“I think I’ve mentioned this before,” Tim said, running a hand through black, curly hair. “That if any part of this goes wrong—er—not according to plan—”
“You’re dead, we’re dead and everyone’s career is over for good,” Darcy finished the now-familiar sentence with a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “You’ve mentioned it once or twice.”
From the corner of his eye, Steve caught the way Janet’s lips tightened to suppress a smile before she cleared her throat. “It’s not going to go wrong, Tim,” she reminded. “You just get them registered as official subjects for the August trial and it’ll all be fine.”
Flustered by Janet’s even tone and borderline nonchalance about facilitating time travel, Tim rifled through his files and folders again. “They are registered,” he muttered, almost to himself before he pulled out two stacks of papers, each paper-clipped together, and handed them across the table to Steve and Darcy. “These are your consent forms; you’ll fill out all the basic intake information once you’re at the lab,” he said. “Technically I’m still recruiting you both as the last two subjects for the trials you’ll be a part of.”
The trials to which Janet and Tim were referring were with the government-funded agency where Tim had been working for the last three years. They weren’t the first trials the group had attempted—only the first to be projected so far into the future.
So far, there had been six trials. Trials that had started with moving ahead five minutes, then an hour, a few hours, etc. They’d worked up to traveling one full day ahead by the time Janet had finally felt confident enough in their progress to tell Steve and Darcy what she’d done.
Since then, Tim’s subjects had gone forward as far as a whole week—only staying an hour each trip—before being returned to the correct time and place. Everyone had come back in one piece, healthy and unscathed with the exception of some minor headaches. There had been no mistakes, no errors, no adverse reactions. Janet had every confidence that her calculations would hold—that the machine would still work—no matter how far forward they wanted to go.
“So, you’re supposed to be going forward ten days,” Tim said as Steve carefully read over the first page of release forms. Darcy, he noticed from the corner of his eye, had already scrawled her name on the first signature line and had started skimming the second page. “And the rest of your groups, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.”
This was the last trial the higher-ups at Tahoe had approved. They wanted to see what would happen with a jump that far before consenting to any further use of the machine.
“But you’re going to zap us further ahead, right doc?” Darcy asked, glancing up for a moment before she dropped her head to sign her name a second time. Her hair fell forward and a messy, dark curl brushed Steve’s arm.
He didn’t love this plan—the one where he and Darcy drove north on August 26th under the guise of being paid research subjects with Project Tahoe. The plan where they left themselves at the mercy of mid-century science and technology and hoped that when Tim accidentally programmed in the wrong date and time, that everything went according to plan, and they were shot forward to their correct, original timestamps.
It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Janet—he’d seen enough of her genius firsthand to know that no one was ever going to come closer than this. It wasn’t even that he didn’t trust Tim—despite only knowing him for a few weeks, he seemed more than capable of completing this final step of the process to actually getting them back. And it wasn’t like there had been even the whisper of another option or a different plan in over three years.
But still. Steve couldn’t shake the feeling in his gut. The one that told him this wasn’t the plan they’d been waiting for. That there was something he wasn’t seeing—maybe something that none of them were seeing. Something that wasn’t quite right.
To his right, just as his eyes finished the first page, Darcy sat upright again. She clicked her pen and dropped it atop her pile of paperwork before she slid it across the table. “There you go,” she smiled. “All done.”
Darcy didn’t seem to share these reservations. Although he’d caught the second of hesitation she’d had when Janet had first sat them both down and laid out her plan and the progress she’d made so far. It was just a second—one he could chalk up to shock, he supposed—before she’d let out a choked laugh and threw her arms around Janet’s slim frame. He’d been sitting on the armchair, with Darcy and Janet on the couch, so when she’d reached to hug their friend, he couldn’t see her face. He thought that maybe if he had—if he’d been able to read her in that moment—then he wouldn’t feel so twisted and conflicted. He’d know for sure this was what she wanted, and it would settle his nerves a little more.
“Steve?” Janet’s voice broke his train of thought and pulled his attention back across the room to find her looking concerned. “Everything okay?”
He blinked. “Yeah,” he dropped his gaze and shook his head. He only hesitated for another moment before he followed Darcy’s lead and signed his name without reading the rest of the consent forms. He smiled as he handed them back to Tim. “Everything’s groovy.”
To his right, Darcy giggled and rolled her eyes before she poked his arm. “You dweeb.”
He shot her a small smile and shrugged. “You told me the movie you went to see last week was ‘far out’,” he reminded. “I don’t wanna hear it.”
But Darcy’s grin only brightened. “Well, that movie was far out,” she insisted. “You should’ve come with us.”
Maybe next time, he almost said. But he stopped himself because no—not next time. There wasn’t going to be a next time. With less than two weeks before their trip to Tahoe, Darcy likely wasn’t going to have time to go out with all her friends again. He kept his mouth shut. He didn’t want to remind her of that.
They said their goodbyes to Tim and Janet and left Berkeley together. The night was still hot enough that a prickle of sweat formed along his hairline before they’d made it back to the car. He didn’t want to think about how hot the apartment was going to be—he was pretty sure neither of them had remembered to leave a window open.
He was right. The apartment was sweltering. A fact Darcy instantly announced, tossing back her head with a dramatic moan as she went room to room, pushing open every window and turning on the loud box fans in the living room and hallway. In the span of only a few minutes, she’d disappeared into her bedroom and reappeared in considerably less clothing. Her hair was pulled up off her neck and she’d swapped her jeans and t-shirt for a larger, looser shirt and a pair of red and white striped pajama shorts.
Short shorts, he noticed when she came back into the kitchen and pulled open the freezer to stick her head inside. Very short shorts.
He’d seen these shorts before. She’d been wearing them every now and then since May and Steve had yet to acclimate. They’d been just as distracting each time as the first, when she’d dropped down on the couch beside him and set her foot on the coffee table while she opened her civil servant exam prep book. He thought he’d done a decent job of pretending he hadn’t noticed her shorts then. Or the amount of skin they showed off. Or the birthmark on the inside of her right thigh—the size of a thumbprint.
“Do you want some of this?”
Steve blinked and shook himself off that particularly treacherous train of thought. “What?”
Darcy extracted her head from the freezer and held out the tray of ice cubes. “This,” she repeated before she took a cube and slid it between her lips. “Want one?”
He shook his head. “No, I’m good,” he said and ran a hand through his hair, pushing it away from his sticky forehead.
“You need a haircut, bud,” Darcy said with a grin as she sat down at the kitchen table. She crunched her ice cube loudly between her teeth. “You’re starting to look like a real hippie.”
He laughed at the thought and sat down across from her. “Pretty sure no one would believe I went full native while we were here, no matter how long it gets.”
Without warning, she reached across the table and curled a handful of his hair through her fingers. “Jesus,” she laughed. “So thick! So much!”
He laughed again and shook his head. “I know. The guy I like at the barber’s is on vacation until the end of the month though.”
And we won’t be here by then.
The words hovered unsaid over them for a moment before Darcy shrugged. “I can cut it for you.”
He frowned. “No, you can’t.”
“I can give you a trim,” she said with a smile. “I used to cut hair when I lived in the dorms.”
“How long ago was that?” he asked, skeptically.
“What’s wrong, Steve? Don’t you trust me?”
“With my life?” he clarified. “Yes. With my hair…” he coughed. “Less so.”
“Oh my God you’re such a woman,” she said with a sigh as she got to her feet. “You do know that I’ve been cutting my own hair since we moved here, right?”
His frown deepened. “Uh. No. I didn’t know that,” he admitted. “I guess it’s just always looked kind of the same.”
“Because I just trim it,” she said before she came around to his side of the table and stood behind him. She sank her fingers into his hair without asking permission. Her nails scratched his scalp gently and Steve did his best not to let his eyes close. “Come on,” she whined. “Just let me shape it up—get rid of some of this bulk. You’ll feel better.”
Steve sighed, relieved when she extracted her hands from his hair. “Fine,” he said, finding it much easier to breathe when he felt her step back. “Just a trim.”
“Yay!” she clapped her hands twice before she scurried from the kitchen. She was back in a second with a comb, a sharp pair of gold scissors, and a hand towel from the bathroom.
He took the towel as she turned on the overhead light, grateful he didn’t have to wonder if he was supposed to take off his shirt for this.
She tucked the towel securely into his collar and set her hands atop his shoulders. “Sit up straight,” she commanded before he heard her smile. “I mean, not that you know how to sit another way.”
“You’re not cutting a lot,” he warned, when she started finger-combing again.
“I am not cutting a lot,” she repeated and grabbed her scissors. “Just trust me,” she said quietly before she leaned forward and spoke directly beside his ear. “And mellow out a little bit, would you?”
Steve snorted a laugh and before he could say anything else, he heard the snip of her scissors and half an inch of his hair dropped to the floor.
Too late to stop her now.
To his relief, Darcy didn’t talk much while she was cutting his hair. She was surprisingly focused and thorough, allowing him to run a hand through every few minutes to ensure she hadn’t cut too much. And though it didn’t feel like it, there was a shocking amount of hair on the kitchen floor. Clearly, he realized as she finished up the back, he had needed this more than he’d thought.
It wasn’t until she came to stand in front of him and tilted his chin up that Steve decided that this had been an enormously bad idea. Darcy carefully moved his hair back into his face so she could see where it usually fell before she bent and studied him closely.
Too close. Close enough to see the darker flecks of blue in her eyes, to be able to tell she’d been biting her full lips, to track a bead of sweat as it ran from her temple, down her cheek and neck before it disappeared beneath her shirt.
“Close your eyes for me?” she asked, her voice a little tight before she cleared her throat. “I don’t want to get hair in your eyes.”
He did as she asked, unsure if this was better or worse. He couldn’t see her anymore, but he was still almost painfully aware of her. The smell of her skin and the feel of her hand on his face as she tilted his chin up and from side to side. He could hear the hitch in her breathing when she leaned in closer and her knees bumped into his.
It would be too easy to open his eyes and reach up to take the scissors from her and let them drop to the floor. To see what she would do if he took her face in his hands and pulled her down to press her lips to his. He tried not to think about how easy it would be—how good it would feel to let his fingers make a mess of her hair; to pull her down onto his lap and run his lips down her neck and over the tops of her shoulders. For someone who knew just about everything about her, Steve was still dying to know what kind of sound she’d make if he scraped his teeth over the pale column of her throat and pushed her back against the table—
The question came out softly, almost sounding shy. Steve shoved those dangerous thoughts out of his mind and opened his eyes, surprised to find her so close, studying him again.
Her thumb and fingers held his chin again, centering his face before her teeth pressed into her bottom lip and she smiled softly. “I think you’re good.”
He tried to take a breath deep enough to settle himself, to remind himself that everything he was thinking was a tremendously bad idea. He cleared his throat. “Yeah?”
She nodded. “Yeah. Looks good.”
She should have moved then. Should have stood up and let him get up and examine her handiwork in the nearest mirror. But she didn’t. And he didn’t.
Don’t do this, he told himself without really knowing what this his rational side was referring to. Don’t do anything that would make saying goodbye any harder. Don’t give her a reason to waste ten years of her life waiting for him to show up in 2023. Don’t tell her how badly you want to kiss her. Don’t—
The phone rang. Steve found himself caught between grateful that its shrill chime shattered the moment before either of them could make a big mistake and wishing that Alexander Graham Bell had never invented the damn thing.
Darcy stood up first, blinking quickly and shaking her head. She reached blindly for the phone, missing it twice before she finally grabbed it on the third ring. “Hello?” She coughed and let out a heavy breath. “Hey, Alice,” she said before she frowned. “Are you okay? What’s wrong?”
Steve stood and ran a hand over his face. He took the towel from beneath his collar and shook it off onto the floor before he reached for the broom.
Darcy put a hand over the mouthpiece of the phone. “I can clean up,” she said quietly, and Steve could hear what sounded like ugly sobs coming though the receiver before Darcy shrugged and whispered, “I think she and James broke up? I can't tell yet.”
“Ah,” he nodded. “I’ll leave you to your girl talk.” He ran a hand through his hair and forced a smile. “Thanks for the trim.”
“Anytime,” she whispered back before she leaned against the wall and gave Alice her full attention again.
Steve retreated to the bathroom and shed his clothes before he stepped into the shower.
He let the water run ice cold.