Because we want the peace with half a heart
and half a life and will, the war, of course,
continues, because the waging of war, by its
nature, is total — but the waging of peace,
by our own cowardice, is partial.
—Daniel Berrigan, S.J.
Jean-Paul had only been at Department H for a few weeks, but he already had opinions.
The uniforms: ridiculous. He and Aurora were given Kevlar-lined training suits, something like what speed skaters wore, and they left little to the imagination. These immediately tore into pieces when the twins trained at high speeds, leaving them half-naked when they landed. Fun time was had by all. The Department had promised to find a better design that would stand up to the physics, and until that happened the twins were grounded.
The name: not exactly inspiring. For now, they were being called Alpha Flight. There was also a Beta Flight and a Gamma Flight, Hudson said, apparently equivalent to the farm team and the junior league. Jean-Paul never saw any of these other team-members, and for all he knew they weren't even gathered up anywhere. He hadn't chosen his own codename, Northstar, which felt like twee Can-Con bullshit. But it was just a name.
Their fearless leader: not a mutant, apparently. Jim Hudson was some ex-engineer for a military tech company, and he had exactly zero superpowers but was working on a suit, like a cut-rate Canadian Iron Man. Jean-Paul wasn't impressed; the guy seemed fine, really, and probably better than the rest of them in terms of organising and strategy, but it seemed strange that after all this talk of "mutants policing mutants" the team leader was a baseline.
Other fearless leader: Heather McNeil was Hudson's second-in-command, they were probably sleeping together, and she wasn't a mutant either. But she had police experience, at least, which was more than the others could say.
Langkowski: hadn't been briefed that "frog" was a derogatory slur.
That didn't mean Jean-Paul wasn't enjoying himself, of course. He liked being in on the ground floor of things, so to speak, ahead of the teeming masses. The team was in rough shape, but that meant he'd get to witness it coming into its own. The ones who couldn't keep up would be replaced by the ones who could. It was exciting (as well as frustrating) that nothing was settled yet. Maybe they'd even be part of history.
Their needs were all taken care of. They ate in the big bright cafeteria, which had enormously high ceilings and a view over the bare-branched city, the Parliament buildings and the river. At night they slept in small hostel-like rooms. (The Coordinator promised them better quarters later, when the rest of their funding came in.) They left the building for training exercises at Algonquin and a couple of military bases, but other than that they were kept mostly within the complex's many walls.
Not that it felt confining -- Aurora went out shopping at the Rideau Centre one day, bringing Jean-Paul with her to critique outfits, and Jean-Paul himself went out to the library when he had cabin fever and needed to get away from the Department. It was the schedule that was exhausting.
Hudson approached Jean-Paul one day at lunch. "Eating alone?"
"The others are still at Algonquin," Jean-Paul said, picking the onions out of the bulgur pilaf that was on the menu for the day.
"You were careful flying back, right?"
"Careful not to go too fast and split my pants? Of course."
"Good. I just wanted to have a talk with someone on the team who has a flair for discretion, you know? I think that's you. Langkowski spoke pretty highly of you."
Jean-Paul didn't think he'd seen Langkowski enough to merit that sort of compliment. Maybe this was supposed to be an attempt at smoothing things over after the "frogs" remark. "We can talk."
"I'll be telling the others most of this stuff, but I just wanted to bounce the ideas off one of you guys first. We're coming up on our first mission soon. I'm not quite sure when."
Jean-Paul kept eating and gestured for Hudson to go on. He wasn't about to get too excited, since there had been rumours about the first mission for awhile now.
"It's not the mission I actually wanted to do first," Hudson said, pulling out a chair and sitting down across from Jean-Paul. "I wasn't actually supposed to be leading Alpha Flight, you know. Originally we had another recruit who was going to be in charge -- he was a mutant. I know we seem a little off-message, with me and Heather organising things. I really do think it'll be better for Alpha Flight to be a mutant team. But our anointed leader flew the coop, and he did it in a pretty messy way. We'd like to go after him and get him back into custody. That's my choice for our first priority, anyhow, but the Director wants to be sure we can handle it first. I mean, so do I. But that means we'll be doing a few smaller runs to get our feet under us."
Jean-Paul cracked open his bottle of water. "So this guy you're after would've been the team leader, but instead he's coming back as a prisoner? Because of the way he left?"
"That's about the size of it."
"What'd he do, go postal on everybody?"
"There were a lot of injuries and fatalities, yes."
Jean-Paul hadn't been expecting a serious answer to the question, and it made a ripple of doubt run through his mind. "It might be awhile before we're ready for that."
"Well, I believe in the team. Anyway, this job won't be nearly as hard. In fact, I want to emphasise that we'll be there to de-escalate any conflict," said Hudson. "I don't even want us to be there at all, but it looks like it might end up being necessary. It all depends on him."
Hudson pushed a file folder across the table to Jean-Paul. He folded his arms and sat back, looking genuinely discomfited. He was a big guy, who looked more like a farmer than an engineer, which he apparently was. He had one of those square English faces that Jean-Paul found hard to read.
Jean-Paul flipped the folder open, scanned through a page or two of government legalese about confidentiality and security, and found himself looking at copies of personal records, apparently taken from the CRIM database.
Name: LALIBERTÉ, PAUL LOUIS-JOSEPH.
Status: Mutant (Patent. Class ± 1.8)
Manifestation (inc. date if known): 24/05/06. Longueuil, PQ. (See file NO21987-1b, Schedule I for details)
Mutation: Bioluminescence, empathic abilities (read-only, chemically based).
Risk Assessment: Low. Possesses no offensive, defensive, or evasive capabilities.
Name: McCREE, JOEL KEVIN.
Status: Mutant (Patent. Class ± 3)
Manifestation (inc. date if known): 15/11/07. Ottawa, ON. (See file NO56904-3c, Schedule II for details)
Mutation: Invisibility concurrent with intangibility.
Risk Assessment: Medium. Evasive capabilities only.
Jean-Paul looked up, raising a brow quizzically. "We're going after the Catholic Worker guys?"
"We're not 'going after them.' I have orders from higher up to make sure he doesn't do any serious damage to Neurocherche." Hudson folded his arms on the table. "I don't like it, and I want you to know that. We've dealt with Neurocherche before -- Walter and I were working on a project with AmCan before this, in liaison with the feds. I saw what Neurocherche does. If McCree wants to go in there and spring some patients loose, we'll look the other way. If he damages some records, these things happen. But if he destroys any of their research, we'll have to stop him. Him and his crew."
Jean-Paul was not listening very carefully; he was looking at the passport-bland photos and wondering who was looking at his own file. He heard phrases like higher-ups often and real names very rarely.
"You understand me? I wanted to come to you first with this, because you and your sister have had some dealings with him. He's a good guy, really. But I can't let him wreck all the progress Neurocherche has made. Then it will all have been for nothing."
"So," said Jean-Paul, trying to wrangle his thoughts into something coherent, "what are we going to do?"
"Watch and wait. If and when he makes his move, we'll be there. He plays nice, we get to go home early. He doesn't, we take them into custody. You got me?"
"I got you."
"Good." And Hudson shut the folder and put it back in his briefcase. "I'm glad we talked."
* * *
"I'm not saying they shouldn't get arrested if they're breaking into places and messing with things," said Jean-Paul. "Just that it's creepy for the Department to have that much information about what they're doing. What they haven't even done yet."
"I'm just glad to be out of that place. Bunch of religious nuts telling me what to think, it's just like Madame DuPont's," Aurora said, rolling over to lie on her stomach on his bed. "And the downstairs toilet was always broken because those walk-in kids never flushed, and who was always on bathroom chore duty? Me, four days out of seven."
Jean-Paul was sitting on the floor with the TV remote, flipping aimlessly through Netflix. "Yeah, well, it's not the right kind of place for you. But here's the other thing, Hudson said he wasn't originally going to be the team leader. They had some mutant tapped for it."
"Are you supposed to be telling me this?"
"We're never going to develop a secret twin language if we don't bond, c'mon. You want to watch this? It's Audiard."
"Mm -- oh, Vincent Cassel, yeah. He's ugly-hot, I love it," Aurora said. "So what, are they going to replace Hudson midstream too when they get a mutant leader they like?"
"Maybe. But Hudson said the guy they'd planned to have running the team just like, killed everyone and ran away. Or something, he was all vague about it. But he said people definitely died."
"Yeah, sounds like a great leader. A+, would get stabbed by again." Aurora moved onto her back again, letting her head hang upside down over the edge of the bed, her hair pooling on the floor. "I don't mind having Hudson in charge. Means we can always overpower him if one of us gets him naked. Wink wink."
"Ugh, you take him. Not my type." Jean-Paul put the remote aside. "So Hudson wants us to go after Captain Stabby, once we're ready."
"Whoa, what?" Aurora sat up.
"Like arrest him."
"At this rate, the team will be ready to take on somebody like that at around a quarter to never."
"That was what I was thinking," said Jean-Paul dryly. "See, twin-bond already."
* * *
"Wow, thanks," Joel said, surprised and touched. "Who's even updating that page now? It used to be Niko's job and then we forgot about it."
"We didn't forget anything," Grace said from the kitchen table, where breakfast was still on. "I took over for her on the English side, Mars does the French posts."
"Oh man, really? I'm sorry." Embarrassing, and par for the course lately. Joel didn't know how to promote anything via social media (pamphlets were as far as his advertising savvy went) and had assumed that the Facebook page was dead and denuded of readers. "Thanks, Grace."
"Well, speaking of technology, we came by to look at the USB drive," Will said. "We won't take it away from you but we want to copy the data and read through a bit of it to see what's there."
"Is it safe to talk about any of that stuff here?" said Paul, who was putting the morning's second round of dishes in the dishwasher. "We don't know how they're monitoring us, do we?" He straightened up and raised his voice above the breakfast chatter. "Do we, Prawn?"
"Is it safe to do anything private over the Wifi, is the house bugged, any useful info like that?"
Prawn was eating a second breakfast just because he could, but he sighed and brought his half-finished bowl of porridge to the kitchen island. "Are you precious naive dimwits telling me you don't already encrypt your internet shit?"
"No, but we also don't talk about our conspiracy adventures online either," said Paul. "It's all updates about rice and Joel emailing in his theology papers late."
"Okay, well, keep that up. And yeah, I've scanned the whole property more than once. Nothing here is transmitting radio on any frequency -- nothing that isn't supposed to, anyway. I can jam all the signals if you want, but it's overkill." Prawn spooned up the last of the oatmeal and pushed the empty bowl in Paul's direction. "I'm betting it's either telepaths or someone across the street who watches the car come and go and phones it in."
"You're Francis Dudley, aren't you?" said Faiza.
"He does have that pleasure," Joel said. "Prawn, this is Dr. Faiza Hussain -- she and Will here wanted to talk to you about the usual thing. I don't know when's convenient for that. You guys can use the front room to spread out in while you check the USB drive," he said to Will, since he wasn't quite trusting enough to set a pair of foreign spies loose in the house office with the door closed. What the fuck is my life right now? "Paul, if we clear off the kitchen table are we good to take a look at maybe planning a run on Neurocherche?"
Paul closed the dishwasher and sighed. "Do we have any ideas yet about how to transport thirty-some kids from Repentigny to wherever we're putting them?"
"We're in the brainstorming stage on that."
"This is what we're dealing with," Paul said rhetorically to Faiza. "Yeah, we might as well. Waiting won't make it any better."
"D'you mind if I sit in?" said Faiza. "We might be able to help out, indirectly."
So they cleared off the far half of the table, while a few stragglers kept eating at the other end. Joel knew that it was possible that some of their own kids were reporting back to Department H; it would have been both easy and cheap for the government to do it that way. But he had to draw a line somewhere when it came to caution, and he'd been telling the truth when he told Heather McNeil that he would have made a terrible covert agent. The kids at the house were his guests. They were eating and sleeping under his roof, and that was the point of this entire exercise -- that they could stay here without suspicion, without being scrutinised, without having to meet a set of requirements. Like any other guests in any other civilian's home. He would rather be taken advantage of than abandon that ideal.
"Are we overthinking this?" said Joel after they'd been staring at Google Maps for awhile. "Can we not just rent a couple of vans, or some boring solution like that?"
"They take your information at a car rental place, Prince Siddhartha," Paul said, getting up to make a fresh pot of tea. "I know you've never had to rent a car, but they ask for your credit card and a photo ID."
"Well, so? There are telepaths there who can alter memories, so if we don't get caught red-handed we probably won't get caught at all. I'm not sure a paper trail is going to make a difference either way," said Joel.
"All right, we're brainstorming, we're not judging," said Faiza, writing it down. "I reckon Will could find a way around the ID problem -- he's good at faking up paperwork and talking his way past. But that's still a lot of people to move at once with anything short of a school-bus."
"Yeah, and I have no idea how to work this," Joel said. "This is like that annoying riddle about the fox and the goat and the boat or whatever. What do we do about telepath surveillance, if that's even happening? They can't be paying attention to our every thought, since we got to Neurocherche and back last time without getting caught."
Mars, who was sitting in, shook her head. "A psionic spy might not be a conventional telepath. Maybe a remote viewer, maybe some other specialised talent."
"Okay, well, can we screen against that?" asked Paul, sitting down again at the table beside Joel. "Couldn't you shield us?"
"Shields don't work like on Star Trek, okay?" said Mars. "I can't shield unless I know what I'm trying to cover."
"Cover everything, what's hard about that?"
Mars tipped her head back, rolling her eyes, as if the idea were so vastly stupid that she didn't know where to start. "It's hard to cover other people without crowding into their heads. And non-telepaths putting up shields is pretty much a joke. A few people can do it, if they've been taught properly, but that takes a long time. Shielding from a remote viewer is next to impossible, unless someone has a super long-range talent for jamming other mutants' abilities."
"Let's focus on what we can do," said Faiza. "You guys got into Neurocherche once, like you said. Insha'allah, the telepaths will help when they're able. If nobody has errands to run today -- or even if you do -- why don't you bring someone along to watch and actually see if cars follow or not? Get a few more data points on that topic."
"Yeah, that's a good idea," Paul said. "I dunno. Mars, if you and Ox want to go to Bulk Barn or someplace we have a list on the fridge."
"Only if Ox comes, I hate lifting boxes," said Mars, but she got up from the table. "I can scan while he drives and see if anyone's following."
"And where are we going to put everybody?" said Paul. "They're not homeless kids, and they're not even all minors -- we don't even know who is and who isn't, unless the USB stick has patient information on everyone. Parents are gonna want to know where their kids are."
"Then the kids with no family issues can go straight home, that's the easy part," said Joel. "I don't want to get arrested for kidnapping here. The Professor might be able to take some, and we could put some of them up here, if that's even safe, but we don't have infinite resources. We don't even know if all the patients there unanimously want to leave, we don't know anything. What happens to them when they're off their meds, whatever's being given out there? They have real health problems, and I can't even find a doctor for myself--"
"Hey," Faiza said, pushing her chair back and standing up. "Let's take a break, we're getting stressed out. Joel, want to come take a walk with me round to the corner shop? Buy some sugar and get our heads together?"
"Am I being handled? Sorry, yeah," Joel said, tired and annoyed with himself that he couldn't calmly work through a problem like this. "We don't have to go anywhere, I'll go take a literal chill pill."
"No, c'mon, get a little air. It's good for you," said Faiza, already going to the front hall to put her boots on. "You're not being 'handled', or not in a bad way. Sounds like you were implying a bad way. There's nothing wrong with trying to give people some space to deal with things."
"All right, yeah," said Joel, and he went with her to get his coat. "As you can see, this place runs like a Swiss watch," he said wryly when they got out the door and into the cold, clear January air. "All thanks to me and my organisational prowess."
"You're running a homeless shelter and trying to plan a superhero operation," Faiza pointed out. "I don't think anyone expects that to go terribly smoothly."
"We're not superheroes."
"People with superpowers trying to save other people who are in trouble, hm, yeah. Wonder why I would've chosen a word like that," said Faiza, putting her hood up carefully over her hijab and sticking a spare pin in the lapel of her coat. "Ow, that wind is bitter, it's stinging my face--"
"That's why I said we didn't have to go anywhere, yeah. Sorry."
"No, it's fine, I'm acclimating. I mean London's cold, but this is different. What's your secret, how do you guys manage?"
"Gore-Tex and mentally dissociating from the body," Joel said with a smile as they crunched over the sidewalk towards Sherbrooke. "But yeah, I'm not really a fan of the concept of superheroes."
She looked up at him, her mittened hands stuffed in her coat pockets. "Why not?"
"I think it kinda puts this glamorous gloss over something we'd hate like poison if it were packaged any other way. Unelected, unaccountable people -- sometimes not even identified -- deciding by themselves to interfere in violent situations. Deciding who the bad guys are. Using force however they want. The only way it works is if you assume that superheroes never make mistakes."
Faiza gave him a slightly pained why do you hate fun look, but she said, "So what is it you think people like about the packaging? The glamorous gloss?"
"I don't know. The superpowers themselves, probably. Maybe that adds a sense of wonder, maybe it makes it seem miraculous, like some higher being acting instead of just another human acting like a vigilante." It was more bitter than Joel usually got, but this was shaping up to be a bad day for the inside of his head. Frustration at everything was building up. "Maybe it makes baselines feel like mutants have a right to exist if we use our mutations for some purpose that meets with their approval."
"Were you angry when the X-Men didn't save your dad?" Faiza said quietly.
"It's not about Dad."
"I'm not asking if your dad's the grand reason behind everything you think. I'm just asking if it made you angry."
Joel didn't answer right away, not sure he wanted to, but as they waited at the light, he said, "I'm not mad at the X-Men. I'm mad at the Prime Minister, because he was asking those questions, about who was responsible if something went wrong. He knew what could happen. But then he just signed off on it anyway because it helped him to have an outside force to scapegoat. I'm not mad that superheroes make mistakes -- everyone does. I just hate it that we're acting like the best solution to violence is to introduce a whole new type of it, with even fewer safeguards on it. And we just have to trust the powerful people, or else we have to look for even more power and use it to fight them. This isn't any kind of way to run a human society. And I find it hard to argue against baseline bigots who hate mutants because they don't trust people who have that much unchecked power. The only way out of this that I can see is for people to stop getting so goddamn excited about power and violence. To start believing in a way to cut it out entirely. And no one wants to do that."
The light turned green, and Faiza hurried across the street with Joel. The lights in Montreal were always a little too short for pedestrians to get all the way across. "Your idea involves a lot of trust too," she observed. "Probably more. Look, I'm a doctor, you know? I could hurt people with my power if I wanted to, but I don't. I wouldn't. We don't do the traditional Hippocratic Oath anymore, but at my school we still had a little ceremony with the Declaration of Geneva. I solemnly pledge to consecrate my life to the service of humanity, good stuff like that. And I have a bit of privilege, because I can use my power for that. Not everyone can. And I believe there really is something noble about mutants trying to be heroes. It doesn't have to involve, I don't know, throwing punches in mid-air. You could think of it as Good Samaritans instead of vigilantes."
"I don't have a problem with people who are helping without hurting anyone -- that's what we're trying to do, right?" Joel pushed open the door of the Couche-Tard and held it for Faiza. "But what about a case where, I dunno, Mutant Joe stops an attack on Civilian Jack by blasting a hole in the perpetrator's face? No warning, no trial, no inquiry, just somebody dead or injured. Did the right person get hurt? Who knows? If it happens in a movie, you cheer because nothing bad actually happened and you like the idea of bad people getting what they deserve. But what do you do with that in reality? You just hope that someone else is strong enough to give Mutant Joe what he deserves. That's unacceptable in this country, it's unacceptable in any country."
"Have you ever used your power to do something you shouldn't?" Faiza asked, walking by the freezer section to look at the ice cream. "No judgement, just wondering."
"Yeah, I have. I try not to, but I've done it."
"But not every day, right? You do try, and when you mess up you feel guilty. You repent, you go to Confession -- right?"
"Yeah. If it's a priest in the box who doesn't know me well, I just tell him I invaded someone's privacy and leave it at that," Joel said. "It hasn't happened that often."
"Well, and you work with a lot of mutants. Do you think you're that unusual? Do you think other mutants don't try as hard to use their abilities properly? I'm not trying to be rude, I'm just saying..." Faiza turned to look at the chips, bending over to look at a lower row. "I think most people are basically all right, you know? Think about all the people you've met in your life, and how many were total unredeemable bastards. Not that many were completely hopeless, right? Less than five?"
"I grew up knowing a lot of politicians, so more than five."
"Yeah, yeah. Mister Cynical, the charity worker. I believe that completely. I just think violence is always going to happen, and encouraging heroism is going to make things better, not worse. But it has to really be heroism. Like you say, we can't just give the label to anybody running around in a costume blasting holes in things. We need discretion, just like with everything else. You have some flavours of crisps we don't, this is cool. What does 'all dressed' taste like?"
"It's hard to explain," Joel said. "Kind of ketchup and vinegar, I guess?"
"I'll try them for cultural exchange, sure." She picked up a bag. "You want anything?"
"I dunno, let me look." He went up the aisle to look at the candy. Paul liked the Twizzlers that were filled with some sugary icing-type material, even though they gave him indigestion, and since he never had any regrets after buying them Joel sometimes picked them up to make him happy. "Am I coming off as a total nihilist today or something? I believe in heroism as a concept -- that's what sainthood is. Someone who lives a life of heroic virtue."
"It's not like there haven't been violent saints," Faiza said, taking a Cadbury Fruit & Nut bar as well. "She said, carefully not bringing up the Crusades."
"Well yeah, or even Joan of Arc. But there've been lots of saints who left the military, too. Beat their swords into ploughshares. It's a big tent, but this is my corner of it," Joel said. He took a bag of Starbursts and went to the cash with Faiza. When they were paid up and on their way out again, he said, "I believe in nonviolence because it does seem unnatural. Because it's surprising and hard. It demands a lot of imagination and a lot of work. And it may not be the worst thing in the world to have some violence in life here or there, where it's needed, but at this point in history we're addicted to it. It's like telling an alcoholic they can only drink after five o'clock. It's not going to result in less drinking. They'll just start planning their life around the time when it is allowed. We're too obsessed with violence as a culture."
"Maybe," Faiza said as they walked back to the lights. "You're not coming off like a nihilist, but you sound like you need a break. More than a walk to the corner shop, that is. You sound like some angry celebrity who's been attacked for a week on Twitter and now you've snapped and you're yelling at Barbara Walters."
"Oh my God." Joel laughed, hard enough that the cold air was sharp in his lungs. "That is a wakeup call, holy shit. I'm sorry, that's the last thing I want to sound like."
"You appreciate honesty, I figured. No, c'mon, it's not that bad, I just know what the warning signs of burnout are. Being under surveillance will do that to you, and so will feeling helpless when all you want to do is help people. Health care field, we know all about it."
"I'm not burned out, but I'm getting disappointed in myself," Joel said. Faiza was a good listener, the kind of person he'd always wanted to be himself, and had never managed to be, too reticent to take the initiative and draw people out. "The house is stressed out, and a lot of the ideas I had at first never panned out. Stuff about communal living and equality. I'd just read a lot of books, you know? I read theories. I didn't really understand how to deal with people, and I still don't."
"You're not dying of cancer or anything, mate," Faiza said as they crossed the street. "It's not too late. We'll get this Neurocherche thing sorted, and you lot can go back to doing what you were supposed to be doing. Promise."
"I hope so. Yeah."
* * *
"Better now?" said Paul.
"Yeah. Here, I got you those things you like that give you stomach cramps," Joel said, giving him the package of Twizzlers.
"The key to my heart. God, these are so gross, I love them," Paul said, opening the package. "I don't suppose any ideas came to you in a beam of heavenly light while you were out?"
"There's only so much the Couche-Tard can do," Joel said, tilting his chair back and suppressing a yawn. "Christ, I wish I could just go back to bed. It's pretty ironic that a bunch of people with supernatural powers can't get thirty teenagers out of a lab in the suburbs."
"No kidding, eh?" Paul peeled off one of the Twizzlers but didn't eat it, just twisting it absently into a spiral. "I guess we just don't have the right superpowers, at least for this job. This would be way too easy if you could make other people intangible besides yourself," he added, a little hopefully.
"Have you ever tried?"
"Not really. Not extensively, anyway," said Joel. "But they asked when they were testing me for my CRIM card. Dr. Xavier asked about it. Way back at the Civic in Ottawa they asked, when I first manifested."
"Maybe you should try extensively."
Joel shook his head. "No. It's -- I can't even imagine how that would work. Like jumping over your own knees."
"People's powers can develop over time, you know that. Things might be possible now that weren't five years ago. Try it with me."
"Joel." Paul pushed the candy aside on the table. "If it doesn't work, it doesn't work. Can we just try?"
Joel looked like he was thinking about it, and then after a moment he reached out for Paul's shoulder...and then frowned and took his hand instead. Bare skin to bare skin. A shimmer of coral-gold ran over Paul's wrist, with rivulets of violet and blue. His guts felt tight. He was terrified, suddenly, frightened that he was pushing too hard in a vulnerable place, that his only friendship was going to come apart like rice paper.
Nothing happened for a few moments, although Joel faded out and back in again.
"Not working?" said Paul.
"Hold on." Joel closed his eyes and disappeared again -- this time Paul's watch went with him. Paul caught a strange, ticklish sensation of something moving through the bones and tendons of his wrist, not exactly pleasant. When Joel reappeared, the watch fell with a clunk onto the table.
"Holy shit, you did it--"
"No, that's old news. There's sort of a field that affects little things. My clothes disappear with me too, after all. But a person's a lot bigger than a watch. Let me try again." This time he faded out, not touching Paul. He was gone for several seconds -- a long time, it felt like -- and abruptly Paul felt something touch his face.
Worse and bigger than nothing. Cold emptiness and a pale snowy blank that hurt the eyes. Eyes that were no eyes. He was dead. No flesh and no smells and no colours and no sounds. Certainly nothing so luxurious as a taste, not even the dank salt of his own mouth. He was dead. He was alone, unplugged from the rest of the universe, and there was nothing he could do to undo this. There was no doorway back in, no way back to the world of light and colour and sound and solid matter. He had been undone and unmade. Nothing left but this single point of consciousness that would not wink out, unwelcome as a ringing in the ear.
No one was with him. No one else existed. Like deep space, but white and without stars, without even the background hiss from the Big Bang that radio telescopes could hear. The emptiness was hungry for being, but it only destroyed. A cold so dry and bitter that if you could throw a cup of water into it, it would sublimate to vapour with a gasp. No thought, no language. All the tongues were whittled down to splinters here. Arctic ice-fog, the kind that ate ships, swallowed whole expeditions. Planes tracing circles and grids would never find him.
And then he fell -- not only out of the awful blankness but also off his chair onto the hard ceramic tiles. Someone was on top of him, his face was in someone's armpit. He couldn't remember who he was, or even what city he was in. The press of noise and details was coming too fast.
Someone was talking to him. "...you okay? I had to grab you fast or I didn't think it would work."
"It won't work!" Paul exploded. "Don't do that to another human being ever again."
Joel was righting the chair and sitting back down at the table, concerned but not falling the fuck apart the way Paul was. "Was it really bad? I couldn't tell -- it was just like every other time for me. I didn't even notice you."
"I didn't notice myself either. That felt like hours -- sensory deprivation messes people up, okay?" Paul was shaking, getting up and sitting down again, keeping his hands flat on the table to feel the wood, reminding himself that he was still here. "We can't use that to get anyone out of Neurocherche. Okay? You can't do that to someone else."
"Sorry." Joel refrained from an I told you so, even though it was probably warranted. "But at least in an emergency, maybe--"
"Ask me," Paul interrupted. "Don't decide it for yourself, if it comes down to that. You're -- you must be used to how it feels. Immune. I don't know. But other people...I could lose myself in there. Promise me."
"I'm not sure I could even do it with someone I didn't know well," Joel said. "Getting in isn't that bad, but getting out...it's hard to explain. It's like taking apart a toaster and putting it back together. You can learn to do that. But then try taking apart a toaster, taking apart an alarm clock, mixing the parts up in a pile together, and trying to rebuild both things. I know you. I can -- I can find you down there and put you back together. With someone else, things might get lost."
Paul took a second to interpret that. "So, what, we were -- mixed together in there?"
"No. Sort of. I don't think anything really exists, there in the whiteness. Not even thoughts, really. Sometimes...sometimes when I'm just waking up after a seizure, I have a moment where I don't remember who I am or what I am, nothing. There's just this sort of core, a little pilot light. And then gradually I remember everything else and I get it back, all the rest of the layers. But I think the only thing that can exist in the whiteness is that pilot light," he said slowly. "And I know yours."
Paul's skin was a riot of colour, the stubborn sunset reds still skimming along over the shuddering turquoise yellows of his shock. Those pretty hibiscus reds, which Joel and everybody else could interpret perfectly well. Everybody knew, everyone who spent any time with the two of them always figured it out. Even Joel knew, Paul thought. He'd been fooling himself for so long, thinking that what went unsaid must also be unknown. At least unconfirmed. But it was all in glorious, obvious Technicolor on Paul's part, and Joel too was blushing.
Joel looked down at the table-top. He seemed to be thinking the same thing, and he said, "I don't want to have another awkward conversation today. But we'll talk about it."
"Yeah. Nothing else we can do." He looked up at Paul. "You know that about me."
It pissed Paul off. He could easily understand how Hodya must have been feeling all this time, how frustrated by Joel's refusals to explain, or by his explanations that still didn't reveal anything important. Paul could smell desire, such a basic thing, like salt, and he was tired of pretending it wasn't there. He wanted an acknowledgement of reality.
And he always had. What was surprising was that he'd waited so long.
He leaned across and kissed Joel, hard, teeth bumping against lips and a fine scrape of stubble. That was the only thing he remembered about the kiss, later -- that and the feeling of Joel's breath across Paul's cheek as they broke apart. The rest of it all dissolved into blank space, the shock of doing it for real instead of just thinking about it.
They did break apart, but Joel's hand stayed on Paul's chest, just below the collar of his shirt, undecided about whether to push or to pull.
"You liked it," Paul said, hating the way he sounded, but it was true. He knew it was.
"That doesn't matter."
"How? How does it matter?" Joel sounded like he wanted to be upset but couldn't find the energy. "How does me liking it make it a good idea?"
"But you liked it."
Joel looked down and took his hand away, folding and then unfolding his arms, but he said, "Yeah, I mean...yeah."
"Good," said Paul, letting out a breath. His diaphragm shuddered, as though he was near tears or laughter. "You should do stuff that you like more often."
"I do. I like all of this, Paul. I like making giant pots of oatmeal in the mornings, I like bailing Prawn out of safety, I like getting up in the night to give someone a bed. I like you. I like you." Joel struggled for a moment to say something else, the words stuck in his throat. "This makes me happy. Even if sometimes it seems like all I do is complain, it makes me happy. That's what I really feel. Are you happy?"
Paul wasn't unhappy, he thought. St-Jean-de-Dieu made him feel like he mattered, after an adolescence of being variously a freak, a patient, an inmate, and a burden. The house was just a house, infuriating and peaceful according to the day, but more than that, it was the manifestation of something he loved most about his best friend. Paul believed in the mission, but he wouldn't have taken these risks for anybody else. He wasn't unhappy. But a cat watching a fishbowl might not describe itself as happy, and neither would Paul. He was waiting for something.
But Joel was watching him, and then deliberately, he shoved his chair closer to Paul's. Joel leaned in and kissed him, and it wasn't as hurried or heart-in-mouth as the first one. Just a test drive, seeing how it all fit. Paul could still smell the salt of desire, but also something peach-warm with the effervescence that happened when fear and exhilaration came at once, nose-tickling. The sunset warmth of it smelled like the gold and scarlet that were flowing across his own skin.
He had just buried his hand in Joel's hair when he heard, behind him, a shuffling step and a sharp intake of breath. Someone blurted out, "Oh my God!"
"I was going to come in and say 'Eureka,'" said Prawn, "but I guess this is actually more exciting than my thing. Carry on."