It’s bizarre, Gene thinks, as he stares at the kid on stage. How little some people change. This kid, with his serious demeanour and his awkward stance, he’s familiar in ways he shouldn’t be. That ever-guarded gaze, the jittering hand, how he looks too thin, like he could float into the sky with the puff of a summer breeze, but somehow has a rounded belly on him. He’s noticeably younger, no lines etched at the corner of his eyes, or around the full, attractive mouth that a bird would call ‘pouty’, but he just thinks of as there. There, but not to be touched. He’s got wavy, longer hair and pimples blemishing his pale skin. But it’s him, all the same, holding a guitar and singing back up.
This was a bad idea.
His Sam, his by virtue of having known who he was and maybe something more besides, he is long gone. A friend, more than, dead, but not buried. And Gene’s got over it. He doesn’t think about him every single day. Hasn’t woken up in the middle of the night reaching for his form for a long time, at least three years now.
But this Sam, he’s standing not yards away, and for all his discomfort at being in the limelight, for all his adolescent, gawky inelegance, he is vibrant. This is something Sam always was, until he wasn’t any more. Alive. There is the energy Gene most remembers, coursing through this young man’s veins, tightly restrained but itching to show on the surface. He can see Sam’s mind ticking overtime, myriad emotions flitting momentarily under the glare of a too-strong spotlight. He wants to go and goad him, get him riled up ‘til he’s fit to burst, indignant fury displayed in a white-hot glare.
A very bad idea.
After the first set, Sam sits with the other boys in the band at a table just off to the side and visibly relaxes. He no longer thinks he’s under any scrutiny, and maybe he shouldn’t be, but Gene can’t tear his eyes away. He watches as Sam downs a gulp of beer, his long and delicate neck exposed as he tilts his head back. Sam laughs as one of his band-mates speaks, the rich sound crossing the distance of the club towards Gene. It’s not only a sound he hasn’t heard for a long time, it’s one he heard rarely, and realising that twists something deep within him. Gene waits, wants to get Sam alone, but there’s another set to go and he doesn’t yet know what he’s going to say.
Forty minutes pass. Gene whiles away the time drinking, surrounded by kids he should probably book for contravening the legal age limit regarding alcohol consumption, but just considering that makes his head whirl. He smokes, absently flicking ash over the tabletop. The band isn’t bad, he thinks as they begin to play their second set. They’re not brilliant, but they’ve almost got it together, with everyone at least playing the right chords if they don’t always do it on time. Sam’s guitar playing is the most proficient of the lot, which Gene already knew, because ten years before and more than twenty years into Sam’s future, he’d gone undercover as a session musician to solve a kidnapping case. The mockery had been laid on thick from all sides, but in a quiet moment, Gene had asked Sam to play him some Rodrigo and during that performance Gene hadn’t only seen a player who was technically gifted, but passionate too. Before then, he’d always wondered why Sam hid behind procedure and regulation, but afterwards he’d realised that these structures gave Sam the scaffolding he needed. He was a man who had to step in 3/4 time, and when he did so he was beau--- well, he was many things.
Gene brings his mind back to the task at hand. Sam has stopped staring at the floor and is instead gazing at him, with a spark of something he shouldn’t have. Recognition.
Gene shifts uncomfortably in his seat. He didn’t expect this. This was not in the script. Sam continues to stare at him, like he can see his insides all knotted and gnarled, and there’s a hostility there alongside the vitality. Makes him think of packing it all in and retreating somewhere safe, and he hasn’t felt like that since he was six and his dad would clamber up the stairs to give him a talking to.
If this had been his idea, he’d have to seriously reconsider his sanity.
Six songs later, he is keenly aware of Sam putting his guitar down, giving a quick excuse to his band-mates and stalking over, but he doesn’t stay seated, he stands and winds his way through the club to the alley. A stiffness to Sam’s stance suggests there’s going to be a scene, and if so, Gene would prefer for it to be private.
The alleyway is dank and poorly illuminated. Sam’s band has chosen a complete shithole for their first performance, it has to be said. Of course, it’s likely there wasn’t much choice. Gene hasn’t lived here for a while, but despite what the newspapers bandy about, Manchester’s moved with the times, and with so much competition, new bands are lucky they get a look-in, let alone a place to be looked at.
The door clatters open after ten blissfully quiet seconds, and Sam stands there, tension etched in every twitch of his frame.
“What are you doing here?”
Gene could tell the truth, but he’s wondering how, exactly, this version of Sam knows him well enough to be indignant at his presence, so he stalls. “I’ve come to see a band, is that illegal now?”
“You tell me, you’re the one with the qualifications. Well, the semblance of them at any rate.”
“You know who I am,” Gene says, telling himself to ignore the arrhythmic beating of his heart.
“Everyone in this city knows who you are.”
“Not everyone. It’s been a long time since I’ve ruled these streets,” Gene states, wondering if it’s a case of mistaken identity and Sam’s going to realise and backtrack.
“Yeah, but I’ve got a very personal reason to hate your guts,” Sam replies. His eyes flash dangerously again, and for a second, Gene can forget he’s only eighteen. There’s forty years of anger there in that gaze and any moment now Gene’s expecting Sam to start punching him as retaliation for abandoning him in the river. “It’s coppers like you that I’m looking forward to replacing,” Sam continues with the kind of bitter vehemence that Gene learnt to realise meant he was trying to convince himself as much as anyone else.
“You haven’t answered my question.”
“Actually, I think you’ll find I did.”
Sam squints into the darkness, shoves his head forward in a display of alpha male dominance that’s strangely convincing for a youth of his slight build. “What’s this, no tough guy posturing? No shoving me against the wall? Have you gone soft, DCI Hunt?”
Gene shrugs, hasn’t felt so confused for a long time. He’s always relied on knowing exactly what he needs to do, but Sam always did have a habit of making him question that. “Depends on your definition.”
“You gonna claim you’re not here for me, then? ‘Cause I saw you staring. You know who I am. Couldn’t not. I’m sure you’ve destroyed many lives, but my family would have to rate somewhere in the top ten.”
Gene gives a small nod and doesn’t care if it looks like admission of guilt. “I’m here to give you some advice.”
“This should be rich. Go on, then. Enlighten me.”
“Remember this. This anger. This drive. The job isn’t what you think it is. It’s not fulfilling the way you want it to be, it drags you down into a well of apathy most nights, but if you believe in yourself, in your convictions, in what’s right, you’re on your way to survival. The rules are there to guide you, not trap you.”
“And why do you think I need such hallowed words of wisdom?” Sam asks, dark eyes burning. “Or would want them from a scumbag like you?”
Sam recoils, then steps forward again, bouncing on the balls of his feet with frenetic energy. One of his hands has closed into a fist. “Liar.”
Gene can’t stop himself from goading, pulse racing at Sam’s obvious fury. “Really. She asked me to talk to you.” He pauses, is painfully curious, has to see how far he can take it. “As I gave her one from behind.”
For a slim teenager, Sam packs a hell of a punch. His angles hurt as they make contact with Gene’s flesh, an elbow jammed into his side and knuckles against his ribcage. Gene allows him to punch him a few times, welcoming the pain, then grabs hold of his arms and drags them behind his body, swinging Sam into the bricks, like he’d practically begged. Sam struggles, but he’s weak in this position, and Gene tightens his grip.
He’s not thinking straight. He’s not thinking at all. He has Sam in close contact again, smooth skin and harsh breaths, low voice calling him every name under the sun. He has body heat and that smell, the one that hurtles his mind back to office arguments and stakeouts, and stolen moments in shared spaces. He’s got those sharp lines and soft curves, that way of fitting against him perfectly, like there’s a piece of him missing for Sam to slot into.
“You’re a bastard,” Sam says for the seventieth time. “Let me go.”
“I can’t,” Gene says. He takes a gulp of air and ignores the throbbing at the back of his eyes. “I thought I had, but I can’t, Sam.”
“Great. You’re a sick fuck as well as a bastard, that’s just what I need.”
“Maybe it is.” Gene crowds in closer, swallows thickly as he brushes up against Sam’s denim, can feel the heat of his thigh and backside, knows it’s not the same, never could be, that the body against his is not the one he’s mapped a thousand times. Similar, but different in ways he can’t reconcile with what he wants and what he knows is best.
Sam’s tone changes, becomes wondering as well as mocking. “I’ve read and heard a lot about you, DCI Hunt. This is new.”
Gene relinquishes hold. He settles against the bricks of the club and looks at the damp concrete ground of the alleyway, because looking at Sam might make him forget such a thing exists. There’s a hole in the world and he’s going to fall straight down, into the depths of hell.
“You’re too young to know what love truly is,” Gene says, “but someone once told me it’s something you shouldn’t be afraid of. That once you’ve got it, you should never let it go. Emotion, Sam, it can seem like a burden, like it holds you back and keeps you from doing what you need to do, but without it, you’re nothing.”
“Well, thank you for stating the obvious. You can run along now. I’m sure you’ve other young men to molest,” Sam says scornfully, but there’s fluidity to his pose, a flush over his cheeks, and his gaze is a little too penetrating, and Gene starts to think --- no. He can’t think that.
“One other thing,” Gene adds, not moving. “Don’t stop playing. You’re talented. Plus, it’s a good way to pick up birds.”
“And blokes, I’d imagine,” Sam says with a derisive quirk of his eyebrow.
“If you want.”
Sam continues to glare at him, as if willing him to move, but Gene is drained. He knows that for his own sake he should never have done this, but equally that he really had no choice, and even though it hurts, it’s a good kind of pain because Sam is still there in front of him. Alive.
“If you’re not going, I am,” Sam says. He frowns at Gene, flexes his hands. “I’d prefer it if you never came to another one of my gigs, ever again. And if you so much as pick up a telephone receiver to contact my mum, I’m gonna search you out and beat you within an inch of your life.”
“You think you could do that?”
“I’d damn well try. Even if you would enjoy it.”
Gene catches a twitch at the corner of Sam’s lips that sends him reeling, and he’s about to move forward when Sam steps back. Sam turns on his heel and marches away, his sneakers scuffing the ground in a rhythm that reminds Gene of a waltz. He watches intently, eyes travelling the narrow width of Sam’s shoulders, and lets out the breath he hasn’t been conscious of concealing. His heart thumps painfully.
Seven years before, one month before Sam’s death, they’d been trapped together in some bastard’s cellar, disaster imminent, and Sam had told him everything. The facts and figures Gene had pieced together through whispered conversations with Annie, Sam’s own weird proclamations, and, for his sins, talking to Tony Crane.
“How does it work, this time travel lark?” he’d asked, because he’d believed Sam, but he hadn’t known why.
“I don’t exactly know. But I think my life split into two when I came here. Maybe more than two.” Sam had crinkled his nose, breathing out in soft, steady puffs.
“Why do you think that?”
“I went to talk to Ruth Tyler, my mother, five years ago and things were completely different. Not how I remembered them, not even close. But when I was in 2006 the second time everything was as it had been, so... I think there must be divergent timelines.”
Gene had rubbed his chin. “This is doing my head in.”
“I had to tell you, Gene, I owe you this much. I’m not long for this world,” Sam had said with the mockery of a quote. “I’ve been getting signs. Calls, really.”
“Why couldn’t you pretend you’re not bonkers, like everyone else?”
“You know me, I like to go against the grain.”
“You really think you’re gonna die here. You think I’d let that happen?” Gene had said, aware his throat was choked up, blaming it on the dust.
“If not today, there’s always tomorrow. Yeah. I think I’m gonna die. And it’s been amazing. Totally and absolutely, being here with you. But it’s been wrong.”
Sam had pressed paper into Gene’s palm. Gene had wanted to grab hold of Sam’s hand and never let go, but he hadn’t, he’d numbly glanced at the scrawled cursive.
“What is this?”
“It’s where you’ll find me. 1987. I could’ve chosen any time, any place, but this is a memorable one, because it’s the first and last time I played in public before that op we did three years back. I’ll be old enough to listen and young enough to make a change.”
“I don’t understand, Sam. What do you want me to do?”
Sam had opened his mouth twice, twisted his face up in confusion, become vocal with his hands, but it was only after a minute that he’d managed to get words to spill from his lips. He’d looked at Gene with a frantic kind of desperation, and the expression had made Gene’s insides clench, because he’d almost forgotten these moments of insanity.
“I don’t regret coming back here and choosing this life, but I’ve had my chance now. I got what I wanted. And I think, if it’s possible, the other version of me should choose the other life, the one I never really grabbed. Tell me to watch out. To be more open, to not be afraid to love. To trust in my instincts. To hold onto feeling and never let go. Please? Make sure I never get to a point where I need to jump.”
“And if you don’t believe me? If you make the same mistakes?”
“I guess there’ll always be a version of us, somewhere, in a parallel time or dimension or whatever you wanna call it.”
“You really are cracked.”
“Maybe. And you’ve been my glue, Gene. You know that, don't you? But I think, next time, it should be someone else.”
Sam had given a wry chuckle, clutched Gene’s wrist. “You’ve always been right in a wrong kind of way. Isn’t that your central ethos in life?”
“That’s your interpretation. I’m right in the right kind of way, if you ask me.”
“And I am asking you. Will you do it?”
“You already know the answer,” Gene had said. Sam had continued to look at him expectantly, eyes still a little too wide. “I will. For you.”
Gene leans against the wall and closes his eyes. It’s bizarre, he thinks, how little some people change. He feels every bit as broken now as he did before. And he tries not to encourage the part of him that hopes that this Sam is as stubborn and prone to ignoring wisdom as his was.