There are hands, and they are urging him upward, trying to make him stand. The hands, two hands, touch his where they clasp the burden in his arms. He will not relinquish it. Instead he clutches it more tightly, curls it more tightly into his grasp. He feels its warmth pressing against him.
"Please." Someone whispers urgently. "Please, Oliver. Please."
He won't give it up. It's precious to him; what he holds is his, and no one will take it away. He won't let her go. Not again.
"Oliver. We can't stay. You can't stay."
The breathless voice trembles, terrified. He knows the voice is connected to the soft hands that pull at him. But he won't go. He won't go quietly. He'll stay here, huddled on the cold tile. Holding on, holding her. Forever.
The soft voice shapes itself into command; he's well trained, and looks up despite his distraction. A thin face, half-obscured by a fall of blonde hair, pale eyes, scared eyes. The eyes of a mouse. Sydney. His assignment.
His eyes drop back down, to the honey-colored head that belongs to the woman he rocks in his arms. The warmth is going. He's cold, and there's wetness between them - her blood, his blood, what's the difference, they were flesh of each other's flesh anyway, weren't they? They can't ever be apart. Even when they were, they weren't. He won't let her get away this time--
"Go away, Sydney." He bends his head to kiss the soft honey hair.
"She's dead, Oliver." Another voice, male. Quiet. Final. He doesn't want to listen to it. He won't, he can't, because listening would make it
and it can't be true, not while her body is so soft, so warm--
No, the warmth is an illusion. And he's cold, so very cold. He tightens his grip. Shivers wrack him and he rocks her all the harder.
No she isn't. No she isn't. No, no, no, no-
But she is. She's gone, and the body in his arms turns to ash. He's embracing lifeless flesh.
His hands go numb.
Far away, a train whistle. Closer, the echo of running footsteps. The hands pull at him with more urgency. He hears voices, male and female, nervous, pleading voices, and Sydney cries Duncan, help me, and because Oliver is numb he lets himself be pulled up, away. The body drops from his hands onto the train platform, crumpling into a boneless sprawl of fabric and flesh. The approaching train pushes wind before it; the cold air whips through his shirt, which is sodden with blood. He's shivering again, so hard his teeth chatter. A riptide of vertigo overtakes him; he flails, reaching for something to anchor him. "Alex," he whispers in a voice thin and dry as paper, "Alex, Alex." His numb hands twitch, close on emptiness. "Oh, God, Alex!"
"Oliver," pleads the thready voice, "Go! We have to go!" Hands are on his face; Sydney's desperate eyes are before him, but though his own eyes are open, she's not who he sees.
There is movement, and a halting retreat up seemingly endless stairs. There are four hands, someone on either side, pushing him, dragging him away. Each step is agony. Flesh protests as bandages pull away, spreading fresh blood. He doesn't make a sound, doesn't cry out or complain or curse. The numbness spreads up his arms, invades his chest.
They are in a vehicle. He lies against the rear seat, against the thin blonde woman, and she holds him in her arms. His head is turned to the side, away from her so that his eyes face the window. Streets rush by. He doesn't close his eyes and the whipping wind makes them tear.
"Duncan," Sydney is saying, "Take us to the house."
Oliver hears them but doesn't listen. He doesn't care about them, any of them, not the boy Duncan or the Committee or Sydney Bloom or the entire Free World. They could all burst into flames or blow each other up or just go hang for all he cares. Everything's so bloody unimportant.
"Oliver," Sydney is saying, in her breathless, quiet voice. "Oliver, Oliver. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry."
He wants to reply, if you don't shut up immediately, I shall have to terminate you, but he hasn't the strength, and besides, she doesn't matter. Neither does he, not any more.
"We're here," Sydney is saying, and he suddenly realizes where she's taken him.
"No." He pushes the car door open. But when he tries to climb out his feet won't hold him, and he stumbles to his knees. It occurs to him that maybe he's rather more hurt than he thought he was, being shot and all. There's certainly more blood on him than there was a short while ago.
Sydney is making scared noises behind him, tugging at him. He wishes she would stop it, wishes for once she wouldn't be so afraid. Sydney's fright is epic; she fears the world, has no defenses against it. She is without guile, without a single dark spot on her soul.
Alex loved the fear; it pushed her to greater heights, drew brilliance from her in her work. She had guile, oh, plenty of it, and darkness within, as much darkness in her soul as he has. He loved the darkness of her, and loved her light. Her passions burned with a white hot flame.
Does Sydney have passions, any at all, besides her computer and her memories of her family? Oliver doubts it, or he would doubt it, it he cared.
Right now he doesn't care about anything. His vision is tunneling and the ground spins beneath him. With a shaking hand he pulls a paper from his pocket and shoves it at her. Tells her to call the number. The Committee will fetch him, and maybe the fact that he'll let her make the call shows he's weak, but he's too tired to care. It's been a difficult day, as he's said. As he said to Alex.
He closes his eyes and sinks down to the ground.
Maybe they'll terminate him. And if they do, ah, well, that doesn't matter either. Not after. . . Not after today. He rather hopes they'll try; he's in the mood to take some of them down with him.
Sydney sends Duncan away. Oliver doesn't notice.
She sits beside him on the curb, waiting. Her eyes flit to him, fall away, flicker back. He regards her dispassionately. "Why wasn't it you?"
"What?" Her voice is nearly inaudible.
"Why wasn't it you, instead of Alex," Oliver says brutally.
Sydney drops her eyes. Her pale hair falls over her face, obscuring it. It is, as he's said, absurdly easy to hurt her, but right now he feels no remorse.
When the car comes, Oliver is alone.
He's in a house, another faceless house. A doctor has been and gone, pronouncing him salvageable.
The phone is ringing. He ignores it.
Oliver misses the vertigo, because now that he's no longer under physical duress he can't seem to make himself stop thinking. Or feeling, which is worse, and that's the beginning of the end for someone in his business. The Committee may wait until he recovers from the bullet wound before they question him -- Why did you interfere? What do you know? Why did you abandon your assignment? --but on the other hand, they may opt for torture, mental or physical, just the way he is. They may send him for retraining or give him another assignment, take him away from peculiar, odd, damaged Sydney. They may make him disappear. They may not do anything at all. He has no way of knowing. Not that he cares, but if they're going to be long about it, he'd rather just have a bullet in the back of the head.
The phone continues to ring.
If only he could forget her, forget
--the apple-spice of her shampoo, the rough-soft weave of her jacket bunching in his tingling fingers, the light in her pale eyes, the laugh lines, pain lines, life lines imprinted on her face, the skin so white and softly rounded on her small frame, that white skin against his darker flesh, their bodies tangling, the slick wetness of her, the taste of her--
His hands clench on his thighs.
The phone rings. He utters a curse and picks up the receiver.
There is a tingle at the back of his head, and his eyes feel strange. There is a slightly sickening loop of dizziness. For a moment he thinks he knows what's happening, but then he forgets, because he's on the platform, and this time it's Sydney walking towards him, but Sydney as she never was: cool, beautiful, perfectly coiffed, dressed to the nines. Gangly sharp-edged Sydney, who slouches into a comma of bad posture, who whispers inaudibly, who looks away rather than make eye contact, the Sydney who is afraid of the world, is nowhere in evidence. This Sydney is a perfect, slender beauty who gazes on him with cool consideration, from eyes tinted an emerald hue not seen in nature.
Alex, he says, remembering. He looks down and she's there, crumpled, bloody, still. Alex. I killed her.
No, murmurs Perfect Sydney. They did it.
He wants to believe her, but it's more complicated than that. I loved her. More than I loved life.
Not your fault.
There's no point any more. There's no one left.
There's something in her smoky tone that makes Oliver's focus leave the platform, rise to greet the bright green eyes. Those eyes tell him what he didn't know before. Her eyes tell him everything.
How could he have been so unaware?
Ah, she echoes, in a voice like music. You understand.
Sydney. I didn't know. I didn't notice.
Would it have mattered if you did?
There's no simple answer. Perhaps. I loved her, Sydney. I didn't think I was capable. Before. Before her. Maybe not again.
Sshh. Of course you are.
You're very sure.
Because I know you. She reaches out a hand and strokes it across his forehead. Rest now. He closes his eyes, the better to feel the cool silk of her glove against his skin. He releases a breath. How long has he been holding it?
When he opens his eyes, Sydney is mere inches away. He smiles at her, and cups her face. Don't leave, she says, never leave me, as she reaches to unknot his tie and--
The receiver drops with a clatter. Oliver flinches. He blinks rapidly, glancing around. Funny; for a moment he thought. . . No. He's alone. Other than the telephone, which is off the hook, the house is in perfect order, perfectly quiet. Evidently his associates have decided to pull up stakes and leave him here. Which is just as well, seeing as he--
--seeing as he what?
What just happened?
"Peculiar," Oliver says. He's suddenly restless. He's worried about Sydney, what they may have done to her without his protection. Sydney needs him, poor, helpless, guileless Sydney--
Oliver sits bolt upright, ignoring the pull of the bandages wrapping his ribs. No. Sydney isn't helpless, is she? That vertigo, that dizziness a moment ago-- He knows what it means, though not what exactly occurred. What did she see? What did she do?
He feels a flash of anger, but alongside it a rush of admiration. Apparently Sydney has plenty of guile when she wants to use it. She can manipulate. She can orchestrate, and be ruthless. She has greater power than perhaps anyone knows or can imagine. And perhaps the dark spots on her soul are small, yet, but evidently his own darkness has rubbed off on her, and once stained, she's marked forever. If he remains with her, who knows what will happen?
Sydney has the power to heal, and the power to destroy. Where there is power, there will be passion. It will be interesting to see what she does with her passion. It will be interesting to see what she becomes.
What they become.
Oliver finds himself smiling at the thought. He can hardly wait to find out.