Gerard had no idea how long he’d been asleep. Passed out. Whatever. It was long enough that the Fact News broadcast he vaguely remembered watching between the third whiskey and the second Vice tab had switched over into the usual barrage of glaringly neon Brand Land infomercials. Why try? the spokesman exhorted him, spouting something about the BLI Medication of the Month club. Legal pills; was there really a difference? The Ways still couldn’t afford it, not on Mikey’s salary. He’d traded the most of this month’s entertainment credits for the baggie of tablets, which was why he was stuck with the info channels.
He groaned and rolled over, accidentally smashing his face against the drool spot on the couch cushion. Gerard knew better than to try to stand up right away, instead letting his arm dangle off the side of the couch to reacquaint himself with the direction of the floor. He had to kick himself free from a throw blanket, which meant that Mikey had come home and covered him up sometime last night. He hadn’t turned the TV off, though, which probably meant that he was pissed. BLTV was audiovisual torture for the hung over.
By the time Gerard had gotten himself vertical - no throwing up, score one for him - and shuffled to the bathroom, he could hear Mikey’s dresser drawers squeaking. Morning, then - a weekday. He paused in the bathroom door, swaying a little and hanging onto the jamb, as Mikey rushed down the hallway. He was still buttoning a white work shirt and muttering to himself. He hesitated at the living room door, obviously taking in the empty couch, and then he turned around. "You’re up," he said.
"Yeah," Gerard answered, wincing at the way the word croaked out, too loud. Mikey turned and went into the kitchen without another word, and Gerard followed him, collapsing into a chair and laying his cheek down on the cool plastic tabletop. He threw an arm over his head as Mikey banged around in the cabinets. Things went quiet, and then the smell of coffee filled the room. Gerard kept his eyes squeezed shut until a mug clicked onto the table by his head.
"Coffee," Mikey said quietly. Gerard sat up and picked up the mug, absorbing the heat with his palms for a moment before taking a small sip. "Don’t forget," Mikey continued, "you have an appointment with the company doctor today." Gerard said nothing. "You promised, Gee."
"Shit," Gerard mumbled. "I - yeah, I know I did." He stared morosely into the black surface of his coffee. A shot of whiskey in it wouldn’t hurt, he mused. And there was that baggie, with one or two capsules of Zoner or Timewarp, somewhere in his bedroom if he could make it back there, and.... There was a clunk and a sad glugging sound from the direction of the sink. He looked up - too fast, fuck, head rush - to see Mikey holding two bottles by the neck, grimly pouring them down the drain. "Fuck, Mikey, what the hell?"
Mikey dropped the empty bottles into the sink. "Now you have to leave the house." He tugged the strap of his bag over his shoulder and headed for the door, stopping in front of Gerard and patting him gently on the cheek. "I love you, Gee," he added softly.
Gerard realized he was clutching his mug with a death grip and set it down on the table. He buried his face in his hands. Fuck. "I love you too," he mumbled, but the front door was already closing.
Eventually Gerard moved back to the living room, irritably clicking off the television set, which had begun to cycle through the day’s top news stories. "No news is good news," he mumbled before collapsing back on the couch. The sun was getting brighter. He’d just sleep off his hangover and then....
Before he knew it, an alarm was going off somewhere. Gerard flailed with all four of his limbs in the direction of the coffee table until something metallic fell to the floor with an angry clang. Mikey’s ancient alarm clock. Mikey, who would never tell his older brother what to do despite being the only thing holding him together.
This time, Gerard didn’t make it to vertical before he was retching over the side of the couch. There was a bucket there. Mikey, of course. He sat there for a moment, forearms propped against his thighs, sweating and swallowing bile and thinking, How’d I get to be such a fuck up? It wasn’t like this was anything new. But today - today felt different. A ray of sunlight snuck through the curtains and stabbed him in the eye. He spat into the bucket and pushed himself to his feet. A goddamn shrink. Fuck.
Gerard wrapped himself in a ratty old jacket and let himself out the door, skipping the elevator in favor of the fire stairs. He felt claustrophobic today, like even his skin was too tight. When he hit street level he shoved a pair of sunglasses onto his nose and set off downtown. Their apartment wasn’t a total shit-hole, just a shabby low-rise in a moderately low-rent section of the city. Mikey walked downtown every day to Battery Towers, the shining high-rise complex that loomed over the center of town.
Fucking Better Living Industries. Where the outskirts were gray and beige, dingy and bland, the immediate radius of company headquarters was aggressive black and sterile white, glaring sun and too-bright greenery bringing tears to the corners of Gerard’s eyes. He hesitated at the turnoff to the low-slung building that housed the robotics labs. He came here sometimes, when the cobwebs weren’t so thick. He could go have Mikey paged, drag him out for lunch - Mikey barely ate these days, fuck him if he thought Gerard hadn’t noticed - and maybe meet this Ray guy that Mikey mentioned sometimes. But no. He’d fucking promised. He turned and went through the gleaming glass doors of Tower A - Angel Tower.
The receptionist was as sleek and polished as her desk and her smile as she directed Gerard to the proper floor was just upholstery. She didn’t even blink at his shabby pants and jacket or his unwashed hair. She’s got to be on something, Gerard thought to himself, and then snorted. Takes one to know one.
The elevator was mirrored, and an infinite progression of tinier Gerards stared back at him as he rode to the tenth floor. He stumbled out into a second lobby, standing frozen and staring at several different doors around a central waiting area. One opened. "Gerard Way?" Another woman stepped out, just as polished and sleek. "The front desk paged me. Please come in. I’m Doctor Slade."
Gerard followed her into an office, all white upholstery and stainless steel. It was sterile, forgettable. So was the doctor. Her face, hair, clothing, everything was so utterly - average. She’d decorated the wall behind her desk with black and white projections - intricate patterns like tangrams, which flickered and appeared to move. They hurt his eyes a little, but he couldn’t look away. He focused on the one directly over her left shoulder as she began to speak.
"Better Living Industries is a friend to all their employees, Gerard." Her voice was soothing, practiced. "Your brother’s applied for you to receive analysis and treatment, and we’re happy to have you join us." It was cold in this room; he didn’t remember much from Before, but he knew that once, when he was a child, there’d been...winter. Snow. Gleaming white like the walls, sparkling piles of powder....
"Drugs, Gerard. Mikey Way tells us you’re making yourself sick. We’ll take it from here, if you let us, Gerard. Let us make you - better -" The projections kept flickering; Gerard let his eyes go unfocused and they started spinning, spinning, the soft creamy voice talking steadily throughout. "Because we care...we’ll help you...if you help us. I just have a few questions...just listen. Listen, and answer...."
The light in the room had changed to slanting rays of setting sun. He felt lightheaded. How long had he been zoned out? The doctor wasn’t acting like anything out of the ordinary had happened, just smoothing a hand over her already-smooth hair and pulling a little plastic bottle out of a desk drawer with a bland smile.
"Thank you for answering, Gerard." Answering what? He shook his head irritably, but she kept talking. "This is Better Living Industries’ newest regimen of medication. It’s still in a limited release in our focus group, but I think you’re a perfect candidate." She scrawled something on a small white card. "And of course, weekly sessions with me for the time being." She held the items out.
Gerard stared at the extended hand. Mikey wants this, said a voice in his head. His own hand reached out to take them; he recognized the arm and the tattered sleeve. The small bottle was weightless in his palm. It rattled. "Thanks," he whispered.
"My pleasure, Gerard. Have a better day." Dr. Slade smiled again, impersonally, and returned her attention to her desk.
The sliding glass doors in the lobby said the same thing: Have a Better Day in big frosted letters. Gerard turned toward home, put his head down, and started walking. His head still ached, vaguely, like the hangover of this morning had diffused through the rest of his body. He stopped at a BLI corner store to buy a bottle of water. Prices were going up again; he vaguely remembered some sort of news item about problems at the purification plant. He was exhausted by the time he let himself into the apartment. Stumbling down the hall to his bedroom, he fumbled a few painkillers and, after a moment of hesitation, one of the new pills out of their respective containers, guzzling half of the bottle of water to wash them down.
He made it into bed, but not out of his jacket or shoes.
When he woke up, Mikey was sitting cross-legged at the foot of his bed, watching him sleep. "That’s a little creepy," Gerard rasped.
"You’ve been out for almost twenty hours, fucker. I stayed home from work to watch you." Mikey leaned back against the footboard, scratching the back of his neck. Gerard grimaced and rolled over, reaching for the water bottle. His hand knocked the BLI pill bottle over and after a moment’s hesitation, he thumbed the lid off and washed one of those down with the rest of the water. Mikey watched. "You went to the doctor," he said softly.
It took hearing that tone to convince Gerard how worried Mikey had actually been.
"I did," he answered.
"How do you feel?" Mikey’s expressionless voice was, somehow, painfully hopeful.
"Tired." He yawned, clapping a hand over his mouth, sliding it up to cover his eyes. Like the suggestion of darkness was all he needed, he fell asleep again.
As he drifted off, he thought he heard Mikey say, "Me too."
It was dark when he reemerged into consciousness, but he was immediately wide awake. He couldn’t remember feeling this awake - or, fuck, even this sober - in. Well. A long time. A quick check of the time told him that it was early morning. He stared wide-eyed at the ceiling for a moment and then rolled out of bed. He could hear Mikey in the shower, so he walked down the hall to the kitchen and started a pot of coffee.
Mikey walked in slowly, eyeing him like he might bite. "You’re awake," he said. "Is that coffee?" Gerard handed him a cup, and Mikey took a few tiny sips. "Are you feeling okay?"
Ordinarily that stifled doubting tone made Gerard angry. Today he felt - nothing. Calm. "Just fine. I think I’ll go to the store today. Do we have enough credits?"
Mutely, Mikey turned to his bag on the table and rifled through until he found his wallet, handing over a few crumpled credit notes. "We need more cereal," he said in a careful voice.
A trip for groceries could leave Gerard exhausted for days; all those stark black and white BLI labels, cans and boxes marching on forever in ordered rows. But after he returned from the store, lugging as many edibles as the credits would stretch to cover, he looked around the apartment for a moment, shook himself, and went to take a shower.
Mikey was quiet that night, poking through the cabinets in silence before pouring himself a bowl of cereal and carrying it out into the living room to eat over a roll of blueprints. "Do you want to find a program to watch?" he asked, sounding hopeful. They’d seen all the films and newsreels on the BLI entertainment channels dozens, maybe hundreds of times. Gerard used to find one of the old ones and turn the sound down, make up his own dialogue and recite it for Mikey, but tonight.... Tonight he didn’t feel like anything would amuse him.
Mikey frowned when Gerard said no, and so Gerard stayed at the table by himself, telling himself he ought to feel annoyed. But he didn’t. It didn’t get much less awkward the second night, when Mikey flicked irritably through the television channels without asking Gerard’s opinion first. Gerard doodled little geometric patterns in the margins of the newspaper Mikey had brought home, ignoring the banner headline announcing BLI’s takeover of some small radio network.
The third night - Friday night, Gerard reminded himself; it was easy to forget - Mikey watched him take his daily dose of medication and asked hesitantly, "You really are feeling okay?"
"I’m okay," Gerard replied.
"Not really, no."
"Seems awfully...easy. You don’t wonder about that?"
"Mikey." Gerard set the newspaper down, sat up and looked at his brother. "This doctor, this treatment program was your idea."
"I know," Mikey replied, his mouth turning down at the corners.
"And it’s a giant fucking relief, not to feel anything like that." He did wonder, later, bouncing the little plastic bottle gently in his palm. But his baby brother had smiled at him when he said he’d go to a work party with him the next night. Making Mikey happy, that had to be worth it.
Mikey was pretty much a nameless robotics geek, but it didn’t matter to the bosses at BLI - the big block parties were open to all, as wholesome as a kindergarten picnic. He’d confided in Gerard that he’d heard stories about other, more rarefied gatherings in the executives’ penthouses on top of Cloud Tower, but that was all they were. Stories. He mostly lurked around the edges, Gerard following him like a faithful dog. The party was starting to break up when he finally slowed Mikey down enough to ask, "What are you doing?"
"He said he’d be here," Mikey mumbled.
"Who said he’d be - wait." He laughed. "You’re looking for Ray, aren’t you? I hope he’s here, I think I should talk to him. As your older brother, I’m responsible for your - ow!" Mikey had hit him.
"Shut up, Gerard. You will never see him again if you’re going to be like that."
Gerard opened his mouth, fully prepared to defend his brotherly rights, but Mikey wasn’t paying attention. He was watching a disturbance across the green. Gerard stared too, transfixed. "Who’s that? Is that -"
A man was stalking through the crowd, his coattails - actual coattails from an actual frock coat - swishing viciously behind him. He was trailed by a pretty, well-dressed boy and several draculoids. Gerard could only stare; it was like something from the news reports. It wasn’t that he’d never seen a draculoid before, or that he didn’t actually know who the man was. It was just...unreal.
"Korse," Mikey murmured. "Man, he looks pissed. They say...they say these shortages and breakdowns lately aren’t just accidents. Wonder if anyone’ll stop him and ask him about them?" He snorted at his own joke. Gerard laughed too. Like hell any BLI employee - peon to middle management to upper management - would want to bring that down on their heads. The head of the SCARECROW Unit was arguably one of the most powerful people in the corporation - all the more so because no one knew who was behind the masks of the rank and file officers. Korse was the head exterminator - he was SCARECROW - he gave it a face.
Korse and his entourage stopped at the doors to Cloud Tower while he scanned the gathered crowd. Gerard was still staring, and they made eye contact for a single moment before Gerard swore, looked at the ground and grabbed for Mikey. "Shit, he looked at me."
Mikey just laughed. "Watch out Gee, you’re his type."
"What’s that mean, fucker?"
"Shut up, you have that fucking pretty face." Mikey patted his cheek clumsily. "Much prettier than his latest."
"You shut up. Asshole." Gerard felt his face turning red, and he started twisting his jacket cuffs in his fingers. "What’s that even mean?"
Mikey snorted. "You know. You read all the gossip magazines, don’t think I don’t see them. Maybe you should get a job, Gerard." A week ago, he wouldn’t have dared say that, even as a joke.
"Who would keep house for you?"
"Who does it now?"
Gerard smacked him on the arm. "I’m ready to get out of here, Mikey, are you?" Mikey nodded. They wove through the crowd toward the Battery Towers campus exits. Stepping back out onto the sidewalk, Gerard shuddered until the flushed, crawling feeling was gone from his shoulder blades.
"Gerard." He was back in Dr. Slade’s office. She was sitting with aggressively perfect posture and demurely folded hands, studying him. "It’s been several weeks now. Do you have any side effects to report from the course of medication?"
"I...don’t think so?"
"No, or you don’t think so?"
"No," he qualified. "I guess I was just expecting..."
"Good health is the reward for good choices, Gerard," she told him.
"But I didn’t...." What choices? He hadn’t even made a choice to stop the drugs, the drinking, they were just...gone. It felt wrong, but every time he tried to think about it his head hurt and he’d have to stop.
Dr. Slade was rolling right over his statement. "And your brother? I know you’ve said you’re close, that you live together. Is he being supportive?"
"Yeeeees," Gerard prevaricated. He thought of the last few days, of Mikey’s averted gaze, the minute hesitations someone who didn’t know him well wouldn’t notice. It wasn’t the sort of thing he could explain, unless you understood him and Mikey. And he wasn’t sure what had changed, but he was sure he didn’t want this doctor to understand. "He says I should get a job," he added, just to have something to say.
"Oh, that’s a truly excellent idea," the doctor gushed. "Idle hands are the devil’s playground, you know." She sounded almost playful, and Gerard frowned, but she was jotting something down on one of the ever-present appointment cards and handing it over. "Go see HR. We have several positions open, just for young people like you." Young people. Gerard studied Dr. Slade. She was maybe ten years older than him, at the most. He took the card, tucked it into his pocket. "Now, should we say this time again next week?"
Gloria in HR was delighted to see him. They had a position in the mail room that was ‘perfect for a young man just starting out’. She had to be at least sixty, so he forgave her the ‘just starting out’ comment. He also took the job, which meant Gerard started setting his alarm clock, tugging on work pants and the unflattering uniform shirt, bolting coffee and trudging to work beside Mikey.
The mail room was deadly dull, and he learned the ropes in no time. His supervisor, a girl named Jane, figured out fast enough that he didn’t need a lot of supervision and took to wandering off to visit her boyfriend, some guy in accounting, only reemerging when it was time to sort the black tote.
The black tote was pretty much the only thing Gerard hadn’t learned about yet. Jane brushed him off whenever he offered to take care of it, saying it was ‘supervisor level’, whatever that meant, and carrying it back into her tiny office. He’d just roll his eyes and fill the mail cart again, heading out of the sorting room towards the elevator bay. After a few weeks of this, he started to imagine he could see a little track wearing into the carpet.
As always Gerard saved Robotics for last, wheeling the rattling cart down one of the subterranean pedestrian walkways and leaving it with the unit admin. He wound his way through the maze of cubicles and glass-walled labs until he found Mikey’s. Mikey waved him in when he tapped on the window, and as he shut the door behind him he caught sight of Ray - Mikey’d finally seen fit to allow them in the same place again, like Gerard would embarrass him or something - slumped at Mikey’s seldom-used desk with his head in his hands.
"Is this a bad time?" Gerard asked. Mikey shrugged and kept making notes on the roll of blueprints spread out on his worktable.
Ray looked up. "Hey, Gerard," he said. "Did you need to talk to Mikey? I can just - "
"No," Gerard cut in. "I was just - I brought the mail. I don’t want to interrupt. You’re - "
Ray smiled, as always surprisingly sweet. "Not doing anything that’s gonna change the world," Ray said. "Just talking."
Gerard cut his eyes to Mikey. "Dinner after work?"
Mikey hesitated. "I have plans with Ray," he said finally.
They’d gone out for drinks with Ray twice this week already, so Gerard wasn’t sure what the difference was, but he could see Ray fidgeting in the corner. Oh. Was it that kind of plan? He caught himself staring blankly. This, he thought to himself, is where an emotion should go. Knowing that didn’t help, though. "Okay," he replied. "See you later."
When he got back to the mail room, Jane was nowhere to be found. Gerard peeked into her office, noticing the black tote sitting on her desk, apparently unopened. He frowned a little. Weird. When she hadn’t returned in an hour or so, and he’d read all the headlines on the BLI intranet server, he went to stand in the door again. Someone was sure to be annoyed if the mail didn’t get done. And the mail wouldn’t be done until that tote was done.
He went and cracked the top off the box. The black tote was full of white envelopes, with strings of numbers scrawled on them in thick black pen. It was some sort of a code, obviously. Gerard bit his lip. Something stirred behind his temples, in the palms of his hands, unfamiliar yet welcome. If he could figure this out, sort these letters.... One of the many things Gerard had forgotten about himself, thanks to the booze, was how much he’d once loved a challenge.
He worked past closing time, forgetting to punch out. He worked past the time that he normally met Mikey for their walk back home. He worked past dark, and past the time they switched the towers over to the power-saver lighting scheme. It only took one coded string of numbers to crack the whole lot, and then he was sorting them, dumping them in inter-office mailbags, and wheeling his squeaking cart around the mostly-deserted building, dropping them off at the appropriate admin desks.
When he was done, he shrugged into his jacket, wound a scarf around his neck, and headed home. The corners of his lips lifted upward into a faint smile as he walked.
When Gerard arrived the next morning, Jane still wasn’t there, but Gloria from HR was, looking less grandmotherly and more pinched around the mouth. "Where’s Jane?" he asked. "Is everything okay?"
"Jane has been reassigned," Gloria told him. "And I’ll need you to come with me, please." Gerard’s eyes widened a little. He hiked the strap of his bag higher on his shoulder and trailed Gloria towards the staff elevators. He expected to be led to the guard station and thrown out of the building, but she just pushed the button for the fourteenth floor and led him back to her office.
Dr. Slade was waiting inside one of the HR offices, along with an older man Gerard had never seen before. Gloria waved him into the room but didn’t follow, closing the door softly behind him.
"Gerard." The doctor still had her professional smile. She indicated a chair across the table from her and Gerard sat, studying the tabletop. A scratch ran the length of the wood - real wood, BLI spared no expense - and Gerard picked at it nervously with a fingernail. "Gerard," she repeated. "This is Mr. Baum. He has a few questions for you."
"Mr. Way." Mr. Baum held out a hand across the table. Gerard eyed it warily for a moment before reaching out to shake it. Mr. Baum settled back in his chair and reached for a file folder, opening it up and sliding it across the surface of the table towards Gerard. "Tell me a little more about this."
Gerard pulled the folder closer. It held a few pieces of scrap paper with bits and pieces of last night’s attempts at codebreaking. He’d thrown them in the trash before he left. "I know I shouldn’t have," he said in a rush. "It was just that - "
"Gerard, you’re not in trouble," Dr. Slade interrupted. "Answer the question." She had her own file folder, and was flicking back and forth between several pages, but looked up and fixed him with an expectant stare.
"I didn’t know where Jane was," he started miserably, "and I was bored, and I knew the mail ought to get done, and when I opened the tote and saw the addresses were in code...well, it took me a couple hours to break, but I figured I should keep trying, because it couldn’t be that tough."
"Couldn’t be that tough," Mr. Baum repeated. "Do you like codes, Mr. Way?"
"I...guess," Gerard said lamely. "I used to have a picture book of...well, it was a long time ago." It was Before. The bombs had taken a lot of things away, and those types of books weren’t common anymore - the engravings were too expensive, or maybe the demand was just that low. He remembered, though. Escher, the man’s name had been. Gerard had been maybe twelve, and he’d been in love with the illustrations. "But it’s like...they were all just patterns, things like that. I’m good with those."
"Gerard, Mr. Baum is a specialized recruitment officer for the company. He has some tests he’d like you to take. As your doctor, I’ve agreed to administer the first round. If you’ll follow us?"
They both stood, and so did Gerard, but he held onto the back of his chair for a moment. "This is...for a job?"
"If you pass, Mr. Way," Mr. Baum intoned. His delivery suggested Gerard not think about the alternative.
They led him back to the elevators, the mirrored doors disgorging them onto the now familiar floor where Dr. Slade had her office. Mr. Baum didn’t accompany them, saying he’d check in later.
It took nearly the rest of the day to complete the testing. It felt less like a test than a barrage of black and white. True and false. Tessellations on the wall. Escher. Rorschach. A brief memory from Before. Another book. He could practically feel the slick paper pages under his fingertips, but he couldn’t remember. Why couldn’t he remember?
Gerard blinked. He tuned back into the doctor’s murmuring voice. His ears were ringing like he’d been listening to a nearly subsonic drone. He tugged at the neck of his shirt. He needed - air. Something.
Dr. Slade was frowning at something on her computer screen. "Thank you for your cooperation, Mr. Way." It was Gerard before. Cooperation with what? Why couldn’t he remember? She turned away for a moment. His stomach clenching, he rushed out of the office, his white face staring back at him in triplicate from the elevator panels as he descended. He stepped far enough away from the BLI campus to not be breaking their anti-smoking regulations and lit a precious cigarette with shaking hands. He’d managed to smoke it nearly to the filter before a pair of shoes invaded his field of view.
Gerard looked up, flicking the butt to the ground automatically when he recognized Mr. Baum. "You left before I could debrief you, Mr. Way," he said, blandly polite. "But here you are. This is for you." He extended a slip of paper bearing Gerard’s name, a bar code, the date, and a signature. "You’ve been clocked out for the day today. Report to Tower A, 43rd floor tomorrow - SCARECROW offices. You’ll have to present that to get signed in. Don’t be late." He paused, looked Gerard up and down. "And Mr. Way? Business dress, if you please."
SCARECROW? There was no way they actually wanted.... Gerard studied Mr. Baum’s retreating back. He didn’t seem like the kind of man who joked about, well, anything.
The apartment was quiet, as Gerard hadn’t bothered with the television, but he didn’t even hear Mikey come in. When Mikey appeared in the doorway of Gerard’s bedroom, Gerard was still in the same spot he’d been in essentially all afternoon: staring at his dress slacks and the white button-down he’d liberated from Mikey’s closet and tossed onto the foot of his mattress.
"Gerard?" Mikey sounded wary. His eyes darted around the bedroom and Gerard knew what he was doing - looking for pills, bottles. "You didn’t bring the mail today. You weren’t there after work. Are you - what are you doing with my shirt?"
"I had a...job interview today. I have to go back tomorrow, and I have to wear -" he flapped a hand vaguely at the shirt. "You know. Something nice."
"A job interview? Where? Didn’t you go to work this morning?" Mikey frowned.
"I was at work," Gerard said. "I - it’s a long story. But I took this test...and they want me to go to the SCARECROW office tomorrow."
"Are you fucking serious? To do what?" Gerard hadn’t heard Mikey sound that worked up about anything in a while.
"I don’t fucking know, Mikeyway," Gerard said wearily. "Guess we’ll find out if I get it."
Mikey looked like he wanted to protest further, but Gerard honestly just didn’t have the energy. He lay down on the mattress and buried his face in the pillow. He could hear Mikey’s slightly unsteady breathing, and for a minute it was like the old days, like during the wars, when their parents were first gone and Mikey was sick and Gerard had listened, every night.... Gerard squeezed his eyes shut and the memory flickered away as quickly as it had come. After another moment, he heard his door snick shut.
SCARECROW, as it transpired, took up several floors near the top of Angel Tower. When the elevator arrived at the forty-second floor, a small rectangle lit up on the number panel, and a recorded voice prompted him to hold his bar code up to the scanner. He fumbled for the paper in his pocket. Yes, there was a bar code on it. He held it up gingerly and there was a low chime, then the doors slid open.
Another receptionist sat behind a small white desk in a white lobby. He squinted at Gerard’s piece of paper, and at Gerard, like he suspected some sort of forgery. Finally he punched some buttons on a keypad on his desk and pointed towards a set of double doors. "The doors will open when the buzzer sounds," he said. "Someone will meet you on the other side."
It was Mr. Baum, eyeing Gerard’s crooked, hastily tied tie with mild disdain. He led Gerard down the center of a long hallway. Gerard followed, trying not to cringe too obviously away from the dracs and the cloth-masked renfields walking down either side. He could see their heads turning toward him in his peripheral vision.
"In here, please, Mr. Way." Mr. Baum waved Gerard into a room filled with electronic equipment. "You’re going to be using the equipment in this room to detect, track, and decode visual, auditory, and written codes. One of our staffers, Mr. Anderson, is here to debrief you on how it all works, if you’re unfamiliar. Successful solo operation is also, one could say, part of the test. After Mr. Anderson leaves, you’ll be given two hours. Understood?"
Gerard nodded. A dark-haired man about Gerard’s own age slipped through the partially-open door as Mr. Baum left.
"Hi," Gerard said, "Are you Mr. Anderson? I’m Ger - "
"Hello, Mr. Way," he said. Gerard bit the inside of his lip and sat down in one of the chairs. Mr. Anderson continued, "Are you familiar with any of this equipment?"
Gerard scanned the array of instrumentation in front of him. "Yeah, um, not really any of it," he mumbled, rubbing the back of his neck. Mr. Anderson - shit, he couldn't call someone his own age Mister. Did this division have an aversion to first names? - just looked mildly concerned, pulled a chair closer, and started explaining. Gerard listened intently, Mr. Anderson's voice fading into the intermittent drone of static from several sets of speakers. "Does it make sense?" he asked Gerard after a while, a dark-eyed glance of gentle interest.
"I think so," Gerard mused. He did. The operation wasn't the hard part. Mr. Anderson had rolled his chair aside to let Gerard take the controls, and Gerard flexed his fingers over the keyboard a few times like a - like a piano. He frowned; that was a thought he hadn't had in a long time. Keyboards. Fret boards. Hammers and strings.
Music. He stared for a moment into the flickering tubes of one of the television monitors, the BLI logo flashing erratically in the center of the white screen. He'd almost tuned out the feedback; now he found himself hearing the wavering pitch, humming under his breath - a third, a fifth. Octave. Minor seventh. A half-forgotten language. More than half.
A chair squeaked. Mr. Anderson was leaning back, looking at him with a frown. "Sorry," Gerard breathed. "I was just thinking. I think I can -"
"Are you ready for the test? I'll call Mr. Baum."
Gerard stared at the screens, licked his lips. "Yes. Yes." He nodded a few times. He could do this.
Mr. Anderson handed him a large pair of headphones. "You'll want these. I'll tell Mr. Baum I'm setting up the testing module for you." He disappeared out the door.
"Nice to meet you too," Gerard mumbled under his breath. He reached up and loosened his tie a bit, rolled up his shirt sleeves.
Mr. Baum's voice crackled from a hidden intercom. "You'll have two hours from this point, Mr. Way. We'll measure your success at the end of that two hour period. You will not get any breaks. Ready to go, on your mark."
Gerard ran his hands across the edge of the desk, adjusted his headphones and nodded once more. "Ready!"
The monitors, speakers, and text screens flickered to life all at once, a roaring cacophony of competing sounds. Gerard took a deep breath and reached for the controls.
He was humming under his breath again.
Two hours later, when the screens went black, he had a stack of handwritten notes and half a dozen audio and visual clips queued on the main control module. He rolled away from the desk and stumbled toward the door, shoring himself up on the door frame and punching the intercom button. "Mr. Baum?" he called out.
"Tabulating results now," the intercom crackled. Gerard went back and spun the chair around, sitting back down and staring at the door. It took a little while, but finally Mr. Baum appeared. "Congratulations, Mr. Way," he said. "Your results are perfectly satisfactory. We’ll start you out in an entry-level analyst position." He didn’t ask if Gerard was interested. It didn’t appear to matter.
Gerard didn't exactly have experience with corporate work, but his vague expectations were that on the floors above the mail room there would be a little bit more time spent around the water cooler. But even if there was no real conversation, no one in the BLI offices was actually unfriendly. On the contrary, they were all weirdly polite most of the time. It made Gerard uneasy. Or, rather, it made him feel like he ought to be uneasy. The silent comings and goings of the dracs and rennies did make him uneasy, so he kept his head down and his headphones on, and monitored his transmission module, and didn't think about anything else.
It took several weeks to even start to understand what precisely he was seeing when he was scanning the frequencies. Most of it was, to be frank, boring. Surveillance footage, drayage reports, chatter between the sector chiefs in different areas of the city and from the hazy inroads the urban sprawl had made into the zones outside the atmospheric grid. Fact News, it seemed, was a little short on sharing certain facts, one of those being the existence of some sort of faction in the zones that the other analysts called runners. It was apparently true that the accidents around the City were not really accidents. Gerard really wanted to tell Mikey. The worst part of it was that he couldn't. He'd signed some very intimidating confidentiality paperwork when he started working for SCARECROW, and if there was anything he'd learned in the past few weeks, it was that very few things were really, truly private.
The club was tucked down a side street that had Gerard looking uncomfortably over his shoulder as he walked, automatically sighting BLI security cameras. He stuck his hands in his pockets. Nowhere in the Battery was cold, thanks to the atmospheric grid, but he felt chilled anyway. He’d never noticed before how seedy this area of the Battery was.
Gerard kept his eyes peeled; it was a tough place to find even if you'd been there before, just a peeling signboard reading "BCDC". It stood for Battery City Droid Club. He and Mikey had come here all the time, back when he was consistently drunk enough to like partying and not too drunk to function. Gerard couldn't remember when they'd started, only that Mikey knew the owner, a stocky dark-haired guy who favored billed caps and black hoodies and who was called ... JD, maybe? Gerard wasn't sure. But it was JD who'd programmed the droids. There were other droid clubs around the city now, slicker, more popular, but this was the first.
Gerard hadn’t been out with Mikey and Ray for several weeks, and he wasn't sure who'd been more surprised that afternoon; him at Mikey for inviting him out, or Mikey at him for accepting. Stepping inside, he nodded at the bouncer positioned by the front door and scanned the room for Mikey or Ray. They weren't in the main room, where various male- and female-designated droids carried trays through the bowl of seats while several others gyrated onstage. He wasn't surprised; he could hear live music coming from the cantina at the back of the club. Gerard pushed his way through a knot of teenagers with their faces displaying the telltale vacant stare of Timewarp and gave a little shudder.
Apparently it was mariachi night in the cantina. A motley group of musicians wearing tattered but ultra-traditional black and white embroidered uniforms was clumped on the tiny stage, their BLI entertainment permit displayed prominently on a plaque at their feet. Gerard stared for a moment at the stage lights glinting off the bald head of the bass player, and then shook himself. He saw Mikey out of the corner of his eye in the next moment, waving lazily from a side booth.
There was a bottle of soft drink waiting for him when he slid into the booth across from Mikey and Ray. A comment sat on the very tip of his tongue about the two of them sitting on the same side of the booth, but he couldn’t dislodge it; he felt indifferent about the whole thing. Besides, they could have just been watching the band. He picked up the bottle and took a drink, then glanced over his shoulder at the band. "Mariachi night? It’s been months."
"They lost their entertainment permit for three months. The public relations department found some unauthorized demos they’d made." Mikey’s voice was filled with disgust.
Gerard’s brow wrinkled. This may have been a shitty club, but they were a good band. It was hard to get an entertainment permit these days, and if you had one you were in demand. Most people just stayed home and tuned in to the entertainment channels. "Shit, why’d they risk it?"
"Why’d they risk making music, Gee?" Mikey’s eyebrows were practically in his hairline, looking startled, and Gerard sighed. It was so hard to talk to Mikey these days. When he would talk, he was always … asking Gerard these questions. Gerard always felt like he wasn’t giving the right answers. Which was bullshit. Wasn’t he a fucking functional member of society these days? Mikey was watching him nervously, in fact, like he was expecting Gerard to get mad. Gerard didn’t feel mad, just resigned.
"They are making music. Right now, in fact," Gerard pointed out evenly. He saw Mikey sneak a look at Ray, and Gerard looked at Ray himself. "How’re things, Toro?"
"All right!" Ray answered. Gerard flinched a little at the cheerful tone. "I had -" He paused. "Some leave time coming to me, so I’ve been, ah, relaxing. Oh, and I cleaned my apartment and I found some of those old -" He stopped again, lowered his voice. "Those comic books we were talking about a while back?"
Gerard scrunched his forehead in thought. "I don’t - Hm." He couldn’t quite place the conversation, and it made him uncomfortable. "It’s always nice to have things clean," he finished. He didn’t miss the concerned look Ray and Mikey shot each other as he turned to watch the band again.
A few songs in, the lead singer stopped to talk while his bandmates got drinks and checked their tuning. He’d been naming the songs throughout the set, and this one got a single one-sentence description, "...and it’s not about the Harmony Act." There was a weird lull in the noise level in the cantina for a moment, and then they started playing again.
It was still a traditional tune, but there was something off about it, distorted in the harmonics. It wasn’t that it didn’t sound good, but it sounded like it was meant for instruments other than the ones being used to play it. Gerard frowned and shot a look at Mikey, unsure what the Harmony Act was. He’d been too tired lately to read the papers, or watch BLTV, but Mikey did religiously. Gerard sighed and resolved to read the pile of days-old newspapers sometime. Maybe. The news wasn’t very interesting when the top stories crossed his frequencies hours, days before they showed up on the page.
Mikey was frowning at the stage too, in between scanning the room like he was looking for someone. He still looked worried, and although Gerard couldn’t quite understand why, he was still struck with the sudden urge to hug him. He held back, but Mikey caught him looking, and gave him a little smile. Gerard took a deep breath for the first time all night. Maybe Mikey was okay. Gerard didn’t want Mikey to worry about anything, least of all him. He was fine.
People seemed to drain out of the room soon after that, and Gerard could hear, could feel the heavy bass picking up in the music filtering in from the club. The featured dancers were about to start the floor show. Gerard watched JD cross the cantina, and he nodded in the direction of their table. Gerard nodded back automatically, but JD didn’t come over. He stopped and said something to the bass guitar player then disappeared into a curtained doorway.
Gerard was tired; he looked back at Ray and Mikey and they weren’t done with their drinks yet, but he didn’t feel like staying any longer. "I’m going to take off," he told them, and they both nodded and Mikey said he’d see Gerard at home. He probably wouldn’t; their schedules seemed not to match lately. Gerard tucked a couple credit notes under his coaster and tugged his coat back on, slipping out through the crowd in the main club. Strobe lights glinted off of the stage, but he didn’t look back.
Mr. Anderson stopped into Gerard's brand-new module command room at least once or twice a day at first. He slowed down a little once Gerard started learning the ropes, but still came by occasionally. Gerard didn’t know if it was meant to be friendly, but Gerard wasn’t feeling exceptionally friendly right now anyway; he wasn't exactly spending much time with Mikey and Ray, and he didn’t have much of a routine without them. He got few other visitors, but it didn’t much matter. After a month or so, Gerard was so busy, so fascinated, that he started staying late even when he wasn't scheduled for the late shift, scanning the frequencies at all times of day or night. Mikey would study him over his morning mug of coffee when Gerard stumbled in at the crack of dawn, looking like he wanted to say something. But Gerard was sober; he hadn't touched an illicit drop or a capsule since his first BL Drugs pill. The frequencies were all he could think about.
He wanted to ask Mikey, sometimes, if Mikey ever hummed along to the robotics motors' frequencies. It didn't seem like the sort of thing he was supposed to bring up. He kept quiet about work, and so did Mikey.
Gerard was working late one night, headphones pushed up off of one ear and his hands hovering over his keyboards, when the door behind him clicked open and a voice commented, "You missed a column on Screen Eight."
Gerard rolled his eyes. The night guys were even less chatty than the day shift, but occasionally they got it into their heads to lord it over the newbie while the supervisors were out of the way. "Wow, thanks, maybe you should be doing this," he snapped.
"I could, but then a lot of other things wouldn’t get done." The tone, far from being snide, was utterly amused, and Gerard froze, slowly curled his fingers away from the keys, and swiveled around in his chair.
Korse was standing in the open doorway, one hand leisurely unbuttoning his long coat, the other arm propped against the door frame. Gerard could actually feel his breath seize, and he shuddered. Oh, fuck. He’d survived a screw-up a couple weeks ago when he’d mis-coded the sequencing and accidentally thrown half the video monitors out of loop. He wasn’t sure if anyone could survive mouthing off to the head of SCARECROW. But Korse wasn’t yelling for his personal guard of dracs, and he wasn’t ordering Gerard to pack up his things. He was just standing there with a faint smile quirking his lips, looking.
Gerard had been on the brink of some sort of babbling apology, but at the sight of that half-smile he pressed his lips together, lifted his chin a bit, and looked back. He’d never been so close to Korse before; the man only came into the office every few days. He was older than Gerard, but his shaved head made it difficult to gauge by how many years, and was as always impeccably dressed in a frock coat and ruffled shirt. No one in Battery City - at least no one Gerard knew - dressed like that; but Korse did. He didn’t seem to mind Gerard looking, either, just lifted an eyebrow and waited until Gerard broke the eye contact.
"You’re my new boy, aren’t you?" Korse asked casually. He tucked a hand into his pocket and took a few steps into the room, his sweeping gaze taking in Gerard, his monitors, and his tablet full of scrawled notes and tiny sketches. "What’s your name?"
"Gerard - Way," he replied slowly, remembering formality at the last minute. This, after all, was Korse, whose sheer reputation outweighed the need for an honorific. He was still not sure the next thing out of Korse’s mouth wouldn’t be, "pack your things, Mr. Way."
It wasn’t. "Gerard," Korse repeated, like he was testing the feel of the name in his mouth. And he smiled razor-sharp, and pointed. "Double-check Screen Eight."
Then he resettled his cuffs, turned, and walked out.
Korse went from being nowhere to being practically everywhere. Gerard started out on edge, and then he was just - aware. His module room door was always open, and his hands, arms, the slide of his body in his chair, took on the self-conscious rhythm of the watched. Most of the time, the doorway was empty.
Most of the time. He’d just about stopped jumping when he heard Korse’s voice now. "Gerard," he greeted him, as always. Gerard wondered why he, out of all people, got the first-name treatment. Maybe Korse was always like this. It wasn’t like there was anyone he could ask.
You’re his type, he heard in Mikey’s voice. No. No, that couldn’t be it. He refused to even consider it.
The pretty young man who’d been trailing Korse at that first block party hadn’t shown his face lately, though.
Though he seemed to be more present in the BLI complex, it was still easy to lose track of Korse when it seemed like he left the City every few days. Gerard had a superstitious distrust of the zones outside the city, though he knew there were some people who lived there. The stories he'd heard.... But Gerard tried to keep up with the transmissions that involved things he knew were Korse’s personal projects. Every once in a while, he wrote up reports on items of interest and left them on Korse's desk.
He told himself he was just doing his job. And Korse always stopped by his command room and thanked him, seriously but with the hint of a smile that drove Gerard mad. Gerard rose from probationary to supervisor status in a matter of months, and the other analysts muttered behind his back. He knew that. But what did they matter? They were nothing, compared to the transmissions, the humming patterns and codes and phrases.
He spent most of one day niggling over a single audio transmission; it was a report from one of the sector bosses to his SCARECROW counterpart, and there was a strange overlay to the message - bursts of static where static had no reason to be. Gerard hummed idly along with the static, looping the clip over and over and over, idly flipping through some of the live channels. Then he froze, replayed the clip. Hummed. Replayed the clip again, fingers tapping wildly at his keys.
When his console spat out a white chunk of paper, he stood up and made his way through the halls to Korse's office. For once, he was actually there, and Gerard hesitated in the doorway, paper clenched in his fist. "Sir," he said quietly, not wanting to interrupt, but Korse looked up and saw him there.
"Gerard. What is it?" He sounded preoccupied, and Gerard bowed his head, turned away, and then turned back.
"It's a piggyback transmission. Came in overlaid in the harmonics on a sector boss's report. Never seen anything like it. I don't understand it, but I think you should come have a listen."
"What's that?" Korse gestured to the paper clutched in Gerard's hand.
"Triangulation code. It's not important unless we lose the source transmission. I didn’t want to risk it. Sir?"
Korse let his eyes roam over Gerard’s face for a moment, then stood and brushed the wrinkles out of his coat. "Lead on, Gerard."
Gerard resisted the urge to hunch his shoulders as the department head trailed him back through the warren of offices. Several analysts gave him curious looks; the rennies and dracs always intimidated him with their faceless staring. He kept his eyes up and kept moving.
"Here's the audio message," he told Korse, dropping into his chair and handing Korse a set of headphones. He pushed the button for playback. "And here, after I stripped the interference and ran the capture through a decoding program." The altered message played. Gerard tapped a little rhythm on the edge of the desk, waiting.
Korse was quiet for a moment. "Pull up the video feed for this sector at that timestamp," he said softly, calling for different cameras and watching as shadowy figures moved around on the screen. He laid a hand on the back of Gerard's neck and leaned in to study the image closer.
Gerard froze, resisted the urge to bow his head, and resisted the alternate urge to push back into the warm grip. He did turn his head, Korse's fingers slipping along the skin of his neck. He knew his pulse was racing under those fingertips, felt a dull redness creeping across his cheeks. He let out a panting breath, eyes darting from the screen to Korse’s face, his half-lidded eyes and unreadable expression. "Good job," Korse said, letting his fingertips linger against Gerard’s jaw before turning away. Gerard waited until he’d heard the footsteps receding through his doorway before dropping his head down onto his desk.
The next day, the abrupt resignation of several sector bosses was not a news story on Fact News. Gerard knew about it anyway, because he was listening to the transmissions. He was always listening.
For the next week, Gerard did his shifts and then some, trudged home to eat reheated hash with Mikey, and slept. He didn't think about why he was feeling down, because he wasn't feeling down. He just felt like he should be.
"What's wrong with you?" Mikey asked one night, blunt as usual. He’d been trying to talk to Gerard about an article in the magazine he was reading, but apparently he’d been trying and failing to get Gerard’s attention for quite some time, and his face was starting to slip into a frown. Gerard wasn’t sure what he’d done, but he had a weird empty feeling in his stomach, like he was still hungry, or.... Something.
"Nothing! Just...work stuff."
Mikey cocked an eyebrow at him. "Work stuff? When have you ever given a second thought to 'work stuff' outside of work?"
"You don't - I can't explain, Mikey." He couldn't anyway. Confidentiality clause.
"Never mind then," Mikey mumbled. He stared at the magazine for a moment, then threw it down onto the table and got up, grabbing a jacket and leaving his dinner on the table, saying something about Ray. Gerard stayed behind when he headed for the door, poking at the crumbs of food left on the platter. He crumpled his napkin and shoved the dish violently away from him. Something cracked. He leaned back in his chair, hanging his head back and closing his eyes.
Korse reappeared in the office again as suddenly as he ever did. He looked rejuvenated, the lines of zone-sickness smoothed from his face; he made regular use of BLI’s sleep pod programming, something Gerard could never make himself do even though he had the clearances now. He materialized in Gerard's doorway one morning and said, "There's a reception for the division chiefs tomorrow night in C Tower. You’re my star analyst and I want you to be there. You'll come?"
"I.... You want me there? Really?" Korse just looked at him steadily. "Sure, I will." Gerard couldn't make himself sound too awfully happy about it. He looked down at himself, tugging irritably at his tie and shoving at his drooping rolled shirtsleeves. He didn’t look like a star anything. He didn’t feel like a star anything - except when Korse was talking to him.
"Come with me, then." The voice made Gerard jump, and he jerked around gracelessly. "I can see you'll need a better suit." Korse was still standing in the doorway. Did he actually read minds? Gerard really hoped he didn’t.
"Oh. You mean...now?"
"When else, Gerard?" Korse raised an eyebrow.
Of course. Gerard unhooked his headphones from around his neck and dropped them on his desk. A small contingent of dracs - only two, this time - followed them to the elevators.
The boutique Korse took him to looked like the kind of place that would sell gorgeously tailored frock coats. It didn't look like the kind of place that would sell jackets like the slightly tattered one Gerard was wearing. The salesman did a double take when Gerard walked in, then visibly swallowed when Korse appeared over Gerard's shoulder. Korse started firing quiet orders at the salesman the moment he walked in the door, steered Gerard into a fitting room with a handful of clothing items, and waited for him to reemerge. He looked Gerard up and down, very slowly, and nodded once. "That'll do."
He insisted on paying for the suit.
Gerard carried the crinkly plastic bag home with him that night, stuffed it into his closet and attempted to ignore it. It would have helped to spend the evening with Mikey, but he didn't come home until Gerard had given up and gone to bed, and Gerard heard him but was too tired to get up. Instead he watched the shadows move over his bedroom ceiling until he fell into an exhausted sleep.
He took the suit to work with him the next day, waiting to change until most of his officemates had gone home for the evening. The slacks were first, draping nicely over his battered but polished black boots. Then the shirt, the tie. A vest buttoned snugly over both. A neatly tailored jacket. He reached for his bag, pulled out the final accessory. The pocket watch was ancient but still kept perfect time. It had been his grandfather’s. He let it spin in the air for a moment and then slipped it in the vest pocket, running the chain through his fingers helplessly.
"Here. Let me." Gerard was getting used to that voice interrupting his silences. Korse didn’t look much different; maybe a little more pressed, his badge and ray gun tucked out of view for the time being. He sounded amused again. Gerard had stopped trying to figure out what amused him - sometimes it seemed like everything and nothing at the same time. He tugged the watch chain out of Gerard’s fingers and draped and tucked it himself, following the golden links with feather-light fingertips across Gerard’s stomach. "You look - ready." He didn’t bother to keep the hint of suggestion out of his voice.
Gerard tipped his face up, studying Korse from slightly too close. "As I’ll ever be." Gerard had maybe expected more of a reaction, but Korse merely waved toward the door. Gerard preceded him out of the office and down to the lobby, Korse striding easily at his side with his coattails swishing around his thighs.
Tower C, the one everyone called Cloud Tower, was restaurants and meeting rooms on the main levels with private apartments above. Most of the department heads, including Korse, had residences there. Even grunts like Mikey could get an apartment there, but back when he was the only one working, they couldn’t afford it. Gerard looked around with interest. It was all glass and black marble and white up-lights, gorgeous and a little eerie.
"This way, Gerard," Korse said, closing his fingers around Gerard’s elbow. Gerard flashed him a quick glance. He tugged Gerard into the crowd, and Gerard lost track of the introductions. He remembered the appraising glances. But the people who were introduced always seemed to want to talk to him. They were richly dressed and aggressively groomed, unlike the cubicle rats that filled Tower A every day, but still curiously bland; after a while they blurred into a sea of beige and black and gray. He forgot their faces but heard their voices, talking and talking and never saying anything. Korse was pulled in the opposite direction after a while, and Gerard retreated, grabbing a glass from a hovering waiter and leaning against a pillar.
Only then did he realize what he was holding. He looked down. Water, with ice. Strange, what was a delicacy these days. When he looked up again, he met Korse’s eyes across the room. Maybe it wasn’t an accident.
He’d never thought about them having access to his files, but it suddenly struck him that he worked for the police, and they knew everything about him. He raised the glass to his lips, sipped deliberately. Korse looked away first this time.
Gerard met more interchangeable faces. He remembered their names, had heard them so many times over the frequencies. He knew everything about them, he realized. And they knew it. That was why they talked to him. That was why Korse had brought him here. He was a weapon.
It was getting late. The crowd was thinning, enough that he could hear the tinkling sound of instrumental music. Most of the BLI buildings piped in music, quiet and inoffensive and, after a while, just part of the furnishings. Tonight, Gerard heard it for the first time in a while. He wished suddenly for quiet, for the headphones he’d left back on his desk. The flow of the crowd carried him back towards Korse, who was watching him.
Gerard stopped in front of Korse and automatically stepped closer. "Are you enjoying yourself?" Korse asked him.
"Does it matter?" Gerard responded immediately, and then clamped his mouth shut. Typical; he’d never been able to keep his mouth shut when he needed to. Shit. He tried to look away, but Korse caught his eyes, demanding eye contact.
"It does, in fact, matter to me whether you’re enjoying yourself," Korse replied, voice smooth and dark. They weren’t touching, but he was still the most present thing in Gerard’s orbit; Gerard squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, refocused.
"I know why you brought me here," he said.
"Do you?" Korse could make that amused tone more suggestive than a proposition.
"You said you wanted your star analyst here. But that’s not it. You wanted them to see me with you."
"Gerard." Korse looked over Gerard’s shoulder. He obviously had something to say; he closed his hand around Gerard’s upper arm, tugged him through the room to a little deserted antechamber. A spotlight threw a slice of shadow across his face. He didn’t remove his hand from Gerard’s arm. "The fact that you realize that - that you would say that.... These people, they’re chess pieces. Influence is what moves them. They don’t know that’s why they’re looking at you like that, but you do. You have to realize how special that makes you."
"You’re the one with the influence."
"I earned it. You will, too. If that’s what you want." He lifted Gerard’s face with a thumb under his chin. "Is it?"
"I want - I want -" He wanted to be able to breathe. He wanted cold air, and Korse’s warm hands searing his bare skin. He wanted the cobwebs to go away. He wanted the words to express that, any of that, and he wanted to be terrified that they weren’t there. But all that was there was a lump in his throat and a thumping pulse. "I want to go home," he whispered, defeated.
"All right. I’ll drive you." He wanted that gentle tone to never stop, and he wanted it to go away. Korse was looking at him like he was one of his own codes. He felt like one - frustrating and fascinating and out of sequence.
When Korse said he’d drive Gerard home, he meant it. The car that pulled up in front of the portico was a growling metal beast so far removed from the motorcycles and sedate electric trams used by most city dwellers that it made Gerard laugh. "I’m sorry," he gasped out when Korse raised an eyebrow at him. "It’s just...I’ve never seen anything like this." He ran a hand up the slope of the hood. "It’s very...it’s beautiful, isn’t it?"
"I like pretty things," Korse replied, holding the passenger door open for him. Gerard got in, glad the shadows inside the car diffused the red staining his cheeks. They didn’t speak on the ride home, and Korse didn’t ask him for directions, just steered the car through the dark streets with steady hands. It was a short ride. Gerard gritted his teeth against the tickle under his skin, and when they stopped he practically jumped.
"Thank you, I -" His fingers clenched on the strap of his bag. He forced himself to let go, reached out and set his hand on Korse’s sleeve. "I’m sorry. About tonight. I know I didn’t do well."
"On the contrary. I think you exceeded my - expectations." The words were formal. The tone was anything but.
"I -" Words failed Gerard. "Goodnight." He let himself out of the car, his hand lingering on the door frame for just a moment. It really was a pretty car. He didn’t look back, but he jumped as Mikey rounded the corner of the building. They eyed each other nervously. Gerard was still dressed in the fancy suit. Mikey was dressed in dusty leather, black and grey, with a motorcycle helmet clenched in his hand. The elevator ride to their floor was uncomfortably silent.
"Hot date?" Gerard asked Mikey as he let them into their apartment, trying for a joking tone. He knew Ray rode a motorcycle.
"Maybe I should be asking you that," Mikey replied, and his tone was acidic enough to startle Gerard into blurting,
"What?" Hot and cold shivers were chasing each other up and down his spine. He knew his brother better than he knew himself, and this was a Mikey who was furious.
"D’you think I don’t know who that was, Gee?"
Gerard frowned, confused. "So what, Mikey? I was at a work thing; he gave me a ride home."
"He gave you a ride home? He gave you a -" Mikey’s voice was rising; he cut himself off abruptly with a laugh. "I bet."
"Mikey." This was - this was his brother, but this wasn’t something he could understand. "I was out. At a party, yeah, but doing my job. What’s your problem?"
The fight left Mikey as suddenly as it had appeared; he cocked an eyebrow, voice going back to its regular expressionless level. "My problem? Honestly, Gerard, your job is my problem." He tossed the helmet onto the living room floor. Gerard winced at the crash, but Mikey just kept pulling his gloves and jacket off, tossing them aside too and walking into the kitchen. Gerard trailed behind him, watching in disbelief as Mikey pulled a glass out of a cupboard and poured himself some water.
"My job … with BLI? Where you work? How exactly is that a problem for anyone?"
Mikey smoothed stringy brown hair back out of his face. "It means...shit, Gerard. Either you’re more clueless than I thought, or you’re not...not the same person you used to be."
It hurt. It hurt like a laser burst to the chest, quiet and bloodless and deadly. "I - " I don’t remember who I used to be, he wanted to yell. You’re supposed to be the one who remembers. But Mikey was turning away, bracing a hand on one of the chair backs. Gerard studied the dismissive line of his shoulders for a long time. Mikey didn’t turn back around. "I don’t understand this, but fine," Gerard said finally, trying to hold his voice steady. It was easier than he’d imagined it would be. "Then I’m not." He took a deep breath; the kitchen walls were tilting in, making him feel like he was smothering. He’d only ever had two solutions to that problem: drink until they crashed down, or run.
The walk back to Cloud Tower took a lot longer than the drive home, but Gerard didn’t see the streets he passed. He didn’t see anything. His pulse had faded to a faint drumbeat in his head. Not the same person you used to be, Mikey told him over and over. No. He wasn’t. If there was anyone who would understand that....
He had to stop and check in with the doorman, and when he had to ask the apartment number he almost lost his nerve, but he was waved to the elevator immediately. It was mirrored, like the elevators in Tower A, and a thousand Gerards watched him from various angles. Their expressions all looked different. He wasn’t sure which one was his.
Korse opened the door at the first soft knock. He’d lost the coat, his vest, his shoes, and hadn’t bothered to re-button the shirt he’d obviously taken off at some point. He looked a thousand times more comfortable than Gerard felt, but -
"Gerard?" he asked, faintly questioning. "Not that I’m not pleased to see you, but - "
"You can’t tell me this isn’t what you wanted all along," Gerard said, rushing to close the distance between them. He wrapped a hand around the back of Korse’s neck and tugged. Korse was frozen, muscles tight with tension against him, but at the touch of Gerard’s hand he moved quick as a thought, one hand twisting into Gerard’s hair, the other cupping Gerard’s jaw as their mouths crashed together. Gerard whimpered, but Korse couldn’t be hurried. He pulled back and his hand slipped off of Gerard’s face, twisted in the tie Gerard still wore.
"Of course this is what I wanted, you ridiculous boy," Korse growled into his ear. "Did you doubt it?"
"I - please, I need -" He fumbled at Korse’s shoulders, fingers slipping under the open plackets of Korse’s shirt and meeting warm bare skin.
The fingers in his hair tightened, tipping his head back so Korse could bite at his neck. "You need to slow down," he murmured. "Start over. Why are you here?"
"You know why," Gerard answered, stretching his neck out for Korse’s mouth.
Korse pulled back enough to look him in the eye. "I want you to tell me."
"I want you to fuck me," Gerard gritted, imitating Korse’s tone. He pushed closer, wriggling in his grip, but Korse didn’t move a bit. Instead, he chuckled.
"I got that," he replied. "I told you, slow down. You’re going to make me ruin this nice new suit of yours."
"I don’t care," Gerard insisted.
"So take it off," Gerard said, fumbling at the buttons himself. Korse’s hands stopped him.
"Now you’re getting the idea." He made quick work of Gerard’s buttons, but the slide of the fabric off his shoulders was glacially slow. When his coat and vest were draped over the back of a chair, Korse traced his fingers down Gerard’s tie. "Should I keep going?"
"Yes, fuck, yes," Gerard babbled, leaning in for another kiss. He felt Korse’s hands at his neck, the slide-release of his tie being pulled free. The tiny stinging press of his shirt buttons releasing one by one. Then warm hands were sliding up under the fabric, pulling it down his arms and off. Gerard shivered a little when the air hit his bare skin. He felt exposed, standing in the middle of this endless gorgeous room he couldn’t even look at. He couldn’t see anything but Korse. "Please...I need to - where’s your bedroom?"
"Just through here." Korse tugged him gently through an archway and a set of double doors. It was dim, austere, the big bed pushed up against a wall of windows. "Better?"
Gerard let out a choked sigh and grabbed for his shirtfront. "Keep going," he urged.
"Keep talking," Korse replied, shrugging out of his own shirt, which Gerard had pushed half-off with his frantic grab. Gerard reached out a hand, watched his fingers splay across Korse’s chest, the dusting of hair, the band of heavy muscle. He tapped his thumb against the curve of a heavy scar.
"I just want to...look at you," Gerard murmured. He trailed his fingers down Korse’s stomach. Korse pushed them gently aside and went for the fastening of his trousers, pushing the material down and off with no unnecessary flourishes. He watched Gerard look at him, naked, hard, and tirelessly patient, waiting, and when Gerard looked back up Korse had a gleam in his eye.
"Is that it?"
"You weren’t joking," Gerard mumbled, mouth suddenly dry, tremors chasing up and down his spine. "You’re going to make me - "
"You can have -" he hooked his fingers in Gerard’s belt and tugged him closer, "- whatever you ask for."
"What if I ask you to do whatever you like?"
"That's cheating. You might not like the results," Korse replied.
The undercurrent in Korse' voice made Gerard uneasy; he quickly said, "Take my clothes off - take me to bed. ...Please," he added as an afterthought.
Korse's fingers were at his waistband immediately, stripping off the last of his clothes. "Get on the bed," he said, letting Gerard step out of his pants and shoes and backing him into the mattress.
Gerard sat down, pushing himself back into the pillows piled against the glass. Korse just stood and looked for a minute, an easy contrapposto pose with his fingers gently clenching and unclenching at his side. He looked like a statue, like art, and Gerard drank it in. Korse was staring right back, his expression unreadable.
"You make a pretty picture," he said finally. "All that bare skin in my bed. But I'm sure you've heard this before."
"Not really, no. Your latest conquest, he was much prettier than me."
Korse’s lips twisted at his choice of words. "I think you're wrong there," Korse told him. "Is that what - would you like me to tell you how pretty you are? I'm not hearing any other requests."
"I think it'd be better if you showed me," Gerard murmured, shaking with his own daring, the heaviness of Korse’s eyes on his body. "I need...I need to not talk right now. Just touch me. Kiss me. Please." The word curled up and cut off with a desperate little whine.
Korse complied, crawling up the mattress to where he could straddle Gerard, one hand tilting Gerard's face up for a kiss, the other skating down his chest to press heavy against his sternum. His hands, then his mouth trailed across Gerard's skin, feeling like a brand, a line of fire.
He paid special attention to Gerard's neck, the spot on the soft underside of his jaw that made him tremble, the spot between his ribs that made him shout, the dozens of dips and planes that burned with sensation, sizzling trails over his skin. A bite to the inside of Gerard's knee made him gasp and buck. A hand smoothing up the inside of his thigh made him moan and spread his legs, but Korse stopped, fingers teasing along the jut of his hipbone. "Gerard," he reminded.
"Your hand, please, I need it," Gerard groaned. "Fucking...touch me."
"Here?" Korse asked, running the pad of his thumb up the underside of Gerard's cock.
"Yes!" Gerard cried breathlessly, choking as fingers wrapped tightly around him, hot and dry and just this side of too much. He was amazed he didn't come immediately, but he sucked in a burning breath, biting his lip.
Korse stroked him with a gentle pressure, collecting moisture at the tip and swirling it back around the shaft. Slowly, so slowly - his eyes never left Gerard's face, drinking in each moan and flickering expression with the same dark avid gaze. He kept going until Gerard was frantic underneath him, hips bucking up into his hand, the slide of his fingers slicked by Gerard's own precome. When Gerard screwed his eyes shut, arching his head back into the pillows, he leaned up over Gerard's chest, braced one hand on the mattress by his shoulder and ducked his head to kiss Gerard again.
"More?" he asked, and Gerard nodded frantically. "What?"
"Fuck, fuck, I need - please, fuck me, I need you inside me," Gerard croaked, licking the taste of Korse's mouth off his lips.
Korse smirked. "See, when you ask so nicely...."
Gerard whimpered when Korse let go of his cock, but he was only pulling back to fetch a bottle from the table beside the bed. Then his fingers were returning, cool and slick, pushing back between Gerard's legs and tracing delicate lines over his skin, gently probing until he could work a finger inside.
Gerard cried out, muscles clenching and spine arching, cock bobbing against his stomach as he wriggled mindlessly against the sheets. Korse grabbed his knee and pulled his legs farther apart, thumb rubbing soothing circles against the skin.
"Patience. Let me work." Korse crooked his finger, setting off a fresh wave of wriggling.
Gerard felt the press of another, the stretching sensation sparking white-hot through his hips and belly and thighs, and Korse rode out the motions of Gerard's body effortlessly, fingers thrusting gentle and unceasing. Gerard clutched at his arm, turning his head and biting at his own bicep. His free hand thudded against the window, sweating palm skidding along the freezing surface of the glass. He moaned hot against his own skin when the fingers were withdrawn and replaced with the hot, oh-too-much press and slide of Korse's cock. Korse's fingers bit into Gerard's hip and the back of his thigh as he pushed in, fast enough to burn but not nearly fast enough to satisfy.
Arm straining, feet braced, Gerard pushed back against the window behind him, pressing his own body down into Korse. "More, faster, harder," he begged, his other hand slipping down Korse's forearm to close around the base of his cock, but Korse kept his hips flexing in the same steady, ruthless rhythm, pushing Gerard's hand away and pinning it to the bed.
"None of that," he growled, fingers biting into Gerard's skin, teeth bared in a savage almost-grin. "You don't need it. Come without it. Come for me."
Like the words were all he needed, Gerard arched up against him and came in a hot rush all over his own belly, eyes squeezing shut and breath seizing in his chest.
Korse fucked him through it, his rhythm never stuttering but increasing in speed until the strokes sent streaks of white flashing across Gerard's vision, and Gerard was still blinking and gasping when Korse froze, a wordless shout torn out of his throat as he came. The sensation was enough to send another frisson through Gerard, and his moan followed on the heels of Korse's exclamation, strangling into a long exhalation as he slumped back into the mattress.
Gerard was barely aware of Korse cleaning them up and pulling the covers up around him, but he must have slept. When the sun streaming in the wall of glass was too much to ignore, he blinked himself awake, momentarily disoriented to find himself naked in an unfamiliar bed, in a tangle of slate gray sheets. Korse was sprawled in an armchair across the room, wrapped in a silk robe. He had a lapful of files, but he didn't seem to be working, just...watching.
"Hello," Gerard said groggily. He sat up against the pillows, against the sun-warmed glass, with the covers pooling around his waist, Korse's gaze weighing on him like a blanket. In the light of day, his behavior last night looked even more - desperate, and he felt himself turning red. "I'm...sorry, I -"
"Don't," Korse told him. "Never apologize for anything." He set down his stack of files and walked across the bedroom, bracing a hand by Gerard's head and leaning down to kiss him proprietarily. "Not if you wanted it."
Gerard made a sound into his mouth, grabbing at Korse's lapel. The robe gaped open, and Gerard slipped a hand inside.
"I did. I do - it's been so...." Gerard stopped himself before he could say something that would make him even more vulnerable. To what, he couldn't quite tell himself; he felt sure Korse had seen past his defenses from day one. He reached for the belt of Korse's robe, telegraphing his motion broadly, half expecting that Korse would see him and stop him, tell him this was a mistake. Korse said nothing, just let Gerard unfasten the knot and push the two sides of the robe out of the way.
"You can have so much, Gerard," Korse murmured. "You're special, you're different from the rest, and you've barely even begun. What you can have, if you teach yourself to take it...." The thought went unfinished when Gerard reached out and ran his palms up Korse's thighs. Korse never moved a muscle, but when Gerard leaned forward to take his hardening cock in his mouth, he threaded a hand into Gerard's hair and held him there.
Gerard, in a clearer frame of mind, could admit to himself that when he'd run away from Mikey's painful accusation, he hadn't been looking any farther forward than escape. He'd gone to Korse expecting to burn a lot of bridges all at once. He'd never expected that he'd still be sleeping in Korse's bed every night. That he'd still have a job with BLI, and that he wouldn't have seen his brother as more than a passing face in all that time. But it was true. He and Korse weren't anything less than professional during working hours, but enough of the residents of Cloud Tower had seen them riding the elevators together before or after work that Gerard was sure the rumors were only a matter of time. He found that he didn't care. Let them talk.
"Your reputation is yours to make," Korse told him over dinner. "Don't wait for people to make up their own minds." Then he pushed aside the remnants of the main course and bent Gerard over the table, fucking him fast and ruthless as the silverware clattered against the china.
Korse’s apartment was as luminescent and cool as the inside of an oyster shell, like a relic of a time when the earth wasn’t scorched beyond recognition. Gerard moved through the rooms quietly when Korse wasn’t there, feeling like he ought to destroy something just to make some noise. Then Korse would come home, and Gerard would allow himself to be stretched out, spread open, consumed, listening to his own cries and moans bounce off the walls. "I need you," he’d breathe to Korse at night, dropping to his knees on the bedroom floor. "I need to feel -"
He spent every moment with Korse overwhelmed in sheer sensation. Momentarily sated, plunged back into the cocoon of soft white that seemed to wrap his senses, it was terrifying to try to control the drive to feel something. Anything. Gerard spent most of the workday half-hard and trying to ignore the twinges of his overstimulated body. It was only easy when Korse stayed in his own office. His presence, scent, heat in close proximity was too addictive to ignore. Gerard had thought he needed space, but then Korse left for the zones, and after too much time in that cool and perfect apartment he ached for company, for something familiar. He missed Mikey. So he went home.
Mikey was sprawled on the living room floor, headphones on his head and a cord snaking across the carpet to ... "Is that a turntable?" Gerard said, aghast. Private playback devices, scarce since the Helium Wars, had been prohibited altogether since the Turner Act in 2014. Gerard couldn't remember the last time he'd seen one. "I don't have to fucking tell you how illegal that is. Where the hell did you find it?"
"Gerard." Mikey sat up slowly. "It’s been ages. Would've thought you'd gotten yourself ghosted if I hadn't seen you at work the other day." His voice was flat, his movements careful as he pulled off the headphones and lifted the needle off the record.
"Mikey...I'm sorry! I just ... I don't know what I did, okay, but. I know I ran off in the middle of something last time, and I don’t - can we talk about this?"
"You're sleeping with him now." It wasn't a yes or a no.
"I ... yeah, Mikey, I am. If you're not okay with that ..."
"Don't ask me to be, Gerard. Not while you're with Korse, not while you're working for the SCARECROW Unit. Do not ask me, because it won't happen."
"I don't understand, Mikey. It's important, what I do ... they keep us safe."
Mikey looked up, away from the tangle of his headphone cord. Looking at him was always like looking into a slightly distorted mirror. "Safe, Gerard ... it's not the same as free."
"Free? Since when do you care about free? What’s that even mean?"
"It means...BLI thinks they can fix everything. They’ve got a product for everything. They’ve got a fucking answer for everything. And it all means shit, Gerard. Maybe you’ve got to make your own answers, not pop them in pill form."
"That’s rich, Mikey, after the way you talked them up to me just a few months ago."
"And do you have any more answers now? I was fucking desperate. I was wrong, Gerard, okay?"
"Were you? Would you rather things go back to the way they were before? Because I wouldn’t! I’m finally doing something fucking productive with my life. There is something I’m good at, and I’m doing it, and you - all of a sudden you’re not okay with this?"
"Gee." Mikey’s voice shook a little. "You’re good at a lot of things. Are you deliberately shutting your eyes to what you’re doing? Don’t you get that you’re hurting people? The Gerard I know would get it, he’d care, he’d - I miss you, Gee. I want my brother back."
"I’m not hurting anyone! I don’t see how you can say that. I’m - I’m here, Mikey." Gerard felt sick, dizzy, caught in the grip of something that wouldn’t let him feel its depth.
"No," Mikey said quietly, "you’re not."
"I -" Gerard replied slowly, "was only doing what you wanted."
Mikey looked at him silently for a moment. "I think that’s the problem, Gerard. What do you want?"
Gerard couldn’t answer. He couldn’t answer, and he couldn’t hear one more disappointed word drip from his brother’s lips, and so he turned around and went back to that gleaming oyster-shell apartment. The next day at work, a bulletin crossed his desk about a shipment of audio equipment for the new BLI radio station that had gone missing, and he stared unseeing at his screens for a long time, thinking of the headphone cord tangled tight in Mikey’s fingers. He started scanning the transmissions, fingers flying blind over the controls. He couldn’t breathe again until he’d assured himself there was nothing, no overheard words or footage or code that could tie Mikey to the incident.
There was, however, a pattern coalescing across Gerard’s transmission module. Small incidents across the city - a machine breakdown here, a power outage there, a shipment missing somewhere else. Small enough to be inconspicuous - unless someone was looking. And Gerard was definitely looking. He saw, too, the string of SCARECROW interventions, following the incidents like the tail of a kite.
He wrote up a report, of course. It was his job. When Gerard handed it to Korse, he just scanned the paper and nodded, setting it aside on his desk and getting up to pace, hands tucked into his pockets. "I was wondering when they’d slip up. Amazing that it hasn’t happened before this. Have you run the predictive analysis yet?"
"Tried. Not enough data points yet. You already knew about this, Korse? Who are they?"
Korse had stopped to lean against the edge of his desk, gently massaging his temples. His skin had a faint gray pallor, but even in the throes of zone-sickness he was far from weak; he just looked lean and hungry. "Come here," he said. Gerard obediently crossed the office, let Korse tug him between his spread legs. "You don’t know much about the zones, do you, Gerard?" he asked, running the backs of his fingers along the edge of Gerard’s jaw, an absentminded caress.
"I know there are people who live out there, but I don’t understand - if it makes you so sick - "
"Some areas are habitable," Korse corrected him. "Or can be, if you take the right precautions. It’s not safe, of course; BLI doesn’t consider it acceptable and we’ve been trying to collect the people squatting out there for quite some time. They’d be so much better off in the Battery, but they’re - resistant, and I’m afraid they’ve decided to retaliate."
Gerard’s mind instantly flashed back to Mikey’s fingers twisting in the electrical cord, his voice saying, safe ... it’s not the same as free. Further back to his dark jeans and leather jacket on the night of the party, how they’d been caked with dust. It was, in a way, the simplest pattern of all to trace. Mikey, maybe even Ray; what were they mixed up in? He wasn’t sure what expressions crossed his face but they had Korse looking at him intently and saying, "Gerard?"
Gerard shook his head, biting hard at the inside of his lip to focus himself. "Sorry? Too much time in front of the monitors, not sleeping well," he lied.
"You ought to do a sleep treatment," Korse said with a long-suffering sigh, waving towards the pod in the adjoining office. "Good health, better living, they’re not exaggerating. I had one scheduled for myself, but I can call up your specs instead." He was already starting to move in that direction when Gerard grabbed his hand, pulled it to curve around his waist as he stepped closer, pressing their hips together.
"You take it," he murmured. "I missed you." He deliberately let just the tip of his tongue slip out to wet his lips. Gerard could feel Korse growing hard against his hip, but Korse just let his hand slip under the tails of Gerard’s coat, heavy against the curve of his spine, and smiled.
"Very nice," he said. "You’re a quick study. But you won’t fool me; I don’t know why you’re so stubborn about the pods, Gerard."
"I just - I’d rather not." He shuddered, half from the thought of the tiny, claustrophobic tube and half from Korse’s fingers wrapping around his belt to tug him closer.
"At least go see your doctor and have your medication adjusted. They’ve got a new cocktail now, and I’d really prefer you - well rested," Korse said into the skin of Gerard’s neck, and the press of his strong, dull teeth ensured that Gerard knew exactly why.
Gerard rarely left the BLI campus after he unofficially moved in with Korse, but the one night in forever that he decided to take a walk was, of course, the night that he practically collided with Ray as he turned to corner back to the Towers. Ray was apparently just leaving work, dressed in dark biking leathers and barely visible in the shadows of the Promenade tunnels. They both jumped, and Ray immediately started stammering out an apology before recognizing Gerard and sputtering into silence.
"Hello, Ray," he said. "You’re working late; how are things down in Robotics?"
"Fine," Ray said. "We - miss seeing you every day," he blurted, like he couldn’t help himself. He probably couldn’t; Ray was the most polite person Gerard knew. "Mikey -" He seemed to catch himself after that, and stopped. "I probably shouldn’t keep you," he added.
Gerard wasn’t about to let it go. "What about Mikey?" he asked smoothly, hooking a thumb into his watch chain.
"Nothing," Ray muttered. Gerard was smiling, but his amusement faded quickly when Ray looked away and said nothing more.
"Tell him - tell him I’m thinking of him. Gotta watch out for my little brother," he said. He suddenly didn’t care, didn’t bother to hide the ominous tone. Let it be a warning to them; he was watching. Ray, to his credit, kept his face completely impassive. "See you around, Ray."
When he let himself back into the Unit offices, they were nearly deserted. Most of the analysts had left; light showed from under the night shifters’ office doors and a few dracs were still hanging around, though most had dispersed to their night shift posts around the campus. Gerard ignored them and went back to his own transmissions room. Shutting the door firmly behind him, he pulled his chair over to one of the network modules and typed in the anonymizer code he’d sweet-talked out of one of the systems techs. Just in case. Then he pulled up two employee files: Mikey’s and Ray’s.
At first, both files were innocuous: family information, work history, test scores. As Gerard continued to read, he stumbled across an encrypted section. He swore under his breath, running it through every decryption algorithm he had on his module, finally getting a hit after what was probably five or six, but felt like sixty, algorithms. Known Associates was the heading for one. Activity Record was another. The information within was spookily thorough. Preferences in companions, leisure activities, disciplinary records, psychological profile … Gerard grimly scanned it all. Mikey’s record was pretty basic. A little electronic flag on Ray’s indicated further information. Gerard clicked it; it was one of the analysts’ own tracker codes, which appended themselves to files that fit a search pattern.
Ray had been busy these past few months. He was, in short, associating with the wrong people, people who could be traced back to incident reports, people who fit into a pattern of - being noticed. People who had maybe been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe not. A few searches later, and Gerard could definitively place him within several degrees of most of the recent incidents he himself had identified as part of a pattern. Shit.
Before he could second-guess himself, he typed the sequence that would allow him to remove the marker on Ray’s file. There were too many common markers between Ray’s file and Mikey’s, and Gerard refused to even take the chance that - that whatever he’d already set in motion would touch Mikey. He tapped a few keys and the screen blinked, reset. There was a chance, of course, that the anonymizer wouldn’t work. But he’d told Mr. Anderson it was for one of Korse’s special projects. Korse’s name was enough to open most doors in the SCARECROW Unit, as long as you knew how to find the weakest link. He pushed his chair back from his desk, then hesitated and slid back to the command module. He tapped in the same set of codes and requests and keyed in another name - his own.
His file was even cleaner than Mikey’s or Ray’s, for the most part, with one exception: a long section with the heading BLI Medical History. Gerard settled back into his chair and read. And read. And read, until his blood curdled in his veins.
Addiction to illegals, of course. Multiple sessions of hypnosis, that was a new one. Behavior modification successful. Enroll in BL Drugs v.2.0 Test Program.
He kept reading. Dr. Slade’s notes were in here. Those were mostly incomprehensible, or maybe he just wasn’t interested in her efforts at head-shrinking. His gut was churning with sudden apprehension. The last note in the section read, v.2.0 Emotion Suppression Program successful, SCARECROW requests deferral from further participation in v.3.0 Test Program; increase in memory modification side effects may be detrimental to subject’s cryptanalysis skills.
Emotion suppression? Memory modification? Fuck. Gerard had known, he’d known that something felt off. He’d been on antidepressants Before, a fucking lifetime ago - hell, it had to have been before the Wars - and they’d never made him feel like the BLI regimen had. He’d been so used to the booze and the fucking illegals that he hadn’t remembered what it felt like to be actually functional. But … a part of him had known, and Mikey had said - how many times had Mikey said you’re not the Gee I know? Gerard had brushed him off as a worrywart, as jealous, as delusional. No. All along it had been him.
Gerard cleared the memory log on his module and pushed away from the desk. He didn’t know what to do. The walls of his office suddenly seemed to be holding back a bank of thunderheads. He didn’t want to leave, to walk the halls outside. He didn’t want to be on the BLI campus at all. He walked quickly to the elevators, head down. No one passed him, and he was glad.
The walk between Tower A and Tower C was too short. It was a clear night, and the atmospheric grid sparkled faintly in spots like a second coating of stars. Gerard found himself stopped in the middle of a walkway, staring upward, and he quickly ducked his head and hurried into Cloud’s lobby, slipping into an open elevator. Korse was out when he let himself into the apartment, and Gerard didn’t bother with lights, just went directly to the bathroom and pulled his pill bottle out of a drawer.
It was weightless as ever, tiny rattling capsules cartoonishly perfect. But it looked like poison now, poison sitting in the palm of his hand. He had the sudden urge to turn on the taps, wash a flood of pills down the drain. He wrestled the cap off of the bottle, was actually reaching for the faucet when he stopped himself, tucking the bottle back against his chest. He couldn’t throw them away. If nothing else, Korse would notice. Korse would ask.
"So what?" he muttered out loud, frowning at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. "If he knew what they were doing to me.... It’s my choice."
Except it wasn’t, was it? He pictured his file. SCARECROW requests deferral … emotion suppression successful … further memory modification detrimental to cryptanalysis skills. If SCARECROW knew, Korse knew. It was that simple. He flashed on the sleep pod, on Korse’s face as he said, Good health, better living. He’d sounded so sure, like he actually believed it. Gerard, he’d wanted so desperately to get better, to be free of the vicious cycle of booze and uppers.
BLI had done what they promised - they’d taken the pain away. They’d taken everything away, though, hadn’t they? Because they found him fucking useful. When he wasn’t useful anymore, would they just make him forget? How long until he couldn’t remember his own brother, his own name?
Not long. He hadn’t seen his brother in what felt like forever, and the reminder suddenly sat like a hot brick in his gut. His fingers clamped tight around the pill bottle, he leaned heavily on the edge of the sink. BLI thinks they can fix everything, Mikey had said. Gerard knew he should be angry right now, but he wasn’t - they’d made sure of that.
"I don’t want to be fixed this way," Gerard told the bottle in his hand. "I can fix myself," he told his reflection. He tucked the bottle back in the drawer.
Forty-eight hours later, he was back in the bathroom, staring at his reflection again. His hair was snarled from tugging at it, his eyes rimmed in red, his skin pasty-pale and sweaty-looking. The symptoms had started rolling in right about twelve hours after his first missed dose. First an itch, like dry skin. A gnawing pain in his stomach. Shaking hands. And the emotions … if he thought he’d missed the emotions, now at two days out he’d have cut off his right hand to make them go away again, because they were all coming, all at once, breaking over his head like waves.
Gerard’s knuckles were white from how hard he was clutching the edge of the sink. The pills were in the drawer. He knew they were there, could practically see them. He knew they’d make this go away.
Maybe you’ve got to make your own answers, not pop them in pill form. That was Mikey, talking in his head again. He bit his lip against the wave of regret. The most painful thing was the echo of disappointment in Mikey’s voice. He slammed out of the bathroom and went to Korse’s office, to his home transmissions setup, pulling up file after file after file on the BLI drug treatment program.
Around thirty hours, Korse came home and scared the shit out of Gerard as he sat flipping obsessively through channel after channel of surveillance, static, idle outpost chatter. He’d already wiped the command history of the unit, but he was sure Korse would take one look at him and know. Instead, he just tugged Gerard up out of the chair and tugged his head back, dragging his tongue across Gerard’s throat, pushing it insistently past his lips. He smelled of dust and dynamite.
He didn’t trust Korse now; he abruptly realized, with the somewhat sweaty sheen of hard-won clarity, that he’d never trusted him, not really. But he wanted him, fuck, did he ever want him; he was as viciously turned on as ever. More. Maybe it was just his overstimulated senses. Maybe he was just wired a little wrong. But he stretched out across the mattress, shouting as Korse fingered him open and pressed in, swamped by lust, by loss of control, crying out in satisfaction into the bed sheets when Korse shook apart over him, inside him.
The withdrawal symptoms had faded a bit by the fourth day, but random surges and tremors still whispered over his skin like cobwebs, making Gerard seriously consider clawing his own face off. To make it even worse, he had to attend yet another interminable party. And when Korse got called away at the last minute - literally, they were walking out the door - to deal with some sort of situation across town, Gerard almost turned around. But he couldn’t, not in front of Korse; he’d been able to hide them until now, but eventually Korse would ask questions.
The party was a bewildering mass of bodies. It wasn’t in the Towers, but at a private residence a few blocks away. Battery City’s elite crowded the public rooms to convince - themselves, each other? - that they were important, that they were happy. It was such a fucking sham, Gerard could see it now. Taking a deep breath, Gerard rearranged his face into one of the expressions Korse had perfected - a faintly knowing sneer. It would give him some breathing room. Gerard skirted the edges of the room, and only one person met his eyes for any length of time.
He was an unfamiliar face, which was enough to make Gerard notice; he was like a void in the elaborate mental map connecting the rest of the faces in the room to names, jobs, and secrets. He was a small guy dressed in head-to-toe nondescript black, but a face that fucking pretty wasn’t exactly forgettable. But no one else in the room seemed to give him a second look. When they locked eyes, Gerard was jittering in place, surrounded by two manufacturing department heads and their blandly smiling wives, and the stranger’s grimly amused expression shifted to an outright smirk. Gerard was caught by an unearned flash of anger, punching through him like an electrical current. He didn’t want to be here, and this stranger knew.
Fuck this fucking withdrawal, Gerard moaned internally. He couldn’t keep himself from lifting his chin in silent disapproval. Who was this pretty black-haired boy to judge? To even fucking notice? He was sorry a moment later when he caught a faint frown of concern flickering across one of the department heads’ faces. It was easy to forget that appearances were important to these people.
Anger, regret, annoyance - it was like everything was ten times stronger now, it had been so long since they’d had a chance to make their presence known. Gerard cut straight through the crowd, heading for the bathroom. It was clean and cool, dark and deserted, and the splashing of the water in the sink echoed off of the black marble surfaces as he ran the cold water for a long minute or two, touching wet fingertips to his throat, neck, temples. His skin felt tight to the touch. He closed his eyes, held on to the edge of the sink, and breathed.
"How long has it been?" a voice asked from the direction of the door, and Gerard jerked in surprise, eyes flying up to land on the boy from before.
"Have we met?" Gerard snapped, momentary shock bleeding into renewed annoyance. The boy - no, he was young but definitely not a boy, not with a sarcastic smile like that - leaned back against the closed door and folded his arms over his chest.
"Nope," he said casually. "Come on, you can tell me." Gerard wasn’t sure how one person could walk the edge between snotty and genuinely curious so deftly, which was probably the only reason he didn’t leave. That and the fact that the guy was blocking the door.
"Tell you what?"
"How long you’ve been detoxing." The guy raised an eyebrow at Gerard’s evidently comical shocked expression.
Gerard frowned. He’d been so sure he’d been hiding it; if even Korse hadn’t noticed … "What makes you think - "
"Please." The guy laughed, shoved his hands in his pockets. "In that room of mannequins? They all take their pills on time, that’s for fucking sure. And here you are now, and I just bet you’re about ready to jump out of your skin, am I right?"
He was; the fear was a new feeling, and it was winning, twisting frozen coils through his gut as the annoyance and boredom vanished. "How do you know? And what do you care?"
"Just making conversation. Isn’t that what you do at parties?"
"It’s an - unusual topic of conversation," Gerard said awkwardly.
The guy winked. "I’m an unusual person. Oops," he said as the door rattled in its frame. He stepped aside to let an older man through the doorway. "Don’t worry," he stage-whispered, leaning incrementally closer to Gerard. "I won’t tell." Another wink, then he was gone, leaving Gerard staring after him. By the time Gerard dodged the older man and got through the doorway himself, the boy in black had disappeared into the crowd.
Gerard couldn’t concentrate after that, eyes continually roving over the room, but the guy was as good as gone. Gerard was too unsettled to relax, and his perimeter stalking started again in earnest. It was how he spotted the faint traces of movement a half hour later. The doors leading to a small balcony were shut, a curtain pulled half over the panes of glass. His curiosity got the better of him, and Gerard was able to slip through unnoticed. At the click of the latch, a dark figure whirled and slid off the railing to face Gerard. It was him, the mobile planes of his face frozen, unexpectedly dangerous. When he saw Gerard, he smiled, but something around his eyes stayed dark.
It was as different from before as black from white. A smirk couldn’t cover it now, or maybe Gerard just couldn’t unsee it. But the hint of violence struck some harmonic in him. "Enjoying the night air?" he asked smoothly, stepping close enough to box the stranger against the railing.
Unexpectedly, the guy let out a startled-sounding giggle. "More than you know." He seemed to get control of himself then, continuing, "You following me?"
"Let’s call it an accident," Gerard replied. "But now that I’m here, I guess I’ll sneak a smoke." He fished out a carton of cigarettes, offering one to his companion. After a brief hesitation, he accepted, and Gerard offered a light. The guy’s eyes shone for a moment in the flash of flame, studying Gerard again. Fuck, it had been so long since anyone - anyone but Korse - had looked at him with even the hint of a challenge.
Maybe he was conditioned - maybe it was this guy’s fucking gorgeous face - but the mood changed in the space between one breath and the next. Heavy, warm, subtly threatening in its sheer force. He’d missed the magnitude of this feeling, too, the uptick in his pulse and the rush of blood, all completely controlled and so, so addictive.
"It’s been four days," he said quietly, blowing a puff of smoke out of the corner of his mouth and eyeing the stranger through half-lidded eyes. "Cold turkey. Probably a fucking stupid thing to do."
"Brave," the guy responded, taking a drag of his own smoke and sneaking a look at Gerard out of the corners of his eyes.
It was Gerard’s turn to laugh. "Hardly."
"No, it was. I can respect that - I can’t even tell you how glad I am to see - fuck," the guy cut himself off, suddenly agitated. "Not yet, dammit." He seemed to be talking to himself now, eyes drifting down and to the side. Then, quick as lightning, he was in Gerard’s face, grabbing his tie to pull him close and hissing, "Do something for me, without any questions. Please."
"What - "
"No questions. Just - go back to the bathroom, okay? And wait. Five minutes. Wait there. Please."
Gerard nodded, shocked into immobility when the guy yanked him even closer, mouth crushing against Gerard’s with stunning thoroughness. Gerard, swamped with uncomprehending lust, obeyed blindly when the guy repeated, "Five minutes, go," and shoved him firmly in the direction of the balcony doors. He wasn’t sure how he got into the black marble bathroom, or who he talked to along the way, but his pulse throbbed along with the ticking pocket watch in his hand as five minutes bled away. Waiting, wanting, craving that hot pink mouth and that fucking perfect face. Drunk on the sheer amount of feeling coursing through him.
Then the side of the building exploded.
Gerard, safe in the marble-tiled bathroom, only heard the explosion, felt the walls shake but hold. The wall sconces flickered, several shooting out a shower of sparks and dying. Fumbling his watch back into his pocket, he rushed out of the cavelike room, staring in horror at the wall of cracked and fragmented windows, the snow of glass on the floor. People who had flung themselves away from the blast were crawling and staggering back to their feet. Outside the broken windows, lights were flickering or burnt out completely for blocks.
Gerard was headed toward the balcony before he could stop himself, looking frantically for the guy in black. Then he slowed, stumbled to a stop. Fuck. He remembered the frantic insistence that Gerard go to the bathroom - far away, protected - and the way the guy’d been skulking around on the balcony beforehand. He stepped onto the balcony only to see their host, frowning and prodding at a fuse box. He took a deep breath and stepped over the drift of broken glass, putting on his most authoritative face. He hadn’t been with Korse for so long for nothing. "What’s going on here?"
"Mr. Way," their host said nervously. "I called BLI; they’re sending medics, and they said the SCARECROW Unit was on its way, too."
"Understood. Until they get here, fill me in? I was … out of the room."
"I don’t know, there was a tiny explosion, and I was on my way to check it out. Got almost the whole way across the room when all of a sudden there was a giant fireball out here and everyone was screaming. This console, it’s an emergency override panel for my power plant next door." He gestured. The concrete building next door had fared even worse, a gaping hole in its side, sirens screaming and white-suited employees scampering. "It … when the lights started to go out, I immediately came to check, but I knew what had happened." He stopped talking and Gerard looked from the melted panel to the dark city streets branching out from their location.
"I see," he said. And he did see. The nosy, unsettling, irreverent, fucking gorgeous stranger who’d sent Gerard panting to what he thought was an assignation, who’d sent him out of harm’s way … he’d done this. Gerard had no proof, nothing but his own gut instinct, but he’d been relying on that for a long time now. He just didn’t know what to do about it.
He was still standing on the balcony, watching the lights flash at the power plant next door, when he heard a tense "Gerard!" from behind him. He turned to see Korse striding through the room, heedless of the broken glass crunching under his boots. He had his hands on Gerard’s face immediately, turning it from side to side. "Are you hurt?"
Korse didn’t usually touch him in public. Gerard thought numbly that this meant Korse had been worried. "I’m fine," he replied. "I was in another room."
"We’re going to have to interview everyone," Korse said. "To see if anyone saw anything useful. I can get you in early, so you can - go home -" He let his hands slip down Gerard’s chest to rest on his waist.
"Okay," said Gerard, biting his lip. He hoped the shaking of his voice translated as residual shock and not nervousness. With one last squeeze to Gerard’s waist, Korse strode away, snapping orders at the dracs filtering through the room. Gerard followed at a distance, unsure what to do. He wasn’t field-trained, and he’d never seen this Korse before. This Korse was full of barely-suppressed violence.
"...find the bombers and exterminate them, with extreme prejudice," Korse was telling his head drac. "This has gone on long enough." Gerard shivered. Saboteurs, here in the Battery; zonerunners out in the desert … different words for the same people, maybe? People with careful code names, dressed to blend, staying out of sight and letting their actions do the talking. This was a private home; the security and surveillance, Gerard knew, would have gaps. They’d chosen their target well this time. If Gerard couldn’t find the transmissions to track them down, he doubted anyone could. But … he wasn’t sure he wanted to, and that revelation was shocking enough that he stopped pacing, stared across the drift of broken glass. A cigarette butt lay smoking, abandoned, at his feet.
He was still staring when the SCARECROW debriefing team made their way to him. It was Mr. Baum who was in charge, to his surprise. Then again, this was higher-profile than a hijacked delivery convoy. Gerard was surprised to find that his residual dislike of the man flared immediately at the sight of him. He was immaculately dressed in a stuffy account-manager suit, even given the late hour and the fact that he had probably been called in from his home. That room full of mannequins, he heard in the stranger’s voice. It was true, Gerard realized. He’d had the same thought. This stranger had just dared to voice it. He must have been watching me, Gerard realized. He was watching me, and he knew I was a threat, and he … distracted me. Instead of angering him, though, it brought a flare of respect.
"Mr. Way," Mr. Baum started, gesturing for Gerard to follow him to the dining room. "It seems you were the only member of the SCARECROW Unit in attendance tonight." He sat in a carved dining chair and waved Gerard into its twin. He glared out into the main rooms, where Korse was still directing a small army of dracs. There was bad blood there; the Chairwoman gave Korse free rein to be as flamboyant as he liked as long as he got results, and some of the other execs didn’t like it. Therefore, they didn’t like Gerard either; the look Mr. Baum fixed on Gerard was only incrementally less disapproving than the one on his face a moment before.
It was the last straw. Gerard was torn in two, the old habitual need to give Korse whatever he wanted and the newly revived desire to piss off this small, petty man. "I guess I was," Gerard prevaricated. "I don’t know how much help I’ll be. I’m just an analyst."
"I’ve seen your test results, Mr. Way. I know what your specialties are. You mean to tell me you saw no one, nothing out of the ordinary tonight?"
"Nothing remarkable in any way," Gerard assured him, resisting the urge to curl his lip.
"Are you positive?" Mr. Baum was turning pink, sounding strangled.
"Never more positive," Gerard answered. The guy with the darkness in his eyes, the sarcastic smirk and the perfect mouth, he was so out of Gerard’s frame of reference that he defied description. Mr. Baum and his suits, they had no concept of what it meant to be that alive. No one in this room did, except maybe -
Gerard looked out at Korse and bit his lip nervously.
Mr. Baum let him go with a disappointed grimace, and Gerard went, feeling both ashamed and exhilarated. Korse stopped him, looked him up and down with an appraising eye, and turned to the nearest drac. "I’m done here. Call for me if something needs my attention before morning," he said imperiously. Gerard followed him outside, pulse pounding in his head again. Korse’s car was waiting, and he drove them both back to the Towers.
In the elevator, he pushed Gerard against the paneled wall and licked his way up Gerard’s throat, fingers clamped tight around Gerard’s upper arms. "I leave you alone for one evening and find you in the middle of a bombing," he muttered, sounding half-choked.
"I don’t think they meant to hurt anyone," Gerard stammered back, swallowing convulsively against the pressure on his neck. Korse pulled back and looked at him, black-eyed, too sharp, and Gerard quickly added, "I mean, whatever happened, it could have been an accident, right? And anyway, it could have been worse."
He’d never seen Korse’s eyes so pitilessly bleak. "Yes, it could have been worse." The elevator doors slid open soundlessly on their floor and Korse steered him out, into the apartment, straight into the bedroom, not releasing the vise grip on Gerard’s arm.
"Korse?" he said quietly.
"It could have been worse," Korse repeated, letting go of Gerard’s arm and yanking at the knot of his tie, fumbling with the sleeves of his coat, the buttons of his shirt. "Could have been - " He went silent. Threads squeaked under his hands as he ripped at the fabric, and Gerard shuddered out an exhalation, standing still under Korse’s hands until he needed to help, to step out of his pants and shoes. He stood in the middle of the room, naked, something ugly and alive and needy pulsing in the air between them, and he let Korse look his fill.
"I’m okay," Gerard said, holding his arms out to the sides, looking down his own pale unmarked skin, practically glowing in the dark room. When Korse didn’t respond, he sighed, stepping out of the little puddle of his clothing on the floor and crossing to the window wall. They were high enough up that the spiderweb grid of power outages was even more clearly visible. He followed it with his eyes, back to the hulking dark shape of the power plant, and wasn’t expecting it when Korse stepped in and pinned him. He let out a strangled gasp when his bare chest and thighs impacted the cold glass, Korse hot as a furnace behind him, the fabric of his clothing pressing scratchily against Gerard’s skin.
Gerard’s palms squeaked against the window as he braced himself, pushed backward. He wanted to back them up, angle them toward the bed, but Korse wouldn’t allow it, his greater weight and leverage holding Gerard still. "Like this," he growled, mouth trailing across Gerard’s shoulders, the back of his neck. "Just like this." Gerard could feel Korse, hard where he was pressed against Gerard’s ass, but he couldn’t move beyond a few half-hearted twitches. "Stay still," he muttered into Gerard’s hair, one booted foot knocking Gerard’s feet farther apart, one hand pulling Gerard’s hips back into his. It made enough space for Korse to wrap his hand around Gerard’s cock, coaxing him to full hardness with just a couple pulls.
His body suddenly remembered being reeled in like a fish on a line, the taste of unfamiliar lips, how turned on he’d been just hours earlier and Gerard moaned, half confusion, half plea. He was suddenly on edge, more than ready, and Korse for once seemed in no mood to tease. His free hand splayed over Gerard’s stomach, fingers digging into the soft flesh there as he jacked Gerard with his other hand. Gerard’s hands slipped once again and he braced a forearm against the glass, leaning his forehead against it and squeezing his eyes shut against a swirl of vertigo. He reached down with his free hand, wrapping chilly fingers around Korse’s, and as the double pressure brought him to the edge he gasped, eyes flying open, cheek pressing against the window, watching the web of streets below as he came in hot spatters over their fists and against the glass.
It didn’t feel like enough, even as the tension uncoiled from his spine, even as he slumped in Korse’s grip and sprawled where he landed when Korse steered him toward the bed. There was something unblinking, reptilian in Korse’s stare. He fumbled the fastenings of his own clothes as he’d fumbled at Gerard’s earlier, but when Gerard went to push himself up and reach for them, something in his black gaze kept Gerard still, a renewed curl of adrenaline setting his heart thumping like a scared bunny.
Korse was on the bed as soon as the last piece of clothing hit the floor, reaching for lube and pushing Gerard’s thighs apart, prepping him roughly and pushing in, almost too fast. Gerard’s back arched off the bed, the stretch and burn skirting the edge of actual pain, and he clamped his fingers around two handfuls of the bed sheets and tipped his head back against the mattress, eyes squeezed shut. He hauled in a huge breath and held it, shudders racing across his over-sensitized skin everywhere their bodies touched. Korse was uncharacteristically silent, his uneven breathing the only sound besides the slap of their bodies colliding, the nearly-soundless slither of skin against the sheets. His groan when he finally shook apart startled Gerard; he echoed it with his own shuddering gasp as he realized how long he’d been holding his breath.
Gerard’s fingers cramped when he let go of his double handful of bedding. He slid his open palms back and forth across the cool fabric, feeling trickles of sweat creep down the nape of his neck, choking back a little hiss as Korse pulled out. He rolled over, overused muscles twinging as he stretched. He waited for the mattress beside him to dip under Korse’s weight; he seldom allowed himself to fall asleep in the bed with Gerard there, but he often would lay and pet Gerard’s skin, hair, for what felt like hours. Tonight, though, he just stood up and started gathering his clothing in silence. Gerard pushed himself into a sitting position, feeling vaguely nauseous. "Where are you going?"
"To sleep," Korse said shortly.
"In the pod? Stay here, Korse, you don’t have to - "
"Gerard." His tone was meant to intimidate, but Gerard ignored it.
"Please." Gerard got to his knees on the mattress, reached out and tugged at the bundle of fabric in Korse’s hands. His expression was opaque, but Gerard didn’t back down, and eventually he let the clothing fall to the floor and settled onto the bed next to Gerard. Exhaustion was creeping up on Gerard with every moment he stayed still, and the scent of Korse’s skin curled around Gerard from his body, his bed sheets. Korse never moved; their bodies never touched, but Gerard started to drift off anyway.
He woke, several hours later, to the sound of Korse’s voice muttering about bombs. "Dead, dead, they’re all dead, General." At least that was what it sounded like. Gerard sat up, leaned over the curve of Korse’s back and set a hand on his shoulder.
An instant later, fireworks exploded in Gerard’s vision as his head impacted against the wall of glass, Korse’s hands around his neck, his eyes full of unseeing rage. He tugged, scratched at the hands gripping his throat and squeezing, croaking with the air left in his lungs, "Korse! Korse - please, don’t -" He didn’t seem to hear. The last of Gerard’s breath was rattling in his throat and his vision was going black around the edges when Korse seemed to snap back into focus, shoving Gerard as far away from him as the mattress allowed.
Gerard slumped where he’d fallen, hair hanging down over his face, swaying with every painful, gusting breath. When he’d gathered enough oxygen to fill his lungs and clear his swimming vision, Korse was still sitting frozen, staring with an expression of mingled anger and horror. Then he turned his back on Gerard, leaning over to rummage through the discarded clothing on the floor.
"Korse, what -" It hurt to talk; Gerard’s voice sounded like someone had taken razor blades to his vocal chords, and still he was being ignored. He grabbed for Korse’s shoulder; Korse threw him off.
"This is why," he gritted, "I use the sleep pod." He was up and moving before the sentence was out, shrugging his shirt on as he strode through the dark apartment to the room with the sleep treatment setup. Gerard followed, not bothering with clothes of his own.
"You haven’t exactly bothered to explain," Gerard snapped back. Korse started punching at a set of keys, back still turned. "You never bother to explain anything. I guess that’s how fucking special I really am."
Korse turned around. "You are special. You’re still alive." His expression was terrifying in its matter-of-factness. Gerard took a step back before he could stop himself. Korse handed him the emergency override controller. "I set it for four sleep cycles."
Gerard took the metal box automatically. "You can’t just - "
"Yes. I can." Korse stepped into the cylinder and slammed the hatch. When the gases stopped swirling, his body was already slumped into the upright but relaxed posture of stasis. Gerard stared for a moment at his immobile face, then turned and stalked back to the bedroom. His own face looked back at him from the dressing table mirror. He was pale as death, red bruises blooming from the skin of his throat. The override controller was still clenched in his hand; Gerard looked down at his hand, and then pitched the little metal box with all his strength into the mirror.
With a sharp crack, the mirror shivered into a funhouse halo around his frozen face.
He had six hours. Six hours before he had to deal with Korse, with the rest of SCARECROW, with whatever was going on out there. He spent most of the first one pacing aimlessly around the apartment, his head throbbing where it had cracked against the window, his throat burning. He smoked through half a pack of cigarettes, heedless of the fact that Korse hated it when he did it in the apartment. He spent two more of them rifling through every drawer in the apartment.
He didn’t actually expect to find anything worthwhile, which was why he nearly missed the stack of data storage discs. He popped one into the module - it was, unsurprisingly, encrypted. The only thing that was surprising was how easy it was to break the code. He told himself not to look when the line of files scrolled down his screen, when he could see what they were: copies of Korse’s personal files.
Gerard laughed. "What the hell," he muttered to himself. He’d already looked at Mikey’s, at Ray’s, at his own. He opened the first one and started reading. Within a few paragraphs, the sardonic little smile had slipped from his face. It was military records. Maybe Gerard should have guessed, after what had just happened, that Korse was a veteran - he was certainly the right age - but the thought had honestly never crossed his mind. Reading further, it was clear that Korse had not only served, he’d been an officer. Reading further … Gerard stopped, stared at the screen for a few minutes. Closed the file quietly.
Everyone in the city over a certain age remembered the Helium Wars, but if you asked, no one would talk about it. No one would ever ask, either. Gerard corrected himself with a bitter little chuckle: maybe they didn’t even remember at this point. If Gerard could forget, he would. He cast a single involuntary glance toward the bathroom where the little pill bottle still sat. No.
He didn’t look at the rest of the folders either, just ejected the disc and put it back with its mates. Closing down the module, he went and stood in the doorway of the sleep treatment room. The collateral damage from the wars had practically obliterated an already-blasted landscape and a decimated population. Gerard and Mikey weren’t the only ones to lose parents. Children. Lovers. Friends. Gerard had only escaped the eventual draft because he’d had to take care of Mikey. Then there had been Battery City, BLI to keep them safe, "Keep Smiling" on every flat surface.
"What did you see?" he asked Korse’s motionless figure. "What did you do?" There was no answer, of course, just Korse suspended in BLI’s patented dreamless sleep.
Gerard didn’t know what to do. A glance at the time told him it was close enough to call it morning. So he hadn’t slept … so what? It wouldn’t be the first time. He went back into the bedroom. Skirting the fallen controller, he pulled his suit back on, tied his tie without the aid of the cracked mirror, and let himself out of the apartment. The frequencies would still be there. They never slept either.
A file folder hit Gerard’s desk with a smack, startling him out of his glazed-over study of the surveillance feeds for the warehouse district. It was banded in yellow, SCARECROW’s color code for top-level eyes-only. Yellow files were way over Gerard’s pay grade. He looked up; Korse was standing over him, hand still raised. "Run an analysis," he snapped, then stalked out without another word.
It was the first time Gerard had laid eyes on him since the bombing - since after the bombing, at the apartment. Gerard had known he was in the office; there was a sort of low-level buzz that started whenever Korse walked in the door. But they’d stayed away from each other. On Gerard’s part it was intentional; he was wary of Korse now, not physically, but in a way that had never occurred to him before. It was suddenly clear how little he really knew about him.
Gerard wasn’t sure why Korse had stayed away from him.
He tugged the folder closer, fingering the tape seal holding it closed. He knew for a fact that he shouldn’t be looking at this, and he had no idea why Korse had given it to him, only that with his current mood, Gerard wasn’t about to ask. He broke the tape and flopped the front cover open.
It wasn’t horrible, not right away. Just a list of places, dates, drac patrols. Most of them had been on the list he’d handed Korse weeks earlier. But as Gerard started flipping pages, it got worse. Incident write-ups. Evidence lists. Interrogation transcripts. And then the pictures started. Mug shots, autopsy photos; the first one of those that Gerard came across, he nearly dropped the file. As it was, he slammed it shut and dropped his head into his hands for a while.
This was SCARECROW, he thought to himself, not the transmissions hissing through his speakers or the codes running across his screens. This: toneless injury reports, bodies on sterile steel. This was Korse, coming home from this to his beautiful black and gray apartment. To Gerard. Fingers numb, Gerard started typing, calling up his saved search string and inputting the new data from the yellow file. Whatever god had blasted California, here was his hand again. Gerard could see the pattern. A fan kicked on somewhere in the bowels of the console; Gerard watched names and places scroll down the screen as the machine ran correlations.
He’d been at it for nearly the whole day, forgetting to eat, to drink. The sound of the door opening startled him right out of his seat. He stood still, swaying a little, panting quietly. "Anything?" Korse asked him, no trace of his previous temper showing. Gerard looked involuntarily at the stack of papers on the desk behind him; Korse just gathered it and the yellow folder. Gerard squeezed his eyes shut as Korse edged by, but all he felt was a brush of dry lips across his forehead. He shivered. "Go home and get some rest," Korse told him. "We need you sharp."
Each morning, there was a different yellow folder on his desk. It didn’t get any better. Finally, he caught Korse leaving one one morning. He’d been out of the office the past two days. Gerard pushed the folder back into Korse’s chest before he could leave. "Why?" he said insistently.
"Why," Korse echoed, like he was actually confused.
"Why are you showing me these things? You know I don’t have clearance. You know I -" Gerard cut himself off.
"I’m sorry," Korse said evenly, tucking the folder back under his arm. "This is what we do, Gerard. We fix things. We make them better. You’re the best I have, Gerard. I thought you’d want to help." Korse leaned in and kissed him, one hand tugging gently at a lock of Gerard’s hair.
"I -" Gerard bit his lip, shaking his head. Their eyes met; Korse’s expression smoothed into something cool and remote.
"Well, I’m sure I can find someone else, if you’re … not able," he said. And he left. He didn’t come home that night, either, and Gerard sat alone in the sitting room of the apartment, listening to the radio.
It was a massive pre-Wars set; in fact, Gerard was sure it dated to Before. How it had survived, how Korse had found it, how he’d afforded it, Gerard had no idea. He’d never even seen Korse turn it on. Gerard sat on the floor next to a speaker, head leaning against the buzzing cabinet and one hand on the control knob, spinning and spinning and spinning through bossa novas and philharmonics and station after station of static.
That’s where he heard it, up in the stratosphere, the top of the broadcast channels. BLI-brand radio dials didn’t even go that high. At first it was no different than the flickering hiss of static he’d been listening to down the dial. Then he heard it - the squeal of an electric guitar - and he stopped and stared.
The motherfucking Stooges. He’d forgotten what they sounded like. How could he have forgotten? It was like being sprayed with a fire hose. The sheer fucking sound.... He huddled up close to the speaker, feeling the bass in his chest cavity, Iggy screaming, Search and destroy. He closed his eyes. Then, too soon, a voice cut in.
"...and that one goes out to Fun Ghoul, wherever you are. You see Fun Ghoul on the streets, tumbleweeds, ask him what’s black and white and red all over. He’ll tell you. That brings my hour to an end, but before we say goodnight, here’s one more by request. This one goes out to everybody’s kid brother. Gotta little Morrissey and the Smiths in the house, Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want. On that note, motorbabies, sweet dreams."
Gerard sat with his cheek pressed against the stereo until the sound faded, until a scratchy version of the Star Spangled Banner coughed into silence. He stared at the radio dial until the needle position was burned into his brain. 109. 109. 109. Who was that? How was he broadcasting? Where was he broadcasting from?
How had BLI not found him yet?
With a forceful turn of the radio dial, Gerard sent the stereo screaming back down into the BLI broadcast channels. Then he killed the power, picked himself off the floor and walked out of the apartment. He’d put this off too long.
He needed to see his kid brother.
The apartment was locked, which it had never been during Gerard’s drunken heyday. But he still had his keys. Mikey hadn’t changed the locks. Gerard knew he wouldn’t. He let himself in.
Mikey was on the couch with Ray, both their heads turned warily toward the door. Gerard scanned the room; it was just the two of them, and a quiet hissing sound proved to be the beat-up mini boom box Mikey’d had since childhood, sitting on the table in front of them. Gerard walked over and picked it up, then twisted the dial to turn the volume down.
"109. Of course, of course you’d be listening too. I don’t even know how I found it, but - Mikey, it’s our music. Like Before. And I heard, Mikey, I fucking heard the Smiths and … I’m so fucking sorry I let it go this long, but I need you to - please tell me what’s going on."
"Gerard," Mikey started, but hesitated as he looked toward Ray. Ray looked down. Gerard just kept staring. "I can’t," Mikey said finally.
"Why do you think?" Mikey asked, miserably. "Gerard, I know you’re not stupid. Don’t make me do this."
"No," said Gerard. "No, I am going to make you do this, because I don’t know how long I can keep covering for you. I can only go into your files, both of your files, and fucking delete things so many times, Mikeyway, before someone notices! Tell me - just tell me it’s fucking worth it."
Mikey started to talk, but Ray talked right over him. "What do you mean, deleting things?" Gerard had never seen such a hard expression on Ray’s usually affable face. Gerard glared right back.
"Someone - and let’s just say this is a big surprise to all three of us in this room, okay? - has been sabotaging BLI operations for months. Do you think that no one in the SCARECROW Unit has noticed? What exactly do you think I do, Ray Toro?"
"I don’t - Mikey didn’t -" Ray had gone about as pale as his - tanned, Gerard noticed - complexion would let him.
"I told you, Toro. I told you weeks ago that I was watching. Just what did you think I meant?" Ray flushed. Apparently he’d thought it meant something different. Gerard shot a look at Mikey, who was watching the two of them and met Gerard’s eyes with a little smirk.
"We’ll talk about that later," Gerard told Mikey. "I am still your big brother. But first - yes, motherfuckers, you’d be getting a lot more attention right now if it wasn’t for me. Especially you," he said to Ray.
"Why - why would you do that?" Ray asked.
"Because of Mikey! Because you’re the only family I have left! And that’s why I’m asking you to tell me just what the fuck I am sticking my neck out for."
Mikey still looked sullen. "No one asked to you stick your neck out."
"Too fucking bad." Gerard sat on the edge of the coffee table, shoved the boom box into Ray’s hands. "Tell me."
No one said anything for a moment. Gerard looked back and forth between them, finally locking on Mikey’s eyes and staring, not even blinking. "You’re different," Mikey said finally, sounding suspicious.
"You told me that before, Mikey. Shit, that’s why I left. And you were right. I was different. It was the pills they gave me. I hacked the personnel files, and I found my medical records, and - They do things to you, to your emotions, your memories. Things they don’t tell you about. I haven’t taken one since."
"We know about that," Ray interjected. "Other people have - if you stop taking them, for any reason, you realize soon enough. It’s - "
"Enough to make you crazy?" Gerard finished. "Yeah. Four days after I did it, the building I was in fucking exploded, and I let the guy who did it get away." That got their attention; he had two pairs of eyes focused on him unblinkingly. "Friend of yours?"
Ray raked a hand through his mass of curls. "I - back up, Gerard, please. SCARECROW knows - "
"They don’t know anything really useful, not yet. Not if I keep doctoring the files." He leaned forward, put a hand on Ray’s knee. "I know you’re tangled up in this, Ray. You’re still clean but that’s not going to last for long. So tell me what I’m protecting."
"This," Ray said simply, handing the boom box back to him. "Freedom."
"Freedom?" Gerard echoed.
"Free speech. No corporate control. How long have you been at BLI now, Gerard? I’ve been there a lot longer. Mikey, too. Is that what you want for the rest of your life? Clean and safe - and dull. Dull as death. Do you know what we’re working on in Robotics now, Gerard? Retinal implants. Do you want BLI to be able to tell you what to see and feel? We don’t."
"Who’s we?" Even as he asked, he saw their faces - the mug shots, the corpses Korse had put in front of him. The ones who’d resisted - and failed. The ones who’d been caught in the crossfire.
"Is it worth dying for?" Gerard asked.
"We’re all dying a little every day," Ray said. "Until BLI finds a way to take that away from us, too. The Aftermath is Secondary, right?"
"The sabotage, that’s one thing, but...the bombing?"
"They’re not trying to hurt anyone," Ray said. "Just shake things up. Give people something that they can’t ignore, that BLI can’t erase." He paused. "You were there, the other night?"
"Yes," Gerard said coolly. "Were you?" After a moment, Ray shook his head. Gerard looked over at Mikey.
"No," Mikey said quietly. "You said - you met the guy, the one who did it?"
Gerard thought back to a small figure crouched on a dark balcony. "Pretty sure."
"And you didn’t - tell them?" Mikey asked. Gerard shook his head. "Why?"
Because he made me feel like feeling was worth it, Gerard thought. But he just shrugged. "No proof. If there would have been any, I wouldn’t have been able to ignore it." Maybe.
Ray looks up from his study of his clasped hands. "I know we don’t really have any right to ask this, but - "
"You want me to keep ignoring it?" Gerard finished, raising his eyebrows at Ray. Ray nodded.
"Just for a little while," Mikey spoke up. "Gee - I - we’re trying to get out of the city. There are a lot of people who want out. Just want to go somewhere where they can live by their own rules. We just need -" He looked at Ray.
"Time. Breathing room. SCARECROW off our backs." Ray looked up at Gerard. Gerard was still stuck on Mikey’s statement.
"Out of the city? And go where? Not -"
"There are more people than you think out in the zones," Ray said. "Plenty of room to run. Plenty of places to hide."
"But you’d still be running. And hiding from SCARECROW."
"Better to move than to stand still. Better to have the choice." That was Mikey.
"You don’t have to commit now," Ray said. "But, Gerard? I don’t want to be like this, but - "
"I’m not going to rat you out, Toro. I’m not going to rat out my own brother. I still don’t know how I feel about all this, but - give me some credit."
They all fell silent. Gerard studied the tips of his boots for a while, scuffs still marking the leather from wading through the broken glass at the power magnate’s house. Mikey shuffled around the living room for a few minutes, then returned and perched next to Gerard on the coffee table, warm where his arm pressed up against Gerard’s side.
"Here," he said. "Listen." He handed Gerard a pair of headphones. The cord snaked across the room to Mikey’s turntable. Gerard watched the black disc spin for a moment before sliding them on. At the first lick of guitars, he started grinning, and he was still smiling when he tipped his head down to lean against Mikey’s shoulder. Mikey was still as bony as he had been as a gangly teenager, but Gerard didn’t mind.
Gerard went straight back to the office. Korse’s cool and disappointed voice was still ringing in his ears, and Gerard fucking knew from experience that when Korse cut you out, you stayed out. He had to make up for his earlier behavior if he wanted access to those files. And he was sure he’d need access to those files if he wanted to have the ghost of a chance to get Mikey and Ray and their friends out.
He found Korse in his office, talking to one of his head dracs. He waited in the doorway until the masked figure left, then let himself in and closed the door. Korse didn’t look up until he heard the door click shut, and when he saw who it was he pushed back from his desk and crossed his arms. "Gerard."
"I’m sorry," Gerard said, crossing the office and leaning up against the edge of Korse’s desk. "I was - I got scared. Every time I remembered … I could have died," he said finally, dropping to his knees and leaning his cheek against Korse’s thigh, looking up wide-eyed from under messy strands of black hair. "If I’d been out on that balcony. I don’t want to be blown the fuck up, Korse."
He felt fingers push through his hair, stroking through the strands a few times before Korse spoke. "I knew you weren’t ready," he said finally. "But you, Gerard - you have so much potential. It can be ugly, what we do, but it’s for the greater good. We keep the City safe, the City keeps working, and everyone’s happy."
Because they’re drugged until they can’t be anything else, Gerard thought, but did not say. He closed his eyes, sitting motionless under Korse’s hand. Finally, he felt a tug on his hair, Korse pulling his head up to look him in the eye.
"I was disappointed," Korse said in a noncommittal voice. "But if you’re sorry.... " his thumb traced across Gerard’s cheekbone, hooked gently in the corner of his mouth. Prove it, his eyes said. Gerard shuddered, giving himself just a moment to hate how much he still wanted this. Then he licked his lips and reached for Korse’s belt.
It was enough. Enough to keep him where he needed to be, at the top of the food chain, doing his job. Or not doing his job. It actually hurt, a little, to pay so much attention to the people behind the transmissions and see their petty abuses of power that he had to let slide. But every missing link meant a broken chain that would maybe keep his brother safe.
"I don’t know who your people are at the packaging plant," he told Mikey over a cup of coffee at a dingy delicatessen a few crucial blocks from the BLI campus. "Or if they’re actually yours. But they need a new broadcast frequency. Probably a new code. I’m going to have to ping it soon."
"Do it," Mikey said. "We’ve got a backup in the supply chain. Ray says we need to divert attention from the power plant up at the reservoir."
"Shit, Mikey, I told you, drac patrols in that sector have been doubled ever since you took out the plant here in the City."
Mikey nodded. "Like I said. We need to divert attention."
"What are you going to do? Oh - fuck, the grid generators."
"Ray designed the perpetual motion mechanisms for the latest upgrade, he knows how they work. If we can get them to go on the blink long enough, we can get people out the Tunnels while the dracs are rushing back to the reservoir." Mikey looked grim. Gerard was only starting to understand the amount of coordination his mysterious group of friends had put into this.
Gerard nodded. "I - all right. I’ll see what I can do. When - how long do I have?" until you leave, he didn’t say.
Mikey met his eyes. He understood anyway. "A week." He took a swig of the last dregs of his coffee, pulled the hood of his jacket up over his head. "Gerard … why won’t you - I don’t understand why - "
"Someone has to make sure SCARECROW stays off your backs," Gerard whispered. He was picturing the last surveillance feed he’d watched before leaving the office, a lone troublemaker probably not a day over sixteen, armed only with an bag of spray paint cans. How he’d run when the drac patrol spotted him, darting like a rabbit through the warren of warehouse alleys on one of the shabbier edges of the City. Run, Gerard had told the screen. He’d switched feeds before he saw if the dracs caught up. He didn’t want to know.
"You said it yourself, if we can’t stay under the radar for long, how can you?"
"Let me worry about that, Mikey." Mikey wouldn’t stop worrying, Gerard knew that. Gerard just couldn’t make any promises.
Gerard caught three more broadcasts by the mysterious DJ. He’d figured out the sequence the man - Dr. Death Defying, he called himself - used to piggyback around the airwaves after just two more, and was waiting by the ancient radio at the next appointed time, leaning against the cabinet with one nervous eye on the door. And fuck, the music. Gerard could feel it in every part of him. If people just knew - if they could feel this - things would be so different, he knew it.
Korse came home later, letting himself into the apartment quietly. Gerard heard the door open. The radio was already turned off, but Gerard was still sitting on the floor, propped up against the sitting room wall. He turned his head to the side to look up at Korse when he stopped in the doorway. Gerard felt languid, drained, and he still had another day of watching, listening, and waiting.
Ever since he’d capitulated, several new autopsy files had crossed his desk. He’d seen Korse, cool and unruffled, shoot one of them personally; at the time, Gerard had been watching the grainy feed for the same shabby warehouse district where he had watched dracs chase down the scared bunny, noting where the boy’s graffitied scrawls had already been covered with sterile white. Each time a new yellow folder had arrived, Gerard had quietly and discreetly been sick in the bathroom once he’d checked to make sure he didn’t recognize the face.
He wasn’t sure how much longer he could hold on. The dracs didn’t usually shoot to kill, but they’d been retrained, it seemed, after the power plant bombing. Gerard was absolutely unsurprised by Korse’s potential for violence, but every time he replayed that moment in the alley in his mind, the crumpled figure in the alley took on Mikey’s face, and he couldn’t breathe.
Now Korse was looking down at him, his face wearing the particular expression of mingled fondness and scrutiny that he saved for Gerard.
"Are you quite comfortable?" he asked with a curl of curiosity in his voice.
"I’m fine," Gerard said, evasive. Korse reached down and offered a hand. When Gerard took it, Korse pulled him to his feet, wrapping his other arm around Gerard’s waist when he stumbled a little. He backed up a few steps and sat on one of the nearby armchairs, tugging Gerard down onto his lap. Gerard grabbed onto the padded armrests, kneeling up and bracketing Korse’s chest with his arms. He stared for a moment at the familiar face, sharp slashes of lips and cheekbones, opaque black eyes. What he had - it was too harsh to be called charisma, but he was magnetic. Even the cruel light in his eyes was somehow irresistible.
"What are you thinking?" Korse asked him, deceptively lazy. He ran his thumb over Gerard’s lips, wrapped a hand around the side of Gerard’s neck where the pulse was thundering.
You’ll break me if I stay. He knew it like he knew his own name. "I’m just … tired," he told Korse quietly. "I’m tired of everything."
"You need a sleep treatment," Korse told him. "At least six cycles. Stop being so stubborn."
There was really little doubt that it was an order. Gerard wet his lips nervously, looked out from behind his messy hair. "I - you know it makes me nervous. Maybe … can I take it here? With you there?" He let his lips fall open slightly, looking frightened, waiting. Fuck, he was frightened. The idea that had just flashed into his head....
It would either work, or he’d be dead.
Gerard was in the office at dawn, watching the first dominoes of the resistance fighters’ plan tumble slowly. Whoever was in charge had an impeccable sense of timing. Incidents came across Gerard’s transmission module at intervals that appeared nearly random, like a piano just off tempo, just off key.
Korse had been in and out of the command center four times in the first several hours of the day, looking more coolly furious each time. Gerard kept his head down to hide his smile. It was stupid of him, he was sure, but somewhere along the line this had taken on the timbre of a game. A fucking deadly game, but a game nonetheless. He watched his screens, ran his reports, and every once in a while inserted a tiny little worm of code into the outgoing frequencies. Somewhere along the line, maybe, with the right sequence, they would send the transmissions system staggering. Every blind eye was a chance for another body to hide.
He had no way to get word to Mikey or Ray; all incoming and outgoing transmissions from the BLI campus were monitored. Well, all transmissions were monitored, but the official BLI channels from the tactically important offices were monitored more carefully, and that was a different department than his. But feeding Mikey intel wasn’t his job; keeping the dracs away was.
The symphony of incidents was nearly at a crescendo by late afternoon, and Gerard knew the finale would be coming soon - the sabotage at the grid generator plant. Several saboteurs had been captured at different locations around the city throughout the afternoon hours - Gerard knew because he’d been monitoring the security cams during at least one of them - and Korse was pacing up and down the main hallway, had been for an hour at least. Drac feet scurried faster with each barked order. Gerard knew, then, that he had no real choice. He had to get Korse out of the office, out of commission.
Gerard scrubbed his palms over his face and took a few deep breaths. Showtime. He stood up and picked up his coffee cup, chipped stoneware emblazoned with BLI’s Mousekat cartoon. Moving to his doorway, he scanned the hall - Korse speaking to someone in another office, dracs rushing to and fro. Stepping out into the stream of motion, he let himself stagger, rebound off a drac and get his feet tangled in the boots of another until he lost his balance and crashed to the ground. His coffee cup shattered against the wall. Half the Mousekat head stared up at him, and he stared back, shaking his head slowly back and forth.
Korse was at his side immediately. "Gerard, what is it?" he said, brushing off the dracs who were fumbling to get Gerard to his feet and holding him with a firm grip on his forearm.
"I don’t -" Gerard started slowly, calling up all his years of drinking for the proper tone. He looked down at his hand, where he still clutched the mug handle. "I’m just so tired."
"Go home. Sleep. Good health - "
"- better living. You said you’d stay with me," Gerard whispered. "I need you."
"Gerard -" Korse looked pained. It had worked before; Gerard’s transparent distress after the bombing had pulled him away. If anything, Gerard was more frantic now, Mikey Mikey Mikey Mikey running through his mind on a constant loop. "Give me five minutes," he said finally. "I’ll meet you there."
Gerard was already in the room, fiddling with the pod settings, when Korse walked in, and he looked up and smiled nervously. "You said six cycles? How long is that?"
"About nine hours. But, Gerard, don’t worry about that." Korse pulled Gerard close, stroked the backs of his fingers down Gerard’s cheek. "The treatment will help you rest, forget whatever it is that’s bothering you. You’ll forget."
That’s what’s bothering me, Gerard thought. He curled his arms around Korse’s waist, pulling him close, kissing him suddenly, passionately, and with such force that they both swayed off balance. Gerard planted his back foot and shoved with all his strength, sending Korse staggering into the open tube as Gerard went scrabbling for the door handle. The portal hissed with sudden pressurization just as the full weight of Korse’s body hit it from the other side.
"I won’t forget who I am!" Gerard yelled through the glass at Korse’s furious face. "And you never knew!" He darted away and slapped the buttons on the panel to start the gases. Nine hours to run away from here. Leaving the motionless form trapped in stasis in the glass tube, Gerard left the apartment without looking back. He took only two things with him.
His face in the mirrored elevator panels didn’t look scared any more. He rode in silence, alone, down to the subterranean garage, where he found the car that went with Korse’s keys clutched tight in his right hand. The pod override controller in his left crunched under the tires as he peeled out of the garage.
Gerard hadn’t driven a car in years, but it turned out it wasn’t something you forgot so easily. The car wrapped around him like a lover - apropos, and a little ironic, considering its owner. His thumb rubbed the firebird logo on the steering wheel. Mikey, where was Mikey? It had never occurred to Gerard that he wouldn’t be able to find his brother. He looked toward the generator plant in the distance, looking out through the t-tops as the artificial grid flickered visibly in the darkening sky. In the distance, something greenish whirled. Poison gases, a mini-tornado, who knew? He was getting out of here, and then he’d find Mikey. Gerard squealed out of the BLI complex and pointed the Trans Am’s headlights toward the Tunnels.
Laser beams flickered in the falling dusk as Gerard approached the Tunnels. A lone siren screamed. A single unit, four white-suited dracs, was holding down the mouth of the tunnel, firing on a group of mismatched figures huddling behind some concrete pylons. Gerard fishtailed the car to a stop in the line of fire. Lasers hissed and spat off the surface of the car as Gerard opened the driver’s side door and leaned out, low to the ground. "Get in!" he shouted.
None of them moved for a second, and Gerard was just starting to feel absolutely fucking terrified when a disbelieving voice shouted, "Gee?" It was Mikey, slinking up along the retaining wall.
"Yes, it’s me, let’s fucking go!"
Mikey reached the other figures and said something inaudible. Whatever it was, it got them moving, and soon he had four bodies tumbling into the car. "Hold on tight!" he yelled and gunned the engine, all 500 horses screaming as he shot into the tunnel and straight through the wooden turnstile gate.
Gerard stole a glance into the passenger seat once they were clear of the city. His passengers in the backseat were hanging out the open windows, sighting down the barrels of their ray guns for pursuers. Mikey was slumped next to him. One shoulder of his jacket looked scorched, and he was covered with dust, but his expression … he looked exhilarated, fucking astonished, and Gerard bit back a grin.
"You stole his fucking car?" Mikey yelled over the roar of the engine.
"Can’t slow down now," Gerard yelled back. "So, where are we going?"
Mikey burst into a full-throated, delighted laugh. "Wherever we want!" he said, and Gerard just grinned and punched the accelerator.