THE BOY WHO DIDNíT DIE
Will wakes to gray morning light. Opening his eyes a fraction, he peers at the bedside clock. Four-thirty. The qualifying test for multichannel comm is today and he needs to rest, but the Feeling is already there, settling in his stomach like a lead weight.
It isn't pain, exactly; it's a thing descending on him, a tremendous pressure bearing down. It flattens his lungs, robbing him of breath and paralyzes every muscle in his body. His heart flutters in his chest, straining to beat, and he wishes it would stop. Wishes it had, two years ago, when so many others did. He can taste metal now, sickly sweet copper, acrid iron and he hears soft laughter, sees fey green eyes glittering under fluorescent lights.
Then it's fading and Will manages a shallow breath, then another. Holding his chest, he sits up slowly and reaches for the shield control. It's hot to the touch, internal fan whirring audibly and the needle is all the way into the red of overload, but the psi shielding has held.. As he watches, the needle begins to recede back into the green.
It has been explained to Will many times how important it is that he is given no apparent special treatment. By now, it's second nature to him to consider not only the reason for a decision, but also how it may be perceived. If he had had any choice at all, he would have declined the singles room. However, having a roommate has never been an option and there he's had to yield. Being an empath, he needs the quiet that comes from five layers of first-grade psi shielding. When he closes the door, he really closes the door. Being Will Braddock, he is also aware that subjecting his peers to him would be cruel and unusual and he keeps to himself.
It may not be the college experience as advertised by most universities or even the Academy itself, but although Will sometimes feel lonely, he isn't unhappy. He chose to come and they teach what he wants to learn. He is, of course, alternately resented and respected by his fellow students and some of the younger faculty, for being his father's son, his mother's son and for being the The Boy Who Lived. He would have been a fool to expect otherwise and since Denver, Will Braddock doesn't have much foolishness left in him. Or much of anything, really, but that is another story.
The multichannel comm test is scheduled at eleven and Will is on-site ten minutes ahead of time. It's a miserable day to spend outside, especially for a test that is part endurance. It's chilly and damp and the overcast skies threaten rain. Pacing in the mud, Will shivers beneath his parka. He doesn't feel well; his chest aches still and he can't seem to get warm, but five units got out of bed this morning so he could test drive. If he withdraws, there might be months before he gets another opportunity, not to mention that he'll look like a spoiled brat.
Test Control wants his attention now, so Will opens up the link in the short wave zone of ultraviolet. Whoever gives the orders also need access to override, if anything should happen. He isn't overjoyed with Barrett being the one he has to give the keys to, the man has all the tact and sensitivity of a charging rhinocerus, but at least he pulls enough of a punch to be useful in an emergency.
"Permission requested to commence test ," he says out loud and the answer comes back a few clicks later:
"Permission granted. Please log on at your convenience."
Will closes his eyes. His five units are somewhere out here. At least two of them will be psi shielded. His job is to relay orders to any combination of them, according to Test Control's specifications, and to keep it for as long as he can. Three hours is required to pass. Four is commendable. Will is pretty sure that he can do five. But first he has to pinpoint their location and isn't that going to be a bitch.
Test Control is a buzz, technicians and instructors monitoring testers and troop movements, giving orders, receiving confirmation from different units and recording the lag times. Harry is the only TA without a specified task, which means he has to keep the rest of them supplied with coffee and doughnuts. The coffee part is convenient, but the real reason for Harry's presence is a near shield failure in the empath wing last night, young Will Braddock's room. Respecting Braddock's privacy, no one has asked and far be it from Braddock himself to volunteer any information. Damn that family's closemouthed arrogance.
"Ramos is online," Barrett reports and a few seconds later: "Braddock too. Took him long enough...hey, what's this?"
Harry pushes off the wall to go see what has Barrett's knickers in a twist. Leaning over the other man's shoulder and piggy-backing off his channel, he can't help but be reluctantly impressed. Braddock has unfolded his network connections and each of them is on a separate psionic frequency, no bleed, no energy wasted. Gain and bandwidth balance is optimised and distortion a faint whisper, almost below detection limit.
Ramos, Lang and Weir have all opted for static links, shifting energy and attention to the currently open channel when needed. Weir can do three or four at once, Harry knows. He doubts that Lang can handle more than a pair at a time and as for Ramos, Harry expects her to drop out of the astral plane in less than an hour. Braddock now, can talk to all permutations of his units simultaneously, something which is both very useful and dead cool.
Harry can't know, but he's fairly certain Braddock is using the Rainbow method, visualising the astral plane as energy spectra and assigning each channel a colour. Takes a fair bit of juice to set it up and to get it calibrated, but as soon as all plates are spinning, it is less effort to maintain than turning on and off static links. Six of the connections flare as Braddock pushes a little to test the psi shielded units. Harry smirks. Not bad for someone whose main talent is empathy.
He looks up to check locations on the screen right above Barrett's desk and sees Braddock move along the forest's edge, without breaking cover but at speed. It takes Harry a few moments to realise that he's keeping equal distances between the two psishielded units by triangulation. Barrett, still online, mutters someting about of show-offs. As in response, two of the frequencies merge seamlessly to relay a common command, then disassociate cleanly.
Would you look at that. While caution is a good thing, Braddock is clearly in control and doesn't need a baby-sitter. Probably overloaded the system just by thinking too hard. Harry logs out and turns to his colleagues, grinning.
"Get your own goddamn coffee," he says.
Will crouches in the thicket at the edge of the field, one hand and one knee on the ground. Although he's had to let his links to the psi shielded teams spool out a little, distance is no problem. Telepathy needs connection, not proximity. His mother has told him about phones and what can be done with them.
Displeased with how the shielding dampens out his signal, he adds some blue wavelengths to maintain amplitude. It rains, of course, and every gust of wind sends another stream of icy water down his back, but as unpleasant as that may be, he is more worried about being slowed down as the fields turn to mud. He needs to be able to move when Test Control tells him to.
It's so damned cold. Will flexes his hands and tries to force down some blood into his fingers. There's no reason why he should be chilled to the bone, no reason why every muscle in his body should tremble with fatigue. Except for the initial push, he hasn't asked anything major of his body and that was hours ago.
A query from Megan of Three to Control comes through and he relays with almost no lag-time at all and little loss of energy, just reflects it and redirects down another path. The reply comes back, quick as a bounce, but a high-priority order does as well and Will puts that through first. It isn't necessary to queue, he could send the second reply on the tails of the first, but he wants to give Megan a chance to react to the first order. Control doesn't query the delay, meaning that he's made the right decision or possibly that they are struck dumb with his stupidity.
Two of his units have lost members. Seamus sprained an ankle after Two ambushed Lang's One and Andrea in Five went offline after a skirmish with Weir's Five, taking what would have corresponded to a lethal injury in a real battle. Will has no idea what happened to Ramos, but he assumes the girl burnt herself out in the first two hours. Lang is good, no flash and stable as a rock, but Weir is who Will needs to look out for, especially if Wisdom is the one giving orders in Control.
Harry isn't giving any orders, but he owes Kazakova a Starbucks latte and since she'll be stuck in Test Control all day, he figures it's a good time to pay up. He throws in a large slice of cranberry cake as well. Kazakova says she eats, but she doesn't unless you make her.
"Is that for me?" Kazakova asks with a smile. She's a forensic empath, newly transferred from Russia, and since Harry found her crying in the lab a few weeks ago, he's done his best to make her feel more at home.
"Sure, hon," Harry answers and puts the paper mug down on her desk "Oh, and if you need a ride into town later, just let me know."
Kazakova rents a room far from any grocery stores and she doesn't have a car. From what Harry can understand, she buys her food in the cafeteria on campus when she bothers to get food at all.
"Thank you," Kazakova says. "But I don't know when, so don't wait for me. I can take the bus."
She gestures at the screens and Harry sees that both Weir and Braddock are still online. Seven hours and counting, which is nice, though far from setting any records.
"Lang and Ramos?" he inquires.
"Lang dropped out after a respectable 4:36," Kazakova tells him. "Good, controlled dismount, too. Ramos was a mess. We could have used you."
Harry isn't terribly surprised. Lang is a decent enough comm telepath, but he makes no secret of the fact that his main interest is forensic empathy. As for Ramos...
"Weir's Five took her Three and Four down in the first ten minutes, just by back-tracking the psionic fireworks. She couldn't get through to her One and Two and her Five refused to work with her if she didn't amp down. I don't know what Barrett was thinking, letting her test for Multichannel."
Harry doesn't know either, but Ramos is a such a sweet girl, it's damn hard for anyone to deny her anything. He hopes, no, he is sure someone has taken her out for dinner and comfort.
"Lang lost his One to Braddock and his Four to Weir. Weir lost his Five to Braddock," Kazakova continues. "Braddock has all of his units online."
"I'm sure Barrett will do something about that," Harry says with a smirk. "Call me later if you need anything, Kaz."
Will has no concept of time any longer, all he knows is moving in the dark, slipping and sliding through mud and leaves. Weir is out there, trying to get a lock on Will personally and throwing his four remaining units in Will's presumed escape route. Whoever is running Weir's ops is a better tactician than Barrett, Will thinks it may be Kazakova. Barrett is conservative and slow to react in defense or offense. Will is exposed in an undefended position, which would have been unforgivable in a real situation. First rule of engagement is to protect your telepath. If your telepath can't be protected, that's who you kill.
Will really doesn't want to go up against Weir. This test should be about versatility and endurance, it shouldn't be a brawl. But Weir is angling for a fight, limiting Will's options, and if there's going to be a fight, Will has no interest in losing.
Barrett starts yapping again with what he thinks is good advice, namely getting in close to Weir and smacking him in the head with the focused totality of Will's mental powers. As most old school telepaths, Barrett has failed to grasp why distance doesn't matter. Without further ceremony, Will cuts Barrett off mid-sentence and shoves him offline. Because this isn't a videogame and Will isn't just Barrett's relay hub. If distracted, Will could hurt Weir or be hurt by him and it's a question of minutes before it happens. It's time to slow down and focus.
He stops, hands on knees and tries to catch his breath. It takes longer than he likes, as coughing and retching is involved. When he's done, he feels Weir homing in on him, like a sweeping searchlight and as visible, which makes the rest of it very easy indeed.
It's the middle of the night and that's how Harry answers the phone if you wake him up, no exceptions to the rule.
It's the middle of the night and Kazakova is calling. These things usually don't go together. Something must have happened.
"What's wrong, Kaz?" he says. "You okay? Where are you?"
"I'm fine. Will took out David."
Harry sits up.
"You mean Will took out David's units," he says, hoping that Kazakova's usually excellent English has failed her.
"No. Will took out David. Barrett set it up. Look, I was running ops for David, I felt it."
A quiver in the voice and Harry is worried about her now. Kazakova works too hard, takes things too seriously, pretends too often that nothing is wrong.
"Tell me you're in sickbay, Kaz."
"I am.With David. But Harry, Will is still out there. Barrett wouldn't call off the test. He says Will is doing fine and there's nothing wrong with his charts, but I have this feeling. He's been out there fourteen hours and he doesn't answer to voice, only the psi channels. Harry, isn't there anything you can do, someone you can call...?
She sounds really upset. Harry is a sucker for damsels in distress and lame dogs. While young Will Braddock doesn't fit readily into either of those categories, this situation has disaster potential. Fourteen hours.
"Easy, Kaz," Harry reassures her. "I'm on it. I'll call you afterwards, okay?"
Test Control wants things from him again. Test concluded, they say. The troopers want to go home. Stand down. Stand down, Will.
Oh. It means disengaging. He withdraws all but the fraction of the energy from the network connection, then uses that energy to seal all the channels in turn from ultraviolet to infrared. He is very careful. He doesn't want any of them to have a headache tomorrow.
Turning his own seals is harder, mostly because he isn't paying as much attention. He slips a little, in the yellow and it hurts like hell.
Test Control wants more things and Will almost weeps with frustration. Whatever he does isn't enough, is it? Talk to us, Will, they say now. It's time to go home, Will. Then they want him to stay exactly where he is because a teleporter is going to pick him up in just a minute. Rubbish. Will doesn't need a teleporter. He is a teleporter and nobody tosses a dwarf.
"He missed," Kazakova says tersely. "He is only a mile or so down the road, but I'm pretty sure he was aiming for the gates."
Called away from sickbay, she entered just as one of Will's seals glitched and feedback came crashing down around their ears. Her angers dominates the ambience now, alternately coiling and snapping at them, as she blames herself and Barrett in turn.
"I'll go get him," Barrett offers, unable to meet the eyes of anyone in the room. It took a call to Sulven to break him, but she did it good.
"No, I'll take care of it," Harry says. "He's my cousin. See to David, Kaz."
The cousin part isn't really true, even in the most honorary of senses, Harry thinks as he drives down Academy Lane. Will is ten year Harry's junior and have spent most of his childhood away from the Mansion. With a shudder, Harry remembers Jamie Braddock and the world he created just for Will in Gambia. But Will is part of the X-Family, inescapably and forever, as is Harry and that means getting out there to look for each other.
With the rain still coming down, it's difficult to make out any shapes at all in the dark and Harry scans the ambience for signs of life. He finds three deer standing by the wayside and something that might have been a badger, before he feels the larger ripple of a human mind. He stops and gets out, leaving the engine running. Will is on his knees on the wet asphalt, looking so much a shadow that Harry wants to reach out and touch him, just to make sure he's solid.
"Will. Are you hurt?" Harry asks, hunching down beside him.
"Come on. Will!."
"Snap out of it, Braddock, or do want me to call your mum? Get in the car!"
At that, Will shakes his head no. Better yet, he tries to get up and eventually manages it with a little help from Harry. Once he's vertical, Harry grabs him to keep him from keeling over, steers him to the car and pushes him into the passenger seat.
A quick scan reveals no major psionic damage; certainly not as much as expected in someone who nearly fried one of his fellow students only hours ago. But Will is soaked through, covered in filth and looks to be half-frozen. What Harry can see of his face beneath the grime is deathly pale. He's completely, utterly spent. Harry knows how that feels and he thumbs his cell phone open to let sickbay know they're on their way.
It is warmer for a while. Then Will starts shivering again and his teeth starts chattering, which is annoying.
"Is David okay?" he says, only what comes out sounds like an unintelligible slur.
"He'll be fine," someone says, and what's that supposed to mean?
"Did I pass?" is his next question.
"Hypothermia," is the answer to that and Will gives up trying to get sense out of anyone around.
This is just as well, since a needle slips into his left arm and an oxygen mask settles over his mouth and nose seconds later. Then he sees Harry Wisdom stooping over him and realises that he's indeed dreaming.
Strangely, Harry seems to be the only one who thinks that sending Will back to the dorms for the rest of the night isn't such a great idea. After forty minutes of warm oxygen and two bags of warm saline, Will's core temperature is stable, so the medics have no objection. Barrett would agree with anyone if it could save him from the combined wrath of Summers, Logans and Braddocks that will descend on him come morning and Kazakova's attention is focused on her own charge. But Harry doesn't think Will should be left alone.
As a direct consequence of expressing this sentiment, Harry finds himself in his office, turning up the heat and making tea while Will dozes on the couch. It's a good, sturdy leather couch, and Harry was wise enough to select it in the colour of mud and dried blood. A few people have staggered into this room many times and collapsed on it.
"No, thank you," Will answers with a yawn.
He has showered and changed into one of Harry's suits, which almost fits him. The medics provided the thick white socks and he looks like a kid playing dress-up. The ambience is gray and flat with his exhaustion. Like wet wool, only not as smelly.
Harry stirs a teaspoon of honey into each teacup. He can use the sugar himself and Will has a nasty, hacking cough.
"Sorry about the test," Will says, trying to sound more alert than he is. "And about the bother and everything. Did anyone tell my mother?"
"No problem and not yet. Do you want me to call her?" Harry says, handing Will his cup.
He isn't particularly eager to be the one to tell Betsy Braddock Worthington of what has transpired today. But if Will wants his mother, Harry will get her for him.
"No. I mean, I'll tell her something later. I don't want to upset her."
Harry can relate to that, having been nothing but a cause of worry and a pain in the ass to his parents ever since Denver and maybe before as well. It's remarkably easy to be a pain in the ass once you've gotten off to a good start.
"Don't worry about it. Or the test. You impressed us all. Even Barrett. He called you a showoff and considering the source, that is high praise indeed."
This rather backhanded compliment earns Harry a tentative smile and damn if he can't see both Warren's suave charm and Betsy's charismatic radiance in it.
"Thanks, but I was pretty stupid," Will says, smile fading. "Shouldn't have let myself be tricked into a fight just because Barrett likes to watch. Johan was smarter than either of us."
Harry agrees in this specific, very screwed up case. However, doing only what meets the requirement won't cut it for anyone who wants to get into the XSE. Harry approves of overachievers, having loved and lived with some of the best.
"Yes, but Johan doesn't know what his limit is," he muses. "You and David both do, now. Even Ramos does."
"I guess I do," Will says, then turns away, coughing hard. He has trouble catching his breath afterwards and several minutes pass before he lifts his head. If he was pale before, he looks positively anemic now.
"Go to the clinic in the morning," Harry advises with the superiority of someone who would never go to a clinic himself and Will glares at him.
"I just came from sickbay," he points out, but in a weaker voice than Harry would have liked.
Harry raises one eyebrow and rummages in his desk drawer where he, among other things, keeps a bottle of Robitussin. Taking it out, he fills up the cap and shoves it across the table .
"That's not on the List!" Will manages to say, then starts to cough again.
What Will means is that certain active substances in the cough syrup may affect psionic powers. Betsy is likely to have raised her son to stick to the very short list of psi sanctioned substances, probably while drugging herself senseless on contraband. Consistency has never been high priority for the Braddock Worthingtons. Since all Robitussin does to Harry is make him sleepy, he is pretty sure it won't do serious damage to a fellow empath.
"It's Saturday tomorrow. You need to get some sleep. So do I. Drink up," Harry orders and maybe he pushes a little against the heavy grayness in the ambience to help Will make up his mind. A nudge, barely a suggestion, is enough for anyone in Will's current state and it's for his own good.
Will looks dubiously at the viscous purple liquid, but does as he is told, grimacing at the taste and lies back down again. In a few minutes, he's fast asleep. Harry gets himself a blanket and stretches out on the other couch by the window, like he has done so many times before.
Green eyes glitter under the fluorescent lights. A pink and gray tongue darts out to lick bloodless lips in a face that was handsome once and could be again. From the neck on down, the body is covered in thick corrugated copper scales, like armadillo plate.
"I see you, little empath. Who are you?" The voice is amused.
He backs away, but the green-eyed monster smiles and a tremendous pressure descends on him, pushing him to a floor like a giant hand and forcing all breath from his lungs. He chokes, tasting blood and bile, as everything the monster wants to know is exposed to him.
"Welcome to the party," the monster says. "We'll forget that you're a little late and celebrate the fact that you bothered to show up at all."
It laughs softly and reality fractures around them.
There are no words. There cannot be. There is a rift in space and time, opening wide, and all the stars go out in its proximity. Kill, it says, and the deathly power wells up in like a great flood of magma.There is no light at all anymore and the darkness sears him, melting skin and meat off his bones. He screams in blind agony until his voice is scorched away, he can't see, he can't breathe, he burns, he burns, he burns to ash and blackened bones.
There is gravel against his cheek and a weight pressing him down.There is the scent of flowers and of someone he thinks he should know. He thinks he might love her, but none of that matters, he's burning and the world is ending, over and over in his head.
Someone is shaking him and yes, he wants to very much to wake up now, please. Striking out towards the surface, he tries to emerge from the gray depths of sleep, but the undertow pulls him back with unrelenting strength and he bobs inbetween states, undecided.
Yes, that is his name, he thinks, just as a slap in the face brings him to his senses. He opens his eyes. No charred flesh, no blackened bones and no screaming. The green-eyed monster is dead. He is in Harry's office on Harry's couch and has presumably made a spectacle of himself, broadcasting. The ambience is boiling madly with rage and fear.
"Sorry," he whispers, sitting up. "I usually wake up before the rift opens up all the way."
With what looks like a conscious effort, Harry lets go of Will's shoulder. Harry is white as a sheet, his eyes wide and dark with grossly dilated pupils. Barely suppressed panic oozes off him and his shirt is dark with sweat.
"Denver," he grinds out between clenched teeth. "What were you doing in Denver?"
Will recoils as aggression levels spike, threatening violence. His throat constricts with fear and the knowledge that his reactions and Harry's are feeding off each other, primal instincts of fight and flight, predator and prey.
"I wasn't in Denver," he explains as calmly and sensibly as he can, willing Harry to know the truth, no, to feel it. "You were."
Some tension leaks out of the ambience while Harry thinks about it.
"Then how...?" he says at last. "You saw Him."
"No." Will shakes his head. "He saw me. When I manifested. He thought it was hilarious."
Harry knows he's a bit of a wanker, he's been told that often enough. However, until now he doesn't think he's been a real arsehole. Well, maybe to Clare, the twins, his family and some other friends, but not to people he doesn't know! Falling asleep in a psi shielded room with another empath and a depleted one to boot qualifies as merely stupid and thoughtless. Waking up disoriented after bouncing nightmares off eac other, then firing up the ambience and slapping around Will Braddock, now that gives a whole new meaning to the word.
"I'm sorry," Harry says. It's late in coming, but boy, does he mean it.
Will doesn't sound okay. He sounds distressed and exhausted, which is only natural what with all the action and the emotional residue still in the air. The ambience is fraught with tension and Harry doesn't feel too great himself. Flashing back to the dream, he realises that this is the first time he has scented the flowers. Clare did, he knows.
"Would you like tea?" he asks, trying to shake the memory. "Or something stronger?"
"Tea is fine." Will says hoarsely."With something stronger in it."
Harry puts the kettle on again. Against all fire hazard rules, he keeps Absolut in his desk. After he has poured the tea and added a generous splash of vodka to both cups, he asks:
"How did He find you?"
"I don't know." Will's smile is a little crooked, a little sad. "Maybe He found others as well. I might just have been the only one to manifest and live. If my mother hadn't been what she is, I probably wouldn't have lived either. The less savoury alternative is, of course, that He spared me on a whim or for some reason of his own."
"If Clare hadn't been what she is....," Harry clears his throat. "Then all of me would have died in Denver."
Oh, how he has resented her for saving him and never more than when he realised that she did it by wrapping her shields around him. She should have protected herself and left him; better one alive and one dead than two walking ghosts.
"But you lived."
Will's dark eyes are eager to reassure and Harry is faintly surprised at the boy's generosity. Some things you have to be born with, he thinks.
"In a manner of speaking," he says. "You?"
It's strange to have this conversation in the small hours with a boy almost ten years his junior. It's stranger still that the subject hasn't come up previously. They are, after all, The Boys Who Lived. Or at least, The Boys Who Didn't Die.
"I thought...I don't know what I thought," Will says. "When I saw Him, I knew I had my powers at last. I could go to the Academy, avenge my father, be some use to my mother. Be my own person, maybe. Then hell opened up and I fell into it."
Will's gaze and voice are both steady, although the the hands holding the cup are shaking so badly that tea threatens to slosh over the edges. Harry takes the cup from him and puts it on the desk, listens.
"I didn't think it would be like that, you know?" Will says. "Mum talked a lot about it with me, gave me case files to read, walked me through her own memories. She said she'd feel it happening and she'd be there in a heartbeat to make sure I didn't get hurt or hurt someone else."
Harry cannot imagine what it would be like not to have his powers, nor what it would feel like to have them suddenly thrust upon him in early adolescence. Considering what Denver did to him, he knows that someone that young and new to his powers could hardly have found his way back without help.
"Your mother got you out," he guesses.
Will looks down at his hands.
"Wasn't her fault," he says, expression inscrutable, "but it took a long time."
Harry wishes he had read more reports on the Unity Merge; he really knows very little about it except for what happened to himself and Clare. In the months following his recovery, any suggestion for him to talk about it or hear about it has been enough to send him into a black rage or a drunken binge, sometimes both.
"Until Mum came to get me, I thought maybe I was the one had caused it," Will continues so softly that Harry barely can make out the words. "Hardly a fair trade, would you say? All those deaths and me getting my powers."
The raw tension in the ambience has eased up a little as aggression gives way to edgy truths. The oily black of gloom bleeds into the gray and it would be easy to sink with it, but Harry protects himself behind sharp professionalism.
"The relationship between the two is the words lateral, not causal," he says. "Or would you say that my being in Denver precipitated the Unity Merge since I too came out of it alive?"
Will coughs harshly, sounding little better than he did a few hours ago.
"No...but I saw Him. I might have done something. Distracted him, kept his attention divided."
"Unlikely. The Unity Merge knocked telepaths on their asses worldwide. Hell, Sulven was out. The only one who could do something about it was uncle Nathan and it almost killed him to do it. You were lucky to survive."
The shadows in Will's eyes tell Harry that Will doesn't agree. It's a look he's seen in the mirror often enough.
"I know I should be," he whispers. "I just can't feel it. Can't feel much of anything anymore."
Harry knows. He's said it often during the first months after Denver, to himself and others. Now, after they have taken down Unity and there is nothing more to be done, he's stopped. He is tired of being pitied and his friends and family have run out of things to say. No one can help him, anyway. The cold spot in him is growing, not the other way around.
"Neither can I," he admits with a sigh. "Ironic, isn't it? We're the ones who are supposed to feel."
"Easier if you don't," Will says, mouth tight.
That is pure Braddock Worthington, both the doctrine itself and the arrogance that goes with it. As evidenced this afternoon, Will's mother has taught him well, but there are a few critical differences between empathy and telepathy and Harry isn't sure she is aware exactly how critical they may be. An empath should never ever be encouraged not to feel, in words of otherwise. It may be scorned as navel-gazing by the headblind, but it's infinitely preferable to catatonia or suicide.
"Detachment is a trap," he cautions. "However tempting, that's what it comes down to in the end."
Harry feels the abrupt drop in ambient temperature even before Will tenses.Harry isn't sure what he's said, Will didn't seem to mind a little friendly patronizing earlier. A wrong word, perhaps.
"I assume," he says with ill concealed vehemence, "that you speak from experience."
Harry is used to Zara's tempers, Clare's even, but Will's cold fury is fit to freeze hell. It's a very adult rage and Harry realises that he has no idea how much subjective time Will has spent in Gambia.
"I do," he answers, which is the truth.
Will isn't mollified. The temperature falls a few more points.
"Then may I ask you where your father is this morning?"
Harry cannot honestly see what that has to do with anything, but Will doesn't wait for an answer:
"Mine is in Gambia. He lives on a small ranch hundreds of miles removed from the nearest town. It's a place where he is happy and carefree. It's a place where my mother doesn't weep. You may think what you like about the arrogance running in my family, but while your father lives, Harry Wisdom, don't speak to me about traps and temptations!"
He stands up, shedding blankets, and walks over to the window. Harry doesn't know what to say or do, so he waits. He can hear the early birds outside, chirping and cooing in the morning light. Starlings, finches, pigeons and, um, others. He doesn't know anything about birds and maybe less about his fellow humans than he should. Will has turned his back to Harry, but as Harry watches, he can see the anger already draining out of the younger man. Bright anger begins to tarnish and the air gets a little easier to breathe.
"In Gambia," Harry says hesitantly to Will's back, "would Clare laugh again?"
Because it's always Clare and only Clare. He may care for others, but not like that. Kazakova's hair is jet-black, her large eyes gray and the slight distance she keeps between Harry and herself isn't due to any cultural differences.
"She would, if I asked my uncle Jamie," Will says without turning around.
"And ye shall be as gods," Harry murmurs, shamed with desire and knowing the nature of temptation at last. But also that there is a place for him to go when all else fails. There are parts of him that insist the time is now, that he has suffered enough for the cause, for the new world order, for Nathan and his daughter. And then there are these other parts.
Will nods and neither of them say anything more, only watch as the sun rises above the maple grove.