This is the eighteenth time Nate Ford lives after dying.
The first time Nate Ford died, they just dragged him out back after the ID scan showed he had no living relatives in the city.
They just dragged him out back, shoved him to his knees, put the gun against his temple and pulled the trigger.
He wishes every death could be that clean.
Nate doesn’t remember the second time.
There’s just a black hole where the computer’s screen used to be, and a black hole in his memories.
Nate always wakes alone in his apartment, the smell of grease and oil leaking up the stairs.
He always dies surrounded by security, deep in the Institute, a manic laugh in his ears over the rush of time sliding backwards.
It always seems like he’s playing a game he didn’t ask to start, doesn’t know the rules of, and would really like to stop.
And it always takes three weeks from waking to dying.
(Except the seventh time. That time it took two weeks, because that time he walked the tracks beneath the city – just to see what would happen when the train hit. The only thing that happened was that someone else saw what was happening. And because he saw, he started playing.)
(Except the thirteenth time. That time it took one week, because that time that other player showed up early. He tracked Nate down, held him down, laughed at the barely human sounds he drew from Nate’s lips until he died and he woke and everything started over.)
(Except the sixteenth time. That time it took four weeks, because that time he left the Institute alone, never went near the computer; packed his bag and lived the whole time on the streets, under store awnings, down in the subways. It took him a week to track Nate down, accuse him of cheating, and crucify him screaming in the basement. Nate’ll never be able to look at a nail gun again. Or a crowbar.)
It always takes three weeks from waking to dying. Three weeks where nothing changes. Three weeks where the news is the same, the weather’s the same, the accidents are the same, the food’s the same.
Everything’s the same.
(Except that’s not entirely true. The dinosaurs, after all, showed up after the tenth time - the burning time, the time that keeps him awake most nights now, the time he used to announce he was playing too. Nate knows, because he threw Nate to them, alive and kicking, the eleventh time. The dinosaurs showed up, and the dinosaurs stayed, and that was a change.)
But overall everything’s the same.
The sun rises. The poison clouds roil overhead, tinged golden through the greenhouse glass.
People live and move and breathe.
And he dies.
This is the eighteenth time Nate Ford lives after dying.
This is the eighteenth time Nate Ford lives after dying, and already it starts different.
It starts with the scent of coffee.
Reader, do you think it is a terrible thing to hope when there is really no reason to hope at all? Or is it (as the soldier said about happiness) something that you might just as well do, since, in the end, it really makes no difference to anyone but you?
-The Tale of Despereaux
“I am Joe’s over-caffeinated vascular organ.”
Parker Hagen’s monotone from table three is loud enough that Alec Hardison can hear it behind the counter, even with his head in the bake-case. He straightens, catches a glimpse of his deer-in-headlights look in the glass (the look is mirrored in half the customers’ eyes; the other half are regulars, and he’s pleased to note that they haven’t flinched), and leans on the countertop, his knuckles to the green marble.
“What are you talkin’ about?”
Parker’s long blonde braid sways as she hefts an empty disposable coffee cup, flips it over and shakes it vigorously. Nothing drips out. Alec has a moment to wonder if, maybe, its original owner had actually licked the cup clean before abandoning it. The thought makes his heart skip erratically.
“Quadruple-shot espresso, chocolate sauce, powdered sugar, who cares about your heart as it pumps blood through teeny, tiny veins faster than it was ever meant to…”
He can read her black-marker scrawl from here: Liquid Heart Attack. It’s struck through with a pink ballpoint, the drink’s actual name scribbled over it (Cake in a Cup), but the pen strokes are so much lighter that it’s closing the door after the horses have bolted. He takes a moment to mentally curse Eliot for being the reason he even knows that saying before his attention is drawn back to Parker’s soapbox.
“I drank one of these once, because I can’t serve what I haven’t had, right, so, like, I thought I was going to die.” Her voice is picking up speed, she’s sort-of bouncing on her heels, and Alec can tell that if he doesn’t stop this right now it will be a train wreck when it does stop. “I mean, I invented it and I can’t even drink it -”
“-because I couldn’t sleep for two days-”
“-and I totally had this nightmare where the drink stalked me down, ‘Why don’t you love me???’ and-”
He can hear the multiple question marks. This has gone far enough.
“And I woke up feeling like I’ve created a monster and-” Parker stops, abruptly, mouth snapping shut. “What?”
Alec resists the urge to rub his temples, smiling as calmly as he can manage. He loves Parker, loves her dearly, but. But. “How would you feel about frosting a cake for me?”
Parker’s eyes light, bright blue. “OOooooh, can I?”
“Go,” Alec says, waving a hand toward the back and ignoring the little warning bells in his mind. “Just…just go.”
With Parker safely distracted, he salvages the better part of the morning (even if it does mean he works the register and gets the drinks together; just like old times. He’s quickly reminded how much he hated those old times.)
Eliot Spencer, the only other employee besides Parker, staggers downstairs around ten thirty. His hair’s in a state that, if Alec was feeling more adventurous, could be compared to Parker’s in terms of neatness.
Alec’s not feeling adventurous. He just looks up from fixing the cappuccino machine’s filter, calls “Good morning!” Eliot mumbles something that might have been good morning in reply, and disappears into the kitchen. Alec gets the gum scraped off table nine, puts the bake case in order and restocks the little sugar packets from the Morning High School Student Rush. He’s dropping the quarters he found in the potted orange tree one by one into the tip jar by the time Parker carries her latest creation out of the back.
“Where do you want this, Alec?”
There’s a long moment where Alec debates whether or not he should actually turn around and look at the cake. He hadn’t told her no sprinkles, no candy, or no syrup, and Parker…often gets ahead of herself in the midst of decorating.
The last quarter falls with a pleasant clink, and there’s nothing else to pretend to be doing, so he finally works up the courage to look. Green and red and black splash the top of the cake in swirls and curlicues, like some abstract painting, and the effect is rather artistic. It looks like Christmas. They can use it to make it feel like December, since the weather array is failing miserably in that department.
(It was sixty yesterday. Sixty. He’s about ready to write a letter of complaint, but he’s fairly sure no one would listen.)
“That…that looks pretty good!” he says brightly, and Parker beams. “I’ll put it at the front-”
“I call it ‘Dinosaur Versus Commuter Train,’” Parker says, just as brightly. “It’s the first in a limited series.”
“-right after I cut it up for serving.”
“Don’t look now,” Eliot says –two hours, three cups of coffee and a cupcake later, he’s far more civilized, though his dark hair’s still falling out of its bandanna- before turning back to his soup. It’s Monday, so it’s some gourmet tomato-basil thing that Alec purposely mispronounces just to wind Eliot up. It smells amazing, and if it wouldn’t get his fingers chopped off, he’d totally be stealing spoonfuls, “but the new tenant’s at seven.”
Because he says it (don’t look now have prefaced many, many disasters in this place), Alec– of course – looks. He catches just a glimpse of tight shoulders and messy brown curls before Eliot cuffs the side of his head, lightly. “What did I just say?”
“Dunno,” Alec says back, giving in to the urge to swipe a spoonful of the soup out of the cooking pot. Eliot slaps him again, catches the ladle before Alec can drop it back into the soup, and gives him a disgusted look. “Wasn’t listening. Why did you let Parker read Fight Club?”
It’s not that Alec is suicidal. But Eliot tends to bring out the worst in him, like all his big brothers back at Nana’s before he pulled up stakes and jumped cities. He still finds ways to contact her (because, really, who would suspect a sixty-five year old woman of having an encrypt key for the IM services?) but they’re few and far between, and the constant needling helps things feel closer.
“Because it’s a good book and I’m not her momma,” Eliot replies, and Alec gives him the point for that one. “But. New tenant,” Eliot says again, and the deliberate casualness in the words makes Alec look up from scrubbing the spoon (what can he say? Eliot’s got them all trained there, at least), instantly suspicious and listening now. “Did you…you didn’t meet this one in person either, did you? He’s sight-unseen again, isn’t he?”
“Yep.” Alec pauses, looking at his reflection in the scrubbed-clean silverware. Dark eyes and a wide smile meet his glance, upside down, and he discards the spoon in the dish rack. “He seemed like a civilized guy online.” Eliot gives him another look, and he returns it, coolly. Levelly. “Don’t knock it, man. You seemed like a pretty civilized guy online too, after all...”
The change in Eliot’s expression is all he needs to know he’s on the point board now too.
“’Course, now that he’s here, I wouldn’t argue against a little recon…”
The store-front beneath Nathan Ford’s apartment has always been a machine shop.
Nate’s used to the machine shop.
He doesn’t know what it means that it’s not a machine shop, except that it smells a lot better. And there’s a table set up right next to the window, right in the center of a long puddle of golden sunshine.
That clean light soaks into his shoulders as he stares down at the narrow pad of paper on his table. He picked it up off the counter on his way in. It has a logo – an antique Pac Man chasing down a line of donuts with a greedy, gobbling mouth – printed at the top.
So Nate feels a little strange as he writes, as he’s written before: 1. Shot.
That was the first time he died. He woke up flat on his back on the couch in the apartment he’d had for exactly two days, still feeling like he could smell the gunpowder and the blood, still taste salt and bitterness on his back teeth.
That was back when he thought it was still a dream.
It’s a routine, a ritual. Almost soothing, except for what he remembers with each line. It’s morbid, and he knows it, but it’s his only way of remembering what, exactly, has happened to him.
And how many times it’s happened.
3. Shot. Again.
He doesn’t have any way of controlling it, changing it, stopping it. He’s tried. Maybe, if he keeps recording it, he’ll find a pattern. And if he can find a pattern, he can analyze it, break it down and break free…
The sunshine through the window is warm, though, and it’s almost like a soothing balm against his brain, almost easing away the tension that’s been rising there, riding him for days, weeks, months.
If it wasn’t for the list.
It’s a laundry list of increasing horrors from there on out. He writes mechanically, numbly, adding line after line without thinking as he looks around the room.
He’s used to the machine shop, but the machine shop is gone.
Replacing it is - the sign behind the counter proclaims in neon green letters and a larger version of the Pac Man logo - Megabite Café and Bakery. It’s a nice place, open and airy. The building was once three stories, but some enterprising individual had opened the coffee shop so it was a loft. Nate can even see his new apartment’s door from where he sits, up two flights of stairs and blocked off with a wall of glass.
Megabite is filled with tables and comfy chairs and more plate glass, letting in the light from outside, and the two walls that aren’t glass are, quite simply, books from floor to about seven feet up. Earlier on, a dozen lives ago, he might have been tempted to pick one, sit there in the sun reading it.
But now he focuses on the paper.
17. He finally writes, barely registering the letters. Throat slit.
The deep voice at his shoulder makes him jump, covering the notes with his hand unconsciously as he looks up. His first impression is of muscles, rippling under the black t-shirt and the electric-green apron. His second impression is hair. Long, reddish-brown hair pulled in a fly-away braid. His last impression – and it makes him feel bad, really, because it used to always be the first thing he noticed – is a friendly smile.
“…that’d be really, really nice, actually.” Nate says, and tries to smile back. There’s something in the other man’s eyes – Eliot; the tag on his shirt says Eliot – there’s something in Eliot’s eyes that makes him think he must have gotten it wrong again.
It’s just...it's so hard when he can still feel the knife blade; he can feel it over the sunshine streaming through the window, magnified and tinged a bright gold by the thick glass far, far above their heads. He can feel it under the warmth of the coffee shop, cold and smooth and sharp against his skin. He can still feel the steel searing through his flesh, the liquid heat rushing down his neck, the limbs tangled around his, the hand pressed to his inner thigh, caressing his pulse as it sped up and then, ultimately, slowed.
Slowed and faltered and stopped.
He can still hear the voice, soft and low against his ear: why do you even try anymore?
He shudders at the memory, barely holding back a whine, and there’s a sharp snap followed by a clatter, and when he blinks his eyes clear he’s sitting in a cozy café, holding half a pencil.
Eliot catches the other half before it hits the floor.
“Are you alright?” the younger man says, and Nate looks up at him, looks away from his calloused, closed hand with the strangest urge to laugh.
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m good,” he lies, tugs the top sheet off the notepad, folds it, and shoves it into his pocket. He pauses, then, because that something is still in Eliot’s eyes. “…Why wouldn’t I be?”
Eliot sets the half-pencil down on the table, pointedly.
Nate, just as pointedly, ignores it; meeting Eliot’s eyes as calmly as he possibly can. Eliot’s gaze stays steady, gauging, calculating behind his glasses. But he still blinks first in this eyeball-to-eyeball battle, a resigned relaxation of his shoulders as he doesn’t surrender, not quite, but acknowledges that he’s not getting any further today.
“Yeah, sure, uh. Welcome to the neighborhood, Mr. Ford.” Eliot says, though there’s a trace of irony in his tone. He can afford that much - his calm is more believable than Nate’s. “Seeing as we’re actually neighbors and all....The three of us?” Eliot jerked a thumb at his chest, waved the other to towards the blonde barista and the young black man behind the cash register, pretending not to look their way. “We all live upstairs. You…uh. Ever change your mind about being alright…just…let one of us know.”
It’s an odd offer, but it’s earnest, and Nate tries to bottle the surprise, shove it into the same place he’s keeping the hurt and the fear and the tiredness, but there’s that gleam in the blue again, like Eliot’s seen through it all.
“Thanks,” he says, and if the word’s just a little bit shaky, a little bit halting, maybe he can still be forgiven. “I think.”
“Well?” Alec asks, as soon as 6:00 comes around, as soon as he flips the sign to read closed. The mysterious Nathan Ford had never come to the counter, so all Alec has to go on was fleeting glances of curls and quick hands. Eliot shakes his head and grabs the broom, heading out to sweep the floor.
“I got nothin’.” Eliot says. “I mean, he’s writin’ a list he wouldn’t let me see an’ he’s a jumpy piece of work, but…” He shrugs, raises his eyebrows. “He didn’t seem like a psycho or anything…”
“I can tell you,” Parker says from the barista station, “he drinks way too much coffee.”
They look at her.
In her estimation, these days (since Eliot made the mistake of explaining why coffee wasn’t healthy) everyone drank too much coffee. They had yet to tell her that the same could apply to chocolate. They were both fairly sure she would kill them.
She just raises her eyebrows, and slams down her bussing tote with a loud clatter.
There are seven empty mugs at the bottom.
“I tried to give him decaf after the fourth cup. He spit it out and glared at me.”
There’s a moment of stunned silence. A moment as Alec thinks, he was only in here three hours. Then,
“He drinks way too much coffee.”
Sophie Devereaux waltzes in with her usual grace the next morning, same time as always - ten minutes after Nate Ford sits down in the same exact spot as yesterday.
(Alec gets a better look at him this time – he’s a tall man, lanky without seeming gangly, and his hair’s like a halo of curls, and somehow, even from this distance, Alec can tell his eyes are sad. He’s got a stack of blank papers on the edge of the table and a pencil tucked behind his ear, almost tangled in the brown-and-grey locks. The paper Eliot mentioned yesterday, though, the strange list that Nate had hidden instantly, is nowhere in sight.)
Sophie takes one look, hefts the two bags of coffee beans over to Alec, and says, “Who’s the kicked puppy at my table?”
“New tenant,” Alec replies, leaning over the counter, his fingers laced and pressed to his lips, his eyes on Nate’s table. Sophie’s table. Whichever.
“Ah. You’ve managed to pick up another stray?” Sophie asks, and there’s a laugh in her voice. After all, she was one of those strays once. He doesn’t argue with her as she picks up the change jar and starts digging through it for quarters. “One of these days, Alec…”
“Oh, cut it out,” Alec says, without any heat; pushing away from the counter and getting a mug for her usual tea. “We’re hoping this one will actually last the month…”
Sophie just hums under her throat as Nate starts spreading the papers. Alec is pretty sure the only reason she’s talking to him is that Eliot hasn’t made his way downstairs yet, and he’s alright (he’s seen some of the bruises she can leave when she’s in a Mood. He is totally alright) with that, but there’s definitely curiosity on her face now.
Alec shrugs, adds, “I sicced Eliot and Parker on him yesterday, all they managed to get from him in an hour an’ a freakin’ half is that he’s makin’ some sort of list and he drinks way too much coffee.”
“Let me guess,” Sophie says, wryly. “Parker said that?”
“You know how she is lately,” Alec says, ignoring the fact that a)he agrees with Parker this time and b)Sophie’s got a handful of quarters by now, and has started on the dimes. “Eliot’s a hypocrite, and a bad influence.”
(Sophie brings them their illicit coffee. They barter Eliot’s oregano and tomatoes to Teresa and Ray, lettuce to Jack and half their chicken rations to Florence in exchange for the beans, and Sophie collects them every time in exchange for the sacks they came in. She turns those into purses. Lots of people like them – a tangible reminder that the world outside the ruined US still exists. Even if South America had – politely – said ‘no,’ when the Cataclysm loomed imminent, ‘no, we don’t have room for you, find a solution closer to home.’)
“Don’t I know it…” Sophie purrs, eyebrows rising above her glasses. Alec pauses a second to try and bleach the images from his brain. When he can see clearly again, Sophie’s smirking at him.
“But you don’t know yet,” she continues, and now her voice is serious, as if she wasn’t just making innuendos his ears were too young for, “if he’s in the clear?”
“If you go to reclaim your table,” he replies in confirmation, “Be Sophie. Not Catherine. Not yet.”
Sophie had once been Catherine Prentiss – just like Parker had been born Alice Hagen, Eliot had lived most of his life as Cain Abernathy, and even Alec still found himself signing Arthur Chant if he wasn’t careful.
Arthur Chant had been a prodigy, an orphan from the age of three, raised by the foster care system after that. He’d built his first computer by the age of six, built each one of his subsequent computers, and hacked his Nana’s comm. system on his tenth birthday -
And then when he was fifteen, the Cataclysm happened, chasing them all to the cube cities.
The Institute had been watching for the weather changes, all the little factors that seemed to indicate that something was going to happen in the very near future, but no one had expected it to be as soon as it was.
(They never released the death count. Some people theorized that it was because they themselves didn’t know. But they’d managed to save a lot more people, herded them into the self-contained environments, and shut out the poison clouds, so the Institute was not, at least, universally reviled. Things weren’t that bad anymore. They had the Instant Messenger services and the train-lines connected, you could apply for a transfer to another city if you needed a change of pace, and you could still talk to your loved ones if they hadn’t made it to the same city.)
Two years after the Cataclysm, they’d asked him if he wanted a job. Something about him “catching their attention” when he went to see if he could get into the databases that would tell him if they did know the numbers.
Or what had happened.
Alec never found anything – he just knew he didn’t want to work for the Institute. After all, they’d caused the very thing they had to flee. So he turned them down, claiming he had other plans after he graduated from Nana’s equivalent of home school.
And that night, with Nana’s blessings, he started the one thing everyone claimed was impossible.
He forged himself a new life.
It’s what he’s been doing ever since: Cain first, wanted for underground fighting. He’s been Eliot for seven years now; helped him buy the building, open the place. Every now and then, Alec can see the clench in Eliot’s jaw, the twitch of muscles that meant he wanted to use them, instead of his mouth.
Alice, wanted for thieving. They’d found her three years ago. She was worse at separating herself from her past than Eliot had been – they still lost pens at a phenomenal rate, and somehow they never seemed to run out of the (supposedly) rationed fruits, the rarer vegetables.
Catherine Prentiss, wanted for…well, honestly, none of them knew exactly what the Institute wanted her for. She seemed to like it better that way, liked to hide it under her crafts and her teddy bears.
Here and there, over the years, there had been a dozen other souls who now lived in different cities with different names and different records.
Which was why, of course, Catherine had to stay Sophie for Nate. They were good at what they did, but….he’d had problems with tenants before. Colin Mason most notably, until they let him see what he thought was their illicit business – and when he tried to turn them in…
Well. The Institute wasn’t all that concerned with underground, inter-city soccer betting.
They haven’t seen Mason in almost two years now.
They’re pretty sure no one misses him.
There’s a blueprint slowly forming on his table. Nate doesn’t really need to think about it anymore. He could draw the Institute in his sleep.
He doesn’t draw it on one sheet of paper anymore either; hasn’t since the eleventh time, when he used the police to find Nate, used the diagrams to incite the mob that chased him down, dragged him right back to the Institute, left him for the dinosaurs.
Green and black and red flash in his mind at that thought until he grips the edge of his chair, breathes deep, and forces the colors away; and then he carefully arranges the onionskin papers, overlapping here, touching there, until the translucent sheets cover the entire tabletop.
He lowers his pencil to the uppermost right corner, and soon he’s lost in the familiar world of lines and angles, and he doesn’t even notice movement on his periphery.
But then a newspaper flops down on his table; the breeze shoves his sketches onto the floor and sends him scrambling out of his seat, breath caught in his throat, heart thudding somewhere in the vicinity of his esophagus. There’s a moment – half a second, barely enough time to blink – where he thinks no, no, no, you promised, you said it ruins the game, I thought I’d have more time, not yet, please not yet – and then it registers that a woman has helped herself to the other seat at the table.
“…can I help you?”
The woman looks at him, her dark eyebrows arched elegantly. “I feel like I should be asking you that question. I’m not the one on the floor.”
The papers rustle when he scoops them up, smoothes the edges out with fingers that are trembling. Again. He leaves them jumbled up so that she can’t see the careful math and lines and figures as he tries to find an eighteenth way into the Institute.
“Um. That…yes, that’s correct. But you…you put me here.” Nate reaches under the table to snag the last sheet of paper, noting worn sneakers kept fastidiously clean, frayed jean-hems with the long snags at the heels trimmed off neatly. When he pulls himself back into the chair he can see the same dichotomy of old-and-mended in the woman’s clothes, and some of the annoyance fades. It’s petty, after all. “So I...guess you should be asking…?”
He trails off there, reading the headlines upside down. Signs of Fresh Growth near Toledo; Cloudless Skies for Five Days Straight. Under that: Institute Optimistic…
He grunts, under his breath, and reaches for the paper. He can’t work now, not with her here, so he might as well keep his mind occupied some other way.
“Hey! That’s mi-”
He gives the woman a look, deftly separating the funnies from the rest. She eyes at his pile of papers, now out of any semblance of order, and subsides when he shoves the paper back at her.
“You owe me this much at least.”
“Fair enough,” she says, and hands him his pen when he can’t find it behind his ear.
“Sophie,” she says, by way of introduction a minute later.
“Nate,” he offers back, already halfway through the puzzle.
Three minutes, and he sits there with a feeling of satisfaction that even the numbness can’t cover. Sophie’s staring at the crossword, looking slightly bemused. He can’t tell her, of course, that he’s done that one five times now.
“Is there anything else you’re good at,” she asks, suddenly playful, and he doesn’t understand the switch; it’s like she’s measuring him and changing accordingly, “or are you something of a one-trick pony?”
He gives a one-shouldered shrug, the pleasure at her startled expression slowly fading.
She’s watching him, and he doesn’t understand it, and these days he tends to fear almost everything he can’t understand. Sophie stands, mutters something that might have been stay right here, and weaves her way between the tables. When she returns, she has a cupcake in one hand and half-sheet of paper in her other, a series of grids.
“They have this…quaint little tradition here. The Puzzle of the Day.” She sets them both – cupcake and Sudoku - down in front of him. He blinks down at them. “Solve it in less than half an hour, you get a free coffee.”
He doesn’t say anything. He just keeps his eyes on the puzzle, thinking. Sophie takes a delicate sip of her tea. He can hear her breathing; feel the warmth of her from across the little table. The longer he sits there, the louder the roar in his ears seems to get, the worse the shivering in his hands.
“So what do you do, Nate?” She’s asking, she’s talking, and her voice sounds like it’s meant to be soothing, relaxing; it’s edged with a foreign accent that’s starting to lose its smoothness. She’s not talking like she’s expecting an answer, she’s just speaking for the sake of speaking, and…he’s not used to it, not anymore. “I work with the museum, maintaining the collections for when we can actually move out again…” She grins at the headline, bright and genuine. “It might be sooner than we all thought, huh?”
He doesn’t really answer, still, and so she rambles about her side businesses, and her collections (something about teddy bears) and he’s pretty sure she drops in a comment about aliens and space ships, just for the hell of it, but…his eyes stay on the puzzle, and he tries not to ignore her, but the numbers…
The numbers often become the only things that keep him sane.
Finally, he just grabs the pen and jots down the answers, row after row without pausing. He finishes it, slips his pen behind his ear and gathers up his papers in one motion, standing hurriedly.
“It was nice meeting you,” he only half-lies before he’s out the door.
Behind him, Sophie sets a stopwatch down on the Sudoku.
Nate’s gone and the café is closed and they’re all gathered around the six-top with sodas and beers and the rest of the soup of the day. Alec looks around at his would-be spies, and asks the question.
“So what do you think?”
“He’s smart,” Sophie says, pushing her newspaper over the table top. The crossword is done – in pen – and the house puzzle-of-the-day (it’s Tuesday, so it’s a Sudoku) is on top of it, also completed. Also in pen. There’s no pencil marks on it anywhere. Alec just blinks at it. “He finished it in seven minutes.”
They take a moment to collectively boggle at this - the half hour time limit is there so that the customers don’t get frustrated, and still they only usually have one or two people claim their free coffee a day – before Parker beams, bright and shining and slightly terrifying.
“I think he’s a terrorist. Didn’t you see what he was drawing? He…”
Alec gives her a look and she wilts, but only until the phone rings. She’s up and lunging for it while Eliot and Sophie hold hands under the table. She grabs the little caller-id box, peers down at it owlishly, and then she’s bright again.
“Oh! It’s Todd, can I…?” Alec shoos her away, eyes still on the puzzle. She scampers out into the lobby to sit on the apartment stairs, the phone cord stretched and straining under the door. Eliot meets his eyes when he looks up again, and Alec asks,
“What do you think?”
“Well, he’s already better than Mason, I can tell you that.” Eliot shakes his head, free hand sweeping up crumbs of bagel and cupcake off of the plaid tablecloth. “It’s just the first week. It’s too soon to tell anything yet. Give him a chance.”
“I want to,” Alec says as Sophie stands, still holding Eliot’s hand. “I do,” he says, more forcefully, surprised at the conviction in his own voice when Eliot simply gives him a challenging stare.
“Then don’t think about it too much.”
“I wasn’t! I’m not!”
Eliot just raises an eyebrow. “You spent half the shift staring in his general direction,” he says, dryly. “This isn’t going to turn out like that professor, is it?”
Alec glowers at the low blow as Sophie pulls Eliot to his feet. That month long crush had ended, rather spectacularly, when it became evident that the professor in question was only interested in a teaching assistant – and had a bank account from the Institute on the side. He’d lost another two months to cupcakes and movies on Parker’s couch.
“No,” he says, but it doesn’t turn out as defiant as he wants it to. “No, it won’t.”
Eliot doesn’t answer, but Sophie, at least, winks at him when they disappear up the stairs. He watches until the door swings shut, and shakes his head.
“It’s not like you’re one to talk,” he mutters, smoothing the tablecloth when he finally stands, and heads to shut down the kitchen.
Alec has a game he plays. It’s a game he plays with everyone, whether they know it or not. Customers, employees, it doesn’t matter to him.
Sophie is Scheherazade. She’s told him a thousand different stories about what she did before the cube, back when she was Catherine. Each time, her dark eyes dance, her elegant smile curls, both daring him to call her on her lies, sing out the truth.
He’s never done either, because he doesn’t want her stories to stop.
Parker is Alice, and not just because of her real first name, but because she always seems as if she’s just fallen into this world from the other side of a rabbit hole: wonder at the ordinary, uncertainty at routine.
If she’s Alice, her real world must have been infinitely stranger.
(Her boyfriend, Todd McSweeten, is just as easy. No brains. But the sappy, swoony way he looks at Parker every time she’s not looking is a positive indicator of a heart. So, he’s the Scarecrow.)
Eliot took him a couple weeks, but when he did – Aragorn – Eliot had laughed and laughed and laughed, and when he was done laughing, he said: “It’s all the lurking, right?”
Actually, it’s more all that is gold does not glitter, more his mind and his strength and his control when Alec knows what those hands can do, but he just nodded, grinned.
Alec realizes Nate’s going to need a character when he staggers in at half-past nine for the third day in the row with another ream of paper, a drawing compass and a T-square.
Somehow, he suspects it’s going to be a challenge.
Alec watches him all afternoon – because Nate stays all afternoon, camped out at table two long after the sun’s moved. He doesn’t stop drawing, either, filling the sheets of paper (black this time, and thick, like cardstock) with electrical circuits and motherboards. It looks like he’s designing a computer – and an old one, nothing like Alec’s tablet, more like the first one Alec built – from memory.
There’s something familiar about the older man, something Alec can’t put his finger on; but he’s seen him before, somehow. It’s making him curious, but he doesn’t want to crowd, so he stays behind the counter.
It’s three and business is slow by the time Alec glances at Eliot. Eliot just gives him a nod, and Alec moseys out from behind the counter with an Italian soda and a bagel.
He doesn’t head straight for Nate’s table. He carts them around the room with him; stops in the lobby first to brush flower debris out the front door, wipe kiddy fingerprints off the glass and to check the book donation box. There’s actually a sizable pile there, and he gathers them up to serve as a wall, a prop in finally meeting the mysterious Nate Ford. And, for once, it’s a promising pile: Slaughterhouse 5, The Hunger Games, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, an old, antique travel guide to Mexico and a couple battered Star Trek novels.
He plops books, bagel and cup down on Nate’s table, noting with some discomfort the way Nate jolts at the sound, glances up, looks away. He’s not, however, discouraged from pasting on a bright smile.
Nothing, again. Nate’s back at his drawing. He doesn’t look up from the white-line diagram, sketched with the chalk-pen Alec’s fairly certain he swiped from their specials board. His strokes are quick and certain, like there are already lines in place that he just needs to trace over.
It’s fairly impressive, actually, because whatever he’s drawing is mad complex.
“I’m the landlord?” he tries again. Nate goes still, flipping his diagram over and staring at the backs of his hands.
“Ah.” His voice is low and slightly rough, but nothing like Eliot’s growl, expressive enough that Alec thinks he’d be a good reader- he sounds normal enough, but there’s still something tightly wound and tense in his shoulders and the set of his jaw, and though he’s not sure why, that realization sets Alec’s teeth on edge.
“It’s good to finally meet you face to face,” Alec says, holding his hand out. Nate hesitates a second before he reaches out and takes it. His hand is cold, dry, and Alec can feel it shaking – but the six empty coffee cups lined like soldiers on parade at the very edge of the table might just account for that.
“Likewise,” Nate says, after another awkward pause where he doesn’t let go of Alec’s hand. It’s like he’s forgotten how to speak: the breaks between words are too long, the eye contact too fleeting.
Alec sits there, picking parts off his bagel as Nate just…plays with his pencil, stares at his papers, looks out the window where it’s still not snowing.
(Parker’s starting to take it personally. “By the third day of December,” she says…demands, “I should have snow up to my knees!” She’s already decorating Megabite with coffee filters cut into snowflakes. He keeps having to sweep up slivers of paper from the floor.)
“If you don’t mind me asking,” he finally says, after a long silence that is every bit as awkward as Sophie assured him it would be, “why’d you pick here? To move, I mean.”
“Rent was cheap.”
Alec raises an eyebrow, spins his cup on the table. “I’ve seen cheaper.”
Nate hesitates, looks at him for a second, and looks away. “I liked the location.”
The mid-afternoon sun is still pouring through the greenhouse glass high above them like ethereal honey, bathing the city in molten gold. There’s a stretch of sidewalk outside, and then the buildings falls away, nothing but plains and trees until the wall of the botanical gardens and the experimental fields and, far beyond them, the walls of the city itself.
Sometimes, on a good day, he can see the Atlantic from the roof.
“Gotcha there.” He looks around the café, adding with a wry grin, “and you picked the table with the best view, too.” Nate doesn’t say anything. He just looks at Alec like he’s just pointed out the obvious. Somehow, Alec can’t help but be reminded of his first awkward date, and he almost laughs.
But then his phone buzzes. The sound is echoed throughout the shop and he starts to stand- until Eliot waves for him to stay put. The message reads, simply: channel nine.
Eliot flips on the TV, punching it once in the side when the screen is static, and Alec sighs when it clears. Monica Hunter’s on and the graphic above her head is blinking: Cloudy With A Chance of Raptors. The line wasn’t funny the first six times they used it. It’s not any funnier the seventh.
“Alright, folks,” Parker says from the barista station in her scary official voice, the one she’s only allowed to use in actual states of pending emergency. “We’re gonna have to ask you to leave.”
No one knows, still, how the dinosaurs started. They just know they can’t get rid of them, and there are some days when not even the Institute can corral them.
Like, apparently, today.
Their patrons gather their things, look at the maps flashing on the walls, projected by the TV set, debating and teasing one another as they file out. The raptors are still in the southwest; it’ll be a good hour before they get even close to here; long enough for them to get home off the streets.
The window glass is thick, so they’re not worried about them, but Parker and Eliot start locking the doors, closing the windows in the back that they usually keep open (the building’s awesome, the stove in the kitchen? Not so much), dragging the al fresco tables back into the storage yard. Alec watches them move with a moment of pride before he looks back at Nate –
Who looks as if he’s ten seconds from fainting.
“Hey, hey, breathe, man!”
Nate sucks in a shaky breath, dark blue eyes wide and haunted and two seconds away from a complete panic attack. There’s a jagged line of white across his careful diagrams, thick and jerky, like he jumped at the story. Like he’s terrified of the raptors.
The dinosaurs haven’t killed anyone yet; they’re more a nuisance than anything, but they’ve all got an irrational fear or two. Maybe this is Nate’s. He draws another breath, and Alec has to resist the urge to reach out and take his hand, try and soothe away the tremors. A third breath, deep, almost smooth. Almost fine.
“There,” Alec says -as if this is completely normal- when Nate inhales again, through his teeth, some of the color in his face coming back. “There. There y’go. That’s better, right?”
Nate nods, but Alec’s not entirely convinced, and so he keeps talking, craning his neck to look as Parker flips the sign to Closed, as Sophie comes prowling down the street, inviting herself to the party.
“It’s cool, it’s all cool. This place is practically raptor-proof, so long as you’ve got the doors locked. They’ve not learned to pick the locks yet, I think their claws are too lo-”
He jerks back to look at Nate. The chalk-pen is in two halves now, and the color that Nate had regained is completely gone. He’s not pale – he’s white, and his dark curls are stark against his skin, brown and silver and grey in patches, like a rabbit’s pelt.
“Nate. Nate, Nate Nate. Breathe.”
“Talk about something else.” It comes out harsh, but Nate’s got his head lowered now, his forehead pressed to the table, he’s not looking and he’s at least trying to breathe, so Alec does.
“Somethin’ else? Ok, ok, I can do somethin’ else, no Jurassic Park, I got it.” He looks at the shelf, reading through the titles, labeling them in his mind, and then he brightens.
“Y’ever read any of the Star Wars books?”
It takes twenty minutes of rambling about the Extended Universe, but when Nate bursts out laughing at his (maybe, just a little exaggerated) imitation of a Gungan Jedi, Alec knows he’s succeeded.
“They, uh.” Nate says, once he stops laughing, the sound tinged faintly with hysterics by the time he’s done, “They sound like…quality literature, all ‘round, and you do an excellent retelling, I’m sure.” He rubs at his eyes, and Alec grins, broadly. Just a bit proudly.
“That they are,” Alec says. “But I assume, judging from your reaction, that you’ve not read any of these highbrow novelizations?”
Nate reaches out a hand; it’s still trembling, and his face is still pale, but Alec’s trying so hard to ignore it, to give the other man some dignity. “That. Now, that’s a good book,” he says, prodding halfway down the stack.
Alec looks. Slaughterhouse 5.
“Yeah? I’ve heard good things.”
“It used…used to be my best friend’s favorite book.” There’s a ghost of a smile -more real than the hysterical giggles- that soon fades back into the haunted pale, but it’s enough that Alec is suddenly struck with the conviction that he wants to see that smile a lot more; just like he’d like to hear him read. But he remembers the professor, and keeps that in like everything else. “We, uh. We read it in high school.”
“I…never actually went to high school.” Alec’s confession comes out quick, rushed, and then he’s moving on, trying not to laugh nervously. The first glint of interest he’s seen in three days has just flickered to life in Nate’s blue eyes. “But someone gave us these, and…well. I don’t like to have anything on those shelves that I haven’t read.”
Nate turns to look at the crammed-full, looming bookshelves again. Alec feels the old mingled pride and embarrassment. “I did not have a very active social life for awhile,” he says by way of justification. “I changed that.”
“God grant me the serenity,” Nate says slowly, “to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference.”
It sounds like a quote, but somehow, Alec isn’t convinced Nate’s talking to him.
The café sparkles from top to bottom by lunchtime the next day, dusted and mopped and polished and Alec…well.
Alec doesn’t usually have to invent jobs for himself. If there are no customers (well, no interesting customers) he uses it as an excuse to read. But today, there are no interesting customers, and then it’s past two, and Nate still hasn’t appeared and so he’s doing all the work they usually put off until the last possible moment.
And then before he knows it, it’s four, and when Eliot and Parker come back from the weekly rations run – they have twice as much sugar as they’re technically supposed to have, since Palermos’ Pizzeria always trades it for their canned tomatoes – it’s to find him scrubbing the floor.
Eliot looks around at the mostly deserted tables, at Alec on his knees with soapsuds up to his elbows, and says, “What, didn’t the Rabbit show up yet?” Parker barks one of her strange, sharp laughs, and Alec (unused to Parker catching things before him) frowns up at them in confusion.
“You know…” Eliot drawls. “For the sake of your game. He’s all…twitchy. Jumpy. Like a rabbit.”
“Oh. Nate.” Alec says – he starts to frown, then runs over all the adjectives he’s applied to Nate over the past few days, and has to laugh. “Ok, yeah. Yeah, I see it.”
Only he doesn’t quite like that he sees it, it doesn’t feel right, and he tries to shake the feeling off as he scrubs cherry syrup off the floor.
The doldrums continue long enough that Alec gets halfway through Slaughterhouse 5. The sky through the glass is grey and cloudy and the Institute’s weather-system takes its cue from those clouds. It’s spitting and chilly (but still not cold enough) and he spends most of the afternoon expecting Nate to show up.
Instead, they get…
Alec figures him for an Institute man the second he steps through the door, even before he sees the badge. As Eliot says, you can always tell by the shoes. They never match the neat, put together suits. The shoes are always more worn, more scuffed, or they aren’t even shoes at all.
This one wears combat boots.
The green marble counter is cool on his fingers when Alec grips it, draws in a deep breath and lets it out slowly, feeling an old, familiar panic play up and down his spine. He can hear Eliot in the kitchen, a single yell away if he’s needed.
(He’s hoping, rather a lot, actually, that he won’t be needed.)
“I just love what you’ve done with the place,” the Institute man says, snidely, lowering his sunglasses to peer at the bake case. It’s late; all that’s left is the heels of a loaf of bread, a few crumbly cupcakes, and the last (doubtlessly stale) slice of “Dinosaur Versus Commuter Train, #1 in Chocolate.” There’s amused recognition in his eyes, like he’s just heard a familiar joke, and Alec doesn’t care for it one bit.
“I’m sorry, have we met?”
“Oh, no,” the Institute man dismisses the question, taps the badge Alec doesn’t need to see to know. “James Sterling, Institute Security.” Something goes bang in the kitchen. Silence follows. Alec’s very aware that Eliot is now considerably closer than a yell away. “I was just….reminiscing. Didn’t this place used to be a mechanic’s?”
“Machine shop,” Alec corrects, because the Cube city has never had need for a mechanic. The only transportation is the Institute-run subway, or the good old fashioned human-powered kind. “For the subway. I…we made a few changes.” Sterling pauses by the huge switches set in the wall, the ones for the power breaker. They turned them into coat-hooks.
“…but it still has some quirks. Some things we couldn’t quite get rid of.”
“God,” Sterling says, dryly, “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference.”
“…yeah.” Alec says, almost frowning; he can feel another chill tracing down his spine, layering over the fear. “Something like that…” He cocks his head, watches Sterling for a minute before adding, pointedly, “Can I help you?”
Sterling doesn’t answer. He just paces the coffee shop, inspecting the book shelf and the bake case and Parker’s abandoned counter and, outside, it starts to rain.
(…but not snow. Parker and Todd had fled to the park on Parker’s insistence. “The slide,” she’d told Todd, who made deer-in-headlights-Alec-please-help faces the whole time, but went along anyway which kinda makes Alec love him too, “is kinda like sledding. If we cover it with sugar.” They managed to convince her to leave the sugar behind, but they were still at the park.)
“We, uh.” Eliot’s voice – familiar, warm and (right now) company-gruff – makes him jump when the chef appears at his shoulder. Sterling doesn’t even flinch. “We close in four minutes.” He leans against the counter, next to the cash register, and Alec takes that as an opportunity to fetch the mop. They are really good at tag-team hinting, and Sterling’s getting both barrels. “If there was anythin’ you wanted…”
Sterling doesn’t move. He just stares into the bake case, hands in his pockets, bouncing on his heels like he’s thinking. Trying to decide. Alec rolls his eyes at Eliot behind the security agent’s back, and uses the mop handle to turn on the radio.
It’s all static and warbles, probably from the rain, and it takes Alec a good three minutes to get it to pick up the news station (there’s only one, of course – this is a four mile square city in sixteen square miles of farmland; why would they need more than one?) clearly.
“We regret,” the official-sounding voice of Ian Blackpoole was saying as the sound finally cleared; Sterling finally looked at something other than the bake case at the words, “that Thursday’s papers may have jumped the gun. We sent scientists out, and, Damien, there’s…there’s still nothing there besides the city.”
“Oh.” The talk show host, Damien Moreau mumbles, and Alec tries to remember where he was from originally. Somewhere overseas, he thinks, because it would explain the discouragement in his tone – as Sophie’s mentioned (many times, many many times), air travel’s a no-go these days.
(Unless, of course, it’s just the same disappointment that everyone shares. The cube-cities work, but everyone, everyone, misses the real sky. He manages a laugh, though, that sounds strained even over the airwaves.)
“I guess we all need to unpack our bags.”
“I guess you do,” Director Blackpoole says, and it must be said that even he sounds regretful.
“Excuse me,” Sterling speaks over the conversation, drowning out the host’s next question, something about the Code Red policy. Alec looks up, watches the agent smile at Eliot when he reappears through the kitchen door. “I’ll take a medium house coffee, and that piece of cake.” He taps the glass, leaving a smudged fingerprint behind with what looks an awful lot like casual deliberateness. “To go, please.”
Eliot practically throws his order at him. He salutes them both with his coffee, turns on his heel and stomps out into the rain.
Alec hopes the cake gets stuck in his throat without being entirely sure why.
Five minutes later, Nate’s down the stairs.
He shoulders through the door and sweeps into the shop, muttering to himself. His hair’s more of a rat’s nest than it’s ever been, and his eyes have dark circles under them, something that makes the blue look sparkling, dangerous and electric. He has his pile of papers under his arm; he drops them on the floor and pulls a roll of electrical tape out of his jacket pocket and, with complete disregard for the fact that they are trying to work, he starts setting the pages next to each other, like the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle.
Eliot and Alec exchange confused, bemused, and (it must be said) slightly fond looks over the older man’s head, but he’s not rude and he’s all alone, so they just work around him the rest of the evening.
(And later, long after sunset, Alec looks at the shelves, critically. Picks up The Velveteen Rabbit. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, and Watership Down, and stacks them, neatly, on the counter.)
He likes the crosswords.
Sophie just gets the newspaper, so he’s already done most of them six, seven, eight times. She raises her eyebrows when he solves them without really looking at them, every time, giving her answer after answer he’s memorized through sheer repetition.
He likes the crosswords, though, and he likes Sophie. She’s exuberant, even if he knows her questions are leading; she’s fishing for information, so he keeps his answers short, scattered between the crossword solutions. Alec probably put her up to it. She seems fine where she is, perched on the edge of her seat, but she keeps glancing back at the counter, and Nate is willing to bet she’d much rather be over talking to Eliot.
He doesn’t blame her. He’s not exactly good conversation these days.
“Did I tell you,” she says, one time when the quiet gets to be too much, “about my teddy bears?”
(He can’t figure her out. She’s elegant, but all her clothing is well-worn, like she’s not taking the Institute’s clothing allowance, and her free-time hobbies are….crafts. Not what he’d expect from a museum curator.)
He makes a noncommittal noise, because she has, but he doesn’t mind her talking. Not any more than he minds Alec rambling about computers, though once or twice he’s had to stop himself from responding to those, his curiosity awakened by the wrong (right?) word.
“They remind me of home, you know. Mum and all the bears, just waiting to be hugged…”
Nate thinks of a little boy with battered plastic dinosaurs, grubby coloring books, stuffed animals with the fur worn off, the memory so strong that for a second he can see big blue eyes, and the noise he makes this time is a little more pained, a little like a gasp.
“What’s wrong?” She asks, immediately, and he shrugs it off.
“I….thought I saw something,” he says – close enough to the truth that he can say it, far enough that it doesn’t…hurt as bad as the whole truth would. “Where…where are you from, again?”
“England,” she says, taking the sound as what he tried to make it. “They say you can’t go home again,” her laugh is musical, but as strained as his throat feels. “…or so they keep trying to remind me.”
She really is just as lost as the rest of them, Nate reflects. She’s only eaten half of her muffin, and (despite himself) he feels his stomach growl. She shoves it at him without saying a word and, after a startled second, he accepts it.
“I know what it’s like to feel like you’re seeing things,” she says softly as he starts pulling the muffin apart. He pauses, looks up – she’s grinning, teasingly. “My collection. Sometimes, I work too long…it looks like other things. Bears moving, bears getting replaced…every now and then, I swear there’s a bunny rabbit mixed in.”
The distant wistfulness in her voice keeps him from choking on the muffin, and by time he looks away, her voice is playful again.
“Here.” She shoves the familiar half-sheet of paper at him. “Get me a coffee in exchange for my muffin.”
It’s something else to keep his mind off of his reality, so he snags the pen and starts to work.
“He solved it in three minutes,” Sophie says, and Alec pauses in going through the paperwork spread out on the counter; looks down at the cryptogram. He doesn’t know why he bothers. It’s all in pen, completed in sure, certain strokes and a confidence that Nate doesn’t convey in his shaky hands and frantic, furtive glances.
“…Every time you said 'Farm Boy do this' you thought I was answering 'As you wish' but that's only because you were hearing wrong. 'I love you' was what it was, but you never heard."
“Three?” he asks, just to be sure he heard right as he reclaims his tablet from under the counter, powers it on.
“Three,” Sophie confirms, calmly. “And about half that time was spent trying to find his pen.”
“I’m starting to side with Parker,” Eliot says as Alec sets the puzzle on the shelf under the cash register with the other three. He pauses, curling a lock of his hair around a finger in a gesture that would be adorable if not for the fact that Alec knows what he can do with those hands.
“I mean, he’s… up to something, he’s scoping something out. Planning something. He has to be.” Eliot notices what he’s doing when Sophie giggles, extricates his finger, and grabs the nearest tote to dump the bowls and mugs and spoons into the sink. “Otherwise, he’s just…obsessed. To the point of being weird.”
“He is a very strange man,” Sophie says, lightly, and Alec just shakes his head, gathering his tablet and the paperwork as he hears the light rap on the back door. Eliot and Parker exchange looks, head back out into the café to close the curtains.
“You’ve certainly got that right,” he says as she goes to open the back door and usher Alec’s newest project into the closed café.
And even as he reflects that it’s the truth, he can’t banish the way Nate trembles from his mind.
Oranges and lemons and apples are ready to be harvested in the bots (Eliot makes one of his that’s not right speeches when Todd tells them, along with the insistence that They didn’t learn it from him and you could lose me my badge and other adorable attempts to pretend he was still on the straight and narrow) and Parker comes in at six AM with three backpacks and a duffle bag filled to the brim.
“Parker!” For once, Alec and Eliot are at the same exact level of dismayed when she unzips the bags, displays her multicolored reward in a cloud of fresh-fruit smells.
“Geeze, girl, what’d you do, pick the whole grove?”
“We ran out of apples in five weeks last year,” Parker retorts, hefting the duffle. “There’s enough here to last…”
“The whole year.” Eliot groans, carding his hand through his hair. “We are so screwed.”
“Not if you get it prepped and frozen,” Parker argues, eyes doing that thunderstorm thing they do when they try to reason with her. “Come on. Like the Institute’s going to notice. I made sure to spread it out, and they don’t, like…tag the apples or anything.” She rolls her eyes in exasperation, bites into one of the fruits, and walks off with it in her mouth, muttering something that, undoubtedly, ended with and I don’t have snow.
And so, later, Alec finds himself gravitating towards Nate’s corner table with a bowl of apples and a paring knife. Nate glances up at him when he pulls the chair out, looks – for a moment – like he’s about to speak. He’s got that sort-of-lost expression again, and when Alec looks at the table he gets a glimpse of a paper with no writing on it, a half-sheet with a rough sketch of a little boy’s face. But then Nate shifts his hand and the papers move with it and the numbers and diagrams and scratchy, paranoid text block off that small glimpse of something else.
They asked – or, rather, Parker asked for them – the other day what his notes were. He hadn’t answered. He’d changed the subject. Smoothly, smoother than he did a lot of things (like smile, like sit still, like shake hands), but he’d changed the subject none-the-less. They hadn’t tried asking again.
“Mind if I sit here?” he asks, and Nate shifts aside more papers so he can set the bowl down.
They sit in awkward but still companionable silence while Nate scratches equations in the margins of a paper still buried under the others. Alec watches, doing the math in his head. Nate’s converting days to hours to minutes to seconds and back again, over and over, in a sprawling, scrawling row. He doesn’t even seem to realize he’s doing it; his gaze is elsewhere, that strange searching look still in place.
The knife’s blade slips through the apple’s red skin easily, and Alec concentrates on it for now, slicing the peel off in one long curling piece.
“I could never do that,” Nate finally breaks the silence, voice a mumble. Alec looks up to see him watching Alec’s hands. “Mine…mine always break off short.” His long, clever fingers flick, showing about an inch before he falls silent again, and Alec thinks about Nana’s old superstitions.
The person with the longest apple peel lives the longest life.
“It’s an art,” he says lightly, and Nate manages a thin, half-hearted smile. “My Nana always told me if you can peel an apple all in one go, it’ll tell you who you’re gonna marry if you toss it over your shoulder. Me?” He slices the peel off intentionally, trimming off a section and popping it in his mouth. “I think it just tells you it’s gonna make a dang fine pie.”
“Practical,” Nate says, and his eyes are still on the knife blade. Alec sinks it into the apple, slicing off a piece and offering it to him. The older man takes it carefully, cautiously, almost timidly, and Alec watches, eyes guarded.
There’s nothing timid about the way he shoves the entire chunk in his mouth, chewing slowly, and something softens around his edges; something softens and gentles and almost calms, and before Alec can stop himself, he’s asking:
“What are you looking for, Nate?”
Nate chews twice more, swallows, and looks seconds from bolting, but he says, stammers, “Wh-what?”
“You’re looking for something. Aren’t you? I’ve seen the coordinates in there…” He reaches out, taps a paper at random. Nate draws them back, gathers them up, straightening them almost obsessively.
“N-no…?” He smoothes a corner out, tension ebbing and fading on his face. Whatever Alec’s said, it’s a step away from whatever’s really scaring him, and Alec…Alec can live with that right now. “I’m not…not looking. Not looking for anything….”
“Fine, fine. Don’t tell me.” He cores the apple, digging the seeds out and dropping them in one of Nate’s abandoned coffee cups before he discards the core. He starts on another apple. “But…can I tell you something?”
Nate doesn’t say no.
“You’re…you’re always in here alone. I’ve never seen you with anyone, ever. You move through the customers like you’re not here and neither are they. You…” He falters. Nate looks lonely, he looks sad, he always, always looks scared, but that’s all too real and the other man is still a stranger, so he falls back to what he knows; he falls back to the books.
“You remind me of the Unicorn.” Alec says, raising one shoulder in an awkward, embarrassed shrug. “You know. ‘You will find your people if you are brave…’”
Nate pauses, frowns, and there’s a flash of almost-defiance in his eyes. “The Unicorn’s a girl.”
“So?” Alec says, offering him another chunk of the apple. Nate accepts it quickly this time. He takes a bite, thinking, his eyes distant. He’s thinking, but he’s not offended and for the moment he’s not openly scared, and Alec views that as a success.
“Does that,” Nate finally says, “make you Schmendrick?”
Alec’s reminded of what he’s doing, and what he could be doing, and he laughs, despite himself. “That, I’m afraid, depends entirely on who you’re talkin’ to.”
“You like him,” Eliot teases, sing-song. It’s an hour after close and Alec just managed to get Nate out the door.
Alec’s eyes narrow. “What would give you that idea?”
“You just talked about the same book for an hour and a half, and you ignored every other customer in the place to do it,” Eliot says, and his voice is still light. “Last time you did that was when you and Parker thought you could still have a thing.”
He opens his mouth to protest, thinks about the sparkle in Nate’s eyes when he can drive the fear away, the way his hair glints in the sun, the way that little smile lit the back of his mind the same way Sophie and Eliot and Parker have for years. He closes it again, unable to think of a single word that would dissuade Eliot from that train of thought, simply because he’s fairly certain it’s true.
He just thinks Eliot’s laugh could have been a little bit less triumphant.
Alec tries not to stare now, now that Eliot’s pointed out what he thinks the whole deal is, but Nate staggered in at eight and has been there ever since. He’s dozing at his normal table, his head pillowed on his arms, his curls mussed and his shoulders – usually tight with stress and that fear he can’t (and won’t) define – slouched. It’s the closest he’s been to relaxed, and Alec feels a tight knot of...something in his chest. Pride, perhaps, that Nate feels safe here.
Eliot bangs something down on the counter. Nate stirs and doesn’t wake, but Alec jumps, and when he looks over Eliot is shaking his head, fondly. Smitten, he mouths, and Alec just sticks his tongue out in response.
And then the door swings open, and the sound of pouring rain follows Sterling in. Alec smiles, polite-like, and doesn’t give in to the snarling defensiveness crawling through him.
“God grant me the serenity,” Sterling says, super loud, and his voice cuts the mid-morning chit-chat like a knife through hot butter. Alec considers sighing in exasperation, uncertain of how, exactly, to react - until he sees Nate.
The older man’s awake now, and the look in his eyes is, for a second, pure panic, and it’s almost exactly like the terror from the raptors.
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference.” Sterling’s just as focused on Nate’s table; there’s a coyote in his stance and a shark in his smile, one that’s just smelled blood on the waters.
Nate’s sitting stock still, his arms around himself, almost hugging his ribs. His shoulders hunch, like he’s expecting to be hit. Sterling’s grin grows.
“Oh!” Alec says, trying to break some of the tension in the air; he’s the only one in the café right now other than customers, and if Sterling doesn’t stop looking at Nate like he’s about to pounce on him, Alec’s going to have to say something not very friendly, very loudly, and he’s not fond of doing things like that. Eliot’s the crabby one, and everyone knows it. “So, like…you two know each other?”
“Oh, yes,” Sterling says, and he sits down across from Nate. Nate, who hasn’t moved his eyes, not even once, from Sterling’s face. Nate, who hasn’t even blinked. Nate, who is openly shaking like he’s in a snowstorm in his skivvies. “We’re old pals, Nate and I.” He smiles, and seems to be waiting for something. And then,
“Hello,” Nate says back, and his voice is strained, shaky. “Jim.”
The radio’s droning something about the dinosaurs as Nate sits perfectly still, as still as he knows how to be. “What are you doing here?” he asks, and he’s not sure if what he’s feeling burning in his throat is anger or terror or some sick melding of the two. He just knows its sitting in his stomach, bleeding through the rest of him like poison, and Sterling’s got his hand in his coat, resting on the butt of the gun that’s always there.
Like he needs to. Nate knows by now. If he makes a single move towards Sterling, the other man won’t hesitate to gun him down right here in front of everybody – and then it all starts over. So as much as he would like to leap on Sterling and slam his head into the stone-tiled floor once or twice or twenty times, he sits, his fingers tight around his stomach.
“I just thought I’d see what you were up to!” Sterling protests, something like humor in his eyes. It’s nothing like the people who work here’s humor – Alec’s amusement is always warm, Eliot’s wry, Parker’s strange – Sterling’s humor is just plain malicious and in the safety of this place he’d forgotten that and right now he’s remembering just how dangerous that could be.
“And…” He swallows hard when his voice catches. “…that’s all?”
“I promised you, didn’t I?” And Sterling reaches out, collars Nate’s throat in an almost tender grip, his thumb lingering over Nate’s jugular vein.
(And it’s wrong, and those hands have done so much, but Sterling’s the only one who’s touched him in days and weeks and months and if he’s entirely honest years and he tries, he tries, not to lean into the deceptive gentleness of those fingers.)
He craves that gentleness, wants that kindness. His mind would almost be willing to close his eyes and pretend, but his body remembers the cruelty all too well. His hands are trembling on the tabletop now, his shoulders quivering and when he looks up and sees confusion in Alec’s chocolate-almond-bright-and-shining eyes, he finds the strength to pull away.
And Sterling just laughs.
“I’ve got an eye on you, Nate,” he says, and he stands as Parker calls out his coffee, carding his hand through the tangle of curls with another layer of that darkened kindness. Nate bites his lip, doesn’t want the gentleness at the same time he does, so badly; feels it stripped away when Sterling’s hand tightens in his hair until the tears come to his eyes. “And this time around? You’d better pray that I blink.”
And then he’s gone.
We're coming up on some unpleasant dreams. Read on with caution, please.
Would you like to hear, reader, how it all unfolded? The story is not a pretty one. There is violence in it. And cruelty. But stories that are not pretty have a certain value, too, I suppose. Everything, as you well know (having lived in this world long enough to have figured out a thing or two for yourself), cannot always be sweetness and light.
-The Tale of Despereaux
Nathan Ford is dreaming.
He’s suffocating; he’s drowning, there’s a heavy weight on his back, his shoulders, pinning him down; water in his ears, his eyes, his nose. His lungs burn and scream and the hand in his hair pulls his head above the surface, drags his face free for just long enough for him to gasp in half a mouthful of air, half a mouthful of water before he’s plunged back into the icy-cold, chemical-tainted liquid.
One of his hands is broken, it’s not closing right. The other is pinned beneath a bony knee, grinding against the edge of the pool. He arches his back, tries to buck free, but he’s kept down, held down, driven back down where he can’t breathe and he can feel his heartbeat in his head, pounding the inside of his temples. He sucks in a breath desperately when he’s pulled up again, gasping and coughing, and the purring in his ear is faint beneath the roaring in his ears.
“I like the way this feels, Nathan.” The hand not in his hair rubs against his forehead, in front of his ear, feeling his pulse, pressing against his skull. “I’ve told you that before, haven’t I? Last time, right?” There’s a pause behind the ringing in his ears. “No, two times ago. Not last.”
He can’t find the energy to respond to his former friend, can’t even move, just watches water dripping from his eyelashes and the ends of his hair into the pool, ever-widening circles like the fingertips moving on his skin.
“Your heartbeat changes - fast and then slow and then fast…” Sterling shifts, changing the weight distribution, until Nate can feel the concrete grinding against his sternum. “It’d be interesting,” he continues, his voice still just this side of soft, “to see what it looks like, don’t you think?” The world goes dark and watery again. This time it’s short; just long enough that Nate feels his lungs hitch, his heart-rate skyrocket before he’s brought up.
“Next time,” Sterling sighs, cool against Nate’s soggy hair, “I think we’ll find out what it looks like. I think I’ll cut you open. We’ll play Operation.” He licks the shell of Nate’s ear, and breathes, “How’s that sound?” just before he drags Nate’s head down for the last time.
And then he’s suffocating again.
He’s suffocating again because he’s been stretched out and pinned to the concrete wall, his arms aching, palms and wrists burning from the thick, black metal he can see driven through them and it’s this that lets him know he’s dreaming right now because when this happened last time there was that operation between them, right before the doe-eyed security guard smothered him just to make it stop and, and, and Sterling’s standing in front of him with a grin and a crowbar.
“You know, there are a lot of misconceptions about this.” He trails the crowbar down Nate’s arm, and Nate feels the muscles jump and his throat clench and he wants to scream but he can’t because the air is all gone, as surely as when he’d drowned. “When people were crucified, they didn’t die from the pain,” And Nate manages a noise that is almost a laugh, because this hurts but it doesn’t hurt worse than last time, or the raptors. Sterling gives him another cocky, half-grin, like he knows what Nate’s thinking, and after all this time Nate isn’t entirely sure that’s not the case.
“They didn’t die from the pain, or the exposure or the blood loss; they died because they couldn’t breathe. You can’t breathe that well, can you?” The crowbar’s under Nate’s chin, tilting his head back, and he can’t shake it even if that’s what Sterling, what Jim’s going for. “You can’t breathe, and so you die. It takes hours…” Sterling makes a show of checking his watch. “But I’m not that patient, so…”
The crowbar hits on the backswing.
That’s when Nate wakes up, gasping.
He barely makes it to the bathroom before he’s sick.
The apartment walls are thin. Alec actually looked into fixing that the summer after he bought the building, but a quick cost analysis led him to the conclusion that, perhaps, he should just learn to ignore things.
So he’s used to hearing all sorts of noises through them; noises that he’d much rather not hear. Or think about.
(There’s a reason, after all, why he gave Eliot a room on the top floor, far, far away; why there’s an empty apartment between his and Parker’s.)
He’s not used to hearing screaming.
It’s Nate’s voice, there’s no mistaking the low, hoarse tones; and though there are no words, the fear is unmistakable. It underlies each noise, each whimper, each gasp; grants each cry seeping through the wall, under the door, a nightmarish air.
He pulls up Nate’s apartment on his tablet cheat-sheet, but Nate’s vitals are stable; and he’s alone.
He must be dreaming, Alec thinks. Then, uneasily, I wonder what he’s dreaming about.
Sleep is impossible with that racket, but he doesn’t…he doesn’t feel that he knows Nate well enough to burst in to vanquish his worries, send the nightmares away. There’s a thin line between concerned landlord and creepy stalker, and he’s fairly sure this would push him over onto the other side.
The thought gives him no comfort. He spends more time in the hall than he does in his rooms, hemming and hawing, chewing on the pros and measuring the cons until his mind’s going around in circles and cycles, a tiger with its teeth in the tail of another tiger.
But the yelling finally stops around two. He finally stops pacing the hall, finally returns to his own rooms, finally sets down the spare key to Nate’s apartment.
He stays in the living room just long enough to verify that Nate’s either woken up or fallen back asleep – there are no more sounds, either way – before he returns to the kitchen and his tablet sitting on the table. The red dot in Nate’s apartment blinks steadily, and Alec reaches out, taps the dot twice.
If he’d done the same thing with Eliot or Parker, their database files would have come up (the falsified ones, anyways): job history, credit report, health considerations. Anything a landlord in this day and age might, conceivably, need access to, provided (gratis) by the Institute, who loved not needing to police the citizens themselves.
Nate’s database file flashes on screen – and all he can read is the older man’s name. The rest is covered in brilliant red: [CLASSIFIED].
“What on earth….”
He’s never seen a file encrypted like this. The history’s encoded different from his job records encoded different from everything else. The only thing as open as it could be – should be – is next of kin.
There’s just a dash there. It’s empty. And the sight hurts.
Alec glances at the clock again, decides he doesn’t really need more than three hours of sleep, and settles down to work.
It’s still drizzling in the morning when Sterling comes in to get coffee. If he notices the bleary-eyed look Alec’s giving him, he doesn’t react. He’s too busy staring at Nate’s table. Nate doesn’t even realize Sterling’s there; doesn’t even look up, deep in a conversation with Parker.
“It’s really coming down out there…” Alec says, for the sake of making conversation – and, to be honest, for the sake of distracting the Institute man.
“Spare me,” Sterling purrs, rolling his eyes, “the scintillating discussion of the elements.”
If Alec wasn’t such a nice guy (or feeling so tired, apparently he needs more than half an hour of sleep a night, go figure) he’d totally spit in Sterling’s drink.
Instead, he just waves a hand in pained surrender (“a’ight, just tryin’ to be friendly, don’t got to go and be a jerk about it”), and spends the entire time he’s putting together Sterling’s order fantasizing about locking Sterling’s ID chip out of the building.
(He’s done worse; like when Parker picked up a stalker last year. Alec programmed every doorknob and handle in a three block radio to shock him when he touched them. They haven’t seen him in months. They miss him even less than they miss Mason.)
He puts the coffee cups in a carrier, shoves them across the counter at Sterling, who hasn’t moved. The only real sound in the shop is Moreau’s voice on the radio - stocks are down ten points following official confirmation that Toledo’s regrowth remains as stagnant as the rest of the country’s…
More good news. He doesn’t even know why they keep the stocks going – everything they’re based on is gone, or stored on computer chips as genetic code, but. Maybe it’s another one of those tradition things.
“There you go, man. Need any cream or sugar?”
“No.” Sterling answers without even looking towards Alec – his eyes are fixed on Nate still, and Alec feels that protective thing in him roil again; threaten to show its claws. Sterling shakes his head abruptly, and looks at Alec. “Tell me, Mr. Alec…How long has Nate been coming here?”
“What’s it to you?” is his immediate, instinctive response. Sterling raises an eyebrow, and Alec is instantly reminded of jars of illicit fruit, the illegal garden on the roof, the computers under the prep island in the kitchen, and he smiles, as innocently as he knows how.
“Just…call it idle curiosity.” The look in Sterling’s eyes is anything but idle, anything but curious; it’s that hungry yearning again. Alec prays for Nate to not turn around, not even look up, doesn’t want a repeat of yesterday, of last night, whatever that had been.
Parker catches his look, gives him a wink so small he’s not even entirely sure he’s seen it, and points to something on one of the papers. Nate seems to freeze, falter so familiarly, but then he offers Parker the pen.
And Alec shrugs. “He’s been coming in six, seven weeks now? He was looking for an apartment. Guess he liked the place even though he didn’t rent…” It’s a risk. Sterling works for the Institute, and the thing the Institute likes least (well, second least; right after people who ask questions and right before people who steal fruit) is someone willing to lie to them. All Sterling has to do is go back to the big ugly building and type in Nate’s ID and Alec has no doubt that his screen would show a heck of a lot more than Alec’s had. But there’s still a sign in the window: apartments available. It lends credence to his lie. “Why? Jealous he didn’t tell you ‘bout the best coffee in town?”
The carrier scrapes against the counter when Sterling pulls it towards him, and the look on Sterling’s face is enough for Alec to know that the agent now thinks he’s a moron.
(And, hey, Alec’s just fine with that. Just as long as he doesn’t think Alec’s a thief, a cheat, and a liar.)
“Oh yes, that’s exactly it.” Sterling scoffs, and when he leaves, he uses his foot to nudge the door open, leaving a smudgy, mud-colored footprint on the glass in his wake.
The door shuts behind him.
The rain stops.
The clouds part.
“…huh.” Alec says.
“What?” Eliot asks, sticking his head out of the kitchen. Alec just watches Sterling saunter off down the street, steam already rising from the concrete.
“I’m…not entirely sure.”
Parker's invited herself to Nate's table and sits there as he lets his pencil wander the paper, filling the margins with numbers – but never the sequence he needs. None of the sequences click. He can't think about it. If he thinks about it, it'll be gone.
So he sketches and jots, like a ghost writer letting something else write through their hand, their pen. And because it's Parker - Parker who tries to throw out his coffee, Parker who's mixing it with the decaf when she thinks he's not paying attention, Parker with the attention span of a sparrow and the golden gleam of a finch - he's talking back.
They’re talking about home, again.
It’s been years since he thought of home – thought of Boston, of Los Angeles, of the little apartment on the other side of the Cube, the one they lost when Sam started, no – and he actually has to think about his answers, can’t just blurt the words.
So he does the first thing he can think of and turns the questions around, shoots them back at her.
“What makes you think of home?”
Parker doesn’t even have to think, doesn’t protest that he didn’t answer. She licks cocoa foam off her spoon and says matter of fact, “The botanical gardens.”
And Nate blinks.
“What’s so special in the bots?” The thin blue lines on the paper's margins form a fence at the tip of his ballpoint pen – a rusty, chainlink fence, with a tiny bird perched on the crossbar.
“They have trees.” Parker shrugs, and an oak tree joins the fence and the bird. Parker notices; grins, but keeps talking. “Trees like back in…well. Back at home." Back when the sky was a sky and not a sheet of thick glass, held in place with steel bars. "In the bots, no one can see me climbing. Not like the buildings. And there are…well. There’s more of a choice.”
“A choice?” Another train of numbers has crept from his pen along the edge of the paper. He looks at them as Parker takes a sip of her cocoa. It takes him a moment to figure out it's the bottom row of Pascal's Triangle and not something he needs.
“Yeah. With a building...a building, see. A building I can go up or I can go down. There’s a little bit of lateral leeway, depending on the building, but…”
She shrugs, and Nate thinks he knows where she’s going with this.
“With trees…with trees you get…” Parker pauses again, testing her words, tasting them carefully like she (every now and then) tastes his coffee. “Options. There are branches and stuff, you can climb to the top of one tree, or just get as high up as you can using tree after tree. Give me the right tree and I can get from the outskirts of the city to the walls themselves without having to climb down.”
And that was just the sort of answer he was expecting.
Nate’s slowly starting to trust them more.
That much is evident in the papers left scattered over his table when he goes back to his apartment to get something. Given that Nate’s started to look even worse for wear – this morning, he staggered in with dark circles under his eyes and a serious case of the tremors that didn’t go away until noon – they take this opportunity to poke.
Sophie stations herself so she can see his door, and Alec moves to looks through the papers. It’s all math equations and time tables and diagrams and maps, technical jargon in paranoid, scratchy handwriting. He’s seen those all before, so he just sets them aside, digging until he reaches the paper Nate had been working on last, the first picture he’s seen with color.
It catches on his fingertips, left in the pile face down, and he glances at the apartment door before flipping it over.
And then he just stares.
Poison-bright green eyes leer up at him, surrounded by brown and green and tan and black blurs that suggest scales. It’s all layered behind a misty spray of red that looks…pretty much exactly like blood, actually.
It’s technically good, but he doesn’t like the picture. He doesn’t like the perspective. The only way anyone would see a raptor that close or from that angle would be if it was killing them.
Sophie hisses and the door to the lobby jangles open. By the time Nate’s back to the table, the sketches are shoved under the diagrams and Alec’s crossword is out and he’s looking up expectantly.
Nate accepts him sitting there with the smallest of sighs and a look like might be resigned fondness.
“You only love me for my crossword skills.”
“Oh, darn,” Alec quips back, “you’ve figured me out!”
But really, his stomach flutters, just a bit, at that “l” word.
Nate drops the raptor picture when he’s cleaning up hours later.
And of course Alec’s there to pick it up, just as Nate’s starting to reach for it. The young man looks at it and he doesn’t seem as surprised as he should be when he stands, but he doesn’t ask about it. Instead, he just says…
“You know, there’s something really weird about the dinosaurs.”
Nate looks at him, uncertain, because…well. Since the first time the dinosaurs came up in conversation, they’ve dodged the subject. And Alec seems like he’s fidgeting, like he’s trying not to shy away from something. Just thinking about the raptors makes Nate’s gut hurt. He had hoped that drawing it, pinning the dinosaurs down on paper, would get them out of his head, maybe save his sleep tonight. He’s now not sure that’s going to work so well.
“You mean, besides the fact that they’re even alive?” he asks, giving Alec a look. For a moment, it feels like answering Sam’s questions.
For a moment, he doesn’t mind.
“Yes, besides that. It’s just…there’s what. There’s a tyrannosaurus and a stegosaurus, right?” Nate nods. (Granted, those two stay in the bots, instead of rampaging through the city like the raptors, but they’d still been on the news.) “They…never coexisted in the past. They were in different periods, you know.”
“Yeah. I know that.” He thinks about dinosaur books stacked high next to a hospital bed, and tries not to hug himself, but he can feel the claws and the imagined sensation’s clogging his throat. And so he keeps talking. “H-How…how long have they been here?”
And now it’s Alec’s time to give him a strange look. “The reconstitution accident was three years ago. It was all over the news. You…don’t remember?”
The dinosaurs have existed for eleven months (if you want to be exact), or for three weeks (if you want to be technical) but…of course Alec wouldn’t know that.
“I…” Nate pauses, rubs his suddenly sore eyes as Alec sets the picture down on the top of the stack. “I had other things on my mind.”
It’s a weak excuse, a poor explanation, but Alec seems to take it anyway. He taps the picture instead. “You’re an artist?”
Nate shrugs, awkward, one-shoulder, hands still tight on his last cup of coffee. “I was. A long, long…” he hesitates, adds (for the sake of accuracy), “long time ago.”
“What a coincidence,” Alec says, and now there’s a grin around his mouth. Nate likes that smile, can’t bring himself to mind when it’s trained on him. “I am too.”
“You’re a renaissance man,” Nate says, draining the dregs of his cup. “Baker, book collector, artist...is there anything you can’t do?”
Alec pretends to give the matter serious thought, though the laugh-lines crinkling at the corners of his eyes give him away. “Well, I totally suck at football.”
His feet don’t touch the floor, no matter how he strains – but he’s not trying very hard. He can’t try very hard, not with the way his vision is fading in and out, not with the way the wire cuts into his skin.
The garotte’s a simple thing, some super-thin wire Sterling could have picked up from anywhere – but it’s strong and wound tight and pressing against his windpipe and that rabbity thing is rising within him, panicked and wild and resigned at the same time.
He can’t get up; Sterling’s pulling too hard for that, his wire-wrapped knuckles pressing against the join of shoulder and neck. The desk’s hard against the small of his back, and if he could just touch he could maybe find the leverage to get upright, but Sterling...
Sterling ’s cold hand presses to the soft underside of Nate’s jaw, and the abused skin throbs in response as Sterling strokes, gently. It’s not right, it’s horribly, horribly wrong, but at the same time…this is familiar. He knows this, and the waiting is done, and…
And it shouldn’t feel like a relief, but it does.
“Yeah,” Sterling breathes, and he makes it sound easy and Nate tries to inhale but nothing’s making it past his throat; tries not to compare this to the last time he died, tries not to let himself think about how this is actually better.
“Yeah,” Sterling says again, almost a reverent sigh, and when he pulls his fingers away they’re bloody. “I missed this when I let the raptors play.” He smirks down at Nate, eyes knowing, and adds, “And I don’t think I’m the only one.”
The bots smell like plants the way the plants in the city proper don’t anymore. It’s probably because of the weather arrays. Over the city, the weather’s the same as it would be on the outside. In the bots, the weather’s held constant, just so the plants grow year-round. With fifteen-thousand people in this city, the plants need to grow year-round.
Bot 4 is the northern section of the botanical gardens, the section closest to the Institute. Ironically, the fence there doesn’t work right, hasn’t since the city was built. Nate still taps his fingers against the chain links gingerly, then with more confidence when he doesn’t get burned, and then (though it takes what feels like an unfair amount of effort), he’s over the fence and on the other side.
The trees grow thick and close together immediately after the fence, and Nate tries not to jump at every sound when he picks his way through them, heading for the ugly high-rise that houses the Institute. The truly dangerous animals are all still stored on the data-chips, not roaming free.
But they said that about the dinosaurs, too…
(And Sam always did like lions.)
He’s half way to the Institute walls when it starts raining. And that. That’s alright, it’ll keep the raptors from catching his scent if they’re out on the prowl. He shoves it all from his head, and presses on.
After all, he’s got a tree to climb.
When Nate finally shows up at Megabyte, he’s soaked to the skin and shivering and his lips are blue, and he’s already halfway up the stairs to his apartment when Alec catches up with him.
(“You’re not going to just let him go, are you?” Eliot said ten seconds ago when Nate actually stumbled through the door, and Alec blinked.
“What do you mean?”
“Have you ever seen him actually eat anything? Like, ever? Or come back with groceries?”
“I’m pretty sure he’s losing weight,” Parker added, pulling a sheet of ramekins out of the oven, making the whole kitchen smell like chocolate and mint. “His clothes don’t seem to fit right.”
When he looked back at Eliot the other man’s eyebrows were raised over his glasses. And then he darted out the door.)
“Hey!” Alec says, and his voice is bright and his eyes are bright and Nate feels himself drawn towards that brightness even as the rabbit-thing craves the safety of the darkness, the thickets and the thorns. He pauses, dripping on the steps, and Alec grins up at him. “You’re not goin’ upstairs like that, are you?”
Which is how he finds himself sitting at his normal table with a towel draped over his head and his feet in a tote of warm water; Sophie rambling at him as his sore hands twitch.
“What were you doing out there? It’s coming down in buckets, and look what you’ve done to your hands…”
He tries not to look; he sits and he tries not to jitter, tries not to jump, but it’s hard and when he smells chocolate he can’t help but leap at the distraction, reaching out for the plate.
Alec stops him, though, hands closing gently on his. And Nate doesn’t yank away, doesn’t glare at him. Not quite.
(But it’s a close thing.)
“Ah, ah, ah,” Alec says, and nimble fingers brush over the scratches the tree left on his hands, the scrapes, gently, and it’s better than any chocolate could be, and he just sits and lets him start covering his hands with band-aids. “C’mon, Nate. When’s the last time you ate?”
Honestly, he can’t remember. He just sits there and basks in the warmth around him and the tender hands on his.
“And I mean real food,” Alec stresses, ruining the moment .
“Coffee doesn’t count,” Parker adds.
“Oh,” Nate says back, grabbing for the chance, “and cupcakes do?”
Alec just lifts a sardonic eyebrow, taping off the last band-aid.
“’course not.” And then Eliot’s on his other side with a bowl of soup. “But this does. And you’re going to eat all of it.” Alec leans forward then, plants the heel of his hand against Nate’s back. Nate feels long fingers press against his ribs before he goes still, heart thudding in his throat at the proximity.
Alec pulls away, hurriedly, but it’s still a minute or two before Nate can breathe.
“Todd’s coming over for lunch,” Parker says, halfway through the morning rush. “Can I have an extra half-hour?”
"Sure." Alec says, hurriedly scraping blackened butter cream frosting off the side of the microwave so he can actually use it. It's not quite as bad as the time Parker tazed the toaster, but it's close.
(In her defense, she hadn’t been aiming for the toaster, she’d been aiming for Todd. How this turned into dating, into an actual successful relationship, they would never know. He and Eliot and Sophie had made a pact never to ask.)
Parker beams and practically dances when she heads back to her counter. Alec shakes his head, fondly.
(Todd McSweeten was a career security guard, had been for as long as they all had known him, but they didn’t hold that against him.
After all, he’s how Parker knows how to get into the bots.)
Alec's finished with the microwave and the crowd has slowed down, so he's about to start scrubbing the refrigerator when something occurs to him and he wanders back out into the bustling café.
“Parker, did you invite him over, or…”
“No?” Parker answers, “He asked if I had time.” She gives a little shrug, licks caramel syrup off her hand and calls out for someone to get their latte before she finishes. “And he said he needs to talk to you, too.”
“Parker said you had something to talk to me about?”
He’s never been one for beating around the bush with Todd. Todd is a nice, straightforward guy, quick to get to the point, and he has the patience of a saint (which you need to date Parker), so he just grins at Alec and sets the cupcake down.
“Uh, yeah, I did. Is there an, um.” Todd fishes his phone from his pocket, checks something on it. “Is there a Nate Ford who hangs around here?”
There’s something earnest in his tone, and so he just nods, warily. Todd glances over the counter in that way he always seems to do when he’s nervous.
“My boss…well. He’s told us all to kinda…well. ‘Keep an eye out’ for him.” Todd manages to make the air-quotes with the phone in one hand, a coffee mug in the other. “So. Um. If you could ask him to stop climbing trees in the bots?” Alec thinks of scraped palms and soggy clothes, and he can’t help but grimace, just a bit. “That’d…that’d be a big help. ‘Cuz he’s not as good at it as Parker, and I don’t…don’t really wanna have to take one of your customers in.”
Alec just watches as Todd takes a sip of his coffee, then cocks his head.
“Did they tell you anything about him?”
“Nope!” Todd says, and he’s back to that almost-puppy thing again, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. “Just to watch him. So I did, and…yeah. So. Where’s Parker, again?”
The tree looks like his way in; he’ll have to leave early so he’s able to get into the building when the security glitch happens, and…
Nate’s paper fuzzes before his eyes when he stares at it too long, a rough timetable, written in a pink ballpoint pen Parker had brought him yesterday. He sets the pen down and rubs the bridge of his nose, trying to clear his vision.
He doesn’t flinch from Parker’s cheerful voice anymore; it’s like he’s realizing that maybe, this time around, he can have people to talk to. It’s certainly made his apartment less of the safe haven it had been the last almost-year. He starts to turn, starts to respond, but Parker keeps going.
“I have someone I want you to meet. Nate, this is-”
And Nate looks up into a pair of big brown eyes over a broad friendly grin and he finds himself scrambling backwards off the chair, mind a cacophony of flashing knives, flashing claws and so much blood.
Parker’s reaching for him, and her eyes are worried, but all he can see is what has gone before and he doesn’t want to think about it, doesn’t want to look at her friend who wants to help him up, and terror and gratitude should never ever mix like this and he’s only halfway to the bathroom before he’s throwing up again.
Nate’s in the cramped Employees Only bathroom to the side of the kitchen, one of their emergency blankets (a comfy yellow quilt one of the dear old lady regulars pieced together for them) draped over his shoulders.
At least this time there’s a reason for the shivering.
At least this time he knows why Nate’s trembling.
(It has lot to do with the fact that he just puked up everything they managed to get him to eat over the last two days.)
Alec reaches out, brushes a tentative hand down Nate’s trembling back before moving away, giving the older man his space.
“Nah, no need, you just…” And here he falters, because he’s literally got nothing. He doesn’t know why Nate reacted that way, he doesn’t know why he’s terrified and how can he soothe him if he doesn’t know? “I…”
“I’ve got to be your worst customer.” Nate mumbles, miserably.
“Whoa now, man, I don’t know about that,” Alec hurries to say, leaning against the door. Nate looks up at him, bleary-eyed, and he shrugs. “I can tell you things have been pretty…strange around here since you showed up.” Nate seems to laugh, and Alec’s reassured, just a bit, by that reaction. “Or maybe I’ve just started noticing it more.”
And when Alec looks at Nate again, there’s curiosity on his face, behind the constant fire-light flicker of his unknown fears. “Just…things.” He chews on his lip a second before rubbing his hand over his close-cropped hair, sitting down in the doorway. “They’re like…motifs.”
“Motifs?” The interest is growing.
“In music. Or art. Or novels.” The words aren’t quite forming right, and he waves his hands, animated, as he tries to think, tries to explain. Thinking about Sterling and bad news and rain; beams of sunlight through the clouds when Nate stumbles in every morning. “You know, little things you hear or see or read, over and over and so on...but…”
Nate’s hands close around the edges of the blanket, the knuckles white, his face strained. The interest is gone now, devoured by the fear he refuses to explain.
“It’s always raining when Sterling comes in.”
Nate doesn’t flinch at the name this time. It’s a start.
“And the news on the radio’s always bad.”
“Coincidence?” Nate says, and his voice is anything but playful.
“I don’t think so,” Alec confesses, and for a moment, Nate seems seconds away from talking, from saying that something that would make him make sense, but then he stands and it’s gone. Alec shoves the tumbler of ginger ale into Nate’s hand, hauls himself to his feet.
But he hesitates in the doorway, looks back over his shoulder.
“Don’t take the subway tomorrow.”
“Maybe it’s a gift,” Sterling’s saying, as Nate tries – desperately, harder than he’s ever tried to do anything – not to move. Not to blink, not to look down. There’s red at the corner of his eyes, his periphery, too much, too much, too much.
Sterling’s palm is pressed against his forehead, holding him down like always, and Nate tries to focus on that hand, the thin lines of his skin and his fingers and the pressure keeping him from moving and between that and the agony in his chest, it feels (almost exactly) like drowning.
“Sir-” Someone tries to interrupt, one of the security guys that tend to show up every now and again to do nothing, to stand there and watch him die. Sterling just talks over him, the knife-blade carving in deep, grinding against bone.
“Some gifts come with price tags, you know.” Something lifts and slides and Nate closes his eyes as tightly as he can when Sterling moves his hand, laughs at the way Nate’s trying to hide. “A sacrifice, if you will. Blood offered for the chance to get it right this time.”
This sick thing is, Sterling believes it. Has to, there’s no other reason for the reverence in his tone. Nate just doesn’t know why he’s always the one paying the price.
Maybe because he’s the one always getting it wrong.
“Sir,” and this time it’s insistent. “You’re needed on the radio.”
He hadn’t thought Sterling was serious about…this, about…playing operation, about carving him open; so he hadn’t thought about it. He hadn’t thought about how much blood would be involved. The pain, though. That was about right. So when Sterling curses and leaves and the doe-eyed guard clamps his hand - gently but firmly - over Nate’s mouth, pins his nose shut, it's a blessing to watch the world go black.
“What are you doing, Nathan?”
He’s used to Sterling in a way he’s not used to Parker’s young man. He just feels numb dread at the agent's voice when it breaks the silence the next day, is spared a repeat yesterday. He glances towards the radio, half listening to the voice: …worst subway accident since the city’s inception…
And then the papers in his fingers are gone and his band-aid covered hand’s stinging in their wake.
Sterling’s rifling through the sketches, and Nate can’t help but feel, now, a vicious stab of triumph. If nothing else, he won’t have diagrams to ram down his throat this go-round. His former friend just looks at him over the back of the papers, knowing and predatory.
He sinks back into his chair, watching as Sterling flips the drawings back onto the tabletop, sketches of dinosaurs and fires, Alec and Parker and Eliot and Sophie, trees and birds and one that might, if he’s not paying attention when he finishes it, turn into Maggie.
Sterling’s lip curls in disgust as he tosses the final sketch down: Todd McSweeten, eyes bright over the barrel of a gun.
And Nate swallows at that one.
And Sterling notices.
And Sterling smiles.
“He told me about yesterday. Poor bastard’s always been a sweetheart, an’ he’ll talk to just about anyone…” Sterling reaches out to brush his hand through Nate’s hair. Nate pulls away, defiantly. Sterling just shakes his head. “So, you can see me and keep your…well. Almost keep your cool, but you see him…” He tsks, and Nate can feel claws again, knives again, tearing through flesh and with the memory he’s losing the defiance. “All Todd ever did was put you out of your misery. I’d think you’d be a little more thankful.”
He can’t explain that that’s the problem. He can look at Sterling and feel pain, feel anger and betrayal, but McSweeten…with McSweeten, the sickness is mixed with gratitude, and that’s beyond wrong.
Sterling’s changing the subject, looking around the café pointedly. “I liked this better when it was a machine shop. It had more…ambience.”
By “ambience,” Nate knows Sterling means “crowbars.” He doesn’t answer. Sterling doesn’t get frustrated. He doesn’t have to. After all, he always wins. He just leans forward, helps himself to Nate’s coffee.
“You know,” he continues, after taking a sip, making a face and dumping it into the orange tree, “one of the definitions of insanity is ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’?”
Nate can’t help but rise to that, dulled with the realization that that’s exactly what’s happening, but. But.
“So…what? What, Jim? You…you want me to just lie down and die for you? Just give up, come to you day one, let you…let you…” Let you cut me open, let you shoot me, drown me, crucify me, whatever hell you think of this time? He swallows, hard, and wishes for his empty coffee cup.
“I didn’t say that,” Sterling counters, fingers steepled. He’s still staring at Nate like he can see through him, see to his soul, and Nate tries not to curl inwards at the look in his eyes, because Sterling’s seen him, literally, inside and out, and the memory hurts. “I’m just hoping one of these days I’ll put you down and it’ll stick.”
He sighs, pushes the chair back, stands.
“Now,” he says loudly, and the tone in his voice is so obnoxious that Nate knows he’s doing it on purpose, drowning out death toll at sixty and climbing from the radio, “There’s a story going around that the fence is down at Bot 4, that’s a nasty rumor, it’s working just as well as ever.” His eyes are challenging, and Nate can’t look away. Bot 4 is where he climbed, how he’s getting in; it’s where they grow the fruit. Parker’s been in there twice, and he knows, no matter how hard as they try to keep it from him.
He’s going insane, maybe, but he’s not stupid.
“I’ll see you later, Nathan.”
Sterling leaves and Nate feels so tired, so old, so achy that for a moment he just sits there, staring at the table. Staring at the rumpled pictures. Then he stands, steadies himself – the shakes are getting worse; Sophie pointed that out yesterday.
“You know where he’s talking about, right?” He says, and Alec nods. It’s the first time Nate’s ever acknowledged that Sterling exists to the younger man. “Don’t go there. Like, at all.”
“Just. Just trust me. Alright?”
There’s an earthquake after sundown.
It’s a little tremor, barely big enough to be registered – but still big enough to knock half a weather array out of the steel-and-crystal sky –
And into the middle of Bot 4.
“If he’s a rabbit, he’s Fiver.” Alec insists, when the news reaches the café.
Sophie gives him a strange look from the counter where she’s chopping bananas for Eliot’s bread, and shakes her head. “…no, Alec, I’m pretty sure he’s closer to forty-five…”
“No, no, no. Not Five. Fiver.”
“I don’t…” Sophie starts, and then Eliot’s back.
“Don’t even start,” he says, planting a kiss on her forehead before he looks back at Alec. “And I’m telling you, he’s the Rabbit.”
“Maybe he’s Billy Pilgrim.” Alec says, and Eliot gives him a look in return.
“Because he knows things,” Alec says, “Like…you know. Time’s not the same? And because I half expect him to start talking about aliens at any point.”
Eliot rolls his eyes. “You sure this has nothin’ to do with, like…what bunnies are known for, right?”
Alec just gives him a disgusted look, and he raises his hands defensively.
“Just askin’, man,” he says, and he doesn’t question any further.
“I think I’ve sussed out what’s going on….”
The handcuffs chafe his wrist, but the pain is still manageable; better than a bullet, better than the fence, worlds better than the train, so he doesn’t pull too hard. All he needs to do is stall.
“It just…it seems so fantastical, you know? This…whatever it is.”
Nate manages a one-shouldered shrug, watching the numbers flicker down behind Sterling’s shoulder.
“What is it? You tell me.”
“I saw you.” Sterling says. “I saw you, Nate. With the train.”
And it’s like the floor’s gone out from under his feet. Hope and fear mingle in his brain. The train was two loops ago. Sterling shouldn’t know.
“You stood there and you watched, right until it hit you. The Nate Ford I knew would have flinched. Better yet, wouldn’t have even considered throwing his life away like that. But you did throw it away. You didn’t flinch. And you…you lay there, crumpled and dying, and I…I realized. I realized I’d seen you dying…before. Lying and broken and bleeding out…before. And then I woke up and…I remembered.”
He’s pacing, nerves Nate’s rarely seen rising to the normally placid surface, but he pauses near Nate for a second.
Sterling doesn’t wait for his answer, just lifts the cup to his lips. He hesitates, inhaling carefully, but he doesn’t smell anything, and so he drinks. The water’s stale, but it’s soothing on his dry tongue, his sore throat, and...it feels good, to talk to someone. It feels good when Sterling pulls his handkerchief from his pocket, wipes Nate’s mouth dry. Cups the back of his head, almost affectionately.
“I didn’t realize until the next time, of course. When Todd broke your neck…” He barely remembers that one. Just racing around a corner, strong hands closing around his chin, snapping it backwards. He seems to remember apologetic babbling, a lot of I didn’t mean to grab him like that! “We’re stuck, aren’t we?”
Nate nods, wordlessly.
“Figures.” His laugh is sarcastic, echoing off the walls, and Nate…knows how that feels. There’s a horrible sort of resignation that comes with that realization. “So many things about this place just…don’t add up, you know that?” Sterling shakes his head, paces away, boots heavy on the polished metal of the floor. When he comes back, he’s refilled the cup. “Like the dinosaur DNA stored on the mainframes; the earthquake plates, and…” Nate’s regained enough feeling in his free hand to reach out and take it when Sterling holds it out. He doesn’t hesitate before sipping this time.
“I mean, come on.” Sterling’s watching him, but Sterling always watched, even back in high school. “When you think about it,” Sterling wraps the handkerchief around his knuckles, giving a little shrug, a careless thing that Nate knows, “there’s a rather limited number of uses for an odorless, colorless,” his eyes flick to the cup in Nate’s hand, and Nate’s stomach lurches, “tasteless accelerant.”
He just watches as Nate rams his fingers down his throat, vomiting coffee and bile and whatever it was he’d just drank; it all burns on the way back up. He watches impassively as Nate spits, glistening strings of saliva.
Nate straightens up, guts clenching, and Sterling just smiles.
“I sure hope that was worth the effort.”
“Wha-” And then the cloth is in his mouth, and the lighter’s sputtering in Sterling’s hand.
The flame touches.
The flame catches.
And he screams so loud he never hears the rest.
The music is loud in Alec’s headphones as he messes around on his tablet, idly waiting for his programs to do anything, but then the IM message pops up in the corner of the screen: “Hey, man. Are you watching a horror flick down there?”
Alec (still not entirely over the earlier insinuation) glares at the ceiling, types back: “No?”
“Then I think you might want to check on the Rabbit.”
“…how loud’s your music, anyway?”
He’s about to type back a snappy reply when Eliot’s next message comes through.
He pulls one ear-bud out, and that’s enough. Compared to this, the sounds from the other night were laughs. This is a full, all-out shriek, terror and pain and something that Alec can’t place, a breathless, begging wail.
He doesn’t even have to think before he’s lunging for the spare keys. It takes him a couple tries to get the door open, the key skipping off the lock without sliding in, but then the door swings open and Alec stumbles through and he can see Nate on the couch, back arched like he’s trying to get away from something Alec can’t see, his hands clawed into the cheap blankets.
Nate collapses to the couch, and Alec can hear fabric tearing.
“Nate.” He reaches out, takes the nearest shoulder, and gives him a gentle shake. Nate comes awake flailing, lunging up from the couch like a cornered animal and striking out; his teeth bared, eyes wild, ankles tangled in the blanket.
“Hey, hey, easy…” Alec scurries back fast enough that Nate doesn’t land on him, his hands up, until the older man’s eyes clear, and recognition returns, and he falls back against the couch, chest heaving.
“What…what are you doing here?” he asks, gathering himself up and flopping back on the couch, a shaky hand brushing back his hair, rubbing against his forehead. Alec looks back at the open front door, nudges it closed with his foot.
I heard you screaming, Alec thinks, and I don’t like it when you scream, but what he says is this:
“I finished Slaughterhouse 5.”
Nate looks at the glowing clock on the coffee table, half-buried in notebooks.
Alec follows his gaze.
“Really,” Nate says, dryly. As if he hadn’t just lunged at Alec, as if he hadn’t just been screaming himself hoarse.
“Really!” Alec says, pointedly not paying any attention to Nate’s skepticism. “Good book, awesome book, fascinating.” He stands with a grin, hands rubbing against his pants. “I think you’re Billy Pilgrim.”
Nate goes still, so very, very still. Alec meant it as a joke, but the look on his face is one step removed from the face he was making when he jolted awake, and Alec notices. He notices, he thinks, aha, this isn’t part of the game, and maybe this is the time he tells the truth and why does he look so scared about that? all at the same time.
“I’m not Pilgrim,” Nate finally says, and it sounds like he swallowed his tongue. “I’m not,” he repeats, in answer to Hardison’s return look. “I’m not.”
“But you know when some things are going to happen,” Alec protests, and it’s better than calling you a bunny, “And…how’m I supposed to know what to think? I mean, They’re talkin’ about the end of the universe, and…”
“Ah,” Nate says, and his voice goes sing-song, far-away as he quotes, ‘"If you know this," said Billy, "isn't there some way you can prevent it? Can't you keep the pilot from pressing the button?"
"He has always pressed it, and he always will. We always let him and we always will let him. The moment is structured that way."”
“That’d be the one,” Alec says, actually impressed by his quoting skills. And Nate laughs, just a bit.
“So it goes...”
THat's not really an answer, but he doesn’t bite Alec’s head off, though he’s edgy until Alec finally leaves.
Next time, Alec’s ready. He keeps the music low, keeps an ear open towards Nate’s apartment as Nate’s still-locked Institute file glows onscreen. The program he’s using to try passwords is still running, but it’s been running for days now and it’s gotten nowhere. Partially because he has never seen security like this, partially because he has to keep pausing the program before it sets off the Institute’s alarms.
The screen blinks crimson around the edges; he’s got that much unlocked. Nate’s a Code Red. The institute’s profilers have him listed as a viable threat to the city’s safety - any high-level facility’s security has permission to kill him on sight – the subways, the Institute, anything. Without question.
Alec’s still having problems wrapping his head around that concept.
Nate’s apartment is silent until about three. The sounds that start ebbing through the walls after that are low, sad more than scared, and Alec doesn’t hesitate before he’s scooping up his tablet, his keys, and the pile of books, and letting himself into Nate’s apartment.
“Nate. Wake up. You’re dreaming.”
Alec situates himself on Nate’s couch, practically sitting on the older man’s feet. He picks up the top book and opens it, clearly intending to stay. Nate notices, raises an eyebrow, but doesn’t ask. He just nods at the novel in Alec’s hand.
“Isn’t that a little bit…below your reading level?”
Alec looks at the book – The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane - and grins, cocky when it comes to this. “Hey, man, I read what I want. Finished War and Peace in two days, figure that gives me permission.”
“I…tried reading that to my son once. We, ah.” Nate flushes, just a bit, and it’s such a normal looking emotion that it’s almost startling. He doesn’t look at Alec, he just…stares out the darkened window. “We never finished it.”
“…because. I didn’t see how it could end happy.” It’s said with such shame that Alec can tell there’s another level to this story, something he’s not hearing.
“Aw, Nate…” Alec scrubs his hand over his head and quotes, “‘The happy ending does not come in the middle of the story.’”
“I know that.” And to Alec’s horror, Nate’s voice cracks halfway through his sentence. “I know that, I just…we…we didn’t have…” He stops, swallows, tries to compose himself, but it still comes out watery. “We didn’t have enough time. In t-the end.”
Something happened to his son. Alec doesn’t know what to say to that.
“He liked books though. Books with heroes. We read Narnia…and Harry Potter…” He shifts, a bit, one foot- he’s still wearing his shoes, Alec realizes, but he doesn’t say anything – pressed against Alec’s thigh. “But…The Last Unicorn. That was one of his favorites.” His lips pull in that rusty, clumsy smile again, and Alec leans against the arm-rest, listening. “Maggie said he was too young, but…he seemed to get the important parts…”
“Kids usually do,” Alec replies, honest, and certain that if Nate’s kid was anything like his daddy, he had understood them.
“But…I don’t think,” Nate says, low, and he’s not meeting Alec’s eyes as he talks. “I don’t think I’m the hero in this story.”
Alec tilts his head, looks back at Nate, his little barely-there glances. “Then who do you think is?”
Nate doesn’t answer. He just curls further down in his blankets.
Alec makes sure he’s asleep before he leaves.
He’s not used to people looking at him like that. Not anymore. Maggie had, for awhile, until Sam died and everything went so very wrong and she took the weekly train to somewhere else. (He doesn’t know where; he keeps his old phone codes the same, just in case she decides to call. She doesn’t.)
Sam used to, until they took him.
It isn’t adoration (it’s too human for that).
It isn’t lust (it’s too clean for that).
But it’s honest and kind and it warms him as thoroughly as the sun outside, even as it terrifies him to think about it, terrifies him to realize that someone still cares.
Nate does not like the fourteenth day.
He’s never liked the fourteenth day. There’s always (has always been, since the dinosaurs had worked their way into reality) that news story, that horrible news story, the one with the man caught blocks from anywhere with the raptors at his back, the one where the only bright side he can see is that the man who dies doesn’t have to dream it over and over.
Just the thought of the raptors hunting makes him edgy and grumpy and he hates the fact that he can never find out who they kill, he has never been able to warn them, and so he sits at his table and tries not to draw, tries not to think, tries to focus on anything but them.
There are no other customers. Alec sent them home again. It’s just Nate and Parker out in the café, until Alec steps out of the kitchen, covered with flour and wiping his hands on his apron. He frowns at Parker, who doesn’t pause as she makes a teetering tower of coffee cups.
And Nate’s stomach drops through the floor, juxtaposing those claws and those teeth with worn, warm flannel and quick laughs. He feels his fingers start to curl, closes his hands into fists instead, grits his teeth and makes himself stand.
Alec doesn’t seem to realize what’s going on until Nate’s halfway through the lobby, the floor-tiles creaking beneath his feet. Nate’s halfway through the lobby, and he can’t...can't make himself go any further, can’t make himself close the distance and reach out for the door.
“Open the door,” he stammers out, and Alec goes still at his elbow.
“Open the door.”
Alec obeys, warily, and Nate stands in the lobby, pacing and praying that he’s not wrong. That the math he’s been doing in his head is correct and accurate and…
The sirens fixed to the tops of the buildings screel, wailing so loud it can be seen vibrating the glass. Nate feels his heart skip one, two, three beats and then there’s a figure pelting down the street, the raptors a green blur a block behind and closing in fast and Nate’s frozen, remembering the feeling of burning lungs and the roaring in his ears and that last faltering desperate step before he’d had his feet torn from under him and his skin ripped-
Eliot nearly tears the door off its hinges getting in; Alec nearly tears his arm out of its socket dragging him over the threshold. They work together to get the door locked back down seconds before the raptors reach it, claws scraping fruitlessly against the glass.
“You-you idiot what were you doing out there?” Alec’s ranting as they both hit the floor, and Eliot can’t answer (he’s panting too hard), and Alec’s hands are clasped over Eliot’s shoulders, his neck, as if he’s reassuring himself that his friend is in one piece and Nate can’t help but feel a small surge of jealousy, a sense of…not belonging. Of being an outsider. “What were you thinking?”
And there’s a small mewling noise, and Alec just stops.
“You did not-”
It’s the first time Nate has seen Eliot look abashed as he unzips his jacket and three kittens tumble free.
“Sophie…asked me to watch them,” he says, and Alec tries to glare, right up until the little orange kitten latches its claws into his jeans.
“You’re still an idiot.”
Nate still listens to the radio the rest of the day, even after they open the doors and the regular customers come flooding through.
No story ever comes on the air.
And Nate stares at his paper and whispers to himself, without really thinking, as the orange kitten claws his shoelaces: “‘This isn’t what happens next,’ said Billy.”
The kittens (Sangria, Cherry and Snoqualmie as they’re introduced with no explanation) have been safely sequestered in the back room by the time the door squeaks open and he storms in.
“This doesn’t change anything.”
Eliot growls at the voice, standing up from disentangling Sangria’s claws from his pants leg.
“Who let him in?”
“Apparently he likes the coffee?” Alec offers, but he knows how Eliot feels, from the annoyance to the anger at the sight of Sterling looming over Nate’s table. Nate’s looking shaky still, still feeling the after-effects of the raptors, and Sterling’s got the same predator-grin as he’s always had before. It’s not a shark, Alec realizes, not a coyote. It’s those raptors.
“Apparently,” Eliot agrees, but his eyes don’t leave Sterling’s face, and he snarls when the Institute man chucks his fingers under Nate’s chin and Nate can’t tip his head far enough back to avoid the touch. There’s something familiar, something intimate, in the way he’s holding Nate, and…it’s not a good intimacy, and Alec feels the hackles rising on the back of his neck.
“I don’t like him,” Eliot adds, and Alec whole-heartedly agrees.
“I…I’ve been trying to hack Nate’s Institute file for days now. I want to know what he’s after. Why he keeps…chasing Nate.”
There’s a pause. Then, “Days. You. Days?”
“Have you gotten anywhere?”
“I didn’t even think that was possible.”
“You and me both.” Alex paused, scratched behind his ear, and added, “…I can tell you he’s a Code Red, though.”
Eliot sighs. It’s deep, it’s sad, but it’s not surprised. They stand side by side until Sterling moves behind Nate’s lean frame, looms over his shoulders, both hands around Nate’s neck as he all-but breathes in his ear, and then Eliot’s in motion, eyes snapping, his hair a nimbus of copper in the waning light.
“Agent Sterling?” Alec watches from behind the counter as the Institute man actually flinches, lets go of Nate and turns. “Get out of my store.”
And Alec’s too pleased to argue the point.
Hours later, Nate’s at the same table, his head resting on his crossed arms. Alec’s working carefully, the tiny probes on the end of the screwdriver pressed to Nate’s ID chip. His tablet flickers through half a dozen screens on an endless loop – diagnostics, modifications…
None of them seem like they’ll help him with this riddle. He gives the probe a little twist, one hand resting on Nate’s shoulder when he hisses. It doesn’t hurt, but it’s not the best feeling in the world, either.
“Look, I dunno what’s goin’ on between you an’ Agent Sterling, but…” He gives a tiny shrug. “I could change this, you know. If you needed me to. Change your name; make it so he…so they can’t find you…”
It’s the closest he’s come to confessing what they do here after hours to the older man. Nate does that thing where he goes tense without realizing he’s doing it, ready to bolt. Alec bites his lip, working carefully.
“You can’t change my tag.” Nate’s voice is low, soft. Just this side of haunted. “If I just disappear…” A shiver goes through him, like he’s cold, and Alec presses his hand to the side of Nate’s neck. His flesh is fever-warm; his heartbeat rabbit-fast beneath his fingers. “You just…you can’t change my tag.”
He wants to ignore the older man’s words and do it anyway. He wants to hide him away, protect those rare flashes of humor, the moments when he doesn’t seem afraid, doesn’t seem haunted. He wants to change it so he doesn’t have red lining his life, the Institute just waiting for him to take that wrong step…
The screen blinks, the tablet beeps, and the stark white-on-black of Nate’s chip takes over, an endless stream of diagnostic data. Alec cracks his knuckles.
“Alright, let’s see what we’ve got here.”
A lot of what he sees is what he expected. Nate’s on the other side of forty-five, so he’s got more data than Eliot or Parker, and it’s not arranged nearly as efficiently, but he goes clicking through it anyway.
And then, far down in the codes, Alec notices the date.
“Huh,” he says. “Your chip’s runnin’ funny.”
“Yeah, couple weeks slow…” It happens, every now and then, with the older chips. They start losing time, unable to keep up with recording transactions and door codes. “I can just…” He’s about to correct it when the screen scrolls down the extra centimeter. And he sees the year.
(November 23, 2094.)
And feels a strange surge of something he can’t define.
“Make that fifty weeks fast.”
“Your chip…it says you’re in the future. These are synced with the computers, right?”
And Nate’s starting to shift, uneasily, on the chair; but he nods anyway.
“So…that’s technically impossible.” Alec paused. “….you sure you’re not Billy Pilgri-”
He has to catch the cord when Nate chucks it at him, and he stands there, blinking stupidly. Those things are tricky to attach even if you know what you’re doing, and Nate’s…well, Nate’s given no reason for Alec to think he would know.
And for the first time ever, Alec gets to see what Nate looks like angry.
“Just stop. Stop comparing me to him.”
“Nate, it was a joke, I just-”
“I am not Billy. I can’t…I don’t…” The rage is gone frighteningly quick, replaced with exhaustion and fear and something flickering in his eyes that makes Alec’s heart ache. “I can’t be him. I don’t want to be him, he…” Nate swallows, and forcibly, visibly, gathers the fleeing anger from some far-away place, gathering it around him like a shield. “I. Am not. Billy Pilgrim.”
And he’s out the door and storming up the stairs before Alec can get to his feet.
“That went well,” Eliot says in passing.
Nate’s never earned an angry mob before, but this time, Sterling had help catching him. He turned the corner – right into the prongs of a tazer. He’s grabbed and dragged, voices loud above him and around him, but they fade when he hits the ground hard, feeling his body twitch.
Other than that he can’t move.
Feet pause right before his eyes, and he strains to look up as pain lances down his arm, over his back; a knife blade gashed through his skin.
“What are you doing, Agent Sterling? They brought him in, he’s in custod-”
“Conducting an experiment, McSweeten. Don’t worry. You won’t get in trouble. He’s a Code Red.”
Nate can feel the blood trickling down his arms as hands drag him to his feet, guide him – stiff and stumbling – towards the fence.
“Agent, I really don’t think-”
Something jangles and he’s on the wrong side of the fence, fingers involuntarily curled around the chain link. His knees are shaking, but he’s not tied down this time, not…
Something screels high and behind him, the sound like an unfamiliar siren. He starts to turn when the smell hits him, a sharp scent like the reptile house at the zoo back in Boston.
“Agent Sterling, this-”
He doesn’t hear the rest over the sudden, instinctive panic as something prowls out of the trees, all rippling muscles and matte scales. His breath is caught in his throat, and the chain links dig into his fingers, his palms, his back as he tries to sink into the fence.
Sterling’s hand presses, gently, against the small of his back through the wire, and Nate’s knees half give out from the realization that Sterling’s actually going to do this. Actually going to watch…
The other man’s breath is hot on his ear through the links. “Stand still. I hear they can’t see you if you don’t move.”
He doesn’t move. He holds his breath and he clings to the fence and he does. Not. Move.
The raptors still see him. They move like cats gone horribly wrong, all grace and terror, and their eyes are all fixed on him.
“Well,” Sterling scoffs, giving the fence a shove that shakes Nate’s fingers loose, “there’s one dinosaur myth debunked…”
And then he does move.
He only makes it thirty feet before they’re on him, all of them, all sharp teeth and sharp claws and chittering, and, and the dry grass beneath him going red and the dust turning to mud and-
“What are you- HEY, no, HEY!”
He manages to look up just something snaps inside, as Sterling lunges for the other agent, who has his gun out and aimed and if he could find the breath he’d be begging-
And McSweeten pulls the trigger.
And everything goes black
“It’s alright, Nate.”
He doesn’t really wake up this time – he just hears the voice, feels the tight knot in his stomach ease, just a little bit.
“It’s alright. Just breathe.” It’s Alec’s voice and so he obeys, though it hurts in a way he can’t explain when he finishes, “you’re only dreaming.”
And then, reader, as he stood before the king, a wonderful, amazing thought occurred to the mouse. What if the suit of armor had been empty for a reason? What if it had been empty because it was waiting?
“You know me,” that was what the knight in his dream had said.
“Yes,” said Despereaux out loud in wonder. “I do know you.”
-The Tale of Despereaux
Nate was asleep again when Alec left.
He’s only slightly more awake when he staggers in to Megabite three hours later; his eyes too-sharp, too bright, red-rimmed, his five o’clock shadow about six hours late. Alec watches him tease Parker, though, sees the crooked, fond grin on Parker’s face, and gives him his distance. Keeps away until some of the edges have faded; until his pen’s touched to paper.
“I changed my mind,” Alec announces without preamble, setting the pile of books on the edge of the table; casually, as if Nate hadn’t stormed out yesterday, as if Alec hadn’t spent the night soothing him back to sleep after the dreams.
Nate looks at him questioningly over the tops of his reading glasses, head tilted, hand trembling when he sets the mug (it’s only his third cup but he’s earthquake-shaking already) down. Hardison steals the coffee, dumps it into the orange tree. At this rate, the oranges are going to be caffeinated by the time they finally grow.
“I changed my mind!” He repeats. “You’re right. You’re not Billy Pilgrim.” One long finger taps the pile of books. “You’re the Rabbit.”
There’s no denial - just laughter that verges on hysterical. Alec sits and stares for a moment, eerily reminded of Nate’s chip being so very off, of the thousand-yard stare when he wakes.
“When…” Nate asks, hoarsely, desperately, when he swallows that last desperate howl, “Alec, when do I get to be real?”
(That’s about the moment Alec realizes he’s actually in love.)
“What do you mean?” Alec asks, rather than letting that statement go, rather than letting Nate slip, again, to that place where he never says anything, rather than letting himself act on the butterflies invading his stomach. Nate looks at him for a second, looks like he’s about to brush Alec’s question off…
And then he stops.
“Real. The Velveteen Rabbit, right? It was…that was one of Sam’s favorite books.”
Alec raises an eyebrow. “…The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane was too sad, but you could read him the Velveteen freakin’ Rabbit?”
“It was shorter.” Nate says, defensively. “And…when we read it, he wasn’t…” he swallows, looks away, fingers playing nervously with the stack of books. “He…he was little. He was little and…he wasn’t d-dying.”
The shaky confession, forced confirmation, feels a little like being punched in the gut. Alec rests his chin on his knuckles, lets Nate speak, since it means he didn’t have to think up some deep consolation for a man who looks as if he’s heard it all.
“He…he had…he had…well. He was sick. Got sick. I still…still don’t know what it was. Not exactly. But we took him to the doctors, so many doctors, and…he didn’t get better. He got worse. And worse. And…we, my, uh. My wife and I…we took him to the Institute, we…didn’t know what else to do.”
“I got a job offer from the Institute once,” Alec says, softly, before he pauses a beat, adds, “I turned it down.”
“He was my son,” Nate replies, but there’s no defensiveness in his tone. Just raw hurt. “My only child. He…he was in there for six months, but they only let us visit him once a week. Once…when I. When we. When we saw the treatments weren’t working, we asked…begged…” Nate’s eyes were far away now.
“The doctors still wouldn’t let him come home. Said it would be better that way, that they might have some last minute breakthrough, might…might still save him.” Alec pointedly didn’t look out the window. Didn’t look at the Institute’s most obviously broken promise. “But then one day I went in and…he was gone. No body. No charts. Nothing. I didn’t…I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye.”
His eyes were eerily bright when he looked back at Alec this time, almost glowing. “Maggie and I, we…we tried to move on. We couldn’t. She left two months later. And…I haven’t felt real since. Not noticed. Not spoken to. Not…not real.”
“Maybe…maybe you’re just not letting yourself?” Nate looks away, and Alec shrugs. “Feel real. I mean…sometimes,” Alec offers, uncertain of what to say, what brought on this confession, how he should respond? “You never got a chance to say goodbye. Maybe…maybe it’s a lack of closure. Because, well. Sometimes, death and saying goodbye are a part of life...”
Nate laughs, and the sound verges, again, on hysterical. “Not,” he says as he stands, though he takes the books when Alec shoves them at him, “not like this.”
He’s gone before Alec can ask what he means.
The conversation burns in Alec’s mind for the rest of the day – all through dinner, all through clean-up, all through-
“Hey! Don’t touch that!”
Eliot scowls at him over the countertop; he’s hunched over, digging through the cupboards as he balances on his toes.
“I was goin’ for the flour.” He reaches up, sets Alec’s tablet down on that countertop with exaggerated care. “I wouldn’t leave this there. Parker’s gonna get it all sticky.”
Alec takes the tablet back, glances at it. Nate’s profile’s still locked down, still not telling him one word. He huffs out an exasperated sigh, tucks it back in his pocket, and scrubs his hand over his hair.
“Nothin’?” Eliot asks.
Alec shakes his head.
“Not a thing.”
Eliot whistles, leaning against the counter. “Geeze, man. Sometimes you gotta wonder…”
Alec glanced up at towards the apartments.
“I know. Believe me, I know.”
He hadn’t thought about the Velveteen Rabbit in years. But now Nate sits in the darkened apartment, staring at the boxes that take up half of what’s supposed to be the living room.
Somewhere in those boxes was his entire life before. Sam’s toys and books, Maggie’s clothes…all of it packed up, taped up, and taking up space he will never have time to use again. Almost reluctantly, his eyes move to the stack of books Alec gave him.
He remembers Watership Down from freshman year of college; remembers Edward Tulane from reading to Sam. He slides the thinnest of the books off the stack, curls it open and reads -
"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.
"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."
"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"
"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
“I suppose you are real?" said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.
His mouth twitches in a smile that still feels ragged.
He puts down the book, and starts slowly digging through the boxes.
“What is this?” Alec asks, by way of announcing his presence. Nate feels his heart skip a beat, but he doesn’t jump, and he takes that as a step in the right direction, like the toy dinosaurs arranged in a line in front of the door – a stegosaurus, a T-rex, and a whole pack of raptors. Alec steps over them, gingerly, but Nate sees the look he gives them – calculating. Like a puzzle piece just snapped into place.
“Housekeeping,” Nate replies, carefully setting the box of toys he just found aside. “I…need space to breathe.” He looks up at Alec, noting the young man’s small, star-bright smile…and gets the small, strange sensation that maybe, just maybe, the flutter in his throat isn’t entirely fear. He reaches into the box, pulls out a stuffed rabbit, and tosses it to Alec.
“Alec, meet Real.”
Alec turns the rabbit in his hand, almost respectfully. It’s a smallish toy, had looked realistic at one point, but the fur was matted down, the ears lopsided, one leg sewn back on with bright pink thread. Elegant fingers find the irregular repairs, and he looks, questioningly, at Nate.
“We found out Real couldn’t fly. More specifically, couldn’t fly out of the sixth story window. Sam was…notably upset.”
Nate hesitates, words on the tip of his tongue before he gives in, lets them fall out, without looking at Alec.
“Also found out I can’t sew. And that Sam was sick. So. You know. Learning experiences all round.” Nate falls silent again, doesn't look up again.
Alec stays late into the night.
And if he notices Nate never goes to sleep, he doesn’t say a single word.
Eliot opens the café, just so Alec can finally sit down and devote the entire morning to getting into Nate’s files.
(Also, really, so Alec can get an hour or two of sleep.)
Files exist to be broken into, Institute files above all others, but he can’t help but feel that this is a betrayal of some sort. That Nate would view this as treachery, would never forgive him for delving too deep. Alec’s in his apartment, safe behind locked doors, but he can’t keep from looking over his shoulder.
It would be easier if he could pretend it’s just a puzzle, like one of Nate’s two-minute Sudoku, but with a puzzle he knows what he’ll find. With a puzzle, he knows what to expect. This, as each section unlocks and the next password entry screen flickers into existence, he’s not certain of. If he had time, he thinks, Nate would eventually tell him everything.
But somehow, he has the idea that Nate doesn’t have that time.
The encryption program fills out password after password automatically, the culmination of a week of code-breaking and snooping. Section after section of Nate’s life are appearing beneath the gray-out of the code-breaker, and with each section the pit in Alec’s stomach yaws wider until finally he can’t sit still.
Floorboards squeak as he stands, paces the length of his apartment, pausing each time in the sunlight streaming through the window. The bots are still green beyond the fence, but the grass around the sidewalk is starting to go winter-brown and crunchy. There’s still no sign of snow. He sighs, lightly, and heads for the kitchen and the collection of tea bags he’s taken from Megabite over the years.
Behind him, the tablet chimes in triumph.
And Alec tries not to flinch.
All he has to do is look back at it, but he stands at the stove anyway, stirring his tea. He doesn’t want to look, now that he can – maybe he’s scared of what he’ll find. Maybe he’s worried it’ll break his heart. Maybe he just feels it’s a betrayal of the stories Nate hasn’t told him yet.
But something lances through him with the conviction that he needs to look, that what happens next will only be worse if he doesn’t face the facts.
He finally turns.
He finally returns to the table.
And when he does, he finally realizes why Nate has always looked so familiar.
“Did you find out he’s a terrorist?” Parker asks, eagerly, the moment he drags them all into the back room, leaving the customers to their own devices. She just grins at the look Eliot gives her – though the look and the grin both falter when they look at Alec. “…you did, didn’t you?”
“No.” Alec says, and Sophie leans against the table, head cocked, eyes bright with curiosity over the tops of her glasses.
“What’s up, then?”
Alec huffs, sits down on the table, completely ignoring Eliot’s scowl of protest. He rubs his eyes. “Well. I finally got into his Institute records.”
“I have to say, Alec,” Sophie says, smoothly, snagging one of Eliot’s belt-loops, dragging the cook back to stand next to her. His scowl, Alec notes, fades a bit at that motion. “You’re slipping. Nine days? That’s-”
“No.” Alec interrupts, and for once feels no guilt at the way Sophie’s mouth snaps shut. “This isn’t funny.”
“Stop beating around the bush, then.” Eliot counters. “Cut to the chase.”
Alec sighs, says: “Nathan Ford worked for the Institute for fifteen years.”
There’s a long moment of silence as Alec can practically hear his friends thinking to themselves, running over every word they’d said in the last two weeks in their heads: every quip about the Institute, every complaint about the weather, the raptors, the rationing, the news. Parker swallows, and Eliot…well. Eliot just looks angry. Angrier.
“Security?” He asks, and Alec can see his free hand flexing; promising violence. Sophie’s gripping his other hand tightly, but that does nothing to ease the muscles jumping in his jaw.
“No.” Alec says, and some of the tension ebbs away. “Research and development.” Eliot’s threat stance leaves at that, though there’s still wariness in his eyes. “Would anyone like to guess his specialty?”
“No,” Parker says, firmly. “No guessing. Just tell. What?”
“Like…” Sophie asks, and there’s interest in her tone, “your tablet?”
Alec pulls his tablet out of his pocket, spins it, and pulls up the holographic display. Floating in the air above his screen is an article, buried in the science section. Nate, years younger, much less sharp around the edges. The headline reads, “Empathic Computer Interfaces – Reading Your Mind Is Only a Key Press Away.”
“No, more like the one currently out of control, messing with the weather and letting the raptors out willy-nilly.”
There’s a beat. Alec can see wheels turning in minds, thoughts clicking together like puzzle pieces. Eliot breaks the silence first.
“How long has he been a Code Red?”
Alec drops the display, tapping the screen. He’s never noticed just how loud the back room can be, the humming of the refrigerator, the clicking of the oven cooling. He can still hear the customers out in the café, a low murmur, but they don’t seem to matter quite as much as the kill-sans-question order around Nate Ford. “Three years. Would you like to guess when he was fired?”
Sophie twirls a strand of hair around her finger. “…I’m going to go out on a limb and say three years ago.”
There’s a long moment again. This time, they’re all going over dates in their heads. Parker speaks, choppy. Like she’s not sure her numbers add up.
“That’s when the last computer upgrade happened, isn’t it?”
“And when the DNA reconstitution experiment went wrong? I mean, when the dinosaurs…”
The pause is long and lingering, but this time he sees the last number jotted down, the puzzle solved in each of their minds.
“…isn’t that when you said his son…”
“Yup,” Alec says, not letting Sophie finish her sentence, again. He doesn’t quite like the picture on the puzzle they’ve solved. The computers run their world these days. One malfunction could kill the city, let in the poison clouds, shut down the air-flow to what’s left of their world. Hundreds of lives depend on those computers.
“You…you don’t think Nate…”
“You said the Institute killed his son.” Sophie speaks overtop of Parker. “Or, well. Didn’t save him. You...you think he did this on purpose.”
Alec doesn’t know. It seems like it all fits, but…it doesn’t feel right. There’s another solution to this particular puzzle. But Eliot’s got the bit now, runs with the train of thought.
“He worked there, built their damn computers, so they owed him. Or felt they owed him. Or that it would open them up for questions.”
“So they didn’t…didn’t just kill him,” Sophie picked up where Eliot left off. “They cut him loose, but if he goes near any restricted areas…” She looks sick. Eliot presses his fingertips to his temple, mimes a gunshot.
Parker and Sophie and Alec all flinch, but Alec regroups.
“It’s all just…conjecture. Speculation. We don’t know if that’s what’s happening.”
“All the pieces fit, Alec,” Parker points out. “And…it would explain Agent Sterling. They…maybe they’re cleaning up the mess. Maybe he’s…trying to get him…somewhere where he can kill him.”
“Or…” Alec thinks back over diagrams, charts, maps. “Or he’s really up to something and Sterling’s just trying to figure out what it is.”
Either way, he doesn’t like it.
If Nate notices they’re all walking on eggshells around him when he comes in that night, he doesn’t say a word; not even when they never kick him out.
Maybe he sees it as repaying the favor.
The tablet beeps the moment Nate leaves, slumps out the front door and pads down the street.
Alec waits a moment longer, hovering behind the counter until Eliot gives him and Parker a surreptitious nod. The girl grins and slips out into the lobby. Alec prays they’re doing the right thing, and follows her up the dim stairs.
He didn’t need her to get in, he has the keys after all, but she’s much, much better at sneaking. The door doesn’t even creak when she opens it and slips inside, catching it seconds before it would have swung closed on Alec’s fingers.
“This feels wrong,” he says, low.
“It’s the only way we’re going to find out!” Parker chirps. “Unless you wanted to just ask him.” She raises her eyebrows as if that was the best suggestion ever; as if they hadn’t already tried that method. Alec shakes his head, but the gesture is fond as he shoves her out of the way and comes into the living room.
It’s the room is the same as the last time Alec was in here, notebooks and boxes stacked all over the small room, with the stuffed rabbit still sitting on top of the tallest stack. Parker lets out a tiny, shrill sound and picks it up immediately, playing with ears that had once, long ago, been fluffy and pink.
“Now I see why you like him!”
“….that had nothing to do with it,” Alec barks as he feels his ears flushing. “Put that down, he’ll notice if it’s moved.”
Parker ignores him, cuddling Real close. Alec shakes his head, pushes open the bedroom door.
All the nights he’s snuck in, crept in, Nate’s been in the living room, sprawled on the couch or pacing the kitchen. He’s not seen the bedroom since the older man moved in. And so he just stops, and stares.
Down in the café, out in public, the unbalance that follows Nate like a shadow is hidden in his eyes, his shoulders, the ink stains on his fingers. Here, in the safety of his room, that insanity doesn’t hide. The diagrams he’s drawn are pinned to the walls, all the sketches – the raptors with their victim, a fire surrounding a charred skeleton chained to a wall, Todd staring down over the barrel of a gun…
“…what is this?” Parker asks, her voice sharp. She’s still got Real tucked in the crook of her arm, and she puts her hand over the gleaming plastic eyes when she stops next to Alec. Her eyes are fixed on the last drawing, and Alec shrugs.
“I don’t know,” Alec replies, reaching out to pull a tattered piece of Megabite-blazoned paper off the wall. He unfolds it to read, 1. Shot. 2. ???? 3. Shot. Again. The list is long, the handwriting cramped and tight, barely legible by 17. Throat slit. His fingers trace over the writing, trying to imagine the state of mind that accompanied the deeply etched letters. “This is not what I was expecting.”
“Does it hurt?” Parker asked, and Alec turns on his heel, startled, to look at her.
“What did you say?”
“Does it hurt.” Parker points. The back wall has no diagrams, but the wall from floor to ceiling is covered in sketches, drawn like the one holding the pencil, the pen, was trying to exorcise a demon. The words are written among the pictures, the letters tall and thick and stark black:
DOES IT HURT?
“Whatever else is going on,” Alec says, slowly, reaching out to touch the letters, thinking of the papers that Nate carries in his pocket - maybe those, not this, is the key. “He just…wants to be real.”
“Is that permanent marker?” Parker asks, breaking the spell. Alec touches the words again.
“Um, yes. Yes it is.”
“Well,” Parker snorts. “There goes his security deposit.”
They’re back in Megabite by the time Nate returns, shivering and dejected, exhausted and edgy. Eliot half-storms out of the café in the way he does, snags Nate and steers him to his table before shoving a bowl of soup and the first slices of the new batch of bread at him.
Which Nate barely pokes at with hands that jerk and twitch on the spoon.
“What’s wrong, Nate?” Eliot asks, when Alec guides him out again. Nate meets his eyes for just a second before looking away.
“It’s cold,” he says, finally. “It’s cold, and I hate being cold.”
But he finally eats the soup.
He finally chokes down the bread…
And he finally falls asleep at the table when the sedatives they put in the soup kick in.
“This is so wrong,” Parker says ten minutes later when Eliot's handling the front, and she’s got the single paper out of Nate's pockets, when they’ve slid the pillow under his head, tossed the blanket over his shoulders and gathered in the back. She passes Alec the paper regardless.
“He’s…clearly, there’s somethin’ wrong. With him. With what’s going on. You can’t deny that.” Parker looks out the door to the sleeping figure slumped over the table as Alec turns the folded paper over and over in his fingers. It’s worn, tattered, ink smudged over the white, and she shakes her head once, sharply. She can't argue. “We’ve got to find out what that somethin’ is so we can fix it.” He unfolds the paper.
It’s a letter printed on Institute letterhead, big blocky console text – but despite the fact that it’s printed, the letters warble: a child’s hand shaky on a pencil or an old typewriter, warped out of the correct shape.
Daddy…where are you?
All the breath leaves Alec’s lungs. It sounds like the same thing happens to Parker at the same time.
Why am I here alone? I don’t know how I got here, I just know I can feel dark and all there is…is numbers. I don’t like it, daddy.
He can imagine a little boy’s voice saying the words – a little boy with a head of curly brown hair, with dark blue eyes, clever, bright eyes like his father’s. It makes his heart ache, tightens something behind his breastbone. Parker pulls away from him, shaking her head and scooping up the nearest kitten as Alec reads the last few words.
Can you…come home now?
There’s still a grogginess around Nate when he wakes up three hours later (two hours earlier than the sedative should have let him). Alec slides into the seat across from him.
“Sleeping Beauty lives!”
“Does that make you Prince Charming?”
“Nah,” says Alec above the flutter in his stomach that rises at the look he thinks he sees flickering in Nate’s eyes. “Sleeping Beauty had Philip. Prince Charming is Cinderella.”
“Ah.” And Nate manages, at least, to say it with a straight face.
“A lot of people actually mess that up,” Alec adds, earnestly.
And then Nate looks at him in sudden, supreme suspicion. “This doesn’t mean you kissed me, does it?”
“Me? What? No. No, no no.” He protests, more out of a sense of propriety than out of any reluctance, and….somehow, somehow, he comes away from the conversation with the certainty that Nate knew.
“His room’s all drawings. They’re pretty good, actually. Creepy. Veeeerry creepy. But good.” Parker sits cross-legged on the counter, playing with Sangria as Eliot and Sophie listen, Eliot’s keeping a wary eye on the kitten as he frosts the last cake for the morning. “They all fit with the…the letter, though.”
Sophie shakes her head. “Do you think he’s actually…you know, insane?”
“He’s carrying around a letter from his dead kid,” Eliot says, but it doesn’t come out in quite the snarl Alec knows he was going for, swirling pink frosting on the side of the cake carefully. “If he’s not entirely nuts, he’s sure not playing with a full deck.”
“Hey,” Alec interrupts, rubbing the worn-smooth square of folded paper in his pocket. “We still don’t know what’s going on. It could be anything.” But really, his mind’s going a mile a minute. Really, he’s trying to think of any explanation behind the date on the note.
The date that’s two years to the day after Sam’s death.
“What do you think it is, then?” Eliot barks, defiantly, and the kittens all hide against Parker’s legs at the tone in his voice. Parker glowers at him as she gathers them into her lap, soothing them as Alec rubs his eyes.
“I. I don’t know, alright? I’ve never…we’ve never dealt with something like this.”
Eliot snorts, is about to say something when Sophie points out,
“He’s definitely getting…jumpier, again.”
Alec can deal with that one. He just says, voice resigned, “He hasn’t slept in four days.”
“He slept just yesterday!” Eliot protests, and Alec gives him a look that says it all: seriously? Eliot returns the look, deadpan beneath his hair.
“A'ight," Alec finally conceedes, "he hasn’t slept besides those three hours.”
They all peer, as one, towards Nate’s table.
He hasn’t said a single word since he arrived.
And he doesn’t, until the door swings open three hours later and Sterling comes in. Storms in, really. Nate’s up and getting his coffee refilled (again, by way of elaborate pantomime and a fairly effective set of puppy-dog eyes) but this time he sees Sterling before Sterling can see him.
Next thing Alec knows, Nate’s behind the counter, hunched down and huddling against Eliot’s leg.
“What the hell-?”
And then Eliot sees their newest customer.
And Alec feels that old flash of pride when Eliot’s warm baby blues go icy and hard.
“I thought," he growls, "I told you to stay out.”
Sterling chuckles. Nate moves instinctively, curling smaller, one jittery hand reaching out to clamp down on Eliot’s ankle. Eliot shifts under the grip, the corners of his eyes tightening just faintly. Nate must have his fingers tighter than it looks.
“You did tell me,” the agent purrs, like a bigger, much more dangerous version of the café’s new mascots. “And now I’m telling you something. I know he’s here. His chip’s here.” Sterling raises his voice, just a bit, eyes still not moving from Eliot’s furious glare. “I know you’re listening, Nate. You know as well as I what happens next. You can’t escape it, not even here. Not even with these people.”
Eliot crosses his arms.
‘I’m going to have to ask you to leave, sir.”
Sterling leans against the counter, a mere foot above Nate’s head, and his voice is harsh and hard and hungry.
“Tell Billy, when you see him, that I’ll find him. I’ll find him and I’ll kill him and there’s nothing he can do to about it.” He smiles, lips curling in a feral smirk as he straightens up, brushes his suit off, apparently oblivious to how very close he's coming to geting his teeth punched in. “See you ‘round, Mr. Eliot,” he says, flippantly, and Nate's eyes flutter closed.
“Not if I see you first,” Eliot growls to his departing back before Alec's out of the back, already helping Nate to his feet.
Nate’s shaky the rest of the day, unfocused and freaked out.
He looks up from his table with a hang-dog gaze when Alec passes and pats him gingerly on the shoulder.
“Why c-can he change if I can’t?” Nate asks, stuttering. The the question makes very little sense, but Alec sighs, does the only thing he can, squeezing his shoulder just once.
“I don’t know man. I just…don’t know.”
The sun’s streaming brilliant through the window, turning Nate’s curls to shades of burnished copper, catching in his eyes like molten gold. Alec hangs back for a second, appreciating the sight, before Nate looks at him over the top of the newspaper. His mouth turns upward in a rusty - but recognizable -smile, and Alec feels that smile in every fiber of his being, feels it collect into something warm and bright and just as golden behind his sternum.
It makes him feel all the worse when he moves Snoqualmie to sit down. The kitten yowls at him in displeasure before curling up in his lap. Nate just shakes his head at the tiny bundle of grey and white fluff.
“She changed her mind awfully quick,” he points out, and Alec chuckles, stroking behind her ears fondly.
“She just remembers who feeds her is all.” The words have a certain irony to them, and he has to swallow a laugh. He isn’t entirely successful, if the knowing look in Nate’s eyes is any indication. Of course, looking at Nate is enough to make the humor fade. He looks back down at the kitten, who snuggles up tighter rather unhelpfully.
He finally says, “Nate?”
“Yeah?” Nate replies, absently, though he looks up as if confused when it takes a second longer for Alec to respond.
“Nate, we…” He swallows, meets Nate’s eyes, firmly, decisively, I am in control of this situation and I am not going to run screaming from it. “We know who you are now. Why you looked familiar. You didn’t just take Sam to the Institute. You worked there. For fifteen years.”
Nate goes silent, his eyes flickering from place to place without jumping back to Alec. Like he’s looking for an escape, cringing inwards, his muscles gathering for a rabbit’s leap at the door.
“You invented their computers. The ones that run like, like…like everything.”
Nate’s shoulders slump. He still doesn’t look at Alec. “Yeah.”
“The empathically accessed computers.”
Alec pauses a second, then draws in a shaky breath and holds out the letter.
Nate’s face goes white; he lunges for the tattered paper. Alec lets him jerk it out of his hand, smooth out the wrinkles, fold it carefully and tuck it away, back in the inner pocket where it had been with jerky, mechanical movements. The color’s slowly seeping back into his face and Alec wishes it wasn’t, because it’s the horrible splotchy red of mingled embarrassment and anger.
“What’s going on, Nate?”
He knows, or at least he thinks he knows, he thinks he’s figured it out, but he wants to hear it from the older man.
…and he never expected him to storm out like that.
The city’s cold, but there’s still no snow, despite the way the sky beyond the glass has gone grey. The air still smells of it, and Nate tries to take consolation in that fact, tries to cling to that fact. The raptors are cold-blooded. They won’t be able to function in this temperature. They won’t be able to hunt.
But despite what he keeps telling himself, he still falters at every corner, expecting to see razor claws slashing the air.
He wanders the city for hours, letting the chill seep in through his clothes and remind him that he’s alive; until the sun sets and the lights flicker on and he finds himself on the edge of the bots, the chain-link looming between him and Parker’s trees.
And he’s reminded, strongly, of why he hates being alone.
The street-lights glow bright and golden here, their lights like illusionary sunshine, and he sits with his back to the nearest pole, his bag hugged close, the book covers inside digging against his chest. He pulls one out – his sketchbook – and tosses it to the side to uncover the stack Alec had left in his apartment: all the teasing bunny books.
His lips try to draw in a scowl at that, but something else tries to flicker to life in his chest and he can’t quite manage it; not through his disbelief, not through his fondness. He brushes nearly-reverent fingertips over The Velveteen Rabbit, but pulls The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane out instead.
The book falls open in his hand, and he stares at it for a second before flipping the pages, trying to remember where he’d stopped with Sam, where they had left off. He can’t remember though, and soon he’s just…reading.
It’s a child’s book, it’s an easy book…but the idea behind it is hard. Hard, and it hurts in his brain, gathered like a tight fist around parts of him that still ache, but he keeps reading. He keeps reading, because he needs to know, needs to see why he stopped that first time.
“Seasons passed,” Nate reads as the air grows chillier, damper, as the snow still doesn’t fall, “fall and winter and spring and summer. Leaves blew in through the open door of Lucius Clarke’s shop, and rain, and the green outrageous hopeful light of spring. People came and went, grandmothers and doll collectors and little girls with their mothers. Edward Tulane waited. The seasons turned into years. Edward Tulane waited. He repeated the old doll’s words over and over until they wore a smooth groove of hope in his brain: Someone will come; someone will come for you.”
The words make him think of the café; the way Alec’s dark eyes light up when he smiles. The warmth and welcome in his words.
He never asked you anything, he thinks, over the parts of him clamoring that Alec should have asked, that they never should have taken what they took, never should have stuck their noses where they didn’t belong. But a very, very large part of him points out that it’s mostly his fault. That he hasn’t made things easy for them, and that…
That he plans to die without telling anyone.
He wasn’t ever this person before, was he? The person who held everything in, who talked to no-one, to carry the burdens alone…was he?
The problem is, he can’t remember.
He’s been alone for too long.
And so he just reads, and tries not to think of a little boy with a battered stuffed bunny. Tries not to think of dark, clever hands and brilliant smiles and home.
He can’t have a home.
If he has one, what comes next will only break his heart.
“You must be filled with expectancy. You must be awash in hope. You must wonder who will love you, whom you will love next.”
…if it isn’t already broken.
Nate never comes in the next day.
The tablet gives his location readily enough – he’s upstairs, safely sequestered in his apartment – but that doesn’t take the sting out of the fact that he doesn’t come in. Even the other regulars seem to notice his absence, though that’s accompanied with quite a few amused glances in his direction when he keeps looking up every time the door opens, every time Eliot’s kittens go pouncing on laughing customers who aren’t Nate.
Alec’s willing to give Nate space, but when closing time rolls around, when the sun sets outside the glass, when all the customers are gone and Eliot and Sophie disappear upstairs and Parker and Todd leave for the night, when the café’s closed and he’s all alone, he finally lets himself into Nate’s apartment.
Nate’s in the bedroom, hands covered with ink and paint. He freezes when Alec appears in the doorway, torn between terrified, defiant and startled. He finally settles on defiant, the other emotions buried beneath, flickering in the blue. He puts his hands on his hips and asks, “What?”
He’s moved onto the clear wall now, and judging by the amount of the wall covered, he’s worked all day. The wall is warm mustard yellow, painted in whorls and broad strokes – it looks like a tribute to Van Gogh, honestly; like a painting he’d seen years ago. Green and black paint forms trees near the top. Behind them, in the spaces left the normal white of the wall, there’s an outline of…something. Something lurking, something that wasn’t in the original. There’s a single rabbit in the middle of the painting, too, and that doesn’t seem quite right either.
(He’s pretty sure that rabbit’s not meant to be alone.)
“It…helps me think,” Nate says, by way of confession, by way of explanation. “If I…get it all out of my head.”
His hands leave yellow paint on his waistband, his shirt, his forehead when he brushes his hair back, no longer looking as defiant as he had. Looking lost and wired and scared and maybe just a little bit wild. Alec reaches out to rub the paint off Nate’s forehead, and the older man lets out a small noise, almost a gasp, at the contact.
…But he breaks away before Alec can think to act, pacing out, reaching out to grab Real. He pauses there, as he realizes his hands are smeared with paint; he scrubs them off on his pants and picks the little bunny up.
“Could…can you get this to Sophie? I mean. I know it’s…he’s not a teddy bear, but…” he hands Real over, and Alec can’t help but hold the stuffed toy close, wishing he could do the same for the man. “I…think she’ll take care of him.”
For a second, Alec can’t talk. He can only stare at the painting on the wall, the unpainted shadow gathering behind the trees. It’s a strange shape – amorphous, but corporeal enough that Alec can just imagine there’s blood pooling beneath it. His hand convulses on the faux fur.
“Why? Can’t…can’t you?” Nate doesn’t answer, so he barrels on, waves his free hand around the room, the walls with the black sketches, the wall with the pseudo-Van Gogh painting, the solitary rabbit before the hunting, hungering shadow. “What’s happening, Nate? What’s…what’s scaring you?”
“I don’t- nothing. It’s nothing. It’s-”
“Nate. For Pete’s sake, stop. Just…stop. A’ight? You have a heart-attack every time Sterling comes into the café, my café, you freak out and bolt and your heart does that running-rabbit thing any time I touch – any time anyone…” He pauses, shakes his head. “Any time I touch you.” He reaches out, catches the side of Nate’s neck, the join of shoulder and throat. The other man’s pulse speeds up almost instantly, his breath noticeably hitching, his pupils dilating. He draws in a slow, deep breath, visibly forces the fear back down, but Alec can still feel the thudding under his skin. “You don’t feel noticed. You told me yourself you don’t feel…real.”
Nate’s still, so still, so very, very still that Alec can barely tell he’s breathing.
“Let us help you. Please?” Nate swallows, and his skin shifts beneath Alec’s fingers; warm and smooth. He doesn’t say yes, but he doesn’t say no, so Alec keeps talking. “Let me help you.”
Nate looks at the painting, then back at Alec before he sets the paintbrush down.
“I’m…not allowed in the Institute.”
“We may have noticed.”
They’re sitting on Nate’s couch, the stuffed rabbit between them. Nate’s jittering, one leg jumping constantly with nerves.
“I’m not allowed there, but…see. I was allowed there.” He pauses, looks at the ceiling. “Had free run of the place, see. Did you know….did you know that the hospital wing is on the same floor as the computer databases?” Alec’s seen the Institute plans; can see them now, pinned to the wall next to the window.
“Those computers…I made them. Designed them. I put ten years of my life into them. They’re made to, you-you know…adapt this place.” Nate waves a vague hand that Alec takes to mean the entire city. “I wanted them to learn, to be able to learn, to…to fix things. I mean, if the ventilation system goes down, do you want to have to wait for an engineer to get there? Or do you want the computer to fix it before half the city dies?”
There’s a second of silence, and Nate stands, pacing the length of the living room. “They’re supposed to learn. They pick up…what anyone near them is feeling. What anyone near them is thinking.” His mouth twitches in something that might have been a smile. “My son…spent six months in the room right next to those computers.”
The tone in his voice – distant and haunted – makes the hair rise on the back of Alec’s neck, but he just listens.
“Six months is an eternity when it comes to a computer.” And Alec knows that, very well. “Sam lived his last sixth months there. Sam…Sam died there. And I thought…I thought it was…that was the end.” He grabs Real, turns him over in his hands before he flops back down on the couch. Alec can’t help but notice he’s sitting closer.
“We…we tried to move on. It lasted about six weeks. And then Maggie left, and I was alone, and I was so, so close to giving up…” He draws in a shuddery breath. “Two years after. That’s when I got…this.”
The familiar paper appears in Nate’s hand, but Alec doesn’t reach out to take it. He knows what it says. He doesn’t think he’ll be able to forget it.
“What would you do? I mean…he’s my kid. Or it…it thinks it’s my kid.” Alec knows, judging by the look in Nate’s darkened eyes, which the older man thinks it is. “It took me a year, but…I. I found my way in.”
It’s not one computer in charge of the city. It’s twelve – one for each month. Alec knows that much, anyone who lives in the Cubes knows that much – but he lets Nate explain anyway, hoping the words make the tension go away.
“When the computer are talking, when it goes from the October computer to the November, the November to the December, whatever…security goes blind for ten minutes.” Nate shrugs. “That’s…enough time to get through any of the doors that would flag me.” He pauses, winces, hands convulsing on Real’s sides. “Usually.”
There’s a story behind that wince, just like there’s a story behind every horrible sketch on the bedroom wall, but Alec doesn’t want to hear it.
“You know…those computers….they control a lot. The lights, the weather….you think they’re just…reacting to the conditions outside, what things would be like without the glass, but really…they just. They. They go with what they feel like. They weren’t supposed to be that way. They…grew.”
He scrubs his hand through his hair again. He pauses, looking at the bunny on his lap, like he’s steeling himself against what he’s going to say.
“And…they can control…time.”
He says it so quick, so throwaway, that Alec doesn’t hear what he says next. He’s thinking: Billy Pilgrim. He’s thinking: Time loops. He’s thinking: What eight year old kid wouldn’t try to save their father? and, finally, the one he says out-loud, interrupting whatever Nate was saying.
“How long has this been happening?”
“Nate…” He says, because he’s thinking about the numbers that don’t match in Nate’s chip, the ones that put him at fifty-two weeks in the future; he’s thinking of a list with seventeen items, tacked to the wall above Todd McSweeten with a gun. “How…how many times have you…died?”
For a moment, the silence is so heavy that Alec’s worried that his logical jump is not what Nate’s going through; that he’s wrong and now Nate’s going to think he’s insane, that…that this is something else. He worries and he wishes he could take the question back and then…
“Seventeen.” Nate finally mumbles to the floor, to the stuffed rabbit pressed to his mouth. And Alec just stares in numb horror as Nate inhales against the musty fur, eyes closed. “I’ve…died seventeen times.” He gathers himself, keeps talking to the rabbit.
“There’s…a way. If I could shut the computer down, keep it down…it would stop. A code. I wrote a backdoor code that…shuts everything down. But…I lost it.” Self-reproach slips in, somewhere, under the hoarseness, the tiredness.
“I...finished it the day Sam…the day Sam got sick.” The words falter. “I haven’t seen it since. I can’t find it. Couldn’t find it. Again. And so I’m going to die. Again.” He draws in another breath; it hitches, and there is so much pain, so much raw frustration, in the sound that Alec reaches out, closes his hand around Nate’s.
Nate goes tense, goes still; lets out another almost-whimper…
And melts against Alec’s side, sprawled on the couch, long legs curled up, fingers still tangled in Alec’s grip.
“I can’t find it, so I can’t do anything different. I’ve tried, and I owe him to try again, but….” Nate swallows, and Alec lets himself skim a gentle hand through the tangled curls, trying not to hurt at the way Nate leans into him, warm and trembling against his hip, his thigh. “I…I just….”
“Shhhh,” Alec says, soft; soothing. “You’re just…you’re…you’re tired.” Nate’s been tired since Alec met him, and it’s a horrible, bone-deep exhaustion that seems to radiate from his very core. His hair’s soft on Alec’s fingertips as he untangles the curls, smoothes them out for a second. “You’re-”
“Billy Pilgrim,” Nate interrupts, and the words sound almost like a sob, though the older man’s eyes are dry. “You were right. I’m Billy Pilgrim. I’ve…always…always been…” He’s fading, here; as if his confessions, his words, have sucked the energy right from his fatigued frame. “I can’t…can’t fight it. The moment…is structured that way.”
The guilt is almost thick enough to taste on the back of his tongue, curling like blood in his throat as Nate’s eyes drift closed.
Alec sits on the couch for the rest of the night, Nate huddled against his side. In the pale light streaming through the window, his hair looks like seven shades of pure silver. Alec runs his free hand through it with a sigh.
“I, Billy Pilgrim,” the tape begins, the book in his other hand reads, “will die, have always died and always will die on February thirteenth, 1976.”
And Alec just says, lowly, "Hell no.”
The alarm clock on his phone goes off frighteningly loud, and for a moment Alec flounders in the shallows of half-sleep and disorientation. He’s alone, Nate’s weight and warmth no longer rests against his hip. He rolls off the couch (barely missing the book laying on the floor in the process), staggers upright, pulls on his overshirt and yawns as he does up the buttons.
The older man’s cramped apartment seems to be looming around him, and his tablet blinks, accusingly, on Nate’s teetering stack of graphing notebooks. He snags it, stuffs it in his pocket, and doesn’t really think about it as he collects his shoes.
Nate’s not in the box-filled bedroom, not in the dusty kitchen, or in the tiny bathroom. Alec pulls his phone from his pocket, thumbs in Eliot’s number as he sticks his head out to check the balcony.
“Do you know what time it is,” Eliot growls when he picks up, halfway through the second ring. Alec rolls his eyes, trying not to let the silence outside creep him out.
“Yeah? It’s six. Time for civilized people to be awake.” The screen door slams when he backs into the apartment again. “You seen Nate?”
There’s a long, long pause, and if it weren’t for Sophie’s sleepy mumbling Alec would have assumed Eliot hung up on him. “Alec…it’s six. In the morning.”
“Humor me, man, it was…last night was rough.”
“…Um. I really don’t want to hear about it.”
“What? Oh, no. No no, no, not…not like that. Hang on. Just…” He wanders back through the apartment, phone still pressed to his ear, but it’s readily apparent that Nate is no longer here, so he pulls his tablet free from his pocket and starts typing on it even as Eliot mutters unlikely violence in his ear. Now that he’s broken into Nate’s file, it’s easy to tell the ID system to find him. As the screen whites out in a search protocol, he notices the closet door’s ajar.
And so he kicks it.
And so it falls open.
And in the corner - half-hidden behind a fallen, hand-drawn map of the Institute and Real’s battered shape - the amber glow of a digital clock counts steadily down.
Alec hadn’t felt panic quite like this in a very, very long time. He reaches out to take the rabbit, staring down at the battered toy, the places where stitches have come loose, the clumsy stitches Nate made, the day they found out Real couldn’t fly; the day they found out Sam was sick.
And he pauses. Thinks of Nate looking for pens lodged in his hair, the keys tucked in his pockets, for the paper in the pile of other papers, the frantic searching-for-things-that-aren’t-really-lost that he always seems to do –
And something clicks. He tugs at the knot, unravels the pink yarn, shakes the bunny gently. A tiny computer chip - no bigger than one of Real’s shiny plastic eyes – falls into his palm. He turns it over in his fingers before he closes his hand, shoves it in his pocket.
Nothing. There’s no response and the panic has gone from a tiny harmless weed to a great rooted thing that’s threatening to overwhelm him from the inside. He thought he’d have more time. But those three weeks, those days where Nate gets to live again, those three weeks are twenty minutes away from ending.
“Get up, get dressed, get Parker, I’m going to need your help.”
The computer transfer happens at 6:20 AM every loop.
By 6:27, Nate’s on the tenth floor, dropping out of the ventilation shaft.
The hallway is empty. He can sense the yawing emptiness to his left side, the nine-story skylight that took his life many, many lives ago, and forces himself not to think about it, not to dwell on it, to cling to the idea that maybe, just maybe, this time will be the time.
Research and Development hasn’t changed since he was fired: even if he hadn’t snuck in before (again, and again, and again), he’d be able to navigate the halls in the dark. He doesn’t need to. The rooms that house the computers are lit: dull red for those powered down, a clean white-blue for December and January, the two online right now. Gold and amber glint within the blue, blinking regularly, and Nate glances over his shoulder before he reaches out, presses his hand to the door.
There’s a soft beep. The computer recognizes him, but not the Code Red, and the door slides open in a hiss of pneumatic valves.
The glass floor reacts to his feet when he steps in, a glowing halo of blue around his sneakers. He trails his fingers along the nearest wall, watching in distant satisfaction as the interface awakens, and flickers to life under his touches; clean and streamlined in the gleaming surface of the computer monitors.
It all responds as quick as he can think as he opens dialogue windows, starts codes, enters the passwords, fingers flying through sequences and series of numbers, verifying that January’s computer has control over the vital things – the weather grids, the air filtration systems, the subways – before he shuts each one down, keys in the commands with his fingers crossed.
Because this might work – but it might not.
He still hasn’t found the shutdown orders.
Not even after seventeen chances.
The walls go blank; the floor beneath his feet fades until all he can see is the black-tinted glass. He holds his breath, but they stay black.
They’re still black when he pries the panel away from the wall, wire clippers just brushing the thickest of the wires.
They’re still black when the fire extinguisher smashes into his face and he goes down like a bag of bricks.
The room’s light again when he comes around, and he barely manages to bite back a sound of mingled frustration, pain and annoyance.
(And fear. A very large part of it is fear. Because he knows what happens next, what has always and will always happen next.)
“I think you outdid yourself when you made this, Nathan.”
Sterling’s voice is cool, as smooth as the floor against Nate’s cheek. He tries to gather his legs under himself, climb to his feet, but something touches lightly between his shoulder blades, and he goes still; looks out of the corner of his eyes to see Sterling reflected in the glass, the fire-axe pulled from the box out in the hall resting against Nate’s shirt.
“You know, unless there’s a very specific code entered before you shut it down, the computer treats any shutdown like a reboot?” Sterling’s tone is conversational beneath the coolness, but it still itches down Nate’s spine, rests like a coiled snake at the small of his back. Fingers digging into his shoulder drag him to his knees, and the axe-blade keeps him there, unable to rise any further. His wrists are on fire, pinned behind his back, and he tries not to remember where this situation can go.
“You know what that means, right?” And Nate has the presence of mind to glower, because of course he does. “Of course you do,” Sterling says. “It means you have to be damn sure that shutting it down and keeping it down is what you want to do. That’s pretty smart if you ask me…” Nate feels the fibers of his shirt splitting against the sharp edge of that axe, tries not to think about what this has the potential to feel like.
“Unless you lose the codes.” Sterling pauses a beat. Adds, caustically, “…oh, wait.”
And Nate gets it, to an extent. He’s the reason Sterling’s trapped, after all; he’s the reason these three weeks keep repeating, restarting. But that doesn’t explain the hot-cold edge pressed against his flesh, making his skin creep clear to his hairline.
That doesn’t explain the cold, dirty joy in Sterling’s voice as he talks.
“So…tell me the truth, Nathan. Who was better at evisceration – me, or the raptors?” Nate shrinks in on himself; that special, helpless thing he can’t seem to fight any time he thinks of the dinosaurs, any time he thinks of cruel claws and the screen, the spray of his own blood between him and their eyes, rising in his throat. It makes him feel like the rabbit Alec named him, the prey animal, only meant to be butchered.
And Sterling’s still talking.
“Maybe we can figure out a way to feed you to the Rex. I mean, we’ve loads of time. I’m sure we’ll figure it out eventually.” Nate can feel the edge planted against his spine every time he breathes, touching between his shoulder blades, digging against the thin cotton. “After I spit you wide open this go ‘round, we’ll see what he’d do. He’d probably be quicker than the raptors, you know. Just…rip your head clean off…” Sterling’s voice goes thoughtful, almost sickeningly wistful. “…or shatter your sternum. I mean…eight inch fangs. Can you imagine?”
That’s the problem, though.
He’s died so many times, so many ways, he can imagine what it would be like to have his chest crushed in those massive jaws, the sinews and muscles and bones in his neck torn apart, and the thought scares him more than he thought was possible anymore. He curls inward a little more, taking a deep breath, ready to say…
What? What could he possibly say to convince Sterling this isn’t necessary? That he could fix this, that he can break them free? He’s tried, he’s failed, and now he’s going to die.
“You are one sick puppy, man.”
The familiar, warm voice is so unexpected that Nate almost jumps, almost twists out from beneath the heavy head of the axe. Sterling lets out a huff, turning on his heel.
“You’ve no idea what’s going on here, boy. Leave, before someone gets hurt.”
“Someone like him?” Alec asks, tone all confidence and swagger and a burning-bright anger, and Sterling growls, and Nate manages to look up and see Alec’s holding a tablet, thumb pressed to the side of it, and something is flashing on the screen in the familiar, regular pattern of a dead man’s switch app.
Something – something that is not relief, but is close – flares in his chest, stopping his breath.
Parker helps him and Eliot get to the tenth floor with seconds to spare.
Eliot hovers right outside the door, listening, but unwilling to spook Sterling. There’s glass all over the hall; the emergency fire box is empty. Alec can think of three or four ways Eliot could kill a man with either item. Thinking about the sketches, he’s willing to bet Sterling knows them too.
So Alec goes in loud, but he doesn’t go in alone.
Parker follows on his heels, hidden by his height until Sterling looks at Alec, looks to Nate, looks back to Alec. By the time he looks back, she’s already disappeared further into the room, the bank of monitors between her and the drama unfolding in the middle of the room.
The black glass is cool to the touch, the floor glows under his feet, and at another time Alec would have taken the time to touch everything, to play with the massive computer surrounding him, reacting to his thoughts: a gathering of light near his temple, the colors shifting on the dialogue boxes, the way the edges go more streamlined the longer he’s in the room. The computer’s changing itself depending on how he’s reacting.
He only wishes it could react strong enough to destroy the man about to split its creator’s spine in two.
Nate looks smaller than usual, hunched on his knees, wrists trapped behind his back with a white plastic tie. The sharp edge of a fire axe presses over his spine, and he’s full-out shaking now; bleeding on the floor, his forehead gashed open, half his face a mess of red. The discarded fire extinguisher tells the rest of the story – and Alec is seriously rethinking his ‘I don’t get in fights’ mentality, forcing the anger to turn into cold, hard words.
“I mean, come on. An axe? That’s not even very creative.” That sentence hurts to say, brings the pictures to mind, the ones he doesn’t really want to think of. He ducks down to set Real –one leg still hanging loose- on the floor in Nate’s line-of-sight, giving the rabbit a gentle pat before he stands.
“You know what I think? I think you’re getting bored. I think you’re getting tired. You’ve had a lot of time,” so much time, so many months of stolen, broken time, “to hurt him, a lot of time to think about it…over and over…”
Every word tastes like bile, like acid, stings his tongue. It makes him feel even more ill, thinking about that long list of deaths; the fact that Sterling had been there, had caused each and every one.
“Don’t you ever want to know why?” Sterling doesn’t say a word, not a single word, and Alec swallows, carries on, making sure the agent’s attention is on him and Nate and not on what Parker might be doing off in the shadowy recesses of the room, away from the interfaces. “Why you’ve been stuck, why you’re reliving the same three weeks?”
“I don’t know.” Sterling finally speaks, shifting the axe, digging the head in just a bit, and Nate makes the most pitiful whimpering noise when it presses against the flat plane between his shoulder blade and his spine, brilliant red stippling the cloth, seeping into his t-shirt. “How entertaining can you make the story?”
Alec almost laughs – almost, out of nerves and a hysteria that he’s used to seeing in Nate’s eyes, hearing in Nate’s voice – at the thought that scampers through his mind: "Because you, mouse, can tell Gregory a story. Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark. Begin at the beginning. Tell Gregory a story. Make some light.”
“Alright, we….we’ll start the way we’re supposed to start. We’ll start like this. Once upon a time…” Sterling scoffs, but he doesn’t move the fire axe any further, and that, at least, is something. Alec presses on.
“Once upon a time, there was a little boy. And the little boy’s mommy and daddy loved him very much, but…something happened. The little boy got sick and the little boy came…here.”
Alec takes a step further into the room, still holding his tablet up. Sterling is psychotic, obsessive – but he’s not dumb. He’s not about to smite him down – not when he’s got a dead-man’s switch connected to who-knows-what. Nate’s gone perfectly still. If it wasn’t for the steady drip-drip-dripping of his forehead, the red pattering onto the polished, slippery floor, Alec would have suspected it was a statue carved in Nate’s shape.
“So there’s an eight year old boy, just a little boy, and he’s sick and he’s scared…but he’s here because he loves his daddy. Because his daddy’s strong and his daddy’s smart and his daddy’s kind and his daddy is his.” He layers as much conviction as he can into the words, beliefs soaked into his soul from the weeks of watching Nate, watching him work and struggle and hunger and try so hard, so very hard, not to cry.
Sterling’s face is impassive; the look in his eyes one step away from fury, but Nate’s shoulders are shaking, and Alec can hear the familiar sound of barely-held-back tears. Alec has seen Nate do a lot of things since his first day at the apartment.
Alec hasn’t ever seen him cry.
“So the little boy stays, and that little boy trusts. Trusts that his daddy will do the right thing, that his daddy can save him.” He can feel the sting behind his eyes now, Nate’s sorrow and his own anger, and he keeps his eyes on Sterling, purposely does not look at Nate when he hears the first sob. “And when…when that little boy dies-”
“I’ve heard enough.”
“-he dies in a damn hospital bed-”
“I said I’ve heard enough.”
“-surrounded by everything meant to make those computers work, make those computers learn. The computer…Agent Sterling, Sam Ford is the computer.” Nate’s sobbing on the floor, choked-back cries of sorrow – not fear, not pain, just the sound of a father who never had a chance to say goodbye.
But Sterling’s still cold, still hateful, and Alec, if nothing else, would hate him for this. When he finishes, his own voice is as icy as Sterling’s eyes.
“The computer is Sam Ford. I don’t care if you think it’s his soul, his spirit, his ghost, heck, his personality copied down in ones and zeros, but. But. What it all comes down to is this: the last God-knows how many times you’ve murdered Nate Ford, you’ve killed him…right in front of that little boy. His little boy.”
The room goes silent, only the sound of Nate gasping for breath, only the pattering whirr of the giant computer around them, surrounding them. Something’s moving in Sterling’s eyes, something flickering behind the hazel and the hatred, something…something Alec can barely believe he’s seeing.
His voice softens.
He takes a step forward.
“In all that time…didn’t you ever think ask him what he was doing?”
He can answer that question: no. He’s not sure why; he’s not sure he’ll ever know why, or even want to know why. He doesn’t want to understand such hatred, such cold cruelty.
He just wants it to stop.
And so he continues. “Agent Sterling….Nate just…he just wants to save his kid.”
The floor is cold, smooth against his knees, gleaming in places with the wet slickness of his blood, black on the glass. Nate can feel the tears still dripping down his face, feel the dull throb where Sterling hit him with the fire extinguisher, still feel the nauseating press of razor sharp metal against his back. The plastic ties pinch his wrists, but it’s a faraway pain, nothing like the one Alec’s words have awakened in his heart.
The tears blur his vision, and he barely notices the words floating, blocky and glowing and amber and blue, in the floor behind and beneath his blood.
He can still hear Alec talking, low and fierce, but that’s all he hears under the sudden stillness in his ears. He swallows around the sudden lump in his throat, and nods without thinking.
Daddy, you’re okay!
“…yeah.” His voice is low, still clogged with sadness, but he swallows and talks on. “Yeah, buddy, I…I’m ok.” And either he would be, or Sterling would get sick of listening to Alec and drive the axe through his ribs, but…
The words from the massive computer, inches tall and glowing like the sun, don’t pause for his numb introspection.
You found Real.
“Yeah. I…kept him around. He reminds me of you.”
He looks at the bunny for a second, something about the loose thread in its leg tugging at a loose thread in his brain. There’s a long pause, and when the words flash again, they’re somehow edged with a humor Nate can hear without hearing.
…I wasn’t talking about the toy, daddy.
And Nate can’t help but think, for a moment, about the machine shop changing to the café. About the changes in the weather, keeping him inside. The way the variables have shifted, minutely, to bring him…
Brought him to Eliot, who force-fed him soup; brought him to Parker, who switched out his coffee. Brought him to Sophie, who teased him over the crosswords – and to Alec, who stands there glaring down Sterling, defending him, despite Sterling’s heavy foot replacing the axe on his spine.
To Alec, who wouldn’t leave him alone, wouldn’t take no for an answer.
To Alec, who might very well…
Very well love him.
The light shifts on the floor again. He looks up to see Parker crouched behind Sterling, just about to slide something into the drive in front of her. She holds a finger to her lips, points at the floor where the letters gleam:
So does this mean I saved you?
Nate can feel the last of the fear dripping away with the tears that still trace trails down his cheeks.
“I think it does, buddy.” The screen goes dark beneath his knees, and Nate lets his head droop, repeating softly, “I think it does.”
There are words in the glass in front of Nate, and Alec is so curious, would love to know how this works, but he can’t afford to take his eyes off the mad-man with the axe. Because his words aren’t working, and he’s not sure, anymore, that he can trust the dead-man’s app on the tablet to be enough to hold off Sterling.
“So…now that you know, Agent Sterling…” He says, he asks, hoping that nothing he says snaps the tenuous thread holding Sterling’s violence in check. “What will you do?”
“It doesn’t matter what I do, it’s all just going to restart.” Sterling moves suddenly, his foot planted in the middle of Nate’s back, shoving him down harder. He lifts the axe – its edge is tinged with red – and points it at Alec. “I could kill you, all your friends, and it wouldn’t mean a damn thing, because the computer would just reset. Again.” Sterling’s eyes are rimmed with almost the same red, wide, crazed. “Nothing. I do. Matters.”
There’s a click.
There’s a buzz.
And the lights around them, the glowing amber, the soft blue, fade. There’s the low whine of machinery shutting down around them, clicks that slow, beeps that stop.
Sterling freezes, looking around them, at the ceiling, the floor where Nate’s still bowed, shivering. Alec watches him look around until Sterling’s eyes fall back on his. And he lets a little of the triumph he’s feeling sink into his words.
“You were saying?”
“I…” The look in Sterling’s eyes might have been fear. Alec basks in that emotion.
“No more resets. No more loops. Whatever decisions you make, whatever you do from here on out? That’s what you’d have to live with, the rest of your life.”
Nate’s nose and forehead are bleeding steadily, and his lip is split. He keeps tonguing the raw spot absently, spitting blood on the polished-gleaming floor, but he doesn’t seem to be injured beyond that.
Physically, anyway. The thousand-yard stare is lurking behind the exhaustion again.
Sterling looks, for the first time, just as lost, fingers still tight around the axe’s handle. He’s lost and bewildered, and Alec steps forward, feeling the relief flow through him.
He already knows how this ends, and the realization grants him confidence.
“Let me make this easy for you. If you lay one finger on him, other than to take off those cuffs, I will send this to every computer, every email address in this city.” He turns his hand so Sterling can see the tablet, see what lies behind the dead-man’s switch. Alec can taste the venom on his tongue – this isn’t enough, not nearly enough, not after everything Sterling’s done – but he swallows the anger, keeps going. “The Institute doesn’t like anyone who asks questions. How do you think they’ll feel about this?”
He taps the screen, playing the video without releasing it. Security footage from each and every time Sterling ever came into the Café and breathed threats and hatred in Nate’s ears flickers onto the screen – every gentle touch, every hungry gleam.
“That don’t look like it’s an emergency killing, to me, bra’,” Alec says, voice deceptively light. “Looks more…” He hesitates, keenly aware of Nate shivering on the floor, distant terror and newly-born hope blazoned bright on his pale, tear-streaked face. “Premeditated,” he finally says, eyebrows raised. “Would you like to explain to the people of the city what a Code Red really means?”
There’s a moment. A moment where Alec holds his breath, watches Sterling’s stare burn holes in Nate’s bloody shirt; watches Sterling clearly calculating, running through possibilities and probabilities.
“He’ll still have to answer for this,” Sterling hisses, waving at the room around them. The darkened computer, the still and silent machinery. He looks down at the axe with indifference, flipping it around to offer the handle – pointedly – to Alec. “I can’t just…let him go.”
The axe’s handle is smooth in Alec’s palm, warm, and he has a moment of his own - a moment where he weighs the pros and cons of using it on the man before him as Sterling uses his pocket knife to slice through the plastic ties.
But he is not that man.
“He said you were friends. Once.” Alec discards the axe without looking at the blood on the edge, moving to Nate’s side, a hovering presence in case Sterling decides to try anything.
“We were.” Sterling snaps his knife shut, tucked it in his pocket. “Once.”
“Doesn’t that mean anything?”
“It did. Once.” Sterling turns his gaze to Alec, skepticism and anger and a strange something Alec can’t even begin to define warring behind the hazel. “Let me guess. You just want me to let him go.”
Alec gave a shrug.
“You…” Owe him.
Owe him a lot.
He can’t put that in words though, not with Nate leaning against his knee the way he is, blood staining Alec’s pants. He reaches down, gently brushes his forehead, and finally says, “Yes. Yes I do.”
Sterling’s eyes flicker once more, and Alec tenses, ready to run, ready to throw himself between the agent and Nate –
And Sterling throws up his hands in surrender.
“What the hell, the next computer’s ready for its rotation. There’s nothing wrong with the Cube’s maintenance. We can call it an error.” Sterling turns on his heel, eyes still maddened, and hisses, “Why not. After all, I owe him.”
And Alec starts at the words, since he hadn’t said them, and Nate tenses at the sudden motion, but he reaches down and takes Nate’s hand and helps him to his feet, fingers interlocked against the trembling.
“I don’t ever want to see you again, Nathan.” Sterling says, almost sing-song as he turns from looking at the dead room, eyes locked with Nate’s. And Nate swallows – and nods.
Nods, and looks beyond terrified, beyond confused, beyond hope. Because maybe he’s dreamed of this happening, but it never has, and…Alec squeezes his hand.
After a second, Nate squeezes back.
“Get out,” Sterling adds, voice calm, “before I change my mind. You’ve left me one hell of a mess to clean up.”
Alec doesn’t hesitate. Neither does Nate. Parker ghosts on their heels when they reach the doors; Eliot has to help Alec steer Nate down the ten flights of stairs.
The sun’s just coming up when they rush out of the Institute’s front doors, the way unblocked by some unknown order, the security lockdown gone.
The sun’s just coming up, but after a moment it vanishes. Grey clouds are gathering, like the steam from their lips. And, slowly, against all odds as they limp down the street, it finally begins to snow.
It’s as if a weight, the entire weight of the entire world, is gone from Alec’s shoulders, so he can’t even imagine what Nate must be feeling in the places where only fear had grown for so long.
He only hopes he’ll get a chance to find out.
And a week later, they’re all gone.
They take Sterling at his word; when Todd McSweeten shows up on Christmas Eve with a signed pardon, and boarding passes, and a confused look on his puppy face, they just take the hint and go.
“Once, there was a china rabbit who was loved by a little girl. The rabbit went on an ocean journey and fell overboard and was rescued by a fisherman. He was buried under garbage and unburied by a dog. He traveled for a long time with the hoboes and worked for a short time as a scarecrow…”
The train moves with a steady back and forth motion. Soothing and silent, it could very well be the rocking of a colossal mother’s arms. Alec sits, watching the desolate plains whip by outside the glass. Dark clouds still roil on the horizon, this far from the machines that keep the sun shining on the cube-cities, but here and there shafts of gold pierce the gloom.
“Once, there was a rabbit who loved a little girl and watched her die. The rabbit danced on the streets of Memphis. His head was broken open in a diner and was put together again by a doll mender.”
There’s lightning in the distance, brilliant, connecting cloud to ground in a flash of white. Alec listens for the thunder, but it never comes; it’s too far off. He just wipes the fog from his breath off the glass, looking at Nate’s reflection over his shoulder. His madman curls are tamed, the tension is gone from his shoulders, but every now and again he still looks like he’s going to run, still starts awake panting and scared, still twitches when he’s touched and not expecting to be touched.
(It will, Eliot assures them, fade. Eventually. It’s just going to take time – but at least that’s something they have now.)
“And the rabbit swore that he would not make the mistake of loving again.”
He can hear Nate’s voice rising and falling across the aisle, hitching every now and then, like the words are too real and are catching at his soul, but he doesn’t stop reading; he soldiers on.
“…Once there was a rabbit who danced in a garden in springtime with the daughter of the woman who had loved him at the beginning of his journey.”
He was right. He’d always been right. The older man does have a storyteller’s cadence, poetry in every word. Parker’s leaning against her armrest, breathless; Todd dozing on her other side. Eliot and Sophie have gone still in the seats ahead of them, listening.
“The girl swung the rabbit as she danced in circles. Sometimes, they went so fast, the two of them, that it seemed as if they were flying. Sometimes, it seemed as if they both had wings.”
The train’s wheels clunk on the track, and Nate’s tired, worn voice pauses. Alec looks up, looks over just in time to catch a shy smile and a sky-blue stare over the back of the book, and when Nate finishes, the words are meant just for him.
“Once, oh marvelous once, there was a rabbit who found his way home.”
This is the eighteenth time Nate Ford lives after dying.
It’s also, coincidentally, the first time he really lives.
Chapter 24: BONUS - Soundtrack
Soon - U2
Sing yourself on down the street
Sing yourself right off your feet
Sing yourself away from victory
And from defeat
Sing yourself with fife and drum
Sing yourself to overcome
The thought that someone has lost
And someone else has won
A Boy Falls From The Sky - U2
I'd be myself
If I knew who I'd become -
You fly too high,
And get too close to the sun.
See how the boy falls from the sky.
Not every wanderer
Is lost or far from home -
I didn't have to move so far
To find myself alone.
You save, you save yourself
Can't even get that right.
I used to use a single thread
To cross the sky,
And now the eye of a needle
Is that heart tonight…
See how the boy falls from the sky.
The city conducts a symphony,
The search through shit for a melody,
A single scrap of dignity,
In the junkyard of humanity.
Under burning rubble and a sulphur sky,
We look for clues in you and I.
Over the screams and the siren wail,
The cackle when love is up for sale.
The subway screech slows down the drain,
The thunder when there is no rain.
So listen hard, listen again -
To your own lone voice when there ain't none there.
You know exactly what to do,
The you in me, the me in you.
Together, you start, must help us see
And when you're done
And when you're done
Then you believe.
Down to Earth – Peter Gabriel
Did you think you'd escaped from routine
By changing the script and the scene?
Despite all you made of it
You're always afraid of the change.
You've got a lot on your chest,
Well, you can come as my guest.
So come on down,
Come on down.
We're coming down to the ground,
There's no better place to go.
We've got snow up on the mountains,
We've got rivers down below.
We're coming down to the ground,
We'll hear the birds sing in the trees.
And the land will be looked after
We send the seeds out in the breeze.
In A Market Dimly Lit – mewithoutYou
The bird that plucked the Olive Leaf
has been circlin' like a record 'round the spindle of my mind
where the needle's worn the grooves too deep,
and scratched the wax that's blistered from the heat besides.
From any movement in the room -
if my cat walked by the arm skipped but to my surprise,
my interrupting cat improved the sound already so severely compromised.
The needle's worn the grooves too deep. (x4)
I'm a donkey's jaw on a desert dune,
beside the bush that Moses saw that burned and yet was not consumed!
She's the silver coin I lost! I'm the sheep who slipped away!
We pray with fingers crossed, but you listen patiently anyway.
I wrote a little song for you
with a melody I'd borrowed put to
words that didn't rhyme
to repeat what you already knew,
as the stones thrown at your window tapped in syncopation.
You kept a distance out of fear you'd break,
but what good's a single windchime hanging quiet all alone?
The music our collisions would make
is the sound that turns "the road that leads us back home" into "home."
The music our collisions make! (x4)
I had a rusty spade, but I'm not the fighting sort!
If I was Samson I'd have found that harlot's blade and cut my own hair short!
Then, in a market dimly lit, I'd come casually to pay:
"You see, my coins are counterfeit. Would you accept them anyway?"
So spare me your goodbyes, your waving-handkerchief goodbyes!
Given my tendency to err so on the sentimental side,
I will spare you my goodbyes.
The truth belongs to God! The mistakes were mine.
Dinosaur Bones - Showbread
My bones don't click in place when I sit on the machine,
Not as of late do I integrate, scarcely say what I mean.
This thing was built with one of my ribs,
I was there when it was given a name.
But I've been overpowered by those who took it away,
It doesn't even look the same.
Those hired in to intervene and supervise it's size,
Do plot against the weakened will before the weak ones realize -
I found it's bones in my backyard, I put them on display -
I set it up with leering eyes and gave it a voice to say:
"I am just the voice of one who's greater than this,
But I am still a sacred voice, I will not be dismissed."
Really Like – h
[No Audio Source Online]
If I knew,
If I knew what you are really like
Would I burn the same?
Would I yearn at the merest mention of your name?
If I knew,
If I knew what you are really like
Would I ache?
Would I think about you every second just the same?
Or would I write it off as something of a terrible mistake...?
Could you really be
As perfect as you are to me?
Could you really be
As perfect as you are to me?
Would I be scared, would I be in awe
If I could know
What goes on in that little mind of yours?
When I doubt you
Why is it I'm expected to feel so ashamed?
Is it a garden full of flowers
Or a jungle full of scorpions and snakes?
A cellar full of demons,
A heaven full of angels,
You hatchin’ in that bosom -
A wide open horizon
or a desert plain?
A box of nice surprises
Or a cauldron full of pain?
If I strip away that outer skin
Find a way to get you drunk
What kind of picture would you paint me,
Michelangelo or Munch?
Could you really be
As perfect as you are to me?
Could you really be
As perfect as you are to me?
I really like you…
But I wonder what you're really like.
Would I dedicate my life,
Or would I take a hike,
If I knew what you are really like?
The Pretender – Foo Fighters
Keep you in the dark,
You know they all pretend.
Keep you in the dark,
And so it all began.
Send in your skeletons,
Sing as their bones go marching in... again.
The need you buried deep,
The secrets that you keep are ever ready…
Are you ready?
I'm finished making sense,
Done pleading ignorance,
That whole defense.
Spinning infinity, boy
The wheel is spinning me
It's never-ending, never-ending
Same old story
What if I say I'm not like the others?
What if I say I'm not just another one of your plays?
You're the pretender
What if I say I will never surrender?
On The Radio – Regina Spektor
While we were on our knees
Praying that disease
Would leave the ones we love
And never come again
On the radio
We heard November Rain
That solo's really long
But it's a pretty song
We listened to it twice
'Cause the DJ was asleep
This is how it works
You're young until you're not
You love until you don't
You try until you can't
You laugh until you cry
You cry until you laugh
And everyone must breathe
Until their dying breath
No, this is how it works
You peer inside yourself
You take the things you like
And try to love the things you took
And then you take that love you made
And stick it into some
Someone else's heart
Pumping someone else's blood
And walking arm in arm
You hope it don't get harmed
But even if it does
You'll just do it all again.
The Whole of the Moon - the Waterboys
Unicorns and cannonballs,
palaces and piers,
Trumpets, towers, and tenements,
wide oceans full of tears,
Flags, rags, ferry boats,
scimitars and scarves,
Every precious dream and vision
underneath the stars
You climbed on the ladder
with the wind in your sails
You came like a comet
blazing your trail
you saw the whole of the moon!
Mad World – Tears for Fears
All around me are familiar faces
Worn out places
Worn out faces
Bright and early for their daily races
Going no where
Going no where
Their tears are filling up their glasses
Hide my head I wanna drown my sorrow
And I find it kind of funny
I find it kind of sad
The dreams in which I'm dying
are the best I've ever had
I find it hard to tell you
I find it hard to take
When people run in circles it's a very very
Ghosts That We Knew – Mumford & Sons
You saw my pain, washed out in the rain
Broken glass, saw the blood run from my veins
But you saw no fault no crack in my heart
And you kneel beside my hope torn apart
But the ghosts that we knew will flicker from view
And we'll live a long life
So give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light
Cause oh that gave me such a fright
But I will hold as long as you like
Just promise me we'll be alright
The Fox, the Crow and the Cookie – mewithoutYou
Through mostly vacant streets, a baker from the outskirts of his town
Earned his living peddling sweets from the ragged cart he dragged around.
The clever fox crept close behind, kept an ever-watchful eye
For a chance to steal a ginger spice cake or a boysenberry pie.
Looking down was the hungry crow, "When the time is right, I'll strike
And condescend to the earth below and take whichever treat I'd like."
The moment the baker turned around to shoo the fox off from his cart,
The crow swooped down and snatched a shortbread cookie and a German chocolate tart.
Using most unfriendly words that the village children had not yet heard,
the baker shouted threats by canzonet to curse the crafty bird.
"You rotten wooden mixing spoon! Why you midnight winged raccoon!
You better bring those pastries back, you no-good burned-black macaroon!"
The fox approached the tree where the bird was perched, delighted in his nest.
"Brother Crow, don't you remember me? It's your old friend Fox with a humble request.
If you could share just a modest piece, seeing as I distracted that awful man."
This failed to persuade the crow in the least, so the fox rethought his plan.
"Then if your lovely song would grace my ears, or to even hear you speak,
Would ease my pains and fears." The crow looked down with a candy in his beak.
"Your poems of wisdom, my good crow, what a paradise they bring!"
This flattery pleased the proud bird, so he opened his mouth and began to sing:
"Your subtle acclamation's true! Best to give praise where praise is due.
Every rook and jay in the Corvidae's been raving about me too.
They admire me, one and all. Must be the passion in my caw!
My slender bill known through the escadrille, my fierce commanding claw!"
I got a walnut brownie brain, and molasses in my veins,
Crushed graham cracker crust, my powdered sugared funnel cake cocaine.
Let the crescent cookie rise. These carob colored almond eyes
Will rest to see my cashewed princess in the swirling marble sky.
Will rest upon the knee, where all the visions cease to be
A root beer float in our banana boat across the tapioca sea.
When letting all attachments go, is the only prayer we know,
May it be so, may it be so, may it be so, oh.
Take Me Home – Phil Collins
Seems so long I've been waiting
Still don't know what for
There's no point escaping
I don't worry anymore
I can't come out to find you
I don't like to go outside
They can't turn off my feelings
Like they're turning off a light
But I, I don't mind
No I, I don't mind
Oh I, I don't mind
No I, I don't mind
So take, take me home
Cause I don't remember
Take, take me home
Cause I don't remember
Take, take me home
Cause I don't remember
Take, take me home, oh lord
Cause I've been a prisoner all my life
And I can say to you
Take that look of worry, mine's an ordinary life
Working when it's daylight
And sleeping when it's night
I've got no far horizons
I don't wish upon a star
They don't think that I listen
Oh but I know who they are
And I, I don't mind
No I, I don't mind
Oh I, I don't mind
No I, I don't mind.
Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up) - Florence + The Machine
The looking glass, so shiny and new
How quickly the glamour fades
I start spinning, slipping out of time
Was that the wrong pill to take? (Raise it up)
You made a deal, and now it seems you have to offer up
But will it ever be enough? (Raise it up, raise it up)
It's not enough (Raise it up, raise it up)
Here I am, a rabbit hearted girl
Frozen in the headlights
It seems I've made the final sacrifice
We raise it up, this offering
We raise it up
This is a gift, it comes with a price
Who is the lamb and who is the knife?
Midas is king and he holds me so tight
And turns me to gold in the sunlight
I look around, but I can't find you (raise it up)
If only I could see your face (raise it up)
Instead of rushing towards the skyline (raise it up)
I wish that I could just be brave
I must become a lion hearted girl
Ready for a fight
Before I make the final sacrifice
We raise it up, this offering
We raise it up
This is a gift, it comes with a price
Who is the lamb and who is the knife?
Midas is king and he holds me so tight
And turns me to gold in the sunlight
Raise it up, raise it up
Raise it up, raise it up
And in the spring I shed my skin
And it blows away with the changing wind
The waters turn from blue to red
As towards the sky I offer it
This is a gift, it comes with a price
Who is the lamb and who is the knife?
Midas is king and he holds me so tight
And turns me to gold in the sunlight
This is a gift.
Little Talks – Of Monsters & Men
Hey! Hey! Hey!
I don't like walking around this old and empty house
So hold my hand, I'll walk with you my dear
The stairs creak as I sleep, it's keeping me awake
It's the house telling you to close your eyes
Some days I can't even trust myself
It's killing me to see you this way
'Cause though the truth may vary
This ship will carry
Our bodies safe to shore
Hey! Hey! Hey!
There's an old voice in my head that's holding me back
Well tell her that I miss our little talks
Soon it will all be over and buried with our past
We used to play outside when we were young,
And full of life and full of love
Some days I don't know if I am wrong or right
Your mind is playing tricks on you, my dear
'Cause though the truth may vary
This ship will carry
Our bodies safe to shore
Don't listen to a word I say
The screams all sound the same
Though the truth may vary
This ship will carry
Our bodies safe to shore
You're gone gone gone away
I watched you disappear
All that's left is a ghost of you
Now we're torn torn torn apart, there's nothing we can do
Just let me go we'll meet again soon
Now wait wait wait for me
Please hang around
I'll see you when I fall asleep...
Don’t Leave Me Now (Ne Me Quitte Pas) – Regina Spektor
And down on Lexington they're wearing
new shoes stuck to aging feet,
And close your eyes and open,
And you'll recognize the aging street,
And think about how things were right
When they were young and veins were tight
And if you are the ghost of Christmas Past
then won’t you stay the night?
Ne Me Quitte Pas, Mon Chere
Ne Me Quitte Pas
Ne Me Quitte Pas, Mon Chere
Ne Me Quitte Pas
Ne Me Quitte Pas, Mon Chere
Ne Me Quitte Pas
Ne Me Quitte Pas, Mon Chere
Ne Me Quitte Pas
Down in Bronxy-Bronx the kids go
sledding down snow-covered slopes
And frozen noses, frozen toes
The frozen city starts to glow
And yes, they know that it'll melt
And yes, the know New York will thaw
But if you are a friend of any sort
then play along and catch a cold!
Carry On - fun
Well I woke up to the sound of silence
the cars were cutting like knives in a fist fight
and I found you with a bottle of wine
your head in the curtains
and heart like the Fourth of July
You swore and said
"We are not
We are not shining stars"
This I know
I never said we are
Though I've never been through hell like that
I've closed enough windows
to know you can never look back
If you're lost and alone
Or you're sinking like a stone
May your past be the sound
Of your feet upon the ground
Carry on, carry on
So I met up with some friends
at the edge of the night
At a bar off 75
And we talked and talked
about how our parents will die
All our neighbors and wives
But I like to think
I can cheat it all
To make up for the times I've been cheated on
And it's nice to know
When I was left for dead
I was found and now I don't roam these streets
I am not the ghost you want of me
If you're lost and alone
Or you're sinking like a stone
May your past be the sound
Of your feet upon the ground
My head is on fire
But my legs are fine
After all they are mine
Lay your clothes down on the floor
Close the door
Hold the phone
Show me how
No one’s ever gonna stop us now
Cause we are
We are shining stars
We are invincible
We are who we are
On our darkest day
When we’re miles away
Sun will come
We will find our way home.
In A Sweater Poorly Knit – mewithoutYou
In a sweater poorly knit, and an unsuspecting smile
Little Moses drifts downstream in the Nile
A fumbling reply -- an awkward, rigid laugh
And I'm carried helpless by my floating basket raft
Your flavor in my mind; back and forth between
sweeter than any wine, and bitter as mustard greens
And it's light and dark as honeydew and pumpernickel bread
The trap I set for you seems to have caught my leg instead
Go plow some other field and try and forget my name,
We'll see what harvest yields, and, supposing I'd do the same
I planted rows of peas, but the first week of July –
they should have come up to my knees but they were maybe ankle high
Take the fingers from your flute to weave your colored yarns,
and boil down your fruit to preserves in mason jars
And the books are overdue and the goats are underfed...
the trap I set for you seems to have caught my leg instead
You're a door-without-a-key, a field-without-a-fence
You made a holy fool of me, and I've thanked you ever since
And if she comes circling back, we'll end where we'd begun
Like two pennies on the train track; the train crushed into one
But if I'm a crown without a king, if I'm a broken, open seed
If I come without a thing, then I come with all I need
No bolt out in the blue, no place to rest your head
The trap I set for you seems to have caught my leg instead.
Begin Again – brave Saint Saturn
All the pieces hit the ground with a sick sound
Time frames moving in slow motion
Sifting through setting in as the smoke clears
Consequences marching in rotation
Got a feeling that this is gonna bruise
I’m pretty sure this is gonna be costly
Sit down ‘cause there’s nothing left to do
Hands covering your head and you wish you could start again…
Fire comes and it burns the brush away
…rain comes down
Snow falling in a lifeless grey
…sun comes down
Something new comes cautiously from the dust
And spreads its limbs toward the heavens.
Colors bleed and they mix into a dull brown
The more you mix the more its getting darker
Heat rises and it leaves behind a luke-warm
Feel it go, feel a heart get harder
Losing something that you said you’d never lose
You trade it in for something that you can’t stand
Let go now there’s nothing left to do
Hands covering your head now you’re ready to start again…
Fire comes and it burns the brush away
…rain comes down
Snow falling in a lifeless grey
…sun comes down
Something new comes cautiously from the dust
And spreads its limbs toward the heavens.
A second chance is all you have left.
Remember why you cling to this gift.
A new day, a new start, the world turns.
Sometimes you’ve got to crash before you learn.
Woke Up - Marillion
I woke up in a city full of snow
And history and beauty and Christmas-lights and cold
With angels that come when all is lost
In golden light at dead of night
They take you home
And I woke up
I woke up
Woke up in a city that doesn’t sleep
You woke me up, You woke me up, You woke me up
And I woke up in a city by the sea
You woke me up, You woke me up, You woke me up
You woke me up
I woke up in a city full of rain
The world had stopped
I woke up to feel no pain
Day from night
Anti-gravity and light
It’s so clear, just what I’m doing here.
Fix You – Coldplay
When you try your best, but you don't succeed
When you get what you want, but not what you need
When you feel so tired, but you can't sleep
Stuck in reverse
And the tears come streaming down your face
When you lose something you can't replace
When you love someone, but it goes to waste
Could it be worse?
Lights will guide you home
And ignite your bones
And I will try to fix you
And high up above or down below
When you're too in love to let it go
But if you never try you'll never know
Just what you're worth
Lights will guide you home
And ignite your bones
And I will try to fix you
Tears stream down on your face
When you lose something you cannot replace
Tears stream down on your face
Tears stream down on your face
I promise you I will learn from my mistakes
Tears stream down on your face
Lights will guide you home
And ignite your bones
And I will try to fix you.
Escapee – Architecture in Helsinki
This escapee was never gonna stay
On an unfamiliar building on the rooftop where we lay
Where all the constellations shine to pave the way
Temptation's not a word until we've let it go a stray
And I won't delete it
He won't delete it, wha-ha-ho!
Light bolts hover over you all day
Oh darkness can be difficult like needles in the hay
I need to flick the switch and show you how to hide
And love is not the answer if you're taking me for a
For a ri-i-i-i-ide
This escapee was never gonna stay
On an island way too difficult to be stuck in a daze
And all the competition's overcome what may
Temptation's not a word until we've let it go astray
And I won't delete it
He won't delete it, wha-ha-ho!
I'm escaping, you're escaping
I'm escaping, you're taking me for a
I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight – U2
Everybody needs to cry or needs to spit
Every sweet tooth needs just a little hit
Every beauty needs to go out with an idiot
How can you stand next to the truth and not see it
Oh, a change of heart comes slow
It's not a hill, it's a mountain
As you start out the climb
Do you believe me or are you doubting
We're gonna make it all the way to the light
But I know I'll go crazy if I don't go crazy tonight
Every generation gets a chance to change the world
Pity the nation that won't listen to your boys and girls
'Cause the sweetest melody is the one we haven't heard
Is it true that perfect love drives out all fear
The right to appear ridiculous is something I hold dear
Oh, but a change of heart comes slow
It's not a hill, it's a mountain
As you start out the climb
Listen for me, I'll be shouting
We're gonna make it all the way to the light
But you know I'll go crazy if I don't go crazy tonight
Baby, baby, baby
I know I'm not alone.
It's not a hill, it's a mountain
As you start out the climb
Listen for me, I'll be shouting
Shouting to the darkness
Squeeze out sparks of light
You know we're gonna go crazy
You know we'll go crazy
You know we'll go crazy if we don't go crazy tonight
Oh, slowly now
Oh, be slow.
Timothy Hay - mewithoutYou
On a cold December, just before dawn
As the sun said "hello" to the sky,
The mantis prayed while the lamellicorn tumbled
And rolled in a threadbare tie.
The Holland lops in the Karakung glades indignantly thumped their feet
and hopped away when they cut their noses on the sharp-tipped blades
(since the grass doesn't mind in the least)
The heat pad’s waiting in the chicken-wire hutch where the does from the Netherlands stay,
but that dry alfalfa don't taste like much and we're tired of the timothy hay.
I touched her back, she was lying face down,
the dew turned to frost in her eyes.
Me and Sister Margaret in the Pentagon lawn,
With our wrists in a plastic tie.
While the rats by the tracks on these winter days
Seeking shelter from the cold,
Make a nest in the tracts of our various ways that they can save
their immortal souls -
oh no, timothy hay
oh no, timothy hay
oh no, timothy hay
oh no, timothy hay
oh no, timothy hay
oh no, timothy hay
please no more timothy hay
no more timothy hay
oh no, no more timothy hay
oh no, no more timothy hay
oh no, no more timothy hay
no more timothy hay
Cold December, just after dusk
As the sun bid its cordial goodbyes,
We get split to pieces like an apple seed husk
To reveal the tree that's been hidden inside
Which sapling called in a tattered sarong
As the seeds from the shepherd's purse fell:
“Broke the news to mom: we found a better Mom
we call "G-d" (which she took quite well.)"