by T.F. Grognon
illustrated by beili
He doesn’t belong here, or anywhere.
In 1982, Cal visits Moscow’s GUM department store. He needs to obtain a trinket, something that commemorates the fortieth anniversary of Operation Uranus during the battle of Stalingrad.
His hair is uncomfortably long, curling over his ears, and it’s stiflingly warm in here. The ascending escalator is loaded with people who are in turn swaddled in heavy coats and laden with bags. The escalator crawls agonizingly slowly; around it, the tiers of the store bustle with activity. As he nears the top, a figure three or four people ahead of him steps off, only to stop short and turn. Despite the flow of the crowd around him, he remains still, staring at Cal.
His skin is darker than that of many here, and his hair wavy, even slightly frizzy, a halo around his head. His clothes match everyone else’s, but his expression is somehow familiar. The smile he’s wearing curves and dims, then strengthens into a smirk as Cal returns his gaze.
Cal stumbles off the escalator and knocks into the woman ahead of him. Without turning, she elbows him hard in the stomach.
When he straightens up, wheezing from the blow, the man is gone.
Cal hurries down the subway tunnel, counting the faintly glowing bricks as he passes them. After forty-two, he turns sharply right into a narrower side tunnel. The tracks are smaller gauge and the ceiling much lower. There is a mosaic on the wall with the name of the longs-abandoned station. Missing tiles make the word nonsensical.
Cal tucks his chin down and shoulders his way through elaborate cobwebs. The egress is just irising open, a swirl of green-blue light. He pushes through the old fare gate, now more powdery rust than anything solid, into the egress.
Each departure must take place through a preexisting exit, just as each arrival does. Cal doesn’t pretend to understand the physics of it all. It might as well be sorcery, but he knows that the logic is simple. No arrival can be invasion, no departure, rupture. Runners like him—indeed, all time travelers—use the extant infrastructure. You must get out within a very narrow period, or you’re lost. (The only other rule, of course, is that no other travelers may occupy your moment. That’s just reasonable. You can’t be in the same place at the same time without breaking every consensual assumption about reality.)
Once inside the watery light, he doesn’t feel or think very much at all. There’s a bit of nausea, the lurch of acceleration, then a deep-body tingle like the frontier of true exhaustion.
Next thing he knows, Cal is sitting upright in the intake cell. The space is barely wider than his body, smooth synthetic material that is shaped like an enormous chair. He’s naked; his period costume has been removed, along with his loot. The computer runs diagnostics over him, both physically and psychologically.
This intervening period, between leaving the past and reentering the present, is required both by international law and corporate statute. The time particles he has brought forward need to disperse before he can safely rejoin the timestream.
He opens his mouth and lets the computer check his throat and gums.
“Anomalies?” it asks, but the tongue depressor is still between his lips.
He widens his eyes and shakes his head, then grunts when the question is repeated, more forcefully.
“Anomalies?” it asks a third time.
Cal leans back and tries to push the depressor out of his mouth. “No, no.”
The slick wall of the cell presses him back toward the apparatus.
Finally, the response seems to register and the computer proceeds to the next round of diagnostics.
His mouth is dry and he wants to gag. He can’t shake the feeling of his jaw held open, tongue flattened, his voice stoppered up.
“Computer could use a tune-up,” he tells the cell. He sounds croaky, even a little petulant. “Maybe someone should check on that.”
There is no reply. He didn’t expect one—he’s never seen another person during any of these interviews—but feels vaguely snubbed anyway.
He’s getting prickly. Oversensitive. He needs sleep and some time alone at home. When the computer tells him as much, he laughs. “What else would I be doing?”
It doesn’t have a response for that, either.
The cell opens with the wall in front of him lifting upward, like a freight elevator, and the seat beneath him receding back into the other wall, leaving him on his feet. Outside, he finds a jumpsuit in his size and slippers.
Once dressed, he takes the corporate tube to his apartment block.
There are three messages waiting for him at home, two automated ones about building-wide power issues, and a single personal one from the pilot he’d been seeing before his last mission.
“Seeing” is, honestly, a pretty generous way to describe a relationship that saw them drinking together and having sex several times and not much else.
Cal classifies relationships according to whether he’s eaten a meal with the man. Drinking is purely casual; a meal out in one of the cafeterias is the next level of trust and intimacy; then comes eating at the other guy’s home. This last stage is subdivided by type of meal (assembled or handmade) as well as time of day (lunch is less meaningful than breakfast or dinner).
These phases are, as yet, entirely hypothetical. He’s established them as rough categories so that the system feels complete. He doesn’t expect any of them to get tested, not any time soon.
He ignores the pilot’s message and assembles a quick snack for himself. The lights are still off, so he moves through close shadows as he drinks down the metallic-tinged soup, recycles the container, and lies down on his sleeping platform. On his back, waiting for sleep, he blinks upward at the darkness a few times.
It’s like he never left. Or never returned. One of those.
The rich will pay for anything, however slight, however pointless, if it’s rare enough. Rarity was once measured as a factor of population across space, but now, something from the past can be considered even more rare. Rather than a shard of pottery, the rich can own an entire vase, still bright with lacquer.
It’s all about the kairons. The temporal particles that cling to a person as they move through time are considered unique, more so than retinal patterns or old-fashioned fingerprints. The Company didn’t discover kairons, but it has maximized their value rather remarkably.
Cal is a runner. He heads to the past and fetches what someone wants: a photograph, a bouquet, piece of silver, even a lock of hair (although authorities are clamping down on the biological loot, given rampant attempts at cloning).
He’s mid-level, more skilled than the newbies who simply dip their toes into the timestream for thrills, but not nearly so trusted as those who are given precise objectives.
He’s not going to loot Zac Efron’s third Oscar any time soon, but he can easily handle visiting Los Angeles and bringing you back a token.
You can’t blame humanity for this; it’s all on the rich. They looted the planet and its colonies, now they’re sacking all of their own history. This cannot be sustained, obviously. He doesn’t have to be a physicist, or even a tech like his ex, to know that. Pierce the past enough, paradoxes will start to accumulate, however careful the runners are warned to be.
Cal assumes he will be dead before the collapse really gets going.
This mission is as open-ended as any. His objective is to retrieve a piece of the band’s set, any piece, from snapped guitar string to the drummer’s bandanna. Set list or guitar pick, it doesn’t matter.
Cal tucks himself against a pillar while the band sets up. The pillar is ornate, done up like something in Rome, but that’s just cheap plaster that’s already crumbling. Beneath, there is a plain, ugly load-bearing column in ordinary asphalt. He sips his cheap beer, wishing that he enjoyed the stuff, because late 20th-century beer is renowned for its variety and quality. Before launch, however, he’d been vaccinated against intoxication.
That’s when he sees the face again. There can’t be any doubt about it, not this time. The man is slightly taller than Cal (but Cal is shorter than these well-fed, stocky Americans), with overlong tousled curls and wide, dark eyes. He has a shadowy hollow to his cheeks. Where Cal’s from, that pinch of lifelong hunger is run of the mill, so ordinary you don’t notice it. Here, it stands out. Even the junkies, both outside on Avenue C and down in here, may look starved and wiry, but it’s different. Get them off the poison, feed and shelter them, and they’ll be bounce back eventually.
Not so with the hunger back home.
Cal stiffens and grips the neck of his beer more tightly. He isn’t supposed to recognize anyone not associated with his mission; this face was nowhere in his briefing materials. Cal recognizes him not from the briefing, but bodily. They might have brushed past each other at a St. Andrews graduation in the eighteenth century; the stranger was certainly the man at the top of the GUM escalator.
Maybe Cal is being targeted for erasure. He’s going to die here, trampled by no-wave punk fans.
That’s ridiculous, of course. He’s not important enough to erase.
“What do you want from me?” Cal shouts over the music. He steps forward, ready to meet the stranger, but the stranger pushes him back against the pillar. He’s shaking his head slightly, an inscrutable smirk on his lips. “Who are you?”
The stranger opens his mouth, but if he does speak, there’s no way to hear him. The music is so loud that it has wholly replaced Cal’s heart and thunders through his body, riots through him from the inside outward. Cal tilts forward, still trying to hear, still trying like a fool to understand, when the stranger grasps Cal’s neck and kisses him. Just full-out kisses him, thumbs in the hollow of his throat, tongue moving over Cal’s lips and teeth, and then in. Hot and insistent, like he knows exactly what Cal needs. Cal’s arms go around him, one around his waist, the other up into his hair (still holding his beer), as he kisses back, flowing into the contact from knee to forehead.
It’s the best kiss he’s had in just about forever, anywhere, any time.
“See you,” the stranger shrieks into Cal’s ear, and just like that, he untangles himself and disappears into the crowd. The beer bottle drops from Cal’s hand and smashes at his feet.
His job has to be done alone. He can’t run across others from his future without endangering reality itself. Children understand that it has to be this way.
It has to be this way, in order to protect the integrity of the timelike curve along which he travels. It has to be this way, or everything will go to hell, whatever the literal equivalent of hell would be. They’re instructed during corporate training that feral anachronisms and weaponized paradoxes will start roaming the entirety of human existence.
It has to be like that for any number of reasons. Cal isn’t in the business of asking questions.
“You’ll thank me later,” the stranger says the next time they pass. Cal is on the Ada bridge in Belgrade, idly tossing pieces of bread at the ducks below. He heard steps behind him and ignored them; even this late at night, there were many people about and lots of truck traffic. Only when he hears a scuffle, bodies colliding, the specific oof of exhalation when a stomach gets punched, does he turn.
The stranger’s hauling someone else up by the collar. The other man’s face is streaked with blood, his head hanging down like a flower on a broken stalk.
“He would have killed you,” the stranger says. He drops the unconscious man at Cal’s feet and pauses, sucking on his lower lip as he looks Cal over. He seems to like what he sees.
“How could you know that?”
The stranger shrugs and glances over his shoulder, back toward the island. “Let’s say I know my history.” He kicks the body between them. “Grab what you can from his pockets, there are bonuses for that.”
So he knows who Cal is, what Cal does, even the bonus structure of the Company.
“Can you—” Cal starts to ask, but he doesn’t know what he’s asking.
The stranger’s jogging away, down to the footpath that leads back to the city. “Can’t chat now,” he calls, “sorry! Better luck next time.”
Thanks to the Company, he has a studio apartment all to himself, in one of the outer rings that still counts as “downtown”. He’s hardly ever here, so the place is as immaculate as it was when he first arrived. The view isn’t anything special, but he’s not interested in it anyway.
He sleeps and washes here, occasionally takes his meals. More than anything else, this is a landing pad.
He tried entertaining here once or twice. Liam, one of the techs from work, who had a silky black ponytail and soft goatee and a sly little smile, who tasted like mushrooms and sugar.
It didn’t work out. He knew when Cal was due in and out and started showing up on his own initiative. There are times (most of them, if he’s being honest) that Cal just wants to lie down in the dark. He wants to not be. It isn’t that the travel is physically onerous, at least not consciously so, but each mission taxes him in a variety of subtle ways. These are difficult to articulate and easy to downplay, easier still to ignore completely. If he happens to mention any of them to the computer that checks him on re-entry, he gets a barrage of messages about psychosomatic tremors and the necessity of remaining vigilant, then constant follow-ups until the next departure.
He is in New Orleans and it is almost 1899. He’s been instructed to retrieve some piece of municipal history. While waiting for City Hall to close for the evening, he wanders through the side streets. New Orleans looks like nowhere else. Humidity softens every edge, builds curlicues atop curves, weighs heavy against you and drips slow as a kiss down your spine.
He loosens his necktie and slings his jacket over his shoulder as he moves through the streets. Farther and farther afield from the target, but he isn’t all that concerned about getting back. He has all night to find something suitable.
Meanwhile, the late afternoon light is gilding everyone’s faces and the pale walls of the buildings. He stops at lunch wagon, just closing up for the day, and pays for the dregs of their lemonade.
He hears the music first as if it’s weather, a sudden squall out over water, but then the crowd shifts, turning toward the sound, elbowing each other and smiling.
As the band struts up the center of the street, the sun catches the brass of the instruments and tosses glints and dazzling lozenges over the crowd. The song ends and another immediately starts up; two women next to Cal are dancing with each other, arms linked. The band marches in place, dancing every bit as much as the crowd is. Somehow, they’re smiling around their mouthpieces, winking at onlookers, teasing them.
One of the trombonists, high-stepping in place, winks right at Cal. He’s light-skinned, hair slicked back in ripples that are starting to come loose. His collar is open to sweat shining on his chest; his sleeves are pushed above his elbows and similarly radiant. The rhythm can’t be resisted; it’s frantic and joyful, effervescent.
Cal raises his drink to the trombonist, holds it aloft for a moment, then takes a long, thirsty draft.
The trombonist’s eyes widen, then narrow markedly as he grins. He tips the trombone out of his mouth and tugs at an invisible hat.
The rag changes again and the band moves off, most of the crowd following.
Cal is left gaping, breathless.
The main reason he has never objected to the required solitude is that Cal has been alone for more of life than he has not. He was a refugee from the Bugs as a child. Whatever his family might have been, he lost them along the way. He grew up in the overcrowded institutions for the stateless and unknown. As a teenager, he hooked up for a good couple seasons with a fellow refugee; he and Park worked well together scavenging and busking. At night, they shared the same bedroll, close and humid and blind, wrapped around each other.
Park got a contract going off-world with one of the mining entrepreneurs when Cal was seventeen, or sixteen, maybe eighteen.
“Why can’t I come?” he’d asked Park and hated the whine in his voice then. Remembering it, he hates it even more, hates how helpless he was, how much he wanted to grab for Park’s hand and never let go. “I want to go.”
“Not your kind of work,” was all Park had said. He hefted his bag over his shoulder and finally met Cal’s eyes. He looked embarrassed. “What you’re good at, it’s not smashing rocks.”
“What do you know about it?” Cal rolled over onto his other side. He’d always kept up with Park in the dumps and on the streets. He might be skinny, but he sure as hell was strong, too. “Stupid ape.”
“That’s good, pick a fight,” Park said. He touched Cal’s shoulder, just for a second, but Cal flinched away.
Eventually, he heard Park’s heavy steps ringing down the metal ladder.
Cal was alone again then. He set out from the suburbs to the city proper, looking for the kind of work that he could depend on.
He and the Company found each other soon after that.
“Status?” The computer asks him.
“In one piece, unharmed, a bit tired,” he replies.
It prescribes him an extra two hours of sleep and iron supplement.
“Anomalies to report?”
He thinks of the face in the band, its resemblance to the man on the escalator, the frenzied kiss in the basement club. “No.”
“Kairon analysis validated. Sleep well.”
If his mysterious stranger were a traveler like himself, Cal would be smeared with the man’s anakairons. He’d probably set off every alarm in the facility, well before he completed re-entry.
The cell quavers open and Cal slips out to his feet. His mission target, the setlist from the opening band, has long since been secured. He’s back on his own again. He could stay here at home and take the prescribed sleep.
Instead, he heads down to the street tier and finds the first bar he can. He’d like to be alone with company.
Cal wasn’t seeing the same man. That was impossible. He cannot see the same person in a packed underground bar on the Lower East Side in 1989, that he’d seen playing the trombone in a ragtime band at sunset in fin-de-siecle New Orleans, nor in Amsterdam, 1957, just as the leaves were turning in the first chill of winter.
Except, of course, he is. He was. He’s not sure of the tense to use, since these encounters keep happening, but before. And then afterward, too.
This is why he’s no scientist or tech. He’s just the mule.
In the corner cantina, he orders a vine liquor, double, and stands solidly, feet spread for balance, as he drinks it down. The crowd only thickens as time passes and he drinks a second, then obtains a third. He takes elbows to the kidneys, jostling and pushing, all without losing his spot.
There has to be a reason he keeps seeing the same face. Is it the same person? He thinks it is, but he could very well be imagining that. Why would he imagine that?
Well, why wouldn’t he? The person seems to recognize him each time and he kisses like a champion. Maybe all Cal has right now is a crush looping back and forth through time. That would be funny.
“You never smiled at me like that,” someone to his right says.
Blinking, a little drunker than he thought he was, Cal realizes his ex Liam is slipping closer.
Liam is one of the Company’s traffic techs. He and others are gifted with higher levels of intuition and vector-sensitive imaginations than average. Working with the various artificial intelligences that the Company has harnessed and brought to heel, the techs supervise the various loops being taken from the present into the past.
No one loop can cross any others while the traveler is conscious. Two trains may pass in the night; a traveler may ride a coach past the inn where another resides, but no closer contact than that is permissible.
“It has to be done alone,” Cal says, cutting Liam off. “So why does it feel like some faces resemble others?”
“There’s only a limited number of phenotypes out there,” Liam says when Cal poses the question as vaguely and hypothetically as he can. “Especially back then.”
The belief that the present is far more diverse and rich with variety versus the bigoted, segregated past is so prevalent that Cal only notices when, like now, he’s been away for a good long stretch. Like the closeness of space here, everyone and everything packed on top of each other compared to the relative openness in the past, these differences are sensed below the level of conscious thought. They’re more like noting the humidity in the air or a shift in the wind.
“You’re bound to see faces that resemble others,” Liam concludes. “Just the laws of probability alone, in terms of genomics…” His fingers twitch as he starts to calculate those probabilities.
“All right,” Cal replies. “So I’m seeing things without any basis in reality.”
Liam grins and points his index finger at Cal’s chest. “Bang-bang, got it in one.”
Cal specializes in North America and Europe, the centuries post-Enlightenment. He blends in best, physically, then.
His stranger’s appearance is more flexible, he thinks. Sometimes he looks Mediterranean, other times Lebanese or Syrian; in New Orleans, he passed well as a light-skinned African-American man. For someone with such distinctive features, he’s quite adaptable.
Cal wonders what sort of missions the stranger gets to do, if they’re more adventurous than his own fairly ordinary trips for minor trophies and memorabilia. Does he battle for real treasure? Act as a cat burglar in an Imperial court? Accompany Prester John, advise Yuri Gagarin on the moonbase?
He is overdressed for this mission. It’s supposed to be the dead of winter in Cologne, but the temperature is comfortable, far closer to spring warmth than frigid cold.
After helping himself to a copy of the year’s best-selling poetry collection, signed by the author, Cal hurries out of the bookshop. He has very little time to spare, but he’s quite hungry. The food here in the past is invariably better-tasting than the protein slush and reconstituted roots to be had at home.
He has to slow when he comes to the wide marble steps that lead away from the cathedral. Their surface is slick with uncleared slush, so he steps carefully, eyes fastened on his feet.
“Careful,” a familiar voice says as he passes.
Cal stops and the man, blue striped scarf flowing down his chest, looks back.
“Are you following me?”
He shrugs, smiling quickly before frowning again. “Maybe you’re following me? Around and around we go…”
Cal goes to grab the man’s arm. The wind kicks up, the stranger stops talking but his mouth is open, and Cal recalls the pressure of his kiss, the insistent, nearly-desperate thrill of it.
He drops his hand to his side. The stranger swallows and nods curtly, then resumes climbing the stairs.
Cal’s not all that hungry any longer.
On his last reentry, there are no messages waiting for him. The computer barely notices him, pokes and probes nothing, asks no questions and wishes him curtly a “good day”.
Maybe it’s been tuned up, or maybe, just maybe, he’s getting ready to get forgotten.
He waits around for a tenday, then another, before the next mission call comes in. By then, he’s so bored and ill at ease he jumps at any job.
It doesn’t matter where, or when, he is now. He just has to get out.
He cannot be late; he has to make it. As he’s running for the elevator, his vision narrows to just the illuminated rectangle, watery-blue interior beckoning him. His thin-soled shoes slip on the marble floor and he flails but keeps running. A cleaner’s mop and bucket skid across his path, soapy water sloshing all over his shins, but he grabs at the wall for balance and pushes forward. His legs wheel and kick under him but somehow he stays upright and the package remains safe in his coat’s interior pocket and he’s almost there. His fingers graze the edge of the elevator door, even glow a little in the blue light.
“Watch out!” someone shouts and shoves Cal aside, knocking him several steps back down the hall.
His head hits the wall.
Staggering upright, Cal sees the stranger silhouetted before the blue egress. Then he turns, looking at Cal, reaching toward him.
Cal slips again into the wall, head bouncing, teeth clacking.
The thunder exploding inside his skull is not that, however, but the fireball bursting from the elevator.
“Get back!” he shouts, but the stranger shakes his head, confused, so Cal throws himself at him.
The elevator explodes outward as they slide past. Out of the corner of his eye, Cal sees flames threaded with oily black smoke, distended like an enormous marble. As they scramble free, the fireball recedes as if sucked in by an enormous mouth. The blue light washes downward, the doors click shut, and it is silent.
They breathe heavily together, Cal splayed over the stranger. Sirens build in the distance.
“You,” Cal says as he tries to sit up. He slips in all the water, tries again, slips farther. He goes with it, lying on his back, squinting up at the darkness vaulting above them. “You don’t know what you’ve done.”
The man passes both hands over his face and draws a long breath, his shoulders lifting to his ears. “I do. Believe me, I do.”
He looks toward the main entrance, then back at Cal. “Can you walk? We should get moving.”
Cal laughs. “Why? Where’ve we go to be?”
“I don’t know about you,” the man says, “but I don’t relish having to answer loads of questions.”
The elevator through which he should have escaped dings open and reveals an ordinary, brass and mahogany interior.
“All right,” Cal says. “Lead the way.”
As they leave by a back door, two fire trucks scream past them up the boulevard.
“Who are you?” Cal asks, quietly, as they make their way through the city center.
“A friend, I hope.”
Cal coughs into his hand. “Not metaphorically. Who are you? What’s your name?”
“I don’t know. What’s yours? What did your mother call you, Cal?”
All the refugee children in his intake cohort received names beginning with C. Cal doesn’t know any other name.
When Cal doesn’t answer, the stranger nods slowly. “Exactly.”
“What am I supposed to call you?”
“What have you been calling me? In your mind, I mean.”
Cal shrugs, rocking back and forth on the edge of the curb as they wait for the light to change. He doesn’t want to say “handsome stranger” or “good kisser”. “Stranger.”
“Oh,” the stranger says, disappointment thickening his tone. “I don’t like that.”
“I didn’t say it was any good!” Cal’s face and neck feel hot, far more uncomfortably so than when he was meters from the fireball. “What do others call you?”
“They don’t,” he says. “But I like Johndoe.”
“It sounds like a martial art,” Cal says as they cross the intersection toward the tram stop.
“Good,” Johndoe says, “I like that.”
When Cal hesitates to walk ahead of him, Johndoe laughs. “Please. You’ve already proven that you trust me.”
They board a tram heading north. Johndoe pays for both their fares and gestures him to share a seat at the very back.
“I don’t trust you,” Cal says when they’re settled. “I don’t even know you.”
“Yet you didn’t tell anyone about me.” He raises an eyebrow. In the constantly-shifting light flickering through the tram, he looks rakish one moment, contemptuous the next.
“Well, no.” Cal doesn’t want to explain that he didn’t exactly have anyone to tell.
“I’m sure that if you were truly concerned, you’d have been able to find someone.” At that, Cal glances at him sharply. Johndoe raises his palms. “Just a good guess.” He shrugs and drops his hands. “I know what it’s like, that job. Not exactly time or space for other people.”
Cal doesn’t reply.
“Yet you saved my life,” he continues.
Cal laces his fingers together and contemplates them. “I didn’t mean to.”
“I think, in this case, that actions just might speak louder than words.”
“I owed you,” Cal says.
“At the expense of your own egress?”
Out the window, traffic has lessened. The buildings are less closely-packed, the sense of their being jumbled fading. There are shadows between them now, and stars prickling out in the sky overhead.
“This is our stop,” Johndoe says.
They’re the last passengers at the last stop. When the tram pulls away, it goes back the way it came, jingling a little as it crests a slight hill, then disappears.
They’re in a silent suburban expanse. More lots are empty, marked only with surveyor’s twine, than have been built. Cal follows Johndoe down the street and into a cul de sac. Rather than proceed straight through the tiny stand of new, raw-looking trees that occupies the center of the circle, they move along the curve to the small unfinished house directly opposite where they came in.
“They select for that, of course,” Johndoe says as they enter the house. It is dark, underfurnished, slightly eerie. He hangs up his coat and then Cal’s.
“Solitude. A tendency to go it alone.”
Cal crosses his arms and shivers, missing the warmth of the jacket. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“The job. How you got it,” Johndoe continues, walking further into the house. Cal has to follow. “Comes down to preferences and temperament, sure, but biography, too.”
They’re in a kitchen now. Small and neat, gleaming appliances and cheerful yellow flowers on the wallpaper. Cal wouldn’t put money on it, but he estimates they are in the 1970s, maybe ’80s.
Johndoe retrieves a dish covered in foil from the refrigerator. The fridge’s light is sudden and sharp in the dark house.
“Best to use those of us who won’t be missed,” he concludes, sliding the dish into the oven and setting the dial.
Cal has been nodding along, a fact that he only realizes now, when, shocked, he stops. “What are you talking about?”
Johndoe washes his hands and dries them on the yellow towel next to the sink. “I think you know exactly what I’m talking about.”
Cal sits down at the small boomerang-shaped table. “You set that egress to blow, didn’t you?”
“Why,” Johndoe says, pulling out the other chair and sitting opposite Cal, “would I do that?”
“Hell if I know. I’m just the mule, man, I don’t know anything or anyone—”
The only explanation that makes sense is that Cal has been confused for someone else, someone valuable. He’s not.
“I know that.” Johndoe passes one hand through his hair. His fingers are long, elegant, in the dark riot. “You don’t have to believe me about any of this.”
“What, you’ll just keep me here until I do?”
Johndoe sweeps his arm toward the window over the sink. “You’re free to go. No keeping you.”
Cal considers the window, then Johndoe’s tired face. A blank, dark rectangle, or the open, weary expression and slight stubble along his strong jaw.
The bell rings on the oven.
“Have some food first,” Johndoe suggests. “Get your strength up.”
They compare biographies, mission lists, addresses. They could have known each other—Cal’s memory begins just a year or two before Johndoe’s birth—but they don’t. They didn’t, or they will not, however one wants to put it.
“World’s a big place,” Johndoe says wryly and pours Cal some more wine. “Shame, though.”
Cal chews several more bites of casserole before speaking again. “You didn’t come after me?”
“Hell, no, I just…saw you around.” Johndoe ducks his head. “Liked what I saw, couldn’t believe it when I saw you again.”
He was so sure there must be some larger pattern at work. A corporate conspiracy, perhaps, intrigue at the highest levels and his life just a pawn in a much longer, more intricate game.
“It’s all going to fall apart,” Cal says. “Sooner or later, it will, don’t you think?”
Johndoe grins and shrugs. “Yeah. What are we supposed to do about that?”
“Nothing,” Cal replies. Maybe Liam could do something, but there’s no reaching Liam now. That feels bad, but he feels guiltier yet that he doesn’t actually feel worse about it. “We could, maybe, leave a message somewhere? Tuck it behind the Mona Lisa, hope someone comes to loot it…”
Johndoe laughs at that and Cal smiles. The laughter isn’t dismissive, just delighted. He slaps the table, makes their forks jump. “For all we know, the Mona Lisa is a plant, too.”
Cal pushes his empty plate away. “I don’t understand.”
He doesn’t understand very much at all. It doesn’t take Johndoe long to explain, but Cal’s impatient anyway. There’s no conspiracy, kairons aren’t actually dangerous, and historical artifacts might well have been planted by gardeners like John Doe.
“You’re not a mule.” Why does he feel slightly betrayed? He’d assumed, at the very least, that the two of them were equals.
“No, but I used to be,” Johndoe says. “Bumped up to gardening about ten, twelve, missions back. That’s when I bought this place.”
“With your bonuses,” Cal says slowly, finally putting everything together.
“Judicious larceny here and there, a little untraceable investment,” Johndoe says. He tilts his head and brushes the hair from his eyes. “You’d have done the same, I’m sure.”
“Nah, I’d never have thought of it.”
“Sure you would.”
Cal stands, taking their plates to the sink. “I’m not a planner, man. Schemes and shit, I don’t follow.”
“What are you, then?” Johndoe’s voice is very quiet. His tone, however, is far from gentle.
Cal turns on the water as hot as it will go and holds his hands under the stream until they’re red. Eventually, Johndoe reaches past him, turning down the water and adding some soap.
“I don’t know,” Cal finally says.
“So we’ll find out,” Johndoe replies, standing next to him, nudging him aside so he can do the dishes.
The silence trembles around them. Cal dries the plates as Johndoe hands them over.
“It’s a lot to take in,” Johndoe says when they’re finished. He flicks off the kitchen light as they move toward the living room. The night fills up the empty rooms, turning everything grainy. He almost sounds like he’s apologizing.
“It’s fine,” Cal says, then shakes his head. “I’m fine.”
“There’s the couch,” Johndoe says, “and I’ve got a bedroll, some extra blankets…” He stands in the entryway, hands at his sides, looking a bit like he’s lost.
Something hot and sharp grips Cal from the inside. “You’re not turning in, are you?”
He glances over his shoulder, then back to Cal. His smile is small and gentle. “I don’t have to, I wanted to let you…”
“Let me what?” Cal approaches him carefully, stepping deliberately until he’s within reach. Johndoe keeps his eyes on Cal, but he doesn’t move to meet him. When Cal grabs his wrists, Johndoe shivers slightly, then smiles. “Let me what?”
“Make the first move, I guess,” Johndoe says. This close, he looks younger than Cal’s earlier impressions. There are still lines radiating from his eyes, strands of silver twining through his hair, yet something very young in the way he’s looking at Cal, hopeful and abashed at the same time.
“This kind of move?” Cal tugs him closer and tilts his head as he leans in. He kisses Johndoe as carefully as he’d moved in–nothing showy, no flourishes, just firmly and thoroughly. After a moment, Johndoe opens his mouth, breathing out a whimpering sigh as he wraps his arms around Cal.
“That’s a good move,” he breathes.
“Thanks,” Cal says, “I like to think so.”
“Got any others?” Johndoe’s eyes flutter closed when Cal kisses him again and they shuffle around until they’re both leaning against the wall, hands slipping up under shirthems. Cal moves closer yet, drags his mouth down the side of Johndoe’s throat to suck at the hollow above his clavicle. “Oh, okay, that works…”
Johndoe’s arm is wrapped around Cal’s head, clutching him close. His hips work a little, erratically, until he sucks in a sharp audible breath and seems to force himself still.
“Let go,” Cal says. He doesn’t think it’s an order or a command or anything like that, it’s just what he wants, and he wants it so badly, that he can’t be polite. “Please, man, come on–”
Johndoe twists, opens up a sliver of space between them. His mouth is red and wet in the dimness, shining as he breathes and tries to smile. Cal holds his waist, lets his fingers tease along the swell of buttock, and sucks hard on his lower lip.
“I want to, but–”
Laughing hoarsely, Johndoe knocks his head against the wall a couple times. “You don’t have to do this.”
It takes Cal a long couple moments to make sense of that. Of course he doesn’t have to; they’re outside causality, aren’t they? Isn’t that the point of…wherever they are? Whatever it is they’re doing?
“Oh,” he says, “you think this is gratitude?”
Johndoe shakes his head, then shrugs. “Maybe?”
“I don’t think I’m that nice a person,” Cal says and tries not to look away. “That didn’t even occur to me.”
“You saved my life,” Johndoe says. “That’s pretty nice.”
“You keep saying that, but—”
Johndoe kisses him again, softly. “I’m sure I’ll have the bruises to prove it in the morning, if you want to wait.”
Cal snorts. “I can take your word for it.”
“So you’re not spending the night?”
The next kiss is deeper yet, Johndoe grinding against Cal’s hip. “Yeah, I am.”
Johndoe pushes his hand up under Cal’s shirt. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. That okay?”
When he grins, really grins, Johndoe is transformed. “More than okay, yes.”
Cal tries to imagine what it would be like, doing this out of gratitude, but he can’t. He works his fingers through Johndoe’s tangle of hair to tug him closer again, renewing the kiss more forcefully. Johndoe’s scalp is hot, and he shivers against Cal’s nails digging in.
The kiss, the pressure of their bodies touching from leg to forehead, sets heat flaring and skidding under Cal’s skin until he’s not quite breathing and swaying a bit for balance.
“Clothes,” Johndoe says, pushing Cal gently away. “Let’s not…”
“Ripping those off you sounds good, but…”
“Quicker, actually, to just disrobe,” Johndoe finishes, ducking his head and pulling off his shirt and sweater together.
Cal pauses, hands on his belt, watching Johndoe’s torso emerge: a little soft around the waist in a way that no one gets back home, nipples dark and tight, a spray of hair down the center.
“Here,” Johndoe says, covering Cal’s hands with his own. He darts in for a shallow kiss, almost chaste were it not for the way he’s pressing the heel of one hand against Cal’s erection. He looks up through his lashes. “May I?”
“Please,” Cal says, rolling around so his back is against the wall and his hips are lifting. Johndoe tugs open Cal’s belt and eases down his zipper, then the trousers themselves. They end up around Cal’s knees, trapping him, as Johndoe presses bodily along Cal again, kissing him hard and deep. Their hips switch back and forth together, scraping up more heat that billows through Cal, makes him hungrier yet.
“Couch?” Johndoe asks.
“In a minute,” Cal replies.
His fingers are tangled in Johndoe’s hair again and when he tries to get them free, Johndoe grimaces. Cal stops moving, but Johndoe kisses him again. “Keep doing that, it’s good.”
Cal kisses around the edges of Johndoe’s mouth, uses teeth and tongue to worry at the tender skin, until Johndoe’s rippling against him, riding one of Cal’s bare thighs and squeezing it hard enough to juice fruit.
“How about floor?” Cal whispers, pulling back, leaving Johndoe’s mouth open and wet.
“Good,” Johndoe says, sinking down as if Cal’s hand is pushing him all the way rather than merely indicating the direction. He glances up, twists his head a little to test Cal’s hold, and grins again. “This is a good angle. You look good.”
Cal pushes his hips forward. “I’ve got a lot of good angles.”
“Glad to hear it,” Johndoe says, “I like a multifaceted man.”
When he starts to mouth around the taut fabric of Cal’s briefs, his breath is fiery hot, his tongue rough but too distant.
“Go for it,” Cal says thickly. He hooks a thumb in the elastic and tries to pull the briefs down. “Good teasing, but I don’t—”
“Good,” Johndoe says and, lightning-quick, Cal’s dick is springing free into Johndoe’s mouth, perfectly aimed, his lips closing around the head.
“Fuck,” Cal shouts. He can shout, can’t he? No one knows where they are. No one knows who they are. He can scream and curse, make as much hungry, guttural noise as he wants. He can do anything.
Reckless, giddy excitement swamps him, doubles through the heat already inflating him. Johndoe’s eyes are fixed on him, wide and bottomless, while his cheeks are hollowed and his chin starting to shine with drool.
He whines a little as Cal pulls out, but trails off when Cal sinks down to join him, catching his arm around Johndoe’s neck and kissing him hard. Johndoe grasps Cal’s dick and Cal fumbles for Johndoe’s fly. They bang the wall, slide on the polished floor, finally end up against the couch. He’s sucking on Johndoe’s mouth, nearly inhaling him, replaying the sight of Johndoe’s lips around him as he tugs and twists on the man’s cock.
“Lie down,” Cal says as Johndoe jerks him faster. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do; he wants everything. “Can I…?”
“Fuck my face,” Johndoe says, mouth twisting as Cal fingers his balls. “I’m dying for it.”
Everything inside Cal flashes high and light, both excitement and relief drawing him up, making him groan. Johndoe lies back on his elbows, mouth open, grunting when Cal straddles his chest.
“Don’t die,” Cal tells him, cupping the back of Johndoe’s head, stroking his hair as he thrusts inside. “We’re finally getting to the good part.”
Johndoe makes a wet, throaty sound, chuckle mixing with moan, and swallows around Cal. His eyes are hooded but intent, and his throat works open every time Cal rocks forward.
He thrusts, savoring the hot slippery tension, trying to hold off. He can’t, not now, not with Johndoe’s hands sliding up the back of his thighs, grasping his ass to push him farther, deeper in, down, and Cal shakes from toe to balls to chattering teeth as he comes.
When he reaches back to stroke off Johndoe, his hands still shaking and weightless, he finds a mess of spunk clotting Johndoe’s shaft and thighs.
“Sorry,” Johndoe says, though he doesn’t sound very sorry at all. “Been a while.”
Cal kisses him, tasting everything smeared around Johndoe’s swollen lips and raspy, stubbled chin.
“Next time,” Cal says, “wait for me.”
“It’s a deal,” Johndoe says, rolling on his side and easing Cal down to face him.
He’s never getting back: the fact slices clean through Cal’s mind. Scalpel or guillotine, it doesn’t really matter which. He’s lost, it’s over, he’s dead.
He won’t be born for a thousand years.
They sleep in the living room, next to the cold ornamental fireplace, under the French doors that lead to a yard of raw, turned dirt. The sun will find them in a few hours, exhausted and tangled together, misfits clinging tight.