's behalf about the forty-five minute wait) and then shares the rest of the content from the letter, most of which is one long discussion of liability. He doesn't tell Eduardo about Randi's reasons for hiding the ticket, or what it felt like to curl up next to Christy on the hospital bed and hear her tell him she would rather die than meet her own doppleganger.

"Jesus Christ," Eduardo manages, eyes flicking back and forth across the small print. "How many possible ways can you die doing this?"

He laughs. "It's extremely likely," he admits.

Eduardo sets the papers down and reaches across the table. Mark catches his hands, holding them between his own. Eduardo's hair is still wet, and up this close, he smells like sea salt and steak sauce.

For a long beat, they do nothing but sit there, fingers wrapped around each other.

And then Eduardo says, "Don't go."

He sounds like a child all of a sudden, small and lost in the dark, the words coming out of him in a primal noise.

Mark closes his eyes, the gravity of it yawning painfully underneath his ribs. His happiness drains out of him, just like that, and the room is suddenly too big and too dark. He tightens his grip on Eduardo's fingers, pressing his fingertips hard into the soft bend of his knuckles, the way people hold onto the edge of a cliff.

"Don't go," says Eduardo, still in that horrible shipwrecked voice. "Please, don't. You could die."

"I know," says Mark.

"I could lose you."

He flinches. It sounds a lot different when it's put like that.

"Stay here. Won't you -- stay here and build something with me. We're good at that, right?" he looks up, eyes darting all around the house in a way that would be deliberate on anyone else. He licks his lips nervously, meeting Mark's eyes again. He looks dark and lost at sea. "Right? Making things."

"Wardo --"

"Don't leave me behind," comes out of him, strangled in his throat, like he tried to catch it at the last moment. He ducks his head immediately, addressing the table, "I don't want to get left behind."

Mark's always thought he endured a lot of verbal abuse in prison, but none of the yelling or the raging or the humiliation has anything on this, this hurt that makes him want to pull his hands from Eduardo's and cover his face and curl up into a ball until it goes away. Each one of Eduardo's words is painful, needles shoved up under his skin, and he thinks of the way Randi looked, so small and helpless when she said, I don't want you to go away again.

There's really only one thing he can do to make it stop.

"Eduardo Saverin," he says. His voice is completely level.

At the sound of his full name, Eduardo sits up straight, releasing his white-knuckled grip on Mark's hands.

"I need," starts Mark, but it comes out airless, so he stops and takes a deep breath. "I need you to listen to me, and I need you to not interrupt. I need you to hear it from me before you hear it from the news."

Eduardo looks at him, considering. Then he nods.

They've been edging around this moment for a long time. Mark has thought, dreamed, obsessed over this moment, so much that is probably written into his DNA; unravel Mark's genetic code, and you'll find the memory of Eduardo's parents, the way they bled, the love in Eduardo's face when he looks at Mark, the way he said you came back, all of it imprinted into his chromosomes.

And suddenly, it's the easiest thing he's ever done.

"There's somebody I need to introduce you to," he hears himself say.

Eduardo opens his mouth, then remembers he isn't supposed to interrupt.

"He's ... he's a seventeen-year-old with a superiority complex, who thought he was going to go to Harvard." Mark's voice is quiet, calm, like he's talking about somebody else entirely -- some kid who used to live in Mark's bedroom, who read his Isaac Asimov books and built a mp3 app that recognized music taste, or lack thereof. Not anybody important. Not anybody who constantly shadows Mark's thoughts. "He thought someday he was going to be famous enough that he wouldn't ever have to do the graveyard shift at the service station by the airport, not ever again."

He closes his eyes, squeezing them shut so hard that he sees the planets, momentarily, all ten of them tilting dizzily.

He opens them again, and the words come tumbling out. "That kid was just seventeen, Wardo, and that doesn't excuse him from being stupid -- because let's face it, he was kind of an asshole -- but he was a seventeen-year-old kid who'd never fired a gun before and here was this ... this family, this perfect golden family in front of him and they were too good, too happy and good and good and he liked them. He didn't want them to get hurt, and they were -- they were, they were going to get hurt if he didn't do something, but he's never fired a gun before."

Eduardo is staring at him, completely still now, staring the way you stare at shattering things, cracks in windshields and demolishing buildings and waterfalls that never stop, and Mark whispers, "That kid served four years in prison, and when he got out, he expected to do nothing except live and live until he didn't anymore, until he died miserable and alone because he didn't want to see his friends, he couldn't pretend with them, but ... but then he found somebody."

Fingers skitter on the tabletop, nervous, but Mark doesn't look to see. He keeps his eyes on Eduardo's.

"He thought that maybe, maybe he could still build something, because he didn't think he could meet anyone who was more broken than he was, but then he met you. And he's sorry, he's so very sorry."

Eduardo makes a noise, inhuman.

"It was me," says Mark, and it sounds like a hundred glassine things, shattering on the floor. He is made of glittering shards, broken clean through at last. "That kid in the burglary who tried to be a hero, that was me."

For a moment, there is only silence. Their hands are flat on the table, braced, and the only thing Mark can hear is the buzz of adrenaline, highwire and humming in his ears.

"I think," Eduardo bites out, very carefully, "you need to leave."

"Wardo," Mark tries. "Wardo, I want -- I want -- I need --"

Eduardo explodes out of his seat, bone and flesh and a fury that seems unbound by skin, his throat straining as he roars, "GET OUT."

It's ingrained, it's automatic, and Mark is on his feet before he's really even consciously aware of moving. Eduardo is yelling -- it's a wordless noise, like it's consumed his whole vocabulary, and Mark doesn't stop to gather his things.

He cannot be here, he cannot stay. He murdered Eduardo's parents and he cannot stay.

He will go into the deep vacuum of space to escape it.

You will never be a hero, Mark, he thinks, going out the screen door. The cattails wave at him, disturbed by an ocean breeze. You will only ever be the devil in your own creation myth.

He makes it as far as the end of the driveway, where the gravel path meets the pavement, before his legs stop feeling like they're going to support his weight, so he sits down next to the drunkard leaning mailbox, rocks crunching under his shins. Above his head, the S in "Saverin" is mostly peeled away by salt, leaving only the golden edges of the rest of the letters.

He doesn't know how long he sits there. Eduardo's still yelling, but it's distant now, a wordless, howling rage that sounds more like a far-off storm than one person.

Eventually, it stops, and Mark still doesn't have the strength to move. He can't feel his fingers anymore, but that's nothing unusual, and everything seems so cold, glossed over like the surface of a marble.

Earth Two is enormous in the sky tonight. The moon seems so dim and tiny beside it, like a beauty mark on the face of a diva. It seems so strange to think that four years ago it was the other way around -- Earth Two was just this pale blue smudge in the halo of the moon. He remembers staring up at it in the back of the squad car through the bars on the window, chatter coming in slow over the radio.

The night he killed Eduardo's parents was the night that planet first became visible, and it seems ironic, that the world got something so beautiful and frightening and shatteringly important on the worst night of Mark and Eduardo's lives.

He's still craning his neck back, imagining he can see the soft swirl of a tropical storm moving over the Indian subcontinent, when something Christy said floats to the surface of his thoughts, the idea of hers.

Mark blinks once.

He blinks twice.

Shermer's theory.

Unbidden, his heart makes an enormous leap inside his chest.

"Wardo," he says out loud, and scrambles for a moment against the gravel, trying to get his feet under him as fast as possible.

He sets off back towards the house, his mind reeling in a dozen different directions like a top left to wobble.

He hadn't heard anything coming out of the house in awhile, not over the sound of wind and the distant crash of the waves and the terrified pounding of his own heart, so when he throws open the door, he stops dead. He hovers there in the doorway, screen door bumping against his back and not quite closing.

It's like he got lost in a time-lapse film, somewhere between his confession and the gravel path and the hovering specter of Earth Two in the sky, like the first images NASA ever published about the storms on the surface of Jupiter. One blink, a jump on the film, and destruction hit the house he spent so many afternoons cleaning -- all intervening time erased. The furniture is overturned, and their plates lay in shards on the floor. Mark picks over them, righting the heavy armchair as he goes (remembers hefting his leg over Eduardo's thighs to straddle him while he sat there, Eduardo's fingers curling indulgently around the backs of his legs, their grins mirroring each other.)

"Eduardo?" he calls.

"Go away, Mark." Eduardo's voice is guttural, the way it gets when he forgets to enunciate, and it's coming from the bedroom.

Desperation shoots through Mark, sending him up onto his tiptoes like something lighter than air, something pure starlight. He goes to the bedroom door with soundless steps.

The door's locked. He curls his hands against the door. "Wardo, please," he tries. "You need to listen to me."

He knows as soon as it's out of his mouth that it's the wrong thing to say. He hears the heavy sound of footsteps on the other side of the door and backs up smartly, already backpedaling, "no, that came out wrong, I only meant that I need to talk to you --"

The bedroom door flings itself open, and Eduardo comes out of it, flared as wide open as a bolt of electricity, his face a heavy thundercloud and raw energy in his eyes, everything split and forked like it's been torn to shreds by lightning.

Mark backs down from it, stumbling one-two step, tripping over his own feet, and then his back hits the china cabinet and there's nowhere to go as Eduardo bears down on him.

Eduardo, who, for some reason, has his laptop in hand, and he lifts it like he's going in for a tennis swing. Mark sees it in a flash -- he's going to bring it down on his head, Eduardo's going to kill him, Eduardo's angry enough to kill him -- and sees it so clearly, his skull scattering across the carpet with bits of processor and keyboard.

Mark saw enough violence in prison to recognize it in Eduardo; that destructive, physical, all-consuming rage, the kind that makes men disappear into the system like ghosts, no chance of parole.

He knows what happens next.

He is going to die. Eduardo is angry enough to murder him and Mark is going to die.

Mark put two bullets into Eduardo's parents and now Eduardo is going to smash his head into pieces with that laptop, and parts of his brain and his blood will always be a part of this house. The Saverins' blood has been a part of Mark for so long that it's only fair, he supposes, that he returns the favor, blood for blood and dreams that never go away.

His eyes meet Eduardo's.

Whatever's there, whatever's writ large on Mark's face because he isn't trying to check it at all, whatever Eduardo sees, it makes him check his momentum.

He unbalances, the swing following through and missing Mark by a matter of degrees. The laptop slips from Eduardo's hands with centrifugal force, hitting the floor and breaking apart with a terrific crunch of plastic and the softer raining ping of broken keys. The noise jumps through Mark, making his skeleton flinch away under his skin, but he doesn't get very far, because then Eduardo's arms are around him, and it's all he can do to just scrabble at Eduardo's back like some fearstruck, skinny animal.

Eduardo's screaming again -- Mark can feel it with his whole body, his ears too full with the static of terror to make out the sound of it. The face buried in his neck, mouth wrenched open and damp on his jugular, and Mark's hands skitter, trying to find some part of Eduardo to hold on to that won't hurt him, the two of them pressed so hard into the cabinet there's no room for air.

Tension strings painfully across Eduardo's shoulders, his arms, the fists knotted at the base of Mark's neck and his spine, piano wire tight.

The scream is a fierce vibration in his ribs under Mark's hands, like they're too fragile to hold it, like they're seconds from splintering. It only stops when Eduardo bites down, hard, into the juncture where Mark's neck meets his shoulder.

Mark cries out in pain, throwing his head back, his vision whiting out underneath his eyelids. He tries to yank away, full-body, but there's nowhere to go.

"Wardo, Wardo," and the thing that comes out of his mouth is tight, wrecked, seared through with pain like it was Mark himself that Eduardo threw to the ground and shattered, so he turns his head and presses his mouth against Eduardo's ear to muffle it. He gets it, he gets it, and it's never been more clear to him: Eduardo loved his parents and he loved Mark, and sometimes he loved Mark and forgot about his parents for a little while.

Sometimes he loved Mark more than he loved the memory of them, and that's the worst part of all.

He poisoned those memories.

Irreversibly and irrevocably poisoned, because Mark killed them and Eduardo never put two and two together, not once, not this whole time.

An echo, reverberating underneath Mark's skin, the memory of Eduardo's hand covering his and his words:

That fucking kid with the pumped-up superiority complex ... I hope he dies miserable and alone.

Eduardo grinds his teeth down, vicious and wanting it to hurt, and it works -- Mark's knees give out and they crash down to the carpet, too tangled in each other to remember whose limbs belong to who. At the very least, it unhooks Eduardo's jaws from Mark's neck, and Mark's hand flies to protect it, instinctive, fingers slipping in a slickness that could be blood or spit and is probably both, and the other hand goes to catch Eduardo's face, holding it away from him.

There's still lightning in his eyes, searingly hot, but his hands go to Mark's shoulders and they press with a weight that's almost an apology.

There's a theory, Mark remembers Christy's voice, the way she'd sounded so much like Eduardo, trying the words on for size. Did you hear?

Four years in, and scientists can no more explain Earth Two's presence in our sky than we did when we first saw it. This makes as much sense as any of that, Shermer's theory of multiverses and the broken mirror.

All it would take it just one second, one person, and Mark's thumb strokes the quivering line of Eduardo's mouth, weightless. To break the synchronicity of our parallel worlds.

Like the split second, half-heartbeat decision.

The trajectory of a bullet.

The position of somebody's mother, somebody's father.

Do you remember? And he pulls Eduardo's mouth in, touching it with his own. Eduardo gives and Mark gives back, because this is what they've always done, give and give and give to each other like somehow they could keep themselves safe by hiding it inside each other's chests, each other's mouths, each other's hands. Do you remember? They were announcing it on the radio, the first time they ever saw another Earth, and it was just as I pulled the trigger.

Eduardo breaks away then, the violence gone out of him, and he pushes himself to his feet. Waveringly, he staggers to the other side of the room, as far away from Mark as the space will allow.

Mark watches him go, and thinks, crystalline and clear, Your parents could still be alive.

He picks himself up.

It feels like reassembling. Feet then ankles, calves then knees then thighs, bended waist and ribcage and pounding, pounding heart. He gets up and he looks at Eduardo's back for a long, long time. Eduardo's shoulders are heaving; Mark can't see from this angle, but the motion of his arm makes him think he's running his thumb over his bottom lip, again and again, the way he does when he's furious and swallowing it down.

Good-bye, Mark thinks.

He takes a step forward.

This time, when he speaks, his voice doesn't shake. Of course it doesn't -- he's Mark Zuckerberg, and his voice never shakes.

"I created you," he says, and catches the jerk of Eduardo's chin towards the sound of it, sees in pale light the marks on his face, the familiar pull of the old scar in his flesh, the fathomless dark of his eyes. "And," he says, and out of his back pocket comes the ticket. He runs his fingers along the edge of the envelope, one more time. "You created me."

He sets the envelope down on the edge of the kitchen island. He lets himself linger, just a heartbeat, thumb over the Space Adventures logo that could have been the astronomical, limitless everything Mark wanted it to be, and his eyes on Eduardo, who is the astronomical, limitless everything Mark has.

Then he leaves, feet then ankles then reluctant body, feeling as spindly and battered as if he's made of scotch tape and rubber bands, out of the house, down the porch steps, past the sleeping garden and the seeds in their beds, dreaming of the things Mark planted in them.

 

- ☀ -

FOUR MONTHS LATER

 

La Tosha is, of course, holding court when Mark walks back into the classroom with the remote for the overhead projector. She's ten and has to stand on a chair to be seen by everybody, and when Mark snaps his fingers at her and points to the ground, she stamps her foot, making her Strawberry Shortcake tennis shoes light up and the chair to wobble dangerously.

"La Tosha," he says, warningly. "Get down."

"Mr. Z," goes one of the other kids, bouncing around in his seat excitedly, but at least he's not in danger of toppling and breaking his neck. "Did you know La Tosha has a boyfriend?"

Mark lifts his eyebrows. "Does he hold the door open for her like a good gentleman?" he asks, dry.

"Don't be silly," goes La Tosha impatiently, but when he comes and stands behind her, gripping the chair to steady it, she obediently slides back into a seated position. She's short enough that it's a hassle for her to comfortably reach the keyboard, but it's never seemed to slow her down any. "He's got a Transformers lunchbox and everything, and he even shares his erasers with me in math class."

Mark clucks his tongue. "He sounds like a keeper."

She squints up at him suspiciously. "You're being mean."

"Nah, I like boyfriends. Did you know that mine's an astronaut?"

Her squint develops into a full-fledged scowl. "That's no fair," she complains. "You always win."

"I am the teacher," Mark agrees, pushing away and heading back to the front of the room. "Get used to it. Now, did anybody do the assignment I gave you before I stepped out of the room, or did La Tosha --"

"Already did it!" La Tosha says with imperious pride, followed by the enthusiastic agreement of her classmates.

In May, when Mark went in to get his end-of-the-year performance review from the principal at St. George's, he brought up the fact that the usual summer school for elementary students wasn't opening, on account of a shortage of available teachers. Jack, Luna, and Mark would all be willing to stay for a summer session if he, the principal, would be capable of putting together a curriculum and scrounge up a few teachers to open St. George's doors for them.

"It's important to give kids something to do, something to learn, while school is out," he'd said. "Especially when the world is in the state that it's in. I could even teach something. Computers, maybe, that's always a good field to get started in young."

The principal made a thoughtful noise in the back of his throat, eyes flicking Mark up and down, from his bleach-spotted coveralls to his sore hands to his rat's ponytail. "Do you even know much about computers?" he asked.

And Mark had said, with enough dryness to kill a camel, "A little."

So that's how he found himself with fifteen fourth graders, all of whom get really bored learning how to make Excel spreadsheets and how to best utilize brackets and parentheses to get precise Google results, and mostly just sit around and pester him for a chance to play Oregon Trail on the Macs in St. George's computer lab. After them are the second graders, and they're even worse. (Fortunately, there are only six of them. Most families with really young children already left the city.)

At the end of the day, Mark zips up his coveralls and slings his laptop case crosswise across his chest, bracing himself against the chill. It's three in the afternoon.

He steps outside and sighs, because the night's fog is already coiling thick across the grass, obliterating the street from view and swamping the soccer field. It's almost constant, these days: Mark hasn't seen blue sky in weeks. It'll lift, sometimes, producing moments of stunning visibility, but only right around the early afternoon when the max heating indexes are the highest and the fog somehow manages to burn away.

It's cold all the time, a permeating chill like standing on a cliff's edge above the sea, even in the middle of August.

The air is thick, heavy, and soupy. It's difficult air to breathe, heavily oxygenated like being shaken up inside of a snowglobe or caught inside a steaming shower. All children under the age of seven and all adults over the age of seventy are encouraged to wear masks to help them breathe, since the air is too rich for them otherwise.

Earth and Earth Two have come so close together that their atmospheres are stretching across the space between them to merge together, their magnetospheres going oblong and egg-shaped, barely held in place by the centrifugal force of each planet's rotational spin. They get northern lights even in the daylight sometimes, colorful streaks of sunlight flaring across the sky where the ozone has gone as thin as dragonfly wings, where there's no fog at all. Nobody has gotten reliable atmospheric readings for months.

They have just weeks left to go before the two planets are set to collide. Maybe a month, tops.

Most people have fled, escaping up into the mountains and the valleys and the yachts out to sea, like there's some way to outrun an approaching planet when you're living on one.

There are a couple customers in the shop when he crosses over to the station terminal; a trio of women with short pixie haircuts, drinking hot chocolate clustered thick with star-shaped marshmallows. He nods at them when he passes their table.

Christy's sitting at the counter in Mark's usual stool, thumbing out the change from the cash register. She's wearing dark-wash jeans and the black tunic with the lacy spinal pattern down the back that Mark likes so much, and her peppermint-striped cane rests in the crook of her elbow. Her hair's coming in at last, curling in waifish strands around her ears and escaping from underneath the sunglasses she wears constantly, inside and out.

"Hello, Mark," she says without turning around.

"Christy," he returns, hopping up on the stool beside her. In the back, moving around the blenders with a jar in hand, he spots Alan's familiar profile. "Anything exciting happen today?"

He's careful to speak slowly. As her ears healed up, her hearing mostly recovered -- she still frequently loses the high and low notes when she's listening to music, which makes her grumble, and it's hard for her to understand little kids sometimes when they're talking to her. She hates crossing the street, because she can't hear the chirping that lets her know it's time to walk. It's slow-going, but she can hear.

Her eyesight, however, will never come back. She doesn't have to worry about ever seeing herself again.

When she got out of the hospital with a pinkish grafted-on face and a new walking cane, Christy took to this handicap with the same cheerfully frustrated, determined impatience she once took to the way Mark ordered drinks: she huffs a lot and puts her hands on her hips and then she shifts things around to suit her.

She still plans on graduating, and she hasn't found a way to come back to work yet, but Mark's noticed the little things Alan has started adding around the shop. He came in one day to see dozens of little wooden shapes taped to the sides of the fruit bins; stars on the star fruit, moon shapes on the cantaloupe, circles on the blueberries, so all Christy would have to do would be to touch the block, determine its shape, and she'd know what fruit was in that bin.

"What we had a lady in here earlier, actually," Alan comes over to the counter before Christy can say anything. "Ordered avocado in a shake for her husband. Turns out there's only one food in the world her husband's deathly allergic to."

"I think she did it on purpose," Christy chimes in, chipper.

She finishes counting the money, binding up the bills and sorting the change. She hands the drawer back and Alan slides it back into the register. They quip back and forth about the avocado lady; an argument that Christy decisively ends when she tilts her mouth up, demanding a kiss from Alan, which he gives with the long-suffering air of whipped boyfriends everywhere.

Theirs is the kind of friendship Mark makes room for, here at the end of the world. After all, they all know what it's like, that intense desire to make yourself something of your own design: Mark reached inside himself and ripped out everything he didn't like, never intending that Eduardo would come along and fill all those places, and is happier for it; Christy burned the outside of herself to match what's inside, and is happier for it; and Alan walks around with a different name, working with the body he has to make the person he really is, and is happier for it.

"Can I pick your brains?" Mark ventures after a moment. "Since you know me: I try to consult the elite, Ivy League educated whenever possible."

"Liar," Christy retorts, as affectionate as ever. "What's up?"

"You remember Shermer's theory?" he goes. "The broken mirror?" They nod. "Well, suppose that you're right, and Earth and Earth Two are parallel worlds that have jumped off track. Do you think it's possible that it could be fixed?"

"I think it is already," Alan offers up immediately. "I think that's why -- against every reasonable law of physics -- Earth Two is getting closer to us. The closer it gets, the closer the timelines come to fixing themselves. The two worlds are trying to reconcile themselves; it's the natural progression of things. That's why you don't find me buying into the Chicken Little 'the sky is falling' mass paranoia."

Christy frowns, drumming her fingers along the candy cane stripes on her cane. "But to fix it entirely? Do you suppose that's up to the person who broke the synchronicity in the first place? I mean, who's to say it was even a person. For all we know, it could have been a butterfly that flapped its wings one way in one world and differently in another. The chances of the initial element itself meeting itself on the other planet is incredibly slim."

"We'll probably just pass through each other like shadows, and never see each other again."

"What would happen?" Mark asks, frowning. "If the parallel worlds were reconciled? ... would one universe eat the other? Like, would one of us vanish completely, like we never were?"

Christy and Alan look at each other, considering.

"I think we'll have a world where both versions of the event turn out to be true," Alan says, but uncertainly, like he isn't certain what the implications are. "A blend of the two, maybe?"

"That's kind of altruistic," Christy chides him.

They muse on it for a moment, three small human brains trying and failing to wrap around the secrets of the universe.

After a moment, Alan straightens up and says, "Well. If SETI is to be believed, then the Space Adventures shuttle set down on Earth Two two weeks ago. Media blackout or no, the reality matrix hasn't spontaneously imploded yet, so ..." he spreads his hands and lifts his shoulders.

"Your scientific conclusions leave me breathless," Mark tells him dryly, and Alan rolls his eyes, returning to work.

Watching him, Mark is once again overcome with a vague sense of amazement that he somehow didn't notice the truth sooner. Alan used to be a girl -- how is that something you just miss? It seems obvious now that he's been told and knows how to compartmentalize what he sees: the way he'll walk in a hip-swinging sway before he remembers and straightens out; the shape his mouth makes when he smiles; the slinky dresses Mark saw in his closet, the heels, and the chest-binders he'd assumed were some kind of corset. But out of context, none of those things had mattered.

Alan had always just been Alan to him, he supposes.

He starts thinking about all the little behavioral things Alan must have to second-guess himself on every day, but that thought gets too staggering too quickly, and besides, Alan is now waving the knife he's using to slice kiwis, and that's distracting.

"Hey, look," he's saying. "It's your boyfriend."

Mark spins his stool around. Clearly visible through the front window of the shop, one of the flatscreen TV suspended across the way in the station terminal plays a CNN update on Earth Two. The interview footage they've dredged up is old, from back when the Space Adventures participants were finishing their training in the Mojave Desert. Mark's seen it before: the camera pans over the busy scene of astronauts in criminally-bright orange jumpsuits, twelve men and women of various ages, whose backgrounds have been discussed and hashed and rehashed, but whose winning essays were never released to the public.

Suddenly, in the background, Eduardo straightens up and waves at the camera, his whole face lit up and cracked open with blinding enthusiasm.

It makes the newscaster cut herself off and chuckle, making a comment about how exciting everything is, look, not even the participants are immune.

Mark smiles without meaning to, ducking his head, feeling warm all the way down to his toes.

It had occurred to him, afterwards, to worry that maybe Space Adventures would reject Eduardo. He knew he was allowed to give up his seat to a proxy -- there'd been a blurb about it in the orientation packet -- but he didn't think to wonder until after he'd already done it if Eduardo even qualified. He's had major reconstructive surgery, there's titanium holding his jaw together, he's been in a coma, and even a year after waking up, some of his cognitive functions go offline sooner than others. Also, he thinks Sean Parker is a tool with a dick that wouldn't fit a thimble. Any one of those things might pose a problem while going into space.

Apparently, though, it's easier to become an astronaut than Mark thought, or otherwise Space Adventures assumes everyone is going to die horribly when they meet their dopplegangers on Earth Two and doesn't care, because less than a week after Mark leaves his ticket behind, the media announced Eduardo Saverin was the last and final winner of a golden ticket.

At times, it seems almost staggeringly arrogant to believe that Earth Two only exists because of him and Eduardo, to think it was Mark's decision to close his eyes and pull the trigger that shattered their two worlds apart. There are almost seven billion people in this world -- how stupid is it to think that it was Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin, out of everybody who ever did anything important, who changed it completely, irrevocably, and put another Earth in the sky?

But then he thinks about the possibility that there's a world where Eduardo's just a kid who still has parents, where Mark never murdered anyone and never went to jail ...

Yeah, wouldn't you get on that shuttle, too?

Since he's already facing in that direction, he catches sight of a familiar profile, crossing the station terminal. Quickly, he screws the lid back on his mason jar milkshake and says his good-byes to Christy and Alan (good-naturedly, Christy gropes his ass on the way out, and the wry look he throws over his shoulder is met by her preemptively pointing at her sunglasses, like, hey, woah, blind girl can't see what she's grabbing, which he knows for a fact is utter bullshit) and leaves the juice bar, sprinting across the station.

It's so deserted that he knows it's Randi even from a distance; a spindly, tall figure with whirligig hair and a Harvard sweatshirt that still has that stiff look of something that hasn't been washed enough yet and open-toed Adidas slippers, her backpack slung over one shoulder.

"I think those shoes are mine!" he shouts at her back, loudly, just to make her jump.

He wraps an arm around her shoulders while she's still recovering, having to stand on tiptoes to do it, and she pinches his ribs hard in retaliation, saying, "Jerk, it's not like you're wearing them," and wriggling her bare toes at him deliberately.

"Yeah, well, they're kind of pretentious."

"Then I definitely know they're yours," she retorts, holding her nose in the air in a haughty manner. "Hey, listen," she adds, as they reach her platform. "I want to run a website idea past you, is that okay?"

He looks at her amusedly. "Randi, out of the two people standing here, only one of us goes to Harvard. You probably know more CompSci than I do at this point, why are you asking me?"

"Shut up. You're the one that gave me the idea, actually, with all those stories about the kids at St. George's using the bathroom stalls as a forum wall. It's not a bad concept, so I thought --" she makes an emphatic gesture with the hand she isn't using to hold him in place. "How about we take that whole, like, communication concept and put it online? Like, a Wall, but, see, it'd be exclusive. You'd have to know the person to see their Wall, and no janitor can come and clean it off every Friday."

The Cambridge-bound train pulls up, hissing softly on the rails, but she doesn't immediately move to board, watching him closely.

"Sounds kind of MySpace," he says, thoughtful. "Or ... what's the new one? Twitter?"

"Yeah, but better." He snorts, and Randi looks unapologetic. "Maybe we can beta test it with your class or something. If I keep it, it's just going to bounce around my friends in Dworkin."

He doesn't get a chance to respond, because the train's doors start beeping warningly. She gives his cheek a swift kiss, saying, "It'll be like the facebooks for each of the houses, except, like, cooler, and it'll bring all the boys to the yard: ones that you won't have to physically assault," and then she disappears behind the closing doors before he can sort any of that out. As the train pulls away, she gives him a thumbs-up through the window, looking enormously pleased with herself.

He laughs at her, turning to go catch his own train.

 

- ☀ -

 

It turned out that Mark was, in fact, lying out of his ass when he told Eduardo he could garden, and it wasn't one of those things one could spontaneously learn.

Eduardo left for the training camp in the Mojave before anything sprouted, but out of everything Mark planted, there was only about a 20% germination yield when the weather warmed up. Fortunately, there were wildflowers that he had absolutely nothing to do with, rioting around the edges of the porch in such a spontaneously artistic way that he probably couldn't have landscaped even if he tried. He gathered some of them up, breaking stems and fishing the Saverins' crystal vases out of the cabinet. He took one home to Randi, who rolled her eyes at his flower arrangement skills, but the vase is still on her desk, and he'll bring her more flowers as often as he can.

There's another vase in the guest room, the one Mark claimed for his own, now that he basically lives here. It's open, airy, and infinitely more welcoming than the jail cell he made for himself in his parents' attic. He has a blue-patterned bedspread and sometimes he'll collect different flowers along the walk to the bus stop, peonies and foxglove and tiny heads of pansies, cut them and put them in the vase on the bed stand. It's not as emasculating as it sounds, flower arranging -- Mark just likes making things. Simple.

He has his headphones in, coming up the gravel path, feeling happy the way you always do when you're coming home after a long day, and reaches out to drum his fingertips along the old siding as he rounds the corner, and --

He stops.

There's a car parked out front.

He has just enough time to register that that's not the usual state of things, a silver Honda with Maryland rental plates, before he sees movement through his eyelashes, someone pushing through the screen door, and jumps clean out of his skin. His head jerks up, startled, and it dislodges one of his earbuds.

"Wardo," he says, involuntary, and Eduardo's face breaks open at the sound of his name, eyes crinkling up and a dimple cutting into one side of his face, puckering the surgery scar. He comes down the porch steps.

Mark's eyes rake him head-to-toe, stuttering and catching, disbelieving. His suit is dark grey, the shirt underneath it purple, with a perfect inch of cuff showing, and his hair is done up in the style he remembers from the very first time he set eyes on him again, that day in the Suffolk county unemployment office: gelled up off his forehead.

He looks ... very professional. He looks grown-up.

It occurs to him that maybe this is how Eduardo dresses for other people, people who aren't Mark, who has seen him and loved him at his worst.

Eduardo steps off the porch, and then completely freezes.

It leaves Mark reeling almost as much as the sight of him did, confusion howling through him in a single second before understanding snaps into place. Mark has the liberty of knowing they're okay. He's seen Eduardo on television, seen the enthusiastic, excitable way he waved at the camera in the background of other people's interviews, a million and one expressions writ large on his face. There's no one else he would have been waving to, besides maybe an aunt in Brazil who gave him a long-distance job out of pity.

Mark is the only person he knows.

But Eduardo ... Eduardo hasn't laid eyes on Mark since he tried to bash his head in with a laptop. He's unsure of his welcome.

Mark doesn't know how to tell him, either, because it's not anything that goes away: it's the knowledge that you are absolutely capable of killing someone. It's frightening, it's horrible, and you don't outgrow it, you don't become okay with it, but it becomes a part of you anyway.

He rocks up onto the balls of his feet, uncertain, feeling breathless and airless and completely without atmosphere -- he has no idea what's written all over his face, but he imagines he'd be humiliated if he could see himself.

Whatever it is, it's enough to make Eduardo shift his weight and shrug one shoulder back in the direction of the house. "It's still amazingly clean in there," he manages.

"Yeah, well," Mark shrugs back. "You know how much I like cleaning," and then, because he has imagined a hundred and one different things he would say to Eduardo if they ever saw each other again, so many times, and that was so spectacularly not any of them, he says to himself, completely appalled, "Oh my god."

Eduardo throws his head back, his laugh tearing free of him like it was just waiting for the excuse. Mark stares at the exposed line of his throat, rendered defenseless, helpless, and as in-fucking-love as he ever was.

His heart beats so fast in his ribs, and when Eduardo meets his eyes again, it's unconscious, the act of stepping forward with his arms outstretched, and in the next moment, here's the hug he never thought he'd have again, a collision, their arms lashed around each other and their hands fisted in each other's clothes. Mark holds on to Eduardo as tight as he possibly can, and his ribcage feels absolutely splintered under the weight of everything he's feeling, horsehair cracks running along his bones in every direction, even as Eduardo's here to hold him together.

He buries his face in Eduardo's neck and murmurs, "You came back."

The wildflowers all around the porch bob their heads at them congenially. Eduardo pulls back, his hands coming up to catch Mark by the face and hold him there for a moment, looking at him like the whole world is fog and Mark is the only thing he can see in color, like he wants to say a dozen different things.

Instead, he lets go, his fingertips brushing over the skin at Mark's neck, the exposed bit between his jugular and the collar of his coveralls and -- Mark realizes with a sudden flush -- the place where the thin white scars are clearly visible, making a starburst ring in the shape of Eduardo's teeth.

It's only fair, he supposes, that they carry each other's worst moments in their own skin. He touches the line of Eduardo's jaw, thumbing the places he never forgot, where titanium alloy meets the remains of his bones.

I created you. You created me.

"Mark," says Eduardo, and it momentarily distracts Mark from the desire to pull him into a kiss, the desire to shake him and go, your family? Your parents? Are they alive? There's barely-contained excitement trembling at the edges of Eduardo's voice. "There's someone I want you to meet."

There's a split second in which Mark experiences very bad vertigo, coming off the sense memory of the last time one of them said those words, before he registers movement out of his peripheral, accompanied by the soft creaking of the screen door.

Eduardo steps away, and Mark's heart judders to a complete stop; his hands half-extended, music still playing tinnily from his headphones.

There's a man on the porch, staring down at Mark and Eduardo with the eeriest look in his eyes. His bramble-colored curls are cut short and close to his skull, his hands tucked behind his back like a man in fighting repose, and he's wearing beige slacks and a polo. The word "Facebook" is stitched into the fabric above his heart, in the same place Mark carries the badge with his own name on it, and he stares up at him and thinks every impossible thing.

Slowly, unsteadily, the other Mark Zuckerberg comes down the porch steps.

 

 

-

Now you begin to wonder.
- Another Earth (2011)

 

-
fin