Description Nathan Yates is an ordinary boy who’s just graduated from high school and whose biggest concern in life in trying to figure out why the hottest guy in school is making passes at him. That is, until he’s thrown into a story he knows intimately from his favorite cult graphic novels, and becomes embroiled in a conflict that reaches across worlds and universes.
|Updated||27 Apr 2018|
Nathan Yates didn’t have to look up to know Auntie was standing just beyond his bedroom doorway, and that she was in her usual configuration: her arms crossed over her starchy white blouse and her expression stony, her vivid red hair the color of rhubarb shellacked into an immobile Betty Crocker do. She never came into the room. Any other teenager would probably be thrilled, but to Nathan it came across almost as distaste. It reminded him of how he didn’t even like to touch the box if a pizza had anchovies on it. Sometimes he saw it in her eyes—a simmering pique that she’d been saddled with her dead sister’s last, leftover son after all the other chicks had flown the nest and made lives for themselves in their own carved-out corners of the world. Sure, she loved him, he thought. But she didn’t love the idea of him.
He didn’t really look her in the eyes much any more anyway, even if casting his gaze askance reinforced her impression of him as a sullen child. It didn’t matter. The ship had sailed on that one. Really, they were better off not facing each other in most daily interactions, including this one. He didn’t want to see her true feelings about him, and he also didn’t want Auntie to see the secrets he was keeping from her.
He leaned forward on his elbows and stared at his clasped hands, enjoying the cool breeze from the open window over his desk stealing his long, bare back. He was glad his desk chair faced away from the little bedroom’s narrow doorway. It was a solid, well-made wooden chair, with a broad back and curved arms, handmade by his late grandfather like much of the furniture in Auntie’s dark old family row house, and Nathan spent a lot of time sitting here like this with his chair pushed out from his desk, basking on the light and air to be had from the room’s one big window, discarded tee shirt tossed on the bed, his arms resting firmly on his jeans-clad thighs. His eyes were usually cast down and unfocused, too, when he wasn’t reading his beloved graphic novels. He let his mind drift down strange paths when he sat here, imagining a life that made sense, one unblemished by loss and loneliness.
He seemed to feel Auntie’s frown on the back of his neck. “What’s the point, Auntie?” Nathan asked her irritably, aware he was sounding morose and “emo”, as Auntie liked to complain. It occurred to him to wonder if at some unconscious level he did it deliberately sometimes, acting the part of a stereotypical resentful teen just to goad her. He felt his lips tighten. He tried to find an explanation to give her, or an excuse, but all he came up with was the one that hit too close to home. “It’s not like anyone will be there to see,” he groused.
“I see,” Auntie said, clearly disapproving. “So it’s the sulking, then.” He heard her take a deep breath. Usually, Nathan knew, this presaged what he tended to think of as an Auntie Making an Effort moment. He reckoned that she was very proud of herself that she managed these on occasion, despite Nathan’s abrasive attitude. They were often lampshaded by a temporary resort to matronly endearments, as if the two of them had that kind of gooey, familial relationship, and the use of his full first name.
“You’re only going to graduate once, Nathaniel dear,” Auntie said, with sweet reasonableness. Nathan groaned internally. “If you don’t go,” she assured him in the same fashion, “you’ll regret it forever.” A helpful analogy seemed to occur to her. “Like prom!” she exclaimed. “You didn’t want to go to your senior prom either, remember? But you went, and look how much fun you had!”
Nathan suppressed a snort. If only she knew.
He’d only gone to prom for one reason, and one reason alone. It started with what seemed like a total fluke. Back in April, two weeks prior to the event, he’d unexpectedly caught Dylan Walcott’s glance across the cafeteria. Nathan still didn’t understand it, but somehow he and the star soccer forward had ended up locked in a long, smoldering, heart-skipping stare. It was so heated, so intense, that Nathan couldn’t be sure that he wasn’t immersed in fantasy. His pulse hadn’t slowed down all the rest of that day.
Nathan wanted more. Dylan’s stare had awakened something in him, a slumbering dragon whose fire was now stoked and whose eyes now blazed with predatory desire, staring out through Nathan’s as if he were suddenly possessed by this awakened stowaway monster. He confront Dylan, had to know if that fiery exchange had been a harbinger for them both. In the normal course of things it would have been impossible: their orbits never crossed in the solar system of ordinary school life, and Dylan’s high position was baffled all around with high-caste status-winners and adoration-seekers. Casting his mind ahead feverishly across the few weeks of senior year left to them, Nathan pinned everything on the only possibility—prom. Their ordinary lives kept them in separate worlds, but prom was supposed to be different. A magical night, whispers the accumulated centuries of romantic stories and bittersweet teen dramas. A mixing of all kinds, like a shaking of a jigsaw box.
Prom was a venue for the exposure of secret passions and the lowering of inhibitions. And Nathan had a gut sense that both Dylan’s inhibitions and his own needed to be lowered and stripped away, if he was discover just what that one shared moment had meant. Nathan had never looked at a guy before. He’d never looked at anyone before, not like that. But he’d looked at Dylan, and Dylan had looked at him.
After a lot of internal debate and second thoughts about what he even hoped to achieve, he’d finally gone and sat Auntie down about prom. Auntie was skeptical, and for a very good reason—Nathan never did social events, ever, not even the monthly staff parties for the school paper Nathan wrote half the articles for. With some difficulty, he convinced her that he really did want to go to the gala event. He also assured her everyone went stag these days, while at the same time, just to be safe, he dropped a few deliberately vague hints about meeting up with his lab partner, Naomi Fong. Twelve nights later he was walking into the redecorated gym with sweaty palms and a bundle of nervous anxiety that had seemed to be located right between his shoulder blades. Ignoring the music, the couples, and everything else, he started looking for Dylan.
He finally found him after nearly two hours of searching in the second floor boys’ room. As he’d half expected, Dylan wasn’t alone. But what shocked Nathan was the sight of Dylan making out with not one but two of his smartly dressed soccer team cohorts.
Dylan was sandwiched between them like he belonged there, their three mouths meeting so wantonly that palpable lust seemed to radiate from them in waves. Dylan’s tie had been cast aside into a nearby sink. His tux shirt hung open to reveal firm abs and golden skin, his pale blond hair slightly mussed and his lips already a little damp and bruised red from kissing.
Holy shit, he thought. He stared at those lips until he forced himself to look away.
Dylan’s nearly interchangeable jock buddies, Nathan saw, were Joe Murphy and “Hack” Hackworth, both slightly shorter than their captain but with rigorously trained bodies at least as fit as Dylan’s. Nathan had written about the exploits of all three of them for the school weekly, but he’d never quite imagined them making plays off the field. Joe was the one with the Marine-style buzz cut, while Hack kept his sandy hair loose and shaggy, but otherwise they were the same: as hard and tight in personality as they were physically, always ready with a smirk or an uncharitable laugh. They made Dylan seem kind and engaging by comparison, which, Nathan thought later, might have been the point of having them around.
Even their bodies were in counterpoint to Dylan’s. Joe and Hack were both built, having spent the last two or three years pounding hard muscle onto their agile frames. But Dylan was something else, not huge but compact and sculpted, a golden paragon of masculine beauty. Nathan’s mouth was dry. He couldn’t wrench his eyes off of Dylan if the room were to suddenly fill with a swarm of angry hornets. His heart pounded for Dylan, and his big cock swelled uncontrollably in his too-small pants. Nothing good could come of this, but at the moment, Nathan did not care at all.
Joe and Hack had both doffed their suitcoats at some point, but otherwise they still looked fresh and eager. Hack, who was behind Dylan, still had on his midnight blue paisley vest, accentuating the crisply snug white dress shirt encasing his well-muscled shoulders and arms. Hack’s ass was round and hard and perfect in his snug dark slacks, though the main effect of this apparition on Nathan was to make him wish he could see Dylan’s. They were all three exquisite, hard-crafted, lithe, and limber, and at the moment they were all embodiments of pure, primeval, chain-reactive sex. The combination of the three of them, melding sinuously together, was jarring and electrifying.
Joe and Hack were both intent on Dylan. The half-undone look of the flaxen-haired, dark-eyed, all-golden star they had pressed between them, as they subjected him to the fervent ministrations of their lips and hands and every inch of their strapping, writhing physiques, seemed debauched and profoundly carnal—a young god in training, driving his worshippers to distraction. Like the debauched and dangerous Marquis from Among Us, Dylan exerted a sensual authority over the lesser men around him, and seemed ready to use that power for his own ends.
Nathan stood in the doorway to the boys’ room for a long time. He drank in this vision with something close to wonder, his swelling dick and heaving chest both straining the skinny, too-tight suit he’d inherited from his father. Soon the acolytes broke free of the luscious three-way kiss and started mouthing along his jawline from both directions. Dylan raised his chin to give Hack better access to his neck, and then, suddenly, as the two boys made love to Dylan’s neck and jaw and squirmed their hard bodies against his, Dylan’s eyes eased open and he looked, arrestingly, straight into Nathan’s.
Dylan’s brown eyes glinted in the bathroom’s fluorescent light as his gaze bore into him. It was just like in the cafeteria. Dylan pinned him with his unswerving look, and desire flared inside Nathan. Again Nathan felt the heat in Dylan’s stare, kindling a shuddering wave of aching, answering desire inside him.
It was all almost too much. Not used what he was feeling, Nathan took a step back. His heart was slamming against his chest, and breath was ragged. Dylan smiled crookedly—oh, that crooked smile! And then, unexpectedly, Dylan winked at Nathan, before turning back to his work and finding Joe Murphy’s eager mouth again with his own.
Nathan fled then, clattering down the back stairs while his dragon roared inside him. He spent the next hour wandering the practice fields in a fevered daze, oblivious to the dampness of the grass and the muted sounds of merrymaking drifting his way from the old gym, confused, flushed, and painfully aroused. If anyone had put the scenario to him that afternoon, posited his discovery of Dylan being thoroughly ravished by two other eager, fantastically well-built jocks, he’d have guessed—what? That he would have been torn up at seeing his crush getting it on with a brace of hot and lusty fellow athletes, probably. But it wasn’t like that. It turned out—He stopped his aimless walking and stood, staring up at the dark sky. What was he feeling? It was actually kind of a relief. He knew for sure that he was really and truly gay. There was no more uncertainty, no more misery at how he wasn’t feeling or wanting what all the other faceless, teeming boys in his extended cohort were chasing and comparing notes on nonstop, day in and day out. He had proof of what he was and what he wanted: in how own soaring delight in what he’d seen, in the pounding of his still-racing heart, and in the throbbing erection that threatened never to go away.
And it was more than that. To see Dylan like that, reveling in carnal, all-male sensuality, was a relief. Not to mention Joe and Hack. To know that real guys in his own actual, everyday world were turned on by other men was like a tonic to Nathan. The involuntary elation instilled in him by strong, well-made men with crooked grins and twinkling eyes was matched by the wonderful surety that other guys savored long, sweet kisses from full, stubble-ringed lips, and relished the press of a flushed, muscular chests pressed hard against their own—be they upper-crust high school royalty like Dylan Walcott or gangly, pale, forgettable graphic-novel nerds like Nathan Yates, with flat stomachs instead of carved six-packs and legs that no amount of daily biking could make fill out his jeans.
He wandered home with a grin that night. For all he’d gone alone and left alone, and for all he ached to turn someone on the way Dylan and company had with him, for all his inner sex-dragon remained unsated and unmollified… nonetheless, and in spite of everything, he felt so much less isolated than he ever had before. And there was something else, too, something he hardly dared think about. Dylan had stared into Nathan’s eyes. And Nathan knew he hadn’t imagined the heat he’d seen there. There’d been that wink, too, back in the second floor boys’ room. He knew, somehow, without any doubt, that that wink hadn’t been just a cocky display from a showboat acknowledging his own erotic beauty. It had also been an amiable welcome for Nathan, a recognition and initiation of their shared membership in the same exclusive club, a bridging of their separate castes in high school society.
Maybe there had been more to it beyond that as well, though that was less certain. Maybe there had been something personal. Maybe it was possible Nathan could be attractive to a guy like Dylan. The truth of it almost didn’t matter as much as the idea. The two moments he and Dylan had already had were already special, even if there was nothing else.
Nathan jerked off twice that night, in the deep, cool darkness after midnight, with the window open and the lights off. Mostly he was imagining Dylan and his two well-made acolytes—but he allowed himself, mixed in with the rest, the indulgence of a few special slow and sultry scenes that were just Dylan and himself alone.
The memory of prom and his steamy, voyeuristic encounter with Dylan and his chums had the effect of lightening his mood, even if it also had the added, uncomfortable and unwanted side-effect of chubbing his dick as he sat there being cajoled by his implacable but not unobservant aunt. Nathan felt his cheeks warm with embarrassed arousal, and once again he was infinitely glad he’d set up his desk and chair to face away from the narrow door and the cramped, third-floor landing were Auntie still stood, awaiting his response. A sudden desire to see Dylan again welled up in him in that moment—maybe for the last time, if Dylan had plans for the summer that took him away from Walnut Hill. If Auntie had quit while she was ahead, if only she’d known it, Nathan might have acquiesced without further drama.
But then she had to spoil it. After he didn’t respond right away, she pushed forward. “Graduation is about you and your achievements.” She said it sternly, but not unkindly. “It’s not about friends, or family, or anything else. And it’s certainly not about your father,” she added, unable as usual to hide the trace of scorn that crept into her voice whenever her missing brother-in-law came up.
Nathan sighed and bowed his head. It was stupid for him to be wound up with all the things he didn’t have. Stupid to have hoped, even a little, that his dad would show up today. Stupid not to have guessed that Auntie would probably have figured out what was really behind Nathan’s sour attitude toward today’s commencement rituals. They both knew there was no chance there’d be anyone cheering for him when the principal sonorously called out his name.
But it was also stupid, he thought, his self-recrimination changing tack, to inflict his own dark thoughts on Auntie. He shifted in his chair and bent his head a little more. He felt ashamed of his own immaturity. Auntie had never asked for this. She hadn’t even wanted the temporary guardianship of her nephew, much less for it to turn into an unshakable, permanent gig after his dad had astonished everyone by deciding to skip town (in fact, skip the country) rather than face trial on three counts of wire fraud for the things he’d done for his corrupt accounting firm. He hadn’t been heard from since, and Auntie’d been left holding the bag.
Auntie was the most solitary, self-contained, and independent adult he knew. Anything that would interfere with her quiet, ordered life, Auntie had always deflected out of her path. What a joke she’d ended up stuck with a 15-year-old boy in need of constant poking and inveigling just to get him through the essential stations of adolescence. And he wasn’t much better at 18, he thought glumly, if his recent behavior was any guide.
Lately, Nathan had been thinking he should have gotten a job working with his hands in some way. Maybe construction. She’d take that as showing respect for her father, Nathan’s grandfather, who’d spent his whole life impressing everyone who met him with the serenity that was to be had in crafting, and then owning and enjoying, the solid, reliable things you could bring into being with nothing more than some wood, a few tools, and a strong pair of hands. He was pretty strong, he knew, even if he wasn’t an accomplished athlete like Dylan. He also guessed that he’d probably inherited his grandfather’s long-fingered dexterity, at least if his piano-playing was any indication. And he’d carved his little Among Us pendant, after all. He was pretty proud of that. He touched the small mahogany swirl where it hung over his clavicle on a tight cord. He could probably still find a construction job this summer, before he started up at State U in the city. Maybe they’d both feel like he belonged there a little more.
He looked up over his shoulder and met finally her gaze. Her expression was reproving, as he’d expected—but he knew it was only because she thought he was deliberately choosing to be unhappy, foregoing life and friendships. It wasn’t lost on him, either, that she might not be completely wrong. He forced a smile and nodded. “Okay, Auntie,” he said calmly. “I’ll go.”
She nodded briskly, her carefully sculpted rhubarb coif not moving at all. “Good,” she said. She checked her watch. “Get changed, or at least put a shirt on, and bring down your gown and such all. I’ll meet you downstairs in five minutes. I have just enough time to drop you off before I have to show that house on Sycamore.” With that, his doorway was empty, the sound of her low heels on the finished-wood stairs receding slowly down into the house below.
Half an hour later Nathan was standing in front of the colonnaded façade of Friedrich Müller High School, eyeing its milling retinue of begowned, selfie-taking students and gabbling extended families with bemused interest. The gentle breeze of earlier that morning had picked up considerably, and what with the purring of Auntie’s Subaru having vanished behind him, and the madding crowd already starting to flow in streams and clumps through the building or onto the paths around it toward the fields beyond where the ceremony would be, the soundscape around him was increasingly dominated by the warm, buffeting wind and the reassuring rustle of the twin great oak trees that stood towering before him on the front grounds of the school. The emerald graduation gown he’d shrugged into before getting into the car flapped around his long legs in the strengthening wind like a superhero’s cape. It was a good thing he hadn’t tried putting on the mortarboard yet, he thought, and he clung to it in his left hand to make sure it wasn’t whipped away out of his grasp—though it was fun to imagine the stiff square of deep green being torn away from him and flung high up into the sky, pinwheeling itself into oblivion. Nathan smiled and turned his face gladly into the sweet-smelling spring air, closing his eyes and enjoying the way it battered playfully around his body and riffled his too-long hair. He took a deep, cleansing breath. His very last round of high school finals had kept him indoors too much the last couple of weeks, in his room and in the library at school, and it felt good to be out in the open, relieved at last of his academic obligations and free to enjoy nature at its most exuberant.
“I was looking for you,” a voice said at his elbow. Nathan started and opened his eyes, turning to see Dylan Walcott, of all people, standing very close and smiling uncertainly at him.
“H-hey,” Nathan said. His heart tightened just at the sight of him, and he was uncomfortably aware of his junk, and what Dylan might be able to do to it. Belatedly it occurred to him that Dylan might have been talking to someone else—after all, why would he have been looking for him?—but a quick glance around told him there was no one nearby. In fact, though a couple of SUVs packed with a graduate and their respective broods were just pulling up and disgorging their occupants twenty yards away down the school’s wide, circular front driveway, Nathan saw that the front lawn was already largely deserted, the crowds of students and visitors having already made their way toward the back of the school, and the long rows of white folding chairs that reminded Nathan uncomfortably of the photos he’d seen of World War I graveyards full of rows on rows of simple white crosses.
Nathan’s eyes fell on Joe and Hack, who were lounging by the bole of further oak tree in their gowns, watching Dylan and Nathan interacting. As he watched, Hack bent to say something to Joe, and Joe grinned. Nathan frowned at them, and he must still have been frowning when he turned back to Dylan, because Dylan’s smile faltered momentarily. Then Dylan made an effort, and his expression became gamely confident again. Nathan stared at him. It was surreal for Dylan to be even talking to him, and even more surreal for Dylan to be so off his game. It didn’t help that he didn’t look like his usual self: the usual preppy polo shirt had been swapped for a suit with a red tie that made him look like a politician, and the emerald of the gown clashed with his golden tan. The wind was stirring up his normally carefully layered flaxen hair, and his brown eyes looked tired, with dark smudges just discernable underneath. Nathan realized that for the very first time he was seeing his crush not as a dreamboat but as a man, and it threw him a little. He felt off-balance, like the ground might shift underneath him at any moment.
“Hey, so, Nate,” Dylan was saying. Nathan could feel his eyebrows bunching together. No one called him Nate, and it felt like a clumsy attempt at being casual and familiar. “Um, what are you going to be doing this summer?” Dylan asked.
“Why?” Nathan asked. He felt like the question pertained not just to Dylan’s question, but to the entire encounter. Maybe beyond that, back to that one long shared look in the cafeteria, the bathroom encounter at prom. He was beyond being flattered by it all, because it no longer made any sense to him. It was suddenly important to Nathan to understand why Dylan had taken any interest in him at all.
Dylan seemed taken aback. “I just thought we could, you know, hang out,” he said. “Watch movies, talk about stuff. Meteorology,” he added, as if offering Nathan a special enticement.
Nathan blinked. “What?” he asked. Meteorology? What had that come from?
Dylan, seemingly by way of explanation, nodded down at the carved pendant at Nathan’s throat, visible thanks to the unbuttoned collar of his dressiest cobalt-blue Oxford-cloth shirt under his V-necked robe. “That’s a hurricane symbol, right?” he asked, sounding proud he’d worked out something about Nathan’s life. “I noticed it a while back. I figured you must be into meteorology. Storm prediction, fluid dynamics—”
“It’s from a graphic novel series,” Nathan cut him off. Dylan faltered, and Nathan went on, “Among Us? Chad Kulikov? Tanner Herrera?” He knew there was no chance Dylan would recognize the writer and inker for the cult series, famous though they were on the websites and forums he frequented. He sighed. “It’s the symbol of one of the characters,” he explained shortly. He almost told him he’d carved C.J.’s little stubby-armed clockwise whorl with his grandfather’s pocketknife, even that it had been his third attempt. But he’d never told anyone that (not that there had been many to tell), and he still wasn’t sure this slumming soccer god wasn’t dicking him around.
Dylan, surprisingly, looked a little hurt by Nathan’s reproof, but he recovered quickly. “Great!” he said. “Maybe we can get together and talk about it sometime.”
Nathan shook his head, not in negation but in bafflement. “Why?” he said again.
Dylan gazed up into his eyes. Nathan could see irresolution there, but also a lot of other things—curiosity, and lust, and something else he wasn’t sure of. Some of the blond’s usual haughtiness seemed to resurface and he said, “I know you’re into me.” His eyes glittered and danced as he looked up at him. “I can tell.”
“And you’re into me,” Nathan returned skeptically. He glanced over for some reason at Joe and Hack, who were still watching them avidly from where they slouched by the oak tree. Something was definitely wrong here.
Seeing Nathan’s disbelief, Dylan seemed to feel a need to step up his game. He moved closer to Nathan and aimed his best crooked grin up at him. “C’mon, aren’t you curious?” he asked urgently. “Don’t you want to have some fun together, you and me?” Dylan’s gaze became more provocative. “I know how to make you happy,” he crooned in a low voice, “and I can’t wait to see what you have to offer.”
The words had an effect on Nathan, and Dylan must have known they would. Nathan felt his cheeks warm. “What do you mean?” he asked, voice unsteady.
Dylan’s eyes were fixed on his. “C’mon,” he said again. His tone became a little more sultry, and he eyed me up and down. “You’re tall … lanky … big hands and feet …” Dylan wiggled his eyebrows—just once, though, and so quickly Nathan wasn’t sure whether he’d seen it, or it was just implied by Dylan’s saucy manner. “We all know what that means,” he said. “We don’t have gym together, but I have heard rumors…” He bit his lower lip, eyes alight, watching Nathan intently as if completely sure of his response.
Nathan stared at him in disbelief. All the arousal seemed to drain right out of him, through his trainers and into the spongy grass and soil beneath them. “You want me,” he deadpanned after a moment’s incredulity, “because I have a big dick.”
Dylan drew in a long breath, evidently focused on what sounded like Nathan’s confirmation of his supposition and ignoring Nathan’s shift in tone. “Definitely,” he said. He looked almost ready to drop to his knees right then and there, and only millennia of ingrained human propriety was restraining him.
“So,” Nathan said, crossing his arms. “You really are that shallow.”
“Sure am,” Dylan agreed, still smiling. Then his brain caught up with what Nathan had said. “No, wait!” he amended. “C’mon, Nate,” he temporized, trying to have it both ways. “It’s not all about the D.” He flicked his gaze to Nathan’s lips for a second before adding, “I’ll bet you’re a great kisser, too.”
“Uh huh,” Nathan said flatly. “And what about Crabbe and Goyle over there?” He tilted his head in the direction of Joe and Hack without taking his eyes off Dylan’s face, which didn’t seem quite a sweetly beautiful as it had only moments ago.
Dylan stilled, pursing his lips. This seduction wasn’t going to plan at all, it seemed. He must have known it was a mistake to have them there, Nathan knew, but maybe he hadn’t been able to avoid it. “Forget them,” Dylan said dismissively. He seemed to change tactics again, opting for casual instead of steamy. “C’mon, Nate,” he coaxed in a low, smooth voice, the crooked grin reappearing. “Meet up with me after. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. My rec room, pizza, video games, a blow job or two—” He shrugged his broad shoulders. “Sounds like fun, right?”
Nathan sighed. His guts felt tight and cold. He really had been into Dylan, all the more so for it having flared up in his consciousness so quickly. Maybe he still was, but this—this was fucked up. Something about the way Dylan’s teammates were watching him proposition Nathan suddenly clicked in Nathan’s head. All at once his mood soured. “Wait—was this a bet or something?” Dylan seemed to suppress a flinch, and Nathan’s eyes narrowed. “This was, like, a dare, wasn’t it?” he asked, using his superior height to loom over Dylan a little.
“Look, Nate—” Dylan began, rallying to regain the initiative in their conversation, but Nathan cut him off.
“What, so the guys got you to try to pick me up and get a blow job out of me?” he asked. “Dared you to seduce the nerd? Is that it?”
Nathan’s voice was rising, and Dylan responded with scared aggression. “Nate, c’mon, cool it, man,” he insisted in a low voice, all trace of seduction gone. He leaned toward him, eyes flashing. A gust picked up between them, tossing their hair and robes about madly for a minute. “Don’t make me look bad,” Dylan said, intensely but almost inaudibly, the wind quickly whipping his words away.
“Why not?” Nathan demanded. He was angry, and confused by how crazy Dylan was getting. Him saving face in front of Joe and Hack was the least important thing on Earth to him right now. “Why shouldn’t I? Huh?” he pressed.
“Because!” Dylan responded through clenched teeth. “Because you’re not a giant dick!” Nathan stared at him. For a moment it was just the two of them, staring ferociously at one another, while the warm wind swirled and eddied around them.
And then, unbelievably, the absurdity of the situation took over, and Nathan started to laugh. “I just … carry one around with me, is that it?” he asked with a smirk.
Dylan blinked at him, and then he grinned suddenly, and it was like the sun bursting from behind a raft of clouds. “Something like that,” Dylan said finally, his grin widening. Dimples, Nathan thought. Ugh, he’s got dimples. So unfair.
Nathan eyed him appraisingly, surprisingly over the hump of his initial suspicion and resentment. He was pretty sure that there was something going on with Dylan, something external in Dylan’s life that had prodded him to act this way. What he couldn’t understand was why Dylan Walcott, of all people, would need to prove himself to anyone. Or why doing so should end up taking the form of Prince Dylan needing to try a flash-flood, high-powered seduction on the friendless nerdy guy, the most omega kid in school.
At least Dylan seemed sure that Nathan was a nice guy. That was something. As for Dylan—Nathan sighed. His mind and emotions were a muddle. He decided just to put it out there. “Are you a giant dick, Dylan?” he asked.
Thankfully, Dylan took the question seriously. “I promise I’m not,” Dylan said earnestly, though an edge of that cocky, lopsided grin was still in play. It turned wry, though, as chagrin crept over Dylan’s expression. “I mean, I guess it was a dick move, what I did just now, trying to get in your pants just because…” He looked away, off toward the general direction of town, and the smile faded altogether. “I shouldn’t have done that,” he said seriously. “I didn’t want to. Not like that, I mean,” he added.
A few heartbeats passed. He seemed to want to say more, and Nathan watched him while the trees rattled comfortingly in the shimmying breeze. Somewhere beyond the school building Nathan could just hear indecipherable murmurs of distant, amplified speech, and he knew the graduation ceremony was beginning. There was no hurry, though. The lifelong bugbear of alphabetical order was for once doing him a favor, and Dylan too. He waited patiently.
“I’m sorry, Nate,” Dylan said at last, casting his eyes down. It looked like he was going to leave it at that, but then he shook his head and tried to explain, scuffing his upscale boots in the grass and still not looking at him. “My step-dad,” he began. “He’s been acting…” But then Dylan trailed off and shrugged, explanation aborted. There were thing Dylan wasn’t ready to say—or for Nathan to hear, he wasn’t sure which.
Nathan waited for him to go on. He was finding to his surprise that he genuinely wanted to know what was troubling the guy. He wondered how many people Dylan had to talk to about anything real, in a crowd where image and status were everything. It was kind of bizarre to think that both of them could probably use a friend. “You can tell me about it sometime,” Nathan said gently, when Dylan didn’t say anything more.
Dylan looked up at him, offering Nathan a smile that seemed part skeptical, part hopeful. “Yeah?” he asked.
“Yeah.” He offered Dylan a small smile.
Dylan considered him for a moment. Then his eyes glinted, and his half-grin twisted up again. “And then blow jobs?” he asked cockily, tossing in the eyebrow wiggle for good measure.
Nathan smiled and shook his head. He clapped a hand on Dylan’s shoulder, delighted to feel the strong, thick muscles underneath even through the gown and the summer-weight suit jacket. “Go on,” Nathan said. “Collect your troops, and go get gradualated.” He gave Dylan a little push with the hand he had on his shoulder, and Dylan reluctantly walked away, out of Nathan’s grasp. Nathan let has hand drop to his side, watching Dylan head for the side of the school. He looked back over his shoulder only once to toss him a friendly smirk. Then he caught up with Joe and Hack, drawing them into his wake, and the three of them started heading toward the walkways that led to the fields behind the school, the dancing wind whipping around the hems of their gowns.
Nathan followed well behind, wondering wryly to himself whether it was at all possible to eventually be friends with a sexy, golden high school prince whose main interest in you seemed to be peer-enforced curiosity about your junk. His lips twitched as he made his way to the rear grounds and his final high school rite of passage. There were, he reflected, worse problems to have.
After graduation, with his fake rolled-up diploma in hand (the real one would be mailed in a stiff cardboard envelope, according to a series of emails sent out over the preceding weeks), Nathan made his way to the fringes of the chattering throng. Spotting a large waste bin already over-full with soda bottles, programs, and at least two discarded teddy bears outfitted in coy little emerald-green tee shirts emblazoned with Congratulations! in bumptious white lettering, he tossed the dummy credentials and tried texting Auntie for a ride home. There were a few more events lined up for after the ceremony, including some live music on the soccer field and the distribution of swag bags with snacks and lame gifts for the graduates from the chamber of commerce, but Nathan was done. He ready to not be here.
But—no such luck, it seemed. Auntie texted back after a minute that she had two more showings that day and paperwork to do at the office. He would need to fend for himself. Nathan bit his cheeks, frowning. If they’d been talking in person, he could have said the last bit along with her.
Stowing his phone grumpily, he looked around with disinterest, trying to figure out what to do next. He regretted now that she’d driven him here in the first place. If he’d biked here in the first place like he always did, with his gown folded in his knapsack, he could return home the same way. Now, he had to either find a ride, or walk the forty-five minutes back to the house. Walnut Hill was a small town, but the school was on the river side of it, near the original founding spot by the mill, and Auntie’s house was almost two and a half files away, halfway along the strain of tall, three-story row family-friendly houses built a hundred years back, rising along the shoulders of the gently sloping hill that gave the town its name.
Not far away he noticed a knot of gabbling adults he recognized as the Walcotts, a hale and handsome family currently engaged in comparing pictures on their various phones. Dylan, he noticed, wasn’t among them. Looking around curiously he spotted Dylan some distance away in gown and sunglasses, having what looked to be a heated conversation with Joe and Hack. They were also still in their robes despite the growing heat of the sunny afternoon.
Nathan frowned, wondering what was going on. As he watched, Dylan checked over his shoulder to see if his family was still preoccupied, then, turning back to his friends, his hidden eyes apparently fell on Nathan and stopped. Once again, Nathan found himself locked in a stare across a long distance with Dylan Walcott. Joe and Hack, noticing Dylan’s arrested gaze, followed his line of sight, and then all three of them were staring at Nathan. With the dark Wayfarer-type sunglasses in the way Dylan’s expression was unreadable, at least at this distance, but Joe and Hack’s, at least, seemed less than friendly. Coloring in embarrassment and discomfort, Nathan turned on his heel and strode hurriedly toward the pathways that led around the side of the school. He didn’t need to be here a minute longer, and the chamber of commerce could stuff their stupid Pizza Hut gift cards and “I Heart Walnut Hill” keychains up their own asses.
Near the corner of the building there were a couple of large, square plastic bins marked “gown return” for those students who’d rented their gowns instead of buying them and were ready to get shed of the clammy polyester robes and accompanying medieval hats now rather than dropping them off at the school later in the week. A few students had plainly availed themselves of this opportunity already, and Nathan gladly followed suit. He unpinned his mortarboard and chucked it into the bin, then, stowing Auntie’s hairpins in a pocket to return to her later, he started unzipping the top of his own gown. A moment later, as he was grasping both sides of the collar to haul the thing over his head, Dylan trotted up beside him.
“Hey, Nate,” Dylan said.
“What do you want, Dylan?” Nathan said impassively. He started pulling the gown off. He felt Dylan lending a hand, pulling the hem up over his back, and the graze of Dylan’s knuckled along his spine sent sparks of pleasure tingling through him. Once free he shucked the sleeves off his arms and hefted the whole sweaty bundle into the bin with the others. The back of his favorite blue shirt felt just slightly damp, though the pleasantly warm, sweet-scented wind, calmer now than before, would dry him soon enough. He turned to face Dylan expectantly.
Dylan had the sunglasses in his hand now and was watching him. He looked oddly naked without them, in spite of being fully dressed in suit, tie, and gown. At Nathan’s raised eyebrow, the blond man licked his lips. “Listen, can we go somewhere and talk?” he said.
“About what?” Nathan asked. He did want to spend time with Dylan, if it was just hanging out. Even now he felt a surge of attraction and lust flooding through him, so that he felt a need to control his breathing and hold onto an appearance of normality. He wanted to touch Dylan, feel his strong shoulders again, get up under his robe and suit and dress shirt and tie and rub his fingertips along his hard, defined abs and his pebbled, tight nipples.
But this… this sounded like more of that weird encounter they’d had earlier. Nathan wasn’t interested in rehashing it now. Unwillingly, Nathan checked beyond Dylan in the grounds to his right. Sure enough, Joe and Hack stood fifty feet away, eyeing their exchange rather less jovially than they had the earlier one before the ceremony.
Dylan seemed to confirm his conjecture. “I just feel bad about—” he began.
Nathan turned away and began walking briskly, his feet finding the broad side walkway that led to the front of the building. His damp shirt clung to his back. “There’s nothing to feel bad about,” Nathan said without turning around. “You made a pass at me, I deflected, no big deal.”
“Look, Nate, you don’t understand,” he heard Dylan say as he hurried after him.
Nathan rounded on him, suddenly angry. Dylan was almost on top of him, his face only a foot away. “What don’t I understand, Dyl?” he demanded harshly. Dylan stiffened but said nothing. They were alone here in the cool, shadowed space between the soaring, ivy-clad east wall of the school building and the tall, densely planted privet hedge that marked the property line with the town hall next-door, but they wouldn’t be for long. Nathan decided to answer his own question. “I’ll tell you what I don’t understand,” he said, poking Dylan in the chest, right under where the short zip of his gown ended, hard enough to thump Dylan’s sternum despite the gown, shirt, and tie. “You chasing me. Literally chasing me. No one has even looked twice at me for the entire four years of my secondary education, and suddenly, at the very last moment, Prince Dylan the golden boy is literally running after me. Me, Nathan Yates, the dork who plays piano accompaniment whenever the drama club does a musical. The kid who sits alone at lunch. The spaz who’d trip over his own feet if he even looked at a soccer ball. That guy. How does that make any fucking sense, Dylan? Explain that to me.”
Dylan was staring up at him with wide brown eyes. Nathan felt an extremely frustrating urge to kiss him. It was like Dylan had flipped a switch in Nathan’s brain, and he suddenly had access to years of pent-up lust and desire, all of it tangling with this blazing Adonis. The warm goo in his heart and soul that he had for this cocksure specimen of masculine allure was making a mockery of his defiance. He felt like he was going to twist and snap inside from all the internal conflict.
Dylan swallowed and said, “You’re really good.” His lips twitched and he added quickly, “At the musicals, I mean. I have seen you try to play soccer,” he added, eyes alight with mischief.
Nathan made to turn away, but Dylan grabbed his upper arm and held it fast. His expression was intense now and serious. “Let me explain,” he begged. His eyes seemed to drill into Nathan, somehow creating fragile links and connecting bonds inside him as they stared into each other. “Come with me, right now,” he said firmly, “and I’ll explain everything.”
Nathan felt his heart squeeze as simultaneous impulses to trust Dylan and to shake himself free warred within him. It occurred to him that Dylan knew a good deal about Nathan—working in the school paper, playing piano, probably the whole story with his dad (since that was common knowledge anyway) but he knew nothing about what drove Dylan, or even what interested him or excited him apart from soccer. He had no idea how to gauge Dylan’s actions or motivations apart from the certainty that he was complicated and the gut sense that he was a good guy at heart. Assuming that wasn’t his balls talking.
The uncertainty was maddening. He started to demand that Dylan explain everything here and now. But before he could speak a high, piping voice called out “Dylan dear! Where are you?” and a loud, gravelly baritone responded with “There he is, love” from somewhere back in the direction of the bins, the corner of the building, and the practice fields beyond.
Dylan kept his glinting eyes riveted on Nathan’s. Though Nathan wanted to see who was coming, for some reason he didn’t understand Nathan couldn’t look away from him. “Tonight,” Dylan said in a low voice. He spoke so intensely he seemed to be trying to imprint himself on Nathan. “Here. Eight o’clock.”
“Wh—” Nathan started to say, dazed. But in that moment Dylan’s parents were upon them, the rest of their good-looking brood in tow.
“There you are, Dylan dear!” fussed Mrs. Walcott, and Dylan finally let go of Nathan’s arm and turned to face her. She was short and very pretty, with keen blue eyes and long, straight, pale-blond hair the same color as Dylan’s. She looked very young to be the mother of a teenager, even if Dylan was her oldest, and if Nathan hadn’t known better he’d have pegged her for Dylan’s college-aged sister. Dylan’s real sister, meanwhile, a wide-eyed five-year-old Nathan thought might be called Cindy, was peeking shyly out from behind Mrs. Walcott’s buttery-colored summer dress. Dylan’s two brothers, who were between Dylan and the girl in age but whose names Nathan couldn’t have conjured if his life depended on it, loitered a few steps back from the group. They were square-shouldered and gangly and looked like future versions of Dylan, only more sullen.
“Now why did you run off like that?” Mrs. Walcott was burbling. She was adjusting his tie, happy as a mental patient, though Nathan knew she had a reputation for being whip-smart and a born event organizer—even the high school had had her help arrange today’s ceremonies and events. “I was just about to show our pictures to Mrs. Pritchard from the conservatory, and I looked up to see you’d vanished like a pixie!”
Dylan smiled tolerantly down at his mother. “I didn’t vanish, Mom,” he explained patiently. “I just wanted to talk to Nathan for a second.” He tilted his head toward Nathan, and all eyes swiveled toward him. Nathan, unaccustomed to any kind of collective attention, felt his cheeks redden. His eyes met Mr. Walcott’s and was startled to see deep interest there.
The Walcotts were a prominent family in Walnut Hill. As owners of the only nonchain menswear store in town and a considerable amount of land both here and nearby they were involved in almost everything, and Nathan had had ample opportunities at various school and civic events to observe how Mr. Walcott, though lean and handsome like his wife and sons, didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the clan. Now that he’d heard Dylan refer to him as his step-father, he understood. For one thing whereas the Walcotts generally ran to under-average in height, Scott Walcott was quite tall, taller than Nathan, and rail-thin to boot. He was also pale where the others were tanned and golden in all seasons; and while the wife and kids all had great hair that seemed to look fantastic without effort, thick and layered and easily tossed about, Mr. Walcott, apparently by choice, was completely bald. The one laugh he’d gotten out of Yvette Ward, the dour violinist who’d performed with him for the middle school’s Halloween parents-and-students-in-costume sing-along talent show last year (at which one of the middle Walcott brothers had performed a squawky version of “The White Cliffs of Dover” dressed in a bluebird costume) was his whispered comment to her between acts that Mr. Walcott, who’d arrived outfitted as a scarecrow, should have come instead as Slenderman. She’d suppressed giggles all through the last two numbers.
Mr. Walcott had met his gaze with what appeared to be simple curiosity, as if it were customary for him to keep tabs on his stepson’s newly acquired friends. Then his pale brown eyes dropped to the hand-carved whorl at Nathan’s throat, and Nathan felt his interest intensify. When they flicked back up to meet Nathan’s they seemed hard and measuring, as if Nathan were being fitted by eye for a suit, or maybe a casket. Nathan felt the urge to step back, but he was too polite to do so.
“Is this the one you told me about, Dylan?” Mr. Walcott asked, his voice calm and rich enough to be an announcer’s. He didn’t take his eyes away from Nathan. Nathan got the impression he was trying not to look down at his pendant again. What the hell—?
“Yeah, Dad,” Dylan admitted nervously. Nathan belatedly registered what Mr. Walcott had said. He turned and looked at Dylan in surprise. Dylan was watching him, biting his lower lip. Apparently on impulse, Dylan reached out and snatched Nathan’s hand, and held it as if they’d been boyfriends for ages and held hands all the time, no big deal. Nathan’s first impulse was to snatch it away, but Dylan aimed a pleading look at him, and Nathan knew he couldn’t humiliate Dylan in front of his parents, however weird they were. Dylan turned back to his stepfather, squeezing Nathan’s hand in his warm, dry grip. Nathan noticed he was nervously turning the sunglasses over and over in his other hand, like a boat that was constantly capsizing, righting itself, and capsizing again. This second father he’d known most of his life clearly still intimidated him. “This is Nathan, Dad,” Dylan said. “Nathan Yates.”
“Well, aren’t you a sweet couple,” Mrs. Walcott cooed. She addressed Nathan. “And what does your father do, dear?” she asked brightly.
This struck Nathan as a ridiculous question, even from an old-money scion like Abby Walcott—especially considering her reputation. What, had they suddenly been dropped into a 1950s family sitcom? Perhaps she was trying to figure out how she knew the name. “He steals from people,” Nathan answered conversationally.
Mrs. Walcott blinked at him for a second, before the name “Yates” seemed to match up in her steel-trap mental filing system with the town’s most famous white-collar reprobate. Her expression flickered into surprise before quickly shifting to motherly sympathy. “Oh, dear, I’m so sorry for you,” she said sincerely, patting his chest. “At least you’ve had the good fortune to meet a nice young man like Dylan,” she added, beaming at the two of them.
“You bet,” Nathan said dryly. “I’m the luckiest man alive.” He freed himself of Dylan’s grip and turned toward him, aiming a long look at him. “I … gotta go,” he told him. Dylan nodded. There was a question in his eyes, no doubt about the proposed meeting that night. Nathan deliberately turned away, back toward Dylan’s parents, without giving him any sign one way or another. “It was nice to meet you both,” he said, with a polite smile for first Mrs. Walcott, still beaming, then Mr. Walcott, still ominously contemplative. He aimed a more genuine smile at the littlest Walcott, who ducked back behind her mother giggling, then turned and walked away as quickly as he could on his blessedly long legs, glad to be alone for the first time that day.
Nathan’s walk home took him past the Palmer Supermarket on Violet. He stood on the broad sidewalk in front of its wide, sale banner-bedecked windows for a while, considering his options. Auntie would be late tonight, and though it wasn’t his night to cook it would be nice of him to have a meal ready. He’d also been having a very strange day, and cooking tended to calm his nerves. To him it was like a piano piece: an interconnected series of steps that, if executed both correctly and with skill, would produce a delightful and satisfying result. In that case, he thought, it was appropriate he’d ended up at this particular store: old Mrs. Palmer liked classical music, and usually had piano and string concertos playing over the store’s music system—especially if she was watching the monitors in the office and saw him come in. Nathan smiled and headed into the store, pausing momentarily to let the doors whoosh open for him.
He grabbed a basket from the stack by the registers and wandered the empty aisles aimlessly for a while to the quiet strains of Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu, picking out random items while he weighed what to cook. It was still early in the afternoon, so he had room to maneuver if he wanted to tackle something with a longer prep time. He drifted into the pasta aisle and decided it been a while since he’d done his three-meat lasagna. It would freeze, too, which would help with lunches now that he’d be home for a while. He reached for the brand of lasagna noodles he liked, glad he’d settled on something. Palmer’s was over-air-conditioned as usual, and though most days he’d appreciate this, his shirt was still damp thanks to the nonbreathing gown combined with the long walk up from the school. He couldn’t wait to get home and shuck it off him. He was uncomfortably aware not only of the shirt fabric clinging to his back but also his very erect nipples making tiny tents on his front. Most of that was the cold air from the store’s overzealous climate control system, but it was also true that he hadn’t quite been able to get Dylan out of his thoughts. Whatever else was happening between them, the prospect of an illicit nocturnal rendezvous stirred his fantasies and made Nathan want to touch Dylan, and be touched by him, in the worst way. He could still feel the touches they’d already shared today as if he’d stored them in his flesh. The hand on Dylan’s shoulder. Dylan grabbing him by the upper arm and not letting go. Dylan grasping his hand and holding it like a lover.
Nathan shook his head. Any more thoughts like that and he’d have to adjust himself right here in the—
“Hello there, young Nathaniel!” boomed a reedy, enthusiastic voice very close by.
Starting in surprise and very nearly dropping two boxes of lasagna noodles, Nathan looked up to see who was accosting him. He broke into a broad grin. “Hey, Mr. Singh!” Nathan said, lowering the noodles into his basket and setting it down on the floor beside him. This was the other reason he liked shopping at Palmer’s: Mr. Singh often seemed to be shopping here when he was, and he loved to talk about anything and everything that the rest of the people in his life couldn’t care less about—especially comic books and graphic novels. Over the last five years he and Mr. Singh had spent more time talking about Among Us and Platfive and the rest of his favorites than he could remember, all of it standing right here in the wide, chilly aisles of Palmer’s on quiet afternoons like this. Nathan looked forward to their conversations enough that he volunteered to do the grocery shopping after school rather more than the typical teenaged boy would ever consider doing.
It was unexpected that Mr. Singh would be here so early, considering this was not Nathan’s usual time or day to come shopping here, but as deviations from the norm went it was very welcome. Especially today. He smiled down happily at the balding, brown-skinned man. “How are you?” he asked. He stood respectfully before him, hands behind his back out of respect for the old man’s space. “How’s the wife and kids?”
“They’re good, they’re good,” Mr. Singh said, tilting his head back and forth, as if to signify the vagaries of life doling out good fortune and bad. Nathan inspected him, looking for signs of age or illness. His face was remarkably unlined for someone who seemed likely to be in his late fifties or early sixties, though there were permanent laugh lines around his emotive dark eyes and wide, expressive mouth. Under his thin lower lip he had, charmingly, what could only be called a soul patch. It was still largely black shot through with gray, like the mostly receded hair that ringed his shiny crown. He was decked out as usual in a natural-white coarse linen shirt, thick, dark canvas slacks, and sandals that showed off neatly pedicured toes. Over this he wore a knee-length jacket that appeared to be buckskin of all things, dyed a chocolate brown, and on his fingers he wore several rings with large and colorful, presumably fake jewels. There was a thin scar on his cheek under the left eye, maybe an inch wide and white as an egg. Nathan had asked him about it once early in their acquaintance—long enough ago that they were close to the same height at the time—and Mr. Singh had winked at him and proceeded to tell a very long story that had turned out to have a great deal to do with elephants and very little to do with scars. “Anik has just announced he intends to get married next year,” the old man went on, eyes twinkling.
“Yeah?” Nathan said. Anik was the biggest starry-eyed dreamer Nathan had ever heard of, at least to hear Mr. Singh tell it, and he enjoyed hearing the tales of his misadventures. It occurred to him that Anik was probably the first gay guy he’d ever known about, from a source other than a work of fiction at any rate. “Who’s the lucky guy?” he asked with a grin.
“He promises he will tell me as soon as he knows,” Mr. Singh deadpanned. Nathan laughed, and Mr. Singh chuckled along with him. “I will send him your regards,” he said.
“Please do,” Nathan said sincerely. He wondered if he would ever get to meet Anik, and his sisters and mother too. He certainly would like to, given the chance. As a rule Mr. Singh did not talk about his family in great detail, but Nathan still felt as though he knew them. “Him, and everyone else.”
“Yes.” Oddly, Mr. Singh’s eyes dropped momentarily to the carved whorl that hung tightly around Nathan’s neck, and his face sobered. Nathan was reminded uncomfortably of Mr. Walcott doing the same thing only an hour before, back in the shadowed path beside the school. When Mr. Singh looked up again, there was an unaccustomed crease between his brows.
“What’s wrong?” Nathan asked, concerned and unsettled.
Mr. Singh did not respond immediately. Instead he slowly and deliberately looked Nathan up and down, seeming to take the measure of him. “Maybe nothing,” he said at last, with what sounded like affected casualness. Nathan frowned at him and was about to ask him what he meant, but Mr. Singh raised a hand. “If you go traveling,” Mr. Singh said, “be sure to come and find me.”
“Find you?” Nathan said, baffled. “Find you where? Where will you be?”
Mr. Singh met his gaze. “I will be where I always am,” he said solemnly.
But the twinkle was back in the old man’s eye, and Nathan suspected Mr. Singh was having him on again. The old man looked around him, first to his left, then to his right, then back at Nathan.
“The pasta aisle?” Nathan asked dubiously. He felt his lips curling, and Mr. Singh’s did the same. Nathan was about to interrogate him further—not that it would do any good, if Mr. Singh, as he often was, was determined to be cryptic—but he was once again interrupted, this time by his phone buzzing in his pocket. He frowned down at his pants pocket. “That’s odd,” he said. No one called or texted him, apart from the editors of the school paper, and that was already shut down for the summer.
“Maybe it’s your Aunt,” Mr. Singh said reasonably.
“True.” He pulled out his phone. There was a text notification on the screen, but from a number he didn’t recognize. The notification had the entire text. Just two words: ur dead, it said. A simple threat, in plain affectless black type. “What the fuck?” Nathan said aloud, astonished. He unlocked his phone and thumbed open the text. That was it. ur dead.
Belatedly he felt bad for cursing in front of Mr. Singh, but when he looked up to apologize to him the old man was gone. Nathan looked around, but Mr. Singh was nowhere in sight. He was alone in the aisle. Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 was tinkling gently overhead in the store’s overcooled air.
“Okay, see you later then,” Nathan said sarcastically to the empty space where his friend had been. How fucked up was today going to get? He looked down at his phone and the bizarre text, and was irritated all over again. He should have known that even a simple trip to the store would get bolloxed up, the way this day had been going. He tapped the strange phone number and put the phone to his ear.
After two rings, a suspicious male voice answered. “Yeah?” it barked. “Who’s this?”
“I’m the guy you just threatened,” Nathan said evenly. “Who’s this, and how did you get my number?”
“Fuck!” the voice exclaimed.
“How did you get my number?” Nathan growled, as intimidatingly as he could. It occurred to him to try to channel Liam Neeson, but he didn’t think he could manage that. Whatever level of menace he had already in him would have to do.
“D had it!” the guy on the other end exclaimed. Realizing his mistaken, he tried hurriedly to recover the offensive. “Listen, you need to leave him the fuck alone, you got it? Just walk away, ‘cause you’re not getting any of—”
It had taken a second, but the nickname “D” finally clicked—it was what Dylan’s teammates called him. “Wait, wait, hold on a second,” Nathan broke in. “Let me guess. Joe? Or—no. It’s Hack, right? Hack’s definitely the dumber one. It’s totally Hack, isn’t it?”
Inarticulate sounds on the other end of the line. Nathan smiled grimly, imagining the well muscled jock sputtering in indignation wherever he was. Probably shirtless… his salty, gym-rat chest being licked and worshiped by an equally shirtless and moaning Joe Murphy, while they waited to hook up with—
Nathan shook his head. Focus, Yates. “You realize,” he continued into the phone, still going for his own personal level of intimidation, “that it’s a felony to threaten bodily harm over a text message, don’t you?” He had no idea whether this was true or not, but he would bet good money that Hack was gullible enough to believe that Nathan totally knew what he was talking about.
“W-what?” stammered the voice. “No it’s not!”
“Two years minimum,” Nathan said grimly. “You’re an adult now, so it’s mandatory jail time. All I need to do is head straight over to the police station on Willets and show them my phone.”
“You’re full of shit!”
“I’m walking over there as we speak,” Nathan sing-songed. “I’m walking my little feet over there right now…”
“Look, look,” Hack said in a strained voice. “Just—just keep your giant dick away from D’s ass and there’ll be no trouble, all right? Just—just—just keep it in your fucking pants, you fucking—fucker!” Then, nothing. Nathan took the phone away from his ear and looked at it, but the call was gone. They’d hung up.
He stared at the phone in pure consternation. Of all the reputations to acquire, he thought wryly. And all the times to acquire it. He pocketed the phone and picked up his shopping basket. He started to walk out of the aisle, but then he remembered what he’d been in the middle of hunting down before Mr. Singh found him. He had the noodles for the lasagna, but he still needed canned Italian tomatoes to make sauce. He bent and perused the various offerings distractedly. Maybe he could convince Joe and Hack to spread the word to any friends or siblings they had at State U, he mused. His lips quirked as he selected two of the large cans. With any luck, his infamy would precede him.
Eventually he gathered the necessary supplies and checked out. It was only after he’d left the store laden with his burdens and started heading up the remaining few blocks between the store and his Aunt’s house that it occurred to him to wonder how, and why, Dylan had had Nathan’s cell number in the first place.
The three-meat lasagna was a hit, or, at least, as much of a hit as a meal could be with Auntie: she had two helpings, both small, and said that she liked it very much. Most of the dinner was made up of Auntie recounting her showings that day and her assessment of the likelihood of each of the prospects making a bid on the houses in question. The real estate stuff always bored Nathan to tears, but he always listened dutifully. After all, she listened just as patiently to his stories about school, always expecting him to talk about his day as much as she had about hers, and he knew that the academic life of a teenage boy was just as dull to her as showing houses was to him.
Still, they both left the table with a smile, and Auntie took her turn cleaning up since he had cooked, though Nathan had done as much pre-cleaning of pots and pans as he could before they’d sat down. As Nathan headed for the stairs he glanced at the grandfather clock in the hallway and paused. Seven-thirty. He tapped the bannister a few times, then doubled back to the kitchen.
“Hey, Auntie?” he said, poking his head in. She paused in the act of rinsing the plates and setting them in the dishwasher, looking at him expectantly. “I need to go out for a while,” he said. He wondered if he’d need to come up with some kind of explanation, but it turned out not to be necessary.
“All right,” she said, returning to her work. “Don’t be too late.”
“Uh, no worries,” he said. He lingered at the doorway for a moment, then turned around hustled to the front of the house. He paused again by the stairs, this time considering changing clothes. He was still wearing the dark blue shirt, which was long since dry. He liked it more than anything he had clean upstairs in his closet, and he had a weird sense that Dylan liked it too. He sniffed at his pits, and decided he was acceptable. Grabbing his tan jacket from the coat closet, he headed out the front door, closing and locking it after him. He unchained his bike from where he’d left it on the porch, carried it down the steps and jumped on, rolling down the short sidewalk to the street. Before long he was pedaling down the wide, well-lit bike path along Violet Avenue, back down the hill toward town.
The night was comfortably cool and clear enough that a spray of bright stars were visible in the not-quite-black sky. It was a nice night, but Walnut Hill seemed eerily deserted. Hardly any cars swooshed past him on Violet, and even Lancaster, the main cross-street paralleling the river, had hardly any traffic. He expected at least the graduates to be out tonight, partying away their first night of freedom. Maybe there was some party outside of town that literally everybody was attending? Nathan would probably be the last to know. Especially if the soccer team is involved, he thought with a grin.
The huge, looming bulk of the high school was spookily dark inside as he rolled up, only the bright external floodlights lit for security’s sake. Nathan locked his bike up in the bike racks off the round front driveway, looking around as he did so. Not a living soul in sight. He checked his phone: five minutes early. He trotted down the right-hand walkway toward the side of the building, wondering as he went just how literally Dylan had meant his “here” when he’d extended the invitation earlier in the day.
The floodlights turned the wide space between the side of the building and the thick privet hedge on the property line into a stark no-man’s land of bright, washed-out bricks, concrete, and grass and stark, black shadows where nothing could be seen. Nathan slowed to a walk and entered the passage cautiously. He didn’t see anyone up ahead, but a velociraptor could be lurking in those inky shadows for all he could see. “Dylan?” he called out uncertainly. It occurred to him belatedly that if this were a horror movie, he’d be yelling at the screen about what an idiot he was for going in there and how he deserved to be eaten, or carved into tiny pieces by a scimitar-wielding maniac.
When he was halfway down the side passage, a shadow detached itself from the blackness up ahead, and Nathan very nearly peed himself. “Nate,” it said, and Nathan huffed out a shuddering breath.
“Fuck, Dylan,” he said, covering the remaining distance between them quickly. “You about gave me a fucking heart attack.”
Now that they were only a foot apart he could make out Dylan’s shadowed face, which was smirking up at him in a way Nathan was increasingly finding close to irresistible. “Scared of the dark, buddy?” Dylan asked, sounding amused. His pale blond hair looked white in the harsh light, making him look ethereal and uncannily beautiful.
“Fuck you,” Nathan said playfully. He wasn’t sure whether to be amused or grumpy. He wasn’t even sure why he’d come, other than his gut telling him he should. He hoped it was his gut, and not something a few inches further down. “You want to tell me why I’m here?” he said, trying to sound peeved. The look on Dylan’s face told him that at least one of the reasons for this meeting did not involve discussion, explanations, or any kind of discourse that didn’t involve the physical and the primeval. The space between them crackled. Dylan’s eyes seemed to kindle, and he was looking at Nathan avidly, drawing him in. Nathan advanced toward him, closing the distance between them.
Dylan seemed about to respond to his question with something droll and salacious. But then, suddenly, his eyes bugged out at something behind him. “No—!!” Dylan shouted, his handsome face distorted in distress. Then there was a sharp and terrible explosion in Nathan’s head, and everything that was light went black.
He came to slowly and with intense regret that he’d done so. His head ached like a spike had been driven into his skull. He opened his eyes briefly, but he couldn’t focus and he closed them again.
He seemed to be moving. Sideways, somehow, as if that made any sense. He was lying down on something, knees bent, and his head seemed to be resting on something that felt like a young man’s muscular thighs. Someone was gently brushing his hair along his forehead. His brain throbbed in protest as he painfully put two and two together. “Dylan?” he croaked.
“Hey, Nate,” came Dylan’s voice from somewhere above him, sounding relieved. Nathan guessed he must be laying in Dylan’s lap in the back of a car or an SUV, driving somewhere on roads that weren’t as smooth as the ordinary streets in town. “You’re awake,” Dylan said softly.
Nathan wasn’t so sure. “What’s going on?” he managed.
“I don’t know,” Dylan said.
Nathan was quiet for a moment, listening to the rumble of the tires on whatever surface they were driving down—a dirt road, maybe, though not a completely neglected one or they’d be hitting more bumps and potholes. He wasn’t sure he believed Dylan didn’t know what was happening right now. “Was that your dad?” he asked at length.
Dylan took a moment to answer. “Yeah,” he admitted quietly. “I’m sorry, Nate. He … he hit you with a monkey wrench he keeps in the car. Then he picked you up and stuffed you in the back seat. Like you were a sack of laundry or something.”
Nathan swallowed, finding even this to be unexpectedly painful. “And what did you do?” he asked feebly. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
“I told him I’d call the police,” Dylan said immediately. “I even pulled out my phone to dial 911, but my phone was dead. It shouldn’t have been, but it was. And then he said I could go to the cops if I wanted, or I could come with. Of course, he said, if I didn’t come it might be too late,” he added bitterly.
A wave of nausea came over Nathan, and he fervently hoped he wouldn’t have to throw up. Not that Mr. Walcott didn’t deserve having the interior of his high-class Mercedes covered in barf, but he was fairly certain that throwing up right now would be extremely unpleasant. He tried to focus on what Dylan had just told him, but it still wasn’t coming together. “Too late? Too late for what?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Dylan said. “Dad, what the fuck is going on? What is wrong with you?”
Nathan remembered that Mr. Walcott, the bastard, must be in the front seat, only inches away. He wondered vaguely where that scimitar had gotten to. From somewhere in front of him, Mr. Walcott spoke. “I’m doing my job,” he said, his voice rough and anguished, no longer radio-ready. “I have a job to do, and I’m doing it.” He sounded like he was justifying it more to himself than to his step-son.
“What job?” Dylan shouted. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
The pain was exquisite now, the shouting having made everything worse, and Nathan couldn’t suppress a moan. Dylan moved the hand that had been stroking his head down to his chest, placing it directly over his heart. “Hey, Nate,” he said, thankfully in a softer voice again. “Hey, look at me. C’mon, Nate, look at me, please.”
Unwillingly, Nathan opened his eyes to see a bleary Dylan peering anxiously down at him. As always, Dylan’s gaze seemed to pierce him down to his core, but Nathan found strength in the fervor and resolve he saw in Dylan’s clear, brown eyes. He felt Dylan’s hand pressing firmly against his chest. “I’m going to get you out of this,” Dylan whispered, bending over him. “I promise. Everything is going to be okay.”
Nathan had no choice but to trust these words, for all the questions and doubts he had about what had brought them both to this moment. Thankfully, he knew better than to nod, but he did give Dylan a small smile, which felt like all he could manage at the moment. Dylan gave him the same smile back.
The car rolled to a stop. The engine cut off, and after a couple of knocks the car was silent. Mr. Walcott snapped off the headlights, dropping them into profound blackness. As if to fill the void, a cacophony of crickets and other forest sounds sprang up around them, filling the world.
“Get out,” Mr. Walcott said.
“Dad,” Dylan started to protest, his voice wavering, “I’m not going to—”
“Get out and help him to the stone,” Mr. Walcott said. His voice was utterly uncompromising. Whatever conflicts he might have had before, Dylan’s step-father was now plainly resigned to the necessities of this moment. He was still sitting in the front seat, his back to them, and somehow that made it all that much more ominous. “Either you’ll help him to the stone,” he told Dylan coldly, “or you’ll stay here, and I’ll help him to the stone.”
Nathan met Dylan’s eyes. Dylan looked scared, and Nathan remembered the wrench. He offered Dylan the smile again, and Dylan nodded. He mouthed the words I promise again, then set about the business of getting Nathan out of the car. Mr. Walcott stood a few yards ahead, waiting for the boys to join him, the wrench still clasped in his right hand.
It took some time. Nathan was in a great deal of pain, and his balance was shot. Eventually, though, Dylan was able to support Nathan with his arm around Nathan’s waist and Nathan’s clinging to Dylan’s shoulder, and together they walked slowly the shirt distance through the woods from where Mr. Walcott had parked and into a large clearing open to the starry sky. Nathan wondered whether they were on Walcott’s land outside of town, the land he supposedly refused to sell to developers at any price.
They walked a little further and saw that at the center of this clearing was a large stone disc set into the earth. It was perfectly round, maybe twenty feet in diameter, but the dark basalt surface was rough and unfinished. It was inscribed, though, with two large seven-pointed stars, each overlapping two rays with the other.
Nathan’s wounded mind told him what he was looking at, and he gasped.
Dylan looked at him sharply, as if Nathan had suddenly revealed that he was the real villain of the whole affair, but Mr. Walcott chuckled. “You recognize it, don’t you?” he said. It wasn’t really a question, and Nathan didn’t answer.
“What is this?” Dylan asked softly. Nathan was grateful for the quiet tone. With Dylan holding him up like this, he was speaking practically in Nathan’s ear. Sound carried here on this calm, clear night, though, and Mr. Walcott, standing a few feet away close to the edge of the circular stone, heard him easily enough. The surface of the stone seemed to glow faintly, he realized. It was just enough, with the partial moonlight of the half moon overhead, for them to see each other’s faces. He was staring at the two boys, looking utterly unlike anyone’s father, biological, adoptive, or otherwise.
“Tell him,” Walcott said. He could only be speaking to Nathan, and Nathan felt Dylan’s worried gaze turn back to him.
Nathan gathered his thoughts with some difficulty. “This stone,” he explained slowly, “has been made up to look like a Fallgate from Among Us.” Knowing this would tell Dylan very little he went on, “A Fallgate is like a … passage through to Earth. Like a portal, or a wormhole. Sort of.” He looked up at Walcott, trying to gauge the man’s true intent. Either this was a weird game—a game where it was somehow okay to brain unsuspecting teenagers with potentially lethal weapons—or Walcott was insane, and somehow believed that this stone was actually a way through the sixth dimension, down the cosmic tendrils, and onto an actual other world. Walcott was regarding him unsmilingly with those same cold eyes. “It’s from a comic book,” Nathan went on pitilessly, trying to push the words at whatever rational corner of Walcott’s brain might still be left unravaged. Normally he’d say “graphic novel”, but here it was in his interests to trivialize the source material as much as he could. “It’s … not …real.”
“Oh, it’s real,” Walcott said. “And … active.” With his free hand he stooped and picked up a small rock. He tossed it up in his palm once, then lobbed it up expertly in a gentle arc toward the center of the stone, as if pitching a softball. It dropped onto the center of the disc, sizzled, then sank into the stone and vanished.
Nathan gaped at the stone for a long minute. He could feel Dylan breathing harshly at his side, obviously as taken aback as he was. He squeezed Dylan’s shoulder with the arm he had around him. “That … was a very nice effect,” Nathan said finally, voice shaking. “But Fallgates still cannot possibly—”
“It’s real,” Walcott broke in.
“And even if it were real,” Nathan argued, struggling for reason and logic against the pounding in his head, “it can’t possibly be active.”
“It is,” Walcott said.
“They’re only active every nine thousand days!” Nathan protested. “The alignments involved are insane! Even if you found an actual—”
“Nine thousand forty-five,” Walcott corrected him.
Nathan faltered in his vituperation. “Wh-what?” he asked weakly.
“Nine thousand forty-five,” Walcott repeated. He picked up another rock. “Today,” he said, hefting the rock as if to gauge its weight. “Today is goddamned day number nine thousand—” He tossed the rock as before, and once again, as before, it smacked into the center of the disc, sparked with visible energy, then sank through the stone and vanished. “—forty-five.”
Nathan’s unsteady mind tilted further out of balance. He clung hard to Dylan. “It’s not real,” he murmured. And again, because there was nothing else he could say to this madness, he lifted his gaze to meet Walcott’s and repeated, “It’s not real!”
“What did you mean,” Dylan said suddenly, “when you said, ‘through to Earth’?”
Nathan couldn’t process this. “What?”
“What did you mean, ‘through to Earth’?” Dylan asked again. “This is Earth.” He sounded almost ready to add on the unspoken “—isn’t it?”
Nathan sighed. “In the story,” he said, with a dark glance at Walcott, “the Fallgate was used by the Doshiren to come to Earth. It only worked one way, for them. They fell through to Earth, hence the name.” He considered, then added, “Actually, the soul falls through. The physics don’t make sense otherwise. The soul goes through and the Fallgate makes a new body from the mass available on the other side. It’s all artificial, of course,” he went on, aware he was babbling now. “It couldn’t possibly have developed naturally. Some ancient race from the dawn of time …”
Dylan seemed to wait until Nathan trailed off, then he repeated, “But this is Earth,” still in that steady, quiet voice.
Nathan nodded. His energy was flagging, and his resistance with it. “In one of the stories, they discovered that the interdimensional tendrils don’t just link things in this universe,” he said. “They discovered that the Fallgate on Earth connects mainly to other Earths. There are at least seven so far. In the comic book,” he added in the direction to Walcott, feeling this point needed to be made again.
“Including this one,” Walcott said. He looked balefully up at the sparkling sky. “Nine thousand forty-five days,” he murmured.
“I don’t understand,” Dylan said. Clearly it was vital to Dylan that he grasp all the nuances of this madness, if he was to have any hope of getting himself and Nathan free of his step-dad. Unless… unless he’d somehow managed to call the police after all, Nathan realized. In that case, Dylan might just be playing for time. A sudden hope surged in him, and he turned his head a little toward Dylan, who caught his gaze and winked, almost imperceptibly. Then Dylan addressed his step-father again. “How do you tell it where you’re going to?” he asked. “How does it know which Earth or whatever you want to, you know, fall into?”
Walcott said nothing, only raising his brows at Nathan. Nathan sighed and said, “It’s actually really primitive. Before you send through the passenger, you toss in a series of dross items.” As he spoke, they watched as Walcott bent one more time and picked up another rock. “It can be anything,” Nathan said distractedly as Walcott tossed the rock up as he had the others. “It’s the number of hits that …” Walcott threw the rock, and it hit, sparked, and was gone. “ … matter,” Nathan finished. Three stones. Earth G-3.
The Earth where Among Us was supposed to happen.
Walcott turned to Nathan, pinning him with his gaze. He smiled mirthlessly. “Your turn,” Walcott said, as cold and remote as the darkness of space.
Nathan stared at him aghast, his guts liquefying in sudden terror. In that moment he wasn’t sure what was real or not, confused and concussed as he was, but his mind was revolving doggedly around the one surety he could grasp: there was no way on any Earth that Walcott was getting him anywhere near that stone. “No fucking way,” he said aloud. “No fucking way.”
Walcott advanced toward him, his face a mask of icy indomitability. He raised the wrench.
“Dad, listen—” Dylan begged.
At that moment there was a loud crack, and the clearing was suddenly filled with bright, almost blinding light. Everyone froze. “Scott Walcott,” called an amplified voice. “This is the Monroe County Sheriffs. Drop your weapon and step away from the hostages.”
Walcott turned on Dylan, eyes blazing. He’d been cold before, but now his face was transfigured with fury. “You little shit! What did you do?”
“Step away from the hostages!” barked the sheriff with the megaphone. “If you do not step away we will open fire!”
Nathan thought that didn’t sound like a very good idea—not with him and Dylan between the sheriffs and Walcott. He was about to make his move, ready to grab Dylan and get them the hell out of the way, when Walcott, in a lightning move, grabbed Dylan and, ripping him from Nathan’s grasp, hurled him violently toward the disc. Even as Nathan tumbled unbalanced to the turf at his feet, he watched in horror as Dylan fell face first onto the disc and screamed in agony as millions of pricks of light snapped all around him—and then he sank through the stone and vanished.
“NO!!” Nathan yowled. He was on his hands and knees, close to contracting into a fetal position from the pain, but most of all his heart felt ripped apart from the sight of Dylan sinking into that stone like a corpse pitched into liquid fire.
Even as Dylan was hurled into the Fallgate Nathan had heard the crack of a rifle. Walcott had pitched forward at the same time as Nathan, and was now on his hands and knees himself, only a couple of feet away, bleeding from a gruesome wound to the shoulder. He raised the wrench again with the other hand, though Nathan guessed this was just to forestall the sheriffs from rushing into the clearing. He fixed Nathan with a ferocious stare.
“Drop the weapon!” the sheriff with the megaphone shouted. Walcott ignored him.
“You have to go after him,” Walcott said, panting hard. His face was chalk white, and he’s clearly in a great deal of pain. “I was supposed to send you. He’ll be killed. Only you can save him. You were the one they wanted.”
“Why the fuck—?” Nathan started, but Walcott shouted over him.
“No time!” he insisted. “Go! You have to go now!”
“Drop the weapon and move away from the hostage!”
Nathan felt sick. “You manipulative prick,” he seethed.
“Go!” Walcott hissed, brandishing the wrench in a desperate effort to buy what time he could for Nathan before the sheriffs ended everything. “Go now, Nathaniel Yates! Go, or Dylan’s dead!”
The rifle cracked again, and Walcott screamed. Summoning the last dregs of his strength, Nathan clambered to his feet. With a final effort he ran forward and leapt as far as he could. He was falling then, falling down, down, down toward the dark, unforgiving, but glowing stone, emblazoned with the twin stars of a primeval, inexplicable Fallgate.
He hit the stone, and then, with the blinding pain of a thousand deaths his body was utterly destroyed. His soul was taken into the dark, sinuous, secret ways of the living multiuniverse, and he knew no more for a very, very long time.
Nathan awoke shouting Dylan’s name. It felt as if he’d been shouting it before he’d come to himself, as if he’d been chasing him through his dreams. He was so surprised at waking as he did, lying prone on warm, hard stone, that he stopped, though the rawness in his throat told him he might have been shouting for a while. He lay there, listening to mundane woodland noises: a jay squawking, trees rustling in a slight breeze, the faint burble of a creek or brook some distance away. It was restful enough that Nathan didn’t want to ask himself where he was, or what he needed to do next. He could just lay here for a while, and not worry.
He was staring up at a brilliant blue, utterly cloudless sky. It had been dark, moonlit night before, back in the clearing, but now it was day. The sun was off to the side somewhere, not even halfway to the meridian, but he was basking in its warmth on the skin of his cheek and arms, and other parts as well. He was beginning to suspect that he was naked, given the way the sun was caressing every part of him from above and the sun-warmed, undressed stone he was lying on was pressing hard against him from head shoulder blades to heel, and especially his ass. But he was enjoying lying here nonetheless, especially the part where he was filling his vision with the calming blue of this immensely beautiful sky. Anything else could wait to be thought about later.
A head came into his field of vision, peering down at him with immense interest. It was not Dylan’s face that was looking down at him, however, or even a human’s. It was a wolf.
It was massive, if what Nathan could see of its head and neck against the sky were any indication. Its thick, silky fur was iron gray shot through with strands of varying light and dark, relieved by mostly white swaths above and below the muzzle from one cheek to the other. It watched him with bright amber eyes, its pointed ears perked up, clearly more curious than alarmed. It was close enough for Nathan to hear its snuffling. Nathan realized he could smell the wolf’s musky, earthy scent.
He had absolutely nowhere to go, and no chance of moving if the wolf didn’t want him to. He stared up at it in stark terror, but the wolf did nothing but stare back at him, blinking at him as if he was as unsure about the social protocols here as Nathan was.
“Uh, hello,” Nathan said at last. In response the wolf barked at him, a short, rough, low-timbered sound, and Nathan flinched. The wolf seemed to cock its head at him appraisingly. Then it abruptly removed itself from his field of vision, and Nathan was left looking at nothing but solid, unrelieved blue sky again.
Nathan thought it would behoove him to know where the wolf was, and what it was doing.
He sat up partway, propping himself up on his elbows, and took stock of what he could see around him. His tactile impression had been correct: he was lying in the midst of a broad, rough-hewn stone disc that was situated incongruously in the midst of an sprawling, gently sloping greensward. But there was something very wrong, and that very wrong thing was his body. Instead of the pale, gangly, form he was used to, with the hairy, pipe-cleaner legs and the flat but barely discernable abdominals, what he saw stretching away before him was a powerfully muscular body of almost uncanny build, with skin the color of red clay, and barely any body hair apart from a thatch of coal black strands around a fat, uncut dick even bigger than the one he was used to. The thick chest reminded him of Ferrigno’s from the Hulk TV series, or almost any comic book hero, and the irregular, seven-pack abs looked like they were fucking carved from granite. This body that did not belong to him had been built and conditioned to a level beyond anything that Nathan had ever seen in real life. He felt absolutely no connection to it, and he was glad his arms were busy propping him up because moving his hands and feeling what he was seeing under fingertips that were responding to the impulse commands of his own brain would have been almost too much to take.
The most disturbing change, though, was the one that was making his heart feel like it had lost all its ability to retain its rhythm. His left leg was perfect, exquisite, strong and powerful enough to bear any weight and run any distance.
The right leg stopped in a smooth, rounded stump just below the knee.
He drew in a long, shaky breath. Feeling it fill his lungs grounded him very slightly, though the sight of his massive, red-clay chest, the chest of this body—the body that was missing part of its leg—unsettled him all over again. Something in the back of his brain was screaming at him, telling him he recognized this body, the same way that he recognized the gemini stars inscribed into the sun-warmed stone disc he was lying on. He knew this body so well he could draw its lines and contours himself, and he was no Tanner Herrera. Red-clay skin. Heroic, almost hairless build complete with huge, square pecs and a long set of chiseled, syncopated seven-pack abs.
Missing right lower leg.
Shifting his weight, he freed his right hand to fly up to his throat. His carved mahogany pendant was gone, like everything else, but there was something there anyway, a slight roughness of the skin—
He was looking at the wolf.
It had retreated a few feet away and had sat down to watch him, biding its time. It was focused on him now, and as he looked into its bright amber eyes something itched maddeningly along some inner contour of his brain. He closed his eyes, and tried to find that itch, to stroke it, and smooth it. Astoundingly, as he caressed the itch it resolved into an image. It was a outstandingly muscled, one-footed man with reddish skin, long black hair, and a white scar on his neck under his left ear, basking completely naked in the clear, late morning light on a rough, star-inscribed stone disc. Himself, from the point of view of the wolf.
It was not a live image—it was unmoving, and he was still leaning back on both elbows. A memory, then, sent by the wolf as a form of visual communication. As wolfy conversation went it was better than urine, Nathan though bemusedly.
The image seemed to shift, and was replaced by one more focused on his upper torso. Unnervingly, he now saw, from the wolf’s perspective, what he was now touching with his fingertips. A small dark patch, like a birthmark, just below the notch of his collarbone. It was exactly the size and shape of the pendant Nathan had worn, but it was in his skin. A stunted clockwise whorl that looked very much like the symbol meteorologists used for a hurricane, in dark brown against the red skin around it.
Nathan had carved that whorl after having seen it a million times, from all angles, close up and at a distance, in every way possible. He’d known it all the years he’d been reading and rereading and pretty much obsessing on the Among Us graphic novels. He’d taken up carving just to make this, tracking down his grandfather’s knife and doggedly teaching himself how to use it. He’d finally got the thing right on his third laborious attempt, and it had turned out better than he’d hoped. Good enough he could wear it with pride and secret glee at the physical link he’d made for himself with his favorite fictional universe. He’d been trying to replicate, in the form of a wooden pendant he could wear against his neck, the dark, strange birthmark by which everyone knew Captain Christopher R. James Jr., USAF—one of the two original protagonists of Among Us, and the passionate favorite of a vocal minority of fans—despite the fact that he’d been dead, brutally betrayed and fried to blackened char by a depraved circle of humanophobic Doshiren, since the last episode of Volume 9 had come out, nearly eight years ago.
Among Us had gone on without C.J. (as he was always known in the stories), for another ten volumes, but for a lot of fans there was a hole where the taciturn C.J. had used to be. He seemed to be missed in the plots that developed afterwards as well. For a long period, after Special Agent Jonathan Nunn and the whole rest of the original team, apart from C.J., had died suddenly and horribly in a massive, murderous explosion at the end of Volume 5, C.J. had been the lynchpin—the one human who knew about the Doshiren and trusted them, and was trusted by them, making possible the vitally important shared hunt for those Doshiren who used their abilities to harm and abuse. Once C.J. was dead, there had been no one at all who could bridge the divide between the anxious but proud Doshiren refugees who’d come through the Fallgate years or generations before, and the mistrusting, parochial humans among whom they lived.
Finally, in Volume 17, there had been the first hint of a possible break. C.J., of course, was dead and couldn’t be brought back. But in Volume 16, the existence of parallel Earths was uncovered, and in Volume 17 the reason for the discovery had become transparent. Late in Volume 17, the last major protagonist standing—Jon Nunn’s replacement, Special Agent Kyle McGuinness—had gone to Earth G-5 and come face to face with a living, alternate version of Christopher James.
On that Earth, McGuinness had been betrayed and fried instead of C.J., who had responded by embarking on a relentless, merciless war on the breakaway humanophobic Doshiren faction. It was the Earth G-5 C.J.—now Major Christopher James, and the commander of the Human-Doshiren Task Force—who’d lost part of his leg (and earned a few nasty scars) in a desperate fight against the last bad guy of the storyline: Arkin, the sneering, bile-filed Doshiran mastermind who’d ordered that McGuiness’s death. Volume 17 had been a huge favorite with the fans, Nathan included, not only because it had featured C.J. again (as long as the action was on the other, alternate Earth), but also because Kyle had finally been able to act on the feelings he had discovered he had for C.J. that he’d only admitted to himself after C.J. had died. Volume 17 had featured the first and only (canonical) C.J./Kyle kiss.
Nathan realized he was still staring at the wolf, dumbfounded, and the wolf was staring placidly at him. The pieces felt together with blazing simplicity. It was all so obvious. He was on the Earth where Among Us took place, Earth G-3, the Earth where C.J. had died. Things must be really bad here, apocalyptically bad, because someone—some power-that-be, some multiversal force, maybe even the Fallgate tendrils themselves—had clearly decided that the only potentially effective solution, the only shot they had, was to bring back Christopher James—the one man all sides had trusted. And the only way to do that, given that the C.J. in this world had been reduced to a pile of gooey cinders, was to tag the C.J. from the alternate Earth G-5 into the match, and bring him over by Fallgate to the main Earth, Earth G-3.
Except … that clearly wasn’t what had actually happened. Because somehow, by some bizarre, cosmic bureaucratic fluke, he was the one lying here on the Fallgate disc, instead of the person they actually needed. Instead of the spare, backup C.J. from Earth G-5, here to save they day, what they’d got stuck with instead was Nathan Yates, teenage dork—stuffed, like cordon bleu made with Cheez Whiz, inside Major Christopher James’s slightly damaged but still superheroic meatsuit.
This was—fuck. To say it was unreal was like saying New York has a few rats. “What the hell am I doing here, wolf?” Nathan huffed out, his mind spinning on what felt like multiple axes. His new friend gave a small, low bark, which Nathan figured was wolfish for “Fuck if I know.”
He shook his head at the wolf, at a loss for what to think about any of this. Then he squinted at it, frowning.
There were probably wolves in the Among Us ‘verse, but they hadn’t been any that had turned up in the stories and been plot-relevant. There, had, however, been plot-relevant things that looked like wolves, but weren’t. They were the travelers that came through the Fallgate in wolf form for some reason, humans (or human-like aliens) inside the body of a wolf. They’d only featured prominently in one of the more peculiar stories, in Volume 4, like a trial balloon for more supernatural/gothic elements in the series, but they were popular with a lot of fans, and a few recent volumes had alluded to the Fallgate wolves with people inside—who communicated telekinetically using visual images. There’d been very clear hints, too, that Fallgate wolves were actually shifters, and could find their way to human form and back if they had the mental discipline. There’s been a lot of fan fiction exploiting this idea, most of it gay-romantic or erotic, though it had never been confirmed within the pages of the canonical graphic novels.
Nathan stared hard at the huge timber wolf. It was still sitting a few feet away from him, watching him expectantly as if all future action depended entirely on the human in the equation. “You are a Fallgate wolf, aren’t you,” Nathan said. The wolf didn’t react. Nathan leaned forward a little toward it. “Who’s inside there?” he demanded. “Who are you?”
The wolf jumped to its feet, excited, but didn’t advance or retreat. It pinned Nathan with its burnished gaze. “Who are you?” Nathan insisted. “Show me!”
An image started to form in Nathan’s mind, and this time he kept his eyes open. He was expecting an image from the books, a face created from Tanner Herrera’s bold, fluid lines. What he got instead was another memory. A young man checking his artfully messy pale blond hair in a mirror, aiming a wink and a smirk at himself. Nathan felt a smile burst across his face. “Dylan!!” he shouted happily, and the wolf jumped back, wary and surprised. Nathan climbed to his knees and spread his borrowed arms wide. He had known it the whole time, somehow—certainly in retrospect it was the only possibility for who was inside the wolf. “It’s me, Dylan!” he exclaimed. He tapped his throat where the pendant had been. “It’s Nathan! Nate! I came after you, you brazen fucker!”
The wolf leapt into his embrace, and together they fell back hard on the warm, unfinished stone. Nathan didn’t care. He hugged and scratched and held the gray and white beast, and wolf-Dylan reciprocated, licking Nathan’s face and nuzzling him ecstatically. “I’m glad to see you too, Dyl,” he said, and he realized he meant it. He struggled to a sitting position against the man-sized weight of the massive wolf, and it clambered back a little, though it ended up still sitting half in Nathan’s lap. He scratched and petted the wolf’s head fondly with both hands, muttering, “Why the fuck did you come through as a wolf, Dyl?”
Wolf-Dylan give a little wuf. “Yeah, I dunno either,” Nathan said. He stopped scratching a moment, considering, and Dylan leaned his wolf-head into Nathan’s hand in frustration. He scratched one handed while he thought aloud. “Your fucker of a step-dad said they only wanted me,” he said slowly. “He said you’d be killed if I didn’t go through too.” The wolf growled in the back of its throat. Nathan figured there was a lot to the story of Dylan and Mr. Walcott. He’d learn it all soon enough.
Nathan looked around, taking in the full environment for the first time. They grassy clearing they were in was surrounded by woods, not unlike the Walcott property where they’d left their own world. There were some distances—in particular, the range of blue-purple, whitecapped mountains hazily visible but very large beyond the part of the forest that was to Nathan’s left. Those mountains confirmed that they were close to the Colorado setting for the Among Us stories. But there was no sign of anyone around—human, alien, or otherwise.
He turned back to Dylan. “You haven’t seen anyone but me?” The wolf shook his head with another wuf. Nathan rubbed his chin unhappily. It was possible Dylan had been sent through as a wolf to protect him—if there was any truth to Scott Walcott’s claim that his step-son would be cut down on this side of the Fallgate. Nathan was not inclined at this point to place any faith in what Walcott had said. “I think your dad was feeding me a line of bull,” he said aloud, glumly. “All he cared about was getting me through—he even shoved you through to get me to come after you. Any idea why your step-dad wanted me to go through the Fallgate?”
The wolf started to shake his head again. But then an image came into Nathan’s mind: the C.J. pendant Nathan had worn. Nathan shook his head. “That doesn’t make any sense,” he said, falling back to lean on his hands behind him. “I made that pendant myself. It didn’t mean anything but that I liked C.J. And … if your step-dad just needed someone who knew about Among Us—fuck, Dyl, there are literally a million people more knowledgeable than I am, and probably seven billion people more qualified to do … whatever the fuck they want me to do here.” He rubbed his scalp, at a loss to put it together. There had to be more to it.
A though occurred to him, and he cocked his head at Dylan’s wolfy face. “Why did you have my phone number, anyway?” Nathan asked.
The wolf ducked his head. “Come on,” Nathan cajoled. “I’m not gonna get mad.”
Dylan kept his head down, but an image formed in his head—the same image of the pendant against Nathan’s pale collarbone, which, he guessed, was Dylan telling him he’d been told to keep an eye on Nathan, or more likely get close to him, once Walcott had found out about Nathan’s C.J. pendant. Then that image was replaced with something else. It was a series of images, rough and unclear. They must have come from Dylan’s imagination, because they were of Dylan and Nathan passionately making out in what was probably Dylan’s bedroom.
Nathan barked a laugh. “You sex-crazed fucker,” he said, rubbing Dylan’s furry head. Dylan responded by licking Nathan’s face again. “All right, all right, none of that,” he said. “I know that this is all about my huge dick. And you’re not getting that until you figure out how to be a human again.” Dylan whined a little in protest, forcing more laughter out of Nathan. “Forget it!” he said with a chuckle, scratching the wolf behind his ears. “I will tell you one thing, though,” he confided, and he told Dylan about the phone call he’d gotten from Hack. “I think,” Nathan said, “that those muscleheads were trying to keep me from fucking you, and ruining you for any other guys. What do you think of that, Romeo?”
An image formed in Nathan’s head, accompanied by much amusement, of Joe and Hack naked in the locker room as they got ready to shower after a match. Both of them sported dicks that were not even a quarter of the size of Nathan’s old cock—let alone the prodigious monster that came with the borrowed god-body he had now. Nathan fell back on the stone, laughing his ass off. “I knew it!” he cheered, and Dylan sat back on his haunches and watched him enjoy the moment, patently smiling as much as a canid ever did in the whole history of the world.
He sat up and looked at Dylan, right in the eyes. “All right, time to get serious,” he said. “We need to find out what’s going on and why we were brought here. I’d say it’s safer to stay out of it, but it’s probably not. If we were brought here for a reason, then sooner or later that reason is going to come find us. And I think we’re better off getting ahead of it, and figuring out our options before it’s too late. You agree, Dyl?” The wolf nodded. No surprise—Dylan was born proactive and raring to go, Nathan thought. His eyes fell to his lower limbs, and he frowned. “Okay,” he said. “So the first thing is to figure out how I can walk with only a leg and a half.” He scanned the distant treeline at the edge of the grassy clearing. “Maybe you can find a large enough branch I can use as a crutch, or…” He trailed off as Dylan sent him a new image. It showed Nathan walking alongside the wolf, leaning one hand on the Dylan’s back. Nathan frowned. It might be possible—Dylan being bigger than a normal timber wolf, and probably almost 200 pounds—but he shook his head.
“Come on, Dyl,” he said. “I’m not going to make you—” But the image came again, more insistently, and Dylan began nudging aggressively under his under-arm with his muzzle, as if trying to help him up and onto his feet. Or, rather his foot. “All, right, all right! We’ll try it,” he said. “But if it doesn’t work or it’s a pain for you, we’ll find a crutch.” Laboriously, and with Dylan’s help, Nathan clambered unsteadily to a vertical position. Sure enough, wolf-Dylan was tall enough that Nathan could lean part of his weight on him and walk, after a fashion, though unsteadily and with a decided list in the direction of his canid friend. He thought about his meet-up with Dylan and laughed. “I was so sure I’d be sucking your dick right about now,” he said, as he got them lurching slowly in the direction of the tallest mountain, at the feet of which he knew, according to the books, the HDTF base must be situated.
Dylan barked happily. “Don’t get any ideas,” Nathan said with a grin as they started to pass across the long grassy incline toward the trees. “I like my men human, thank you very much,” he said firmly. “Take that as an incentive to figure out how to make that happen for yourself.” If anyone could sort out how to unlock his body’s potential to shift from wolf to man, it would be Dylan—Nathan had no doubt.
Dylan sent him another image—this time of the exact horizon they were looking at, trees and mountains behind, but with a question mark superimposed. “You’re getting better at wolf-talk,” Nathan said, smiling down at Dylan as they lurched across the green. It was still ungainly and awkward, but they were finding a rhythm. Dylan looked up at him, eyes bright and reflective in the bright late morning sunlight. “So, where are we going?” Dylan gave a wuf, and they both looked ahead. “That’s easy,” Nathan said with amusement. “We’re going to find my boyfriend.”
Dylan stopped dead, and though Nathan had half expected this reaction he’d still nearly pitched forward on his face. He grabbed the scruff of Dylan’s fur and resteadied himself, laughing the whole time. “Relax, lover boy,” Nathan said, still laughing. “It’s C.J.’s boyfriend, not mine.” He bent and looked directly into Dylan’s eyes, straightening his face to show he meant what he said. “I don’t know anyone here,” he said, “and I don’t trust anyone here either—except for you.” He considered how to express his monogamous intent with regard to Dylan, and decided to be cavalier rather than gooey and hokey. “So that means that when it comes to dick stuff, I am all yours. No one else’s,” he went on. “On this planet, or any other. And when you discover how to be hot, hunky Dylan again,” he added with a cocky lift of his eyebrow, “I’ll show you exactly what I mean.”
He expected Dylan to bark again. Instead, he sent the images of Dylan and Nathan making out in Dylan’s room again. There were a lot of them, and Nathan realized that not only were they both naked, they were also doing a lot more than kissing. “Okay, okay, stop that,” Nathan laughed. “We don’t want to meet my boyfriend with me all riled up and excited, do we?” he teased.
Dylan, by way of answer, pointed his head toward the sky and howled. Nathan laughed and joined in, lifting his own face to the bright blue sky above them. “Awooooo!” he crooned, and their combined howl seemed to echo across the wide, grassy expanse and along the wafting trees ahead of them. “Awooooo-oooo-ooo!” They howled a little more in exuberant catharsis, and then they started once again making their slow, uneven way toward the dark shade of the forest that stood between them and the answers they both craved, and the destiny they worried they weren’t at all prepared for.
Nathan’s exuberance didn’t last long.
As they came to the edge of the wide, bright clearing they found a wide path than led into the cool, sun-dappled forest of white-barked aspen and fir. Nathan didn’t have to wonder who made the path. One of the early stories had situated the Fallgate somewhere in one of the roadless wilderness areas of Uncompahgre National Forest in southwest Colorado, in the shadow of the San Juan Mountains. Once, there had been hikers wending through these valleys and foothills in every season, but as soon as the original Among Us team of FBI Special Agent Jon Nunn and Air Force Captain Christopher James had stumbled on the true nature of the Fallgate, everything in a quarter-mile radius of that clearing had become a restricted zone, protected by cameras and fences anywhere the terrain was close to accessible and marked on the maps as the San Juan DoD Munitions Training Zone. Now the only trail that mattered was this one: a narrow, winding path leading from the high, grassy mountain shoulder they’d arrived on down into the woody canyon below. There, nestled in the canyon’s armpit, as it were, they’d find the ex-Forest Service research station that now served as the Fallgate-proximate satellite base for the Human-Doshiren Task Force or HDTF. The main headquarters were down-valley in Montrose, ten miles north.
It was a fairly easy trail, graded in places to smooth out sudden descents and stepped in others. That was all well and good for a hiker with good boots and two good legs. For an amputee leaning on a wolf, it was something else again. Nathan soon found that the slow, awkward lurching they were managing was doing a number on his right shoulder as well as on his left, and only, ankle. From the way wolf-Dylan’s head was hanging was they walked, Nathan guessed that taking his considerable weight was doing the wolf no favors either. Dylan might be a huge specimen of his kind, but then, so was Nathan, stuffed as he now was into the outsized frame of comic book hero.
At least Dylan was wearing a fur coat, which was more than Nathan could boast. Having traveled across universes to another planet entirely, Nathan knew there was no reason to think that it was the same month it had been back home, or even the same year, and there was chill in the still, quiet air that didn’t feel like early June. True, he didn’t know much about mountain climates—the closest he’d ever been to a mountain before this was the Dairy Queen parking lot that sloped up to the crest of Walnut Hill, and the wrinkles and folds of southern Indiana didn’t quite hold a candle to the soaring, majestic whitecaps of the Rockies. All he knew was that he was naked and cold even as he sweated with exertion, and he didn’t want to be caught out here when night fell. He was also a little hungry, which got him thinking about finding food in the forest if they didn’t make it to the HDTF base. Or, as seemed just as likely, something in the forest deciding that he was food.
They rounded a sharp curve in the path and Nathan’s heart fell. They were standing on a sort of shelf looking out over the canyon and the dramatic slopes beyond. From here the path suddenly dropped, as if it were tired of babying them, and began twisting down to their right though some jagged looking bare outcroppings that looked, it occurred to Nathan uneasily, like the ideal secret headquarters for the local fraternal lodge of man-hating, venomous snakes. He nudged Dylan forward and they took a couple more steps toward the edge of the shelf, though Nathan could tell the wolf was not keen on getting too close. Peering over, Nathan thought he could just make out the roofs of the base nestled on the crook of the canyon below them. It still looked a long ways away.
“Holy … Toledo,” he sighed.
Wolf-Dylan looked up at him curiously. An image formed in Nathan’s head, and he snorted out a laugh—it was the million-times-circulated picture of Jackie Chan with his hands to the side of his head and a what-the-fuck? expression.
“You did not just think a meme at me,” Nathan admonished him sternly.
Dylan sent him a troll face. “Stop it,” Nathan said, shaking his index finger at him. “Stop it right now. I’m not kidding.”
Dylan grinned at him, as much as a wolf can grin.
Bracing himself against Dylan, Nathan lowered himself into a sitting position on the thin grass of the shelf, folding his legs loosely and rubbed at his sore ankle. It felt good to take a break. Dylan sat too, directly in front of him, and Nathan took a moment to appreciate his new look. The complexity of his fur amazed him—every strand of white seemed twinned with another of dark gray or silver. The pelt was lighter around the muzzle and grayer above the eyes and around to the sides, rising toward the crown and the darkest swaths stretching toward his neck and back, and around the peaks of his ears. Human Dylan was so attractive that he’d shocked awake Nathan’s slumbering homosexuality, but he had to admit that wolf Dylan was striking and, for a wolf, altogether beautiful.
Dylan was still watching him, waiting for an explanation of the ridiculous expletive. Nathan gave in. “It’s just C.J.’s catch phrase,” he said, feeling slightly chagrinned for some reason. “I don’t know why. Well, I know why he says it that way, but I don’t know why they picked that for his catch phrase. It’s kind of silly.” He reconsidered, and reversed himself. “Well, maybe not.”
Dylan stared at him, clearly requiring further elaboration. “It’s this whole thing,” he began, scratching wolf-Dylan’s fuzzy head and around his pointy ears. “C.J. was in the military for years, rising up the ranks to Captain,” he explained. “He liked to work with the mechanics and flight crew instead of staying aloof like some of the other pilots, and one of the side-effects of that was that he got used to cursing and that kind of thing. He did it so much he didn’t really notice it—all the time, everywhere, but especially when things went south. His dad was military too, a gunnery sergeant in the Marines, I think, so it might have seemed natural anyway, I don’t know.
“Anyway, he paired up with Jon Nunn back at the beginning of Among Us. C.J., I mean, not his dad. C.J.’s sister up in Denver was mind-raped and killed, and it was by the same psychic bad guy Jon was tracking. So C.J. forced Jon to let him help track down the villain. Who, wouldn’t you know, turned out to be an alien. A Doshiran, actually—you know, an extraterrestrial that came through the Fallgate. That was what first opened up Jon and C.J. to the whole ‘aliens among us’ thing. That’s how it all started.”
Nathan paused, having momentarily lost track of why he’d started explaining the original plot of Among Us. “Oh yeah, cursing,” he said, moving his gentle scratching down to the shorter hairs on Dylan’s muzzle, before moving on to the sides and down the neck. “So the problem was, Jon didn’t like cursing. He’d been brought up in this freaky Pleasantville kind of family where people said ‘gosh’ and ‘fiddlesticks’ and ‘oh, bubbles’ and shit. And so finally, after asking C.J. very nicely a few times to tone it down, Jon just exploded at him in the car one time, just laying into him about how inconsiderate and rude he was and how he never wanted to hear another goddamned fucking curse out of him ever again. It was seriously hilarious, truly a crowning moment of awesome. There were like three whole panels where C.J. just stared at him, mouth hanging open. Fucking priceless. So it became, like, this running gag, where C.J. would start to curse, then remember at the last minute to switch to something else. So, like, instead of ‘holy shit’ he’d remember halfway though and say ‘holy … Toledo’ instead. It was seriously funny. When Jon’s son Jeremy showed up, Jon just had to give him a look, and it was like C.J. had to swear never to curse again.”
He sighed, dropping his hands into his lap. “Then Jon was killed, at the end of Volume 5. After that it was still a running gag for C.J., but it also became kind of, I don’t know, poignant, too, I guess. When C.J. was fried at the end of Volume 9, the team made jokes about putting it on his gravestone, just like that—you know, ‘Holy … Toledo’.” Nathan spread his hands, as if picturing the words inscribed in granite. “Even Kyle laughed at the time, and he was pretty much broken, for a while, after C.J. was killed.” He turned his head and met Dylan’s steady amber gaze. “It was a big turning point in the alternate universe story, a long time after that. When the other C.J.—” (he thumped his own mighty chest) “—said it … it was like, for all the things that had happened differently over there, and all the extra shit that the other C.J. had gone through after Kyle died there instead of him, this was still, basically, the same guy.”
He stared at his hands for a moment. “That’s why I was thinking about it,” he said. “If I’m going to pretend to be C.J., I have to say it. That will sell it. There are a few things, a few arc phrases and shit like that, that will convince people I’m C.J., and that’s one of them. I guess that’s the only plan I have, right now.”
Nathan looked away, out over the canyon. The afternoon was passing, but it was still bright and sunny. The shelf looked north, and the heights of the San Juan mountains were mostly behind him, but he could see the ranges that rose miles away to the north beyond Montrose. They looked serene and stolid, as if they stood for what was immutable about the universe. Or, he reminded himself, the universes.
He remembered back when his social studies teacher, Ms. Walsh, had first brought up how the Greeks had debated the nature of morality in their quest for an ideal society. Of particular interest was whether right and wrong was something that depended on the whims of men, or of the gods; or whether it just was—unchangeable and immutable, like the mountains. Even mountains exploded sometimes, though, some ancient wag had said, and rained fire down on humans foolish enough to depend on their permanence. Ms. Walsh had likened the idea of universal concepts of right and wrong to unchanging natural laws. Nathan wasn’t much in for science, but to him that sounded like the reliable structure of harmony and scales, the structures that turned the mathematics of tone and rhythm into beauty. Then Nathan had read somewhere that ideas of harmony weren’t universal even among humans, and than alien races with their different biology and ear structures might perceive and appreciate music in ways incomprehensible to us. If the aesthetics of harmony were arbitrary, Nathan didn’t know what to think about permanence and universality of any kind.
He’d been brought here for a reason. That reason obviously involved a need for the late and lamented Christopher James, since the image of his alternate-universe backup doppelganger had been conjured here through the Fallgate. Why Nathan was the one playing him still mystified him—it had to be either a fluke, or a mistake. But one way or another, the intent of whoever had brought him here could not be more obvious: he was supposed to pretend to be C.J. and save the day.
Save the day? He scoffed at himself. Who am I kidding? He started to card a hand through his hair and stopped in uneasy surprise—he’d forgotten that his own wavy hair, which had just been starting to get too long, had been replaced by C.J.’s lush, straight, shoulder-length locks. Everything about this guy was bigger, different, and basically wrong—even his damn hair. He pulled back his hand and rubbed his stubbly chin instead. He had to either pretend to be who he appeared to be, the C.J. from the alternate Earth; or tell them that while he looked like a fearless Air Force pilot-slash-alien hunter, he was actually a nerdy teenager from a planet where they were all fictional characters and people dressed up like them at conventions, not that he’d ever cosplayed like that, apart from wearing the most distinctive character symbol of the series around his neck every damn day of his life. He didn’t think that would go over well.
At last he looked up at wolf-Dylan again, who was still watching him, curious and concerned. He didn’t understand, not like Nathan did.
“Listen, you should know—I don’t know what I’m doing here,” he told the wolf. “I mean—yeah, I know a lot about this place, purely by accident by the way. But that doesn’t mean I can pull off … whatever I’m supposed to pull off.” He ticked off his impossible challenges for Dylan. “I gotta pretend to be C.J. to a guy who knows him so well that he fucking fell in love with him. Not to mention the rest of the team, and the friendly Doshiren and the not-so-friendly Doshiren, all of whom know that the real C.J. was fried to a crisp three years back, and probably don’t know anything about any alternate realities. Plus, then I have to explain you, and literally everyone who was in Volume 4 is either blown up or fried, so no one even knows what a Fallgate wolf even is around here anymore. Which means I have to—what, explain werewolves to them? That’ll work. Or I have to get people to accept that I just have this wolf I hang out with, no big deal. Because all ex-Air Force pilots have wolf familiars, right? And then—and then! Whatever the fuck is going on, someone somewhere, some cosmic asshole, thought the only person in the entire multiverse who could fix it was a dead guy. So they bring in his—” He put his head in his hands, breaking off. “I seriously don’t know what I’m going to do, Dyl.”
Dylan got up and moved behind him, winding his long, wolfy body around Nathan’s bare back and pressing up close against him, sharing his warmth against his cool skin. As he did so he sent an image to Nathan. It was of the two of them—Nathan as he had been and Dylan, both standing together on the edge of this very shelf, looking out over the rugged and magnificent landscape before them. The determined emotion that came with it was clear and powerful. He nuzzled playfully under Nathan’s ear, and Nathan pushed him away, laughing.
“Get off,” he said with a grin, leaning away as Dylan tried again and defecting his muzzle with his hand. He couldn’t help chuckling, not just because of Dylan’s playfulness but because in the image he’d sent, they’d both been very nude. “Cold nose! Cold nose!” He shoved with both hands against Dylan’s body, nearly spilling the wolf on his side, but Dylan deftly kept his paws and capered nimbly out of reach, where he stood proudly and let out a happy, full-throated bark that seemed to echo all down the canyon.
“I don’t believe it,” Nathan said. “I think you like being a wolf!” Dylan let out another contented wuf, but then sent an image—the same image as before, Nathan and Dylan standing side-by-side together on the shelf, only now the two figures were turning toward each other and starting to make out, their arms twining languidly around each others’ naked forms…
“All right, all right,” Nathan laughed. “You like being a wolf, but there’s benefits to being human again, I get it.” Dylan padded over to him, and Nathan, unable to resist himself, started rubbing his shaggy head again. “Thanks for saying you’ll stand be me, by the way,” he said seriously. Dylan ducked his head in affirmation and sat again, right next to Nathan. “It means a lot. And I’m … I’m sorry you got sent here. I don’t think that was the plan. But still,” he added, letting his hand still atop the wolf’s head, “that just brings up a whole ‘nother set of issues. Because I know there are things you haven’t told me. Things you aren’t telling me.” He looked Dylan right in his dark-ringed, amber eyes. “I haven’t forgotten all the stuff that happened before we got here, and all the questions I had. Starting with the fact that you and I lived on different planets until a couple weeks ago.” The metaphor flagged itself in his head as he spoke as maybe requiring comment, as they now actually were on a different planet, but he soldiered on with his point. “The captain of the state-champion soccer team,” he told Dylan firmly, “must have had a few pretty damn good reasons for mixing himself up with the nerdy outcast piano kid, I think. And however much you try to convince me, I don’t believe it was just about how much you craved my dick.”
Nathan held Dylan’s gaze until the wolf looked away. Nathan took it in both hands and turned it back to face him. Dylan seemed frustrated, as if he wanted to be able to speak, but Nathan had an odd feeling that Dylan wouldn’t have been able to say much now even if he were human. “It’s okay,” he said softly, meeting Dylan’s gaze. “I still trust you. In fact, my mangy friend, you’re still the only person on this planet that I trust even a little bit. Just remember,” he added with an arched eyebrow: “when you’re a man again, you and I are going to have a serious talk.”
What Nathan didn’t tell Dylan was just how much he needed to trust him, beyond any questions or doubts left over from their high school life he might have. In the walk down the trail it had already started to creep up on Nathan how much he’d lost in coming here. It had started before, of course—his mom’s death, his dad’s disappearance, his own withdrawal. But by diving into the Fallgate after Dylan—a choice, but made under duress—he’d lost everything. He’d even arrived naked, as if to make sure the point was not lost on him. He’d lost his world, what control he had over his life, his body, even the ability to walk under his own power. And his pendant, the one he’d carved for himself with his grandfather’s knife. He’d never realized the comfort he’d derived from the gentle touch of the wooden ornament against his skin, especially when he was feeling harassed or put upon—not until it was gone, smashed to atoms in the Fallgate along with everything physical about himself.
He was going to have to try to pretend to be C.J., if only because the alternative was worse. More than that, though, Nathan knew what his own bottom line was. He had to do the right thing. Something was going wrong here, he knew. Something that required Christopher James. A lot of trouble had been gone to in order for that to happen, on his own world and probably here as well. Until he knew more, he was obliged to assume that the presence of C.J. in the events to come was the most important thing about him being here. He was going to have to be someone else to everyone on this planet—everyone but Dylan. He had to trust Dylan, because Dylan was his only lifeline to who he really was. He would be the only entity in this whole universe who knew that he was Nathaniel Oliver Yates.
Dylan huffed noisily and sent him the first image again, the one of Nathan and Dylan standing together with their arms around each other’s shoulders. Clothed this time—a little oddly, though, as in the image they were both completely kitted out as Indiana Jones, right down to the hat and the bullwhip. Nathan’s smile stretched his cheeks. “All right, buddy,” he said, ruffling the wolf’s head. “All right. We’ll do this together. Then … then we’ll find our way back home, somehow. Okay? And in the meantime, I’ll help you figure out—”
“Is that a wolf?” said a voice.
Someone had come up the trail that led down from the shelf into the canyon. Nathan turned his head to look, and when he did both he and the newcomer gasped.
The man standing in the trailhead, just below the level of the shelf and not ten feet away from Nathan and Dylan, was nothing less than stunning. He was tall and rangy, easily several inches over six feet tall, with pale golden skin, high cheekbones, a long, straight nose, and full lips. His blond beard, like the hair above, was at the same time both neatly trimmed and rakishly disordered, no two strands seeming to point the same way. His expression was serious, and his gray eyes under the narrow, bristling brows were so intense they seemed almost luminescent. He was dressed in snug dark khakis; a soft-looking, linen shirt in pale sage with the top buttons open to expose dark-golden chest hair; a sturdy olive jacket that looked designed to show off his square shoulders and long torso despite seeming a little large on him; and brown dress suspenders in a bold herringbone pattern. He looked like the sort of man who might be equally at home slashing through the jungle with a machete, on a photo shoot for an expensive new cologne, or on a wet, windy beach building sand-castles with a son who was his heart and life. Even the fact that he looked tired and a little careworn was touching: it was like a hint of vulnerability in a man unaccustomed to showing any. He was, in short, the most amazing sight Nathan had ever seen in his short, sheltered life, and he stared at the apparition in something very close to awe.
His wonder wasn’t just for the man’s appearance alone. It was Nathan’s first time meeting someone from the pages of Among Us. This was an individual he’d known hitherto only from the graceful black lines and rich color fills of Tanner Herrera’s celebrated artwork, an inked, two-dimensional character made manifest in reality—and the resemblance was uncanny. After all the years he’d spent reading Among Us, there could be absolutely no doubt of the newcomer’s identity; but he didn’t just resemble Herrara’s drawings, he was them. Before this moment, Nathan, if asked, would have guessed that the graphic novels were drawn from the living faces and forms of the people inhabiting this place, known in the comics as Earth G-3. But the likeness of drawing to man was so perfect, Nathan could almost believe that the drawings had come first, and that this was the embodiment, the physical manifestation, of the man Tanner Herrera had been evoking with old-fashioned Bombay ink on three-ply bristol for the last decade and a half.
There was no question but that he was looking at Special Agent Kyle McGuinness, commander of the secret interagency Human-Doshiran Task Force. The expression “in the flesh” had never felt so literal before now.
In fact, the resemblance was so exact that it seemed impossible, and it was only now that it occurred to Nathan, somewhere in the back of his head, that the real truth of this moment might be that Scott Walcott had bashed his brains in and he was in all actuality lying in a coma somewhere, hooked up to a thousand hideous machines, and dreaming up a colorful adventure on other worlds with stories and heroes he knew better than anyone in his real life back in Walnut Hill. That would explain everything, and a lot better than Among Us being real. Nathan shoved the thought aside as unhelpful and, well, deeply terrifying, but it didn’t entirely go away.
Nathan hadn’t missed the fact that Agent McGuinness had recognized him, too. Not that it would be all that difficult. The reddish-brown skin the color of Georgia clay was enough of a give-away, especially coupled with the long, thick mane of black hair, the changeable green-gold eyes, and the heroic, 250-pound-plus frame with the thick, square chest and the syncopated abdominals. But Nathan knew what his true tell was. McGuinness was not staring at his face, or his heavily muscled body, or his missing foot, or even his huge, exposed cock. He was staring at the small dark patch, like a birthmark, just below the notch of his collarbone. The mark in the shape of a stunted hurricane.
Then McGuinness lifted his gaze, and their eyes met. For a moment, they were alone. They were the only two people on this mountain, in Colorado, in all the world.
Dylan growled. It wasn’t a real growl, more like a low, throaty rumble from somewhere deep inside him, but it shook Nathan out of his momentary reverie. It got the agent’s attention as well. McGuinness’s gaze jumped to Dylan, his gray eyes wary. At the same time, Nathan became aware that McGuinness wasn’t alone, either.
Behind him, a couple steps further down the trail, were two more individuals, both female, and Nathan frowned at the feeling of disappointment welling up in his chest that the handsome agent hadn’t come alone to meet him. He told Dylan to hush as he looked them over curiously. One was a handsome older woman, fiftyish maybe with loose, iron-gray hair, dressed in jeans and a vividly chartreuse tee-shirt. Nathan didn’t recognize her. The other was much younger, maybe in her late twenties, in Air Force camo fatigues; a glint of metal on her lapel draw attention to a silver bar, the insignia of a first lieutenant. This person Nathan did recognize, though it took him a moment to place the name.
The original Captain James’s essentially permanent secondment to the newly formed HDTF had been in accordance with secret orders that claimed (however spuriously) that the Air Force had, by dint of several executive orders, the right and duty of involvement in all matters extraterrestrial. After C.J.’s death in Volume 9, there had been a string of USAF liaisons in his place. None had lasted longer than a case or two, as if they were all there mostly to underline C.J.’s irreplaceability. The short, strawberry-blond curls mean that this was the most recent one Nathan had seen: 1st Lt Octavia Dandridge, featured in Volumes 18 and 19, a brassy, poker-playing scion of a old-money Vermont family. She had a big house in Montrose, a big weimaraner named Betsy, and a big-time crush on Kyle McGuinness that she absolutely never, ever showed a hint of to anybody but Betsy.
Dylan made a sound that sounded rather like a hmph, and Nathan realized that no one had moved for a good minute.
With Dylan’s help, Nathan climbed to a vertical position, trying avoid feeling self-conscious about being naked by telling himself that it wasn’t, technically, him that was standing there in his birthday suit. He stood tall, or as tall as he could leaning on a large timber wolf, and waited to see what McGuiness would do. The agent moved slowly toward him, closing the distance between them. His eyes were fixed on Nathan’s, though his body language told him he was aware of the way the wolf was also watching him approach. After a moment, during which there was nothing to be heard but the birdsong and the rustling of leaves in the faint wind, McGuinness was standing directly in front of him, no more than a foot away. Nathan was very conscious now of the man’s classical perfect male proportions and the way every single aspect of his face seemed surfeited with beauty; fuck, he could even smell him, a faint hint of aftershave and something fundamentally male. It occurred to Nathan for the first time that his cursed nudity meant that any outward, physical manifestations of the arousal that was creeping through him, which were entirely possible, would quickly be painfully, mortifyingly obvious to everyone in the world to see. Fortunately, that thought alone was like a bucket of cold water and seemed to stem the possibility of such a humiliation actually taking place, at least for the moment. Then again, with McGuinness around it might be necessary for him to wear not only pants at all times, but a jock and a cup as well.
Nathan lifted his chin and met McGuiness’s gaze. Though the agent kept his expression blank and stony, his luminous gray eyes were alive with roiling emotion, including something like astonished wonder.
Finally, McGuinness spoke. “Major,” he said, his voice smooth and resonant. His tone made it clear that the word was half salutation, half question.
As he’d mentioned to Dylan, Nathan had been thinking, alongside all his other challenges, about how to convince Kyle that he was who he appeared to be. Kyle was the key: if he were sold, the rest would fall in with him. Kyle was the make or break. Like any committed fan, Nathan knew the stories and trivia of nineteen volumes Among Us inside and out, but that still didn’t mean that he knew C.J., or Kyle either, for that matter. He just knew about them, which, he couldn’t help reminding himself, was a huge difference. Nor was he a practiced spy, or even a charismatic extrovert like Dylan. He was a nerd, and the arrows in his quiver were all about information. That only helped him, of course, if the information could be fashioned into authentication and passwords, like the handshakes between computer systems.
And McGuinness had given him exactly the right kind of in to do just that. Christopher James had been a Captain when he was fried in Volume 9, here on the Among Us Earth, Earth G-3. When Kyle had gone down the rabbit hole (or, rather, the Fallgate’s epsilon shunt) and ended up temporarily on Earth G-5, in Volume 17, that world’s Kyle had been fried instead of C.J., and the C.J. there had lived on … and been promoted to Major.
Kyle’s one word greeting was actually both a question and a challenge: “Are you the C.J. from Earth G-5?” and, “If so, prove it.”
And Nathan Yates, information nerd, had the correct reply. All he had to do was bring to mind what the C.J. of that world had called the visiting, aberrant Kyle.
Nathan met McGuinness’s gaze steadily. “Alt,” he responded, with the same level of solemnity.
The ghost of a smile curved McGuinness’s lips for the first time, and something unknotted in Nathan’s chest. It had also occurred to him, as he’d been feverishly considering and weighing all these things on the trail, that just because this place had an Among Us Fallgate and Among Us characters, that didn’t mean that everything had happened here exactly as it had in the books. Fiction dramatizes, after all, even when based on real life, and sometimes creative types took major liberties. He didn’t know whether Chad Kulikov was a meticulous, unswerving stenographer of the history that happened here, or inventor from the whole cloth of everything that had ever happened in his graphic novels. And that didn’t account for whether there were two real Among Us universes, or a hundred, or infinitely many, all slightly different, and only one of them matching up with the comic books he knew.
But Kyle recognized the password. It had started as the other C.J.’s joking reference to the secret file he’d have to make about his interuniversal visitor, to be formally labeled “Special Agent Kyle C. McGuinness [Alt]”. From there things had progressed into “Alt” turning into C.J.’s joking nickname for Kyle, while he was there. That specific detail, those moments, had actually happened in Kyle’s personal timeline. And that meant that maybe, just maybe, things could be made to work out.
Kyle seemed to relax fractionally as well, though he kept his expression mostly serious. “This is my Earth, Major,” he said in a low voice meant just for them, his gray eyes twinkling. “You’re the ‘Alt’ here.”
Then Kyle’s gaze dropped slightly for a moment, lighting on Nathan’s lips. Nathan realized the agent was remembering the kiss they’d shared on Earth G-5, and probably wondering if there’d ever be another. Even knowing beyond a doubt that Kyle was too professional to actually lay a mack on him here in front of god and his own subordinates, Nathan felt a torrent of desire rush through him. To his horror he felt his oversized dick twitch—not chubbing yet, not exactly, but certainly willing. The whole idea of boning up anywhere but in the privacy of his own little room with the lights off and the door locked caused a shiver to run through him, which, fortunately, Kyle misinterpreted.
“Cold?” he asked, cocking an eyebrow. Without waiting for an answer he pulled off his oversized olive jacket and helped Nathan put it on, letting him hold onto his shoulders as needed to keep his balance as he climbed into it. Despite his considerably more muscular frame the jacket fit perfectly, and Nathan gave him an inquiring look.
“It’s yours,” Kyle admitted. “Actually, it’s … listen, can we talk for a minute?” he added in a low voice, indicating the aspens back the way Nathan and Dylan had come, away from the shelf and prying ears.
As if on cue, the lieutenant piped up, “Sir, should I break out the—?”
“I should examine—” the older woman started in.
“Yes, just a moment,” Kyle said over his shoulder. “I just need to have a word with our visitor.” To Nathan, he said, “Lean on me. We’ll walk together.” He nodded again toward the forest. Nathan was already steadying himself with a hand on Kyle’s left elbow, and Kyle now turned to stand at Nathan’s left side. Nathan hesitated, then transferred his left hand to Kyle’s shoulder. Kyle wrapped a supportive arm around Nathan’s waist that felt, unnervingly, like a harbinger of intimacy.
Just then Dylan made the little growling noise again, and Nathan realized, a little chagrinned, that he’d actually almost forgotten about his companion for a moment. He smiled down at the wolf, who was now standing at his right, so close his fur was brushing Nathan’s stump. The wolf glared up at Kyle. “Hey, relax, buddy,” he told him. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
Dylan bared his teeth and sent an image of Kyle and Nathan/C.J. making out, nude and passionate, deep in the sun-dappled forest somewhere, with emotion bleeding through that felt like warning as well as anger. “Now, none of that,” Nathan admonished, suppressing a grin. “Just wait here a minute, okay?” Kyle sent an image of himself as a wolf nipping Nathan/C.J. on his perfect, round, extremely naked bare butt, and Nathan snorted a laugh. “Just chill, okay? Seriously.” He directed his index finger at the wolf. “Stay,” he instructed, not quite keeping a straight face. Dylan growled. “Staaayyyy,” he repeated sternly. Dylan growled again, and Nathan laughed. “C’mon,” he said to Kyle. “Ignore him.”
“Ignore the wolf,” Kyle repeated dryly as they started an awkward three-legged walk toward the eaves of the forest. His tone made it clear that those sounded like famous last words to him, but, characteristically, he said nothing further. Dylan, naturally, trotted along with them, close at Nathan’s side.
Though he was just as unaccustomed to walking with Kyle’s help as he was with leaning on a wolf, the two of them found a rhythm, though it was still uncomfortable and a little embarrassing. After a minute or two Kyle drew them to a stop near a small, fragrant stand of high-reaching firs. Dylan padded around them and then went back and sat on his haunches a few feet away, pretending to give them privacy. Nathan and Kyle turned toward each other, Nathan keeping his hold on Kyle’s shoulder for balance. Kyle kept his hold on Nathan’s waist for a moment, then dropped his hand to his side.
“There’s something you need to know,” Kyle said seriously. Nathan was reassured to see that Kyle was holding to the direct and straightforward manner that was so familiar to the fans of Among Us. He kept his haze fixed on Kyle’s bright, gray eyes. “When I was debriefed after returning from your world,” Kyle explained, “I was given very strict orders not to mention that there are more Earths than ours on the other side of the Fallgate.”
Nathan thought about this. Knowledge of the Fallgates themselves, and of the Doshiren that had come through them at various times and were now living on Earth, was already strictly limited and incredibly classified—but that still included the dozen or so people attached to the HDTF and assorted superiors up the chain of command in both the FBI and the Air Force including, if Nathan remembered correctly, the president, plus a couple of senators with clearance, past task force members (the few who were alive), retired officers and officials, and three ex-presidents—not to mention, of course, the whole lot of the hundred or so Doshiren themselves that were presently living secreted within the oblivious human population. The 9,000-day cycle, governing when Fallgates were active, was known to far fewer people. In particular, the Doshiren, shockingly enough, seemed not to know anything about how the Fallgate functioned or how or when it could be used; and they were never to find out, under any circumstances.
But if Kyle was telling the truth, no one, human or not, was to know that parallel Earths could be reached through the Fallgate. He thought back. In Volume 17, Kyle had done his own calculations and found a way to reach a parallel Earth almost by accident. In that case, that meant that the sum total of everyone who knew the truth about parallel Earths was the two of them, plus whichever officials or officers had debriefed Kyle. Four people at most, Nathan figured. Four people who knew the truth. Was that too few, or too many?
He tried putting himself in the heads of whoever demanded the ban. “They’re afraid—what, that people will try to find doppelgangers of important people on alternate Earths?”
Kyle shrugged. “Or control resources from alternate Earths. Or harvest technology we don’t have,” he said. “Who knows. You didn’t tell anyone about me, either,” he added pointedly.
Nathan nodded. “That’s true.” In fact, in Volume 17, Nathan’s brief visit to the other Earth had ended up not being revealed to anyone. Not counting the villain they’d fought together, that is—a Doshiran bomber who’d ended up blown to smithereens by one of his own psy-triggered devices. But C.J.’s caution, Nathan remembered, had not been solely about the secret of parallel Earths. It had also been about an even and deadlier bigger secret: Kyle had found a way to travel through an inactive Fallgate, without his body being destroyed at the sending end.
Normally, you fell through an active Fallgate, your body was destroyed and dispersed into the cosmos on one end, your soul was transmitted, and a new body made on the other for your soul to be stuffed into. If the Fallgate wasn’t active, you had to wait for the nine thousand day cycle to complete, and sucks to be you if it was active last month and you missed it. That was the normal process. It was what had happened to Nathan, back on his own Earth—he remembered Scott Walcott whining and bitching about having to wait for the nine thousandth day to come around. And it was also what had allowed for what Nathan had gotten at this end: a new body that looked nothing like his old one. His old body didn’t even exist anymore; and nothing said the cosmic tendrils had to conform to the old blueprints if they had other plans, as clearly they did in Nathan’s case (and Dylan’s, for that matter).
But Nathan had uncovered a lost memory from an unreconstituted soul (long story) that had revealed a way to send your soul through for thirty-one hours with your body suspended rather than destroyed. You’d have a temporary body at the other end, and then you’d rejoin your own body if you returned back within the prescribed thirty-one hours. (Another sign, Kyle had observed to himself at the time, that the system was designed by an intelligence—one they might meet one day.) In the end, C.J. and Kyle had agreed that absolutely no one must find out that the Fallgates could be used willy-nilly—by anyone, anytime, to go anywhere. The consequences in the wrong hands seemed far too grave. And that was without reckoning parallel Earths in the mix. Kyle hadn’t even told C.J. how he’d done it. Though ironically Nathan knew, since it had been spelled out and demonstrated in the graphic novel.
The reason Kyle was telling him all this clicked in place. “You’re saying, we can’t tell anyone where I’m from,” he said.
“Yes,” Kyle confirmed. “No one finds out you came through the Fallgate.”
Nathan scratched his chest through the borrowed jacket. “So—how does that work, exactly?” he asked, perplexed. “You’re going to—what, lock me up? Keep me a secret? Send me back?” He bit his lip. “Kill me?” It seemed odd to be talking casually about someone killing you while you’re standing in a forest in one leg gripping his shoulder for support, but that was his life now, apparently, At the mention of killing Dylan stood up abruptly from where he’d been sitting, but Nathan shot him a warning look. Dylan held back, but remained standing, watching and listening closely. Kyle seemed not to notice, his attention focused solely on Nathan.
“I’m not killing you, Major,” Kyle said tersely, sounding angry at the suggestion. “And I’m not locking you up.” He grimaced. “Your coming here, now …” He trailed off, leaving the rest unsaid. Nathan wanted to know more about what had the unflappable Kyle McGuinness worried and losing sleep, but they needed to deal with one problem at a time. “We couldn’t send you back if we wanted to,” Kyle continued. “The Fallgate might be active right now on your world, but it won’t be here for 15 years. And the other way … would be pointless.”
“What, then?” Nathan prompted.
Kyle rubbed a hand across his mouth. “We’ll pass you off as our C.J.,” he said at last.
Nathan squinted at him. “Your C.J.,” he repeated. “The one who was burnt to a crisp, you mean.”
“In front of witnesses,” Nathan carried on. “Dozens of witnesses.”
“Most of whom are dead now,” Kyle put in. “Or in the Doshiren super-max.”
“Are you serious?” Nathan shot back. He was getting agitated, and that always shifted him onto the offensive, whether he wanted to be or not. He wished he could pace around, instead of being rooted to the spot like a flagpole, thanks to the need to hang onto Kyle. “What about the ones who aren’t dead or locked up? What about the ones on your team, McGuinness? There have to be people who were on the task force three years ago who are still around now, right?” Nathan had started to say he could name two off the top of his head, but it occurred to him just in time that he shouldn’t know this, since he was supposed to have been on the other C.J.’s Earth in the intervening period. “I know there are on my world, at least,” he finished lamely instead.
“We will have to—” Kyle tried doggedly to break in, but Nathan didn’t listen well when he was riled up, and ideas and objections started dogpiling in his fertile cerebral cortex.
“Even leaving aside the witnesses,” Nathan rolled over him, “everyone who’s ever heard of Captain Christopher Roscoe James Junior, USAF, also knows that he died, years ago. And—and! Everyone who knows about the aliens, including the entire task-force and his dad and his adopted son, knows that C.J. was ritually burnt to a charcoal cinder by a seriously demented splinter-group of radical humanophobic Doshiren! So how are we going to get around that?!”
Nathan, wound up by his argument and starting to feel like he was getting out of his depth, fully expected—and hoped—that the older, more experienced Kyle would take charge at this point and be calm and strong and stable and make things happen, like he always did. He was completely caught by surprise, however, when Kyle, eyes blazing, instead seized the sides of Nathan’s head and brought him in for a fierce and passionate kiss. Once his reeling brain managed to connect with what was happening, his first impulse was to start kissing Kyle back, deepening the kiss, because …well, damn, Nathan hadn’t had too many kisses so far in his life, none at all if you wanted to get technical, and certainly none from any of the hot guys he’d admired lately, not even Dylan. And Kyle McGuinness wasn’t just hot, he was a man—the epitome of a man in every way. In fact he was very close to Nathan’s ideal. He was smart and brooding and full of unfathomed lust held back by pure resolve and unshakable dedication to what he believes in.
But then Dylan was barking. It was an awful, growly wolf’s bark that sounded like something being ripped and shredded, and very loud, ringing through the trees around them. At the same time Dylan sent him an image, and, horrifyingly, it of his own, still-naked bottom half, with his dick starting to rapidly swell up under the effects of the brain-melting kiss.
They both jumped apart from each other, Kyle reacting to the terrifying noise Dylan was making, Nathan to the mortifying image. Nathan lost his balance and ended up falling on his ass. He was a lot heavier than he was used to being and his center of gravity seemed to be in the wring place, so he fell hard—fortunately, onto a bit of soft ground. It still hurt, though. Dylan, meanwhile, subsided immediately from his alarms and sat placidly down next to Nathan, though he naturally retained a watchful eye on Kyle.
“What the … fudge,” Nathan said. He’d remembered almost at the last second that cursing would be out of character. Ha! he thought miserably, I’ve coined a new C.J.-ism. Go me.
“Sorry,” Kyle said calmly, though he mainly appeared to be sorry that they’d been interrupted by the wolf. His eyes were still brilliant with want, and Nathan, not wanting to think about the signs of his own arousal, declined to let himself check lower down for indications of same in Kyle’s snug khakis. “I’ve been imagining kissing you again since I had to leave,” Kyle went on in a level, matter-of-fact tone.. “Eleven months, thinking about that kiss.”
Nathan eyed him. “So … it was that good?” he asked, not sure if he was teasing or flirting. Kyle just nodded, that ghost of a smile playing on his wet lips, belying the stony expression he’d resumed. Nathan found that he was a little jealous of the real C.J. from the other Earth. Or maybe not, actually, because Nathan was here, and getting hit on by Dylan and Kyle, while the real C.J. was off in another universe somewhere and probably not getting kissed at all by anybody.
Dylan glared at both of them and gave a low, very faint growl. Geez, he thought as he gave Dylan a placating, crooked grin and made a go at rubbing his furry head, though Dylan ducked away, giving him a wolfy glower. I’m in a love triangle. I’m in a fucking love triangle with a werewolf and a fictional FBI badass—who, by the way, is also a walking wet dream and presses every one of my buttons, and wants to jump me besides. If I seriously am in a coma and I’m making all this up in my head … I may just decide not to wake up.
“All right, Agent McGuinness,” Nathan said aloud, looking back up at Kyle and trying to appear remonstrative, “but you can’t win arguments by kissing people. That’s seriously not kosher.” He looked around to see if there was a tree in reach he could use to help leverage himself back up. “We’re not doing Buffy the Vampire Slayer here,” he muttered.
“Buffy the what?” Kyle said.
Nathan whipped his head back to Kyle, eyes peeled wide. “You guys don’t have Buffy here?” he exclaimed, aghast.
Kyle stared blankly at him for a moment, looking baffled. Then he actually smiled. “Gotcha,” he said, wiggling one eyebrow.
Nathan fell back on his hands and gaped at him. “Holy … Toledo,” he blurted, remembering just in time again. He’d truly almost conditioned himself into someone else’s catch phrase. “Seriously, that’s the oldest—I can’t believe you got me with that,” he sputtered, shaking his head. “Holy … Toledo.”
“It’s good to have you back, Major,” Kyle said soberly. He reached out a large, golden hand and helped him awkwardly back up to a vertical position, this time leaning him against the bole a nearby aspen. Kyle stepped back, resuming his normal resting, pensive stance. If he were dressed for it, with the suit and the sunglasses, he would totally look like a Fed, Nathan thought. Still, he could already tell that Kyle was less unperturbed than he appeared to be. Nathan sensed that his remark wasn’t solely in relation to Nathan’s ability to lighten Kyle’s mood, or to whatever torch Kyle had been carrying for C.J. all these years.
Maybe it was time to broach the troubles they’d been having here. “I, um, gather things haven’t been very fun lately,” he tried.
“No,” Kyle said shortly. Plainly, that topic was closed for now. Nathan was sure there’d be plenty of headaches about it later, though. “So,” Kyle went on briskly, looking down at Dylan, “you have a wolf.”
Nathan felt his lips quirk. Kyle McGuinness, Nathan knew from the comics, was a master of statements that were actually questions. Everything that tallied with what he already knew was reassuring.
He remembered a talk he’d had with Mr. Singh a few years back. They’d talk about a lot of things in their little encounters in the grocery store, and on this occasion they’d talked about a lie he’d told Auntie that she’d seen through right away. Mr. Singh had counseled him that the best lies were short. They should contain only a few key details that all involved, including the liar, would remember, and as much truth as possible.
“We met a while ago,” Nathan said vaguely. “He seems very willing to help me, though I’m still not sure why.” He and Dylan exchanged a look, but Dylan said nothing and went back to glaring at Kyle. As an explanation of the beast’s seeming docility he added, “He seems to know a lot about people.” Nathan’s stomach turned unpleasantly. Lying to Kyle was not something that felt right.
“Probably that they taste like chicken,” Kyle said dryly, looking the wolf over methodically from where he stood a few feet away. “Beautiful coat,” he remarked. “Much larger than any timber wolf I’ve ever seen, or heard of. His name is Dylan, you said?”
“That’s right. Named him after a kid I knew in high school.”
“Oh?” Kyle said, looking back up at Nathan. “Why’s that?”
Nathan thought a second about how he wanted to say this. Lie with truth, that was the maxim. “It’s because … back then, Dylan and I had to decide to be friends.” Nathan kept his eyes on Kyle. Exchanging a look with Dylan might tip Kyle off, and there was too much going on to try to bring werewolves in. Not yet.
Kyle watched him closely. “There’s a story there,” he said, when Nathan didn’t say any more. “About what happened with you and the wolf.”
Nathan nodded. “I’ll tell you sometime,” he said. It felt uncomfortably like a promise.
Kyle bent his head and met the wolf’s lucid gaze. “Will you and I be friends, Dylan?” he asked seriously.
Dylan gave him a hard look. “Woof,” he said.
Nathan laughed. “So much for pleasantries,” he said. “Hey, listen, do you guys still bring sets of clothing up when you detect an arrival? Because I, ah, I could use some pants.”
Kyle moved toward him, indicating that they should resume their previous combined walking posture. “Yep,” Kyle said, solicitously brushing the bark and dirt off Nathan’s ass before resting his hand on Nathan’s hip again. Nathan gripped his shoulder and tried not to think about Kyle touching his butt. “Lt. Dandridge has her pack. Clothes, water, rations, the usual. There should be an XL. Though maybe you need an XXL,” he mused, stealing a glance at the impressive pecs pushing out the borrowed jacket.
“I’ll live,” Nathan said as they started moving back down the path, Dylan padding silently alongside them. He mainly wanted to at least get his dick under cover, and his ass for that matter, though he suspected that whatever was in the pack, probably sweats, would do little to actually hide the former. He’d had that problem often enough in his own body, but C.J.’s had it spades. “I don’t suppose her pack has an extra leg I could use,” he said, only half joking.
“A leg is a taller order,” Kyle said grimly. “Especially out here. I know the Fallgate only reproduces organic matter, but it’s a shame your prosthetic didn’t come through.”
“Hmm,” Nathan said. He didn’t want to talk about his trip through the Fallgate, and especially not how he looked when he went in. He cast about for a change of subject, and remembered a loose thread from earlier. “So, what’s the deal with this jacket?”
Kyle didn’t answer for a while, and they walked in silence, listening to the sounds of the forest. Finally, he said, “You remember what I told you. The last time.”
Nathan nodded. “Yes,” he said. Actually, he only knew what happened in the comics, but he knew that story very well. In the story, Kyle, visiting the other C.J.’s Earth, had confessed to becoming aware that he had had feelings for C.J. after C.J. had died, and seeing the other C.J. had rekindled them, though he was not sure what to do about them. They’d kissed, and then Kyle, after considering staying, returned back through the Fallgate before his window of return closed for good. Nathan had found their final exchange heartbreaking. C.J. accompanied Kyle up to clearing where the Fallgate disc was, and stood back a ways to watch him go. It was just before dawn, with a red sky and the trees in black. As Kyle was about to enter the Fallgate, C.J. suddenly called out, “McGuinness!” When Kyle turned back to him, poised on the edge of the disc, C.J. said in a rough voice, “Don’t get dead.” Kyle, one tear on his cheek, drank him in for a second. Neither moved a muscle. Then Kyle said, “Back atcha,” then turned and fell through the disc. Then C.J. was alone, head cast down in silhouette, tears falling on the grass. And that was the end of the story. Nathan still cried every time he read it.
“When I got back,” Kyle said, eyes on the trail ahead, “I … missed you. Both of you.”
He seemed reluctant to say more. “So you tracked down Captain James’s effects,” he prompted.
“Yes.” And that was the end of it. He didn’t have to add that he’d found this jacket among the goods left behind by the dead C.J., no doubt still in boxes at his dad’s ranch, or that Kyle had worn it ever since. It didn’t need to be said. Nathan imagined Kyle huddled in the jacket on a cold, lonely night off somewhere, taking comfort from its oversized protection.
They walked on a moment more. “Thank you,” Nathan said. “For sharing it with me.”
Kyle didn’t respond right away, but he squeezed Nathan’s hip as they walked. After a while he asked quietly, “Why did you come here, Major?”
Nathan stumbled, and only kept from falling thanks to Kyle’s strong arm around his waist. He hadn’t anticipated this question at all, and he totally should have. Why would the alternate C.J. leave everything behind and come to this Earth? His love for Kyle? That seemed like too much. Some sort of disaster on the other Earth? Bald, scheming haberdashers with monkey wrenches and no moral scruples? He shared a quick glance with Dylan, who looked concerned. Then, heart pounding, he made a stab at a bland response. “You have news,” he said; “I have news, too.” Hopefully, Kyle’s news—i.e., whatever was causing problems here—would keep them all busy long enough for Kyle to forget about what Nathan’s, or, rather, C.J.’s news might be. Nathan didn’t think this was very likely, however. He cursed himself six ways from Sunday for not being prepared on such a basic point, and for letting himself get distracted by the feelings he and Kyle had for each other. No, strike that: by the unwanted and unhelpful crush he might be developing for Kyle, and the love Kyle unquestionably had for Major Christopher James—the man who was not actually here.
Kyle seemed to consider Nathan’s answer but did not respond. In fact neither of them said anything until they got back to the cliff. The whole way, all Nathan could think was that he had better become a more accomplished liar, if he was to have any chance of pulling this off.
Dandridge and the older woman, whose name Nathan didn’t know yet, had been busy while the three of them were off in the forest having a chat. When they returned to the grassy shelf, Dandridge proudly offered Nathan a make-shift crutch. Nathan took it from her gratefully. He enjoyed the way he and Kyle had to stay very close as they walked together, but it was still awkward as hell. And he was starting to think he should keep a safe distance from the too-handsome agent, given his attachment to someone that Nathan, unfortunately, only looked like.
“I saw you might need some help getting down the rest of the trail,” Dandridge said assertively, but with a smile that seemed genuine. It struck Nathan somehow that Dandridge probably did a lot of proactive things unasked-for, not because she was nice but because she wanted to get ahead. He could be wrong, though. His memories of her from the last two volumes were embarrassingly patchy, and the truth was he hadn’t paid her a lot of attention or cared much about her character. Now that he was face-to-face with a real life, flesh and blood version of Octavia Dandridge, pilot, heiress, and dog-lover, he felt chagrinned, like he’d just introduced himself to someone who’d been in the same classes as him every day for four years. He resolved to give her the benefit of the doubt. After all, the crutch was genuinely useful.
“Thank you very much, lieutenant,” he smiled down at her. He turned it around in his hand, looking it over. She’d selected a thick, straight branch of deadwood aspen, solid and sound, with a broad Y-fork partway along. She must have had a collapsible saw, undoubtedly standard equipment for her pack in this forest environment, and used it to trim the two arms of the Y to a half a foot each and the overall length to about four and a half feet, then bound up the fork with a thick tee-shirt secured with a couple circuits of duct tape. Very efficient.
Nathan met her eyes: they were bright and blue, and with her strawberry curls and rosy cheeks made him think she looked like she should be at a cotillion somewhere, not fighting mind crimes and shepherding alien visitors in the middle of nowhere. Nathan checked his stream of consciousness abruptly. Was that sexist? That was probably sexist. Fuck, he knew nothing about women. He offered Dandridge another smile. “I really appreciate it,” he told her honestly.
Dandridge said nothing, but her expression said, Naturally. Nathan shook his head inwardly. Maybe he was lucky he was gay, because talking to women always left him deeply confused. That suddenly reminded him of Auntie. He wondered what she was doing now. Had Nathan been reported missing? Was she panicked? Relieved? No, that was stupid and mean. Of course she’d be—
“Good work, lieutenant,” Kyle said, breaking into Nathan’s runaway thoughts. “Here, Major, let me help you with that.”
“Major?” Dandridge repeated, looking from Kyle to Nathan. Nathan looked away, not ready for all that yet. He saw over her shoulder that the older woman with the iron-gray hair was standing a few feet off, watching them all closely. He looked uncomfortably at Kyle, who nodded toward the crutch. Nathan planted the end of the crutch on the ground and carefully shifted his weight onto it with Kyle’s help, positioning the padded fork under his left armpit. Dandridge handed Kyle a pair of charcoal gray Air Force sweat pants, which he helped Nathan into, one leg at a time, while Nathan tried unsuccessfully not to feel self-conscious. Then, for the crowning touch, Dandridge produced a large safety pin, which Kyle used to fold up the loose right leg of Nathan’s sweat pants.
Kyle stood and stepped away, and now Nathan was standing on his own. Dylan sat down next to him, though, and that made him feel better.
The iron-haired lady had moved closer while they were working, and was now standing next to Dandridge. She wasn’t looking at him, however. Instead, her gaze was fixed on Kyle, on standing at the ready on the other side of Dandridge. “It’s another quarter hour down to the base,” she said. Her voice was unexpectedly low and a little husky, like she’d been as smoker once. “I should examine him before we go down. He might have—”
“It’s not necessary,” Kyle cut her off calmly.
The older woman was not so easily put off. “It’s procedure, Agent McGuinness,” she insisted. “Any individuals who arrive through the Fallgate device are to be—”
Nathan interrupted her recitation. “I didn’t come through the Fallgate.”
All eyes turned to him. For a long moment there was no sound but ruffling of leaves in a sudden gust high above them.
Nathan took a deep breath. He wanted to tell himself that this was the final moment, the last chance to back out. But he knew better. That moment was long past, from the first second he’d let Kyle think he was someone other than who he was. He had crossed his Rubicon, and the die was cast.
Nathan knew instinctively that defensiveness or irresolution at this point would be fatal. He summoned his courage, straightened his back, and presented himself as every inch the hero he was pretending to be.
“My name,” he said in a steady, commanding voice, “is Christopher James.” Dandridge and the other woman both reacted—the former by gaping outright, the latter by lifting her brows and tightening her lips. The name was obviously known to them. “I didn’t come through the Fallgate. I’ve been held prisoner for the last three years in a … stronghold on the other side of the mountains.” He considered accounting for his injuries—the scars, as well as the leg—but decided that everyone would assume his captors had tortured him, or punished him for prior escape attempts. That wasn’t too far from the truth, given that the other C.J. had, in fact, sustained these injuries at the hands of the splinter Doshiren faction, which he’d hunted down and methodically and cruelly exterminated in an unhinged, eight-month personal war after the other Kyle had been killed.
Lie with truth, that was Mr. Singh’s rule, and Nathan was glad he had some truth to give.
“Eventually, I got free,” Nathan went on, “and I made my way here.” He wasn’t sure what else to say. They were all just staring at him. What was he missing? Fuck, what was—? Emotion. Emotion. Emotion sells as well as truth. “It … wasn’t easy,” he said. He was thinking of the misery he’d felt after Scott Walcott had brained him with that wrench, and the shock of seeing Dylan sizzle as he was sent through the Fallgate. Then came his own choice, having to dive into the gate himself not knowing if he’d live, or what he’d find on the other side. “It’s really great to see friendly faces.” He aimed a crooked smile at his audience, and then his eyes met Kyle’s and a swell of real gratitude overcame him. He was glad that Kyle, at least, was there. The feeling took him a little by surprise.
The older woman crossed her arms over her vivid chartreuse tee shirt. It was so deliberate, Nathan thought, that she might as well have prefaced it with “Look at my body language. See what I’m doing? This is what I think of what you just said.” When she spoke, her tone was acid. “I was under the impression,” she said aloud, “that Christopher James was dead.” She cast a look up and down Nathan’s frame, as if to call attention to his inexpiration and his general lack of any signs he’d been fried to death by Dishoren bio-energy. “Very, very dead,” she added decisively.
“That is what we were made to think,” Kyle put in patiently. The others turned to him, Nathan included. “I was there, remember. They forced me to watch.” Kyle took a slight, shuddering breath. “When they brought him out the last time,” he resumed in a low, quiet voice, “he had a black sack over his head.”
Nathan stared at him in surprise. That was an outright lie. Or at least it was according to the depiction of the scene in Volume 9. Was … the version he knew wrong? Was that possible, in this world? Nathan was pretty sure it was possible, and that was as frightening as anything he’d encountered or learned since he’d woken up in agony in the back of Mr. Walcott’s car. But Kyle’s gray eyes met his briefly, before he returned his attention to the two women, and Nathan saw the guilt there.
“Whoever they killed,” Kyle finished soberly, “it wasn’t C.J.” Kyle gestured to Nathan, standing right there and demonstrating the validity of his words by his mere existence.
Nathan suddenly felt sick. “Can I have some water?” he asked Dandridge.
The lieutenant started, as if jostled out of a reverie. “Of course,” she mumbled, and went to retrieve a bottle from her pack. Kyle walked slowly away pulling a phone out of his pocket, presumably to hail the base and let them know they were coming down. Nathan supposed they must have their own cellular setup out here—he couldn’t imagine there’d be reception otherwise.
He realized the older woman was still regarding him skeptically, arms over her chest. “So you’re really Christopher James,” she said, as if daring him to confirm the lie and spring some kind of fibber’s trap.
Confidence. Charm. Take it to them. He could do this. He could do this. In that split second of coaching himself, Nathan remembered he had another catch phrase at his disposal to sell his identity. Forcing a smile, he offered his hand to her. “People call me C.J.,” he said, as disarmingly as he could.
The woman narrowed her eyes slightly, but she unbent enough to uncross her arms and offer him her own long-fingered hand. “Nancy Dwyer,” she said, giving him a firm handshake. “People call me ‘Doctor’.”
Nathan wasn’t quite sure if she’d meant that as a joke, but he took it as one and let his smile soften as they disengaged. Dandridge returned then and handed him a small plastic water bottle. Then the name registered. “Wait—Dr. Nancy Dwyer? The xenobiologist?” he said with surprise. “You’re supposed to be at Quantico.” The name had come up several times over the years in Among Us, but she’d never been shown, only spoken to on the phone or consulted by email. Fan theory was that it was Kulikov and Herrera’s attempt at a running “unseen character” gag, like Charlie from Charlie’s Angels, or Ben Grimm’s Aunt Petunia. He wondered what she was doing here, but the more pressing need was to think up what C.J. would say on finally encountering the elusive Dr. Dwyer. “I … thought I’d never actually meet you, face to face!” is what he came up with. It was actually kind of thrilling, meeting a character whose face no Among Us fan had ever seen.
Dwyer pocketed her hands. “Oh, we met once before,” she said, with feigned casualness.
Nathan froze, barely remembering to keep his smile in place. “Did we?” he managed.
Dwyer let him hang for a moment, then eased him off the hook. “You wouldn’t remember,” she admitted. “You, if I remember correctly, were extremely drunk.”
“He was,” Kyle agreed, returning to them as he pocketed his phone. “And wrapped around a handsome senator’s aide … if I remember correctly.” He tossed a wink at Nathan.
“I … believe I shall plead the fifth,” Nathan said, with an air of summoning his dignity. He unscrewed the cap on his water and took a long swig, while Kyle conferred with Dandridge about something. Nathan rifled through all the stories in his head, but he couldn’t remember anything about a trip to Washington or any drunken revelries there. He was equally curious and nervous about events that happened outside the pages he knew. But then, he reasoned to himself, volumes of a graphic novel obviously couldn’t cover every moment of the seven years, in-universe, since the fateful day Jon Nunn and Christopher James had first teamed up and started this whole thing. That was an important fact for him to remember. It was one thing to question the pages themselves, but either way, the stories he knew … weren’t the whole story.
Kyle announced that they needed to get back to the base. “There’s been a development,” he said, with a glance at Nathan. Not the good kind. There wasn’t much to say to that. Nathan found himself trying not to think about whether he could really be of any use in this alien Earth he knew from the words, ink-scratchings, and color tints of two men he had never met, as the group headed for the trail that led down into the canyon and whatever awaited them there.
The path down from the shelf was steep and twisty, but also hard-packed and well-made. In two places it was furnished with wide stair steps to prevent too precipitous a descent, for which Nathan, still getting used to his handicap and the awkwardness of using the crutch, was very grateful. His under-arm and shoulder were already starting to complain about the press of inadequately padded wood into his armpit, and there was something about struggling down a slope as he was, with one shoeless foot and a crutch, that twisted his lower back in a way that foretold bitter aching muscles in the hours to come.
His new size and weight felt like a disadvantage in these circumstances, too. When he’d first arrived he’d been impressed and awed by his heroic physique—who wouldn’t be? Like every teenaged outsider he’d wondered a lot what it would be like to be handsome and thickly muscled like the jocks, who were effortlessly popular and always seemed to have something to laugh about. No doubt he’d be grateful for his prodigious strength at some point in this adventure. And maybe for C.J.’s masculine allure as well, the same allure that Nathan himself had been relishing in secret since the first time he’d picked up his first copy of Among Us. Kyle seemed besotted with him—or rather with C.J., he reminded himself brusquely—and Nathan knew he might need to callously play that to his advantage at some point, if it helped him find out why he was here and how he could get home. At the moment, however, all his new size meant to him was that his ankle and armpit were feeling punished by the 250 pounds of solid muscle he was hauling down this mountain. At least it was cool under the trees, the afternoon sunlight dappling them through the canopy, and the smell of leaves and loam was immensely comforting to him for reasons he wasn’t quite sure of.
Nathan exchanged a look with Dylan, who was looking up at him with obvious concern. Dylan sent him an image of himself walking with the wolf’s help the way they had back when they’d first left the Fallgate clearing, but Nathan shook his head minutely at the offer, well meant though it had been. It hadn’t been ideal, anyway—Dylan was huge for a wolf, but still not tall enough at the shoulder to make walking that way more than a short-term fallback. It occurred to him to wonder if Dylan had ever injured a leg on the field and needed crutches. He couldn’t remember. Still, he was pretty sure there had to be a trick to walking around one-legged with a crutch that he had no way of knowing, which only compounded his ill-temper. If only I could ask the real C.J. how to do this, he thought, then stopped so suddenly in the middle of one of the stepped descents that Octavia Dandridge, who following directly behind him, blundered right into him.
“Sorry! So, so sorry,” Octavia said, grabbing his left shoulder to keep him from tumbling over. She added a steading hand at his waist and said, “Are you all right, Major?” she asked, her forehead creased. Nathan saw, much to his surprise, that Octavia was distressed and guilty that she’d plowed into him, nevermind that he’d stopped short right in front of her. Kyle, who was ahead of them, had turned to see if there was a problem, and was looking at Nathan with brows raised in a question.
“I’m the one that’s sorry,” he said humbly, offering her and Kyle a weak smile. After a moment, Kyle nodded and resumed heading down the path, but Octavia was still looking at him curiously. Nathan frowned. He couldn’t exactly explain what had made him pull up so suddenly—it had suddenly occurred to him to wonder about the condition of the real C.J. from Earth G-5, the one whose body he had appropriated without permission. Was he dead? Alive? Liable to show up at any moment? There was no way of knowing, and no way to find out. He took a deep breath, noticing as he did so that Octavia’s eyes dropped down to watch his mighty chest expand and relax under the dark olive jacket Kyle had given him. Nathan hid a smile and shared another look with Dylan. How used was the much-feted soccer forward to admiration like that, he wondered? The wolf seemed to grin up at him. Hoping to head off any salacious images his companion might be thinking of sending him, Nathan started moving again, following Kyle through tees basking in the warm afternoon sunlight.
They were not far from the base now, as Nathan reckoned, and the path was wide enough here that Octavia could descend alongside him and Dylan. Though it wasn’t his strong suit, Nathan figured conversation might be preferable to focusing on how inexpertly he was walking. Maybe it was one of those things that was easier to do if your mind wasn’t obsessing on it, like playing a composition you knew well with emotion instead of simple expertise. He could use a distraction for another reason: with Octavia now beside him rather than behind him, Nathan thought he could now feel Nancy’s eyes boring into his broad back, though he was reasonably sure he was imagining the sensation. “So what did you do wrong to get packed off to Camp Runamuck, lieutenant?” he asked.
Octavia blushed, but said nothing. “She was specially requested,” Kyle said over his shoulder. “She had more closed cases in the last five years than anyone at AFOSI.”
“Wow,” Nathan said, glancing down at her. Having put himself on guard for anything that sounded too much like a teenager, he hastily amended, “That’s … very impressive, lieutenant.”
“Thank you, sir,” Octavia said, her ears still pink. “We had a good team.”
“Of course,” Nathan said, thinking about how often the characters in Among Us had been able to solve cases only by working together. “It’s the team that matters.” The sentiment made him think of Dylan’s exploits on the soccer field, and he glanced down at the wolf curiously. Did a star player like Dylan think about what he could do out there on the pitch, or about what his team could accomplish together? Dylan, however, was now looking around at the foliage off the path and gave no sign he was paying any attention to their conversation.
“I’m looking forward to working with you, sir,” Octavia said, and when he turned to her he saw her bright blue eyes shining up at him with admiration. “Unless I’m reassigned, that is. I’ve read all the case files.” She lowered her lashes and looked away toward the path. “I was so sorry to read about your sister.”
Nathan cleared his throat, uncomfortable. The brutalization of C.J.’s sister had started this whole thing back in Among Us Volume 1, but that was a long time ago, for Nathan and for C.J. He changed the subject. “Why would you be reassigned?” he asked curiously. Did Kyle have a problem with Octavia? He couldn’t remember anything from the stories, but he’d already had to remind himself they didn’t show everything. His eyes flicked from Octavia to Kyle’s long back, but they snagged momentarily on the FBI agent’s very fine ass in those tight, dark khakis, distracting him. To his dismay he felt his oversized member tingling and twitching at the thought of Kyle’s lithe, strong, golden form divested of those snug, body-hugging trousers, and he almost panicked. Get it together, Nathan, he lambasted himself, you’re fucking wearing sweats. That wouldn’t have flown even in his own body—this was one strange, super-muscled physique he’d been stuffed into, but the one part of it he did have some experience with was the disadvantages of being well equipped, if not this well-equipped.
Fortunately, his usual diversion was very close at hand—a pretty girl he could treat like a kid sister. He forced his attention back to Octavia and offered her a grin as he bent toward her, and was relieved to feel his dick already starting to subside. “Did you screw something up?” he teased, but in a confidential, slumber-party confessions sort of way. “It’s okay, you can tell me,” he added with a wink.
“No, sir!” she replied, half aghast that her hero would think such a thing of her and half embarrassed he was treating her so familiarly. “It’s just that,” and here she looked away as the path all but flattened out, curling around several large boulders, “with you here… well, there only needs to be one Air Force liaison to the HDTF, after all. Sir,” she added hastily.
Nathan straightened and huffed a laugh. “I don’t think you need to worry about that, lieutenant,” he told her. “I’m not exactly on active duty—what with being dead and all.” He mulled the ramifications of C.J.’s return from the dead for a moment, and what that might mean for the team and for himself. He wasn’t happy with most of what occurred to him. “I’m not sure I’m in a hurry to tell a lot of people I’m here,” he went on slowly. “Especially the Air Force.”
“Or the FBI,” Kyle agreed without turning around. “Not just yet. Not until this is over.”
Nathan still didn’t know what “this” was, and it was more unpleasant knowing he’d soon find out. He could guarantee he wouldn’t like it, and it was also creeping up on him that impersonating C.J. physically was a very different thing from being the heroic leader and essential team member the rest of these people would be expecting from him. Once again, he turned the unwanted thought away. “Besides, lieutenant,” he told Octavia, “I’m sure that Ky—that is, Special Agent McGuinness has gotten seriously dependent on you.”
“More than she knows,” Kyle said from behind a massive, lightning-split rock. Nathan and the others followed him around it and saw a large log cabin nestled in the shadows of a large stand of firs and aspens, the slopes leaping up on either side and coming together behind the structure as if it was impeding the land zipping itself up tight. Nathan stopped where he was to take it in. The building itself was wide and flat, with a deep veranda that stretched across the whole front of the cabin, the railing interrupted only by a set of steps positioned in front of the wide main door. The tiles roof was steep, with two dormers facing them, their windows, like the main windows below, picked out faintly in the woody gloom by warm light seeping through thick curtains. Smoke curled from a large chimney on the side of the building, and Nathan thought that it was probably warm and comfortable inside compared to how pleasantly cool it was down here in the woody ravine, well away from the yellow, radiant sun that in whose light and warmth they’d basked before, up there in the clearing. Nathan stared, his mind growing momentarily quiet. The cabin looked for all the world like the cozy home of a determined and principled family that had turned its back firmly on the evils of the modern, urban world, or maybe a ranger who preferred to live where he worked, rather than the secret government base it was.
Kyle had turned with a beautiful smile, walking backwards to catch his reaction. Nathan barely noticed. He himself was smiling wide, because it all looked so exactly the way he’d always imagined it, only more so, because he could feel and smell the atmosphere, the depth of this mountain hide-away he’d known solely from deftly inked lines and colored brush-strokes. He felt like someone who’d devoted his life to the study of the ancient Greeks in the days before photographs, and now was laying eyes on the Parthenon for the very first time after only having ever seen sketches and descriptions. Except here was a Parthenon that had never truly existed, not in the real world. Or rather, the world that Nathan had always known as the real world, until now. Just the site of the place was like a physical anchor, one Nathan needed so much in that moment he felt his heart ache.
Kyle’s eyes were twinkling. He saw the relieved recognition in Nathan’s stilled, wide-eyed contemplation of the cabin, though he could not ever know the true reason for it. “Welcome home,” he said grandly, spreading his arms. Then he turned and led the way up to a place that should not exist.
It occurred to Nathan that all this meant nothing to Dylan. He stayed where he was as Octavia and Nancy headed after Kyle toward the building, telling them he’d be in in a minute. Then he smiled down at the wolf, who was staring at the cabin and not moving. He sat down on his haunches, as if refusing to go into the structure before them.
Nathan’s smile faded. “How are you doing with all this, Dyl?” he asked quietly.
Dylan turned his head to look up at him, ears twitching. He send Nathan an image of a cabin in the woods that turned out to have some kind of creature whose face was all teeth inside. Nathan curled his lips. “Yeecch,” he said. “Is that from a horror movie?” Dylan sent another image, this time of a leopard tearing through the inside of a cabin. Nathan gaped at him. “That’s from Tarzan, you dope!” he hissed. “There are no leopards around here!”
Kyle was on the veranda, shooing the others in. He turned and called out to Nathan, “You coming?”
“Be right there,” Nathan shot back. Unable to bend easily to get closer to Dylan for the moment, he hunched as low as he could on his crutch. “What’s really bugging you, Dyl?” he asked, keeping his voice low.
The wolf turned his head away for a moment, then looked up at him again and hurled a succession of images at him while holding his gaze with his amber eyes. Nathan saw Kyle, Nathan/C.J., and the other humans all gathered around each other in the forest, gabbing away while wolf-Dylan hung back, unincluded and confused. Then he saw Dylan’s step-father, Mr. Walcott, with wild eyes, waving his huge wrench around. He saw quick glimpses of Dylan’s mother and his brothers and sister in what he guessed was Dylan’s home, all looking worried and upset as they spoke to sheriff’s deputies, the interior of the room lit by churning red and blue lights. And then a final image, sent with both reluctance and great intensity, that same image from Dylan’s imagination of him and Nathan making out in Dylan’s room—only whereas before it has struck Nathan as being carnal and hormonal, here it felt different. There was sensuality, but there was also something more. The emotion Nathan caught was yearning, and he wasn’t sure if it was bleeding over from Dylan’s worries about being here, in this strange place and universes away from his family, or if there was something else, something more to the way Dylan felt about him than the friendship that had seemed to connect them so quickly and easily in the space of a day, despite the lingering questions Nathan had about him, and layered onto the physical attraction they both unquestioningly felt for each other.
Nathan’s heart went out to Dylan. At least Nathan could indulge in excitement about being inside a story he loved, and find his way among long-familiar sights and ideas. Dylan had literally been tossed into this—into someone else’s world, one that Nathan could navigate but Dylan couldn’t. “Listen to me,” he told Dylan. “I’m going to say this again, and I’ll say it every time you need to hear it.” He fixed his eyes on Dylan’s, setting his free hand on Dylan’s head but not scratching or stroking the fur, just keeping the weight of his hand there. “We’re in this together, okay?” he said firmly. He moved his index finger back and forth between them. “Just us. You and me, we’re partners. Partners to the end. Got it?”
Dylan held his gaze for a long moment. Then Dylan gave him a curt nod. He stood and trotted calmly in the direction of the cabin. Nathan followed more slowly, but it wasn’t long before he was approaching the stairs.
It was only five steps, but Nathan was thinking they would be awkward with the leg and the crutch. Apparently that was the reason Kyle had hung back, because he was already down the steps and wrapping an arm around Nathan, taking the crutch from him. Nathan wrapped his arm around Kyle’s shoulder, feeling a rush of feeling at being able to be in such intimate contact with him again, though he hadn’t even gotten halfway up the steps before he’d met Dylan’s eyes where he sat on the veranda watching them coldly, and guilt flooded over him.
At the top of the steps Kyle handed Nathan his makeshift crutch back with a small bow, then headed inside. Nathan heard a male voice asking how things had gone.
“The Fallgate was a bust,” he heard Kyle respond. “False alarm.”
“I told you!” was the immediate reply. “Those blips were too weak and too intermittent for them to mean actual Doshiren were coming through. Plus none of their Fallgates should be active now, nut unless—” the voice continued confidently.
“But,” Nathan broke in, with an air of someone trying to preempt a long and unnecessary discourse on Fallgate activity, “we did find something else. An escaped prisoner, in fact.”
“Escaped prisoner?” repeated the voice, sounding alarmed.
By now Nathan had reached the open door. He smiled. “He means me,” he said.
The large front room of the cabin looked as if it had been designed to be homey, as indeed it had been. From the paneled walls, thick carpets, and thickly upholstered, afghan-strewn hewn-walnut sofas to the crackling fire in the large stone hearth and framed Ansel Adams prints, the room was so inviting at the end of a long, strange series of events that Nathan felt drawn into it by some kind of magnetic pull to his guts and his weary legs. His brain reminded him that this was all subterfuge, and the real base was below, a labyrinth of old Fifties bomb-shelter aesthetics dressed up with ultra-modern technology designed to keep tabs on the Fallgate and everyone who’d come through it, but that only made a part of Nathan want to sink into the deep-pile rug in front of the fire and curl up there with Dylan, whether in wolf or human form, and go no further. Of course, that was exactly where Kyle, Octavia, and Nancy were standing, as if they’d been arrayed there in the center of the room specifically to deny him this.
There was a large round table opposite the two sofas on the other side of the fire, crafted from more of that dark, hand-hewn wood that went into the rest of the furniture, all of which made Nathan, quite unexpectedly in this place, think of his grandfather, the amateur carpenter. Around the table were several straight-backed chairs of the same sort, and one of them was occupied by a young man with a laptop. Nathan recognized him immediately, and on the whole he was glad to see him. He had been starting to get nervous about all the attention he’d been getting in his role as the doubly fake C.J., but the way this man was gaping, boggle-eyed, at Nathan only made his grin widen.
Nathan raised his hand in greeting. “Hi,” he said, going for disarming. He wanted to say the other man’s name, to demonstrate a supposed prior acquaintance—but what if he was wrong? He hadn’t seen any real differences between the comics and this reality, but it was possible that here this textbook definition of “adorkable” was called Frederick even though in the graphic novels he was named Franklin because Chad Kulikov had had a high school crush named Franklin or for some equally unguessable reason. And as soon as Nathan used the wrong name for someone—as soon as he got anything wrong the others thought was important—he’d be punching a big hole in his cover, and he’d go from being unsuspected insider to dangerous interloper in the time it took him to trip over his own crutch. On the walk down he’d tried pulling up the old episodes of Mission: Impossible he’d binged-watched once, trying to remember how Martin Landau had pulled off pretending to be someone else under all those rubber masks, but he hadn’t been able to come up with much. So he held his tongue, but smiled warmly as Franklin (or Frederick, or whoever) rose vertically from his seat as if operated by hydraulics.
“C.J.?” the man whispered. “Is it—is it really you?”
Nathan’s smile almost faltered, but he kept it up, wide and strong, by sheer force of will. “It’s really me,” he replied.
The man he knew as Franklin moved around the big table toward him, still in slow motion and without taking his eyes off Nathan. He thought with an inner chuckle that it was a good thing they hadn’t gone full cliché and decorated the room with bear-skin rugs. As the man moved toward him, the others watching in various shades of amusement, Nathan looked him over.
Nathan had always scoffed at the comic book conceit of making all the men buff (and all the women buxom), even the nerdy tech guys like Franklin, but now that he was inside one he wasn’t going to object. Franklin had the requisite dark-framed glasses and the unruly mop of wavy hair, and was easily a good half a foot shorter than himself and Kyle, both of whom were four or five inches over six feet by Nathan’s reckoning; but between the hair, the olive skin, the chiseled jaw, and that compact build he had going on under a trademark white button-up and worn, pale jeans, Franklin looked like a Greek gymnast who did web design when he wasn’t training.
He was a couple feet in front of him now, and then, without warning, the slow motion broke into fast forward as Franklin leapt onto him and took Nathan up in a crushing embrace. Nathan hesitantly wrapped his free arm around the other man and returned the hug just as tightly. “God, C.J.,” Franklin murmured into his shoulder. “You’re supposed to be dead. We thought you were dead.”
Franklin held him close, and not just at the shoulders. Nathan stroked his back as he held the man, his heart sinking at how he had to lie so abjectly in the face of such wrenching, honest emotion. He felt a crazy impulse to tell the truth, to announce to everyone that he was just a high-school kid from another universe, but it was way too late for that. At least all this would help him not get turned on by the hunky nerd’s close embrace, but if Franklin was as naturally physically affectionate as he sensed he might be, things might get strange later on. He was surrounded by too many hot guys, Nathan thought, and that might just be the weirdest thing about tripping the multiverse. “I know, buddy, I know,” he said soothingly. He thought again about the lies he was telling just by being here. “I’m sorry,” he added. At least he could say that and mean it.
“Frank,” Kyle interposed gently, “we can’t do this right now.” Nathan met Kyle’s gaze for a moment. Kyle looked contrite, but his lips were pressed tightly together.
Nathan nudged at Franklin’s shoulder. “He’s right, Franklin,” he said, relieved that the universe wasn’t mislabeling people after all, not this time. As Franklin eased himself off Nathan, nodding his understanding, Nathan was shocked to see the other man’s big, soulful eyes shimmering with unshed tears. Nathan’s gut twisted, but he carried on with what he’d been about to say. He kept his grip on Franklin’s shoulder as Franklin’s dropped to his sides. “It sounds like there’s work to do.”
Franklin sniffed and pull on an uneven smile. “Trust you to show up when there’s trouble,” he said weakly.
Octavia spoke up. “I suggest we reconvene downstairs in room 12 in ten—” she started to say, but in that moment Dylan had decided to sit down again, and when Franklin, eyes drawn by the motion, finally noticed him for the first time his eyes bugged out again and he scrambled backwards so fast he nearly fell on his ass, Kyle jumping forward and catching him only just in time.
“Oh, right,” Nathan said calmly. “This is Dylan.” He rubbed Dylan’s head as if to demonstrate his friendliness. “Dylan, this is Franklin Shoe, one of the smartest info systems wizards in the country.”
Franklin ignored the compliment, pointing from where Kyle still held him, half-keeled over. “That—that’s a dog?” he asked incredulously.
Nathan smiled. “Of course not,” he said, scritching Dylan’s furry head behind the ears.
“Honestly, Dr. Shoe,” Nancy put in sardonically, all but rolling her eyes, “haven’t you ever seen a man emerge from the wilderness with a pet wolf before?”
Franklin giggled nervously as Kyle helped him right himself. “Naturally,” he said, once he was properly on his feet again. “Hello, Mister Wolf!” he said, waving manically at Dylan as if they were on separate hilltops a quarter mile apart.
Dylan got abruptly to his feet, perhaps intending to go make nice (and/or torment the poor man a little more), and Franklin skittered back a step so quickly he almost fell over again, Kyle grabbing his shoulder again just in case.
“—In ten minutes,” Octavia finished defiantly.
Behind a panel in what appeared to be long cedar closet in the back of the main level there was a decent-sized elevator called using what looked like an ordinary metal key, inserted into a mechanism next to the elevator door where a call button would be. Once inside, Kyle pressed the button marked “C” and the six of them rode the elevator slowly down two levels. They all stared up at the display, even Dylan. Nathan found it amusing that even here, in a secret base dedicated to monitoring resident space-aliens and preventing the outbreak of interspecies war, elevator behavior was universal.
The exception was Franklin, who spent the whole trip staring right at Nathan. “C.J.?” he said.
“Yes, Franklin?” he replied, still staring straight ahead ad the display.
“I really, really, desperately need to know how it is you’re alive,” Franklin admitted, sheepish but determined. “And also, why you have a wolf.”
Nathan nodded, still looking ahead. “I understand,” he said.
“Will you tell me?” Franklin asked.
“Yes,” Nathan said. “But not now. And until then, I need you to accept both of those things.”
“That’s a big ask.”
Franklin didn’t say anything else, and shortly after that the doors opened onto a massive, underground space the size of half a football field and with ceilings half again as high as you’d expect, with rows of support pillars dividing the space in three. The walls and pillars were all painted dark gray up to about waist-height, and a dim-looking off-white above that. The floors appeared to be simple cement and were painted the same dark gray. Nathan, taking all this in as they all existed the elevator car, observed that this, too, was just as depicted in Among Us, but the uninviting industrial pallor made him want to get back in the elevator and have the meeting they were about to have around that nice round table by the fireplace. He was suddenly filled with an unpleasant dread.
A number of rooms and hallways gave off this empty, central space. One of them appeared to be a large meeting room, already lit up and prepared. It had a large window giving out onto the main area, the blood-red blinds behind them turned closed, and a dark gray steel door that stood open. A simple white plastic plaque was mounted next to it, marked only with “C-12” in simple black lettering. Room 12, the main meeting room from the Among Us graphic novels, and obviously here as well. Kyle passed quickly into the room, and the others followed.
Unlike the utilitarian central space, the large room was kitted out like a modern, upscale conference room from a major corporate headquarters. The midnight-blue carpet was thin but surprisingly responsive under Nathan’s single bare foot, as unlike the lush, rustic carpets upstairs as it could be. The long, smoked-glass conference table was rectangular but bowed on each side like a boat, not so large as to take over the decent-sized room; a speakerphone tripod sat in the center of the glass expanse, and eight comfortable-looking office chairs surrounded it. A row of water bottles stood on a credenza under the window, alongside pads of unlined paper and a receptacle full of back, gel-tipped pens. Overhead, the fluorescent lighting fixtures were muted and baffled by frosted glass. The air was cool and dry, with a faint hint of the pine and loam of the forest around them, though Nathan realized with some chagrin that he might have brought a few of those smells in with him from outside. Still, it was inviting enough. He wondered how often this room was used. In the stories he only saw this space when there was a crisis, but maybe they had weekly meetings here.
Realizing he was, in fact, thirsty, Nathan grabbed a water bottle, then took another and, glancing around, asked of the room in general, “Is there a bowl we could lend Dylan?” Octavia found one in one of the cupboards in the credenza, and offered it to him with a shy smile. Nathan poured some water for Dylan and the wolf began lapping it up happily while Franklin started hooking up a laptop to the equipment connected to large screen at the end of the room.
The others sat down, Kyle at the first chair near the front of the room where the screen was on this side of the table. Franklin was opposite him with his laptop, and Octavia and Nancy at the other chairs on the far side. Once Dylan had been seen to Nathan took the chair nearest him, leaving an empty seat between him and Kyle. Relieved to be off his feet, as it were, he lay the makeshift crutch against the table beside him and took a long swig of pleasantly cool water from his bottle. Dylan, done with his drink, lay down next to Nathan’s chair, sending Nathan an image of himself, in his human form, curling up in his bed back home to take a nap. Nathan pushed his foot under the wolf’s warm, furry torso, and Dylan snorted contentedly.
Franklin lowered the lights. An image came up on the large flatscreen, and Nathan leaned forward, frowning. The image showed a pickup truck that had evidently been engulfed in flame after smashing into some dumpsters near an isolated gas station and trading post off a two-lane highway. Nathan guessed from the green-clad mountains rising behind the place that the scene wasn’t far from here. Then he saw the text lining the bottom of the photo: SUN 15 APR 2018 1315 38.4069243, –106.4160997 SARGENTS CO HDTF CL1.
Nathan stared at the date on the photograph. It was almost a year ahead of the date it had been back home, at graduation. He felt a shudder riffle through him. His relentlessly logical mind tried to tell him that it didn’t matter—he was on a different planet in a different universe, a fictional universe from his point of view; the date was meaningless. But Nathan seemed to hear the blood rushing in his ears. Finding himself in this world was one thing: he knew this world, at least partially and second-hand. But to be in the middle of a future that hadn’t happened yet unmoored him. He was so engrossed in his thoughts that he wasn’t paying attention to Nancy at first as she abruptly called on Franklin to wait and told Kyle that they should not proceed.
“What’s wrong, Dr. Dwyer?” Kyle asked, and Nathan tried to focus on what was going on.
“I’m not certain I’m satisfied that he—” and here she pointed at Nathan without looking at him “—is cleared for this briefing.”
Franklin frowned at her, his face the image of perplexity. “But … it’s C.J.,” he said, sounding baffled. “No one on Earth could be more cleared for a briefing on Doshiren than C.J.”
“We don’t know what was done to him during his captivity,” Nancy persisted. “They could have turned him. Three years is a long time, and the timing of his … escape is very interesting. If that’s even what happened,” she added darkly, turning to meet Nathan’s gaze for the first time.
“Dr. Dwyer—” Kyle began. “That’s crazy!” Franklin interjected at the same time. But Nathan put up his hand to quiet them both. He held Nancy’s gaze, steadily and confidently, almost relieved at the challenge. This, he knew. This, he was prepared for. This was solid ground. He laced his fingers in front of him on the glass table. If there was anyone in Among Us he could speak for, anyone in all the multiverse, it was the absent Christopher James. For the first time, he opened his heart, and let the C.J. inside him, the one he’d come to know so well through countless hours reading and rereading and trying to live all those years of his suffering and triumph, speak for the first time.
And that inner C.J.? He was incensed.
“If I were going to be ‘turned’,” he said, “it would have been by the mind-rape and brutal murder of my only sister.” He watched Nancy’s steely stare soften a little at that, perhaps anticipating what he was building towards. “Or maybe it would have been when the Doshiren blew up my best friend, Jonathan Nunn, and my entire team right in front of me, after I got there too late to save them. Or maybe when we humans retaliated with a sadistic genocide of a third of the Doshiren population on Earth, after first rounding most of them up in internment camps and brutalizing them into humiliated submission. Or when I was then captured and tortured and a cruel spectacle presented to my partner of me being burned to cinders while he stood by, helpless and restrained.” Nancy was no soft touch—Franklin might have been on the floor if he’d pressed him this way, Nathan thought, but Dwyer was made of sterner stuff. She held his gaze unwaveringly as he drove his point home.
“In all that time,” Nathan carried on in a calm, steady voice, “I have never stopped believing in the peaceful coexistence of Doshiran and human. I have dedicated my life to that cause, and to protecting humans and Doshiren alike from the evil we all seem to have within us. Nothing will ever change that. I would die for it. Hell, I have died for it. And I would again. And again, and again,” he added, thinking of the other C.J., the one he was impersonating, and Nathan’s certainty that he would gladly have died in his Kyle’s place. How many other C.J.’s were there, on how many other Earths, all giving their lives for peace and protection of humans and Doshiren together?
He turned his gaze now to the others, meeting first Octavia’s admiring eyes, then Franklin’s tender gaze, then finally Kyle’s, which seemed approving with a hint of something else he could not identify, before returning to Nancy’s. She was appraising him, but her natural distrust and cynicism seemed to have been blunted by his speech. He wanted to touch the C.J. medallion he’d carved, the one that normally hung around his neck, and remembered only just in time that it wasn’t there. He took a deep breath. “I understand being cautious,” he said. “But that’s what I believe in. No one anywhere could turn me from it.” As an afterthought, he added, “Maybe, in the coming days, I will be able to prove it to you.”
Nathan half-expected a riposte, an effort to tear down his false façade, and he realized his heart was pounding as if he were facing a physical fight in a bar or a boxing ring. But at length Nancy only nodded, accepting what he had said, and perhaps his promise to act on his words. Nathan fought to slow his pulse. Drawing another deep breath he turned to Franklin, but the raw emotion he saw there in Franklin’s eyes and expression made him afraid to say any more, so he just nodded to him, encouraging him to continue his presentation.
Franklin wavered, then let himself say, “I’m so glad you’re back, C.J.” Then he turned himself forcibly back to his laptop.
Nathan met Kyle’s gray eyes, and though the man said nothing, Nathan knew, even past Kyle’s carefully neutral expression, that he thought the same. He was glad to have C.J. back. If he only knew the the truth.
Nathan held his gaze, and he realized with a twist of his heart that there was more in those eyes than just the gratitude Franklin had given voice to. There was admiration and respect, yes, but the something else—Nathan understood it now for what it was. He had seen it, on the clifftop when Kyle had first seen him, in the woods when they’d spoken and Kyle had kissed him, in Kyle’s pleasure at welcoming him to the homey base in the cabin nestled in the trees; and he saw it in this moment as if they were alone in the room. Love. Kyle was in love with C.J. It shone in his eyes now, if only for him to see. Kyle had seen C.J. die, he had seen a version of him that had lived, and now that C.J. had come home to him. Nathan knew with strange certainty that a sequence of events like that would forge Kyle’s love into something fierce and unwavering, and his need to act would border on the imperative. Kyle would come to him, and if Nathan refused him, Kyle could end up broken in ways no one could predict.
Nathan dropped his gaze, as nervous now and conflicted as he had been confident and assured in his little speech as C.J. He felt Dylan snoozing gently on the floor beside him, his warm, fuzzy chest moving gently against his foot as he breathed, and his heart sank. He knew how to pretend to be Christopher James, it seemed, but he was suddenly uncertain he would be able to figure out how to be the man behind the mask.
NATHAN [voice-over]: Previously on … Among Us.
[Nathan is shirtless in his room, fingering a small, carved swirl at his neck]
AUNT FELICIA [in doorway]: You’re only going to graduate once, Nathaniel dear. If you don’t go, you’ll regret it. [switch to voice-over, as Nathan lurks at prom] You didn’t want to go to your senior prom either, remember? [Nathan stumbles on Dylan, Hack, and Joe, tuxes disheveled, making out in a bathroom] But you went, and look how much fun you had!
[In front of the school, everyone in graduation robes]
DYLAN: C’mon, aren’t you curious? Don’t you want to have some fun together, you and me?
NATHAN: You want me… because I have a big dick.
[Nathan in grocery store, checking his phone. Text massage reads: ur dead.]
[After graduation. Nathan looks apprehensively up at Scott Walcott looming over him]
ABBY WALCOTT: And what does your father do, dear?
NATHAN: He steals from people.
[In the grocery store]
MR. SINGH [concerned]: If you go traveling, be sure to come and find me.
NATHAN: Where will you be?
MR. SINGH: I will be where I always am.
NATHAN: The pasta aisle?
DYLAN: Look, Nate, you don’t understand.
NATHAN: What don’t I understand, Dyl? No one has even looked twice at me for the entire four years of my secondary education, and suddenly, at the very last moment, [switch to voice-over, as Dylan hurries to catch up with Nathan, both in robes] Prince Dylan the golden boy is literally running after me. [over Dylan staring across the crowded cafeteria at Nathan] Me, Nathan Yates, the kid who sits alone at lunch. [over slow zoom of Dylan meeting Nathan’s stare in the bathroom at prom] The spaz who’d trip over his own feet if he even looked at a soccer ball. That guy. [back on Nathan’s angry face] How does that make any fucking sense, Dylan?
DYLAN [intense]: Let me explain. [switch to voice-over, as Nathan appears indecisive, then leaves his house and pedals across darkened town on his bike] Tonight. Here. Eight o’clock.
[Beside the school, night]
NATHAN: You want to tell me why I’m here?
DYLAN: [as Nathan is struck from behind] Noo—!! [cut to black]
SCOTT WALCOTT: [voice-over as Nathan wakes up in the back of the Walcotts’ car, cradled in Dylan’s lap] I’m doing my job. [over the three of them entering a moonlit clearing in the woods] I have a job to do, and I’m doing it.
NATHAN: [voice-over as camera zooms on a large, dark stone disc set into the ground, inscribed with two overlapping seven-pointed stars] It’s from Among Us. A comic book. A Fallgate is like a … passage through to Earth. [as a shadowed figure kisses another under red skies and black trees, then vanishes through a Fallgate, leaving the other behind] Like a portal, or a wormhole. It’s only active every nine thousand days. In the story, the Fallgate was used by the Doshiren to come to Earth. They fell through to Earth, hence the name. One-way, for them. [back on Nathan] It’s … not …real.
SCOTT: Oh, it’s real. And … active.
SHERIFF: [off-screen, on megaphone] Step away from the hostages! [as Scott suddenly grabs Dylan and hurls him onto the Fallgate stone] If you do not step away we will open fire!
[Nathan cries out in dismay as Dylan disappears screaming into the Fallgate]
SCOTT: You have to go after him! I was supposed to send you. He’ll be killed. Only you can save him. You were the one they wanted!
NATHAN: You manipulative prick!
SCOTT: Go! Go, or Dylan’s dead! [Scott is shot. Nathan forces himself to dive through the Fallgate. Cut to black.]
[Exterior day, mountain forest. Nathan is lying on the dark stone of the Fallgate, in the body of a large, muscular man with reddish skin, missing part of his right leg from below the knee.]
NATHAN: [voice-over, as camera zooms in first on Nathan’s carved pendant from before (in the first scene), then on the almost identical small dark patch, like a birthmark, just below the notch of his collarbone on his new body—a stunted clockwise whorl like the symbol for a hurricane, in dark brown against the red skin around it] It’s from Among Us. It’s the symbol of one of the characters. Christopher Roscoe James Junior, USAF.
[The face of a massive wolf appears in Nathan’s field of vision]
NATHAN: You are a Fallgate wolf, aren’t you? Who are you? [The wolf sends an image of Dylan checking himself in a mirror] Dylan!! It’s Nate! I came after you, you brazen fucker! [voice-over, as the wolf leaps into his embrace] Why the fuck did you come through as a wolf, Dyl? [Dylan/wolf licks his cheek]
NATHAN: [voice-over, as Nathan/C.J. walks with the wolf’s help into the trees] If we were brought here for a reason, then sooner or later that reason is going to come find us. And I think we’re better off getting ahead of it, and figuring out our options before it’s too late. [back on Nathan/C.J. as they walk, smiling down at the wolf] So where are we going now? [voice-over, as Nathan gets his first eyeful of the extraordinarily attractive Kyle McGuinness] We’re going to find my boyfriend
NATHAN: [voice-over, showing a panel from the Among Us graphic novel in which Major Christopher James, on the Earth where C.J. survived and Kyle was the one who died, creates a folder marked “Special Agent Kyle C. McGuinness [Alt]”] “Alt.”
KYLE [slight smile]: This is my Earth, Major. You’re the “Alt” here.
KYLE: [voice-over as Kyle helps Nathan/C.J. into an olive-colored jacket] I was given very strict orders not to mention [back on Kyle, in the forest alone with Nathan/C.J. and Dylan/wolf] that there are more Earths than ours on the other side of the Fallgate.
NATHAN: You’re saying, we can’t tell anyone where I’m from.
KYLE: We’ll pass you off as our C.J.
NATHAN: Your C.J. The one who was burnt to a crisp, you mean.
NATHAN: Everyone who knows about the aliens, including the entire task-force and his dad and his adopted son, knows that C.J. was ritually burnt to a charcoal cinder by a seriously demented splinter-group of radical humanophobic Doshiren! So how are we going to get around that? [Kyle kisses Nathan/C.J. fiercely, but the kiss is interrupted by furious barking from Dylan/wolf. Nathan/C.J. falls on his ass.]
NATHAN: Holy …Toledo.
[On a shelf overlooking a forest valley]
NATHAN: [to Lt. Octavia Dandridge and Dr. Nancy Dwyer] I’ve been held prisoner for the last three years in a … stronghold on the other side of the mountains. Eventually, I got free, and I made my way here. It’s really great to see friendly faces. [Nancy stands with folded arms, appraising him skeptically]
KYLE: [spreading his arms wide as they reach what appears to be a large mountain cabin, nestled in the root of the wooded valley] Welcome home.
[Franklin throws his arms around Nathan/C.J.]
FRANKLIN: God, C.J. You’re supposed to be dead. We thought you were dead.
NATHAN: I know, buddy, I know.
OCTAVIA: It’s just that, with you here… well, there only needs to be one Air Force liaison to the HDTF, after all. Sir.
NATHAN: I’m not in a hurry to tell a lot of people I’m here, lieutenant. Especially the Air Force.
[Dylan/wolf seems upset as they stand in front of the cabin]
NATHAN: [to Dylan/wolf] I’m going to say this again, and I’ll say it every time you need to hear it. We’re in this together, okay? Just us. [voice-over as Kyle, in a meeting in the base’s underground conference room, looks at Nathan/C.J. with obvious longing] I don’t know anyone here, and I don’t trust anyone here either—except for you. [back on Nathan/C.J. and Dylan/wolf] You and me, we’re partners. Partners to the end. Got it?
KYLE: [voice-over, as the conference room big screen shows an image of a pickup truck destroyed by fire, crashed into some dumpsters] Your coming here, now … [on Kyle, pushing in on him as he puts away his phone, looking grim] There’s been a development. [cut to black]
Nathan sat on the edge of his bed in one of the cozy guest bedrooms upstairs in the cabin, listening to the fire crackling in the fireplace set into the wall behind him and trying to wrap his head around what he’d learned in the meeting. It didn’t help that literally everyone he knew on this planet had intruded onto his thoughts in the last hour, finding a way as they did so to remind him of the trouble he’d gotten shoved into pretending to be someone that he wasn’t.
Nathan frowned at the cold turkey sandwich with lettuce and mayo on thick white bread that lay on a china plate on the table next to the bed, a cold, black can of Coke Zero sitting unopened next to it. He knew he couldn’t shirk all the blame for his predicament. It was true that some force had arranged for him, Nathan Yates, to be here, though why he’d been singled out for this insanity Nathan still could not fathom. That force, whoever or whatever it was, had secured the services of Scott Walcott to get him through the Fallgate and provided him with C.J.’s body once he had passed through the dark tendrils of the multiverse and out the other side. Onto this Earth, the Earth where Among Us was real. But he’d made the decision to jump, to save Dylan. And he’d decided to hew to the pretense of being C.J. rather than come clean and risk people dying because a C.J. was so desperately needed here that one was provided at all costs, conjured from beyond the stars. He was far from blameless in this charade.
“That sandwich do you wrong?” came a voice from the open doorway. Nathan looked up to see Nancy Dwyer leaning on the doorframe, eyeing him coolly. Seeing his confused expression, she went on, “You’re glaring at it like its brother killed your dog.”
Nathan huffed out a laugh. “Actually,” he said, “the sandwich and I are on very good terms.” It looked delicious, actually, especially as it wasn’t processed lunch meat but actual meat from a roasted turkey, mixed light and dark meat, as if today were the day after Thanksgiving and not sometime in the middle of April. Nathan’s stomach was reminding him he hadn’t eaten today since he’d arrived through the Fallgate. With some amazement he realized that the last meal he’d had was the lasagna he’d made special for him and Auntie, before he’d gone off to meet Dylan and had gotten his head bashed in instead. What was most prominent in his mind at the moment, however, was his awareness that he’d rather eat the sandwich than banter with the xenobiologist, who’d already outed herself as his least ardent fan. “What do you need, doctor?”
She arched an eyebrow at him. “It’s what you need that has me up here, instead of in my own room reviewing my notes.” She reached behind her and produced a pair of metal forearm crutches, the kind with cuffs to wrap around your lower arms and horizontal handgrips. She walked into the room and laid them across the foot of the bed, then stood, regarding them thoughtfully. “You wouldn’t think it, but there’s actually a mother-lode of medical supplied and equipment downstairs,” she mused. “I guess in case of hiking accidents. And Doshiren coming through, of course.” She eyed Nathan. “Plus the odd visitor from beyond the grave,” she added dryly.
Nathan had been staring at the crutches in relief. He’d expected it wouldn’t be until they got into town that he’d be able to trade the make-shift crutch they’d lashed together in the forest—which still stood, propped against the wall by his bed—for anything better. At this last remark, however, Nathan glanced up, wanting to gauge her expression. He wasn’t sure, but he had a feeling that for her, remarks like that were actually a way of reaching out. He tried to think of something clever to say, but fatigue and simple gratitude won out. “Thank you,” he said. “These should be a big help.”
She gave him a brief nod and turned away. At the doorway, however, she turned back and said, “When shall we do the debriefing?”
Nathan blinked at her. “Sorry?”
“You need to be debriefed, Captain James,” she said levelly. “We need the details of your capture and imprisonment. Your escape. Names, places. Doshiran presence, behavior, and activities—that’s what I need, but the whole thing needs to be on record so we know the whole story and can respond accordingly. Tomorrow good? I’ve already talked to Lt. Dandridge.”
Nathan’s stomach twisted, and he was suddenly glad he hadn’t filled it with a delicious turkey sandwich after all. “What … did Kyle say?” he asked carefully.
“Special Agent McGuinness feels it’s not urgent,” Nancy said, an edge of disdain for less-than-punctilious FBI agents. “But I’m not a ‘do it later’ kind of gal. Especially with all that’s going on.”
Nathan nodded. Then he nodded again. “I’ll speak to Kyle,” he said slowly. He spun his brain frantically for some kind of excuse, some way to get out of being debriefed on events that he and Kyle both knew were a pack of lies bound to collapse under the slightest scrutiny, but all he came up with was to add, “Kyle may want to conduct the debriefing personally.”
Nancy’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Protocol indicates that—” she began.
Nathan was pretty sure Nancy didn’t give a rip about protocol; she just knew something was off about C.J. and his sudden return from the dead, and pushing hard to expose whatever needed to be exposed. He knew he would respect that kind of instinct and determination, were it not directed at him. “I’ll talk to Kyle tomorrow,” Nathan said, overriding her. He held her gaze, smiling faintly, until she turned and left, closing Nathan’s door after her. Her footfalls on the hard wood of the hallway could be heard echoing faintly until she reached her own guest room on the opposite side of the building and closed her own door firmly.
Nathan sighed. Hers was only the latest salvo since the meeting, all of it coming from his own “team”. It had started with Octavia, who’s showed him up to the room (thankfully, the elevator went all the way up, even in the “rustic cabin” part of the structure), talking the whole way about how she’s stayed up nights memorizing the cases C.J. had worked on and how she was looking forward to watching him work, especially now that “all this” was going on. Her grandmother would say it was Providence that had arranged for C.J. to come to them in their time of need, though of course the lieutenant didn’t believe in anything like that.
No sooner had Octavia gotten him deposited in the room, which was pleasantly woodsy-smelling even before she’d gotten the fire lit, than Kyle and Franklin had stopped by to look in on him. Franklin was seeking his preferences for food as he and the others would be having sandwiches down in the main cabin area and making a few phone calls to arrange meetings relating to the next day’s investigation. Evidently everyone would be staying overnight at the cabin, though normally only Franklin was stationed here. When Nathan expressed no preference, Franklin disappeared. Kyle had up brought a small valise which he said contained clothes and shoes that should fit him, “until we can get the rest of your stuff from your dad’s ranch.” Kyle gave him an unreadable look and then left just as Franklin had returned with the turkey sandwich and soda, plus a large bowl of the turkey for the wolf, which Dylan had started bolting down like the carnivore he was. Franklin hovered, seemingly wanting to talk, but picking up on Nathan’s preoccupied mood, and probably a little weirded out by the giant wolf loudly scarfing down his food, Franklin had soon returned downstairs. Nathan, for his part, had caught himself thinking about the clothes in the valise, wondering if they were Kyle’s, and if they would smell like him. As if he didn’t have enough to feel conflicted about.
Kyle and Franklin had been gone for a while before he’d realized that he wasn’t the only one in the room who was distracted. Dylan, having finished his meal inside of sixty seconds from the bowl being set down before him, was now staring stiffly out the tall window near the bed, and had been for some time. “You okay, Dyl?” he’d asked the wolf in a quiet voice.
Dylan hadn’t looked away from the window, and what he sent was strangely inchoate: shifting images of the midnight-blue landscape outside, from the perspective of someone passing swiftly among its close-set trees as moonlight scattered across boulders and boughs and fallen leaves. The emotional undertow that came with the image was hard to discern too: there was need there, but also confusion and unease.
Nathan had slid off the bed onto his knees, reaching out to stroke the massive wolf along its back, marveling again at the variegated beauty of his thick fur, shot through as it was with all shades of gray from light to dark, specked with black, all of it seeming to be in ultra-high resolution for the colors being rendered hair by individual hair. He slid his hand along Dylan’s long spine a few times before he seemed to respond, arching slightly into his touch. Even without the sending he could tell Dylan was tense, like a coiled spring. “You want to go for a run, don’t you?” he asked. “You want to go out there and race the moon, huh?”
Dylan gave a small whine in the back of his throat as an answer, the tiniest echo of the howls he and Dylan had let loose at the start of their visit to this strange, new Earth.
Nathan moved his hand up to the wolf’s head, knowing how much he loved it when Nathan ruffled his fur around his ears. It didn’t surprise him that Dylan wanted, even needed, to run. As a human he’d been a driven athlete, and Nathan had seen him running many times, either on the track behind the school or through town, as he’d passed by on his bike or in his aunt’s SUV. He’d noticed Dylan’s fit body and tight ass long before the soccer star had taken the slightest notice of him. But there was something else going on here, something that scared Nathan a little. “You’re feeling like there’s some real wolf in you, aren’t you, Dyl?” he asked gently.
Dylan finally turned to look at him then, and Nathan could see the fear in his masked, yellow-amber eyes. Nathan instantly took him into the tightest hug he could give him. “It’s going to be okay,” he murmured into Dylan’s thick fur behind his head. “We’ll figure all this out and then we’ll make everything normal again.” He kissed the base of Dylan’s pointy ear. “I’m a little envious,” he said. “I wish I felt like a real hero.”
Then he pulled out of the hug and clasped Dylan’s face with both hands, staring hard into his wolfy eyes. “Now you go downstairs and get Franklin to let you out,” he told him, “and you go out into that forest out there and you enjoy the fuck out of being the biggest, baddest man-wolf in all the Rockies, okay?”
And Dylan had grinned at him and, with a quick lick to Dylan’s stubbly cheek, had shot out of the room and hurtled down the stairs so fast, Nathan half expected to hear the crack of the sound barrier being broken. Despite the lick-giver being long-gone he wiped the sloppy wolf kiss off his end-of-day bristles with an exaggerated “eccchh”, then climbed back up onto the bed. He shook his head, picturing Franklin’s reaction to the wolf’s sudden insistence he be let out. He’d barely had time to contemplate his dinner again before Nancy had shown up.
At least that was over. Everyone had come and gone, and Nathan was alone, feeling oddly like a museum exhibit or a specimen at the zoo after all the visits and departures. He felt large in the small room, aware of his unaccustomed strength and bulk. His thick, silky black hair was longer than he was used to, despite his recent attempts to grow it out before graduation, and it tickled his powerful shoulders under the collar of the borrowed jacket that fit him better than anything he’d ever worn. The house seemed quiet and still—maybe everyone had turned in. The only noise in the room seemed to be the occasional pops and shifts of the little fire in the fireplace behind him. He hefted the sandwich off the plate in both hands, careful to keep any turkey bits from dropping out the back, and took a big bite. The crunch of the lettuce seemed to fill the empty room.
“How is it?” asked a familiar voice. Nathan jumped, severely startled, and kept himself from tossing the sandwich and its contents to the four corners of the room only with great difficulty. Only after he had very carefully set the sandwich back on its plate on the night stand did he look up to see the owner of the voice he could not possibly have recognized.
Standing across the room from him was a thin, not-so-tall, sexagenarian Indian man. He was wearing his usual outfit of a linen shirt, dark canvas slacks, sandals, and knee-length buckskin jacket, though the ensemble looked alien now lit by dancing firelight and a warm, 60-watt table lamp instead of the harsh, over-bright fluorescents of a neighborhood grocery store. It was strange to see him in silence, too: he was used to the wafting of tinny piano concertos as an environment for their talks. This made him realize that there had been no music in his time on Earth G-3 so far. That would have to change.
The apparition was favoring him with an indulgent smile, obviously glad to be recognized. Nathan figured he might as well do it properly. “Hello, Mr. Singh,” he said.
“Hello there, young Nathaniel,” Mr. Singh replied politely.
Nathan had a slew of questions all tripping over each other to gain priority and find their way to being vocalized. Some of them had to do with Mr. Singh recognizing him, despite clearly not being Nathan Yates—not here, anyway. But Mr. Singh had recognized him, so obviously he did know that him, and, just as obviously, that Nathan had been brought here to impersonate Christopher James. More important, though, was the possibility of Mr. Singh being some kind of connection between this place and his old life, the one that had made sense to him up until a day ago. The idea made hope well up in him, though he instinctively didn’t trust it.
Above all, he couldn’t hold back the feeling that Mr. Singh had been barely one step up from a figment of his imagination back home, and that things were no different here. He glanced at the door, making sure Nancy had indeed closed it behind her, then looked back up at the old man. “Are you … here, Mr. Singh?” he asked. “On this world?”
Mr. Singh’s smile faded. “I am not,” he admitted. Nathan told himself that he had known this all along. Mr. Singh hadn’t been on his old Earth, and he wasn’t really here on this one, either. Mr. Singh’s expression brightened. “But my son is,” he added.
“Anik?” Nathan asked. “Anik is here? In—in person, and everything?”
Mr. Singh nodded. “That is why I came. I wanted to tell you that I am sending Anik to you.”
“Okay. But—but why, Mr. Singh? What will he do when he gets here?”
“Whatever you need him to do.”
Nathan squinted at him for several heartbeats. “Seriously?” he said at last. “You’re going to be cryptic? Now?”
Mr. Singh looked a little defeated. “I’m sorry, Nathan,” he said. He hesitated, then continued: “I have known for a long time that there was a chance you would be brought through the … ranshama, the Fallgate, but I did not know why or when. That is why I have been looking after you.”
“So—it wasn’t you that brought me here.” Nathan felt the disappointment of a simple solution being pulled away from him.
“No. It was not.”
Nathan shook his head. “I don’t understand,” he complained. “You knew that I might be brought here, but you didn’t know why? How could you know?”
“Because… Owen Yates is not from your world,” Mr. Singh said.
“My father?!” Nathan exclaimed. Realizing he didn’t want to be heard in the rest of the cabin, Nathan quickly lowered his voice. “What the—? What are you saying, Mr. Singh?” he hissed.
But Mr. Singh shook his head. “I do not know his story,” he said. “You will have to ask him.”
“Ask him?” Nathan said, feeling anger surge within him. His absent father being involved made him feel that much more helpless and not in control of things. “I haven’t even seen him in—” Something occurred to Nathan, and he wasn’t sure he liked it. “Wait—is he here?” He pointed downward, as if to indicate the planet that he was currently inhabiting, and which Mr. Singh evidently was not.
“I do not know,” Mr. Singh said noncommittally. “It is possible.”
Well, that was helpful. Nathan’s nerves were suddenly frayed. His old friend had evidently popped up out of the multiversal ether just to give him a whole new raft of mysteries to deal with. “Mr. Singh,” he sighed, “what do you know?”
“I have told you,” Mr. Singh said, with a little more asperity than usual. “I have sent Anik to you. You will see him soon. Maybe together you can find answers.”
“Maybe with a flashlight you can find your ass!” Nathan shot back, instantly regretting it.
Mr. Singh’s eyes darkened. “Sleep well, Nathaniel,” he said curtly. Nathan was already starting to protest that he hadn’t meant it when suddenly he was gone. Between one second and the next the old man just vanished from the gloom of his half-lit room.
Nathan gaped at the empty space where Mr. Singh had been. “I know… the strangest people,” he muttered to himself after a while, before finally returning to his sandwich and soda. This time, he was not interrupted.
Nathan woke up alarmed and confused with a half-naked Kyle leaning over him. “Major, wake up,” Kyle was saying. “You’re all right, babe, wake up.”
Nathan found himself staring at Kyle’s strong, exquisitely defined chest, which he now saw was decorated with sparse, blond curls that converged along his lower breastbone and trailed away between granite-carved abs into—
Nathan hastily lifted his eyes to Kyle’s face. He’d turned out the bedside light before laying down to try to rest his spinning brain, though he hadn’t undressed or gotten under the covers, and the fire must have died down because Kyle’s concerned face was lit by nothing by the moonlight streaming in the nearby window. In the argent light his gray eyes looked nearly white. He was stroking Nathan’s smooth cheek with one hand. Kyle’s fingers were long, and his fingertips were finding their way into Nathan’s long hair behind his ears. Nathan was overtaken by just how good it felt. Instinctively Nathan reciprocated, raising a hand and gently caressing the soft, golden bristles of Kyle’s cheek and jaw.
Despite the mutual caresses, Kyle’s eyes were full of concern, searching Nathan’s for information. “What’s wrong?” Nathan asked him. He realized he was still feeling alarm coursing through him, underneath his confusion and budding arousal. Alarm, fear, and—was that an echo of pain? Was it carried over from something he’d felt while he was sleeping, or…? He realized what he was doing with his hand and that he probably shouldn’t be doing it. He pulled it away, letting it drop to the bed beside him.
“Nothing’s wrong,” Kyle reassured him. His voice was rough, and his eyes seemed a little darker than they’d been a moment ago. “You were having a dream. I was getting some water when I heard you cry out, and—”
It hit him suddenly. He was feeling fear, and incredible pain, but it wasn’t his. “Dylan!” he gasped.
Kyle’s golden brows drew together, his hand stilling on Nathan’s cheek. “Your wolf?”
Nathan grabbed onto Kyle’s bare shoulder. “He’s hurt,” Nathan said urgently. “He’s—” Nathan felt himself unfocus momentarily as a new wave of sensations crashed over him. It was a sending more powerful than any he’d felt so far, and Nathan had to force himself not to cry out. Realization hit him. He knew what he was feeling, and the understanding of it, on top of the pain he was experiencing through the sending, was almost enough to make him need to throw up. He met Kyle’s worried eyes again. “He’s been shot!” He used Kyle’s shoulder to lever himself into a sitting position, looking down to make a quick inventory of himself. He was still in the same clothes as before—C.J.’s olive jacket over his bare chest, and the sweats from the reception kit. Good. “I have to find him,” he said, mostly to himself. He looked around quickly and saw the new crutches Nancy had given him, beside the bed where he’d set them before stretching out on the bed to try to rest, not expecting to sleep. “Here, help me get these on,” he said, picking them up and checking the flexibility of the cuffs.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Kyle said. “I’ll go.”
His voice was firm and tender at the same time, and Nathan was unpleasantly reminded of just how strong Kyle’s feelings were for him, and how powerfully he responded in turn, inside and out, to every damn thing about this too-beautiful man. He looked over the crutches, making sure he knew how to adjust them if he needed to, though he’d guessed Nancy had already sized them for him. His brain was stuck on his responsiveness to Kyle. How Kyle made his heart beat, how Kyle seemed to move him, to find his way inside him. He could still feel the sweet touch of his caress across his cheek as he’d—
Nathan froze, a hand flying up to his cheek, his eyes losing focus. He slid fingers along his own unbristled jaw, and shivered. “Smooth…” he said, his voice barely a whisper.
Kyle was watching him. “You… shaved before bed,” he asked uncertainly.
Nathan lifted his eyes to meet Kyle’s. “No,” was all Nathan said. It was all he had to say. He saw in Kyle’s pale eyes that he instantly understood.
This changed everything.
One unexpected discoveries about the Doshiren, the aliens who had come to Earth through the Fallgate, was that they were tightly and permanently bound to the Fallgate by a powerful energy link, like an extradimensional umbilicus that tied every single alien to the Fallgate through which they’d come.
As a result of this energy connection, the Doshiren were easily distinguished from humans in a number of ways. For one thing, and of greatest concern to the HDTF on those occasions when they had to act as interspecies law enforcement, this constant flow of energy could, with concentration and training, be focused and channeled, producing an outpouring of raw, blue-green heat energy from the hands of a Doshiran. This energy was potentially, in (so to speak) the wrong hands, an extremely destructive weapon.
It was, in fact, this biological energy weapon that brought the Doshiren to human attention, long before anyone knew anything about Fallgates or alien visitors from beyond the stars as anything other than speculative fiction. A single Doshiran criminal had been leaving handprint brands on the women he’d raped, emotionally terrorized, and murdered, one of whom was C.J.’s sister. Eventually what this one monster could do was revealed to be a characteristic of all Doshiren, and was subjected to extremely confidential xenobiological research headed up by Dr. Nancy Dwyer. She’d labeled it Doshiren Bio-Energy, or DBE. Most Doshiren had the capacity for it but despite the possibilities of benevolent use they avoided using it for a number of reasons. Partly it was to avoid the risk of exposing their secret alien presence, partly from disgust at its having been perverted as a weapon, but mostly because it apparently hurt like hell and was extremely debilitating. The Doshiran humanophobic radical who’d used her own DBE to execute this world’s Christopher James, in retaliation for the Federal government’s horrifying genocide of the Doshiren at the Beaumont Internment Center, had nearly died from the agony of pouring so much DBE in to C.J. that he was burnt to ashes. It took almost an hour, and the Doshiran executioner was still enervated and helpless six hours later when Kyle tracked her down and killed her.
The second side-effect was at the center of the troubles that Nathan had now been thrust into. Because of this energy connection, every Doshiran had a tether that was essentially an extension cord leading back to a common “plug”—the Fallgate. This connection turned out to have an actual physical limit. No Doshiran, it seemed, could travel more than about 75 miles from the Fallgate. If she tried to walk further, past this invisible boundary, he simply wouldn’t be able to take the next step, like a dog on a stout chain. But it wasn’t a chain, it was an energy conduit; and if you tried to force the break—say, by driving past the barrier at speed—the result was a devastating and massively destructive explosion. Spontaneous human combustion times a hundred.
That was what had happened with the pickup at Sargents that was the subject of that night’s briefing, and to three other Doshiren in the past five weeks, after no cases of anything remotely like it in either human or Doshiran memory. The human sheriff was looking into car bombs and acts of terrorism, but the truth appeared to be even more ominous. Something—some person, some piece of information, some kind of threat—was driving Doshiren to try to flee the area, to get beyond the invisible line that circumscribed the Doshiran world on Earth, even though it must mean certain and catastrophic death for anyone who tried such a desperate, inconceivable act.
The third side-effect had to do with the nature of the Doshiren themselves. It was generally believed, supported by the hints and nods from the Doshiren themselves (though they would not actually talk about it), that on their home planet the Doshiren were… not quite humanoid. When they came to this world, they were given (reasonably) human bodies, though the presence of the energy link coursing through them and the fact that these bodies were artificially constructed tended to make them more attractive than average.
But these constructs weren’t true bodies. They were more like flesh-and-blood androids, with an external power source. The construct was renewed regularly, with the whole body being reset to baseline, memories aside, whenever a Doshiran was fully asleep for any substantial length of time. This meant that Doshiren did not appear to age and did not get sick. It also meant that they could not grow beards, as the male constructs, for whatever reason, all came clean-shaven. There were other ramifications, most obviously that Doshiren women could not have children. The isolated fact of their infertility had been used on occasion to try to minimize the potential threat of having a small population of aliens among us to any government official to whom disclosure of the alien presence was required; the actual reason for it, and the other, more terrifying implications of this particular Doshiran characteristic, were kept deeply secret. Outside the Doshiren themselves, the number of people who knew about the Doshiren construct baseline-reset was in the single digits.
Two of them were in this room.
Nathan and Kyle stared at each other, the same thoughts and consequences rapidly coursing through both their minds. The three Doshiren salient characteristics had always been understood to be components of a distinct extraterrestrial identity. They were considered unique markers of that race of visitors who had come to Earth from a planet known in human records as Doshir. But now, here, in this moment, a new truth was revealed. Anyone who came through the Fallgate had these three characteristics, not just the Doshiren.
Nathan was reeling from this new knowledge, Kyle’s moon-white eyes his only fixed point of stability. His own hand was still touching his baby-smooth jawline as if reassuring stubble might spring forth at any moment. But there was no denying it, and no avoiding it. He was a construct. Not Doshiran, but not human. His old, true body destroyed. Tethered, kept alive by the invisible energy conduit to the Fallgate. Trapped in the same circle that the Doshiren seemed suddenly desperate to escape, no matter how hopeless the possibility.
A surge of hot anguish flooded through Nathan again, and he realized Dylan was sending again. He had momentarily forgotten his friend in his own moment of wrenching revelation, and Nathan felt a rush of shame chasing Dylan’s fear and pain. “Come on,” he rasped. Without waiting for Kyle to respond, he levered himself up onto his one foot and the two crutches. Seizing the grips with iron determination he stumbled across the room, learning the ways of the crutches as he went.
He turned at the doorway. Kyle was staring after him, still crouched, shirtless and beautiful, beside Nathan’s bed. “Please,” Nathan said. “I need your help.”
Kyle seemed to collect himself. “I’ll go,” he said. “You shouldn’t—”
“Kyle,” Nathan ground out, “I do need your help, but I am going, with you or without you.” He thought about adding that he could feel Dylan and had a good idea where he was, but he cast that aside. It should have been obvious. Kyle already knew he’d felt Dylan being shot. And the bottom line was that he shouldn’t have to justify going out there to save his friend just because he was on crutches.
Kyle nodded. When Nathan turned and moved himself rapidly toward the elevator, Kyle was right beside him.
It wasn’t so easy to maintain his confidence out there in the forest, but Nathan kept on. Kyle had stopped in his room to pull on a jacket and to grab his phone, a powerful flashlight, an emergency medkit, and three tennis shoes, one of which he insisted on shoving Nathan’s foot into before they went out. As they headed out of the cabin into the strongly scented chill of the April night, Nathan got his bearings. He could definitely sense Dylan in front of him somewhere, fortunately down the canyon rather than up the mountainside behind them, and if he guessed right not very far away. He started moving forward, forcing himself to go slowly enough to make sure his crutches found firm ground underneath to support him. He was never more grateful for C.J.’s impressive upper body strength as he powered his way down the narrow, twisting defile.
Beside him he heard Kyle making phone calls, ordering a rescue team from town up to the nearest road-head about three miles away, promising GPS coordinates once the victim was found. Nathan wondered if Kyle was ordering in doctors or vets, but he guessed it didn’t matter. After that he called his team members and told them to get gear together and be prepared to either mount a wider search—presumably in case Nathan’s spidey-sense didn’t work after all—or to converge on his location when he gave the signal. Around them the night sounds of the forest seemed subdued. It was almost like it was only them out there.
Near a bend in the canyon Nathan felt a stone slip out from under the foot of one of his crutches and he pitched forward. He landed on his knees and then fell onto his right shoulder, unable to use his hands to stop his fall thanks to his iron hold on the grips of his crutches. He cursed under his breath, but Kyle was immediately beside him, his phone stowed and all his attention on Nathan. He helped him to his feet without comment, and they got moving again.
He must have seen the grim look on Nathan’s face, though, because after a moment he said, “It’s not your fault.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Nathan spat out. The rage was mounting in him like a tempest, and most of it was directed at himself.
“He’s a wolf,” Kyle persisted. “He’s not supposed to be inside. And these lands should be safe for a wolf. That a hunter—”
“He warned me,” Nathan snapped out, smashing through Kyle’s nonsense as he powered down what was quickly becoming a trail at the center of the defile. “His dad told me they’d kill him and I didn’t listen.”
“What do you mean?” Kyle asked. More stone skittered under his crutches, and Nathan only just kept himself vertical. “Whose dad told you?”
Nathan said nothing.
A few moments later he stopped and looked up to his left. “That way,” he said, nodding with his chin up the slope that was just visible in the moonlit blackness. “There’s a small depression on the other side of that rise. He’s there.” He drew in a breath and added. “We need to hurry, but I’m not sure how I’m going to get up there.”
Nathan was prepared for Kyle to argue that he should go up alone, but he only said, “I’ll help you.”
Leaving the crutches reluctantly at the base of the slope, Nathan managed to force his way to the crest relatively quickly through sheer manhandling of his body using his once again invaluable upper body strength, Kyle helping him where there was no root or tree bole to grab onto and haul himself further up. He almost slid down into the little depression on the other side. His heart almost stopped when he saw Dylan’s prone form, his chest rising and falling with loud and ragged but still regular breaths. The gunshot in his flank looked black and wet in the dim light. Nathan covered what little distance remained between them on his knees, Kyle close beside him. He was texting their location to the rescue team from town and to Franklin back at the base. “I’m telling our guys to stand by for now,” he said, handing Nathan the medkit.
Nathan opened it up, pulling out sterile pads to press against the gaping wound while Kyle set his phone aside and positioned the flashlight. “I think he’s lost a lot of blood, Kyle,” Nathan said.
Kyle was checking under Dylan’s other flank. “I don’t see any blood down here,” he reported. “I don’t think the bullet went all the way through.”
Nathan pressed hard on the wound, eliciting a whimper from Dylan. “I know buddy, I know,” he said, his heart squeezing at the idea that Dylan might die here, so far from home it was almost inconceivable, and that it was all Nathan’s fault. Dylan’s thick fur seemed to be getting in the way of Nathan’s ability to apply pressure and stem the blood-flow that way. He looked up at Kyle. “How long?” he asked.
Kyle glanced down at his phone on the ground by his knees. “Ten minutes out,” he said.
Nathan looked down at the dressing he was pressing against the wound. It was already red with blood. “God, Kyle,” he said, shuddering. “I don’t know if he—”
“What about—” Kyle broke in, then stopped.
Nathan looked up, meeting his eyes. “What, Kyle?” If there was something they could do, they needed to be doing it.
Kyle stared hard at Nathan, his face strangely underlit from the ambient and reflected light of his flashlight. “What about… DBE?”
Nathan stared back at him for a long, long time. Finally he said in a small voice, “I don’t know how.”
“You’ve heard the Doshiren talk about it,” Kyle said calmly. “It’s there, inside you. Like a handle you can hold onto.”
“What if—” Nathan swallowed, barely able to control his words. “What if I—I burn him?”
“What if I burn him to ashes?” Nathan cried, his voice too loud in the quiet woods.
“You won’t,” Kyle assured him. “First of all, you know that takes forever. But more than that, I know you can control it.”
A pained whimper escaped Dylan. He glanced up at Dylan’s face, hoping to catch his eye, but Dylan’s eyes were squeezed closed from the pain. “Dylan,” he breathed, “Dyl, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I didn’t listen.”
“Major,” Kyle prompted.
Nathan nodded. Slowly, he pulled back the dressing he was using and set it aside. He pressed the heels of both hands against Dylan’s flank and closed his eyes, trying to remember everything he’d ever read in Among Us about using DBE in positive ways. His brain tried to tell him how ridiculous it was to be using a comic book to try to save Dylan’s life, but he ruthlessly pushed the thought aside and concentrated, consulting his memory for every panel, every word, every forum discussion he’d ever seen about using DBE for good instead of evil. He knew there were precedents where DBE had been used to heal wounds, but they’d all been frustratingly off-panel, ambiguously described in expository dialog, and there was intense debate in fandom over whether the incidents described involved simple cauterization or actual healing, which sounded like magic to the debunkers but represented the same process as the transformations involved in the baseline-reset to those who argued for it. After all, if a Doshiran was wounded, the reset would heal him, restoring him to his baseline state—the same kind of transformation that would be required in healing someone else. Nathan had always been dubious of this position, especially if the person being “healed” wasn’t a construct, but now he desperately hoped there was some level of truth in it.
Another thought came to him then, that it wasn’t his memories and past debates that would help him, but understanding his own connection to the power of the Fallgate. He felt his mind calm, seeking the connection inside him. To his surprise it was easy to find. To him it felt like a muscle inside his chest, a heart overlaid on his ordinary one, pumping energy instead of blood. But that wasn’t quite right, because it felt just like the muscles in his limbs, the muscles of his chest—a muscle he could flex, a muscle he could leverage the power of. A muscle he could grow, a quiet thought added, if he worked it hard the way C.J. had worked the swole muscles of the stolen body Nathan now occupied.
He needed to use that muscle, to flex it gently, channeling its strength through his own flesh and out into the world—into Dylan. His mind filled with nothing but his energy, his capacity to control it, and his need—the wound in Dylan’s side, the wound that could take Dylan’s life. He poured everything he had into directing his bioenergy into the healing of Dylan’s wound.
He didn’t know he was screaming. Not until he felt Kyle’s strong hand on his shoulder, lending Nathan his own strength. Nathan focused himself, and then, he felt things began to change beneath his hands. The fur seemed to slip away, and a flare of panic twisted around the outside of Nathan’s concentration—had he burned off Dylan’s fur?
“Whoa,” he heard Kyle say beside him. His grip on Nathan’s shoulder seemed to intensify. He didn’t sound alarmed exactly, not the way he would have if Nathan were hurting Dylan, but nonetheless Nathan pulled his hands away and, with some trepidation, opened his eyes.
White flesh greeted him, streaked with blood that glistened red in the unsteady glow of the flashlight. At first Nathan was scared that he really had burned off Dylan’s fur, but even as he was thinking this his mind was taking in the very un-wolf-like and very naked form that lay prone before him. The residue of a wound was still visible on Dylan’s flank, but it was a human flank verging beautiful, hard-carved abs. A firm chest. Strong shoulders. Firm jawline and high cheekbones. Flaxen hair damp with sweat. Amazing brown eyes staring deep into his own.
His fellow Earth-expatriate gave him a weak grin. “Hey N—buddy,” Dylan said in a quavering voice.
Nathan guessed he’d only just stopped himself from calling him “Nate”, and the thought made him smile. It felt funny, the corners of his mouth pushing out into his cheeks that way, like he’d forgotten how. “Hey, Dyl,” he said, aware it would come across as teasing him that Nathan could use Dylan’s real name, but not the other way around. He wanted to talk about how they’d found the trigger for his shift, but that could wait.
Dylan shifted his gaze to Kyle, and Nathan looked over at him. He was transfixed, mouth slightly ajar, and Nathan was tempted to ask him if he’d never seen a werewolf shift into human form before. Now that the crisis had passed he felt a little giddy, and the whole situation seemed supremely silly. His grin widened, and when Dylan greeted Kyle with “Hey, Dickhead,” Nathan barked a laugh.
Kyle glanced at Nathan, bemused at his reaction, then back at Dylan. “Uh, hey,” he said tentatively. “I’m… glad to finally meet you, Dylan.”
“Yeah,” Dylan said. His voice was still weak, but his words weren’t. “Listen, do me a favor—and I’m so glad to finally be able to say this: Please get your paws off my boyfriend.”
Kyle blinked at him, not understanding. Dylan nodded at the hand Kyle still had on Nathan’s shoulder. “Please,” Dylan insisted.
Kyle looked at his own hand, then hastily pulled it away. His gray eyes met Nathan’s, and Nathan could see the hurt in them. Nathan looked down at his own bloody hands and tried not to think about anything at all.
Nobody moved or spoke for what seemed like ages, though it was probably only a few seconds before they heard the rescue team coming up the slope and over the lip into the little nook, breaking their tableau. Nathan looked up to see a short, middle-aged Japanese man in an EMT uniform and cap with backpack, both emblazoned with the blue, six-pointed star and rod of Asclepius generally employed by emergency medical services. Three others followed close behind, similarly kitted out.
The leader was frowning down at them, hesitating. “I thought you said it was an animal,” the man said doubtfully.
Dylan favored the man with a saucy grin that went straight to Nathan’s groin. He was sweaty and weak and pale with blood loss, but that cocky smile still looked in that moment like the sweetest thing Nathan had ever seen. “You should see me in bed,” he told the EMT with a wink. The EMT grimaced as he knelt to get to work, but Nathan barked a short laugh. Kyle, however, got to his feet and just walked away, disappearing over the slope and out of sight without a word to anyone, not needing to be present now that Dylan was safe and in good hands.
Nathan watched him go, his smile dying on his lips, not quite registering the questions the EMT was asking them about what had happened. He didn’t know anyway. The only thing he was sure of now was that he’d just bruised the trust of the one person from this world he would be counting on most in the dangerous times to come.
Franklin drove like a maniac. As the dark SUV hurtled around mountain valley curves toward what seemed like certain death, Nathan glanced longingly at the Jesus bar over the passenger-side window and tried to remember that the intrepid, badass, world-saving fighter-pilot hero he was pretending to be didn’t show fear, didn’t puss out, and definitely didn’t swear a blue streak when one of his friends turned out to have driving habits more in line with a Formula One race-car driver than a master of info systems. All these years, reading the graphic novels over and over again holed up in his room, Nathan had thought he’d known everything about the characters from Among Us; but he was starting to understand that there were worlds of things about a person that didn’t come across from a few inked and painted panels. There was a lot he didn’t know about these people—and the boyishly geeky, pink-skinned Franklin being some kind of adrenaline junkie was evidently one of them.
“You can slow it down just a little,” Nathan yelled over the frenetic jazz from satellite radio Franklin had blaring from the SUV’s high-end speakers.
Franklin grinned over at him, the unexpectedly impressive muscles of his well-defined arms and shoulders shifting under the snug and very flattering collarless dress shirt he had on, open at the neck just enough to show hints of a hairy chest to match a swath of virile-looking morning stubble around his mouth and along a strong, pleasant-looking jaw. His hazel-green eyes were gleaming with barely suppressed exuberance from behind his standard-issue geek-boy glasses. “Where’s the fun in that?” he called back happily, before turning back to the road, still grinning.
Nathan stared at him. Did Kyle know that the goofy but more-or-less buttoned-down Franklin was this wild a driver? He must, if he was like this all the time. Or maybe Franklin was trying to get back at him for not explaining how he was alive and in possession of a wolf in the elevator yesterday. He did say that just accepting that he was alive, and did have a wolf, was a big ask. Maybe a harrowing early morning motoring constituted a playful bit of payback.
There was nothing for it, in any event. Nathan sighed and tried to just go with it. So much of his life these days was just going with it. He didn’t even want to be in this car, tearing around on empty county roads and highways with dawn barely on the horizon, but here he was, going with it.
Back in the woods Kyle, on returning from his quiet stomp, had held a hushed conference with Nathan a few feet away from where the paramedics were looking Dylan over and assessing his mostly closed wound. Kyle had suggested that, while it looked like the healing had worked, they should still go ahead and let the EMTs take Dylan in to be checked out at the regional medical center in town, just to be sure. Nathan had readily agreed. He was ruefully aware that he had absolutely no idea what he was doing—he might have dreamed about what it would be like being inside Among Us, but finding himself tethered to the Fallgate and able to spit Doshiran bioenenergy from his fingertips was pretty much the last thing he would have imagined, or known how to deal with. For all he knew he might have sealed the surface wound but still left him with internal bleeding and who knew whatever other problems the gunshot had caused. Nathan wouldn’t rest easy until X-rays and whatever else told him that Dylan was truly out of danger.
The EMTs, as it turned out, had found easier access to the rise than the slope Nathan had struggled up, and once they’d slipped Dylan onto a board, plugged an IV into him and started moving him efficiently toward the ambulance up at the road-head Nathan found his hand-brace crutches and made to follow them. Kyle gripped his meaty arm. “No,” he said curtly, his gray eyes still silvered in the waning moonlight.
“Kyle…” Nathan objected. Now that the excitement was over he felt his heart pumping, adrenaline coursing through him. His hands twitched around the grips of his crutches. He wanted to say a lot of things, about how he needed to be there, how Dylan needed him to be there, how the two of them needed to look out for each other. Kyle cut him off before he got the chance.
“You can’t be at the hospital yet,” Kyle insisted. “We’re still prepping the supporting evidence for the bullshit cover story you made up about being imprisoned somewhere, and I can’t let you near the sheriffs or the med center until everything’s square.”
“They won’t care about me,” Nathan countered, but he barely got the words out before Kyle was riding over them.
“Do you know how many Doshiren there are in town? How many work at the med center?” he spat. He was standing inches away from him, taut with anger, and Nathan caught a faint but distracting whiff of his cologne, mixed with Kyle’s own natural smell. He was uncomfortably aware of Kyle’s full lips being within reach, strong and masculine, and of the fact that he knew exactly what they tasted like.
“The whole community is stirred up by these deaths,” Kyle went on. “The moment any of them see you the news that ‘Christopher James is alive’ is going to spread through the valley like a bad strain of bird flu.”
“I don’t—” Nathan tried to get in, but Kyle kept going.
“The sheriff will demand to debrief you,” Kyle pressed. “And she’ll demand a medical exam too, to corroborate your story and document your injuries during captivity. You know that. Before any of that happens we need to be ready. We to know everything and have it locked down before they do. Damn it, Major, we don’t know for sure if your DNA or blood-work will even be a match for our C.J.’s.”
Nathan blinked at him—this line of thinking had not even occurred to him. “Not to mention,” Kyle went on relentlessly, “how your damn DBE will show up in a human when they start poking and prodding. And that’s the kind of thing we need to find out before the civvies get to you.” Well, okay, that made sense. Nathan knew that Dwyer and the Task Force had documented all the subtle ways Doshiren physiology differed from human, if you were looking for it, but so far as he knew there’d never been a proper human with DBE—or baseline-reset or any of the rest of it.
Nathan tried to be reasonable. “Look, I get it,” he said. “But Dyl doesn’t know anyone here. He’s got no ID, no clothes… he’s hurt and scared and all alone. Somebody shot him, Kyle!”
“I know that. I haven’t forgotten that,” Kyle said evenly. “I’ve already got people on it.” That caught Nathan by surprise as well—evidently Kyle had used his walking-away-butthurt time to text a few members of the task force’s extended team. There wasn’t much that went on in this valley that wasn’t tracked and recorded, especially this close to the compound.
Nathan recovered quickly. “He needs me there,” he persisted. “And—and if anything weird comes up in Dyl’s scans I can—”
Kyle immediately shook his head. “No,” he said. He was eyeing him with a penetrating stare, the look that said he knew someone as well as he knew himself. “No,” Kyle repeated. “There’s going to need bullshit, and you won’t be able to bullshit plausibly. You’re too invested.”
Nathan narrowed his eyes. “You make that sound like a bad thing.”
Kyle breathed in through his nose, obviously needing to expend some effort maintaining the stoic, level-headed, all-around good guy demeanor he was known for. When it came to C.J., Nathan reflected, both the one from this world that Kyle had known for years and the alternate-world version that had now abruptly resurfaced in his life, Kyle must have had a great deal of practice doing keeping his cool. “What would be a bad thing,” Kyle said after a moment, in a tone that said that only one of them was being sensible, “would be for you to endanger your hurt friend because you’re distracted by your feelings for him.”
Nathan didn’t have an answer to that. Kyle’s gaze softened. “I’ll take care of it,” he promised with the hint a reassuring smile, his eyes boring into Nathan’s. Nathan recognized the expression Kyle was offering him. It was the look of a man who looked after the people he was responsible for because that was the kind of man he was. Nathan had seen that look on Kyle’s face rendered in ink and pale, warm hues, and now, seeing it in person, Nathan felt a little chill run up his spine.
“I know,” Nathan admitted. He felt a strange impulse to draw Kyle into his arms, to feel his warmth and strength against him. He suppressed it.
Kyle nodded briefly, acknowledging Nathan’s words. Still in the same low, comforting voice he said, “I need you to take an in-person look at the incident sites. The one from last night first, up toward Sargents.” Nathan started to object, not that Christopher James would have a reason to shy away from the kind of work he’d been doing for years, but before he had a chance Kyle added, “Take Shoe. Collect visual evidence, form impressions, report back.” He tilted his head consideringly. “Given what we’ve discovered about you,” he mused, as if the thought had just occurred to him, “you might be able to get a better sense of what happened than anyone else.”
“Hmm,” Nathan said. “Maybe.” He didn’t know what purpose going out to the scene where a Doshiren couple had spectacularly exploded in a mad rush to escape the edge of the Fallgate tether, but he’d read too many Among Us stories where unexpected insights or actual evidence had turned up solely because C.J., Kyle, or Jon had traipsed out to the most unlikely locations connected, however remotely, to the larger mystery. He fixed his gaze on Kyle. “You’ll call me from the hospital?”
“Of course,” Kyle responded, then added with a grin, “Go on—go let our boy out of his cage.”
So here he was, trying not to look terrified as Franklin took their lives in his hands with reckless abandon. Adrenaline surged through him again, and he wondered what would happen when he crashed.
Crash—that was an unlucky word. It had already occurred to Nathan, accompanied by a considerable sense of alarm, that rocketing toward the barrier that marked the furthest reach of the Fallgate tether was exactly what had blown up the Doshiren couple and their pickup truck up the road near the small town of Sargents. It was still a few miles ahead, but it would be on them before they knew it, and Nathan was acutely aware that he had no way to warn Franklin that his long-lost pal (and, if Nathan had any sense of Franklin’s reactions to him, his not-so-secret crush) was at risk of blowing them both to kingdom come if Franklin didn’t slow up in time. His only hope was the crash itself—Franklin had to stop for the incident site since that was why they were out here. He could only pray Franklin slowed down and pulled over to park before they got to the site, as Kyle had instructed them by text (giving the excise that he wanted as little disruption to the barrier as possible, even by their car), rather than speeding past and inadvertently triggering Nathan’s inner kaboom.
He’d returned to the compound to find Franklin eager and waiting for him impatiently, having received a series of texted instructions from Kyle. (Kyle had told him only that he had business in town, and Franklin knew better than to pry.) Franklin had issued him a smartphone of his own. He saw that it was already primed with text-convo links to Kyle, Franklin, Octavia, Dwyer, and a few others. “Don’t lose this one,” Franklin had admonished him with a boyish grin. Lost phones were a running gag in the stories, though mostly off-panel, and Nathan had tried to look rueful.
That phone now buzzed in the side pocket of the green jacket he was wearing over his still bare torso. He pulled it out and read, “Tests negative for internal damage. No sign of bullet. Docs convinced it’s only a flesh wound.”
Nathan stared at the words on his screen. No sign of bullet? Really? They’d determined it hadn’t come out the other side, so it pretty much had to have been inside Dylan somewhere. Had he healed away not only internal injury but actual ordnance?
It occurred to Nathan that maybe this wasn’t a good thing. He didn’t know a lot about ballistics and gun-related stuff in general, but the bullet Dylan had been shot with was probably some kind of useful evidence. He was slightly chagrined that he might have magicked it away and thereby given the investigation an unnecessary setback.
“What’s up?” Franklin said. Nathan looked up at him, and he nodded toward the phone.
“Oh, nothing, just an update from Kyle,” Nathan said. He keyed in a response. “Good to hear. Dyl okay?”
There was a moment’s pause, and then Kyle’s response appeared. “Dandy,” it said. Nathan felt his lips curve at Kyle’s acerbity. “Told them he’s an FBI informant, has to remain undercover. They agreed to lose the paperwork.” Nathan breathed a sigh of relief. This no papers, no identity thing was going to continue to be a huge headache for him and Dylan both, unless and until Kyle got them sorted out. Fortunately there was a system in place on the task force, though the world had probably changed a lot since the last time a contingent of Doshiran refugees had come through needing fake documentation. Nathan wondered whether Kyle used the U.S. Marshals’ long-established process for documenting witsec entrants, or other, more secret arrangements had to be made to contain knowledge of the existence of aliens. He couldn’t remember the books ever touching on it, and now he was curious. Maybe Kyle had fake-ID software and a laminating machine in his office, for all he knew.
He’d never appreciated how much a fictional story glossed over things, especially in a graphic novel where the long paragraphs of a literary work became beats and images. If he ever got back home he was going to sent Chad Kulikov an angry letter for leaving out all this shit.
Nathan refocused on the news about trouble averted and hesitated, not sure what to type back to Kyle. He was grateful Kyle was taking care of Dylan, but he also knew he was doing it because he had to for the security of the Doshiren and the task force, not because Dylan was “C.J.’s wolf”. Or at least, not solely because. Finally he typed, “That’s a relief. Thanks.”
He was about to ask whether Dylan would be discharged soon when suddenly Franklin stood on the brakes in a panic, the tires of the SUV squealing in protest against the road coming out of the latest curve as the driver let loose a loud, agitated, and very profane stream of very un-geeky and un-boyish invective. Nathan braced himself against the dash instinctively, phone still clutched awkwardly in one hand, even as the seatbelt caught against his shoulder, mashing right through his jacket and against the thick muscle beneath. As he cried out, “Ho-ooly——!”, grasping at the dashboard in front of him, he looked hectically down the dawnlit road ahead and tried to see what could possibly have made Franklin stop short.
He didn’t have to search very hard. Directly in front of them, standing with folded arms smack dab in the center of their side of the road, was a tall, brown, muscular man. He was as thickly muscled as Nathan was in C.J.’s body, but the dark blue blazer, crisp white shirt, and white, close-fitting slacks were perfectly tailored to his broad, powerful form. His booted feet were planted a foot apart and his wide, dark, glowering eyes were staring them down as if daring them to run him over.
Franklin screeched to a lurching halt only a few feet from the unmoving, glaring man. The SUV rocked back in recoil and then stilled, leaving behind nothing but the frenzied jazz from the radio as the three of them stared at each other. Nathan turned it off, and abruptly it was quiet.
Franklin looked from the stranger over to Nathan, and Nathan saw, with a certain perplexity, that it was with a sense of expectation. Belatedly he realized why. “——Toledo,” he finished lamely.
Franklin gave him half a smile, and then they both turned back to stare out the window at the handsome, dark-skinned bodybuilder with the apparent death wish.
Nathan frowned. A man standing in the middle of the road bending traffic to his will was so far beyond his experience that he felt like he had to make sense of it. The man himself was handsome in a distinctive, almost arresting way, with warm sepia-brown skin, close-cropped dark hair and a day’s growth of short, thick stubble. Nathan was sure he was South Asian, though he didn’t know enough to narrow it down any further. His eyes were dark and angry, and his full lips were frowning as he focused on Franklin like the poor IT geek had spent the last week personally ruining his credit rating while trying to proposition his sister. Beyond him, maybe a hundred yards down the road at most, was the site Nathan’s recognized from the images posted at the previous night’s briefing, complete with the burned-out pickup truck and the charred dumpsters it had smashed into. Beyond was the lonely gas station and trading post, both looking closed up and and as silent as the two lane road they were on despite the rosy glimmers of day starting to mount in the sky beyond them. In fact, apart from a few predatory bird wheeling far overhead not a soul beyond the three of them was to be seen in any direction.
He frowned at the proximity of the incident site. That must mean they were close to the limits of the tether. If the brawny irate man hadn’t stopped them they might have just hurtled through. That was close, he thought.
His eyes lifted to the interloper, and the coin dropped. Given that he was in a fictional world, he mused where coincidences were vanishingly unlikely and his plotline seemed to matter to others on a regular basis (pretty much the opposite of the reality he was used to), this could really only be one person.
He hit the button to roll down his window and poked his head out slightly. There was a bit of a breeze, fragrant with the smell of trees and earth, and his long hair fluttered around his shoulders. “Anik Singh?” he called out to the man.
The man listed to his left enough to see him. His affronted expression immediately cleared, and he offered Nathan a tentative smile. “Damn and double damn!” he said, making it sound like a cheery “hello”. He moved from in front of the car, heading around to the passenger side. “Are you—?”
“The guy your father sent you to meet,” Nathan supplied. He stuck his hand out through the window. “Christopher James,” he said.
Anik took his hand without shaking it. “Christopher James,” he repeated, eyes alight. He had no accent, as far as Nathan could tell, unlike his father. Actually, he sounded like once he was done here he would grab his surf board and head out to Malibu for some waves, not that they were anywhere near Malibu. “I’m glad to meet you,” surfer Anik said, “and I’m glad my father sent me here to meet you.”
Nathan felt his cheeks heat a little under Anik’s intense scrutiny. “Er—thanks, and people call me C.J.,” he said. Christ, Anik was so attractive in such a raw, potent way that he could feel himself just getting sucked in, like Anik was drowning him in lust-inducing pheromones. Sucked—that was another dangerous word. Before he could stop himself his head was full of images of him and Anik, jackets and shirts cast aside and powerful torsos completely bare, with Nathan bent over him on endless cushions, just beginning his taste of Anik’s dark, erect, downward-pointing nipples as he breathed in the man’s intoxicating scent. Unwillingly he felt his mammoth appendage stir in his stretch sweats and begin to swell—just a bit, but any increase in size for someone as hung as he was not was a bit of a hardship, so to speak.
Anik still had not let go of his hand. “Damn,” the man said again. His gaze raked over Nathan, taking special note of the thick, ruddy chest and exposed abs visible where his bare torso was revealed by his open jacket and the shape of Nathan’s shifting bulge in the sweats below. “You, man… you are not what I had expected,” he said. His eyes leapt up to meet Nathan’s. “Did my father tell you I was getting married?”
Nathan raised a brow. “He told me you hadn’t figured out to whom yet,” he said wryly.
“Exactly,” Anik said, eyes positively twinkling.
“Okay, all right,” Franklin broke in, and Nathan, who’d more or less forgotten he was there, felt a twinge of guilt. “C.J., do you want to tell me who this joker is, and why I almost creamed him into the asphalt?”
Nathan awkwardly retrieved his hand. Anik stooped enough to be able to again take up the glare he seemed to have reserved just for Franklin. “Uh… Franklin, this is Anik Singh,” he said. “I’m good friends with his dad. Anik,” he went on, turning to the frowning newcomer and gesturing toward his colleague, “this is Dr. Franklin Shoe. He and I work together at the, er, ranshama.” Nathan figured he was safe using Mr. Singh’s word for the Fallgate without letting on to Franklin that Anik was in the know about aliens, or, worse, alternate worlds. Franklin didn’t even know about the parallel Earths, and Mr. Singh had all but admitted he came from one, even if Anik did not.
Across Nathan, Anik eyed Franklin with a dubious expression. “Dr. Shoe,” he said sternly, “I’d really like to know why you were driving so fast here… when you know there’s a danger you will kill my friend!”
Franklin bridled. “I don’t ‘know’ that,” he retorted hotly. “I don’t ‘know’ that at all. I’m a damn good driver, I’ll have you know!”
Now Nathan understood why Anik was angry. Mr. Singh had obviously sent his son here, to this place just shy of where the incident had happened at the end of the Fallgate tether, because the uncanny and mysterious old man had somehow guessed—or… foreseen?—that whoever was driving Nathan out to this place wouldn’t know that Nathan himself had a tether, and would detonate catastrophically like a movie car going over a cliff the moment they sped through the barrier. So Mr. Singh had carefully made sure Anik was standing out here in the right time and place to prevent that from happening. Except Anik didn’t have the whole picture, because he seemed to be assuming that Franklin understood that his passenger was packed to the gills with the DBE equivalent of gelignite and was just being criminally reckless with both their lives.
“He’s right,” Nathan interceded quickly. “He doesn’t know that.” He made eye contact with Anik and tried to communicate the extra meaning of his words, that Franklin did not, in fact, “know”.
Anik stared at him only a second before turning his gaze back to Franklin. “Damn,” he said, this time using the word more traditionally. “Sorry, Dr. Shoe.”
“Call me Franklin,” Franklin said grudgingly.
A moment later they were parked on one side of the road, close to the vivid blue Nissan rental that Nathan guessed was Anik’s current ride. Franklin, after helping Nathan out of the car and into his crutches and tossing a final frown in Anik’s direction, had stomped off with his equipment bag to take photos and readings of the crash.
Nathan was left standing with Anik near the cars. Anik’s intrusion and the subsequent hostility, and maybe more than that the close call Anik had prevented, put him in a sour mood. “Why are you here, Anik?” Nathan asked.
“Because,” Anik said, “my wise father told me, ‘Nathaniel needs a friend—’”
“I have a friend,” Nathan said, thinking of Dylan.
“‘—a friend’,” Anik continued, “‘who can help him navigate the path he must now tread.’”
That was a little too portentous for first thing in the morning, especially as Nathan had already been up half the night stressed out over Dylan being shot and then taken away without him. He was ill-inclined to fall into thoughts of destiny or duty right now. He was better off with empirical information. Kyle had sent him out here to see if he could pick up on anything the others wouldn’t be able to, and that’s what he needed to be doing.
Anik had subsided and was watching him. Nathan ignored him, trying to get his bearings. Now that he had stopped moving he could tell there was something subtly different about his internal energy sink, the “energy heart” that was tied to, and bottomlessly supplied by, the Fallgate all the way back at the mountain. It was difficult to understand what he was feeling, owing to the fact that all of these sensations were unfamiliar—he hadn’t even had a chance to get used to C.J.’s body yet, and now he was feeling things even C.J. had never experienced. There was something about it that felt… taut, like there was an additional, uneasy strain, but Nathan wasn’t sure he trusted it. In Among Us the talk among the Doshiren had always been of tethers, and he couldn’t be certain he wasn’t suggesting his perception of what he was feeling from the terminology he had become accustomed to.
Hesitantly, he began moving forward along the side of the road, his crutches making a quiet clacking sound in the half-lit silence. He took one step, then another, then another. He felt like something in his chest was getting tighter and tighter. The strangest thing, though, was that there was another sensation, too, a kind of undertow that wanted to draw him forward. It was faint, and Nathan didn’t feel like it was even coming from him, but it was there, urging him to test his so-called tether, daring him to experience the pleasure of pushing beyond limitations.
Nathan stopped moving forward, struggling to make sense of the layers and subtleties of what he was feeling. He could understand an intellectual motivation to redefine yourself beyond your limits; but this wasn’t existential philosophy, this was primal, id-level emotions appealing to his basest needs for gratification. There was something almost erotic about it. And as soon as that thought took hold, he could sense it more clearly: a lure to test and break one’s tether, salacious and tantalizing. It was still profoundly faint, and Nathan was becoming more certain that these weren’t his own feelings but the latent energy of others who had felt that pull at full force—had felt it so powerfully that they had risked everything to break free of the link that bound them to the Fallgate, only to fail utterly in the attempt.
Nathan gasped. He’d had it wrong. He’d supposed that there was something at the center that was terrifying the Doshiren, driving them to try to flee desperately from the circle around the Fallgate they were bound to. But this—this was even worse, in a way. Something, some vile force, was seducing Doshiren into braving the limits of their tether, dealing out violent, agonizing death under a promise of euphoric release.
Anik had moved forward and was standing next to him. He put a warm, strong hand on Nathan’s shoulder, but Nathan barely noticed. “What is it?” Anik asked.
Nathan was about to answer—or maybe to fob him off, he wasn’t sure—but in that moment an entirely different kind of sensation came to him. An itching in the back of his brain—a wolf sending. It had to be. Even in human form, he and Dylan were bound together. He focused on it, bringing it into his consciousness, and gasped.
“What?” Anik demanded.
Nathan turned and stared at him. “Someone… someone is kissing Dylan!”