The first thing Zolf realizes when he wakes up the next morning is that there’s no alarm going off. He scrambles up and reaches blindly to the side of his bed, grappling around for the prosthetic. “Shit, shit, shit ,” he mutters.
He can’t find the prosthetic anywhere, and glances around the room to see where he tossed it last night.
“What the…” he whispers.
This isn’t his room. For starters, it’s way too big, and - is that a walk-in closet? - much too opulent to even exist in Countisbury. And, he realizes as he looks down, he has both his legs. He slowly swivels on the bed and stands, glancing down.
“This is… a weird dream,” he mutters, running a hand through his hair. It feels softer than his, and significantly shorter. He turns and sees a mirror out of the corner of his eye and stumbles over, still getting used to not having to adjust for his prosthetic.
He stands in front of the mirror and his jaw drops. Staring back at him is a handsome Egyptian man, probably a few inches shorter than Zolf himself. He reaches a hand out and the reflection in the mirror does the same. Zolf jumps back, hand stretching up to touch his face. It’s more angular than his is, skin softer without even a hint of a beard.
“What the hell?” he says, tilting his head left and right.
“Hamid! Mate, we’re going to be late, and you know how Liliana is if we don’t beat her there. We gotta go -“ the door to the room slides open and Zolf whips his head around to look at the unfamiliar face poking his head around the frame. “You’re not even dressed? Hamid, we have class in twenty, if you’re not out in the kitchen in ten I’m leaving without you.”
The door slams shut and Zolf stands there in silence, incredibly confused.
“What the hell does Hamid mean?” he says to the open air.
Somehow, he struggles his way through the walk-in closet, glances at the truly incomprehensible clothing, shrugs his way into some trousers with way too many buttons and a button-down shirt that doesn’t really make sense but seems to match in the mirror, does a passable job at fixing his hair, gives a confused look at the many bottles of some sort of product on the counter and then stumbles out of the room, holding his shoes in his hand.
Walking is… different. He doesn’t have to mentally adjust for the prosthetic anymore, which had become so natural that walking now feels slightly awkward and forced. He makes his way down the hallway and into a kitchen that’s easily double the size of his and Feryn’s, and spots the man who had opened the door earlier.
“Dressing down today, Hamid?” The strange man who definitely knows who Zolf is supposed to be says with a smirk, eyeing him up and down. “What brought this on?”
“Uh…” Zolf starts, but he’s cut off by the sound of a phone beeping. He glances over at the man who gives him a raised eyebrow in return. The phone beeps again and Zolf feels it vibrate against his leg this time. He grabs the phone and looks at the lock screen with badly-disguised panic until it asks for a fingerprint. Zolf presses his thumb down and hopes it will work, mentally cheering when the phone unlocks and he can see the texts on the screen.
‘Are you and Gideon on the way?’ The first text message reads, followed by ‘I’ll be there in ten minutes. Don’t make me wait.’
Well, that at least clears up one mystery. The guy giving Zolf an expectant look must be Gideon, and Zolf can work with that.
“We should - we should get going?” Zolf says, and it comes out as a question despite how hard he tries to sound certain.
Gideon shoots him a weird look. “You sound different today.”
“Ah - really?” Zolf says, hoping his panicked expression comes across as more confused than anything else. “Must be. Losing my voice.”
Gideon just shrugs at that and heads toward the door, grabbing an apple from a fruit bowl on the table and rubbing it against a towel. “C’mon, you’re right. Let’s go. Can’t be late again.”
Oh, well. If it’s a dream, he might as well go along with it. Zolf follows Gideon as he leads the way out of the flat. He steps outside the building and stalls. This… this has to be a dream. There’s absolutely no way that Zolf would end up in a city, not after he’d just talked to Feryn about it, but there’s no mistaking it.
Tall buildings rise up around him as Zolf’s jaw drops open. It’s - well, it’s not exactly what he was expecting, it’s less gleaming and a bit more storied, more brick buildings that look like they’ve stood the test of time than immaculately conceived towers of glass and metal. But it’s beautiful, and Zolf stares out over the city even as people rush past him, giving him dirty looks as they step around him.
“Hamid!” Gideon yells, and Zolf jumps. “Come on, we’ve gotta go! God.”
“Uh, sorry, right,” Zolf calls back, and follows Gideon through the crowd, apologizing to people as he stumbles along, trying not to lose sight of Gideon.
It’s a difficult journey to the campus, even though the flat isn’t far. Zolf struggles to push through the crowd, for one; it would have been a nightmare to try and get through this with his prosthetic, but the body he’s in is small and doesn’t seem to be built for shoving through crowds, so Zolf is stuck making liberal use of his elbows as he stumbles through, and then they’re out and standing in front of a large, open, iron-wrought gate.
Gideon rolls his eyes as Zolf breathes heavily. “Jesus, Hamid, it’s like you’ve never walked through a crowd at all. What is up with you today?”
Shaking his head, he ambles on through the gate and, after a beat, Zolf follows him. Hey carve a path through the campus, cutting across the quad and ducking through a building until Gideon swears and comes to an abrupt halt. “She’s going to know we’re late,” he hisses, glancing off to his right, where an attractive young woman sits, glaring at the two of them.
Ah, this must be Liliana, Zolf realizes, and she’s impatiently tapping her phone against her leg as she sits on a bench and glares at them. Her foot is bobbing in the air and, as they get closer, she stands up with her arms crossed.
“Five. Minutes,” she says, raising an eyebrow at the two of them. “I told Hamid -“
“Yeah, yeah, we know, we’re late.” Gideon cuts her off, waving it off with a hand in the air. “This one -“ he points at Hamid - “decided to have a bit of a lie-in, and is acting all… funny.”
Liliana turns to look at Zolf, then, concern shifting over her features. “Oh, are you alright, Hamid?” Her head tilts as she glances over at him, lips pulling into a confused frown. “Are you… not wearing any makeup?”
Again, with the bloody makeup, Zolf swears - whatever. He pastes on what he hopes is a convincing smile, instead of going on a tirade. “Not today, no, uh. The alarm? Didn’t go off in time. Couldn’t…” he trails off, racking his brain for any sort of makeup terminology that would make sense, before settling on an easy, “didn’t have time.”
“Fine. Class it is,” she says, flipping her hair over her shoulder and striding away, leaving Gideon and Zolf to follow along behind her.
University is…not confusing, necessarily, but definitely not what Zolf had expected. The maths classes are a nightmare, and his brain hurts within five minutes of listening to the teacher explain some nebulous concept. He enjoys the lit classes more than anything else, and is almost tempted to get into a spirited debate over the sexuality of early poets until he thinks of having to deal with speaking in front of the entire class and clams up. Thankfully, either Gideon or Liliana are in each of his classes, and Zolf’s able to simply follow one of them along to the next class instead of getting hopelessly lost.
It’s funny, in a way that’s nearly sad. Zolf hadn’t had the chance or the resources to go to university; he’d immediately gone to the mines with Feryn and started helping to support the family. It hadn’t been much, but it was an honest living, and the less that he or his brother had to rely on their father for support, the better in their eyes. But, even just spending a day here has been incredible; Zolf wishes he could have maybe gotten the chance, and then immediately feels guilty when he thinks of Feryn, working as hard as he does to support them without relying on help from his father.
After one class where the teacher droned on and on about integrals and optimization and a whole lot of other topics that Zolf knew next to nothing about and tried to copy off of all of Gideon’s notes for, he simply gave up. It’s probably a dream, anyway, who cares if he’s missing a couple of pages of notes in the grand scheme of things? Maths was invented to confuse, and Zolf has a migraine. Thankfully, the seminar ends soon after that and Liliana loops their elbows together as they head outside, laughing.
“Einstein was in a right state today, wasn’t he?” she says, laughing. “More out of it than normal.”
“Yeah, he was a bit barmy. Maybe got knocked on the head one too many times trying to prove he could teleport. What do you think, Hamid?” Gideon says, and it’s not until he repeats the name that Zolf starts, mentally kicking himself for not cottoning on sooner. “Are you alright? God, you’re as spacey as Einstein is. Don’t go all conspiracy theory on us next.”
“Uh,” Zolf starts, “yeah, he - he was acting a bit odd, you’re right. Maybe it’s stress?”
Gideon shrugs. “What’s that man got to be stressed about, he’s tenured . Anyway. I’m starving - you two?” he says, and Zolf hasn’t really thought about it until now, but he feels absolutely ravenous. He realizes he hadn’t had time to eat this morning, nor a lunch break to grab a snack, and nods. It’s all weird, though; he would have thought you simply didn’t get hungry in dreams.
“We could go to that cute shop down the road,” Liliana says decisively, not leaving room for Zolf or Gideon to argue as she tugs them along. Zolf is all too happy to let her lead, considering he’s still half-convinced this is a dream and also he has no idea where to even go .
The shop Liliana mentioned is definitely cute, but it’s not as garish as Zolf had been expecting. It feels homey, with a large fireplace in the center of the room and couches neatly arranged around it. It’s light on the pinks and reds, and seems to have gone for a much more minimalist look.
The menu is limited, as well, although that’s not exactly something Zolf is unused to, considering the rotating five dishes at their local (and only) restaurant back in Countisbury. Half of the names seem to be in some form of French, and Zolf ends up just pointing to one instead of trying to figure out what it says. The waitress takes his order with a smile and grabs all of their menus before heading back to put all of their orders in.
Zolf sits there in a content silence as Gideon and Liliana gossip about people that he’s sure whoever this is - Hamid - knows, or maybe it’s some weird dream thing and his subconscious is pulling names he’s heard once or twice into the dream. It doesn’t take long before the waitress brings out their food, and Zolf can’t help but salivate at the delicious-looking tart.
“Looking good, love,” a middle-aged man says from the table next to them, leaning on the surface and giving Liliana a once-over with his eyes. His gaze lingers on her chest and floats back up to her face, giving her a salacious smile.
Liliana looks deeply uncomfortable but doesn’t look at the man, biting her lip and focusing on her sandwich as her knuckles tighten on her fork.
“Excuse me, we’re trying to have lunch,” Zolf says, swiveling in his chair and giving the man a glare. The man holds up his hands and leans back, whispering something in his friend’s ear. They both laugh while the third man glares back at Zolf before shifting his gaze to Liliana and winking. Zolf feels his shoulders tense up, but at a hissed warning from Gideon, turns back to their table.
He stabs at the pastry on his plate, glowering as they continue making lewd comments under their breaths. It’s clear they’re intentionally saying it sotto voce from their laughter and how they keep giving Liliana loaded looks.
“Just ignore it, Lili,” Gideon mutters, giving the men at the table one over from them a dirty look. “They’re dicks.”
Liliana frowns over at him but doesn’t respond, looking down at her food and moving it around on the plate slowly. The men at the table make another comment, perfectly pitched for them to hear it, and Zolf slams his hands down on the table as he stands up.
“Excuse me,” he says, doing the best he can to pitch his voice down an octave and sound threatening. “Are you done?”
One of the men raises an eyebrow at him and shrugs, while the other two elbow each other and snicker. “Do we have a problem here?”
“We’re going to if you don’t stop making comments about my friend.”
“Hamid!” Gideon hisses, tugging insistently at his shirtsleeve. “Sit down .”
Zolf tugs his sleeve out of Gideon’s grasp and levels his best glare at the men. “Well?”
“Maybe we do.” One of the men stands up and saunters over to Zolf, rolling his sleeves up.
“Don’t want to make a scene, do you?” Zolf says, glancing around the café as everyone turns to look at them. The manager of the café, a burly man with his arms crossed, has a frown on his face as he looks at the two of them. Zolf slips his hands into his pockets and smiles up at the man, who flashes a disgusting shade of red as his fists tighten.
One of the other men at the table stands up and grabs the bloke standing in front of Zolf by the shoulder, pulling him back. “Ain’t worth it, mate,” he says, nodding his head toward the manager. The last man stands up and gives Zolf a rude gesture before all three of them head out of the café.
The chatter slowly resumes throughout the room as Zolf sits down.
“That was reckless , Hamid, what were you thinking?” Gideon says, reaching over to flick Zolf on the forehead. “We definitely couldn’t have taken those guys.”
Zolf opens his mouth to retort, because he knew what he was doing, thanks, when Liliana cuts him off with a gentle hand on his arm. “I think it was sweet,” she says, giving him a smile. Gideon stutters for a minute before crossing his arms with a huff, sulking as he leans back in his chair.
They part ways as Liliana heads to her own apartment, promising to text Zolf - well, Hamid - and Gideon when she gets back. Zolf waves as she leaves, and then Gideon has an arm around his neck and is dragging him along down the road.
“What, playing hero today, are we, Hamid?” Gideon says, clapping Zolf on the cheek with the other hand. Zolf sputters and tries to push away from him until Gideon finally lets go.
“I was just being a decent person,” Zolf says. “You - you heard how they were talking to her.”
“Well, yeah, but that always happens to Lili. Better to just ignore it than to give the creeps the attention they want.”
Zolf frowns over at Gideon. “But that means they’ll keep thinking it’s okay. I’m - listen, you don’t have to, I suppose, but I’ll keep bringing it up when I see it, Gideon.”
“When did you grow a spine?” Gideon laughs, wrapping an arm around Zolf’s shoulder which Zolf immediately shrugs out from.
“I just wanted to do the right thing,” he tries, stuffing his hands in his pockets as they weave through the crowd, heading back toward the flat.
“Sure. Because any other day, you wouldn’t have stood up to those creeps. You wanted to be the hero, you can admit it, it’s just us!”
“I really didn’t,” Zolf says, insistent. “They were just acting like dicks, yeah? Didn’t want them to be able to get away with it.”
“Sure,” Gideon says. “And acting like Liliana’s own personal white knight wasn’t a bonus.”
“Uh… no?” Zolf says, trying to sound more convincing than it actually is. It’s true, anyway; he doesn’t have any feelings for Liliana, whether or not she’s a dream projection, but he doesn’t know if Hamid, whoever he is, does .
“Fine, don’t tell me,” Gideon says, rolling his eyes and looking slightly offended. “I’m just your best friend. Whatever, let’s go.”
Zolf doesn’t have a choice but to follow him as they head back through London, making their way to the flat.
Gideon doesn’t talk for the rest of the walk, seemingly content to stew in silence as Zolf marvels at the buildings around him. There’s nothing like this even near Countisbury. Zolf hasn’t been more than a couple of miles outside his town in decades, and this is an experience he doesn’t want to miss. It’s fun, but challenging, trying to look at all the buildings while trying not to lose Gideon in the hustle and bustle of the street, but he does a decent job of it.
They take the elevator up to the penthouse apartment, which is something that had escaped Zolf’s notice until this moment, and ride up silently.
He bids goodnight to Gideon, who gives a muffled grunt in return as he sticks his head into the fridge, looking for any sort of food. Zolf takes this as his moment to disappear, walking down the hallway and hoping he remembers where - yes, this must be it.
He makes it into Hamid’s room and shuts the door behind him, leaning heavily against it as he slides down to the floor, running a hand over his face.
It’s been… a day, that much is certain. He’s exhausted, and more than a little confused, but at least he’s back now, and he can sit alone in the room and figure out what the hell is going on. He remembers the note he had gotten yesterday and pulls out the man’s phone, tapping the diary app in the corner. It’s almost ridiculously organized, with an entry for each day over the past few months. He’s tempted to swipe through some, but hesitates. Even if it is a dream, it feels… wrong, somehow, to snoop through his things. Instead, he opens up a new note for today, writing down a quick message.
“My name is Zolf Smith. Who are you?”
It might be a dream, but just in case it’s not, maybe he’ll get some answers. He hesitates for a moment and adds “Has this happened to you?” before locking the phone and plugging it in next to the nightstand.
He doesn’t want to go to sleep, really. Because if he sleeps, he’ll wake up, and he’ll be back in Countisbury. But he can’t stave off the sandman forever. He stays up as long as he can, making a comfortable little nook as he sits next to the window and watches the cars drive down the narrow, twisting alleys, watching helicopters fly overhead, watching as the city never truly goes to sleep.