The smell of coffee permeated Stef’s dreams and dragged her into the waking world. On autopilot, she lifted a hand and groped for the coffee. Her higher brain, slower to wake than the part that recognised the smell of coffee, wondered why the coffee was coming to her, instead of the other way around.
It was free though, so there was no need to question it.
She reached further, and her fingers brushed against the side of a hot cup.
‘You’d best sit up,’ Dorian.
Stef opened her eyes, sat up, and grabbed the cup from the unexpectedly shirtless Englishman. She closed her eyes for a moment, mentally superimposed a shirt onto him, downed a few mouthfuls of coffee, then opened her eyes again.
She pushed the cup back at him and scooted back against the pillows and the head of the bed. She untwisted her clothes, reached into her pocket, and found a handful of sugar packets. She tore open half a dozen sugars and added them to the not-nearly-saccharine-enough coffee.
She pushed the rubbish back into her pocket, then took the coffee from him.
Higher brain functions pulled themselves from sleep, and she looked to the window. The sun peeking through the heavy curtain told her it was still morning – hours before she’d intended to be awake.
She looked back at him with still-bleary eyes. ‘Did you want something, or just to kick me out of your bed? I didn’t wet it, I promise.’
Dorian simply stared.
What does he–?
The monster, genius.
Oh right. That happened.
‘So,’ she said.
‘The obvious doesn’t need to be said,’ he said as he moved closer.
‘It does, actually. You’re hiding a monster on the third floor.’
‘Who else knows?’
‘Me, yourself, and Jon.’
‘Jon being the old guy?’
She bit her lip for a moment, remembering the words from the code. ‘Jon being short for Jono– I have no idea how to pronounce it. It’s got a w in it?’
He stared at her. ‘Yes. Jonowoi.’
She repeated it a few times to herself, then nodded. ‘What – what’s his relation to the monster?’
Dorian’s eyes narrowed as he rose from the bed. ‘None.’ He crossed to his wardrobe and found a shirt. ‘He’s old, he has money, and he wants to assist, so he’s helping Astrin.’
She bit her lip. ‘His– Jon’s name is in the code. If there’s–’
Dorian was quiet for a moment. ‘I’d like to remind you that you saw a monster last night.’
She swung her legs off the bed and drained the rest of the coffee. ‘Yeah. I did,’ she said, trying to hide her excitement. ‘But – but come on, do you think that I haven’t been looking for monsters and aliens all my life? I just– What is he? Is he an alien? Is he a mutant? Is he, yanno–’ She didn’t want to say the word. ‘You know, something, magic?’
‘Yes, yes, and…yes,’ Dorian said as he finished buttoning his shirt. ‘How much do you want to know, Spyder? I’ve never been one to hold back the truth of the world, but–’
Her heart caught in her throat. ‘Tell me already!’ She let her shoulders slump. ‘Please?’
‘He’s a man, he’s a monster, he came from another world, and he was mutated by magic. So you were right on all counts. Worlds die. Sometimes it takes a long time, and some people fall through the cracks. Some people are lucky enough to fall onto solid ground.’ He paused for a moment. ‘The trip isn’t without its price, as you can see what it’s done to him.’
Magic. He just said magic. He just said–
She shook her head slightly, trying to ground herself to keep from squeeing all over the room. ‘So he’s not a mutie?’ she asked. ‘Not that I’ve got anything against them, although I admit that I’d take Magneto over Xavier any day–’
‘He’s lucky to be alive; most of the time they simply die. Some just fall forever, trapped in the in-between places.’
She took another gulp of coffee. ‘You’re asking me to take a lot on faith here.’
‘You saw a monster last night. That’s the important thing.’
‘What about me, Spyder?’
‘Do you think I am?’
‘Coincidence is probably a hard sell at this point.’
He leaned against the corner of the bed. ‘Do I seem like a monster to you?’
‘You said Astrin’s a man, and he looks like he can take my head off.’
‘Can and will, unless you stay away from him. I don’t mean to malign him – he has suffered – but he’s not picky about whom or what he eats.’
‘You’re avoiding the question.’
‘I inspired the story; I’m where the name comes from. Everything else was from Oscar’s imagination.’
‘You didn’t explain anything, not really.’
‘We don’t have time,’ he said. ‘Finish with the code, and I’ll point you in the right direction.’
He doesn’t want to tell you. Figure it out for yourself.
But if it’s so simple, he could just–
Not everyone wants to be Morpheus, Spyder.
‘How do you know I wouldn’t freak and run?’
‘I can’t believe that you’ve never seen anything strange before last night.’
‘Well, I’m staring at a fictional character. Where is your portrait, Mister Gray?’
‘Not here,’ he answered simply. ‘But, before this, surely–’
‘Nothing. Nothing like this.’
He gave her another long stare. ‘When you get to be as old as I am, you get to recognise certain things about people, like if they’ve died. You’ve got that look, Spyder.’
Cold. Dark. So very cold. So very dark.
Someone holding her. Keeping her safe from the dark. Keeping her safe from the cold.
She bit the inside of her cheek and tried to keep a neutral expression. ‘I’m plenty alive, if you haven’t noticed.’
‘You are now–’
He gave her a look that could have been pity. ‘You must have been very young. So very young, if you’ve got no idea what I’m talking about. It’s not usually the kind of thing you can forget. And I’m not sure why Death–’
‘Why didn’t you chase after me?’ she asked, pulling her thoughts back to recent events. ‘You’ve been doing your best to keep him a secret. Why let me find out?’
He gave her a smirk. ‘You might have noticed that I was a little distracted at the time.’ He smoothed out his shirt. ‘And you’re strange enough that I thought perhaps you weren’t entirely human yourself.’
‘If only,’ she said. She paused for a few seconds to see if he would start spilling the secrets of the universe, then sighed and looked at the sun shining through the window. ‘Why’d you wake me, anyway?’
‘We’ve got a new member of the team, and I’m not sure I trust him. He was a referral, not someone I’ve vetted, so I thought I’d do you the favour of pointing him out. It’s unfortunate, but we’ve had to expand our horizons a little beyond what I had initially imagined. I’ll take recommendations, if you’ve got any.’
‘You thought playing with code this old and this broken would be easy?’
He gave a casual shrug.
She swallowed. ‘Why is Jon’s name in the code?’
‘You’re asking to get an answer you already know.’
‘He’s – he’s like the monster? He came from somewhere else, too?’
‘He did,’ Dorian said. ‘But do your best to forget that.’
‘But he doesn’t look–’
‘His parents tried to build an escape pod. His father perished during the journey; his mother died soon after they landed, but he survived. So much as falling straight into the Blitz can be called surviving.’
‘It’s the code that ran the escape pod?’
She stared at Dorian for a moment. ‘So what the hell can it even do for Astrin? It’s the wrong tech from the wrong world to solve a situation that–’
‘If you could get it working, it could – in theory – tell him where others from his world could land, where pieces of his world might come through. It could help him find other survivors; it could help him find his wife.’
‘Seriously, spare me the love story.’
‘Do you want to keep working on the code or not?’ Dorian asked. ‘You’re free to leave at any time.’
‘Of course I want to keep working on it,’ she said, ‘I just don’t think it’s going to do any good.’
Dorian shrugged. ‘Jon sees him as a chance to try and help someone like himself. Another lost soul, someone who lost everything. I adopted Jon not long after he came to this world. Jon’s lucky; he looks human. Astrin would have been killed like a dog if the wrong people had found him.’
‘Why can he speak English?’ she blurted out. ‘I mean, come on, unless he’s been here for months, it’s kind of convenient!’
‘It’s probably the one kindness of the trip, of what happens to someone who falls between worlds. If you do land somewhere and aren’t lost in the void until the Lady comes to claim you, then it grants you language and breath. You can speak the dominant language of the area and breathe the air – those are the only graces of the situation.’
‘Can your questions wait until after breakfast?’ He opened the door. ‘Come on, before they run out of pancakes.’
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