It takes Smize about three hours to start to remember things that didn’t happen to her. She’s with her new friends at a cozy tea shop, six of them squeezed tight into a corner booth, sitting on the outer side because she promised she’d meet up with Nerd Face soon. On her left, Sunny puts his arm around Kissy’s shoulder and gives her an affectionate squeeze, and she kisses his cheek. It’s adorable, but Smize feels a little melancholy tug; she remembers how it felt when he held her like that.
For a moment, she doesn’t notice that there’s anything wrong. Then two questions occur to her, one right after the other, back-to-back gut punches.
Question one: she’s a smiling face. Why should she be sad about anything?
Question two: how can she know how Sunny hugging her feels? He’s never done it. They’ve never met before this morning.
But as she sits there, frozen, a placid and entirely fake smile on her face, it comes back to her. A life she spent with these people. She loved them, but she could never really express herself to them. Then, a new friend. A sudden end. It’s fuzzy and not overly detailed, but she has no doubt that the person in these memories was her.
She doesn’t think the same thing is happening to the rest of them, but she figures she should try to find out. That’s what she thinks Nerd Face would do, and he saved them all, didn’t he? “Have—have any of you guys been to the palace yet? Gotten the tour?” she asks.
They all shake their heads. “’Course not!” Kissy says with a giggle. “We just got here this morning, silly. I really want to go, though. It looks so…shiny.”
“Why’d you ask, Smize?” says Worried Face. “Is something wrong?”
“No, no, it’s just—it’s near where I said I’d meet up with Nerd Face, which, actually—” she makes a big show of craning to look at Sunny’s watch (why doesn’t she have one?) “—I should get going. Like, now. It was great hanging out with you guys see you later bye!” and she’s gone and walking down the street before they can ask any more questions.
When she tells him, he’s quiet at first. Eventually, he says, “Oh.”
“Oh?” That’s not helpful. She tries, and fails, not to panic. She feels off-balance, like each of her heels is a different height. “’Oh’ like ‘that’s weird’ or ‘oh’ like ‘we’re all gonna die again’?”
His face falls, and he reaches out for her hand. She lets him take it, and he presses his thumb against the center of her palm. “I’m sorry I frightened you. I should have expected that such a short answer could be interpreted as reluctance to tell you the extent of some terrible news. We’re not going to die.” He offers her a small smile, and she returns it in earnest. “I meant, ‘oh’ as in ‘so I’m not the only one, then.’”
She takes a deep breath and squeezes his hand back. “You remember stuff too,” she says, and he nods. “But—how is that possible?”
He glances around to make sure no one is listening to them. “I triggered a factory reset,” he says, “which should have eliminated both the virus and our memories. But deleted data is almost never completely irretrievable. I have no reason to believe the virus would persist in the air, or in your friends if they have no memory of it. But you and I…it is possible, albeit unlikely, that we could be carriers, and spread it to the otherwise healthy.”
Smize looks around them. They’re in a small park, trees and benches and new couples flirting, absorbed in each other. She knows that she and Nerd Face look like every other couple here. Except that they could be putting everyone else at risk by being here, apparently. “So how do we know whether or not we have it?”
“I think the most prudent thing to do is wait. I engineered it,” and he can’t meet her eyes as he says it, “to act very quickly. It shouldn’t have an incubation period of longer than five days, but in the spirit of utmost caution, we’ll call it a week.”
“A week of what?”
“I hesitate to call it ‘quarantine,’ because the word tends to make people anxious. Just stay home for a week. Get food delivered. Call your friends instead of going out to see them. Don’t put yourself in a position to spread the virus if it turns out we can. I’ll do the same thing, and we’ll keep in touch so we know if the other has experienced any symptoms. That way, we can monitor the situation without causing any panic or posing any potential harm to the rest of the citizens.”
“Oh. Okay, sure,” she says. “I guess I can do that. Sounds a little lonely, though, doesn’t it?”
He shrugs. “I suppose so, but I was installed expecting to be fairly isolated. If you need someone to talk to, you can always call me,” he offers, after a moment’s thought.
She nods slowly, but as she does, she has an idea. “Wait,” she says. “We don’t pose any danger to each other, do we?”
“Not if we’re both carriers, no.” He tilts his head to the side. “Why?”
“Then we can stay inside together, can’t we? I’ve got a spare bedroom.” She hasn’t been home yet, but she knows the layout of her apartment, was programmed to know it and installed with a key in her pocket. “It’ll be more fun than being all alone, won’t it?”
He looks flattered, but more than a little surprised. “Certainly,” he says. “If you’re sure you wouldn’t mind the imposition.”
She laughs. “You’re not imposing if I invited you! C’mon. It’s not far from here.”
They walk past a pair of faces kissing, and she has a flash of memory so vivid she might as well be walking through it right now: she’s dying, and she’s kissing him. His lips are hot and he’s trembling with fear and they’re pressed so close she can feel his heartbeat, outpacing hers as her body shuts down.
And then she flashes back, and she’s standing on her own two feet a ten-minute walk from home, with Nerd Face looking down at her with apprehension.
“What was that? Are you feeling lightheaded?” He lowers his voice to a murmur. “Are you freezing?”
She shakes her head as if it will clear the scene from her memory. “No, I’m okay. Just remembered something else, that’s all.” They’re still holding hands, she realizes, and when she takes a step forward he follows behind her and doesn’t let go.
Her apartment is on the second floor of a pretty brick building. It’s nothing special yet, a blank slate for her to make her own. Ideally, she’d be furniture shopping about now.
But the safety of the city is at stake, and she’s not alone, and it’s not like she’s in a totally empty building anyway. There are beds and a sofa and a cozy if not well-stocked kitchen. She opens the fridge and tells herself she’s not surprised it’s empty. “Maybe we can get groceries delivered.” She can feed herself, but she’s no great chef. “Nerd Face, do you know how to cook?” she asks, turning to where he’s seated at her kitchen table.
“I…understand most of the chemical principles that underlie the skill,” he hedges.
“Great. Takeout it is.” They passed a Chinese place on their way here; she takes out her phone to see if she can order through their website. “Maybe this will be fun,” she says. “It’s kinda like a sleepover, just…longer.”
“That’s not a bad way to think of it,” he says. “It’s not as if we’re locked in a dungeon with nothing to do. I should know.” He chuckles to himself like he’s just made a clever inside joke. “Did I neglect to tell you about that?”
For a few seconds, she just stares at him. “Yes, you forgot to mention it. What happened?”
“Let’s order lunch. I’ll explain after.”
It’s still early enough for them to call it Day One. It is fun; they curl up on the plain blue loveseat with cups of tea and talk until midnight—about what they remember, and what happened after she was deleted. She tells him what went on at the ball; he tells her about his time in the dungeon, as promised.
“Once we’ve proven ourselves to be safe and uninfected, I need to find Skull,” he says. “I think early intervention could successfully prevent him from attempting something this—” he gestures into the air— “drastic again.”
“What kind of intervention are you thinking?” She didn’t know Skull at all, before. She saw him around sometimes, but always kept her distance. “I think I just assumed he wanted to be left alone.”
“I don’t believe anyone wants to be completely alone,” Nerd Face says, after a slow sip of his tea. “I suppose I could be wrong, and his path could be unchangeable. But we won’t know unless we try.”
“Well, assuming we’re not infected and we go outside in a week and everything’s fine, I’m happy to help.” She taps her fingernails against her teacup. “I could stand to make some new friends.”
They turn in relatively early, but it takes Smize a long time to fall asleep. Her bed feels familiar but not quite the same, which is how everything feels, but it’s even more noticeable lying in the dark with nothing to distract her. She tries to tell herself she’s cold because it’s cold tonight, not because she’s freezing, and after she repeats it about a thousand times she manages to doze off.
The next morning, she’s halfway through doing her makeup when she remembers she can’t leave the apartment. Right. Day Two. She takes out her phone to text Kissy, just to reach out, but her fingers hover over the keypad and she doesn’t know what to say. Hey gurl, trapped inside waiting to see if I have a horrible virus that’ll delete me, wyd? is not an option, but it’s all she can think. She just puts the phone down instead and finishes what she was doing—she’s quarantined, not dead, and she is not going to walk around her own apartment with eyeshadow on one eye. Besides, Nerd Face is here, too; the least she can do is look put together.
She walks down the hallway into the kitchen; he’s at the table, an array of restaurant menus spread in front of him. When he hears her, he looks up with a smile.
“Good morning,” he says. “I made coffee. These—” he waves a hand over the menus— “had been slid under the door overnight. I thought I’d examine them in the hopes of expanding our dietary options.”
She grins back at him. He talks a little like a thesaurus that’s gone through a blender, and it makes her want to laugh out of sheer delight, but she’s afraid to hurt his feelings. She picks up an interesting-looking flyer and wanders into the living room to read it, nearly tripping over a knee-high stack of books that wasn’t there yesterday. “Where’d these come from?” she asks over her shoulder.
“The miracle of next-day delivery,” he calls back. She turns her head to read the titles written on the spines; for every two books on subjects like philosophy and programming, there’s one honest-to-code potboiler mystery novel. It’s not what she expected. It’s adorable.
“Are those all for you?” she asks, heading back into the kitchen.
“If you’d like to read any of them, be my guest, but it was my intention to read them.” He points at the flyer. “Is that your preference for breakfast? Because they don’t open until one in the afternoon.”
By the end of the day, Smize knows she needs a distraction from the whole waiting-to-see-if-they-die situation, so they do something she knows she liked before: they get hammered and play video games. She’s got vivid memories of the player-versus-player team she and Angry Face made; they were not to be trifled with. It’s not as much fun with just two players—in a group of six, there’s much more yelling—but it’s still entertaining to watch Nerd Face grit his teeth as she throws him out of the arena for the third time in a row.
“You seem to be…very competent at this,” he observes. He talks much the same as he does when he’s sober, just more slowly. She imagines that it must be taking longer to choose each word from the list of synonyms he’s constantly got running in his head, and giggles. “What…particular appeal does it hold for you?”
“Maybe I like to be a little violent once in a while,” she says, shrugging one shoulder.
He nods. Pauses, then nods some more. “I can see…how that would be attractive. But I suspect it’s at least partially due to the freedom it offers to…act differently than is…expected of you. Less…positive.”
“No, hang on.” She points her controller at him aggressively. “We’re not here so you can psychoanalyze me. You can do that tomorrow if you want. We are here so I can kick your ass. Now hit the OK button so we can keep going.”
He laughs, but he does what she tells him. She specifically does not worry about whether his theory is right until she’s alone in her bed, staring at the ceiling and wondering if maybe it’s that obvious.
She took ballet classes, before. She remembers enough to do the warm-up routine, barefoot and using the windowsill in the living room in place of a barre. If she concentrates, she can hear Woman Dancing counting the class through the poses, encouraging Smize even as she corrects her posture.
There’s a cognitive dissonance that comes with it: her mind is used to the routine, the way the positions shift into each other, the feeling that comes after it, warm and fatigued and alive. Her body is awkward and resistant. She wakes up before Nerd Face does on Day Three, before dawn, to get it done; for all he already knows about her, she doesn’t need him to see her like this, off-balance and frustrated with herself. And nothing in her room quite matches the height of the windowsill.
It doesn’t help that she’s a little hungover. Her calf cramps and she grabs onto the ledge to steady herself. She grabbed at his arm once, the same way; how long ago that was, she’s not exactly sure. She knows he held her up, stronger than he looked. Knows she let him see who she really was, didn’t leave him to guess at it.
She stretches out on the loveseat and turns on the TV, putting the volume on low so she doesn’t wake him. It’s not like watching the news is something she does for fun, and she only watches long enough to be sure there are no reports of sick citizens, but she finds Information Desk Person’s voice reassuring. She likes the idea that matter what strange things happen, they’ll be there with that perfectly styled hair and bright, firm voice to keep Emojiland safe and in the know.
She’s still lying there when sunlight starts to pour through the window, turning the room a pale shade of pink, and he wanders into the living room. He’s sleepy-eyed and his glasses are crooked, and as she tucks her feet underneath her to make room for him, she wonders what would happen if she kissed him again.
The way she sees it, there are two possible outcomes: either he kisses her back, or he pulls away and stammers something about how a romantic relationship doesn’t make sense for them and she loses the one person who’s ever really seen her for who she is.
She can’t risk it. She just says, “Hey, I’ll make some coffee,” and gets up before he can say anything.
The thing is, once she’s had that thought, it’s difficult to spend the rest of the day with him and not risk it. She stops worrying about freezing, because now she’s warm to the point of discomfort whenever he’s near her. It’s only an instinct of politeness—he’s her guest, she invited him here to spend time with her—that keeps her from hiding in her bedroom.
On Day Four, Kissy texts her an invitation to hang out—hey smizey we’re all gonna do that palace tour we were talking about lmk if you wanna come with xx—and it’s almost physically painful to turn her down. She doesn’t tell Kissy why she can’t go; she remembers the mass panic from before. It’s exactly what they’re trying to avoid, locking themselves up in her apartment. Instead she replies sorry already have plans to stay in today wink wink and hopes Kissy will take the hint and stay out of her hair for at least the rest of the day. The irony of the lie isn’t lost on her.
She has energy that she can’t vent; she feels almost giddy. She starts pacing, because she doesn’t know what else to do. Nerd Face gets up from his spot on the sofa, next to the stack of books, and methodically opens every window in the apartment.
“What on Earth are you doing?” she asks. It’s early spring; it’s too cold for this.
“I hypothesized that you might be experiencing cabin fever, and that some fresh air might improve your mood.” He visibly shivers, and she stops to look at him. “I may need to find a sweater.”
“No, hey, I’m sorry. I know I’m being weird. It’s…cabin fever, yeah,” she says. “I’ll be okay.” As she says it, she knows it sounds hollow. He frowns, but he does start to close the windows.
“I hope you know that I would be happy to help you with any problem that I can,” he says quietly, and he sounds so concerned that he might have made a mistake that she can practically hear her heart breaking. This is unsustainable.
She says, “I know. Thank you,” because she has to say something, and decides the best way to reduce a risk is with a plan.
The plan only has one step; they spend the rest of the day on the loveseat, Nerd Face reading and Smize alternating between reading and looking at her phone. When he puts his book down and turns to her to say goodnight, she simply puts her hands on his shoulders and kisses him.
For half a second, he tenses under her, and she runs through every potential negative scenario at once in her head. Then he’s kissing her back, just for a moment, before he pulls back to look at her.
“It’s comforting to know I wasn’t misreading your feelings toward me,” he says.
She laughs. She can’t help it; she’s kept it in for this long. “Nope.” She lowers her voice. “We should go to bed.”
He stops at the threshold of her bedroom, waiting for a signal as if she didn’t already ask him to stay with her. “Come on,” she says, trying not to roll her eyes.
She’s already in her pajamas, has been for a few hours now. He doesn’t ask her not to watch him undress, and she doesn’t offer to look away. The last thing he does is take off his glasses, something she logically knew was possible but had never actually considered, leaving him in a pair of boxers and looking more vulnerable than she’s ever seen him.
They don’t have sex that night. She sort of expected they would, but they just end up falling asleep, although the last thing she’s aware of before she drifts off is of being held close, with her head on his chest and one of his hands on her ass.
She dreams she’s talking to someone, but every time she turns her head to look at them, they’re shifting, Nerd Face to Sunny to Princess (who Smize has met exactly once, for fifteen seconds, and she was just as gorgeous and bitchy as Smize had been led to believe). She looks around her and everything is changing, blurring at the edges. She looks closer and realizes that she can see numbers, binary ticking from 01 to 10 to 11 and back again. She reaches up to touch her face and feels it shift under her hand. Her expression is changing in synch with everything else.
When she wakes up, she lies still for a moment, watching her bedside table to make sure it stays table-shaped. When she’s satisfied that she’s not still asleep, she rolls over and comes nose-to-nose with Nerd Face, who’s just barely opened his eyes. He blinks at her like he’s trying to look straight into the sun.
“Good morning,” he says, sitting up and stretching his shoulders.
“Hi.” He’s still looking at her like that. She leans up to kiss him; he makes a little sound of surprise but he melts right into her. His lips are hot against hers, and as he pulls her into his lap and gets to work on unbuttoning her pajama top she can feel him shaking, feel him hard against her thigh, and when she places her hand on his chest to feel his heartbeat he mirrors the gesture on her newly-bare skin and she thinks he must be able to feel her own heart pounding as well as she can.
After that, it’s not such a chore to stay inside. They spend Day Five trying to figure each other out, trial and error until they know: he likes her on his lap. She likes him on his knees. More than anything, they like to hear the other say please, more.
It starts to rain around one o’clock on Day Six, and almost right away she’s so tired she can barely stand upright. When she announces her intention to lie down for a while, she doesn’t mean it suggestively, but he folds the corner of the page of the book he’s reading and follows her without hesitation.
Well, it’s not like she doesn’t have the entire rest of the day to nap if she wants to. “Got any music requests?” she asks, opening the streaming app on her phone.
He thinks for a second, then shakes his head. “Whatever you like. I can appreciate the theory behind anything, even if I don’t like the sound,” he says, and he sounds like a snob but she knows he means it kindly and chooses not to give him a hard time about it.
So she lies on her back, eyes closed, listening to a playlist she half-remembers making. He’s on his side, facing her, one arm folded beneath his head. She knows without looking that he’s not even pretending not to stare at her. She’s not wearing makeup. She’s not wearing anything; she feels like a bug under a magnifying glass in the few seconds before it catches fire, with the vague awareness that the air around her is heating up and no intention of trying to stop it.
He touches her slowly, almost idly. His fingers are on her cheek first, then her neck, brushing her hair away so he can put his mouth on her. A new song begins and he must recognize it, because he starts to hum along, tapping one finger on her collarbone so lightly she almost doesn’t register it. She gets the impression he’s waiting for her approval; all she does is sigh happily and turn her head so he’s got better access to her neck and shoulder.
His hand eases down, fingernails tracing pinpoint-thin lines across her stomach and over the top of her thigh. When he finally gets his hand between her legs it’s like touching two live wires together, and she jerks up against him with a gasp. His touch stays slow and light; she chases the sensation, rolling her hips up against him.
She cries out, incoherent and flushed, and he takes the cue to raise himself up on an elbow so he’s at the right angle to push two fingers inside her. He’s pulled his face away from her neck and she opens her eyes to find where he’s gone; he’s leaning over her, watching her face, rapt and dark-eyed, and she comes with a shudder that wracks her so hard she thinks she’s left her body for a moment.
He reaches to touch himself, but she wraps her hand around his wrist and brings it back up, places it palm-down on the pillow by her head. As he shifts his weight to kneel over her, she kisses him, wet and imperfect and flawless.
She wakes up a little late on Day Seven, and he’s already out of bed. His glasses aren’t on his side table either. She takes a second to kick herself before she gets up; she’s missed the chance to get her ballet routine in.
It takes her a few minutes to remember that Day Seven means they can go out again; she stops short, dress half-zipped up and wearing one glove, and claps a hand over her mouth to stifle the noise she makes, somewhere between a laugh and a yelp. She rushes out to the living room.
On the coffee table is a small vase holding a dozen or so hibiscus flowers. They’re arranged in a gradient, pink to purple to blue, a thin yellow ribbon tied below the mouth of the vase. Nerd Face is in his spot on the sofa, cleaning his glasses with the hem of his shirt. A little “oh” sound escapes her before she can stop it, and he fumbles to put them back on before looking up.
“They’re silk,” he says sheepishly. “Once it’s cut, a live hibiscus wilts after a few hours, and that seemed like a poor choice of romantic gesture. I was going to suggest we go out and get breakfast, then see the real ones.”
She opens her mouth to say something like yes, but all she can do is croak. She puts her hand to her face. Her cheek is wet—not a wholly new feeling, but not a familiar one either. She sniffles and scrubs at her eyes.
He stands up and reaches out to hug her; she lets him, leans her head on his chest. He’s so much taller than her when she’s not wearing heels that it gets inconvenient when she wants to kiss him. Like now.
“If you would prefer not to be seen with me in a public space, it’s best if you tell me now,” he murmurs, but she can hear the humor in his voice. She gives him a gentle whack on the arm anyway, and he pulls back to look at her. “That wasn’t the issue, then?”
“Of course not.” Her voice is still thick; she clears her throat. “That all sounds lovely.” She gives him a real smile, wide and bright, and says, “Let’s go.”