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Untitled New Universe

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Consciousness arrives with the ringing of an unfamiliar alarm.

Eyes squeezed shut in protest of the coming day, Bill reaches out absently to hit the ‘off’ button — not snooze, that lesson long since learned after Alice nearly spiraled into a full-blown anxiety attack the day he almost woke up too late to drive her to school. Since then, no matter how tired, he makes sure to turn the alarm off and wake up properly. The button beneath his wandering fingers is smooth and worn from daily use.

Today, though, there’s no rush of pattering feet beyond the partition that separates Bill’s ‘bedroom’ from the rest of the apartment, just a soft hum of the dishwasher running and the murmur of Rachel Sterling from the radio on the kitchen counter. Right — it’s Saturday, isn’t it? No school for Alice and no work for Bill. Another precious day to spend with his daughter, though those have spread thin since the divorce when—

What is he thinking? Alice lives with him all but one week a month, and Bill will never be more grateful for anything in his life. She’d asked him herself, back when the court proceedings were still going through — asked if she could keep living with him, even though his ex-wife had significantly more money to spend on raising their daughter, even though he knew full well he wasn’t always the best parent. That she’d told him — that she’d had the courage to tell him — well, if it hadn’t been for that, he might not have fought so hard, and then she would have been left with her mother in Clivesdale while he stayed in Hatchetfie—

Bill blinks, squeezing his eyes shut and slowly opening them as he pushes himself up out of bed. Same room, the same lilac walls that Alice’s friend Debbie decorated with all sorts of painted animals and fascinating patterns. Might lose them the deposit, but the delight on his daughter’s face while she watched her girlfriend painting had been worth it.

No, wait. Alice hadn’t been dating Debbie, she’d been dating Grace… right? 

Frowning, Bill scrubs a hand across his face and gets out of bed, back protesting the motion as he fishes his glasses off of the bedside table and pushes open the curtain to the rest of the apartment. A thin strip of cool winter sun filters through the gap between the curtains, casting a line of light across the floor. He makes his way carefully past the folding sofa and the ‘entertainment center’ (why can’t they just call it a table? Or a shelf?) and down the short hallway to his daughter’s room.

Alice’s door is open, and she looks up from her cereal with a bright smile when he knocks. “Dad! Good morning.”

“Morning, Alice.” God, how long has it been since she smiled at him like that? But— no, that’s wrong too. A dull pain pulses behind Bill’s eyes and he presses fingers against his temple. “I’m sorry, I’ve got an old man question.”

“What is it?” She gives him a shrewd look. “Is this your way of trying to guess what I’m getting you for Christmas?”

She’s never gotten him a Christmas present before — but Bill pushes the odd thought aside, into the corner with the rest. “No, no. I just can’t remember your old girlfriend’s name for the life of me.”

Blond highlights tumble over Alice’s shoulders as she cocks her head (when did those happen?), puzzled. “Grace — Grace Chastity? She used to go to church with us, came out as aro last year and started getting really into some of that— uh, you know, the unitarian universe stuff? Is that what it’s called?” Her eyes narrow, suspicious without any real heat. “Or is this some sort of set-up to another prank?”

Bill can’t think of what sort of prank that might lead into, but chuckles nonetheless and shakes his head. “Sorry, Allie-bell — just an old man moment.”

Alice sticks her tongue out at him. “You’re like, not even fifty.”

“Almost fifty, huh?” He grins despite himself, hand slipping from the doorframe to his hip. “Think I’m too old to be a cool dad yet?”

Something in her expression softens, warms as she shakes her head, and Bill’s struck by a sudden certainty that his daughter does, in fact, love him. It aches like a punch to the chest, like the throb pounding against the inside of his skull. Because — because his daughter loves him. He loves her. His little girl- because she didn’t. But she did? Does? What is wrong with him—

“Dad?”

He waves off the note of concern in her voice. “Don’t you worry about me — just a headache. I’ll grab an aspirin from the bathroom, be good as new in a few.”

Alice frowns. “The aspirin’s in the kitchen, though.”

Right — she’s right, it is. They’ve always kept it in the kitchen, just like all of the other over-the-counter painkillers and antiseptics and medical supplies, so there’s never any worry about needing one while the bathroom is in use. So why does Bill remember many a late night trip down the darkened hallway, retrieving a bottle from the bathroom cabinet to swallow a tablet or two in search of a sound night’s sleep? And— weren’t the walls in his house beige, not lilac? And the floors — he’s had hardwood floors as long as he can remember, ever since Alice was a little girl — but when he looks down at his bare feet, soft curls of well-tended carpet poke between his toes.

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

Smiling is beginning to grow challenging, but Bill musters the closest to a reassuring one he can manage. “Just fine. I think I may need a bit more sleep— was up late last night.”

His daughter’s brow furrows as she looks up at him, slowly setting her breakfast and phone aside. “Dad, we went to bed at ten, remember? We watched Coco and had some of the pie from Thursday, the one Mom told us to take home because she doesn’t like pumpkin?”

She’s right, and Bill remembers that — remembers curling up beside Alice on the couch, making every attempt to pretend he wasn’t nearly in tears at the emotional family reunions while Alice picked at the chords to Remember Me on her beat-up old guitar. But at the same time, he remembers— “I was with Paul, though. Paul and Emma, and Mr. Davidson and Charlotte and Ted, and—”

Alice frowns. “Who’s Paul?”

“Sorry, Alice,” And he is sorry, really, “I don’t think it’s a good day for jokes.”

The crease between her brows returns. “I’m not joking.”

Which— that can’t be right. “Uncle Paul? My co-worker, he used to babysit you when you were…” Bill trails off, because — no, Mrs. Lewis from church was the one who babysat Alice while Bill and Sarah were busy with work. And there’s only one Paul at the Clivesdale Power Center, and he works in the technical editing department, not the call center where Bill’s been employed for the past eight years. They’ve spoken all of twice, and one of those was by accident when he mistook Bill for one of the other Black men in the technical editing department and chatted at him for five minutes before realizing he’d gotten the wrong person. (Bill still can’t quite decide whether to be offended, or just laugh at the absolute obliviousness).

But— but Paul, Bill knows Paul. His best friend, always ready with an acerbic grumble and loyal heart, who moaned and complained over every song and dance but still let Bill and Alice drag him into their Disney nights anyways. He was— he is real, he has to be real, why can’t Bill just—

And suddenly, he remembers.

Lakeside Mall in flames — trails of smoke and something shining across the sky — watch ticking-ticking-ticking down — a girl’s voice, younger than Alice, half-speaking and half-singing and half-asking What If Tomorrow — darkness, black and white and black again — burning heat spreading from the hand on Paul’s shoulder and out to where Mr. Davidson’s arm brushed against his — speech like ringing bells and whispering silk, words he felt but couldn’t hear — a yank — a sensation of falling —

falling —                                                                                   

falling —                                           

f a l l i n g—

A gasp rises in his throat and Bill swallows it down, throttling the lighting-shock of horror before it can show on his face and cause his daughter any more concern. “I’m sorry, just another old man moment.” It’s not. Oh God, it’s not. “Think I had an especially vivid dream last night, got me a bit confused.”

The worry on Alice’s face eases, though he can see traces of suspicion lingering in her narrowed gaze. “Must’ve been a pretty crazy dream.”

What feels like a hysterical laugh threatens suffocation, but Bill manages a smile. “Oh, you know it.”

He stumbles back to his room, shins bumping against furniture he knows so intimately and yet— and yet he doesn’t, these are all wrong, this isn’t his house and this isn’t his daughter and it is but it’s not at the same time—

Collapsing back onto his bed, Bill nearly flings his phone off the table in his haste to grab it, dialing Paul’s cell phone and thanking every saint and angel that he’s never quite outgrown the habit of memorizing numbers. Alice helped him set up his contacts list properly last year (except she didn’t, because that was during one of their fights when she stayed with her mom for three months and he dug himself a hole of work in order to not feel the sting), but frankly Bill’s always felt more comfortable keeping things in his head instead of on a computer. Or an address book, at least, but he doesn’t have one. He did, but he doesn’t? God, what—

“—the number you are calling does not exist. Please hang up and try again—“

Bill stares at the phone for what feels like an hour, slowly redialing the same number with shaking fingers. Maybe— maybe he just missed one digit, or typed ‘2’ instead of ‘3’. Silly ol’ butterfingers Bill, always hitting the wrong key with his absent mind. This time, surely, someone will pick up and he’ll—

“—the number you are calling does not exist. Please—“

A knot begins to form in his throat, and he flips through his mental phonebook for another familiar name — god, who else was there last night? Paul, Emma — he doesn’t know her phone number, or Mr. Houston’s who was with them — Charlotte! 

Bill dials Charlotte’s home phone, memorized the day she called him after a particularly awful fight to ask if she could stay with him for the night. She’d been nearly in tears, yelling audible in the background, and Bill had run for his car when he heard a door slamming loud enough to make Charlotte shriek. He doesn’t particularly want to risk talking to Sam, but he’d even be glad to hear that asshole’s voice if only so—

“Hello! This is the Montgomery family residence! We’re not here to pick up the phone, but—“

No. No, that can’t be. That’s not a voice he knows, that’s not the right surname or answering message, and never once has he heard either of them call their marriage a ‘family’. But Charlotte and Sam have lived in that house ever since they moved to—

Hatchetfield? 

Time pulls thick and slow around his hands, syrupy-sweet as Bill fumbles to find the browser application on his phone. Alice has the Google Maps app installed, but Bill’s never used it enough to need it. A quick search for a map of Michigan, and—

Something in his stomach curdles, nauseous with confusion and horror, because there is no Hatchetfield on the map.

Frantically, he dials every number he can remember — Paul again, Charlotte again, Charlotte’s cell (goes to voicemail for a ‘Harley Faulkner, M.D.’), Melissa (answered by a woman sounding old enough to be Bill’s grandmother), even Ted (another disconnected number). When he tries Sylvia’s number, the voice that answers sounds so much like her— but she introduces herself as Jenny Ashe, and Bill’s heart sinks deeper. 

From the kitchen counter, Rachel’s traffic report switches over to Dan Reynolds with the weather, promising cold temperatures but clear skies for the day. Listening to his voice without— oh, his partner’s name, the woman with the bob that Monica four cubicles down couldn’t stop sighing over — feels wrong, strange and unnatural just like this apartment and this life and the memories that won’t stop percolating through Bill’s head. He’s still himself, still Bill Woodward — but now, all of a sudden, he’s two Bill Woodwards that have been unceremoniously smushed together into a single body. He and everyone else who’d stood huddled around Mr. Houston’s watch—

Oh god, what if he’s the only one who’s— who’s here, wherever ‘here’ is? What if no-one else remembers?

Just as the beginnings of heat begin to prickle behind his eyes, the cell rings. Bill jumps, barely noticing the ‘Unknown Caller’ text scrolling above the number before he answers.

“Hello?”

“Bill?”

A sob of relief threatens to catch in his chest, and he curls around the phone like a lifeline. “Mr. Davidson! You— you remember, right? You were with us!”

The voice that comes through the line wavers, uneven in a way Bill’s never heard before. “Oh, thank god, I thought— Bill, what happened? Where are we? Last thing I remember was the parking lot, and now—” His boss’s (former boss’s?) voice breaks, and Bill’s gut wrenches when he realizes that the other man is crying, “I— I woke up, and my house isn’t my house, and I can’t— Carol’s not here, I’m not married here but I remember— you remember, right? Carol? She came to all the company potlucks, she— god, tell me I’m not going crazy.”

“No— no, I remember, I remember.” He tries to keep his voice quiet, because Alice — Alice is only this Alice, and the last thing he wants is for her to learn anything about— about everything. “I live in Clivesdale here, Alice lives with me full-time, it’s— I don’t understand it, sir. I’ve tried — I tried calling Paul, Charlotte, everyone — nobody’s numbers are the same, how— how did you even find me?”

Ken Davidson laughs, dry and tired. “Bill, you’ve had the same phone number since cell phones were invented, and you gave it to everyone in the office in case of emergencies.”

Well, if this doesn’t count as an emergency, nothing will. 

The line goes quiet for a few moments, before Mr. Davidson speaks again in that same uncertain, out-of-character tone. “Do you— do you know anyone else here, who was—?”

“No, nobody.” Bill shakes his head, fingers pressing against the persistent headache as he forces himself to breathe deep and even just like he helps Alice do. “I don’t know if anyone else even lives in Clivesdale, in this— here. Ted’s brother should be Alice’s age but I’ve never seen him at the school, I don’t think either of them are in town. No Paul, no Emma— Paul’s friend from the coffee shop,” He clarifies, to a noncommittal noise of understanding, “Not even Charlotte. I— Alice’s friends are still here, Debbie— Deb, and Grace, and Ziggy, but everyone I— where are you? Are you still—”

“No.” He can almost picture the expression of dismay that accompanies Mr. Davidson’s mournful response. “I— I’m in Poughkeepsie, New York. Grad school instead of marriage, and then just— I don’t know what changed it. Why I didn’t— why Carol and I weren’t—”

The tremor is back in his voice, and Bill remembers that Mr. Davidson and his wife didn’t have much extended family. Parents on both sides deceased before Bill met the man, no cousins or niblings to speak of — he can’t imagine how painful it must be, to have had a family of one other person and then wake up without them. If he’d woken up here and there’d been no Alice—

“Well,” He clears his throat as bravely as possible, “I guess this old phone of mine’ll be good for something. Everyone at the office knows it, Mr. Houston — Alice’s old shop teacher, he was the one with the watch — he should have it from PTA nights, so maybe— maybe we can still find each other, figure this all out.”

Mr. Davidson takes an audible, steadying breath. “Alright. Alright. I’m— I’ll try to get to Clivesdale, soon. To—” His voice trails off, before mustering a quiet, “Thank you, Bill.”

“Of course, Mr. Davidson.”

A wry, rough laugh. “Just call me Ken. No use keeping up— keeping up the old formalities, now.” One last pause, before he sighs. “Call me— let me know if you find anything, please? About— about anything.”

Bill is so tempted to laugh at the thought of him — absent-minded Bill, full-time dad Bill, softest-spine-in-the-office Bill — managing to figure out anything about this absolute unreality they’ve experienced, but he restrains the urge and nods. Not that Mr. Davidson — Ken — can see him, of course. Habit. “I will.”

“Thank you. I— bye.”

The line beeps and falls silent, and for a moment Bill just… sits in it, in the absence of noise save for the dishwasher’s rumble and the murmur of the radio. Outside, the rest of Clivesdale hums with lazy life, restful and at ease after the frenetic energy of the holiday. All of them so unaware of the horror that Bill just lived — so unaware of the horror they, or other versions of them, would have been victim to before even waking just that morning. God, when he heard the radio while trying to start up his car, that urgent broadcast cutting off when the signal failed and the cell towers died… standing in that parking lot thinking he might never see his baby girl again…

He has no plans for today, and a part of Bill wants to curl up in bed and hide and process for the next twenty-four hours — but no. Though he has many flaws, giving up easily has never been one of them. Granted, that trait usually only applies to Alice, but…

Alice is okay, here. Is doing well, even, she’s happy and keeping up with school, and even between relationships her social life is thriving. His daughter is hale and comfortable, trusts him with her life and emotions more than they ever managed in the other— that other version, his other version, in Hatchetfield. So now— now Bill can funnel all of that stubborn father energy back towards the other people in his life who probably need it.

First, he needs to find everyone. Considering how different Mr.— Ken’s life is, it won’t be easy. His friends may not even be in Clivesdale, they could be scattered across the country and scattered apart from each other. Some of them might be better off than they were in Hatchetfield, but some might be worse, so he needs to be ready to offer whatever support he can manage. Finances here aren’t quite what they were when he was working at CCRP, which managed to offer a surprisingly good wage compared to most office jobs, but he’d hardly be a good parent if he didn’t have a rainy day fund saved up for any unexpected complications. Sure, he’d anticipated it more as ‘backup college funds’ for Alice, so he’s hesitant to dip into them unless absolutely necessary… but Bill has never been the sort of man to completely abandon a person in need, and like hell he’ll start now.

So — find everyone, help them if they’re struggling. Figure out what happened to their Hatchetfield, and how they ended up here. Right now Bill only knows Ken’s arrived, but if the two of them are here then it stands to reason that everyone else in that desperate midnight huddle also got pulled into this reality.

The young man in the patterned sweater.

The red-haired nurse.

Ed, possibly with Peanuts.

Alice’s old classmate Lex, and a girl who looked like her sister.

Mr. Houston.

Newt, poor kid.

Emma.

Ted.

Charlotte.

Paul.

The thought of his best friend stings, because Paul’s had the same phone number just as long as Bill — neither of them the sort to change things needlessly, preferring a measure of familiar stability. So Paul’s number being nonexistent — either it means his life is very, very different here, or it means something has gone even more horribly wrong.

Bill stands, takes a deep breath, and crosses from his bed to the old desktop computer he’s never quite brought himself to upgrade from. His head hurts, his heart hurts, the dichotomy of memories confuses and frightens him — but damn it, he is going to figure this shit out. The computer whirs and hums as he turns on the power and braces his arms on the edge of the desk, suddenly too restless to sit down or stand still. He may not be an academic, but like any good college graduate who experienced education before the internet age really took off, he knows how to buckle down and research.

Whatever reason or miracle brought them here, pulled them out of the path of missiles whistling overhead in time with the watch hands tick-tick-ticking down — it gave them a second chance. 

And Bill Woodward knows second chances — better than he’d ever planned.

He does not intend to waste this one.

Chapter Text

When Lex heard the whistle of something streaking through the sky, there at the stroke of midnight, she hadn’t been afraid. After the absolute hell of a day she’d experienced, just about all the fear had been wrung out of her, and instead she found herself not scared, not sad, not resigned or surprised—

No, Lex had seen that missile and felt pure, unequivocal rage.

How dare they? How dare the world throw this at them, after how much they fought and bled and cried to survive today, after Ethan and Frank and countless others died for this pointless madness? How fucking dare that piece of flaming shit in the sky deprive of them of the happy ending they damn well earned, through terror and determination? How absolutely dare they?

Hannah’s fingers were tight around her hand, squeezing like a vice, and Lex refused to lose her little sister after all. In her pocket, a heavy weight had brushed against her leg — the General’s gun. The red-haired nurse had given it back as they ran for the mall exits, carefully flipping the safety back on and handing it over handle-first just like the General did. Just like he had done, holding it out across what felt like an endless abyss, a dim point of haloed light that Lex had almost dismissed as an oxygen-deprived hallucination before his voice sounded as clearly as if he were right beside her. 

He’d offered her that gun and she’d taken it, from some other place that only she could touch. Some other place— some other place was just what she needed, some other place where the missile wouldn’t land and she wouldn't have to face the possibility of Hannah’s death so soon. So Lex reached into her pocket, wrapped shaking fingers around the barrel of the pistol, and pushed with all her might back towards that abyss.

There’d been a jolt, a wrenching at the center of her chest as the midnight gleam of the streetlights blurred into blackness, deep and unrelenting. Cold, colder than Hatchetfield even in the depths of winter. Someone gasped, someone else screamed, short and sharp.

Hannah’s fingers had tightened around hers, and the gun had grown warm beneath her skin - warm, then hot, so hot Lex almost thought it might burn itself straight into her flesh. But then the warmth had travelled up her hand, her arm, filling her body and searing away the cold that had already raised goosebumps on every exposed inch before flowing to the points of contact that anchored her to the others. Hannah’s hand in hers, the brush of her shoulder against Mr. Houston’s, the odd gangly man who’d shown up with Mr. Houston’s friend with a surprisingly steady palm resting against the center of her back. 

For a brief, brilliant moment, it was almost as though she could feel every single person in their little group, hearts beating in the same rhythm as hers (just a little too fast). Could feel their confusion and fear as though it were her own.

Beside her, Hannah had begun to sing, in a voice that sounded like hers and like someone — something — else, far greater and stranger than the little girl Lex had all but raised. Bells and silk, spiderwebs, something seemed to whisper — not ready to understand, not yet, but one day. It had felt, somehow, like a promise.

Inside Lex’s mind, a very different voice spoke, steady and sure.

“Follow the webs, Lex. Manifest the reality you seek as they guide you. You’re almost there. You can save them.”

The gun had burned hot beneath her fingers, and something compelled her to speak, voice cracking and yet certain that now, just at this moment, no-one else would hear her but the singing and the lights. “Where— where do I go? Are you gonna disappear?”

A pause. A soft pulse of warmth, like a smile.

“Search for safety. For home. I’m with you, Lex.”

And somehow, that had felt like enough. Enough for her to reach one last time, throwing her mind and body with all her might towards a sensation so alien and yet so precious, feeling the bonds of heat and the silk-singing channeled through her sister’s body wrench across the abyss as something in the darkness before her cracked, splintered, and shattered apart. The black turned to white.

Lex’s feet had touched ground, the threads of warmth snapping apart as the blackness returned — and she passed out.


Waking up feels like how every overdramatic teen movie portrays hangovers, even though Lex is an eminently practical drinker and has never actually had more than a headache in the mornings after. Her skull pounds, her tongue sticks to the roof of her mouth and tastes like five days-worth of bad breath, and she’s pretty certain even before opening her eyes that if any sudden movements happen, she will not be responsible for whoever gets puked on. She feels, in short, fucking wrecked.

The memories filter back in bit by bit, and then all quite suddenly in a near-painful rush, and Lex bolts upright and nearly does lose her stomach. Only the cool press of a hand she knows to be her sister’s against her back keeps her steady, and that’s enough to stop her from immediately spiraling into panic.

“Lexie?” Hannah— Hannah looks fine, thank fuck. Ethan’s hat is gone — and Lex shoves down the icy twist of grief at the thought, at the knowledge that she doesn’t even have a single piece of him left — but her sister is unharmed, peering at her with wide, green eyes. Her dad’s eyes, Lex has always made sure to tell her — not that she remembers whether or not it's true, but it’s just one more way to assure Hannah that she’s not only Pamela Foster’s daughter. That there’s someone else out there who contributed to her, maybe someone a little better than their abusive shithole of a mother. Dimly, Lex wonders if maybe she should try to find her own father one day, before processing that her sister is… still looking at her. Right, question.

“I’m—” The word comes out in a rasp that itches, and Lex breaks off into a coughing fit. Footsteps rustle across grass and an unfamiliar hand pushes a plastic bottle into her hands, water sloshing over the lip. She gulps at it, hot off of eighteen hours without food or drink, only barely remembering to slow down when her stomach churns in warning.

Hannah pats her arm in that straightforward, soft way of hers. “Okay now?”

“Y— yeah. I’m okay, Hannah.” Setting the water bottle aside (a good old 16-oz from 7/11), Lex checks her sister over with a more critical eye. A few smears of ash and what looks like dried blood, though she assured Lex yesterday it wasn’t her own. Other blood. There’s a tear along the shoulder seam of her flannel (one of Lex’s hand-me-downs), and more stains on the hems and the cuffs of her overalls, but she seems okay. Good. Good. “Where are we—”

“Clivesdale.” It takes Lex a few minutes to remember the tall, pale man who crouches down beside her. The one who’d been with— what was her name? The woman who came with Mr. Houston’s son, his sister? Sister-in-law? She doesn’t know either of their names, but although the woman’s nowhere to be seen, the man looks pretty real and has a fading flush across his cheeks as though coming down from some sort of panic of his own. He has a very oval-shaped face and pale blue eyes, and Lex thinks he might look rather friendly without the notably disgruntled expression he wears. “Don’t know where, though. It’s Saturday morning, about ten or so.”

Well, now Lex understands the grimace. 

“Ugh, Clivesdale? Why would…” She trails off, taking in her surroundings for the first time as the hydration begins to ease the pounding of her head. They’re at the top of a low, grassy hill, sparse and patchy from the cold. Small bunches of bare-branched trees scatter across the area, half-obscuring the solitary road wandering along the edge of the grass back towards the center of town. A weathered picnic table, wood pock-marked and soft at the edges, sits beneath the nearest copse of trees. Yet, in spite of the surprising abundance of plant life, the area where they sit offers a completely clear view of the sky. 

Right now, with the late morning clouds slowly creeping across the horizon, it isn’t much. But… “You— Hannah, you remember this, right? When me and you and E--”

It hurts to say, and maybe Hannah knows, because she nods before Lex can try to force his name out. “My birthday, last year. Had a picnic here, with his car and cake.” Her eyes dance, and Lex tries not to think about how it was the first time she’d been able to buy Hannah a real cake from a bakery. “Looked at the stars.”

“Yeah.” The word strangles in her throat, and she tries again. “Yeah. How did… how did we get here?”

Hannah shrugs, glancing up at the man. “Black and White. The General helped.” Her lips tilt into a frown, familiar if always painful to see. “Webby made it work. Can’t hear her anymore, though.”

“After that dark place,” The man adds, fidgeting with the sleeves of his almost-not-tacky christmas sweater, “I just remember waking up here, with the two of you. I think that was at eight, maybe?”

Lex eyes him. “Who are you, anyways?”

“Oh!” His face flushes once more, and he sticks out a hand. “Paul. Matthews, Paul Matthews, I’m Emma’s— um, do you know Emma?” When Lex slowly shakes her head, he sighs. “Well, you know Tom, right? Tom Houston? Emma’s his sister-in-law, and I’m her— we’re seeing each other? She doesn’t want to label it yet. But we were watching Tom’s son, and he wanted us to go find Tom when— you know, everything started happening, and…”

Dejection washes over his face, and Lex takes pity on the poor guy and accepts the proffered handshake. He’s got a weak grip, but she can’t really blame him — he seems pretty overwhelmed. “I’m Lex. My sister’s Hannah. Where’d the others go?”

Paul frowns, scratching his head. “No idea. I only saw you two when I woke up. And my phone’s not working — I tried calling my buddy Bill, Emma, Charlotte — sorry, uh, the woman in the cat sweater, she’s a coworker of mine — but nothing went through. I couldn’t even get it to ring, I don’t know why.” His voice trembles a bit, bordering on hysteria, but he visibly forces himself to calm down. “I went down the road a bit ago, found a convenience store. Got water, some food stuff, newspaper—”

“Food?”

His mouth quirks into an awkward smile, the expression lifting his entire face as he reaches around to the plastic bag Lex hadn’t noticed before. “Your sister said you’d be hungry. I, uh— I didn’t know what you’d want, but kids like these snack things, right? But then I remembered Bill’s daughter’s girlfriend is vegetarian, so maybe I should get some healthy stuff? Is that a thing with, uh, with kids now?”

In Lex’s mind, Paul is beginning to sort himself into the rare but not unheard of designation of ‘well-meaning but a little dumb’. Even so— “Fuck it, food’s food. Hannah, have you eaten?”

Nodding, Hannah fishes into a pocket to show Lex a carefully balled-up wrapper. “Paul ate the egg for me.”

“Oh, really?” She eyes him with slightly more respect, because that sure is more acceptance of Hannah’s pickiness than most adults have shown. “That’s pretty cool of him. Did the rest of it taste good?”

“Mhm.” Hannah reaches for the bag, which Paul hands her without even a second of hesitation. Lex’s opinion of him is rising. From it she retrieves a wrapped parcel and hands it to Lex, before presenting another like a trophy. “Got another, saved it for you. And a concha, one for each of us!”

Lex unwraps the first item (a ham-cheese-egg croissant) as fast as her hands can manage, tearing off about half the ‘sandwich’ in her first bite. Fuck, she’s hungry. After a few moments, the second statement processes and she looks up, blinking at the plastic-wrapped bun in Hannah’s hands. Glancing from her sister to Paul, she chews her second bite a bit slower and swallows properly before responding. “Did you ask him to buy that?”

He waves a hand hurriedly. “I don’t mind! Didn’t cost much, gave me something to focus on— besides, uh, besides everything else.” 

Well, Lex can figure out her feelings on that later.

Polishing off the croissant takes about another two minutes, after which Lex drains about half the bottle of water and stretches, wincing at every aching bruise and popping joint. Most of the roughness in her throat has eased, but still feels a bit raw and tender, and she’s pretty sure there’ll be some bruising left over from Sherman’s shitty chokehold. Thank fuck for long hair, right? Add in rope-burn on her wrists, the stains on her jacket from Frank’s blood, the scabbed-over cut on her cheek from Linda’s boxcutter — ugh, she feels like shit.

Still, the food and water help, at least enough for her to start focusing on the bigger problems. “You said your phone wasn’t working?”

Paul shakes his head, fishing another concha out of the bag (how many did he buy?) and opening the packaging with tentative fingers. “No. Well, the phone part of the phone isn’t. Everything else is still there, contacts, music, but I can’t call people, it won’t let me open a web browser or turn on data, all my apps are off-line…”

“Weird.” Rifling through her pockets, Lex brushes past the gun and retrieves her own beat-up cell. Something in her chest twists painfully at the lockscreen, a dumb selfie she and Ethan and Hannah took a few months ago, and she quickly puts in her passcode and pulls up her contacts menu. “Let’s see…”

Calling Ethan won’t do any good, no way in hell she’ll call Pamela, she doesn’t have Mr. Houston’s number, so who should she try? She scrolls up and down the list for a minute before biting her lip and pulling up the contact information for Douglas Keane.

Peering over her shoulder as she hits call, Paul asks, “A friend?”

“Our social worker.” Probably the most qualified to help them deal with this fuckshit situation, and Lex is pretty sure he lives in Clivesdale. Except the phone rings once, before crackling to static and falling silent. She frowns, trying again, and gets the same result with an extra jolt of static against her fingers. “The fuck… mine’s not working either. Did that— fuck, what was that place called?”

“Black and White,” Hannah supplies instantly.

At this point, Lex is willing to believe anything. “Right, the Black and White. Did that fuck up our phones, or something?”

Paul glances between them and tries to surreptitiously brush sugar dough crumbs off his upper lip. “What, uh— you two know what that was? The— that place, I mean? That we went through before— before ending up here?”

Well… not really. Hannah probably knows more than Lex, but when Lex glances at her she just shrugs and returns to picking at the wrapping of her bread. 

Sighing, Lex reaches over to pat her sister’s hands. “Go and eat it, Banana. We can get another later, okay?” Turning her attention to Paul, she tries to remember what the fuck the General told her. “The— it’s this place called the Black and White, I think— I think it’s some other dimension? Fuck, that sounds so stupid. But like, I think it’s where Wiggly was from? And I— we, Hannah and I can sort of touch it, I guess? Or, I can touch it, Hannah can— Hannah can hear it? Is that right?”

Through a mouthful of bread, Hannah frowns. “Can hear Webby. Not now, though. Too quiet here.”

“Right, Hannah can hear Webby. Who’s a spider that… I guess lives in the Black and White?” She knows she sounds crazy, but Paul just nods slowly as though he’s trying to parse out every individual word. “But anyways, I guess I kind of— kind of dragged us into it, last night. And then brought us back out? Although I don’t know why we ended up in Clivesdale, seems like that would’ve still been in danger from the— y’know, the missiles.”

Which… brings up something that’s kind of been bothering her since she woke up, but hadn’t come to mind until now. Where’s the destruction? The sirens? Why isn’t the world all in chaos or anything, even just the aftermath of the Wiggly riots?

When she asks Paul as much, he just shrugs. “I don’t know. The newspaper doesn’t have anything about it — just something about the midterm elections and some new Star Wars movie.”

Lex frowns. “Really? But it doesn’t open in theatres until like... next week.”

Brows drawing in, Paul glances back down at the paper, unfolding it and flipping through the pages to glance over an article. “This is today’s paper, though, and it’s talking about the movie reception after opening on… November twentieth?” His lips twist downward, almost more of a pout than a frown. “No, you’re right, that’s weird. Star Wars movies always open in December, I went to see the last one with Bill and Alice after Christmas.”

“Who’s Bill?”

His eyes flick towards Hannah. “My best friend. Well, coworker, but also friend. His daughter Alice is about your sister’s age.”

Oh, damn. “Alice Woodward?”

“Yeah!” Paul immediately perks up like some goddamn dog hearing the word ‘walk’. “You know her?”

Lex shrugs. “Not super well — she transferred to Clivesdale a year or two ago, and we weren’t really in the same circles. I think she was a grade behind me, too. But, uh, I knew her girlfriend, sort of? Deb Allen? We used to hang out after school sometimes.” No need to mention that most of that ‘hanging out’ was either dealing or smoking pot. Paul seems nice, but definitely the more straight-laced sort of nice. Not the sort of nice that would be totally fine with helping out a druggie kid.

So it’s a pleasant surprise when he laughs. “The smoke club, right? Bill complains about that a lot, but my— uh, my— Emma? Used to be part of it when she was at Hatchetfield High. Um, in high school. She’s, uh, planning to start a pot farm after college.” 

And sure, there’s a bit of embarrassment in that tone, but that’s, like, monumentally better than Lex would’ve ever expected based on how he looks.

She nods carefully, gauging his expression for any signs she might need to grab Hannah and run. When none appear, she responds. “Yeah, well. Like I said, Alice transferred schools, and then I dropped out, so I haven’t seen her in like, forever.” An idea pops into her mind. “But I know her— uh, her Mom’s address? Since she gave it to Deb, and I think Deb told me and Ethan once because she was gonna need a ride back from there this one time? And Ethan has— had a car.” Fuck.

Before Paul can say anything uselessly sympathetic — and she can see the gears turning, the response forming from thoughts to words — Hannah shakes her head with enough force to make her already disheveled braids swing, setting her concha down and standing. “Can’t, won’t find answers or faces. It’s Aladdin.”

Lex frowns. “Won’t find— Aladdin? What’s that mean, Banana?”

“You mean like the Disney movie?” Paul contributes, making a displeased face. “With the songs?”

Nodding at him, Hannah puts her bread back into the bag before tugging at Lex’s sleeve until she stands as well. “It’s Aladdin and Jasmine here. Same faces, new places.”

Paul slowly gets to his feet, looming at a kind of ridiculous beanpole sort of height (or maybe it just seems that way because Lex wasn’t ever the tallest for her age to begin with), and barely manages to grab the bag and Lex’s water bottle before Hannah tugs both of them down the far side of the hill, away from the road and from Clivesdale. She pulls them between barren trees and evergreen brush, surefooted in a way Lex never quite achieves no matter how much time she spends in the woods. 

After a moment, Lex realizes she’s leading them towards the slope where this particular park dips down to meet the lake. They’re a good distance from the Nantucket bridge, but any part of Clivesdale’s coast is still near enough to see the bridge lights, and the little winding road that leads off of it and into Hatchetfield proper.

They break through the trees, and Lex throws an arm out to save Paul from tripping over his own feet and taking an unwanted tumble and bath. Man, dude’s kind of clumsy, isn’t he?

As she steadies him, Hannah lets go of their hands to point out across the water, wearing an expression both far older than her years, and yet so painfully familiar. So many times, Lex has wished the world would just give her baby sister a break, let her be a normal kid without the burdens of their shitty family, the world that can’t understand how her brain works, the strange things she hears that no-one else can. And yet here, again, that far-away look enters Hannah’s eyes as she stares solemnly out towards the horizon.

Lex follows her finger, and for a moment doesn’t understand what she’s looking for. The lake is still and quiet, normal for a normal near-winter day. No boats, no storm-churn that might come with rain. No…

Her blood chills, and a bitten-off gasp tells her she’s not alone.

No island.

No Hatchetfield.

Hannah turns back to look at them, reaching for Lex’s hand. “You see? Aladdin and Jasmine.” Her eyes, so wide, so wise in ways Lex has never mourned so greatly until now, turn to Paul. “You understand.”

He clears his throat, face washed pale by more than just the cool sunlight. “The… that duet, from the Disney movie. It’s—”

And Lex remembers, too.

‘A Whole New World’ .”

Star Wars in November. Their phones don’t work any longer, and she has a flash of suspicion that Paul must have paid in cash at the convenience store, because his cards likely would’ve been useless. Waking up, not in some other version of their lives, but in a place so specific to Lex’s memories. No Hatchetfield.

“We…” Her voice feels suddenly alien in her throat, as though someone else lives under her skin. “...we don’t exist here, do we? Or we didn’t, until… until I brought us.”

Hannah nods, face slipping from eerie poise to a painfully innocent expression of fright, and she barely has to move before Lex drags her into a desperate embrace, pressing her face into her sister’s hair and trying to remember how to breathe. Hannah’s here, Hannah’s here and she has Lex and Lex has her, they’re both here and they’re real. They’re still real.

A hand, hesitant and yet so strangely steady, rests on Lex’s shoulder. When she looks up, Paul meets her eyes with a worried expression of his own. “If that’s the case, we… what do we do?”

“Webby said,” Hannah starts, pulling back with a stifled sniffle, “Webby said, not all faces are new. Me, Lexie, Blue Man, Second Sister, Time Bastard, Knowing Boy — new faces. Blue Man is Paul.”

He points to himself, mouthing the words before responding, “Me? Then… Emma must be Second Sister. Her older sister, Jane, was Tom’s wife,” He explains, “Time Bastard… I don’t know who that would be. Maybe Ted? He’s the only one who was there who’s enough of an ass to qualify.”

Lex frowns, mulling over her vague memories of the crowd. “Knowing Boy… Hannah, could that be fucking— uh, Newt? I thought I saw him there last night.”

“Wait, Newton Spankoffski?”

Seriously, how small is— was that fucking town? She turns to stare at Paul. “You know him too?”

At least this time, he has the grace to look exasperated. “Not personally, but his older brother is Ted, another of my coworkers. You’re right, they were both there last night— but there were more than just us six, right? I mean, Tom and Becky, Bill was there, Charlotte…”

Nodding, Hannah begins leading them back towards the hill and the road. “We’re new faces. Other faces — Seeks Comfort, Squirrel Man, Great Aspirations, Satisfaction, Hatchetman, Brave Heart, Father — not new. Just another layer, put together.” Lex is pretty sure those must be the other people who were with them in the parking lot, and Paul starts responding almost before Hannah’s finished.

“Father, that’s got to be Bill — and I bet anything Hatchetman’s Tom, he’s got that whole ‘lumberjack style’ thing. Squirrel Man’s Ed — you know, Ed Masterson?”

It takes a minute for the name to click. “Oh, the Peanuts guy! He was there?”

“Yeah, he and Bill are friends.” Paul’s face twists up in thought. “Seeks Comfort, I feel like that’s probably Charlotte. Not sure about the others… no, wait, I bet Great Aspirations is— uh, that guy who works at Beanie’s, Zoey’s friend. He’s always dancing, as though singing wasn’t bad enough.”

Lex rolls her eyes. “Dude, it’s the ‘singing coffee shop’, what else is he gonna do?”

Not sing!”

“Right, sure.” Heaving a sigh as they make their way past the picnic table that once held a little girl’s first birthday cake, a year and a world ago, Lex ruminates over the list and what she remembers of the people last night. The gun in her pocket thumps against her thigh as she walks, and she remembers its owner’s strange prophecy-instructions. “Uh, Brave Heart might be— uh, the redhead? The nurse? The— General what’s-his-name mentioned a ‘Warrior of Light’ who was sleeping, and she was like knocked out? But then she woke up and shot Linda?”

Paul pauses to blink incredulously at her, heightening his visual resemblance to many a wide-eyed fish. “Wait, sorry, hold on. Becky Barnes shot Linda? As in Linda Monroe?”

Right, Paul wasn’t actually at the mall for… any of yesterday. Lex almost wants to smack herself for not remembering that ridiculously obvious fact. “Yeah, it was a whole thing. Uh, Linda started like, a cult around the dolls, full batshit crazy. And she was like… gonna make some portal for Wiggly? I guess? But then— uh, Becky— woke up, found the General’s gun and shot her.”

“Wow. Okay.” He blinks a few more times, faster than most people. “Okay. Okay. That’s— okay. And I guess that makes Mr. Davidson Satisfaction, whatever that means. So— so Becky and Tom and all the others, they’re not new, like us, right?”

Hannah nods, fingers wrapping around Lex’s. “Not new. Adding another layer.”

“So they did exist here, then.” Seriously, Paul may be weird, but Lex is pretty sure no-one’s been this good at following Hannah’s thought process other than… well, her on good days, and sometimes Ethan. “And they just… got the versions of them that were with us added to them as they are? Which means—”

“We need to find them,” Lex cuts in, tugging the others forward a few paces until she has a clear line of sight down the road. “Right now, we only have whatever actual physical money we had, and that’s not gonna cut it. Whoever already has a life here, we’re gonna need help getting shit like food and a place to crash. Any of those people you know live in Clivesdale?”

Paul starts to shake his head, then stops — nearly stopping his feet as well before Lex and Hannah join efforts to tug him back into motion. “Alice — I don’t know if she’ll live in the same place, but I bet she’s at the same school. If we ask for a student directory, I bet we can find Bill’s address there, or at least some way to contact him. And he’ll— the, the ones who aren’t new faces, they’ll still remember what we remember?”

“Another layer,” Hannah confirms, “Put together.”

Something in the nervous tension of Paul’s face eases just a little, slipping back from unsettled to concerned-but-handling-it. “Then he’ll be able to help. And then we can find everyone else, and figure out— figure out how to live here.”

Distantly, Lex wonders if Pamela exists here. If she and Hannah are new faces to this world, does that mean their mother was never born? Or did she simply never have children, never go down the roads that lead her to the alcoholic, unemployed, abusive mess she’d become in the version of reality they just left? A part of her never wants to know. Another part is desperate to find out.

Small fingers squeeze hers, and she glances over at Hannah more from habit than anything. Her sister meets her eyes for a short moment before leaning over to bump her head against Lex’s shoulder.

“Still together. My Lexie.”

The breath she hadn’t realized she was holding releases, and Lex tugs Hannah closer to wrap an arm around her shoulders. She’s right — they’re still here, still together. No matter what this new situation might bring them, no matter how much this world differs from their own, and no matter what sort of person Pamela Foster might be here — she and Hannah are still sisters, and no force in any world can change that. Beside them, Paul thumbs through his wallet and murmurs about bus fares, and overhead the clouds drift lazily past a dim but still-shining sun. It’s not the tomorrow they expected, but they’re here.

“Yeah, I’m still here. I’m not going anywhere.”

Chapter Text

Charlotte wakes up to an arm draped across her waist, and immediately knows something is horribly, horribly wrong. Oh, it feels quite normal, safe and secure and warm against the approaching winter chill — but that’s precisely what makes it absolutely, certainly not normal.

She knows, somehow knows without even a question or doubt, that the arm belongs to her husband. So do the ankle that hooks around hers, the brush of stubble against her forehead, and the soft breathing that stirs through the loose curls of hair that have fallen free in her sleep. She knows that he’s exhausted, coming off of the end of a run of Carey’s newest show and a solid two months of late, late nights — knows he won’t even begin to rise until nearly noon, but will give her that same drowsy, fond look when he does.

And that’s wrong, that’s all wrong. Charlotte can’t remember the last time Sam touched her at night, asleep after and awake before her most days of the week. Lord, she can’t remember the last time he touched her at all —  they’ve missed cuddle night three months in a row at this point. 

The man in bed beside her is not her husband.

Yet— yet he is , she knows he is, she knows the scent he leaves behind on the pillowcases (they share the same soothing lavender conditioner, have for at least a decade) and the roughness of his palms from helping the set crew between rehearsals. Her husband mumbles something in his sleep and curls a little closer, and Charlotte tries not to flinch at the additional contact. Or maybe sigh? Oh dear God, what is this?

Careful as she can, she slides out from beneath the warm limbs and the wrinkles of her grandmother’s old down comforter (the one Sam threw out three years ago, the other version of her husband). Taking a moment to brush out her nightgown (decorated with cartoon cats and yarn balls, a gift last Christmas that never existed, oh God why does she remember this ), Charlotte eases the bedroom door open and shut behind her, steering Mistie and Tugger back with an absent foot as she tiptoes down the hall to the bathroom. The part of her that insists this is all wrong, all strange, wonders at the frames decorating the walls — flyers and programs for the shows Sam’s done, photographs of their anniversary trip to New York City, the lovely painting Sam’s cousin gave them as a wedding gift. Snapshots of their life together, a life she both remembers fondly and yet doesn’t recognize.

Her hands shake as she pushes open the bathroom door, turning to look into the mirror with trepidation. Sam isn’t her Sam, but he is — if something is wrong here, surely it has to be her? Surely, something about her is wrong in this situation?

The face that stares back at Charlotte… is her own, there’s no doubt there. It has her wide eyes and round chin, the mouth slightly crooked to one side and the red hair that’s always defied every attempt at styling. If she were to look in the cabinet beneath the sink, she knows she’d find a set of curlers she’s used every night since hitting thirty, still in their packaging and untouched — in the mirror, her hair falls in a neat braid over her shoulder, longer than she remembers. 

Her skin also looks different, somehow, and it isn’t until she peers closer at her reflection that she realizes — gone are the deep under-eye shadows she’s spent so long covering up with concealer, the stress wrinkles from her lips tugging downwards at the corners. Instead, there are crows-feet beginning to form around her eyes, laugh lines, and yet she looks younger than she’s felt in years.

There’s a small mole on her chin, not quite right to be a beauty mark, and she brushes a trembling hand across her skin to double-check that it’s real. She can feel it — can feel it beneath her fingers, can feel the weight of her touch on it between the base of her chin and the curve of her jaw. Two years ago, she’d saved up her holiday bonuses and leftovers from each paycheck to get that mole surgically removed, because Sam said it looked like a liver spot. Said it put him in mind of a dirt stain, or a pimple, made her look too old and too young depending on the day.

But— but Sam, Sam here, Sam who isn’t— he likes to kiss that mole. They crack jokes about their little witchy family, Charlotte-and-her-mole, Sammy-and-his-wild-hair. An actor, a bakery manager, and their three cat children, no cares to what anyone else might think of them.

Oh God, what is this?

Charlotte’s throat tightens, but it isn’t until the reflection in her eyes blurs that she realizes she’s started crying, hot tears slipping down her cheeks and onto the counter below. She sits down hard on the edge of the bathtub, trying to keep her breathing steady as the walls threaten to close in.

She— she remembers going to the mall, yesterday. Black Friday. (She’d ordered a new batch mixer and bulk cookie sheets for the bakery, then settled in with Sammy to watch some taped episodes of Antiques Roadshow). There was the doll, and Linda Monroe, and— oh dear God, that poor little girl . Charlotte — Charlotte stole her hat, stood by and watched and danced as Linda threatened to cut a child’s face open over that hideous talking doll. She’d— she’d seen Tom Houston and Becky Barnes there, and another girl with a doll and a lighter, and—

Nausea overcomes her and she jolts forward to retch into the toilet, desperately attempting to force away the memory of Linda’s blood spraying in a wide arc across the tiled Toy Zone floor. The phantom scent of burning plastic and then burning flesh as she’d fled the mall, that stolen hat clutched in her hands. 

She’d seen Bill and Ted in the parking lot, gathered around Paul and his new girlfriend and Tom Houston and the girls, and she’d— well, she hadn’t know what else to do. What else she could do, to make up for the madness she’d gotten swept up in. She’d had a thought of— of apologizing, if they survived the night. Of giving that little girl her hat back, of kneeling down in front of Becky Barnes like she knelt before God and asking how she could possibly make amends. But then there had been a flash of fire in the sky, a burning cold and then a heat that flowed like water through her bones as the world went very, very dark, the sense that nothing was real but her breath and her heartbeat and the feeling of Ted’s fingers against hers, and—

Charlotte bites back a sob, wiping off her lips with a wad of toilet paper before closing the lid and flushing. She’ll have to wash her face off, now — can’t have Sam waking up to some messy, awful look like this. ( But no , the part of her that isn’t her whispers, he won’t care. He’ll just want to know why you’re sad, and then—  oh God, what then?)

She doesn’t deserve him, does she? Whatever— whatever it was that made him that Sam, the Sam sleeping down the hall, this Charlotte — the Charlotte she is — doesn’t deserve him. The Charlotte that Sam, Sammy, married hasn’t— hasn’t cheated, hasn’t slept with other men like some sort of sick one-upmanship, hasn’t stood by and watched a child be threatened with a knife while thinking absolutely nothing at all. She can’t do this, she can’t do this to him, he’ll wake up and find what she is and he won’t love her anymore—

Another sob breaks through before she can force it down, taking with it her last hope for any semblance of composure. Tears make hot, desperate tracks down her cheeks as she collapses against the smooth porcelain of the toilet lid, hands clawing for something to grasp like a lifeline and finding nothing but cold and empty space. From down the hallway, a door hinge creaks and muffled footsteps vibrate through the floor. 

“Char? What’s the matter, are you—” 

She can’t help it — she flinches at the sound. Nothing she loves more than Sammy’s voice, shows at the playhouse or evenings spent in with the cats and the radio, but Charlotte flinches and recoils before her husband has even finished kneeling down beside her. She’s not sure if the shaking is from her tears or from the hand that half-reached to touch her shoulder before stopping short. A moment that feels like an aching hour passes before fabric shifts as Sam stands, but doesn’t leave — another moment, and the sound of running water echoes against the tiled walls. The sink?

His voice returns, carefully even (in a way it never was, but—) and painfully gentle. “It’s just me. Just Sam, okay?” A hand settles far too light on her shoulder, and Charlotte forces down the shudder. “Can you tell me what’s wrong, baby? Are you feeling sick, or a nightmare, or—”

Charlotte chokes back a laugh that feels just a touch hysterical, because — a nightmare, God, everything she remembers is a nightmare and she wishes it could be nothing more. Wishes she could forget— forget the blood on the Lakeside Mall linoleum, forget the smell of the fires, forget every night spent with another man while her husband wasn’t home, forget the gut-wrenching terror every time Sam lost his temper and— oh God, why did she have to remember?

The hand on her shoulder shifts, making gentle circles that nearly wrench another sob from her throat, and she desperately curls back towards the touch because— because if she pretends hard enough, she can pretend that her Sammy and her Sam were never the same person to begin with, can pretend that the man kneeling beside her on the bathroom floor never screamed himself red and broke dishes after bad shifts at work, never left her alone for days on end with no warning or explanation, never— never married a version of her who was bad. Who did cruel things to spite him, who used other people to fill her own emptiness, who couldn’t ever understand why she wasn’t good enough anymore.

Sam— Sammy, I’m sorry, I’m sorry—

His voice hums in his chest as he shushes her, the hand on her shoulder making its way around her back like a weighted blanket. 

“No, it’s okay, it’s okay, you don’t need to apologize. It’s okay, just breathe. I’ve got you.” And as she falls apart, he holds her steady and continues saying words she can barely hear. Their vibrations fill the spaces between her panicked heartbeats. At some point, Jem creeps in to wind her way in between them, and her trilling purr manages to pull a watery, choked laugh from between the tears.

After what feels like hours (and certainly couldn’t have been more than ten minutes, if only time would reassert its regular pace), the horrified panic finally begins to wear thin enough for Charlotte to take a shaking, slow breath and accept the damp washcloth that Sam gently places in her hand. He brushes stray hairs away from her sweat-sticky forehead as she dabs her face down, wiping away the salt and sting of tears, the lingering tackiness of bile on her lips. The terry cloth catches ever-so-slightly on her mole, and it nearly brings a fresh breakdown before she forces herself to breath in and out and carefully move on.

Once her face feels cool and clean, Sam lifts the cloth out of her hands and asks in a quiet voice if she wants to go downstairs, or back to bed. As if Charlotte could get a wink of sleep, after what’s happened.

Speaking feels like a monstrous task, but she manages a whisper of a response, and Sam helps her down the hall and the stairwell with hands too gentle against her back. A part of her wonders, bitterly, if this body will feel any of the bruises of yesterday, wonders if this Sammy will notice the winces and hurts that the other Sam never would. Wonders if he’ll be able to tell that she isn’t the wife he fell asleep with last night, that she’s damaged now. (Why did she have to remember, why did she have to survive that parking lot, why why why— )

Cold presses against her fingers and Charlotte blinks, taking in the sight of the living room and the glass of water that Sam hands her before clearing a space to sit down on the couch. Absently, she remembers the day they went and got that couch — their first had been falling apart, so they drove out with Carey and Francesca and picked this one up from a Craigslist ad.

She sits without thinking, mind caught in the recollection of sitting in the trunk of Frankie’s minivan, looking out the open back and keeping the couch steady. It had been late spring, nearly summer, so there were still flowers in the trees and the sun overhead had shone bright and joyful without a cloud to be seen. Frankie had been driving, talking loud above the wind about her youngest nephew’s most recent escapade while Carey pointed out street signs and intersections, and Sammy had sat right there in the trunk with Charlotte. His hair had whipped every-which-way in the wind from the open windows, a bruise from a set mishap decorating his cheek and his laughter following them down the road.

(Her life, yet it’s all but the life she’s never been able to admit she longed for.)

“—tell me what’s wrong?” Fingers brush, light as feathers, across the back of her hand, and she flinches before she can stop herself. Sam pauses, pulling his hand back and taking a slow breath of his own. She can almost hear him counting to five in his mind.

Charlotte flinches again, this time at herself. Stupid, stupid . “Sorry, I didn’t mean to, I’m—”

“It’s okay.” There’s a weight to his voice, a tiredness, a concern ( why oh why couldn’t he ever sound like that before— ), but he smiles and brushes messy hair out of his face. “It’s okay. Think you can tell me what’s wrong, Char? Because I’ll be honest, I’m a little confused and a lot worried.”

Can she tell him? Should she tell him? He can’t— he won’t know, he won’t understand. But he already knows something’s wrong, and Charlotte’s so damned tired of lying and lying and lying , she can’t keep lying to him — not when this Sammy hasn’t done anything wrong, hasn’t done anything to deserve her Other Self. If— if she tells him, and he hates her, perhaps that’s all she’ll deserve. (She doesn’t want that, she doesn’t want him to hate her, why did all these memories have to come back and ruin her life— )

Her breath catches in her throat, and before she can sob again, she blurts out, “I’m a different Charlotte!”

Sam blinks, brows furrowing — not angry, angry is different, this is just thinking and she knows and she shouldn’t feel afraid — as he considers her. “A different Charlotte how?”

“I’m—” Swallowing down a hiccup, Charlotte scrubs a hand across her eyes and forces her lungs to pull in air. “I’m still Charlotte, still— still this Charlotte, but also another? It’s—” God, oh God, how does she describe what’s happened? “It’s like— like I’ve lived two versions of my life, this one and another, and— and the other just got put together with this one, like— oh, like mixing two doughs.” His eyes flicker up at that, and things start to feel just a little bit less mad. Just for a moment. “Like— I’m a batch of bread dough, and in this life I was dyed with red coloring, or maybe we added in chocolate or nuts or— you understand? But another batch of that bread dough got dyed— green? Or blue? And now it’s like someone just— just mashed the two doughs back together, even though they didn’t match.”

The furrow of Sam’s brow deepens, and he rubs a hand against his beard as he responds. “And you don’t think this is just a vivid nightmare?”

“Sammy, I remember— I remember marrying you twice. We— it’s an entire other life , in my head.” Something bubbles in the back of her throat, and Charlotte chokes down a hysterical laugh. “I— I remember two childhoods, two weddings, two different lives together. I— last night, we were here for Black Friday, but I also— we lived in Michigan, and I went to the mall to get a— a toy, a Wiggly, and there was—”

Wiggly? ” For the first time, Sam frowns. “I don’t remember hearing anything about a toy like that, are you sure?”

Now, the laugh breaks free, and Charlotte puts her glass on the coffee table before the trembling in her hands causes it to spill. “Very sure. It was— it was a nightmare, Sammy, a living nightmare. Riots broke out, people killing each other for this— this stupid, stupid doll. I was— this woman, Linda, she started some sort of— of cult, around the awful thing. I know, I know , it sounds ridiculous, but it— God, Sammy, it was horrifying .”

Sam reaches for her hand again, and she lets him, pushing down the anxiety and hysteria and letting him wrap his fingers around her own because— because this is her husband, this is her Sammy . He isn’t going to hurt her. Consciously or not.

His thumb rubs small circles against the back of her hand. “It’s okay, it’s okay. You’re here now, it’s not real.”

“But it was .”

A soft sigh, and he moves carefully around the table to sit beside her, flicking on the lamp to illuminate the room with a low, warm glow. His hand doesn’t leave hers. “Char, I’m trying to believe this, it’s just— it’s a lot.” She knows. God, does she know. “So— alright, so this was real. Where did it all go? Why did— to use your metaphor, why did the two doughs get mixed back together now?”

Charlotte forces herself to breathe, steady and even. Stay grounded. Stay grounded in here, in the memories of bread dough and the purring of her cats as they realize there are two warm laps available to perch on. “There— alright, I know this sounds mad, but— the thing was, Linda, she— the cult wasn’t just about the doll. It was like— the doll was a manifestation of some— some god, or creature. Some Lovecraft sort of thing, all green and tentacles and— I don’t know why, but we really, really believed it. And— I remember getting out of the mall, and hearing everyone in the parking lot talking— it must have been close to midnight, then. They were saying— saying the phone lines were down, internet cut out, Moscow had been nuked and there were warnings going out all over to prepare for retaliatory strikes—”

“Wait, wait, Moscow was nuked?

“Oh, I don’t know! I don’t know, I only could hear it from everyone else.” She’d wanted to call Sam, she really had, but— well, the phone lines were down, and they’d just had such an awful fight on Thanksgiving… Charlotte bites her lip. “I found some of my co-workers in the lot there, Bill and Ted and Paul and— and some of their friends, I suppose, and— I don’t know why, but we all just stood there and counted down the seconds on Tom’s watch, waiting for midnight.”

“Who?” When she winces at the question, Sam shakes his head. “Sorry, that came out bad. I just don’t recognize any of those names.”

Right. Other life. (Though even in the other life, Sam hadn’t given a damn about her friends.) “Bill and Ted and Paul were all co-workers of mine, there. We worked in the tech department for CCRP— oh, for the life of me, I could never remember what that properly stood for. And Tom I knew through his wife, Jane— I went to her for therapy, a year or two before we started counseling. It was a very small town, you see.” Please, God, let him not ask why they needed counseling, she can’t think about that now.

The furrow of his brow deepens, but Sam nods and gestures for her to continue.

“When it hit zero, I remember hearing something whoosh overhead, and— and I think I saw fire in the sky, like rockets, but then I just felt something— pull me away, like a dough-hook in a mixer.” She can’t suppress her full-body shudder at the recollection. “And suddenly we— all of us who were standing together— we were in some place that felt very dark, and very big, and very cold. It was strange, not at all like— like earth, even. And then it began to feel warm instead, and there was another pull, and then I—” Woke up again. “—then I was here.”

“And then you were here.” He shakes his head, though she can’t tell whether it’s disbelief or something else. “And it made you feel ill?”

Oh, she could do without thinking about that part. But no, come on Charlotte. You’re done lying. You are done with lying and cheating and— you know what a good life is, now. Follow it. “It was— I can’t put it into words. But waking up here, remembering how we spent last night and then suddenly being— God, being bombarded by memories of fire and bodies and just— there were corpses all over the mall, when I ran out. There was— there was a man who must have been pushed off the second-level balcony, and— and some poor boy by the Cineplex, all covered in blood. And Linda, she—” Nausea rises again at the memory, and she swallows it back down. “—she was convinced this little girl had a doll, and would have cut her face open if she didn’t give it up, I think she would have slit her throat. She— God , that poor child, she couldn’t have been more than eleven or twelve. If her sister hadn’t come back for her—”

“That’s awful.” Sam’s hand moves to card through her hair, and Charlotte lets herself lean into the touch because— no , she shouldn’t need to justify letting her husband touch her, damn it all! He purses his lips, expression drawn tight. “And that’s a lot to go through, even if it had been a dream. And if you’re right, and this was all real… I can’t imagine it.”

And what else can she do but agree?

For a few minutes they sit together, cats purring like motorboats on their laps and the sun rising beyond the windows that frame the chimney. It’s a lucky thing she scheduled the bakery closed, Charlotte thinks, though this hadn’t quite been what she planned when she decided to have the weekend off. She might need to close the shop longer, even, if this— depending on how this affects everything. Or perhaps promote Mo to an administrative position, so someone would be set to take care of things while she—

A stone sinks in her gut, and she turns to Sam. “The others.”

“The others?”

“Bill, and Paul, and everyone…” Oh, she feels cold, chills running down her spine that have nothing to do with the season. It never gets as cold in California as it did in Hatchetfield. “If what happened to me happened to all of them— Sammy, I’ve got to find them somehow.”

Sam frowns. “Why?”

Wh—

“I’m not angry, just—” His face twists, contorts as he searches for words. “It’s not your responsibility to help them, Char. If what you’re describing happened to them as well, they all have their own lives, and you— you have this. You have the cats, the bakery, me— can’t we prioritize your life here first?”

Swallow down the kneejerk reflex to fight back, to argue and bicker, because this Sam doesn’t deserve that— “It’s… I want to make sure they’re okay, yes — there were kids there, Sammy. But more, it’s that I need to apologize to them all.”

Sam makes a noise of confusion in the back of his throat, and Charlotte twists her fingers together until her joints hurt. Presses nails that are trimmed back to the cuticles against the flesh of her palms. Reminds herself that she’s tired of lying. “I— I got pulled into the cult. I would never , here, I wouldn’t but— I wasn’t a very happy person, in that life. I was— I was always looking for something to believe in, to hold onto, and she— it all made sense in the moment, I didn’t realize how horrible it all was until the mall was up in flames and I—” 

The feeling of a sob rises in the back of her throat and she chokes it back. “—I was right there , watching Linda hurt people, kill people, and I didn’t do anything. She— she took that poor little girl’s hat and handed it to me, and I just put it on and didn’t think and— Sammy, I have to tell them I’m sorry . I have to make it up to them, somehow.”

Her husband remains silent.

“Sammy, please say something, please—

Arms wrap around her, sudden and firm, and Charlotte barely swallows a shriek as Sam— pulls her into a hug?

“I won’t ask about it if you don’t want me to,” His voice thrums in his chest, vibrating where her cheek is pressed against his shoulder, “And I won’t judge you by what happened. You’re still my Char. Whatever’s happened, whatever you think you need to do, I’ll be with you, okay? Just— tell me what you need .” A hand strokes along the back of her head, smoothing stray hairs into place before settling into a caress across her neck. “If you need to go find the— the people who came with you, okay. If you need to just stay in for a while until it all settles in, okay. Whatever it is, I’ll be with you.”

Oh dear, at this rate Charlotte might start crying again—

Unfortunately — or perhaps fortunately for the shreds of her composure — the landline choses that moment to ring, trilling from the kitchen counter and echoing through the stillness of the dawning morning. Sam rubs a thumb across the nape of her neck before pulling back and standing with an exaggerated grunt to go answer. A twist of new guilt stirs in her stomach — he’s only up this early because of her, after all, and he must be tired. But—

“Hi, Sam Bellerose speaking, how can I help you?”

A pause, and she watches her husband’s face light up. He runs a hand through his hair, fussing up the bedhead into even more of a mess. (She just knows, in the part of her that has been here the entire time, that once morning arrives properly she’ll sit down and gently ease through the tangles one by one, just like he braided her hair all the way down her back last night. Oh, God, but she loves this man. Loved him even as the Other Sam, and what does that say about her? About them?)

“Yeah, I remember. That was some great work, held up really well — we actually reused it last season, for— yeah! You saw?”

Someone from the theater, perhaps?

“Well— thanks, that’s nice of you to say. So what’s up? Just since it’s pretty early, and—”

Sam’s voice breaks off, expression falling into a focused attention as he listens to whoever is on the other end. Charlotte fights back a curl of worry in her gut — what if something’s gone wrong, and they need him to come in? If she has to spend the day all on her own, after all— after all everything… 

"Uh-huh? ... Like what?"

But then he nods and turns to look at her, one corner of his lips twitching towards a smile, and the worry melts into— into something like hope, maybe.

“You know, it’s funny, she was just telling me about something like that.”

Chapter Text

Ted Spankoffski is not unfamiliar with waking up in, lightly put, bizarre circumstances.

Have enough one-night stands and late nights out drinking (drowning your sorrows, hah , as if he’ll ever admit to having sorrows worth drowning), and you’ll inevitably find yourself coming to awareness in strangers’ bedrooms, public parks, unfamiliar hotels, and the Waffle House drive-through. (Ted’s always been reluctantly impressed and also a little bit concerned by the fact that Hatchetfield, which remains notoriously resistant to businesses that literally everyone else in the damn country gets to take for granted, has had a functioning Waffle House for as long as he’s lived there. The concerning part is that it’s had frequent closures, which — if you put any stock in the Waffle House Index — basically means Hatchetfield should be experiencing the wrath of the weather gods every other year.)

(Thankfully, Ted doesn’t actually give a shit about the Waffle House Index, because who does? He’s just… thought about it once or twice. And once even when he wasn’t drowning his not-sorrows.)

Still, even by his standards, blinking awake in a tidy, well-organized garden is weird. There are ferns hanging over his head, long and feathery along the edges, and Ted’s pretty sure he wasn’t even remotely near drunk last night. Nowhere close to the level of shitfaced he’d need to pass out in a stranger’s yard. 

Actually, no, he wasn’t drunk at all. He was at the mall, right? Hit up some cheap shit on Black Friday, replace the crappy toaster he’s been hanging onto for years, maybe check out that creepy doll Charlotte kept cooing over. Frankly, Ted hadn’t seen any of the appeal — it looked like some ungodly combination of a teddy bear and an octopus, like someone tried to make a cuddly toy of the Flying Spaghetti Monster — but Charlotte really wanted one, and some part of him had figured he may as well try to nab it if he was gonna be there anyways.

And well — look how that went.

Now here he is, laying on his back in a yard way too nice to belong to any neighborhood he’s welcome in. Granted, it’s been a good five or six years since that scandal with Vanessa, so maybe he wouldn’t be chased out of Pinebrook nowadays, but that certainly doesn’t mean he’d ever set foot in it willingly

And sure, the yard’s nice, but everyone in Pinebrook has sticks too far up their asses to bother with this amount of— plants and shit. Ted doesn’t know what any of them are called — aside from the withered flowers of what he vaguely recognizes as a false sunflower, because Charlotte has a whole stand of them in her garden — but there are bushes and trees and stalks that are probably some sort of grass or flower or whatever, except it’s November so it all looks the same. But even with the lack of foliage or flor-age, it’s pretty clear that the garden’s been organized in some way, with little stone paths winding between the patches up to a patio.

Fuck, Ted’s tired.

Whatever the fuck happened, however the fuck he got from the parking lot (and the missiles and the fire, and Charlotte holding onto his hand because he was who was there , and Newt clinging to his shirt like he used to as a little brat of a kid) — however it happened, Ted doesn’t want to know. Doesn’t much care, really.

Important part is — they were there . Now, he’s here , on his back in a stranger’s garden, without his brother or his coworker-slash-regular-fling or even his other coworkers and all those other people. But Newt and Charlotte are the ones that matter. Maybe Paul, too, because fuck all knows he’s the closest thing Ted has to a normal friend these days, but that bitchy girlfriend is probably with him so Ted’s not particularly worried about Paul.

Newt and Charlotte, though.

His thoughts keep circling, rolling around each other as the sun begins to peek through the clouds overhead and a drop of dew slips lazily down the frond of one of the ferns. It falls on his forehead and Ted blinks, reaching up to wipe the water out of his eyes. He really should get up and find his way home, or at least, find his brother and—

Yeah, great idea, dumbass, the voice in the back of his mind whispers, except what about the part where you don’t even know where the fuck you are?

Touchè, obnoxious voice. Touchè.

Ted’s just about ready to keep laying there — the ground’s pretty comfortable, and it’s not like the garden smells bad or anything — when movement vibrates through the earth beneath him, and a voice speaks from overhead.

“Hey man, are you okay?”

Shit. Fuck. Right, garden is not a park, obviously belongs to someone. Ugh, people . Ted stares up at the sky for a few more minutes, wondering if maybe the man will just assume he’s passed out and ignore him. The movement — footsteps — come closer, and he gives up hope of that particular tactic working. 

Soon enough, feet shuffle through the plants beside him and an unfamiliar face comes into view, peering down with a confused, concerned expression. Ted notices his hair before anything else, because it’s long — kinda dark red-blond or whatever the fuck that color’s supposed to be, falling over his shoulder in a ponytail at least a foot-and-some long. What sort of guy has hair that long, anyways? The rest of the face doesn’t match, either — Ted might have expected him to have some sort of soft, effeminate look to go with the hair, but the man looking down at him has sharply angled cheekbones like in some fucking superhero movie, and a thick beard like a lumberjack. Ugh.

That unfamiliar face splits into a smile when he meets Ted’s eyes. “You’re alive! That’s good, would have been pretty awkward dealing with a surprise corpse in the garden. What’s your name?”

Ted resists the urge to roll his eyes, because come-fucking-on. Hatchetfield is not a big enough town for people to not recognize someone like him. He knows his own reputation. “... Ted. Where the fuck am I?”

Super Lumberjack Ponytail Man just grins wider at the snap. “Nice to meet you, Ted. I’m Andy, and you’re in my garden.” When Ted does roll his eyes at that, the man laughs. “Sorry, sorry. You’re a few blocks off Oakley Boulevard. Do you remember how you got here?”

“Wait, Oakley B— I’m in Clivesdale?”

Fucking hell. Alright, that’s enough motivation for Ted to push himself into a sitting position, and Ponytail Superhero-Face immediately braces him with an absolutely unnecessary hand. Man, what’s up with the guy? Finds a stranger passed out in his garden and just goes with it? Ted could be some sort of pervert for all he knows -- well, a gross pervert. Ted knows he’s a pervert and he’s not ashamed of it, but he’s not gonna go hard after anyone who doesn’t want it. He’s not that much of a sleaze. Hit on ‘em, sure, but if someone isn’t responding then that’s their fucking loss.

Lumber-Ponytail’s expression is still amused, as Ted looks around and takes in the plants and relatively cozy urban surroundings. “You think I need to be checking you for a concussion, Mister Ted? I’ve got to warn you, I’m not exactly a medical professional.”

“Ugh, hell no.” Ted grimaces as his back decides to start aching, possibly from however long he spent laying in this guy’s garden. “I’m fine. You got water or something?”

Lumberjack Superman snorts, unfolding back into a standing position and offering Ted a hand up. “Pretty bold of you, but sure — come on in, you want to take a shower too? Toss your stuff in a quick wash, maybe?” He examines Ted wryly, gaze visibly skating over dirt stains and tacky sweat, hovering a little longer on the darker stains splattering his hems. “No offense, man, but you look like a bit of a mess, and I’m pretty sure I’ve got some stuff I could lend you meanwhile.”

Alright, logically speaking, this could be a bad idea. It could also be an idea that Ted hates on principle, because his business is his and not anyone else’s, and like hell he wants to spend any more time than necessary with this random guy. Rationally speaking, however, he is also sore and thirsty and probably smells like death warmed over, and maybe Ponytail Lumber-Man will have a phone charger so he can contact his brother. Newt never lets his phone drop below fifty percent, so no way it’ll be dead. Worst come to worst, maybe he can borrow the landline.

“Sure, if you’re offering.” Good thing Ted shaved yesterday morning, because he absolutely draws the line at borrowing another guy’s razor.

Chuckling, Ponytail Man— ugh, Ted’s running out of things to call him instead of his name, fuck it— Andy leads the way along the stupid rock path up to the back door, pushing it open and gesturing for Ted to follow him inside. The house he steps into is small — larger than his apartment, sure, but smaller than Charlotte’s place by a good shot — and has a disgustingly homey feel. Like, cutesy posters on the kitchen wall and a half dozen knitted blankets piled onto the sofa and chairs homey. Potted plants in the windowsills, mismatched crystals and rocks on the shelf above the sink, and an assortment of photographs and paintings hanging in the hallway that Andy ushers him through to reach the bathroom. It’s sickening, how— how cozy it all is.

Andy leaves him in the bathroom (which looks… clean, full of green and brown accents and with a few weird bundles of dried plants stuck to the mirror), disappearing back down the hall for a few moments before returning with a few folded garments, which he drops unceremoniously into Ted’s arms. “Here, you can borrow these. Green bottle’s shampoo, blue one’s conditioner, yellow is body wash— no allergies, right?”

“Huh? Uh, no.” Ted shakes his head, glancing back at the bottles in the little shower caddie on the wall. Green, blue, yellow. Ugh. “Nope, none.”

“Good — couldn’t hurt to check.” Grinning, Andy gestures to a small wicker basket beside the sink. “You can drop your clothes right in there, and any towels you use — I’ll get a load started once you’re done.” He winks, which— why. “No need to worry about the hot water running out — you could run the shower for hours and be good. Just make sure to turn the fan on while you’re in, to keep moisture from collecting.”

As if Ted’s stupid enough to not do that. He rolls his eyes, makes some noise about agreeing and thanks and whatever, as much as it takes to get the weirdly nice guy to leave him alone. Seriously, what’s his deal?

After one last irritating reassurance, Andy disappears back down the hallway, and Ted hears the sounds of clattering from the kitchen. Dude’s probably gone to putter around and make fucking tea, or some shit. Ted would bet good money he has some weirdass fancy loose-leaf tea, the kind people get all fussy about steeping for five minutes and twenty-three-point-seven seconds, and name something like ‘whispers of golden light’.

Once again, ugh .

The shower, at least, is nice — Ted’s never minded a little grossness but he likes being clean, and the hot water goes a long way towards easing some of the muscle aches from yesterday’s stress. Sure, it can’t quite live up to a nice long bath in his own apartment, but it’s good enough. The shampoo and conditioner don’t smell awful, either. Some weird herbal scent, sure, but at least it’s not the overly sweet floral stuff Charlotte usually uses. Those always make him sneeze, bleh.

When he gets out, dragging a green towel off the rack to dry himself off before putting on the borrowed clothes, the mirrored front of the medicine cabinet is devoid of steam — some sort of weird glass, maybe. Ted wouldn’t call himself vain, but he does care about his appearance — probably more than most of his coworkers, he thinks, remembering Paul’s bland, baggy suits and Mr. Davidson’s everything-decades-out-of-fashion. 

His reflection looks much like it did yesterday, brown hair sticking to his forehead and mustache in need of a little maintenance. Same slightly crooked jaw that people told him for years to get plastic surgery on — hah, as if there was something wrong with it — and his mom’s brown eyes. No sign of the absolute mayhem of the last twenty-four hours.

God, he really needs to figure out how to find Newt and get them home. Charlotte too, if he can, but— well, much as Ted likes her a damn sight more than most of his flings and friends-with-benefits and hookups and whatever else people might call them, she’s also a grown-ass woman who can take care of herself. Might not look it, especially with her fretting and fussing and kitten-covered everything, but Ted knows damn well that she learned how to defend herself and how to handle a firearm from one of her scumbag of a husband’s old coworkers, back before the two of them even moved to Hatchetfield. She’ll be fine without him.

Newt, on the other hand — oh, sure, he’s grown-up, but he’s not even twenty yet. When Ted was Newt’s age, he hadn’t even gotten his mustache to grow in properly. Much as he’s loath to admit it, Newt’s more self-assured than Ted ever was at nineteen — but damn it, that doesn’t mean he’ll be alright out on his own.

Thinking about that part of his life inevitably draws Ted’s mind back to Jenny, and he sighs heavily as he tugs on the borrowed sweatpants — just a little short in the leg, but that’s nothing new when you’re Ted’s height. At nineteen, he’d known Jenny for less than a year — fresh into college and barely sure of anything, she’d been a light of stability and reassurance and companionship in an otherwise unfamiliar sea. She hadn’t cared that his voice still cracked, or that he went home every weekend to help his mom with Newt since their deadbeat dad wouldn’t, or that he preferred playing Pokémon over going to parties. 

Unbidden, a smile twists itself onto his face as he remembers sitting on the couch in Jenny’s apartment, legs criss-crossed as they crowded over his Gameboy together and she suggested names for each new catch. Sure, they’d been adults, but at that age they were adults in the same way that thirteen-year-olds were teenagers. Technicalities, nothing else.

For years, he’d kept that save file in Pokémon Sapphire, untouched without ever finishing the game. The avatar in it had been hers — the girl one, which hadn’t even been a thing in the first version he played — and each pokémon on the team was one she’d named and chosen to keep. Although the player name had been set as ‘Jenny’, the strongest pokémon on the team was an Ursaring named ‘Teddy’. It had been her way of making sure he was included, just like she always did.

No-one had made that much of an effort for him before.

Ted sighs, pushing the memories into the little box in the back of his mind where they belong, and finishes getting dressed before dropping his dirty clothes and the used towels into the hamper and stepping out of the bathroom. After the warmth of the shower steam, the hallway seems a little chilly.

When he returns to the kitchen, Andy looks up from the counter with a friendly smile. “Now that looks a bit better, don’t you think? I’ll go get that laundry started — go ahead and make yourself comfortable, it should only take about an hour.” He gestures to a mug, steam gently rising from within. “I made some tea, if you’d like — decaf, I try to avoid caffeinated beverages if I can help it. Feel free to add honey,” He adds, eyes crinkling at the corners, “if you want a bit more sweetness.”

For some reason, Ted can’t find it in himself to do more than nod as Andy leaves the room. The mug continues steaming, and Ted hesitates for a minute before stepping closer to catch a whiff of the scent. It’s… not bad. Not coffee, and not much like the iced tea he usually got at Beanie’s, but — not weirdly fruity or anything, not too bitter either.

Possibly against his better judgement (or perhaps his well-learned stubbornness), he gives the drink a careful sip. Just a test, of course. Can’t be too careful with a drink from a stranger — not that Ted’s the type to roofie someone, because — again — he’s nowhere near that much of an asshole, but he’s seen it happen enough times at bars to be judiciously wary. And yeah, sure, some guy’s kitchen isn’t exactly the same as a seedy bar at a half hour till midnight, but better safe than sorry. And he also just doesn’t want to like the tea.

Which is unfortunate, because it’s an unfairly good tea. Not entirely to Ted’s taste, perhaps, but good nonetheless — little bit cold like mint, but with a touch of warmth and body to balance it out, and even a little bite that he can feel along the tip of his tongue. Almost a little spicy, but not in the same way that hot sauce is spicy.

He must have been colder (or thirstier) than he realized, because before he knows it he’s taken a second sip, and a third. The smooth ceramic of the mug is warm beneath his hands, and Ted has the vague thought that he can’t remember the last time he had a hot drink in a mug like this, rather than a cheap to-go cup or a glass of some alcohol best served warm. It’s an oddly sobering concept. One that makes him acutely aware again of the fact that he lives alone, and that he doesn’t know where even the few people he’s genuinely close to currently are. Damn it, he doesn’t have time to waste here, drinking some random guy’s tea and wearing borrowed sweats. He needs to find his brother and get the hell back to Hatchetfield.

When Andy returns to the kitchen, Ted sets the mug of tea down and asks, “Do you have a phone charger? I need to call my brother.”

“What kind?”

“Lightning cable.”

Andy makes an affronted face, so exaggerated Ted almost wants to laugh. “Oh, Apple.” He sighs, beckoning with one hand. “Yeah, I’ve got one, my friend always forgets to charge her phone so she left one of her cables here. Still don’t see why she keeps using iPhones.”

Ted snorts, because that’s about the most human Andy’s sounded yet. “What, Apple not good enough for you?”

“Anyone who works in tech can tell you they’re an affront to god, satan, whoever.” Waving a hand, Andy fishes through a bundle of wires lined up beside an extension cord on the lowest shelf of a bookcase, retrieving one with a flourish. “They plan for their tech to go obsolete every year or two like clockwork, they make it just about impossible to repair on your own so you’re forced to go to their stores or just buy new ones, transferring from them to any other operation system is just excessively difficult—”

“You work in tech?”

Andy shrugs with one shoulder, handing the end of the lightning cable to Ted and watching as he fishes his phone out of one of his borrowed pockets. “Sort of. I work in I.T. at the moment, but I’m a bit of a grab bag. Some web design, some sustainable tech, and about half a degree of electrical engineering.” He points up towards the ceiling with a grin. “Installed the solar panels myself.”

Ted mumbles some sort of vague affirmative — ‘huh’ or ‘cool’ or whatever — while his focus diverts to the apple logo lighting up on his screen. A bit absently, he comments, “I, uh, I sort of work in tech too.”

“Oh?”

“I mean, we don’t really do much tech shit, but the department’s called ‘Technical’ so I assume it’s something like that.” Damn, he hates how long it takes the phone to restart from zero charge. Maybe he really should get something with better battery life. “I mean, the whole company’s weird as fuck — who names their business some shit like ‘Coven Communications Research & Power’, anyways?”

Confusion flickers across Andy’s gaze as he leans against the bookcase. “Can’t say I recognize that name, though it definitely sounds off the beaten path. What do you do?”

“Not a damn clue.” Finally, Ted’s screen lights up, displaying the number pad for his passcode. “Honestly, my job is just organizing energy reports, editing files, compiling shit to send off to accounting — at least I don’t work in the call center, that would fucking suck.” After a moment, the rest of Andy’s response catches up to him, and he frowns. “You don’t recognize it?”

“Nope.”

“CCRP Technical, got that bigass main office across the bridge?”

Now Andy frowns. “We’re in Clivesdale, remember? There’s no bridges here — you from across the lake?”

No what—

Ted pauses, before exiting out of the messages app he just opened (nothing new from Newt, damn it) and surreptitiously pulling up a map of Michigan. Look, clearly this guy’s got a screw loose if he just invites a stranger in to use his shower and drink his tea, so maybe he’s not the brightest bulb in the box when it comes to other shit. Like basic area geography.

Google takes longer than necessary to load, the bar across the top of the screen painfully slow, and Ted feels his face twist into some sort of expression as he zooms in on the top result. If he looks right along the edge of the lake — there’s Clivesdale, labeled nice and neat. And in the lake, absolutely nothing. No island, no bridge, no ‘X marks the spot’, no ‘haha, you fell for it, what a great prank’.

There’s no fucking Hatchetfield.

Oh, he is fucked .

Slowly, parsing through the words as he thinks them (which yes, Ted will readily acknowledge is unusual for him), he responds, “Yeah, something like that. I’m not usually in Clivesdale, so I must have gotten lost — had a bit of a weird fucking day yesterday, forgot where I was for a second there.”

“Hey, that’s understandable.” Sympathy replaces the confusion in Andy’s gaze, and he pats Ted on the shoulder — pats him, like some Dad saying ‘good job, son’ at Bring-Your-Child-To-Work Day. “Black Friday’s a time and a half, even here. Anyways, if you want to call your brother, I can go away and give you some privacy.”

Weirdly enough, Ted… really would rather not be alone. “No, you’re fine. It’s just a fucking phone call.”

“Alright.”

Ted swipes away the map and pulls up his contacts, scrolling through the list of names he barely ever talks with to find Newt’s, complete with that dumb picture their mom took at his brother’s high school graduation. All proud and grown-up with his dorky bowtie and suspenders under the blue-black cap and gown, still baby-faced despite being nearly as tall as Ted. Newt hadn’t worn his glasses for the ceremony, claiming he didn’t want them in pictures, even though he hated contacts and had to give a speech as the class’s valedictorian. In the picture on Ted’s screen, his baby brother smiles like the blinding fucking sun.

He hits ‘call’ and holds the phone to his ear, waiting. It rings once, twice— and disconnects in a buzz of static. Something in his face must fall along with his hand, because Andy offers an expression of concern that makes his stomach turn.

“He— uh, his phone must be dead.” Please, for fuck’s sake, let just the phone be dead. Ted’s not the praying sort, no matter that he still goes to Mom’s old church regularly and sits in the back pews wondering why God would ever care about creatures like them, but for just a moment he prays that Newt is somewhere else in the world — safe and sound, and just… with a dead phone battery. Prays that he isn’t here alone.

And if there’s no Hatchetfield, Ted has no apartment to go back to, no bank account to withdraw travel funds from, no CCRP to call in sick to work at…

He is so royally fucked.

Chapter Text

“—Tim!”

Shooting awake, Tom stares at the ceiling until his eyes begin to ache, breathing heavily as the dredges of sleep slowly ease away. One hand grasps the comforter bunched around his waist, work-roughened fingers catching on the fabric. The walls are too small, too close — an apartment bedroom, not the master of the house he and Jane bought when—

He blinks, presses his eyes closed and open. Same room, same walls, same comforter and same quiet.

When he’d woken up yesterday, curled under the covers in an unfamiliar home beside a painfully familiar body, Tom had thought it was just a dream. Thought — ah, this is just a way for his brain to process all of the intense feelings and experiences of the day before. Sorting through all the madness (so to speak) to make it make sense. (Look, he didn’t come out of marrying a psychiatrist without understanding some of that stuff. Jane may have talked circles around him when it came to her profession, but that didn’t mean Tom never tried to listen.)

Now, three days later, he can’t even try to fool himself that that’s the case.

A gentle knock sounds against the doorframe, and Tom pulls himself into a sitting position, turning to look at the doorway. Even in spite of everything that is wrong with the world right now, the face he finds there still brings a smile to his lips. It hurts, but he can’t begrudge her the warmth she brings. How could he ever?

 “Are you alright, Tom?”

Smothering a dry laugh, Tom swings out of bed and runs a hand through his hair. “Fine.”

Becky frowns, the expression tugging at her rosy cheeks as she crosses her arms. Her hair tumbles over her shoulders in a wave of scarlet. “I heard you yelling — was it a nightmare?”

“Ah, no.” He grimaces, pressing fingers to his forehead. Maybe if he does that enough, he can press away the memories of what he dreamed about. The memories of— “Not— not the war, I mean. I— no, it was—”

Wait, what had he been dreaming about, anyways?

The concern on her face softens and she steps into the bedroom, feet quiet across the carpet as she comes to his side. A part of Tom thinks it should hurt, how easy it is to lean into the hand she lays against his cheek, her fingers brushing across too many days worth of unshaven stubble. A part of him wonders how she could slip back into loving him so easily, as though neither of them are damaged souls reuniting just a little too late. If they’d been back in Hatchetfield, the bitter realist within him reasons, it would have taken them months to come back to this quiet understanding, the comfort shared and embraced in silence.

But here, in this modest apartment where Jane Perkins never lived and was never mourned — here, he and Becky fit together like puzzle pieces. This version of his life belongs to her, and a part of him wants to laugh every time he remembers.

If the universe is infinite, he’d said. 

He leans into the soft warmth of Becky’s hand for a moment, breathing in her presence. She smells like his shampoo and pancake batter, and the sweet citrus hand cream she likes to use here. Smells like home, even though one part of Tom has only been dating her for a few months, and the other… 

“Don’t you have work? It’s a weekday.”

Becky shakes her head, smiling with a sort of tiredness that Tom can feel deep in his own bones. “I took the month off for a family emergency — considering that I haven’t had to take vacation hours for the past three years, I’m pretty sure Harry will be happy to give me as much time as we need.”

It still feels funny, having their roles switched. Now she’s the teacher, and Tom’s— well, he’s got his wood shop. “But didn’t you go in yesterday?”

“Well, I did have to get lesson plans set up for my substitute,” She explains, reaching up to tidy his hair absently as she speaks, “And I wanted to check the school registry, since…”

“Lex.” Something in Tom’s stomach twists at that, at the reminder of his student who he so nearly failed — not just failed, but could have destroyed if she hadn’t found her own strength and stood up tall to call him out. Call him on his cowardice. What he and Becky had done to her sister… it was a wonder she’d trusted him to help her at all. “Did you—”

Her shoulders drop in a sigh, expression falling into disappointment. “No. There’s no Alexandra Foster — I couldn’t even find anyone else named Alexandra, so unless she was born with an entirely different name in this world…”

Tom tries not to let his own disappointment show. A part of him had hoped, that first morning when he and Becky woke up to see the same horrified memories in each others’ eyes, that he might at least be able to help Lex and her sister this time. Make up for everything that happened that Friday, get her out of that trailer and into a house with support and care and enough groceries that she wouldn’t need to work double shifts for minimum wage just to keep the heat running. Show them what it meant to have a parent that cares, though he can’t claim to know much about that — anything’s better than what they’ve had , he had thought.

But this is Clivesdale, not Hatchetfield. No sign of the trailer park where the Fosters had lived, not a trace of an Alexandra or Hannah Foster anywhere in the school system. No Jane, not even Emma or whatever her new boyfriend’s name was. Perry?

Nothing.

In a clear effort to keep up some measure of cheer, Becky tugs Tom’s arm gently and steers him down the hall. “Here, let’s have breakfast before we get too caught up. Can’t make plans on an empty stomach.” 

“You don’t have to cook, Becky, really—”

“No, but I’d like to.” With a little more force than he expects, she nudges him towards a seat at the small dining table, flitting around the counter to the stove where a wide pan awaits. “There’s a difference between doing something because someone forces you to, and doing it because you want to offer it to them.”

It’s hard not to wince at the reminder of everything she endured after their first parting, back when they were both so young and naïve, but Tom pushes the reaction down. She doesn’t need his guilt, or pity. 

Tom’s always liked strong women. Not necessarily physically — though that’s hardly gonna be the turn-off for him it is for some guys — but strong in any sense of the word. Jane’s brilliantly analytical mind, so good at knowing exactly what the next step of any plan needed to be, knowing exactly which problem to solve and then solving it. Or Becky’s indomitable heart, the willpower that kept her going through every shitty thing the world threw at her.

How had he ever been so lucky, to love two such incredible women?

(Can he pretend that it’s enough, that the love can fill the absence where— why does he feel like something is missing?)

Out loud, he says, “Well, then, I’ll offer you dinner, how’s that sound?”

Becky giggles, the sound light and clear over the sizzling of the pancake batter she pours into the pan. “Why, Tom, that sounds an awful lot like you asking me on a date. Do I need to go back to my place and put on perfume?”

“Nah, none of that.” The aroma of buttermilk begins to fill the air, and Tom breathes it in like flowers in winter. This beautiful scene — a late morning, quiet and at home with the first-slash-fourth love of his life, a breakfast to eat together and a kind face every time he turns towards her voice — should be enough. Nothing will fade the grief, but Becky — Becky deserves just as much ease and comfort as she brings him. “Nothing fancy — just you and me, a good dinner and one night with no worrying about all this shit. I’ll cook my old man’s lasagna.”

Warmth lights across her face like the sun over the horizon, and Tom watches her cheeks dust pink as she turns away to flip the pancakes with a deft hand. “Wasn’t that the one you nearly burnt your house down, trying to make— what, the first year we were going out?”

“Hey, now, it wasn’t that bad.” In the back of his mind, Tom can hear his father scolding him — can’t leave oils laying around near open flames, though why he’d had oil near the gas burner while making lasagna he couldn’t recall — with that fond, weary tone. Looking back, Tom knows his dad hadn’t been angry in the slightest, just concerned. That’s what dads did. That’s what he—

Stifling laughter, Becky slides the first pancakes onto two plates, pouring more even as the space clears. “Well, you might need to go pick up some supplies for that. I don’t think there’s any meat in your fridge, and I definitely remember some in that recipe. Plus lasagna noodles, and I think you’re running low on—”

“Right, right.” In spite of the strange twist in his chest, Tom finds himself beginning to smile. Breakfast smells delicious, and he’s tempted to get up and start a pot of coffee — but Becky made it very clear where she wanted him, and he has no desire to be anywhere else. Coffee and checking the cupboards can come later. “I’ll run out to the store after we eat, how about that? Give you a break to go back to your place if you’d like.”

“Thought you said I wouldn’t need perfume.” She teases.

“Sure I did. Figured you might want to pick up some of your own clothes.”

A mischievous glint enters her eye as she slips two more pancakes from the pan, heat turning off under one hand as the other reaches for butter, syrup, sugar, fruit — so quick, so sure. “Oh, I don’t know, I’m quite fond of yours.”

And that — that, Tom thinks, is worth a real, proper grin.

Breakfast passes with a sort of comforting quiet that Tom’s sorely missed, both in this life of self-sufficient solitude and in the year of grief following Jane’s death. When he declares firmly that he’ll wash the dishes, Becky insists on standing right beside him to dry them. She dresses in the clothes she wore over yesterday while he rummages for socks and shoes, and hovers over his shoulder as he writes down a list of every ingredient he’ll need for the lasagna. He doesn’t ask if she remembers how his dad made it, the first time she ever came over for dinner — the answer is clear by the laughter in her eyes.

She hasn’t had a chance to meet Richard Houston in this version of the world, yet. Already, Tom wonders over how soon might be acceptable to bring her around to his parents’ house, introduce her as his girlfriend. (It feels a little bit like a betrayal of Jane’s memory, but— his parents wouldn’t know that, would they?)

(Besides, it’s been a while since Tom’s seen them. Last time was— it was the night of the crash, wasn’t it? Why had they been at his parent’s house that day, again?)

Tom and Becky leave the apartment together, and she presses a quick kiss to his cheek before they part ways in the parking lot. Arriving here’s been good for her, he thinks as he climbs into his car (not his beloved mustang — just a reliable old hatchback Subaru, good for groceries and woodworking supplies). Her life in this world, from what little he knows, has been almost unimaginably better than what she endured in Hatchetfield, and it shows in the lightness of her shoulders, the confidence in her stride.

Her life here gave her safety, and the memories she brought over from Lakeside Mall carried courage and resilience. (He can’t help but wonder — if they hadn’t remembered, where would they have gone with only this life to think of?)

The Albertson’s parking lot is empty when Tom pulls in, not unsurprising for the middle of a weekday. He grabs his reusable bags — a habit he picked up from Jane in one world, and from Becky in another — and snags a basket on his way inside. He may have a long list, but none of the items’ll be anything more than he can carry. Part of him, the part that lived in Hatchetfield, wonders at how long it’s been since he’s used a basket instead of a cart. But then again, he was always shopping a lot bigger there. More mouths to feed.

(Did he and Jane really eat that much? Why did he need a big cart for them, anyways?)

There’s not much to do while shopping, so Tom listens idly to the people around him as he browses the aisles, one ear tuned to their conversations while the other grumbles at the tinny music playing over the store speakers. Somehow, no matter when or where he shops, the in-store music seems to always be in the same questionable taste. Too much of that new pop stuff, if you ask him. Lots of electronic noise and auditory glitter.

A pair of teenagers pass him in the pasta aisle, hovering in front of the rice while Tom muses over the different brands available. Shouldn’t they be in school right now? After all, it’s not a holiday or anything now. 

One of their voices catches his ear as he grabs a box off the shelf, and he pauses at the familiar sound.

“—mean, it’s not like he’s doing anything weird, right? Maybe he’s just like, stocking up for the holidays. Post-Thanksgiving sales or whatever.”

“Yeah, but Dad’s never done that before. I don’t know what changed…”

Glancing to the side, Tom watches Grace Chastity roll her eyes, the fingers of one hand hooked around the pop socket on her phone case. Beside her, Alice Woodward picks nervously at her lower lip and frowns down at a wrinkled piece of paper before carefully hoisting a large bag of rice — one of the bulk ones — off the shelf and into her cart. 

In Hatchetfield, he’d never gotten the impression that the girls were friends — though Alice never took shop class, so he hadn’t known her all that well to begin with — but they certainly appear close here, brushing shoulders comfortably as they peer over the list in Alice’s hands. Although a part of Tom wants to greet them, he’s not their teacher here — doesn’t know either of them, between that and not hiring Grace to… 

Unbidden, a scowl crosses his face as he turns to peruse the tomato sauces conveniently located across the aisle. What else did he know Grace from? He remembers her coming to the house a few times at least, mostly while he was out… 

“Um, excuse me, sir?”

Tom tries and fails not to start when Alice turns to address him, waving a hand a bit awkwardly. He takes a (hopefully subtle) breath in and nods to her. “Yeah?”

“Sorry, but— I can’t quite reach the top shelf over here, could you…”

“Oh. Yeah, sure.” He barely registers the item she’s pointing at, stretching up to grab it and pass it into her waiting hands. Grace watches him with sharp eyes, phone tucked away in some pocket as she leans on the handle of Alice’s cart. “You two aren’t skipping class, are you?”

It’s an odd question, he knows, but Alice just grins a bit wryly as she carefully reorganizes the items in her cart. “Free periods are a wonderful thing.”

“Ah.” 

He makes his way further down the aisle, and the girls follow in the same direction, scanning the shelves. After a moment, Grace pipes up. “Hey, you look kinda familiar. Do you know someone named Becky Barnes?”

Tom blinks, glancing back at her. “Uh, yeah. She’s— I know her.”

“That explains it!” She snaps her fingers with a grin. “I saw a picture of you on her phone last time we had cheer practice. Hey, Allie, it’s Miss Barnes’s boyfriend.”

… Right, they would know Becky here. Because she’s an English Lit teacher at the nearest high school. Damn, he really needs to stop getting the differences confused, or else he’ll forget something really important. A little absently, he waves at the girls as they turn in different directions at the end of the aisle, and Grace grins back in a way that says she’ll definitely be teasing her coach at the next opportunity.

Kids.

Overhead, the song that’s been playing ends and another starts, and Tom almost smiles because for once it’s actually something he recognizes. He nods along with the rhythm, letting the guitar and drums filter through his mind as he collects a carton of ground beef, one foot tapping the linoleum floor to the beat.

“When Black Friday comes, I’ll stand down by the door—”

Tom snorts, glancing back over his list as the lyrics play and ignoring the slight ache behind his temples. Must be the bass line, or something. “Someone’s got a sense of humor.”

Come to think of it, he’d planned on listening to Katy Lied in the car on Black Friday, just for that little bit of irony. He’d thought of doing it but then Emma and Parker were late, and then there was that argument before he left, and it just… slipped his mind. Suddenly, the idea of a little humor hadn’t seemed so funny, not after leaving on that sour note. Too busy thinking about...

“—and your total today is— Sir, you okay?”

Huh?

Blinking, Tom comes back to attention and realizes he’s managed to somehow autopilot through the rest of his list while thinking, and now stands in front of a rather gangly, bespectacled cashier who is peering at him in exhausted concern. Clearly either a high-schooler with a part-time job, or a college student… also with a part-time job. Hell, if he hadn’t gone into the army, that probably would’ve been Tom too, so no judgement from him.

The teen stares at him, and he realizes that he needs to respond. “No— yeah, sorry, just spaced for a minute.” When did the song end?

Apparently reassured by his lackluster excuse, the teen rattles off a total that Tom wouldn’t usually spend for a single meal, and he pays for it all without hesitating because Becky’s more than worth the extra effort (and expense). 

One chip reader later and one grocery bag heavier, Tom makes his way back across the parking lot. Even though grocery shopping isn’t physically intensive, an old ache started flaring in his right knee a few minutes back, and he’s looking forward to getting back home and sitting down for a bit before the rest of the day arrives. 

Might even take a bath, he muses, waving back at Grace when she spots him from across the parking lot, where she and Alice are loading bags into the trunk of a clearly secondhand Toyota Camry. Some things just don’t change, apparently.

For some reason, his eye keeps wandering back to the pair as he nestles his single bag snugly against the back of the back seats, watching as Alice turns away to talk to another short girl with brown hair who jogs up to her. Another classmate? Tom can’t tell at the distance, and it’s really not his business either way. Only reason he even knows Grace as well as he does — or, well, did  — was because she was always over to—

What? What was it? Tom presses a hand to his forehead, wincing as the pounding ache there worsens. Why can’t he remember?

As the hatchback swings closed, rubber screeches across pavement and Tom looks up just in time to see two cars collide with each other in the nearby intersection with an awful, ear-rending whine of metal against metal. Cold near-winter sunlight flashes off of the windshields, the dully silver fenders warping with the impact as glass shatters. Smoke immediately begins twisting out from one of the engines. Even at a distance, he can hear the pop-bang of the airbags bursting out, loud as a shotgun. Or is that just his memory, still? The noise won’t stop, even when he covers his ears to block it out.

Through the failed muffling of his hands, he hears one of the girls scream in alarm. Throws out one arm on instinct, even though they’re far away and he’s far away, because he can’t let Tim see something like this again so soon after—

Tim.

Tim.

(The world goes silent, deaf and mute. A smell of oil taints the air.)

Tim .

Tim, his son, Tim his son who is gone, Tim his son who is gone because they left him in the car, Tim his son who is gone because they left him in the car and then the world ended, Tim his son who is gone because they left him in the car and then the world ended and Tom never said goodbye, Tim his son who is gone because they left him in the car and then the world ended and Tom never said goodbye and he failed his son again, Tim his son who is gone because they left him in the car and then the world ended and Tom never said goodbye and he failed his son again.

He failed his son again he failed again failed again again again again again again—

(Tim, god, Tim, where are you, Tim, where did you go, where)

“—om? Tom, hey, Tom!”

(did you go, where are you, Tim, Tim, my boy, my)

“Shit, hold on— damn it, where the hell’s your phone?”

(son, I failed you, Tim, I’m so sorry, where did you go, I’m)

“Tom, Tom, come on, breathe with me. Breathe, come on—”

Words poke through the cotton static filling his ears and Tom gasps for air, gulping at it and then coughing at the taste of smoke. Fuck, he can’t breathe, he can’t breathe this air, he has to get out and get to Tim and—

(lost without you, every time I look around you’re gone and)

“Come on, breathe, you need to breathe.”

He drags in one shaking breath, then a second. A weight on his back that hadn’t been there before shifts, making uneven shapes across his shoulder. Voices are talking around him through water (through smoke, through wreckage and oil and Lakeside Mall up in flames and Tim in the backseat of the car waiting for his dad who never came back and then—)

(I don’t know what to do without you, Tim, I’m so sorry, where)

“That’s good, that’s good. Focus on— uh, focus on me talking.” It’s a woman’s voice — not Alice or Grace, a little more accented and with a harder edge. Unsure. “Focus on— shit, Newt, what should I say?” A pause. “Okay, okay. Okay. Okay, uh, alright — alright, let’s start with focusing on something you can feel. Like, touch feel?”

The entire world feels numb (wrecked metal, torn leather, cold parking lot fire overhead), and Tom squeezes his eyes shut (had they been open).

“The— something. Something on my back.”

(did I leave you? Where did I fail this time, how could I)

“Good, that’s good.” The weight on his back takes more clarity, a hand making slow, hesitant circles across his spine. “Next, uh, let’s do— smell. I know it stinks right now, but— anything else. Uh—”

This is beginning to feel familiar. Not bad familiar. “I— oranges?”

It earns him a laugh. “Can’t pick-and-choose your leftover laundromat detergents, apparently. Awesome, two down, next is— which one’s next? Sound?”

Tom breathes in. Catches another breath of that artificial, citrus-y scent that— yeah, now that he’s identified it, the soapiness of it comes out very clearly. Sound, right, sound. He can do sound. Just take the cotton out of his ears, and—

He winces. “Car alarm.”

(leave you behind, I was going to do better, I swore)

“Shit. Okay, just— let’s just say the sound is my voice, okay? We can just— just focus on that, I’ll keep talking, pretty sure I could out-talk any dumb car alarm if you give me enough caffeine—” She continues rambling, and the voice slowly settles into a cadence that sounds almost… familiar. “Alright, touch, smell, hear, uh--”

Tom knows this. Learned it from Jane, he remembers— “Sight.” His voice rasps, rough and painful along the back of his throat. “I see—”

He looks up to meet a painfully clear, brown pair of eyes. Like his wife’s, like his son’s, the color of this set just a shade darker than the former and a touch warmer than the latter. Like mahogany, like earth.

(that I wouldn’t fail you again, Tim, where)

“... Emma?”

(did you go?)

His sister-in-law offers him a wan, tired smile. Dark shadows circle beneath her eyes, her face bare of makeup and an unfamiliar kitschy sweater peeking out from beneath her baggy green coat. Over her shoulder, Tom can just make out the figure of a tall boy with glasses and a clearly secondhand jacket, peering at a cellphone with a frown. The air still smells like smoke, and Tom forces himself to breathe. Emma breathes with him, in and out.

“Hey, Tom. It’s good to see you again.”

Chapter Text

The more things change , Emma Perkins thinks wryly, the more they stay the same.

New world where Hatchetfield doesn’t exist, where she doesn’t — didn’t  — exist, where she and a classmate she’d barely had a real conversation with before now suddenly find themselves stuck together on the streets — and yet it still manages to find her sitting in Tom Houston’s living room, trying to avoid the sincere concern in Becky Barnes’s wide eyes as the woman hurries back and forth. She pushes mugs of tea into Tom’s hands (still shaking), into Newt’s hands (too pale, because the dumbass refuses to wear gloves), into Emma’s hands that are too distracted to push back.

Emma doesn’t even like tea (much), but hell if she’s gonna refuse a hot drink that doesn’t taste like the cheapest coffee she’s had the displeasure of experiencing. (Somehow, even fucking Clivesdale doesn’t quite manage to make coffee as shitty as Beanies’, but it’s a damn close call).

Nursing the drink, she glances back over at Tom, a frown tugging at her lips at the haggard, worn expression on his face. Sure, she didn’t exactly love him or anything, but he was family, and…

Again, the echo of Becky’s frantic questions over the phone play in her ears, from the tense car ride back. Once they’d gotten Tom mostly through his— his flashback, probably, Emma assumed — he’d all but given in to exhaustion and let her borrow his phone without a fight. When she’d found Becky’s number in the contacts list, plans had slotted into place in Emma’s mind before she even pressed ‘call’.

She hadn’t been planning on finding her brother-in-law in the parking lot — hell, it had been a stroke of luck to even spot Alice  — but Emma knew her strengths, and rolling with the punches had always been right at the top of the list.

Becky had picked up on the first ring, cheerful and sweet in that way that had always stung at Emma’s nerves. “Hey, Tom. Everything alright?”

For a painful, heart-stopping moment, Emma had frozen. What if Becky didn’t remember her like Tom did? What if neither of them did, and Tom was just imagining some other Emma, what if they didn’t realize Emma existed just like the rest of the world? But she’d swallowed hard, glanced back at Newt in the backseat offering Tom his water bottle, and steeled herself before responding.

“Hi, Becky. It’s Emma Perkins — uh, Tom had a flashback or something in the parking lot, and—”

“Emma! Oh my goodness, it’s really you! Oh, thank god you’re there!” Without missing a beat, just like the cheer routines Emma used to scoff at in high school. “We’ve been trying to figure out how to find you since Saturday. You said Tom had a flashback? Is he alright, do you want me to come down and—”

“No, no, I can drive him back, but—” Emma had dropped her voice a bit, because she was pretty sure Tom wouldn’t want to hear her talking about him, “—he’s not super together right now, so I was wondering if you knew his address?”

“Of course! I’ll head out, meet you two there.” Becky had rattled off a street address that Newt just as quickly typed into his phone, pulling up a google maps route. It had taken Emma a few moments to figure out Tom’s car, but with very little delay they’d rolled out of the parking lot — carefully finding a route that steered well away from the still-smoking crash site on the corner — and back to the surprisingly cozy one-bedroom apartment that Tom apparently called home in this life. Becky had met them at the door, ushering them in with a spare key and two bags full of what looked like clothes (???), and… well, that brings them right back to now.

Newt leans against her side, and Emma… honestly doesn’t even want to shove him off. Nothing like spending a few days homeless with someone to really strengthen a relationship. Of course, she still doesn’t know much about him, or he her — but she knows he had an older brother he was close to, around Emma’s age.

Losing an older sibling sucks , no matter that he says his brother was in the parking lot and should’ve come with them. If Emma can make the suckiness a little easier by not being quite as much of a bitch, well.

Apparently reassured by her quiet conversation with Tom (Emma pointedly ignores what is said, even if hearing Tim’s name makes something in her heart clench), Becky sits down with a mug of her own and offers Emma a warm, if visibly strained, smile. “It really is a relief to see you again, Emma. We looked— well, we looked on Facebook, and I checked other socials as well, but we weren’t sure where else to go. How did you—”

Wrestling down the inappropriate urge to laugh, Emma sets her mug on the table and leans back. Fuck, but it’s nice to sit on decent furniture again. “Honestly, it was kind of by accident. Newt and I noticed Alice in the parking lot, and I was talking to her when… well.”

For the first time since the parking lot, Tom looks up at her. “You know Alice?”

Emma snorts. “She’s Paul’s niece. Well, sort of?” When neither Tom nor Becky show recognition, she continues, “Her dad Bill is Paul’s best friend, so back in our world they were basically good as family.”

“And…” Becky’s eyes drift towards Newt, puzzled.

He polishes his glasses, even though Emma’s pretty sure that cloth is dirtier than the lenses at this point. “I used to go to school at Hatchetfield High, before I started college, so I’d had a few classes with Alice. We, uh— we didn’t really get along much, but we didn’t… not get along? So I knew her okay-ish. Didn’t expect her to be blond.”

“Well, that just happened last month.” Becky waves off. When Emma sends her a Look, she smiles and elaborates, “I’m her English teacher. So her father is… was he there, that night?”

She doesn’t have to specify which night she means.

Nodding, Emma reaches for her drink again, relishing the warmth on her tired throat. “Yeah, he was there. So he should be here. I tried calling him, but neither of our phones have been working — like, the browser apps work and shit, but anything that needs an account won’t load at all, and I can’t call or text or anything. Did that happen to you?”

Confusion crosses Becky’s face, and she slowly shakes her head. “No… no, nothing like that, right, Tom?”

“No.”

Okay. Okay, that’s… alright. “So I guess you guys also didn’t wake up in a random parking lot, then?”

The confusion gives way to alarm. “Goodness, no! Oh my god, where have you two been staying the past few days? Are you both alright?”

“Uh…”

“We’ve mostly been on the streets, but it wasn’t that bad.” Thank fuck for Newt jumping in to explain, because Emma has no idea how to respond to the force of good will and genuine concern that is Becky Barnes. “Emma’s very resourceful, and we’ve been fine with food so far.” Yeah, thanks to a decades-long habit of keeping cash on her person even when a card might otherwise do. Street-surfing was bad enough without having to worry about Newt’s blood sugar crashing, especially since she certainly did not have enough money on hand to handle medical emergencies.

Becky presses a hand over her mouth, looking far more alarmed than the situation warrants before Emma remembers that she’d never actually even left Hatchetfield before. “But that’s awful! I don’t understand why you two didn’t just wake up in your homes, like Tom and I?”

“I mean, I’m not entirely sure, but… I guess we just don’t exist here?” Wincing at the bluntness, Emma drains the rest of her tea and takes a deep breath. “Okay, I think I’m going to be going out on a limb here, but… you both know there’s no Hatchetfield in this world, right? Like, no island or anything.”

Tom flinches and Becky nods, distractedly rubbing a hand in circles across his back. Shit, right, flashback because of a car crash… that must have been bad to bring up. She assumes. Since thinking about Hatchetfield probably means thinking about… 

Still, Emma pushes forward. “So, tell me if I’m fucking this up, but both of your families moved to Hatchetfield more recently, right? Like, parents’ generation or something?”

Slowly, Becky nods again, tone thoughtful. “Yes, my mother came to Hatchetfield for work, and my father’s parents moved there when he was young. I think Tom’s parents actually lived in Clivesdale, originally.”

“Yeah, that’s right.” Tom rasps, hands folded around the mug he’s barely taken more than a sip from. “Still do, this time.”

Okay, good to know. Storing the information away, Emma continues with her hypothesis. “So, I don’t know why exactly the island isn’t there, but— I don’t know if Jane ever mentioned, but our family’s been in Hatchetfield pretty much since forever. Like, I’m pretty sure one of the streets was named after my some-fucking-number-of-greats-grandfather. Newt’s in a similar situation, on his mom’s side.”

“We’re not entirely sure,” He pipes up beside her, fingers tapping nervously against the ceramic of his mug, “Since a lot of records have gotten lost. But Mom thinks so.” Behind his glasses, his eyes dart back and forth between Tom and Becky as they both listen with varying levels of attention. “And, um— well, I did some research at the library, once we realized the island was gone, and it looks like it used to exist? The island, that is. There isn’t really any solid story on what happened, but I did manage to find an old newspaper headline about some sort of— well, something destroying an island.” 

He takes a sip of his tea (made with extra honey), clearing his throat. Emma wonders why he’s not mentioning the rest. “From the way the article described it, it sounded like maybe an earthquake, or an explosion — but either way, I think Hatchetfield did exist in the beginning, but then whatever happened to the island…”

“So if your ancestors were living there when that happened,” Becky put together, rubbing her thumb absently across her bottom lip as she thought, “They couldn’t have survived, and then… none of you would have been born.”

Emma grimaces at the reminder. “Yep, pretty much.”

After a few moments of heavy silence, Tom speaks up again. “We, uh— Becky and I, we knew each other here. Haven’t found anyone else, until now.”

“So do you remember living here?” Newt asks, eyes bright and curious. His fingers tap frantically against his mug in a way that just screams ‘please someone give me a pen and notepad so I can write things down’ . Just like in class — what a nerd. (That particular thought feels much less judgemental than it’s supposed to).

They glance at each other, and Emma forces down a scowl at the flashes of affection she can see there. Sure, Jane is nearly a year dead at this point, and sure , her sister wouldn’t want Tom to stay alone out of some undying fidelity, but… it still grates on Emma’s nerves, seeing someone else take Jane’s place like this. Even if that someone else is cheer captain, too nice for her own good, bleeding-heart Becky Barnes.

“Yes,” Becky answers after a moment, mouth twitching into a smile as she turns back to Newt, “Both this and Hatchetfield. It’s a bit like I’ve lived two lives, and both of them feel a little like dreams when I think about them, and then waking up here last Saturday was like… well, waking up for real.”

Weird , Emma thinks, wishing she hadn’t finished her tea quite so quickly.

“Weird,” Newt says aloud, with an expression of almost rapturous fascination, “I wonder what the effect of doubled memories has on the perception of personality, or how it will affect social relationships across the two existences…”

He trails off into mumbling, and Emma huffs and sets her mug back down on the table. “Well, we haven’t found anyone else yet either, though I gave Alice a message for Bill. Hopefully, he’ll remember me enough to take it seriously.” A stir of concern twists at her gut. “I don’t… we’ve been trying to find Paul, and Newt’s brother, since they’re probably both in the same situation as us.”

“Pat— Paul too?”

There’s a not insignificant note of derision in Tom’s voice, but it’s also the most alive he’s sounded since Emma found him, so she swallows down the urge to defend her— whatever Paul is. “His family’s been in Hatchetfield for like, fucking ever. Y’know Matthews Creek that ran through the Witchwood?” Tom nods slowly, brows drawing together in focus. “Yeah, apparently that’s him — Paul Matthews. We’re not sure how the name stuck around that long, but… yeah .”

Becky sits forward, elbows braced on her knees and a swirl of vibrantly red hair tumbling over her shoulder. It’s a little weird, seeing the bright color contrasted against something other than teal nurse’s scrubs — here, the woman’s wearing an undecorated grey shirt and dark jeans under a soft green cardigan, the colors all looking somehow wrong . Fuck, everything since Emma woke up here has felt that sort of wrong. Like even the parts of the world that should be the same… just aren’t , anymore.

Becky’s supposed to be a nurse, Tom is a teacher. Newt is supposed to be her annoying classmate, who insists on visiting Beanies whenever she’s on shift because he knows she won’t fuck up his order no matter how much she scowls — he’s not supposed to be her friend . Or even remotely close.

A warm smile tugs at Becky’s cheeks as the woman looks at Emma. “Well, I think you two should come stay with me, then.”

“Wha— sorry, what?”

Beside her, Newt chokes on his drink, and she pats him on the back absently as Becky giggles — fucking giggles  — and elaborates.

“Well, neither of you have somewhere to stay, right? Tom’s place doesn’t have much room, but I have a house down on 23rd and Erie. Three bedrooms, two baths,” She explains, gesturing to Emma and Newt with unnecessary grace (once again, fucking cheerleader ), “So both of you could have some privacy, if you want. I don’t make much but I’m sure we can work something out when it comes to groceries and utilities.”

Emma blinks, processing. “Uh… why do you have a house like that if you live alone?”

The words sound rude the moment they leave her mouth and she winces, but Becky just laughs again. “Well, I wanted to have a home that my students could consider home as well. So I bought it when I became a teacher, and the spare bedrooms have always been open to guests since.” Something in her expression falls slightly, a somber tilt to her brows as she ducks her chin a bit. “In Hatchetfield, Stanley made sure to cut me off from a lot of support, including financial support from my family. I had to pay for nursing school on my own, paid for our groceries and his beers, covered every month he missed his share of the bills. But here, since I could rely on my family after high school, I was able to afford things I couldn’t have before.”

… Shit. Clearly, Emma missed a lot of information about what happened in Becky’s life while she was off in Guatamala. At least while Emma was traveling, she’d known that if things ever got really dire, she still had a family she could go home to. (Much as she’d loathed the idea of ever setting foot in Hatchetfield again… it was still the closest thing to a home she’d had).

Before she can respond, Newt speaks up. “I’d appreciate that. Not— sorry, not that I’m not grateful for your help, Emma, but I’d really like to stay somewhere with a roof.”

“Shit, dude, so would I.” Sighing, Emma looks at Becky for a few more moments, scanning her expression for any sign of— of what, she’s not sure. Lying? Judgement? Pity?

But no, there’s nothing but earnestness, and what the fuck else is Emma supposed to say to that? “That would be great, if you’re sure. I’m starting to run low on funds, so I can’t pay you back until I figure out how to find a job,” Without any legal identity, what a fucking nightmare, “But once I do—”

Becky waves her off breezily. “Don’t worry about that. I’m sure we’ll figure it all out somehow, and it’s not as though it’s just us. After all, if Tom and I have lives here, then surely some of the others who were there would be the same? You mentioned Alice’s father—”

“Bill, yeah. I mean, if she’s here, he’s gotta be.” Pursing her lips, Emma considers her (vague at best) memories of the night in the parking lot. “And Micah moved to Hatchetfield after I did, so he’s probably somewhere around, doing dance and shit. There were… uh, some of Paul’s co-workers? I mean, Bill, but also Newt’s brother,” Which, yikes, that had been one hell of a realization, “And that woman, Charlie? Char-something.”

A light starts to come back to Tom’s eyes. He sits a bit straighter, meeting Emma’s gaze for the first time since the parking lot — the second one. “Ed was there, too. And, uh— there was that guy with the suit, and the glasses.”

“Oh, yeah, Paul’s boss.” Paul had seemed surprised to see him there, which— well, Emma didn’t know the guy, who was she to judge whether or not that was weird?

Tom shrugs, expression falling once more. “And Lex and her sister. Do you, uh… do you think they’re like me and Becky? Or like—” His face twists, lips thin and nostrils flaring as he chews on his words. “—just, we looked for them too, couldn’t find shit. Becky checked the school records — nothing. Just like you and— and Jane.”

Emma… has no idea who ‘Lex’ is. She glances towards Newt, hoping he’ll have an explanation, and he frowns.

“Lex— uh, like Lex Foster?”

“Yeah, you know her?”

Making a face, Newt starts to shake his head before pausing. “Not really — I mean, we were in the same grade, but we weren’t really in each others’ social circles. Well, I don’t think either of us really had social circles, but— you know. But uh, I think our moms knew each other?” He shrugs, swallowing the last of his tea and setting his mug beside Emma’s on the table. “I know Mom used to talk about the Fosters, sometimes.”

“You, uh, know if she and her sister are like you?”

“No idea, sorry.” 

Tom’s head drops, shoulders sinking, and Emma resolutely pushes down the throb of sympathy in her chest at the sight. Damn it , she needs to figure out how to exist in this world, she doesn’t have time to worry about kids she doesn’t know!

Against her will, her lips say, “I mean, if— if they’re like me and Newt, they’re probably looking for people they know, right? And, uh, if she was one of your students, I bet she’ll look for you at the school?” Okay, sure, Clivesdale has more than one school because it’s not tiny as shit (Sycamore High didn’t make any damn sense even to Hatchetfielders, so Emma refuses to count it), but it’s not that hard to check multiple places. “And, uh, she knows Becky,” She glances at Becky, who nods in affirmation, “So if she finds the school where you work…”

“She’ll be able to find us.” That ridiculous, soft-sweet smile returns to Becky’s face, no weirder when directed at Tom than at Emma. “See, Tom, it’ll be alright. I’ll check some of the teachers’ boards, we’ll save some extra money— they’ll find us.”

Apparently exhausted for words, Tom just nods and leans into the hand that brushes across his cheek. Becky stays there for a moment before standing and gathering up his empty mug with hers. Before she can hook her fingers around the other two, Emma grabs them and stands as well, daring the other woman to tell her to sit back down. She may not like cleaning things, but she needs to do something with her hands, and soon . Emma Perkins was not made to sit still.

Becky just purses her lips in clear amusement, cheeks pushing up and eyes twinkling as she nods and leads Emma around to the kitchen. Behind them, she can hear Newt tentatively asking about Tom’s life here, each question careful.

Turning the faucet on, Becky sets her two mugs in the sink and gestures for Emma to do the same. “I can wash, if you’d like to dry?”

“Fuck, sure.” Emma grabs the dish towel — weirdly soft, for how dull-colored it is — and wraps it around her hands, fidgeting for time while Becky turns back to rinse out the first of the four. “So, uh… I didn’t want to ask with Tom right there, but like… is he okay?”

A weight seems to settle on Becky’s shoulders and her hands slow, pausing mid-scrub. “He… it’s been hard. Things are better for me here, but for him… He lost a lot, Emma.”

“I mean, yeah .” Emma winces at the memory, accepting the mug when Becky hands it to her and carefully wrapping the dish towel around it to soak up the moisture. “First Jane, and now Tim… Fuck, trying to think what it would be like if I woke up and remembered a whole damn life without my sister, it sucks .”

Sighing, Becky reaches past her to open one of the overhead cupboards, revealing a shelf of mugs for Emma to add her dry one to. Returning to the suds in the sink, she nods. “Tom didn’t remember Tim, when we woke up.”

Emma nearly drops the next mug she’s handed, fumbling the ceramic and getting water all over the front of her shirt. “He what?”

“I think it hurt him too much,” Becky explains quickly, cutting off the alarmed demands already forming on Emma’s tongue. Worry draws tight across her face as she carefully wipes down the third mug — the one Tom had used — with a sponge. The mug is emblazoned with a family of cartoon squirrels — two parents, and a little baby squirrel. Emma thinks ‘Peanuts’, before the configuration hits. “So his mind… forgot. It used to happen to me, with Stanley — I still don’t remember a lot of our marriage, a lot of the worst fights, but sometimes I dream about them. And then, if something reminds me too much to ignore…”

Lead settles in the pit of Emma’s stomach. “The car crash by the store. He kept saying Tim’s name… fuck.” Fuck . Fucking hell, fucking Wiggly, fucking whatever that black place was that dragged them away from everything.

Becky just sighs again, waiting with too-kind eyes for Emma to finish drying her mug before passing over another. 

While Emma wipes her slowly moistening cloth across the third mug, Becky looks back down at the silver bowl of the sink, expression somber. “I’ll be honest, I’m worried about him. Tim meant so much to him v I don’t know how well he’ll be able to cope with a life where his son doesn’t exist.”

Emma shivers as a chill of guilt runs down her spine. “I— if I’d just brought Tim with me from the car, when we came to find you—”

“No,” A damp hand rests on hers, the cloth a bare barrier between them, and Emma drags her gaze up to meet Becky’s. For a moment, she forgets how to breathe, because — even though Becky’s eyes are the wrong color, her face completely different and her voice too bright— even in spite of that, for a moment, Emma would swear she’s looking at her sister. “No, Emma, that’s not your fault. You didn’t know any more than the rest of us what was going to happen, you were just trying to keep Tim safe. Don’t blame yourself for that.”

Damn it. Emma bites back the sting in her eyes, managing a jerky nod that gets Becky to turn back away before she does something really embarrassing. They finish the washing in silence, Becky turning off the sink and retrieving another dish towel to dry her hands while Emma wipes down the last mug and puts it away before closing the cupboard. 

From the other room, Newt’s voice carries high and reedy above Tom’s lower tones, energy picking up as he asks about woodworking. Oh yeah, Newt was probably in Tom’s shop class in high school too. Huh.

Emma takes a moment to lean back against the counter and just… breathe. While she knows how to street-surf and coach-surf with the best of them, she’s definitely fallen out of practice in the past year. Being back in an actual house, with people she knows and can trust not to rob her the minute she looks away, almost makes her want to pass out in relief. But she can’t, not quite yet, so she looks back at Becky and tries not to glance away when the other woman immediately meets her eyes.

“You, uh… you really mean it? About letting Newt and I stay with you, I mean.”

Becky’s expression softens, and she reaches out to rest a hand on Emma’s shoulder. A soft touch, not too heavy and not too light — god , Emma misses Paul. “Of course I mean it, Emma. Even if you weren’t Tom’s sister-in-law, I would want to help — but even more because you are.” She smiles, just a bit tight around the edges. “I know you probably hate to hear it, but— I love Tom. Here and in Hatchetfield both. His family is as good as my family, and that includes you if you want it to.”

It hurts, in the empty space Jane left behind, but— “I don’t hate you, you know.”

“You don’t?” The smile twitches into something a bit more sincere. “That’s good to hear. I don’t hate you either, Emma.”

Snorting, Emma scrubs a hand across her face to rub away the last of the stinging. “Thanks. Always great to not have people hate me, I should go buy myself a cake to celebrate or something.”

Becky laughs. “Can I have a piece?”

“Fuck it, sure. Only if you’re okay with chocolate, though.”

“I think I’ll survive.”

Chapter Text

The last time Michael Carraba had set foot in John F. Kennedy International Airport was either two-and-some years ago, when he went home for Leanna’s wedding, or less than six months prior when he and Zoey flew out to Michigan after one of Zoey’s friends told them about a fun small-town theatre that was looking for new talent. Micah hadn’t been as sure about going, but Zoey said the experience would be a great change of pace from the big-city Big Apple, so off they’d gone with Elaine and Goldie and James, taking up three rows of seats and chatting over each others’ backrests the entire time.

Making his way out to Terminal 2 through the massive holidays-are-imminent crowds today, on his own with far too many of his belongings already on their way to the cargo hold, feels like a bit of a betrayal of that memory. His friends should be here with him, but Micah had checked the moment he woke up with memories of another life — he doesn’t even know Zoey or James in this life, and neither Elaine nor Goldie recognized anything he asked them about.

Micah supposes it makes sense, if he thinks about it without getting too sad. He was the only one at the Lakeside Mall on Black Friday — Elaine and James had gone home to visit their families for Thanksgiving, while Goldie’s anxiety made big crowds utterly untenable. Zoey had planned to go with him, but then she’d come down with something and had to stay home, so Micah had promised to get whatever she’d wanted to look for. The Wiggly was going to be a gift for Leanna’s newborn daughter, something that suited his cousin’s fondness for Lovecraftian aesthetics (as evidenced by the many years she’d spent trying to drag him into a Call of Cthulhu campaign with her at every possible occasion). He’d figured he could get that out of the way first, and then move on to the rest of his and Zoey’s lists.

Not that he managed to get much of anything, in the end.

But reminiscing and remorse can’t change what’s happened, so Micah pulls himself out of his reveries and looks for his gate, carefully weaving between a businessman in an ill-fitting suit and a family of five squabbling over snacks to find a seat. The airport isn’t as crowded as it could be, considering that he’s traveling in the middle of a weekday, but it’s still JFK. Micah’s pretty sure hell would have to freeze over for it to be anything close to ‘empty’.

He sits down heavily, letting himself sprawl as much as the crowded seating area allows, and pulls out his phone to double-check the timing on his cab and hotel check-in. Hatchetfield apparently doesn’t exist here — Micah figured out that much during his first frantic google foray — so Clivesdale is the closest he can get. He figures he’ll spend a week there, see if he can find any of the other people he vaguely remembers from the parking lot, and… well, if it really does seem like nobody else ended up here but him, then he’ll pack it up and return to his life.

To be entirely honest, he doesn’t have a good plan yet for what he’ll do if he does find anyone else. Because—  well, because finding others will mean his life is going to be a lot more complicated, and that’s a pretty tall order for the guy who managed to hit Broadway right out of college. In one life, at least.

Most folks don’t usually get two, after all.

Micah pays little attention to the people around him, since there’s only so much people-watching a guy can really tolerate before it just gets same-y, so it’s really not all that surprising that he doesn’t notice the man who sits down beside him. A part of his mind, absently reviewing the google maps route from DTW to Clivesdale, grumbles a complaint at the man having to choose the seat right beside him instead of one a bit further down the row. Yeah, sure, it’s an airport, everyone’s gotta deal with having zero personal space. Still.

“Traveling home for the holidays?”

Glancing up, Micah blinks at the unexpected forwardness. “No— I’m hoping to go see some friends, actually.” Well, it’s not a total lie — he was on fairly decent terms with Emma from work, and he’s pretty certain she was there that night.

The man beside him smiles somewhat tiredly — Micah can see dark bruise-marks under his eyes, even with the heavy-framed glasses getting in the way. He looks just about old enough to be Micah’s dad, with curly hair trimmed to just past jaw-length and a short beard and mustache. His carry-on, set neatly on his lap, is an honest-to-goodness leather briefcase, and Micah wonders absently what’s inside. (His own carry-on is mostly full of electronics, a change of clothes in case his luggage gets lost, and books. Lots of books).

“That sounds nice.” Pale blue eyes flicker down as the man — who looks oddly familiar — fiddles with a silver ring on his left index finger. It’s a very nice ring, an even band set with a few white stones and careful etching. “I’m visiting… friends, as well.”

Micah frowns at the odd pause, glancing back down at his phone. Getting caught up in a conversation wasn’t really his plan, but it feels rude to not respond. “So are you headed to Detroit? Or commuting from the airport to Ann Arbor?”

“To Clivesdale, actually.”

Wow, small world after all.

“So am I!” Micah exclaims, looking back up from his phone and once more being smacked by an odd sense of familiarity. Something about this man— damn it, where has he seen him before? And why does Micah keep expecting him to be in a suit, rather than the admittedly cozy-looking sweater and blazer combination the man sports? “What are the odds?”

That tired smile returns, along with a sigh that might have looked dramatically heavy if it weren’t so sincere. “I wonder. It’s a small town, perhaps we share some friends.”

“I dunno, do you know Emma Perkins?” Micah’s not entirely sure what compels him to ask, but— it’s not as though there’s anything weird about his friend’s name existing. It’s not even a particularly unusual name. And the chances of some random guy at the airport knowing her are slim-to-none, so—

“The barista at Beanie’s Coffee, right?” Something almost warm slips into the man’s expression, while Micah freezes in place. “Not personally, but I know the man she’s been seeing. And small towns gossip.”

Beanie’s existed in Hatchetfield. Now, Micah’s not familiar enough with the area to have any damn clue whether or not there was-or-is another Beanie’s Coffee in Clivesdale, but he’s pretty sure that if there is, Emma wouldn’t be caught dead working there. She’d mentioned to him once that she’d just come back to town recently, no college degree or employment history to speak of, and Beanie’s had been about the only work she could find. Clivesdale, being a much bigger city, would have given her at least a few more options. 

He stares at the man, desperately trying to place his appearance. “You— were you one of them? There, in the—”

Just a simple, slight nod, one hand held out for Micah to shake numbly. “Ken Davidson.”

“Mi— uh, Michael Carraba. Most folks just call me Micah, though.”

“Nice to meet you, Micah. Properly.” The man— Ken— draws back, running a hand through his already somewhat disheveled hair. “Sorry for approaching you like that. I thought I recognized you, but— well, everything as it is, starting out straight would have been a bit much if I turned out wrong.”

Micah shakes his head slowly, finally piecing together a few flashes of memory. “No, uh, it’s fine, I get it.” A man, standing behind him in the dark and cold, hands pressed together in a fervent prayer. Hatchetfield had been a majority Christian town so the sight hadn’t been all that strange, but religion and Micah had, historically, maintained a bit of a tenuous relationship, so he’s pretty sure he’d done a double-take nevertheless. Either Ken doesn’t remember, or didn’t notice, because Micah gets the feeling that might’ve actually been a little rude on his part. Whoops.

“So, where are you coming from?” Ken asks, leaning back in his seat. He fiddles with the ring around his finger, twisting it one way and then the other, almost without thought. “In this— in this one, that is.”

A small bubble of pride swells in Micah’s chest, and he can’t help but grin. “Broadway, actually. You know the show Hadestown?”

“I think I’ve heard of it.” Something energetic sparks in the older man’s eyes, and he cracks a smile. “The Broadway cast?”

“I mean, it’s just the ensemble, but yeah.” Which, come on, that’s still majorly cool, and a part of Micah preens at the impressed face Ken makes because hell yes, he’s proud! “I’m hoping they’ll keep me on for the cast recording— well,” He amends, “I was hoping that. Not sure what I want now, y’know?”

Ken huffs, the exhale so soft it’s almost a sigh instead. “I understand that.”

“So, uh—“ Come on, Micah! You’ve got tons of friends, you can carry one awkward conversation with a guy who went through the same freaky world-swap as you! “—what about you? In this one, I mean. You, uh— you do business? Just—“ Ken looks at him in clear confusion, and Micah scrambles to gesture to his lap. “—y’know, briefcase! Since you’ve got a briefcase, and I thought— oh, man, that’s pretty stereotypical, though, I’m sorry—“

Ken laughs, cutting off Kicah’s rambling with a slight shake of his head. “No need to apologize. I was a businessman in— in the other, so I’m afraid I’ve just gotten too used to the trappings. I’m a grant-writer for Vassar, up in Poughkeepsie.”

“Pough— sorry, where?”

Amusement flickers across Ken’s face, beneath the glasses and beard. “Poughkeepsie — a bit north of New York City, further up the Hudson. I work at Vassar College there.”

Micah shrugs. “I only came up here for the stage, so I don’t know much about the rest of the state. So, a grant-writer?” Logically, someone has to do it. Micah’s just… honestly, not entirely sure what the ‘it’ is to do, in this case. “What’s that like?”

“Mm, it has its ups and downs.”

Considering Micah knows nothing about what that might entail, he takes the response as it is and just nods along. “That makes sense. Uh— so, what was your— y’know, the other one, what was that like? I mean, mine was pretty boring, but it’s only really been different for a few years and since it sounds like you were there a lot longer…”

Alarmingly, Ken’s eyes go misty at the question, and he glances back down at his hands. “I— yes, I’m sure I was.”

Crap. C’mon, Micah, backtrack for your life. Don’t make the dude cry, this is already awkward enough without a man old enough to be your dad crying at you. Think of something else to talk about — something Hatchetfield-y, but fun! That shouldn’t be too hard… right?

Uh…

“Timberwolves or Nighthawks?”

Well, at least the way Ken squints at him doesn’t look as sad anymore. “Come again?”

“Uh—“ Don’t choke, Micah! Just like on stage! “—which one do you like?”

“Are those animals? Or sports teams?”

Micah snorts, and feels some tension seep out of his back when Ken smiles at the sound. “The latter, I think? Honestly, I’ve got no idea, but Emma was always super gung-ho about ‘em so I heard about it all from her.” He grins at the memory. “Made the closing shifts way more interesting, I’ll tell you.”

Chuckling, Ken folds his hands around the handle of his briefcase and leans on it. “So you worked at Beanie’s as well, then?”

“Yup.” Micah glances up at the screen above their terminal — oh, boarding starts in about fifteen minutes, better make sure he’s got his pass and ID. As he fishes them out, he adds, “It’s been pretty cool — my roommates here were all real impressed that I could make fancy coffee, all of a sudden.”

“I can imagine.” Something in Ken’s eyes glitters — not tears, but mischief. “You know, if you worked at Beanie’s, you’ve probably also met Paul.”

“Paul?”

“The man Emma’s been seeing.”

Recognition clicks and Micah lets out a startled laugh. “Oh, yeah, him! ‘Black coffee, nothing in it, no cream, no sugar’ Paul — yeah, I know him. Dude gave me the stink-eye once when I was practicing some choreo while cleaning.”

Ken’s lips curl into an amused grin. “He’s not much of a fan of song and dance. It’s earned him a bit of a moniker around the office.”

“Oh, really?”

‘The Guy Who Doesn’t Like Musicals’.” Ken enunciates, slow and careful, and Micah does his best not to cackle because— oh man, that totally sounds like the exact kind of weirdo that Emma would end up liking. Equal parts chill and bitchy, just like her.

(Which is a compliment, to be clear. Micah hasn’t met a single decent person who doesn’t have a little bit of bitch in them. Just gotta wait to see what brings it out.)

The mention of an office catches on something else in the back of his memories, and he asks, “Wait, so, you and black coffee Paul worked together?”

“I was his boss, so yes.”

“Does that mean you also know fuckin’—“ Oh, shit, should he not swear? He probably shouldn’t swear. “—uh, the guy with the porn ‘stache? Always gets a chai iced tea, which we don’t actually have on the menu? Constantly hits on the girls while they’re working?”

Ken exhales in an amused huff. “Ah, Ted.”

“Honestly, I always just stole some of Nora’s — that was our boss — some of Nora’s decaf tea bags for his drinks,” Micah admits, because it’s not as if she’s going to suddenly appear and ream him out for it. “Don’t think he even noticed.”

“I’m sure there are some folks at CCRP who would thank you for your efforts, if they were here.” Chuckling, Ken leans back and glances up at the screen.

Micah rolls his eyes, and then wonders if maybe that was too casual. “Would’ve thought you’d want him productive.”

“With Theadore Spankoffski,” Ken intones solemnly, “less is more.”

Aw, man — he can’t help it, he cracks. Buckling over, Micah cackles with laughter that definitely draws more than a few startled looks, because holy shit that was totally golden, and the way he said it so seriously— “Damn, man, you ever— you ever thought about going into comedy? That was great , holy—“

Smothering his own quiet laughter behind a hand, Ken shakes his head. “I’m afraid not.”

“He was really that bad?”

“Well, I’m not one to speak i’ll of my employees, past or present,” Ken muses, “But I’m certain many of CCRP’s female staff appreciated him more when he slept on the job than when he was awake and busy. I suppose I shouldn’t condone that sort of work ethic, but…” 

“Hey,” Leaning back, Micah wipes a few tears out of his eyes, unable to stop himself from grinning, “less complaints that way.”

“Precisely.”

Ten minutes till boarding, according to the screen. Micah’s not priority boarding, so he’ll have a little more time. He lets himself sink against the back of the seat, breathing out slowly and carefully to calm his diaphragm before hiccups can start. As his mind clears, a thought occurs — “Hey, weren’t they there, that night? Emma, black coffee Paul, decaf Ted…”

Ken checks the screen as well, nodding. “They were. I—“ He hesitates, expression falling once again, “—I wasn’t able to contact most of them, after waking up here. I reached Bill — another coworker, I think he likes caramel?”

“Oh, is he the caramel frappe one? Sometimes Paul gets an extra drink.”

“That’s probably him.” 

That’s… kinda sweet, honestly. “Cute.”

Ken’s smile makes a brief reappearance. “I suspect his daughter introduced him to the flavor. He— I was able to call him, but neither of us could find any of the others.”

He pauses, and Micah leans in a bit. “But? I hear a ‘but’ in there.”

The slightest twinkle lights up the older man’s eyes, almost hidden behind his glasses. “Two days ago, Bill called me and told me his daughter had brought home a message from a short woman with brown hair.”

“Emma?”

“We think so.” Over the speakers, a polite voice tells everyone that the flight will begin boarding soon, and to please have identification and boarding passes ready. “And yesterday, he got a voicemail from a library phone number — he says it was rather staticky, but he’s fairly certain it was Paul, and some of the others.”

Micah’s never been so happy to hear about people he’s never spoken to in his life. “They made it?”

“It sounds like it, thank God.” Ken’s expression falters for a moment, and he twists the ring around his index finger with a far-off gaze. “As far as we— Bill and I— can figure, it’s only those of us who were together that night. It sounds like Emma’s found someone named Newton, by her note—“

That name sounds familiar. “Oh, yeah! Hot chocolate boy!”

“Hot chocolate boy?”

“He’s one of Emma’s classmates, back at HCC — er, was ,” Micah corrects himself. “I think he’s diabetic or something?”

Ken nods in understanding. “And Bill thinks Paul was with the two girls.”

“Oh, the one that was singing?”

It feels weird to say, but— if Ken’s here, that means he must’ve experienced the same thing Micah did. That unnatural cold, and endless darkness like the expanse of space without any stars, and the two voices that had filled the air with words he can’t recall as anything but indecipherable static. Whatever that had been, it brought them all here — to this life, or this version of life. And he’s not sure how he knows, but Micah’s certain that it was the smaller girl — the one in the overalls and the stained flannel — who had been singing.

And the certainty is only bolstered when Ken nods again, slower this time. “I… presumably, yes.”

Around them, other passengers begin gathering their belongings and heading for the line as boarding opens up, and Micah stands from his seat with a back-popping stretch before offering Ken a hand. They both take a moment to reorient, brushing out wrinkles and arranging bags, before making their way to the queue.

As they stand in the line, Micah wonders aloud. “So, do you know who else might’ve come? Emma’s the only one I really knew, so…”

“Hm.” Ken rubs at his beard thoughtfully. “Aside from Bill, Paul, Emma, the girls… you and I, of course, and I assume ‘Newton’ as well.” That tracks. “Ted and Charlotte — another employee, I don’t think she went out for coffee much. Then… oh, Ed Masterson was there, I believe.”

“Who?”

“The man with the pet squirrel.”

“Ooh, squirrel dad Ed. I know who you mean now.”

“He certainly was a bit infamous, wasn’t he?” The line creeps forward, and Micah checks one more time that he’s got all of his things in order as Ken continues. “Other than that… there were those two in the middle that I didn’t recognize. The woman in scrubs, and the man with the watch.”

Oh! 

… Oh. 

“Scrubs is Becky Barnes. I, uh—“ Oh, that’s gonna be real embarrassing if he runs into her again. “—I met her that morning. She was behind me in line.”

Ken makes a noise of understanding as they approach the gate. “And the man?”

“Not sure,” Micah admits. “I think Emma knows him, but he’s never come by Beanie’s so I don’t know his name or anything.”

Sighing, Ken turns away for a moment to give the attendant at the gate his pass and ID, and then waits politely a few paces ahead as Micah does the same. Once they’re both moving again, he states, “Well, one way or another, I expect we’ll find out.” And then, changing subjects, “What’s your seat number?”

It would’ve been nice if they wound up seated together, but alas — Micah’s booking, 20E, puts him about halfway down the plane from Ken’s 11C, and he’s not about to go ask some stranger to trade seats just so he can keep hanging out with — well, a guy he barely knows who also survived the craziest Black Friday of their lives that only they remember. The flight’s not that long, though, and he does still have those books in his carry-on.

Once they reach row 11, Ken pauses and turns back to Micah with a smile. “What do you think about meeting back up at the baggage claim, once we land?”

“Sounds like a plan to me.”

The smile tugs just a bit wider, and Ken offers a hand that Micah shakes firmly, with every memory of ‘how to shake hands so that people will hire you’ playing on a sudden loop in the back of his head. Which seems kind of ironic, since…

Well, if they’d ever shaken hands in the other life, a job interview would’ve been as likely as anything else.

Man, that’s weird to think about.

Ken shifts into his seat, ducking under the overhead compartments so Micah has room to move down the aisle, and offers one more wave before getting settled. As Micah makes his way to the back of the cabin, he wonders at how all of it — all of this — manages to feel so damn different , while also not really feeling that strange at all. He just spent at least half an hour chatting with a guy he would have had practically nothing in common with — in this life or the other — but because they share that experience of both, suddenly, it clicked.

Is that what it’s gonna be like once they find the others? That weird sensation of ‘not knowing, but also knowing better than anyone’? 

… Well, Micah figures if it does, maybe that won’t be so bad. He’s always been pretty good at making friends, after all.

A few more certainly can’t hurt.

Chapter Text

A fact: Paul Matthews has never been homeless before — not exactly surprising, for a man who went from his parents’ house to college housing to an apartment to go with his post-graduation office employment, all without leaving town.

Another fact: after over a week of hoofing it, trying to make do with what little he and Lex collectively had in their wallets, Paul can confidently say that he does not like being homeless.

A third, though certainly not final, fact: the ease with which Alexandra Foster takes to being homeless is something Paul likes even less.

Though he’s sure it might surprise many of his erstwhile classmates and various other Hatchetfield residents, Paul does, in fact, care about other people. He is not lacking in empathy, despite what his high school Health-and-P.E. teacher commented during parent-teacher conferences his Sophomore year — rather, the truth is simply that Paul is not much of a giver. Prioritize your own stability and self-preservation, and if you’re not among the tax bracket that has More Than Enough disposable income-and-time, that self-preservation will look like callousness or selfishness.

Paul tries not to care too much about the fact that most of the people in his life probably think of him as a selfish man. Perhaps he is, to a degree — but it’s a degree that keeps his life running, regular and routine and reliable. No shame in that.

But he’s splitting hairs. The point is, despite his potentially perceived selfishness, Paul does , in fact, care about the well-being of others — particularly those in his personal sphere. He cared about Bill’s divorce and his love for his daughter, he cared about Charlotte’s well-being as her marriage seemed to crumble piece by piece — he didn’t mind when Mr. Davidson told the office every day about his wife, or even when Ted joined him on coffee runs and attempted conversation that was awkward even to Paul .

(Of course, it goes without saying that he cared about Emma too. Cares , present tense is still appropriate, Paul is fairly certain a meteor could strike the earth tomorrow and he wouldn’t stop caring about her.)

To the point, though — after nine days that feel like a month on the streets with Lex and Hannah Foster, Paul is pretty certain that he cares about them now, too. Which means that he most certainly cares about the fact that Lex takes to sleeping on park benches and the uncomfortable booth seats of the only 24-hour cafe they’ve found like a fish to water. Little Hannah has a harder time, but even she handles it with far too much understanding for Paul’s taste.

However these girls lived, back in Hatchetfield, it is not very certainly Not Good Enough in Paul’s opinion. Not with the way Lex patiently rations their food, as they try to spend as little each day as they can, or the way Hannah barely blinks twice at her sister’s suggestion of using the fountain in a city park to scrub some of the dirt and blood out of her oversized (hand-me-down) flannel.

Not with the way they both not-so-subtly try to look out for him , even though he’s more than twice Hannah’s age (good God, she’s thirteen) and certainly well enough above Lex’s to be the adult in this situation!

Well, supposedly. 

Honestly, for all the time he’s spent with Alice over the years, Paul’s never really felt like much of an adult when it comes to kids. He just — never knows how to treat them. Like young children who respond best to positivity and straightforward, simpler statements? Like little adults with the same minds and thoughts and just smaller, less mature bodies? There’s no pattern for how children work, teenagers in particular. No rulebook or pre-approved course of action that Paul can be assured in the reliability of.

So when Lex shakes him awake, the ninth day after arriving in Clivesdale, and pushes their shared water bottle into his hands, Paul really doesn’t know what else to do but accept it. Hannah’s already sitting on the bench by his feet, fiddling with the picked-clean wrapper of what must’ve been her breakfast today. Lex insists on making sure Hannah has enough food, even if it means she and Paul eat less, and he’s certainly not about to disagree with her. 

If anything, he should be insisting that she eat more than him, right?

That… that would be the mature, responsible, caring thing to do, wouldn’t it? Which he always thinks, and goes to argue, and then quails at the far-too-stern look in her eyes. Every time.

Emma would have a good laugh at him, if she saw it — Grown Man Paul, being repeatedly stared into submission by a teenager. That’s just the sort of thing, he muses as he drinks just enough water to wash the taste of sleep from his mouth before re-capping the bottle, that would really amuse her. 

God, he misses her. 

She would know what to do, about so much of this — about not having a home or a bed or a change of clothes (the trials and tribulations of backpacking, she’d told him on their second date), or about how to deal with two girls far too grown up for their lived years. Emma— Emma would be better at relating to Lex, would be able to talk to her about smoking or Hatchetfield High or about Being A Sister. She’d know how to find that balance, between treating the kids like kids and treating them like people .

“Thinking?”

Hannah’s voice disrupts the melancholy train of thought and Paul forces a smile, shaking his head to brush off the last of the feeling. “Just about Emma. She— you’re sure she’s here?”

Wide eyes blink at him, just once, before Hannah nods. “Second Sister — new soul, came with us.”

“And your buddy — uh, Alice’s dad,” Lex pipes up, capping the bottle after her own swig and beginning to re-pack her beat-up backpack, “He said he heard from her, didn’t he? She’s probably fine.”

Right.

Right.

“Right.” Paul sighs, standing and stretching. He’s never been one for athletics but you work in an office all day, you’re bound to google good stretches at least once, and his spine’s not getting any younger. “Speaking of which, we should probably start heading towards the church.”

Snorting, Lex shoulders her bag and offers her sister a hand. “Can’t believe we’re meeting at a church, of all places. Just thinking about gods right now… yeesh.

She’s talking about Wiggly, again. The past week has been… disturbingly informative, for Paul, as the sisters have told him in bits and pieces about what actually happened on Black Friday. The haunted look in Lex’s eyes as she’d described the events that lead to her and the General’s gun… it’s horrifying, just to think about.

Paul didn’t know Sherman Young, or Ethan Green, and he only really knew of Linda Monroe in the same way the whole neighborhood will know of the one dog that makes a racket at 3 in the morning. But none of them — nor anyone else who was in that mall, the homeless man or the Man In A Hurry or any of the other bodies the girls had mentioned scattered throughout the building — deserved to die like that. None of them.

If it had someone he knew…

Well, no use thinking something like that. If the— he can’t believe he’s even thinking this— if the spider is right, then everyone he really cares about is here. He just has to find them.

Small, cold fingers wrap around the side of his palm, and Hannah gives his hand a light tug. “Ready to go?”

“Ah—“ Beside her , Lex raises an eyebrow, a silent question that Paul doesn’t dare refuse. “—yeah, of course. We’ve still got the map, right?”

“Yup, right here.”

She fishes the folded-up booklet from the pocket of her hoodie — the pocket where the gun had been, although they decided it would be safer in her backpack for now — and passes it to Paul, who does his best to flip it open with one hand since Hannah seems reluctant to let go of the other. After talking to Bill yesterday, he’d tried his best to find somewhere as close to the church as possible to camp out for the night, but finding a place where they wouldn’t be bothered by police had still pushed them a good half-hour, maybe an hour’s walk. Clivesdale really was far too big for Paul’s taste — no city should be so large that an hour doesn’t get you from basically one end to the other. Absolutely unnecessary.

But, then again, the walk will give them something to do that isn’t loitering in front of a church for an hour, so maybe he shouldn’t begrudge the distance that much. Plus, Hannah seems to enjoy it, judging by the way she looks around the streets and buildings they pass with those wide eyes and the faintest hint of a smile.

Lex, who’s probably been to Clivesdale more than Paul, points out a few locations along their way. Judging by their surroundings, she likely isn't telling Hannah the real reasons she knows them, but Paul’s not gonna give her trouble over it. 

These kids have been through enough.

While Hannah and Lex take in the city, Paul keeps his focus on the map. The very kind lady who’d helped them at the library had written in additional directions after he mentioned they were new in town, but that doesn’t change that it’s been a long time since he’s actually had to use any sort of paper map. After all, he’d only ever been in Hatchetfield, and his phone could always fill the gaps in his memory. Now, with neither of those things, it takes more focus than he’d anticipated to track the right turns and street markers.

Following the library lady’s notes, he steers them down a narrower side-street to avoid some sort of construction — looks like maybe a sewer line repair, or something, blocking off an entire city block — and the space funnels what was previously just a cool breeze into a sharp wind that bites his eyes and throws Lex’s hair in her face no matter how she tries to push it back.

Hannah shivers, and Paul reaches for the collar of his sweater without thinking. She’s small, he’s tall, it should fit— oh, nope. Nope. Nine days without a change of clothes does not a good scent make, and he’s definitely stress-sweated through his base shirt more than once. No way is he gonna make anyone else wear that.

Instead, he tugs off his scarf and drapes it awkwardly around her shoulders. When she catches sight of the motion, Lex snorts softly and reaches over to help tuck it into place properly. 

Between the two of them, they have one pair of free hands, and manage to get the scarf wound up something halfway close to proper before they make their next turn onto a larger street. The wind dies down, in the open space, and Paul almost wonders if maybe it was really just some pointless action — but Hannah smiles a little wider and burrows her chin into the folds of fabric, and that’s okay. That’s okay. 

Gradually, the streets shift from hanging signs and tall storefront windows to something more urban, more comfortable. Still nothing like the quiet of Hatchetfield, but… closer, perhaps. Bill’s church here is actually smaller than the one back— back home, apparently. Then again, Hatchetfield wasn’t big enough to need more than one church of any denomination, while Clivesdale is certainly a size for extraneous shit like that. So really, it’s probably a good thing that even in a world without Hatchetfield and without Paul and their friends and— without everything that was their lives before— Bill is still the sort of person who appreciates a little community over something big and grand.

Well, to a degree. With churches, yes. With musicals… ugh. (Trying to compete with Sarah there had never worked out well for anyone — not Bill, not Alice, and not Paul whenever he inevitably wound up helping with the aftermath. Bill is his best friend, yes, but Paul could have gone a lifetime without another Disney musical.)

(At least Bill hadn’t made him go with them to Mamma Mia.)

Another turn brings them to what looks like a public park, larger than just about anything they had in Hatchetfield — at least within the city proper. Letting go of their hands, Hannah runs ahead to spin in a circle underneath the trees, a mixture of bare branches and heavy evergreen boughs that match the twigs and debris coating the grass underfoot. As Paul and Lex catch up with her, she tilts her head back to look up at the foliage, expression solemn.

“What’s wrong, Banana?”

Turning to look at her sister, Hannah frowns and shakes her head — a short, sharp little gesture. “Feels too empty. The trees don’t—  there’s nothing in them.”

“What would be in them?”

Oh! For once, Paul knows the answer to— to this, to whatever it is that Hannah is connected to. “You mean they’re not like the Witchwood, right?” When both sisters stare at him, he swallows down the instinct to deflect away from the subject and continues, “I don’t— I don’t know much, but my parents used to tell me old stories about the Witchwood. I guess one of— uh, one of my great-great grandparents was a groundskeeper for the forest, at one point? Or some number of greats, anyways, I don’t remember how— how far back it was. So we had all these old family stories about— about tree-people, and the forest witch, and all that.”

Lex blinks, slow and puzzled. “... You mean you believed that stuff?”

“Oh, no, not at all.” As a child, Paul had always rolled his eyes and assured his parents that no, he wouldn’t go into the Witchwood alone, he didn’t even like forests. Too many weird textures everywhere, too unfamiliar. “But I mean— after all this, it’s kind of hard not to think that… well, maybe there’s something to it. I— is there? I mean, was there?”

“Uh-huh.” Nodding, Hannah turns to look back up at the trees, in all of their public parks glory. “That’s where they sealed the Muck-Witch — the tree-people did. The hatchet-men planted them, so they would keep her there for a long time.” She scuffs a foot against the ground, kicking up a few twigs. “Talked to me, sometimes. Like Webby.”

Something in Lex’s eyes softens, and she reaches down to take her sister’s hand once more. “You’re feeling lonely without them, aren’t you?”

“Mhm.”

Okay, very heavy moment. Paul is really not prepared for heavy moments. Gotta think of something to say, some sort of diversion that will bring the mood up so that these kids can go back to being like kids— “Well, they’re not trees or— or spiders, but I think I can see the church just past the park, and Bill and Alice both love talking.”

He offers Hannah his hand once more, and she wraps her fingers carefully around it. With a last, lingering look at the trees, she turns and lets them set the pace onward to the church across the street.

In the end, their timing is still a little off — not surprising, when Lex’s phone died four days ago and Paul’s own just yesterday, having held out just long enough for him to write down his contacts on a sheet of library printer paper in case anyone other than Bill could be reached — and they arrive at the church’s doors with probably another fifteen minutes or so before the congregation lets out. Approximately. (Paul’s always been pretty good with tracking time, when he’s not too stressed — the phone is useful for the stress times, but he’s doing already today and the last church bell he heard was somewhere between a half hour and an hour ago. Average it out, you end up with fifteen minutes until 9am, when Bill said the Sunday Mass would end.) 

(Approximately.)

Lex eyes the building — which honestly looks rather nice, not too new or ostentatious — with no small amount of apprehension, and steers their little group towards the low wall between the church’s lawn and the adjacent parking lot. While she and Hannah sit down, Paul keeps himself standing, eyes fixed on the closed doors at the top of the steps.

What if he doesn’t recognize Bill? What if— what if Bill in this world is so different, Paul isn’t able to see his friend beneath the skin anymore? Or worse — worse, what if Bill doesn’t recognize Paul? Or what if he’s disgusted by— well, by all of the grime and wear of the past nine days, if nothing else?

If he turns them away… if he turns them away, where will they have left to go?

Paul’s family had lived in Hatchetfield since before their memories could retrace. Without Hatchetfield, any hope of finding a single relative in this new world is… well, there isn’t any hope of that, really. 

The list of phone numbers and names, folded and tucked into his pocket, weighs heavy as a stone. Bill’s number working for that borrowed library phone had been nothing short of a miracle — and miracles don’t happen twice. He has no way to find Emma, no chance to find Ted or Charlotte or anyone else who was with them that night. If Bill can’t help them… they have nobody.

A hand — Hannah’s, for sure — tugs at his, and Paul shakes the morbid thoughts from his mind just as the church doors slowly open and a familiar face looks out.

Paul stares  — probably gapes too, entirely undignified — because it’s not Bill, but—

“Paul?”

How?

“I— Mr. Davidson?”

Behind him, Lex makes a soft noise, but Paul can’t begin to parse out what it might mean because his boss is there, wearing a blue sweater and a blazer and half-jogging down the steps towards their small group. His hair— holy shit, why is his hair so short? Back in Hatchetfield, it was down to his shoulders at least, totally would’ve gotten him in trouble at the office if he weren’t the boss of said office, but here it’s— it’s barely past his shoulders, that’s so weird. If Mr. Davidson isn’t wearing suspenders, and his hair is short, what— god, what is Bill going to look like? What if he has a huge beard?

Best friend or not, Paul’s not sure he’ll be able to keep his composure if Bill comes out of that church looking like one of those dwarves from the Lord of the Rings. That might just be the last straw on the hysteria dynamite that is their current situation.

Slowing as he reaches the wall, Mr. Davidson makes an aborted motion to do something with his glasses — fix them, clean them, who knows — before smiling just a little wryly.

“Just Ken, now. It’s— Bill said you called him, but I hadn’t believed…” 

Well, that much, Paul can sympathize with. “My, uh— my phone wasn’t working, after I got here. Couldn’t reach anyone until the library let me borrow theirs for a bit.”

“Goodness.” Ken sighs heavily, before his eyes flicker past Paul and something in his face goes soft in a way Paul’s only ever seen when he talks about Carol. “And these must be Lex and Hannah, then?”

One of the two says something in response, but— the sound turns to fuzz and cotton in Paul’s ears, because more people are coming out of the church doors now and on the steps— on the steps, suddenly— a button-up and a burgundy cardigan (and no sign of a dwarf beard)— curly dark hair that’s longer on top and a head turning from side-to-side because he’s looking, he’s looking and so is the tall girl beside him, and—

Hannah pushes at the back of his hand, and Paul leaves the wall at something just below a run. On the steps, Bill turns once more and beams far too bright for a nearly-winter day.

“Paul!”

“Bill!”

His best friend meets him at the bottom of the steps, arms wide open as Alice follows curiously in his wake, and Paul barely hesitates before reciprocating the offered hug with as much strength as he can muster. Belatedly, he realizes that he probably smells horrible and it might be kinda impolite to just foist that on someone — but Bill returns the embrace with just as much vigor, holding on long after they would have normally let go and returned to their comfortable, awkward camaraderie.

Something in Paul shakes as he exhales, a shiver that has nothing to do with the morning chill, and Bill pats his back with a familiar hand. “You made it. You made it, man.”

“We made it.” God, he’s so tired.

They stand like that for a moment longer, and Paul allows himself just that moment of his well-worn selfishness to sink into the feeling of warmth and — even more — the dizzying relief of no longer being alone. By himself, he wouldn’t be able to take care of Lex and Hannah forever — but Bill is here, and Mr. Davidson, and they can help. They can help, Paul doesn’t-- he doesn’t have to do it on his own. And Lex and Hannah will have people who they can rely on, people who will be better for them than just Paul-by-himself. So many of the others are still out there, waiting to be found -- but Bill is here, and Paul isn’t alone. 

He’s got his best friend back.

Footsteps join them, from both behind and ahead, and Paul leans back far enough to glance over Bill’s shoulder and catch his first good look at Alice as she peers shyly at him and, presumably, Lex and Hannah. She looks almost the same as his memories -- hair perhaps a bit curlier, more of her natural texture coming through in exchange for the bleached-blond color that she definitely never had in Hatchetfield. As they meet eyes, she tucks a lock behind one ear and offers an awkward smile.

Bill pats his back one more time before letting go and extending one of his arms back to his daughter. “And here’s Alice— Alice, this is my friend Paul. I think I told you about him?”

“The one who’s in trouble?”

Paul does his best to suppress a snort at that, because— oh man, what an understatement. Behind him, Lex makes absolutely zero effort to disguise her own surprised cackle, and Alice’s gaze jumps past Paul’s shoulder to look at her.

He steps back beside Bill so Lex and Hannah have more room to join them. “I guess you could say that. It’s, uh— it’s been a long time.” Or at least, certainly feels like it. At his other shoulder, Mr. Davidson — uh, Ken — chuckles. “These are— these are Lex and Hannah.”

“Yo.”

Hannah doesn’t say anything, but does offer Alice a wave.

And after the wave, her hand finds Paul’s again and he does his very best not to melt into the sidewalk at the sudden warmth in his chest at the gesture. On her other side, Lex glances over at him and grins like she knows exactly what’s going on in his head — which, really, after hearing about what the two of them can do, Paul’s not going to put it past either of them for mind-reading to manifest. Or maybe he’s just gotten really predictable over the past nine days. That's probably more likely.

Meanwhile, Alice’s eyes track Hannah’s hand, and she smiles a little wider. “It’s— it’s nice to meet you. I’m Alice. I— I guess your dad knows my dad?”

… What.

On Hannah’s other side, Lex chokes. On Paul’s other side, Mr. — no, wait, Ken — muffles a quiet laugh. 

Hannah squeezes his hand, and Paul stares at Bill in the desperate hope that his friend will somehow understand the question he absolutely cannot ask out loud right now. Which he seems to, because he shoots Paul an apologetic look that just screams ‘she assumed and I couldn’t think of a better explanation’.

Finding her voice, Lex starts “I— he’s not—”

Brother,” Hannah pipes up calmly, cutting off her sister’s protest. “Big brother.”

… Alright, that… that’s a little better. If he survives melting like the Wicked Witch of the West (no, he refuses to call her Elphaba, Paul will never acknowledge having seen that Wicked bootleg that Alice and Bill conned him into watching for movie night and anyone who says otherwise is lying), he thinks ‘big brother’ is something he can live with.

Nodding, Alice glances back up at her father, and Bill rests a hand on her shoulder with a warm smile. Even though he’d told Paul yesterday, during their brief phone call, that his relationship with Alice was so much better in this world… well, it’s still honestly incredible to see it in person. In Hatchetfield, after the divorce, things had gotten so much worse between the two of them — Paul honestly hadn’t thought he’d ever see them this comfortable with each other again. 

It’s really wonderful.

“Well, I think we’ve all got a lot of catching up to do,” Bill announces, looking around their group, “And I do believe another friend is waiting for us down at the Primrose Cafe. Have you three eaten?”

Paul and Lex glance at each other, while Hannah shrugs. Technically, they sort of have, but… “I think we could certainly go for a late breakfast.”

Bill beams, and Alice matches his smile as she turns to lead their mismatched group off down the sidewalk. Mr. — oh, he really needs to work on this name thing — Ken pats Paul on the back before dropping around to walk beside Lex, drawing her carefully into a quiet conversation. Between them, Hannah swings her arms and holds her chin high in the air, looking more pleased than she’s been since their arrival.

Although he stays beside Alice, Bill glances back to meet Paul’s eyes, and Paul doesn’t doubt that his best friend feels just as relieved as he does right now.

Things aren’t fixed yet, but… they’re going to be okay.

Okay?

Okay.