Bridging

by Renaissance Makoto J. (ルネサンス・真・J)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/109833.html)

Thanks to scoured for the beta.

“You’re a sentimental loser,” Brandon said, but he was smiling, blushing, and admiring his hand. He even moved it from side to side to catch the weak afternoon light that filtered in through the trees.

“You love it,” Reeve countered.

“I do,” Brandon agreed, then tapped Reeve’s left hand. “Yours matches. Cute. So, what does all this romance mean, man? Isn’t there, like, a question or something to go with all this shine?”

Reeve laughed nervously and looked out over the gently rippling water of the lake. “Yeah, there is. It means…look, it’s been years now and we’re still…you know. Together. And all. So I thought…”

“You thought?”

“Well, I’m a long way off from my Ph.D., but maybe in a few years when I’ve got a good position—and if you sign with that label—we could, you know, settle down or…something.”

A thin black eyebrow went high. “Or something?” The dark shock of hair and those slanting brown eyes were the things that most marked him as his mother’s son.

Reeve cleared his throat. “Or something. Shit, you’re not making this easy.”

Brandon sighed in resignation. “This would almost be cute if it weren’t so lame. Okay, how about I just say ‘yes’ and later on I can lie to our friends about exactly how this all went down.”

Reeve turned to him, still flustered. “Will you tell them I hired a skywriter or something?”

“Or something,” Brandon agreed and kissed him.

:::::

April 2, 2043

The flower twisted low, at first, like a snake uncoiling to strike. Then it jerked once before its leaves flared out. White petals tinged with decayed brown scraped the loamy potting soil. At last those petals struggled back to their original color, and the heavy head of the drooping flower sprang up. The leaves and stem went strong and rigid, crept back to green; maybe not as vibrant as when it had first bloomed a week ago under the heat lamp, but much better than just moments before.

Reeve stared at it for long moments, his breathing shallow. He didn’t blink.

The liquid sloshed in the dropper in his hand, clear and catching the light like crystal.

When his phone rang, he reached for it only reluctantly.

“Rothschild,” he said as he answered. The voice on the other end shattered the reverent silence of before.

“Oh, my god,” Reeve said, and the dropper clattered to the cool metal table beside the numbered flowerpot, before rolling off and smashing against the floor.

:::::

“Do you have a minute, sir?” Reeve asked.

“Ah, Reeve,” Crafton said with his crooked half-smile. “Please, come in.”

The door closed behind him.

As always, he jerked awake at the sound of the door shutting.

It was a memory he could usually suppress while awake: working, moving, moving, running away. It was only when he was dreaming that it crept back towards the surface. Reeve rubbed at his eyes, then craned his neck to look over the wing of the plane and down. The city was a crowd of metal and glass in the foreground with mountains as a stark, towering background. Beyond the city limits was the lake, and it made his head hurt even thinking about it.

He didn’t want to be back.

:::::

The detective was a thin woman, tall and strong-jawed. He wondered if a smile would soften her features but doubted he’d ever find out. She had short and stylish blonde hair that looked as bright as fire when it caught the fluorescent light. She’s introduced herself as Detective Diane Baker, but never added the “please call me Diane” he thought should be appended to the end.

She only called him “Dr. Rothschild”. It caused him to spin around on more than one occasion, looking for his father.

The body was blue and stiffened in death. Reeve looked away, then wiped heavily at his mouth and over his entire face. He smudged his glasses with his fingertips then had to clean them on the hem of his shirt.

When he looked again at the corpse, it was to study the long red line down the center of its skull, overlaid with stitches. It looked as if it had been cut open and then crudely sewn back together.

“What happened?” he asked, and gestured towards the wound.

“A scan showed something embedded in his skull. We removed it. The lab rats are analyzing it and we’ll know soon. It might prove to be nothing, or it might give us a clue about what happened to Dr. Crafton.”

Reeve frowned. “Was it…a chip? A computer chip?”

“Like I said: we’re not sure what it was.”

Their eyes met and it was like flint stones clashing. Reeve looked away first. For long minutes, he stared at the body covered only by a sheet across the hips.

“Is that why he isn’t buried yet?” Reeve was trying not to think about the amount of time that had passed since they’d found the body. They couldn’t keep him on ice forever.

Baker nodded. “Look: I’m not in the mood to dig him back up if we have to take another peek.”

“Do his medical records say anything about a surgery?”

She glared at him. “No,” she said with a heavy exhale, as if she couldn’t believe she was answering this question. “It was off the books. The brilliant brain surgeon undergoing a mysterious brain surgery? It’s the stuff of science fiction.”

“Mmmm,” was Reeve’s noncommittal answer. He found himself drifting closer to what looked like bruises around Crafton’s wrists and upper arms.

“They’re from fingers,” he said. “He was held down.”

“Dr. Rothschild, you are here to view the body, not to play detective.”

“But if there was a struggle—”

“Stop it. Now.” Her mouth was an unforgiving line.

Reeve couldn’t think of anything to say, so he returned to studying the corpse. The hands were just as he remembered. Even now he could feel them sliding uncertainly down his back, trying to drag him closer.

Baker cleared her throat. Whatever was on his face must have surprised her. “Do you…need a minute?” she inquired now, sounding unsure for the first time since he’d met her, over an hour ago at the airport with all the unis circling around in black and blue.

He wasn’t sure: did he need a minute? He shivered—not from the cold of the morgue—and nodded, just to have something to do. His hands he shoved deep in his pockets to keep them from fidgeting with his ring.

Reeve took a slow turn around the slab once he was alone. He’d seen countless bodies, just like this, and never felt the urge to talk to them before. Yet now there were words in his throat and he kept swallowing, forcing them back into his stomach, which growled and grumbled.

Reeve watched his breath frost the air white and the words behind the mist said, “You may not believe it, but I’m not happy to see you dead.”

Crafton had nothing to say. After all, he was dead. The marks around his wrists suggested that he’d been murdered. The cops needed Reeve’s help to bring the killer to justice.

Ten years ago, he would have bought the guy a medal.

:::::

The walk down this particular hallway felt to Reeve how he imagined it felt to be a death row inmate on his way to the end. As he walked, the little round man beside him chattered.

“We’ve been looking for you for two weeks now. Whatever were you doing in Singapore?”

“Chasing my tail,” Reeve answered under his breath.

There was a nervous cough from the president followed by, “Here we are. Yes, right this way.”

Reeve entered and went still as his past surrounded him. He imagined that there were splatters of blood on the floor that formed a trail to the door. When he blinked rapidly, the image dissipated like mist.

The laboratory had been a gift from the university to Crafton, after the first articles and reports took the world by storm. The slick magazine covers with Crafton pressing the flesh with ecstatic old men and women were a glaring backdrop in his mind.

“We’re merely trying to understand what happened and you might be the only one who can help us find out,” said the round man who was the university president. Reeve couldn’t remember his name and he wasn’t sure the school’s by-laws allowed him to still be the university president, but there was no telling what strings had been pulled.

He remembered his own graduation, when he shook this man’s hand before mechanically flipping his tassel. He’d deliberately kept his eyes off the rows of professors sitting off to the side of the stage with their colorful caps and black, shroud-like gowns. He had still felt Crafton’s eyes on his skin, staring at him all the way back to his seat.

Back to Brandon.

The university president wrung his hands together, turning the chubby, spotted fingers red. “It’s all been a shock. We can’t wrap our minds around it. Who kills a pillar of the community? An unparalleled scientist?”

Reeve schooled his features, because that wasn’t the real mystery and the president knew it as surely as he did. Crafton had certainly had enemies, both personal and professional. It wasn’t difficult to imagine that one of them would take it to this extreme.

The president’s real worry was why Crafton had locked down his entire lab. The lights, he’d informed Reeve, couldn’t even be switched on. Every computer but one showed only a black screen and no amount of button-pushing or banging brought them back to life.

The sole working computer in the lab was also the only source of light. The monitor showed a simple message on its massive screen:

THIS COMPUTER HAS BEEN LOCKED
VOICE RECOGNITION REQUIRED
THE FOLLOWING USER[S] CAN UNLOCK THIS COMPUTER:

R. Rothschild, Ph.D.

Reeve took a step closer, the blue of the screen casting his face into eerie, underwater hues. His own name shone back at him, seemed to sneer at him. He looked away quickly.

In the dark of Crafton’s lab, all the machines and equipment and refrigeration units looked somehow ominous. The president was staring at Reeve nervously.

He cleared his throat once again. “One of Dr. Crafton’s assistants attempted to access the system and encountered this message. He was quite upset. At first, we thought it meant your father. Your father and Dr. Crafton were colleagues on the Journal, were they not? I believe they published a joint study together?”

Reeve scoffed internally. Aloud he said, “Colleagues. Yes.”

But before the president could question the sneer in his voice, the room lit up, turned blazing white. A steady, groaning hum swelled up and filled the space. Monitors flared to life; control panels littered with keys flashed and beeped; and the entire room was washed with the sound of electronic life.

A simple, clear and pleasant, feminine voice said, “Voice recognition software activated. Dr. Reeve Rothschild, please state your access code.”

“My God,” said the president. “It…it knows your voice…”

Reeve looked down, felt a strange stinging behind his eyes. And of course the code would be the same; why would Crafton have changed it?

“Lazarus,” he said. The woman’s voice answered, “Access granted. Welcome back, Dr. Rothschild.”

“It worked!” the president said, clapping his hands like a small boy. “Oh, you’re a god-send! It worked!”

And Reeve looked at the man’s fat face stretched into a greedy smile and answered, “Yes. Yes, it worked,” even though he felt like the last bit of him that was still alive inside was now dying faster and faster.

:::::

May 14, 2034

Brandon didn’t really talk about the surgery, though he could be coaxed into mentioning how grateful he was to be alive.

Brandon never talked about the scar on his forehead. He certainly never talked about how it extended into his ink black hair and stretched all the way back to the base of his neck. When he grew his hair long like a punk rocker, it covered it enough that he stopped worrying whether his endless string of girlfriends noticed. Stylish hats covered the front of the serpentine wound.

He said he didn’t remember the lights or the horns or the impact. He didn’t remember the flying glass that was even now embedded in his skin. The flecks of blue across his face, neck, and arms marked where the glass was hiding, wedged deep, but ready to push to the surface and clatter to the ground in ten to twenty years, depending.

Brandon smiled as he explained that the survivors of the Bomb had suffered the same malady. Long years after Hiroshima had been razed to the ground, survivors would find bits of glass poking out of their skin as their bodies finally finished rejecting them. “That’s what will happen to me,” he said, almost proud even to share pain with the country that had become his obsession.

The idea of Japan brought a light to Brandon’s eyes, one like he used to have before it all went so fucking wrong. Reeve couldn’t stop him from going, so he went with him.

In Japan, he played better despite the machinery in his arm, and he was never more alive than during a gig. Everyone saw it and flocked to be near him. Especially the girls.

Reeve moved out when he couldn’t tolerate the endless parade. More than that, he couldn’t endure how it made him act: like a jealous wife. Brandon accused him of as much, but never understood the hows or whys.

Sometimes, before the move to his own small apartment a little north in Omiya, Reeve would float through one of Brandon’s house parties, feeling like a ghost. And like a ghost, he would watch Brandon slowly kiss and caress some girl from Tokyo University or a waitress he’d met in Shibuya. Hand up her shirt, tongue along her jaw and hips twisting closer.

He’d watch and feel the phantom touches from his memory glide over his own skin.

He’d watch until he felt Brandon watching back.

Then he’d leave to wander the flashing neon streets of Tokyo.

:::::

April 3, 2043

After a day to process seeing Crafton dead and unlocking the system, Reeve found himself alone with endless files filled with notes and reports he himself had helped Crafton write and archive. One file contained audio logs of their experiments.

Crafton’s voice seemed to fill the space, like an orchestra on a wild crescendo.

“Today, I am joined, once again, by the inestimable Mr. Rothschild, second-year research assistant on his way to a bright future.”

A wry, “If I can pass your class this semester,” followed the introduction. And Reeve almost gasped: it was his own voice, younger, optimistic.

Crafton gave a humorless chuckle and said, “Of course you’ll pass, Mr. Rothschild. You have your father’s ingenuity and your mother’s looks. Certainly one of these things will assist you.”

“Ha, ha.”

Maybe Crafton had smiled at him or winked or simply flipped a page in one of his notebooks and soldiered on. His voice gave nothing away as he said, “As with experiment A-10, we are attempting to re-engage dead and damaged tissue that has been preserved for study under controlled conditions. We will be using a combination of hormones, and electronic stimulus in an attempt to re-animate the tissue and make it function in its original capacity. The experiment prep notes are archived under the ‘A’ sub-folder, series eleven.”

“Series eleven? Already? God. That’s a lot of pigs.”

“All in the name of science.”

“If you say so, doc. So. Okay, um, should we get started?”

“On your word, Mr. Rothschild.”

Reeve closed the file and took a long breath, eyes squeezed shut. Listening to his own voice from that time was surreal.

Crafton’s voice and manner were just as he recalled: arrogant, in control, and maybe even cold.

The A-series, he remembered as a headache formed. The entire run had been one failure after another. And now he could look back and see that the failures had continued on through the B’s, the C’s and beyond.

All the way to Brandon, the biggest failure of all.

Suddenly, Reeve’s fingers were flying over the keys. If someone had asked him what sparked the idea and the resultant action, he couldn’t have said.

Only…something made him do it.

His search paid off: there, hidden so well he almost missed it, was a personal diary. It was password protected and that set his mind to work.

For long minutes he tried everything he could think of to access the diary, from birthdays to biblical references, but nothing worked. He drummed his fingers softly beside the keypad. The image of the padlock on the folder icon was mocking him.

And it really couldn’t be so simple, could it?

“Input passcode,” he said clearly. There was a cheerful beep; a sound to show the computer was waiting for him patiently, even eagerly.

“Rothschild,” he said at last.

The folder crashed open, data springing to life before his eyes, excited to be free perhaps. Reeve swallowed and searched through the files until he found the day he remembered now as the day his life changed.

Again, Crafton’s voice filled the air.

I have just met an extraordinary young man. I was very impressed with him. Though, now that I think of it, I must have known him when he was still a baby, as his father is Dr. Robert Rothschild from the Journal. So, certainly I must have met him, maybe even when he was a boy. How strange that I don’t recall it now.”

Reeve had to agree. Crafton had become such a dominant figure in his life that he couldn’t imagine meeting him even as a child and not remembering. Among the tipsy, loud and lively guests from all his father’s dinner parties, had there been one so tall? With such broad shoulders and eyes the color of arctic ice?

“He is a student in my early morning Review of Medical Machinery course, and he stands out as a keen thinker and imaginative problem solver. He is very unlike his father. Whereas Robert was always so conservative, his son is quite on the other side of the fence. A truly remarkable young man. Now, on to today’s experiments. I have found that the results from yesterday’s experiments were inaccurate due to—”

Reeve stopped the recording and moved a few years forward in the files.

He hit play.

“Today I ran more tests with Reeve. Reeve’s suggestions are invaluable and I depend on him greatly. And he…Reeve…well, he occupies my thoughts. Quite a lot. I feel…well…it’s all very silly. And foolish, of course. And wildly inappropriate, these things that I’m thinking.”

Reeve stopped the recording again and tried to still his shaking hand. Then he scrolled through the long list of dates. He stopped when he reached the tenth month of the worst year of his life and hit play.

Crafton’s voice was the voice of a haunted man.

“I have,” he whispered, “done a terrible thing.”

Reeve closed the file, stood and left the lab quietly.

He couldn’t do it.

Not today.

:::::

December 1, 2030

The first vial hit the wall with an explosive clash and shatter of glass. The violent red pigs’ blood slid down the wall at a sickly slow pace.

“Dr. Crafton,” Reeve tried to say soothingly, but it was no use. Crafton heaved another vial and then another until the far wall of the laboratory looked like some avant-garde painting done in blood red.

“Dr. Crafton!” he shouted at last and the taller man whirled to face him, seething. He looked more like a crazed animal than the calm and wizened professor Reeve had come to respect over the years. Only now that he had the man’s attention, he didn’t know what to do with it.

“We can start over,” he blurted. “We just missed something. All we have to do is reanalyze the data and—”

“Don’t placate me, Mr. Rothschild,” Crafton snarled. “Don’t you dare. Not you.

Reeve’s teeth clacked together as he closed his mouth. It was a relief when Crafton’s shoulders lost that violent tension and drooped. He slumped onto the nearest stool like a puppet freed from its strings.

“God,” he said and rubbed a heavy hand back and forth over his forehead. “What are we doing wrong?”

Reeve took a cautious step forward. “It’s still early in this series,” he said softly. “And it’s not like every one of them suffered a—”

“Ninety percent,” Crafton interrupted. “I’d say that’s enough.” His pale eyes snapped to Reeve’s face and Reeve felt a hot blush sweep across his cheeks.

Crafton turned on the stool to cast a weary eye at the on-screen data. “Intracerebral hemorrhage,” he said. He lifted a long-fingered hand as if to tap at the screen to make the data improve, then let his hand fall onto his knee. “Ninety percent of the large animal models suffered fatal cerebral hemorrhage either before activation of the chip, or within 48 hours of our implanting the chip.”

His cold eyes swept Reeve again. “How can I submit these findings to the Board? They’ll shut me down! What am I going to do?”

Reeve shook his head and walked forward boldly until he stood before Crafton. “You’re not going to do anything. We’re going to keep trying. We’ve got time before the review. We just have to be smart about it.”

Nervously, he placed his hand on Crafton’s shoulder. Crafton dropped his eyes to look at the hand as if it were some strange animal, then he looked again at Reeve before covering his hand with his own. They stood there for long, silent moments, looking at each other.

“The Board doesn’t care about the ninety percent that failed. They care about the ten percent that succeeded. We’re going to find out what those surviving pigs had that the others didn’t and we’re going to recreate the experiment using what we find out. Are you with me here?”

Crafton gaped at him, then his strong face broke into a reluctant smile. “I am, as you say, with you. Always.”

Reeve rolled his eyes then tried to remove his hand, but Crafton held it firmly to his shoulder, squeezing almost too tightly as if he couldn’t bear to let go.

“You are, indeed, inestimable, Mr. Rothschild,” he said in a whispered voice almost like worship.

:::::

April 4, 2043

Detective Baker slurped on a soda, and scarfed down a burger dripping onions and cheese.

“Thanks for coming on short notice. And in the rain.”

Reeve only shook his head and poked at a fry on his chipped diner plate. Rain water was dripping down the back of his shirt and it seemed to slosh in his ears. It made him think of the typhoons that turned umbrellas into wineglasses all summer long on Honshu. Brandon said the price of living in a city as great as Tokyo was living with the weather of Tokyo.

Baker wiped her mouth with her wrist and let her burger fall on top of her tater tots.

“I wanted to talk about that fancy, high-tech system in the lab, but first, I still want to ask you a few questions. If you don’t mind,” she added as an afterthought.

“No, it’s okay. Go ahead.”

She took another sloppy bite. “See, the thing is, we just don’t get it. The medical examiner tells me Dr. Crafton’s death was very quick. But before he died, he had time to encrypt his files and lock the entire system down—like he knew it was coming. And unlocking the whole system requires voice verification from a man he hasn’t seen in…how many years?”

“Over ten, Detective.”

“Ten years. Wow. You must have made quite an impression,” she said and her thin eyebrow was arched high. He ignored it.

“I was his research assistant. I helped him with the discovery that made him famous.”

“Bridging, right? The one they talk about on the news all the time. Alzheimer’s? Brain damage? There was that one guy with brain cancer, right? A miracle or something?”

He winced involuntarily. He could suddenly see the stumble of Brandon’s long fingers over the guitar strings and the misery on his pinched face—the musical genius who couldn’t play until he mastered the mechanical pathway burrowed under his skin, down his neck and arm and finally to his elegant fingers.

All in all, it took him a year just to pluck out “Horse with No Name” flawlessly.

“Um, yes,” Reeve stuttered. “It got a lot of attention, especially in the early days. Every major university and research laboratory tried to poach him after his findings were published.”

She looked appropriately impressed. “You mean your findings, correct? So, did you get to share the credit?”

He looked out the streaked diner window at the gray afternoon. “I had graduated and moved away by then. With a friend. To Asia.”

“Right. Asia. Okay,” she said and took a long swallow of her soda. “Well, that’ll do for now. So you say you found a diary? I want to have a look at that, but I’m kind of swamped. Can you send those files to me?”

He thought about explaining Crafton’s paranoia to her, but settled on a simple: “No. That’s not how his system works.”

“Should have figured. Seems like he was a cagey guy. Well, did you look through the files like I asked?”

Reeve nodded. “Yeah. A little,” he said and had to look away. He’d barely kept it together through the little he’d heard. How was he supposed to get Baker real fodder for her investigation? He hadn’t even made it to the week leading up to Crafton’s death.

“Have you found anything yet? Any clue about why he locked his research down?”

“Nothing so far.”

“Did he believe his life was in danger?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did he mention any enemies? Someone who might want him dead?”

Only me, he didn’t say. Instead, another, “I don’t know,” breezed past his lips.

She squinted at him, an oddly predatory expression. “Wow. You know jack shit. Is there anything you do know?”

“Maybe,” he said with a sigh, squirming under her scrutiny. “I need more time.”

“How much?”

“Another two days. Three if you can give it to me.”

“Time is money, Dr. Rothschild.”

“I know,” he said softly.

“No, I don’t think you do, so let me spell it out for you: if you can’t get me the information I need, I can send in my tech boys and they can just rip the system to pieces until they find something I can use. Now, I told the president that we’d be gentle with his expensive toys, which is the only reason I haven’t sent in the dogs already.”

He held up his hands like holding an army at bay. “And I appreciate how patient you’re being here, but it’s not a simple system and—”

She held up a hand. “You need time? Well, you’ve got two days and I’m expecting big things,” she said and stood suddenly. “Listen, I’m out.”

She threw enough money to cover them both on the table and didn’t look back at him until he cried out, “Wait!”

“Yeah?” she asked over her shoulder, but she didn’t sound irritated, just brusque and in a hurry.

“How…how do they say he died?”

“Cerebral hemorrhage,” she said. “But I don’t buy it.”

Reeve’s heart jumped into his throat as he watched her leave. Her walk was all shoulder and purpose, no room for doubt in her world. He envied her. Right now he had nothing but questions.

Questions and a growing fear nesting just below his ribs.

:::::

June 3, 2031

The chubby nurses stood around anxiously on the edges of a room loaded with slowly dying flowers, get-well cards and balloons. The walls were a kind of salmon pink, accented by a terrible floral print. The windows faced east.

The old woman’s name was Mae, and her sons and daughters-in-law crowded in closer to the bed as she breathed the heavy way of the old and dying. Strangely, their faces were filled with hope. They’d all been called away from home and work for something the nurses called “miraculous”.

Reeve stood beside Crafton at the head of the sick bed and watched as the old woman’s pulse was checked. After a moment, her eyes fluttered open and a leathery hand swatted Crafton’s stethoscope away. “Oh, do stop poking me with that. It’s cold.”

With a shared smile, Crafton and Reeve stepped back, which signaled the family to come closer.

“Mom?” one man with a baby face asked. He kept his eyes off the bandages around her forehead with deliberate effort.

“Tommy?” said the old woman as she reached for his hand, eyelids fluttering. “You’ve gained too much weight. Where’s Alice?”

“Here, Mae.” The skinny, red-headed daughter-in-law shuffled forward and bowed over the bed to kiss Mae, careful to avoid the tubes coming from her nose and snaking over her cheek. “We’re all here. Lynn and Bobby, too.”

“Alice! My! How good to see you! And you’re too skinny!”

Everyone had a laugh and, later, the family sobbed and hugged and shook Crafton’s hand over and over.

“She hasn’t recognized me in seven years,” said the oldest son. “You gave me back my mother. Thank you, thank you!”

And later still, Crafton and Reeve hugged hard and long, patting each other on the back, each one dreaming of the successes yet to come.

“It worked! We did it!” Crafton breathed against his neck.

You did it, Doctor,” Reeve answered, shaking his head and feeling like maybe flight wasn’t impossible after all; the smile on his face felt permanent. Crafton was warm and solid and so much taller. The stubble on his neck and peppering his jaw scratched in a way that wasn’t unpleasant, just new and strange.

Brandon was always clean-shaven.

“No,” Crafton said. “I couldn’t have done it without my Bosworth, the inestimable Mr. Rothschild.”

Reeve laughed at the familiar nickname and felt the echoing rumble of Crafton’s laugh deep in his own chest. Crafton was alive and virile and in his arms, breathing against his neck and kneading his back with his strong hands.

It was only when Crafton leaned harder into the hug so that there was no space between them that something clicked in Reeve’s mind.

There was the beginning of sensation along his neck, like lips brushing softly, then boldly. Crafton’s hands were sliding up and down his back, drifting lower on each sweep.

Reeve stepped away.

He held Crafton at arm’s length. There was more on the other man’s face than Reeve wanted to see.

“I have to go and tell Brandon,” he said. “Brandon.”

He didn’t know if Crafton could feel his speeding pulse through his hands, but dropped them off his shoulders just in case. Then he took an extra step back to be cautious. The rings in the small pouch in his breast pocket were like twin points of heat against his heart.

“Ah. Brandon. Of course,” Crafton said after a moment of awkward silence.

Reeve thought he should say something, to end the problem before it got worse. Instead, he turned and hurried away, hyper-aware of the eyes on his back.

Reeve would never admit that he was running away, but he was, and Crafton knew it.

:::::

His hand trembled as he dialed. Finally, a scratchy voice said, “Moshi, mosh,” and Reeve felt his throat close up.

“Dare kai?” Brandon mumbled after a stretched pause. “Nan ji no wakaru kai?”

“Brandon,” Reeve said at last. “It’s me. Hi.”

“Reeve? Mother of God,” Brandon whispered and then laughed in his sleep-roughened voice. The switch back to English was easy for him. He’d always said it was in his blood.

Half of it, anyway.

“Hey, what’s up? Do you know what time it is here?” Brandon asked with reproach in his voice. Even half-asleep, Brandon could do reproach.

Reeve winced, dropped his head onto his arms. The empty graduate apartment the school was letting him use felt too small and reminded him too much of being young again and dumb and foolish.

“Yeah. Yes. I…just didn’t know who else to call.”

Brandon was suddenly alert. “What happened?”

“He’s dead,” Reeve said and his voice caught on a sob. “Dr. Crafton is dead.”

“Shit,” Brandon hissed after a minute. “Shit. Man. I’m sorry. I know how much he meant to you.”

Reeve said nothing. He kept quiet until Brandon filled in the silence, just like always. “I don’t think I ever thanked him, you know? For giving me back my mind and my arm. I was so gung ho about coming to Japan that I just…shit.”

“Hey, it’s okay,” Reeve said, always willing to soothe Brandon, always happy to take on Brandon’s problems if it meant he could ignore his own. “He had to know you were grateful.”

Only Brandon didn’t know anything at all about how it had all come down. There was a lot Brandon didn’t recall clearly, despite his protestations that he remembered everything perfectly. Would he be as grateful to Crafton if the truth came to light?

“I guess you’re right. But how about you, how are you holding up?”

Reeve blinked and realized he didn’t have a good answer for that question. “Fine,” he said at last.

Then there was a long awkward silence. They’d happened so many times over the past ten years that they no longer bothered Reeve but Brandon still seemed uncomfortable with spaces of nothing he seemed to intuit had once been filled with something.

“Um,” Brandon began and coughed once in that nervous way of his. “You left. Again. Not even a note or a call this time.”

Reeve sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Yeah. I needed…space.”

“From your best friend?”

Reeve clenched his jaw, bit his tongue, and somehow forced himself to lie. “From life. From Japan. You know?”

“No, not really. This is the only place I belong. I thought it was starting to grow on you. Your nihongo is getting better, ne? And it’s kinda lame here without you, man. People ask about you at my gigs. Where did you go this time?”

“Singapore.”

A resentful pause and it occurred to Reeve that maybe Brandon had said he’d always wanted to see the famous fountain.

Finally, Brandon struggled out a cheerful, “Wow. So, what’s it like?”

“Small,” Reeve said, then added, “clean,” as an afterthought.

“That’s it?”

“Just about.”

He could hear Brandon rolling over on his futon, scratching at his pale belly and maybe shifting the elastic band of his boxers. He slammed an iron wall down on the images and tried to pay attention.

“Why do you do that shit, man?” Brandon was asking. “When you ran away to Spain it was ‘crowded and dirty.’ Every country you go to, you sum up in two words. What was Egypt, again?”

Reeve rubbed at his forehead, mumbled, “Hot and sandy.”

Brandon snorted, but there was an edge of anger to his words when he said, “You’re one of a kind, Reeve. ‘S’wy I keep you around. So…Singapore? In more than two words?”

The time he’d spent in Singapore had been in a lab underground. He hadn’t seen the sun unless it was setting and he was staggering home exhausted and disheartened at the end of the day. His trips always coincided with lax tariffs on certain scientific shipments and invitations from research laboratories eager to accommodate him. Singapore had been promising until the phone call.

“Um. I didn’t get to stay long before the school tracked me down. I’m back in the States. I think…I think the police believe Crafton was murdered.”

“Jesus. That’s awful. I mean…was he?”

“I don’t know.”

“Are you going to the funeral? Do you want me to—?”

“No!” he said, almost too forcefully.

“Oh. Okay,” Brandon grumbled and Reeve could imagine the wounded puppy look and was painfully glad he wasn’t there to see it.

“Look, I’m sorry I called. Woke you up. I…I’m okay. Honest. Take care and…you know. Whatever.”

“Yeah, man. You too.”

The phone shattered to pieces when it hit the wall and Reeve looked around guiltily for a moment at the noise it had made on impact. Then he remembered that classes were out and that he was all but alone on the well-kept, sprawling campus.

“You’re not my fucking best friend,” he said through his teeth. His breathing was heavy, his hands shaking with anger. “You’re my…my…”

He dropped back into his chair and rolled his head back, his face wet and his eyes stinging. “God I wish you remembered.”

The two of them, opposites to the core: Reeve on scholarship, buried in his books and in his labs and experiments; Brandon taking out loan after loan to become a one-man band. He switched instruments like other men switched girlfriends.

But he’d always come home to Reeve.

They’d worked out the fights and the bad times and the nothing-in-commons with dorm furniture and bar-destroying fights followed up by long, marathon fucks.

And more than the research—his fruitless search to undo what had been done—it was nights like this that had sent him fleeing to Singapore. And to Spain before that. The time before Spain had been England.

He always went back to Tokyo.

He’d never been able to abandon Brandon for long.

And, god, he hated Crafton for taking the most important thing in his life away from him.

For taking it all and leaving a shadow behind.

:::::

April 5, 2043

It was a new day, Reeve decided. Another chance to get things right. Or wrong.

He lowered himself into the chair that wasn’t the one he remembered and placed his fingers on the keys.

The diary sprang to the forefront of the screen. Today, he’d help Baker solve her case, even if the memories the files triggered felt like a stranglehold.

The last file available was timestamped one day before Crafton’s death. Reeve gasped when a video exploded onto the massive screen. Seeing the man as he must have looked before he died… it was shocking, and Reeve had to rewind twice before he could tear his attention away from the face to hear his words.

Crafton looked tired. The gray at his temples made Reeve feel unbalanced. It was a perfect snapshot of what ten years apart looked like: gray and lined, tired and too thin.

“I meet with Lance today. I’m not…uninterested, but certainly my enthusiasm has waned. I am often surprised by how ambitious he is. His hunger for fame, more than any real attraction, is probably what keeps him with me.”

Reeve felt his jaw unhinge. What Crafton didn’t say was louder than what he did.

“Sometimes I feel that he is close enough to what I…need. Almost what I’m looking for. And then he says something crass and thoughtless and I realize that he will never…well…but he is close enough. Sometimes.”

“Who is Lance?” Reeve asked the empty room.

Then he combed through all of Crafton’s contacts in a frenzy. Sooner than he would have imagined, he found the name of a research assistant, a Mr. Lucas, and knew somehow he’d hit the jackpot.

For a moment, Reeve thought about Detective Baker. Perhaps she was running around, chasing leads and fighting with the guys in forensics for real answers. And perhaps this was the call she was waiting for: a witness who had seen Crafton before he died.

He considered calling her.

Didn’t.

Reeve just wasn’t ready yet to hand over the files. He needed to know what had happened to the man who ruined his life.

:::::

Lance Lucas moved through the lab like he belonged there. He circled Reeve, sizing him up before stopping, crossing his arms across his thin chest and intoning, “So, you’re what I was supposed to be living up to?”

And Reeve didn’t wince because he’d been expecting it.

Looking at Lucas was like looking in a mirror ten years ago. Lucas’ shaggy brown hair, hazel eyes and pink lips might have been his own. The long face, the occasional, reluctant smile: all these things were Reeve’s as well.

“God,” Lucas said at last, shaking his head. “You know, you were all he talked about. Reeve. Yes. His protégé.” Lucas was farsighted; he kept his glasses tucked into the pocket of his shirt. Reeve pushed his own up his nose subconsciously.

He guessed the resemblance would be uncanny were Lucas to slip his fashionable readers over his wide eyes.

“God damn the man,” Lucas snarled. “Well, at least he was consistent. He had a type!” He shook his head again and then ran an agitated hand through his hair. Reeve just swallowed and watched him as he started to pace.

But Lucas had it wrong.

Crafton hadn’t had a type. He certainly hadn’t picked Lucas because he fit the bill of the kind of guy he always went for: he’d picked him because he looked like Reeve.

If Crafton had made nothing else clear in the time he’d known him, it had been this: he’d wanted Reeve. Nothing more, nothing less.

Only Reeve.

Maybe Lucas understood the distinction between having a type and having a type, which was why he was glaring at Reeve, moving about the room like a caged panther, back and forth, back and forth.

“You were sleeping with him,” Reeve said, but it wasn’t a question.

Lucas’ glare was sharp. “Weren’t you?” he spat.

A cruel smile spread across Reeve’s face. “No.”

The pacing stopped. Lucas suddenly looked at him with new eyes. “What?”

And it all became clear to Reeve at that moment: he didn’t like Lucas. For all that they were practically twins with a ten-year gap between them, Lucas was nothing like him. He’d been a poor substitute.

“Mr. Lucas,” Reeve said, smile spreading, “we were student and teacher. Nothing more.”

Lucas shook his head. “No. There had to be more.”

“Why?”

“Because something has to explain me!” Lucas shouted and his voice caught. For the first time, Reeve felt sorry for him, knowing that maybe under his foolish ambition to get ahead by fucking a professor, he’d actually cared about Crafton.

Lucas waved between the two of them, scratching out his point in the tension-filled air.

“He couldn’t have you so he found a substitute. That’s what everyone always said.”

Reeve winced at the idea that everyone said so and almost wanted to shake the boy, to ask, “Who said that?” until he answered. Instead, he just stared stonily at the agitated doctoral student and waited for the other shoe to drop.

“He slipped up sometimes, called me by your name. In class. When we fucked. I…it didn’t bother me at first.”

At first.

Something coiled tight in Reeve’s stomach at the idea of Crafton calling out “Reeve!” during sex. He blinked until the image and the sound faded from his overactive imagination.

“You were the last person to see him alive,” Reeve said when he found he could no longer handle the current conversation. “He…had a diary. Audio and video files. He talks about meeting you the day before he died.”

“Oh, of course! You were the missing link: the way to crack the system. A diary, eh? Well, does it say what we did?” Lucas asked, lip curling lewdly.

“Not explicitly,” Reeve sidestepped. He could guess what had been on the agenda. “When you were…with him…did he seem different? Scared?”

“No,” Lucas said quickly, then amended, “at least I don’t think so. He was a secretive bastard. He could have cured cancer and he’d have neglected to mention it to me.”

He manifested an artfully careless shrug. “I mean, I wasn’t you, now was I?”

They glared at each other for a time until, finally, Lucas’ eyes flickered to the system where it dominated the wall. “Have you…found anything?” he asked.

“Other than your name, no,” Reeve answered.

Lucas smirked. “Good,” he said. As quickly as he had come, the assistant left, leaving a bad taste in Reeve’s mouth and an idea forming in his head. He could see the bruises around Crafton’s arms perfectly, like a snapshot before his eyes.

Just as clearly came the thought: Lucas is hiding something.

:::::

October 9, 2032

“Do you have a minute, sir?” Reeve asked.

“Ah, Reeve,” Crafton said with his crooked half-smile. “Please, come in.”

The door closed behind him.

Crafton stood at his console but turned slowly to face Reeve who was hesitating at the door to the lab. His eyes seemed even paler than usual.

“We’ve been worried about you. You’ve missed over a week of classes. We all understand that it’s a difficult time for you, but really, you can’t neglect your studies. Or our research.”

Reeve looked worn and tired. The bags and dark circles under his eyes were from sleeplessness, and even tears. Crafton’s smile was aborted and a frown took its place.

“Reeve?” he asked, worry and fear in the name.

“It’s Brandon,” he said at last. His voice was thick and somehow soft, reluctant to speak the truth.

Crafton almost seemed to flinch. “Well. Yes. We’re all following it on the news. But they said he was stable.”

“Stable? He’s been conscious for a week now,” he said with a voice shaking from caffeine and fear. “He…talks, but it’s all gibberish. He seems to know me, but maybe he doesn’t. I can’t tell. And he can’t move his arm. It just hangs there and…Please, please,” he said and then lunged at Crafton, holding his shoulders tight. “Please bring him back to me!”

Crafton’s eyes widened and his mouth moved soundlessly for a moment. When he could talk, it was in a whisper.

“Surely his doctors can—”

“They can’t! They don’t know what they’re doing. They say the damage is too extensive and that he’ll never regain the use of his arm. You have to help him!”

“Reeve, that isn’t possible. It’s still an experimental process. It takes months to get permission for something like this.”

Reeve stepped closer, didn’t seem to care that tears were spilling down his cheek. He moved his hands to the collar of Crafton’s lab coat. “Please,” he whispered. “For me. Do it for me. Dr. Crafton—Carlyle—please.”

Crafton gasped. His eyes darted over Reeve’s face and the muscles at his jaw flexed and flexed. His expression could have been fear or hope or even desperation. It might have been all of those emotions at once. At last, he swallowed and nodded slowly.

“I’ll do what I can,” he said. “I’ll talk to my contacts at the hospital.”

He jumped in surprise when he found himself in a tight embrace, held against Reeve’s shaking form. “Thank you. God, thank you.”

It took a long pause for him to return the hug, but he did so reverently, his arms coming around Reeve gently and holding him close.

“Shhh,” he said to quiet Reeve’s sobs. “It’s okay. I’ll fix everything.”

:::::

It was the memory of the greedy university president’s words that tipped him off. They circled around in his head long after his interview with Lucas was over:

“One of Dr. Crafton’s assistants attempted to access the system and encountered this message. He was quite upset.”

Lucas had obviously been the one attempting to access the system. And on the day Crafton died, he’d been with Lucas.

Lucas who had been so interested in what the diary had contained.

“Well, does it say what we did?”

His words had seemed sexual at the time, but now Reeve had his doubts.

“Did you find something?” Baker asked immediately when she answered the phone.

On the monitor before him, a complex, flowing stream of code made the room seem to flicker like a candle. His fingers almost ached from all the hacking and breaking it had taken to get this far.

“Yes,” he said. “I think you better come have a look at this. And bring the chip.”

“What chip?”

“The computer chip you took from Dr. Crafton’s brain.”

There was silence. Finally, Baker said, “Dr. Rothschild, I’ve told you before—”

“Bring it and I promise your case will be solved today.”

The detective took the bait with a forced sigh to hide her eagerness to have this mess over and done with. “I’ll be there,” she said. “And you’d better not be dicking me around.”

“I’ll be waiting,” he whispered to the dial tone. Then to the computer he said, “Execute program.”

There was the necessary delay before all the imaging devices and interface cameras sprang to life. Reeve followed the gathering light and the swirling dust that it revealed. It came to a rest in the center of the room.

“Ah,” the projection said when it appeared, flickering as it settled. “If it isn’t the inestimable Mr. Rothschild.”

The image didn’t move, didn’t seem capable of anything but standing, talking, and making appropriate facial expressions. Right now it looked concerned, the grooves around it’s mouth deep and somehow handsome.

“Dr. Crafton?” he asked because that was who it was; a little grayer than Reeve remembered, certainly his face was more lined, but this was the man himself.

“Please,” the hologram said and shook his head, “call me Carlyle.”

:::::

October 15, 2032

Brandon’s face was pale and the train track stitching across his face and shaved skull made Reeve’s stomach flip flop.

He smiled thinly when Reeve entered. “Flowers?” Brandon said and shook his head slowly as if it hurt. “That’s just weird, man.”

Reeve flushed in embarrassment. “I…didn’t know what to bring you and your mom said…well…flowers are traditional.”

“At least they’re not in a pot,” Brandon said.

“What’s wrong with flowers in a pot?”

“Japanese tradition, man—you don’t bring the sick and dying flowers in a pot. With roots, you know? Like, ‘You’re here for the long term, here’s a flower that will stay with you while you rot in a hospital.’?”

“Japanese culture is weird,” Reeve said.

“Suck it, white boy.”

Reeve smiled wide and moved closer. He braced his hands on either side of Brandon’s bandaged head and leaned in close. “Later, half-breed, when we’re alone,” he said and moved in anticipation, holding his breath in his lungs.

Brandon froze, his eyes wide.

“What are you doing?” he croaked.

Reeve stilled with a frown on his face. Something was very wrong.

“Um…nothing?” he said and stood. He backed away, swallowing against the sick feeling that Brandon’s expression caused. He looked disgusted and horrified.

“You’re such a fucking joker,” Brandon said after a moment of awkward silence. “You almost had me for a second. I really thought you were gonna…you know…” but he couldn’t say the words and fell silent again.

Unsure of what to do, Reeve cleared his throat. “Um. So. You look better,” he lied.

The fish-eyed look was ruined a little by the pain etched across his features. “Better than what?”

“Better than…before.”

“Ah. Well, sit down,” Brandon said and gestured to the chair beside the bed. Once Reeve was sitting with the flowers draped awkwardly across his lap, Brandon took in his haggard appearance until his eyes lit on his finger.

“Hey, that’s funny,” he said after a minute and pointed at the gold band with the decorative leaf embellishments set into the surface. “Your ring.”

Reeve dropped the flowers when he lifted his hand to twirl the ring nervously. One glance at Brandon’s finger told him all he needed to know: it was bare, paler than the rest of the hand from where the ring had been for so long.

“What about it?” Reeve asked. A sense of foreboding was creeping in to his mind and thoughts. It had everything to do with the feeling from before that something was wrong with Brandon.

“I was wearing one just like it when I came to. I asked about it, but nobody seemed to know where it came from. My mom won’t tell me anything, but I get the feeling she knows something about it.”

“Y-you…” Reeve tried but it was too late to form a coherent thought. His world had just turned into a waking nightmare. He wanted to lock the good memories up and keep them safe from harm. Brandon stood beside him at that lake forever and ever, laughing at the light as it danced across their matching rings.

Brandon looked at him in alarm as he began blinking back tears and trying to breath evenly. “Are you okay?”

“Fine. Yes. The ring. You don’t know where it came from? Not at all?” And he was thinking, ‘Please tell me this is a joke. Please laugh it off and take my hand and say you can’t wait to come home.’

But none of those things happened. Brandon shook his head and shrugged. “Never seen it before. I had my mom get rid of it. I don’t know what she did with it. Hey, where are you going? Hey! I said where are you going?”

“Air,” Reeve croaked. “I need air.”

He ran and ran, scaring nurses and doctors in his retreat. When he made it out the front door, his lungs were burning and he heaved up his breakfast underneath a nearby tree. He spent over an hour pacing outside the hospital. He answered the phone with a shaking hand.

“No, Mrs. Bennett,” he said to Brandon’s mom, “I’m not mad. I understand why you didn’t tell me.”

But he didn’t. Not really. She’d been trying to spare his feelings and had allowed him to walk half-cocked into the biggest shock of his life: Brandon didn’t remember even the most basic aspects of their relationship. He ended the phone call feeling somehow worse.

Only once he was certain he wouldn’t faint did he go back in to see Brandon, who was almost childishly confused by his behavior.

Reeve, however, had moved well beyond confusion.

The only good thing he’d had going for him had been erased, and he suddenly understood how a murderer felt before they pulled the trigger or sharpened the knife.

:::::

When Baker arrived, she brought friends whom she introduced as experts from the department’s information and technology division.

The men and women in their laminates poked around the room while Baker approached Reeve.

“What did you want to show me?”

“Where’s the chip?” he asked.

She presented it in a heavy evidence bag, sealed and labeled. “I can’t believe I’m letting you see this,” she murmured.

“I’ve seen them many times before,” he said and took the bag towards the system controls. “What was on it?”

“Nothing. Whatever was on it has been erased.”

Reeve smiled even as his stomach roiled. “No, there wouldn’t be anything on the chip. It never contained data. It’s for interface only.”

“Interface with what?” Baker asked. Her tech team was sneaking closer to them, obviously intrigued by Reeve’s knowledge about a chip they could learn nothing about.

“Interface with that,” he said and pointed at the code flashing across the monitor.

“What is it?” one of the tech guys asked. “It looks like…a leech virus. Or something that acts like one.”

Reeve nodded. “Exactly. It takes data from one place and moves it to another.”

Baker looked from him to the monitor and back again. Suddenly her eyes widened. “Holy shit. Are you saying…?”

“Yes,” Reeve said and swallowed. “I’m saying that if you want to ask Dr. Crafton how he died, you can ask him yourself.” He pressed a button on the controls and turned to watch the reactions of the tech team.

They didn’t disappoint. Baker’s shocked expression was the best of all as was her muttered, “Fuck.” The hologram’s gaze swiveled to the detective.

“Ah,” said Carlyle, “you must be Detective Diane Baker. It’s good to meet you.”

Baker was approaching the hologram with a rapt expression on her face.

“It’s a hologram of the doctor. I’ve never seen one so lifelike before,” she murmured.

The hologram looked offended. “That is because I’m not just a hologram program made to seem like a human. I am Dr. Carlyle Crafton.”

“That’s impossible,” was her instantaneous response.

“Not so impossible. Ask Mr. Rothschild—we developed the technology together.”

Baker looked again to Reeve. “Is it true? Is this…artificial intelligence? The real deal?”

Reeve shook his head. “It’s more than that. That is Dr. Crafton. He knows everything Dr. Crafton knew up to the minute of his death. All of his memories, speech patterns, idiosyncrasies—they’re all in there. He can learn, think, make decisions—”

“Be in love,” the hologram added with an arch look at Reeve.

Reeve pointedly ignored him. But instead of being irritated by the snub, Carlyle returned his attention to Baker.

“Reeve informs me you have questions I can answer.”

Baker’s mouth snapped shut. She was still gawking at the hologram, as were the tech team.

“Uh,” Baker managed intelligently. “Before you died,” she began, but then seemed to realize how strange that sounded. “Were you afraid for your life?” she amended.

“Naturally,” Carlyle answered calmly. “The procedure I was about to attempt had never been attempted before.”

Baker looked to Reeve who only shook his head. “Tell her about this chip. Tell her what you were trying to do when you died, Carlyle,” he whispered.

The hologram laughed. “I was not trying anything. I succeeded. I have achieved immortality,” he hissed with a wild grin.

“So…you killed yourself?” Baker asked, stepping closer.

“Not at all. I thoroughly hoped to live through the upload, as it were. It would have been lovely to have a conversation with myself. Only everything went wrong. The chip was implanted over a year ago. It was installed with a failsafe that would lock down my entire system in the event of my untimely death. Prying eyes, you understand.

“There is always a high possibility of hemorrhage with operations of this kind, and my chip was implanted by my assistant. He also initiated the upload. He’s a good chap, but far inferior to the last assistant I had,” he said with a pointed look at Reeve.

His glowing face looked once again to Baker. “The bruises that Reeve informs me were left on my body were probably due to my assistant reacting badly when I went into seizure. So, dear detective, if you are investigating a murder, I’m afraid you are wasting your time.”

She shook her head and said nothing, as if she was still too much in shock to do anything much at all.

Carlyle looked to Reeve then, and his expression was sincere apology.

“You must forgive me, Reeve, for placing such a burden on you when I locked down my system. I never would have set the password to your voice had I actually believed you’d return. Especially not after how things ended between us.”

Baker looked to Reeve whose face had gone suddenly pale. “What does he mean?”

“Nothing,” Reeve said quickly.

The hologram smiled and something about it was sinister. “Well now, Mr. Rothschild. I kept my end of the bargain. I told the detective everything she wanted to know. Now you keep up your end—we have a lot to talk about.”

Reeve shook his head. “We do. Actually, there’s something I want to tell you.”

“Oh?” The hologram seemed to lean closer.

“Yes. It’s a good thing you died when you did. The Journal just ran an investigative piece about Bridging. Specifically, about the side effects of the operation.”

If the hologram could have paled, it would have. Reeve spoke the next words with enjoyment:

“If you hadn’t killed yourself trying to be God, the world would have crucified you when they found out the truth about what you and doctors like you have been doing.”

Baker was glancing between the two of them. “What is the truth?”

“Read the article,” Reeve tossed over his shoulder as he walked away. “I’ve prepped the system so you don’t need my voice activation anymore. All of his dirty little secrets are yours to study.”

“Don’t you walk away again!” Carlyle was screaming. “Reeve! Come back! We have unfinished business!”

But Reeve was gone, and he knew this time he’d seen the last of that laboratory and the memories it held.

:::::

October 16, 2032

Crafton didn’t jump or cry out when the door to his lab flew open, slamming into the wall with a loud thud.

Instead, he casually stood and turned away from the console to face the seething young man before him.

“Ah, if it isn’t the inestimable—”

“Don’t start with me,” Reeve tossed at him, his voice ending in a hiss. Crafton snapped his lips closed and didn’t even pretend not to understand. He didn’t approach or move much at all, as if sensing that he was in the presence of a man turned wild by anger and grief.

“Reeve,” he said softly. “I can explain.”

“Explain?” Reeve repeated. He was pacing back and forth. Occasionally he ran his fingers through his hair, making it stand up at odd angles. “I don’t care why you did it,” he said, voice high and frantic. “Just fucking undo it.”

“I can’t,” Crafton said calmly. Reeve spun on his heels mid-pace and the look on his face was full of hatred.

“No, you can do it, you just won’t.”

“That’s not true.”

“Then what is the truth, Doctor?”

“I love you.”

Reeve snarled and shook his head like he was trying to dislodge the words from his ears. “Shut up. Don’t give me that shit.” Reeve felt like he was pushing down on the top of a live volcano inside him, trying to hold rage in. When Crafton took a step towards him, he shouted, “Don’t come near me!”

Crafton didn’t listen. He had his hands up in a surrendering gesture and advanced slowly. “I do love you and you know I do. I was…desperate. And foolish.”

“You’re going to fix him,” Reeve said. “Make him remember me! Take away those stupid ideas about Japan! And I said stay back!”

“No,” Crafton said. He was only two steps away and very aware of the way Reeve’s fists clenched at his sides, how the muscle at his jaw flexed. “No to both.”

“Dammit, I will hurt you,” Reeve said but it didn’t sound as fierce as he intended; there was a childish plea in the tone of it.

Crafton only stepped closer. “I thought…if he went away, to Japan, you’d stay with me. He doesn’t remember you. Let him go. He doesn’t want you. I do.”

“You’re sick,” Reeve snarled.

“Yes,” Crafton admitted. “Yes, I am.” When he was crowding Reeve against a wall, he didn’t stop even once, but pushed his lips against Reeve’s and moaned as if he couldn’t control himself.

Reeve was still for the first shocked minutes of it, lips pressed together tight and eyes open and crossing to take in the sight of Crafton kissing him.

Finally, his hands caught up with his mind and he struggled. Reeve pushed against Crafton’s shoulders and tried to twist his mouth away. He succeeded only for a second, just long enough to catch his breath before Crafton had his mouth again. The bigger—obviously stronger—man was walking them backwards. Reeve’s back hit a filing cabinet and he cringed when the handles of the drawers pressed into his back and thighs.

It was when he felt himself giving in—when it stopped feeling like rape and started feeling more like something he’d wanted for a long time, but never thought he could have—it was then that he doubled his struggle. The ring around his finger was hot against his skin, a burning accusation, and he pushed and kicked out and somehow managed to break Crafton’s hold.

Crafton stumbled back, wiping at his bleeding lip from where Reeve had bitten down hard.

“Reeve,” he started, but never finished. Reeve had never punched a man before but it was effective enough. Crafton rocked back on his feet, even as Reeve felt his thumb spark with pain and realized too late he was holding his fist wrong. He’d lost skin against teeth and knew the blood on his knuckles was a mix of his own and Crafton’s.

He wanted to hit him again.

“Fix Brandon,” he screamed.

“No. I can’t. I won’t. He doesn’t deserve you. He’s not like you. He plays the guitar for god’s sake! And goes to parties! How could he ever stimulate your mind? But we are so alike and I—”

He held his thumb in the right position this time and Crafton went down on one knee. Blood was dripping on the floor; it oozed from Crafton’s nose and splattered off of Reeve’s hand.

“You son of a bitch,” Reeve hissed. “Stay away from me. I don’t want anything to do with you again. Not ever. I’m not giving up on Brandon. What you did can’t be permanent. He’ll remember me.” As if it were proof, he held up the band on his finger. Crafton only shook his head.

“He won’t.”

“He will! I’ll make him remember!” Reeve knew he was screaming. He felt the spittle fly from his lips and didn’t know how to stop the dry burn behind his eyelids that felt like he was about to cry or burn to ashes in anger. “Stay away from us.”

“Please,” Crafton whimpered and pushed himself to his feet. “Please just listen to me. Let me explain. Reeve! Come back!”

But Reeve was already gone, a trail of perfect little circles of blood marking where he’d been.

:::::

April 6, 2043

The glossy cover of the magazine uploaded to his screen and he tilted it in his hand, stared at it, and wondered if the world coming down around you always felt so quiet. It was like the world after a typhoon, still and eager for the aftermath.

The headline read:

“‘My Mind Is Not My Own’: One Man’s Struggle to Regain His Memories. Exposing the Truth Behind the Medical Miracle of Bridging.”

Reeve took a long, heavy breath before he felt capable of reading. The story was damning. Bridging was traced back to its origins, analyzed and dissected. Some of the findings were positive: for Alzheimer’s, the treatment was 99% effective with almost no side effects.

The problem was with head trauma, stroke, and dementia.

The family and friends of dozens of patients had come forward in the article to confess that, within a few years of the procedure, their loved ones had suffered from intracranial pressure, hematomas, hemorrhages, decreased mobility, sleep apnea, seizures, and sometimes, sudden death.

Beyond the physical side effects covered by the article, there were ethical and legal issues caused by doctors who took things too far or made things personal.

The article’s main focus was on a man named Joel whose entire past had been erased and rewritten when he underwent the procedure after a near-fatal sports accident. Crafton had not been the doctor to perform Joel’s surgery, but Reeve knew he had been the engineer behind the entire process. And he knew that it took a clever, delicate and deliberate alteration on the original operation to take away a man’s life and give him a new one.

The article claimed that the doctor responsible for Joel’s tragic story had been sleeping with Joel’s wife for years. And while it never officially accused the doctor of what he obviously seemed to have done, the article implied quite a lot.

Joel, for his part, didn’t remember having ever seen his wife before the day he awoke in recovery.

The story was too close to home and Reeve felt his breaths coming faster and faster, his head swimming and the world spinning.

Reeve dropped the screen onto the bed, slowly stood and moved to the window. He stared out for a long time and wondered how long he had before the story reached Brandon. The article broke two days ago so…

How long now before Brandon connected the dots, started questioning his own mind, considering his memories with greater scrutiny?

When he found the holes where Reeve was supposed to be, what would happen then?

For the first time, Reeve didn’t know what he wanted to happen. Five years ago—and maybe even a year ago—he’d had an answer. He would have wanted Brandon to open his arms wide, to kiss him like he hadn’t in ten years, to exclaim, “I remember! I remember it all!” and make love to him again and for forever.

Now, he just felt this tattered longing that was, maybe, the ruins of that sentiment.

When the phone rang, he answered, but said nothing.

Finally, tears in his voice, Brandon said what Reeve had hoped he’d say all these years, even as he’d hoped he’d never have to deal with the fallout:

“Tell me the truth.”

Reeve swallowed. For all the times he’d practiced this in his head, it wasn’t any easier.

He cleared his throat; it suddenly felt thick with fear and anticipation. “I had you for five years,” he said at last. “I had you and lost you in a night.”

Brandon’s voice caught. Reeve could imagine his wet face and red nose and felt oddly unmoved by the picture. Maybe it was because a part of him had always wondered how, even without the right memories, a part of Brandon hadn’t recognized him as the lover he was. There was no way he hadn’t at least suspected. Friendship alone couldn’t explain all that Reeve had done and been willing to do for Brandon. Not friendship alone.

“What are you saying?” Brandon asked in near-hysterical tones.

“Just that…I mean, I waited. I used to think one day you’d remember and we could start over and have what we had before. Again. But…you never remembered. I was just your best friend.”

“No,” Brandon said. Blunt denial didn’t seem to be calming him any; his voice was fraying around the edges.

“I haven’t made love to you,” Reeve said, staring off into the dark of the city outside his window, “in ten years.”

“Shut up!”

But the words wouldn’t stop coming now. “And I miss you. I miss your body and your mouth and…I miss us.”

“I’m your best friend! We…met at a baseball game and liked the same team and—”

Reeve was tired of that story. He’d been tired of that story. “We met at a party, got smashed together, and spent the whole night fucking. I didn’t learn your name until the morning after.”

“That’s—”

But Reeve couldn’t stop now so he interrupted once again. “The truth. That’s the truth. And Japan? Hah! You never cared about that country. Not even a little. You said you were American and proud to be American. You hated sushi. Now you never want to leave Japan? This isn’t you. Not the real you.”

Brandon was quiet. “You’re saying Crafton did this to me,” he said at last.

“Yes. He took away your memories, switched them around, gave you new ones.”

“Why?”

And here was where the honesty ran out, or the desire to express it, at least.

“I don’t know.”

Brandon was quiet for a moment. “Liar,” he said at last. “You fucking liar. You should have…you should have fucking told me, man.”

“How? How was I supposed to tell you? I mean…you…you think you’re straight!”

The dial tone was a punch in the face from across the ocean.

:::::

April 8, 2043

Reeve had agreed to stay on campus to assist Baker with any questions she had about the computer. He still refused to return to the lab, which irritated the detective, but he suspected she was growing a soft spot for him and would continue to let him get away with it. Maybe it had something to do with the diary where his name was splashed like a lover’s on every page of a romance novel.

The situation was becoming clear to her. He didn’t know if that bothered him or not.

He thought a lot about Brandon calling him a liar.

When he dreamed, it was in the vivid color of memories. He was rolling around on a cheap hotel bed with Brandon after graduation, naked and drunk and happy. Empty bottles were strewn across the room and highway traffic was the soundtrack.

“So you’re done with school, but you’re still his assistant, right? Crafton’s?”

“Well, yeah. The pay is good.”

Brandon laughed loudly. “Nah. You know you stick around because you loooove him.”

“Shut up, Brandon.”

Brandon dodged the pillow that Reeve threw and laughed again. “I can’t blame you; the man’s hot…for an old guy.”

“Shut up.”

“And he looooves you.”

“I said shut up.”

Brandon rolled his body down close to Reeve’s. “Then why don’t you put something in my mouth and make me, white boy?”

So Reeve had. He’d managed to keep him from saying anything other than, “God, yes, fuck, right there,” all night long.

In his sleep, he felt the corners of his mouth tug upwards.

But halfway through the dream, Brandon’s face became paler, his voice deeper and the hair at his temples gray. His eyes were cold blue and intelligent instead of mischievous. His longer frame held him down relentlessly to the bed. The room became the color of pigs’ blood and Reeve could smell it, almost taste it like it was coating his throat.

But when Crafton leaned down low and bruised his lips with a brutal kiss, clashing their teeth together and biting his lip, Reeve kissed him back.

“Please,” he begged and woke up sweating.

The dream faded quickly, perhaps like dozens more just like it.

After a glass of water he dozed back off, lulled by pleasant dreams of the life with Brandon he’d never have again.

:::::

April 10, 2043

“This is creepy, man,” he said to no one in particular. He was still groggy from the flight; still upset from all that he had learned in such a short amount of time.

He never used to like to meet Reeve here, he remembered. He did it anyway because they were friends, but now he had to question the memory. The laboratory was like a funhouse with all the pinpoint blinking lights in distant corners and the machines. He liked his friends well enough, but something more must have made him come here.

He’d come because he and Reeve…

The place was dark except for the eerie glow coming from a single monitor.

“Hello?” he called into the dark. “The admin said you’d be here so I…thought I’d come say ‘Hi’…just like old times.”

Only not at all since now he knew his mind was not the place it used to be.

Five more steps brought him closer to the monitor. “What is this?” he whispered.

He almost screamed when a holographic projection materialized before him.

“Ah, Mr. Bennett,” said the hologram, “just who I was looking for.”

“Dr. Crafton?” He shuffled back, unsteady on his feet. “You’re dead!”

“Mostly,” the hologram said with a tilt to its ghostly head. “But enough small talk. You have something I want.”

He opened his mouth to shout, but the world went white, and then very, very black. The last sound he heard was of his own body hitting the floor.

:::::

Reeve approached the door cautiously. He swallowed hard to wet a throat that felt like dried leaves. Who would come by at this time of night?

The still and silent campus transformed in his mind into something more than merely creepy; suddenly it seemed ominous and even dangerous.

“Who is it?” he said, mouth pressed to the crack.

“Reeve…it’s me.”

He was shaking, felt his brow start to sweat. There were too many locks on the fucking door and his fingers slid off every one of them.

“Brandon,” he said on a long exhale when the door swung in. “God, Brandon.”

He looked exhausted, but otherwise, just as good as he ever looked to Reeve. Dark hair, dark eyes, those thin lips that pulled into mocking smiles. His bags thudded to the ugly carpet of the hallway, and he took a steady step forward.

“What are you—?” Reeve started, but was interrupted by Brandon, speaking too softly and too quickly.

“I had to see you,” Brandon whispered. “I caught the first flight out of Narita. I just couldn’t leave it like that, you know?”

He waited as if expecting Reeve to invite him in, but Reeve wasn’t capable of much of anything. Half asleep and shocked stupid didn’t make him very talkative.

When he realized that Reeve wasn’t going to talk, Brandon swallowed and muttered, “I’m sorry. For…what I said.”

Reeve tried to smile and was glad the dark hid what must have looked more like a grimace. “It’s okay. Really.”

Brandon looked up from underneath the fringe in his face. “Your trips—what were you really doing when you went away?”

Reeve was so surprised by the question that a breathy laugh escaped him. He threw up his hands. “Research. Experiments. Don’t laugh, but I was trying to give you back your memories. I didn’t handle any of this very well.”

“Oh. But, did you…I mean…did you find a way to fix me?”

Reeve smiled sadly and shook his head. He’d never found a safe way to regrow memories, to write over a past that had already been re-written. “No. Not without killing you.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

“That sucks.”

“Yeah.”

“But, you know, thanks for trying,” Brandon said and winced at his own lameness.

Then he simply stopped talking and his eyes drifted, down, down. Reeve frowned and then lowered his eyes to take in his own appearance. He’d come to the door shirtless, wearing nothing but a pair of loose fitting, ugly sleeper pants. He’d been sweating in his sleep and his chest was smooth and wet in the light, almost glowing from the sheen.

He looked up quickly, apology on his tongue and saw Brandon lick his lips.

Something in his chest broke down, like a second-hand motorboat’s guttural whine to a halt.

His mind told him to retreat. He took a step back but Brandon followed. His advance was purposeful, like a predator on the hunt. He left his luggage in the dark hallway and didn’t seem to care that he looked like he needed sleep more than anything else.

Reeve’s eyes were wide. “What are you do—”

“Shhh. Just…I didn’t understand anything,” Brandon said and then his arms were around Reeve and everything was happening too fast.

The kiss wasn’t how Reeve remembered, but then he guessed Brandon was having the same problem. Or something close enough to be the same thing.

And he remembered pleading for any chance to keep Brandon ten years ago. To keep this. Wringing his hands together, eyes and nose leaking, throat raw and head fucked-up-full with images of the bloody mask that was Brandon’s face on that damn gurney as his brains leaked out; shards of glass like a diamond skin all over his fingers and arms.

And now they were kissing, his reward, he guessed, for waiting all these years, begging for Crafton to make Brandon whole again.

He closed his eyes against the image of Crafton in that stark white hospital corridor shaking his head. “The procedure has never been used on someone with this extent of head trauma before, Reeve. You have to understand: there’s only so much I can do.”

Kissed harder to mute the words.

He ran his hands through Brandon’s hair, felt the mountain range of scar tissue stretching back under his fingers and shuddered. And there was Crafton at his shoulder, studying him while he studied the gruesome x-rays. “Reeve,” he said, too close, and then placed his hand on Reeve’s shoulder, seemed to lean in as if he thought he could breathe Reeve in.

He’d looked at the images and hadn’t known what he was seeing; all the wires and chips and bits of metal squeezed in between the squish of brain matter had looked like something from a sci-fi movie.

And now Brandon set off metal detectors and sometimes caused computers to crash just by passing nearby. He’d gone through four watches the first eight months after his recovery and had finally given up on ever wearing one again. He’d tossed the last one away with a shrug and a laugh. “Who cares what time it is, anyway?”

And Reeve didn’t know why he couldn’t make the past go away while he kissed Brandon in the present, but it was like a persistent visitor knocking on the door.

He squeezed his eyes close together and tried to pull now to the forefront.

Brandon tasted like bad coffee and starlight mints. There was stubble on his chin and his brown eyes looked black in the dark. His hands shook as they scrambled over Reeve’s arms and neck and then dropped to cup his ass through his pajama bottoms. The kiss broke and they looked into each other’s eyes.

“Please, let me,” Brandon whispered. “Help me make up for lost time.”

Reeve got the door closed and locked, caught Brandon’s hand with his own and walked them back to the bed, because after waiting so long, there was no way he was going to say no. “It’s…small,” he said by way of an apology, waving vaguely at the rumpled sheets.

“It’s a bed I get to share with you. Who cares?”

Reeve had always been smaller, chest lightly muscled in comparison to the tight ripples that street basketball had given Brandon. That wiry strength pushed him down on the bed.

“God,” he gasped. He had endless memories he refused to let turn dusty and gray; memories of happily playing any part Brandon wanted him to play

Sometimes he was the horny bottom boy, other times the rough top with the dirty mouth. He could cut loose with Brandon, forget the research and the lab and just screw until his heart felt ready to burst.

He cherished all those beer-soaked nights with a cock down his throat and a tongue in his ass and always Brandon’s name ripped from his lips. None of the substitutes from his travels ever fucked him the way he needed to be fucked.

And tonight, Brandon was in control.

“Take off your clothes,” Brandon demanded. He stood by the bed, hands flexing at his sides and his eyes gleaming a little wild in the light from the window.

He stripped with shaking hands, feet getting caught in the legs of his sleeper pants. Brandon laughed low and sexy. “Cute,” he said.

“Shut up,” Reeve said with a grin. He felt like a teenager, his cock straining up and getting harder just because Brandon was looking at it, at him, wanting him.

Brandon licked his lips. “This is where I say, ‘Make me, white boy,’ right?”

He yelped when Reeve pulled him down roughly, kissed him wet and messy.

“Yes. And this is how I do it.” He spread his legs, gasped when his bare erection rubbed against Brandon’s where it was hidden, hot and hard, by denim. “Lube in the drawer,” he said against Brandon’s mouth.

“Yeah,” Brandon breathed and pulled away to rifle through the small beside drawer. “Shit…can’t see a thing.”

“Hurry up,” Reeve demanded. He needed this fast because he didn’t want to think too hard. He didn’t like how his mind was telling him that this felt like a lot of carrot right before the universe applied the stick. But, god, Brandon even tasted the same.

His return to bed was delayed by a graceless, hurried undress. Reeve heard change and keys hitting the floor and wanted to laugh. But then Brandon was over him again, but not how he remembered. The sparse lighting told him a story he knew very well. The scars on his arms made him remember that day in the hospital, so he looked away. But there were scars everywhere, a long shallow one near his heart, and a short, deeper one near his navel.

Brandon saw him looking, shook his head, and jerked one of Reeve’s hands to his belly. Reeve’s breath caught; being able to touch Brandon like this again was almost too much for him. The scar felt smooth under his fingers as he stroked it lovingly.

Brandon looked into his eyes. “They don’t hurt. Not anymore. And nothing hurts when you kiss me,” he hinted with a wicked smile. Reeve returned it as he leaned into the kiss. Then Brandon spent long moments mapping out his mouth with his tongue, massaging the roof with ticklish thoroughness.

Reeve was so wrapped up in the kiss that he gasped when a slick finger went trailing around his hole.

“Okay?” Brandon asked quietly.

“Yeah. Hell yeah.”

He prepared him teasingly at first, murmuring encouragements. And Reeve’s stomach muscles were aching because he couldn’t just lie down and take it; he kept sitting up to look at Brandon’s fingers where they disappeared inside him. He watched it all like it was the first time, that drunken wild night when he’d fallen in love with the stranger in the corner at a party that was forgettable otherwise.

When Brandon pulled him forward by his hips, he scooted down to help him out. Brandon backed himself right off the bed and stood back a little to take in the sight of his handiwork: Reeve was hard and sweating and breathing erratically. His pupils were blown and his nipples were hard buds on his chest.

His eyes never left Brandon’s face.

With his ass hanging off the bed and lube dripping from his hole, he held his legs far back and reached out, fingers grasping at air and hoping to find Brandon.

Brandon took the invitation and slid between his bent knees. “This is how you like it, right?”

Reeve nodded. “Don’t tell me you’re remembering.” His eyes were serious, narrowed suspiciously.

Brandon tossed his hair off his face, exposing the scar on his forehead for a just a second before his dampened bangs fell right back down. “No, but you just seem like that kind of dirty little bottom.”

“You’re such a son of a bitch,” Reeve said and wiggled his ass. “You’re out of practice. This could be over pretty fast.”

In answer to that, Brandon started trailing his cock over the sensitive skin of Reeve’s inner thigh. “Now you’re on: I’m gonna make you come first.”

Reeve rolled his eyes, but his shaking, lusty voice gave him away. “Come on, fuck me,” he groaned. He rolled his head and felt his hole open and close as he clenched his muscles, ready to have something to clamp onto, a cock to fill him.

Brandon had a nice dick and knew it. His cock was long and thick at the base and when he took it in his hand and slapped it against Reeve’s trembling thigh, it was just like old times. The slap went lower, closer to Reeve’s erection where it curved gracefully up to his belly. Never as long or as thick as Brandon’s, but just the right size for my mouth, Brandon had always said.

Now the head of Brandon’s hot, purpling erection was resting against his hole and Reeve felt like he might just die from anticipation. “Come on, come on,” he chanted and tried to scoot forward to end his suffering.

“Yeah,” Brandon said and smirked. “Fuck yeah.” Then he was feeding his cock to Reeve a little at a time, a slow, steady push that made Reeve sigh. When the hair at the base of his cock was scratching against Reeve’s ass he dropped his head and whispered something too low for Reeve to hear.

Then it was a brutal pace dragging Reeve steadily too close to coming, far too soon. He knew most of it was all in his head, having Brandon again when he never thought he would; having the freedom to run his fingers through his hair and leave long scratches down his back.

He was glad he had no neighbors in the dorm as a stream of obscenities poured from his mouth. “Fuck, yes, fuck me, there, oh god, oh fuck!”

Brandon grunted in time with his speeding thrusts. Sometimes his hands were pressing Reeve’s thighs back, back. At others, he rested them on his own flexing ass, riding the rhythm as Brandon teetered closer to the edge. Best of all was when he dropped his elbows down onto either side of Reeve’s body and rocked into him in short, hard thrusts.

He kissed and bit and licked at all the skin close to his mouth and his breath was a hot breeze across Reeve’s sweat-beaded skin.

“I’m gonna…god, please, touch me,” Reeve cried, but Brandon shook his head.

Brandon reared back and looked down on him like a god on high. “No. Come. Just like this. Come just from getting fucked like you haven’t in years. By me. Come for me, Reeve.”

And that somehow did it. His balls drew up close to his body and then he was squirting hot white come onto his own chest. Some splattered onto his chin and face and he rubbed it in, licked his own fingers, still rocking his hips as Brandon fucked himself to completion with a violent scream.

Reeve enfolded him in his arms when he collapsed on top of him. And he just held him, feeling his uneven breaths return slowly to normal. They kissed once, twice, and then separated. Reeve gasped and so did Brandon as his flagging cock popped free of the tender ring of muscle.

“Damn,” Reeve said.

“Good?” Brandon asked with a satisfied smile.

“Yeah,” Reeve chuckled. “I take back what I said about you being out of practice.”

As one they shuffled backwards and then arranged themselves on the small bed. Brandon’s hand drifted down between Reeve’s legs. “I should be a gentleman and get you a towel or something,” he said, rubbing the moisture he found between his fingers. “But I think I’m too tired to move.”

Reeve scooted closer and rested his head on Brandon’s chest. The heartbeat was strong and fast, but calming by the second.

“It’s okay. I don’t mind.” And he didn’t really. The wet feeling in side him and between his legs reminded him that the wait was over. He hadn’t felt this good in a very long time.

Which is why he froze and felt his heart skip a beat when Brandon wrapped his arms around him, squeezed gently and whispered low in his ear, “That was wonderful. Of course, I shouldn’t have expected less from the inestimable Mr. Rothschild.”

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