Unless that someone was someone free like me
("Only Someone Running" by Bonnie Prince Billy & Matt Sweeney)
Hearing sex thoughts was one of the worst parts of being a telepath. Once Freya'd been taught rudimentary control, this was one of her strongest motivators for developing her own blocking techniques. She usually managed to filter out the sex, unless someone was looking directly at her and fantasizing, or fantasizing about her.
Both experiences made her feel dirty. Violated. She knew it was unfair; people had no way of knowing that she heard -- saw -- every sweaty detail. Still, she found it hard to respect someone who thrust these kinds of thoughts at her.
She did respect her partner. During all the years she'd lost, Brendan Dean'd had a life: attending university, getting a job, going out with friends, listening to bad music. She'd half-expected him to hold her ignorance against her, but he never did. When she'd needed her GED to apply for university classes, Brendan had made the time to tutor her. When she'd wanted to get a car, he took her to get her license, spent two weekends with her on used-car lots, and presented her with fuzzy Hello Kitty dice the day she drove her Toyota home.
Brendan was like a big brother to her, and so good at masking his thoughts that Freya could relax around him. He could tell her jokes without giving away the punchlines in his head; he could surprise her with cake and flowers on her birthday (which was even more impressive considering he'd been allergic to the lilies -- she'd simply thought he'd got another cold). Since he learned she could hear thoughts, she'd never heard him thinking about sex, and only rarely mentally checking someone out. She appreciated it.
But sometimes his mental silence frustrated her. Sometimes she wanted to reach out and steal knowledge from him the way she did from the criminals she interrogated. More than simply being dangerous, she knew it would be wrong. A violation of trust that she doubted she could keep from him. It shouldn't be so hard to just. . . ask, like normal people did.
"What?" Brendan said, holding the binoculars steadily trained on the warehouse but turning his head to look at her. "Why are you staring at me? Do I have ketchup on my nose? What?" He craned a little, trying to see his face in the rear-view mirror.
She shook her head and grinned. There were ketchup spots down the front of his shirt, but she wanted to see how long it would take him to notice.
"Then look for the bad guys instead of trying to give me the heebie-jeebies." He waved a hand out at the rainy gloom and peered through the binoculars again with a put-upon sigh.
"Why do you wear a wedding ring?" she asked, and he knew her well enough not to look at her in surprise -- not when unguarded thoughts might slip out. But she saw his eyebrows shoot up and his jaw tense, and by the time he had collected himself enough to look sideways at her, he looked almost like a stranger.
"It's not," he said, his mouth curling but not smiling. "It's just. . . it just is."
"Brendan," she said, trying to look at him like a little sister or a friend -- at any rate, someone he wouldn't lie to. Apply a little pressure, and then: "If you don't want to talk, you can just say so. I know you don't like talking about yourself." Criminals were not usually susceptible to guilt, but Freya found that most of the people she thought of as friends were.
Brendan sighed again, plainly irritated. "It's not just me," he said, his voice lowering as if he were trying to hold back a cough. "I mean," he added, and then pinched his mouth together to keep the rest of the sentence in.
"Sure," Freya agreed. She shoved her shoulders back against the seat and pushed her hips up to weasel a pack of Tic-Tacs out of her jeans pocket. She tipped a generous amount into her palm and held it out. "Candy?"
"Melted mints, yum." Brendan made a face, but he still filched five and shoved them all in his mouth at once. "See, there's this guy I live with," he said, and Freya wiggled a little, trying to hold back a big smile.
"Not like a roommate guy," she asked, rolling the candy on her tongue. "Like a boyfriend guy?" A really good boyfriend, because the ring Brendan wore was nice. Not flashy -- serious.
"Like a guy guy."
Freya heard a mint snap between his molars.
"It's complicated. It's messed up. He's. . . he's kind of crazy," Brendan muttered, and Freya jerked back away from him reflexively, crossing her arms and swallowing her candy hard. "That's the thing," Brendan said, still resolutely looking away from Freya, staring out at the warehouse. "I don't know if him being like he is, is an abnormal reaction to normal life, or a perfectly normal reaction to something that went very, very wrong." He did cut a look at Freya then. "I kind of want you to meet him. Sometime."
"You want me to read his mind," Freya said, feeling the disgust in her voice crawl across her face.
Brendan lowered his wrists to the steering wheel, the binoculars still held steady, and dropped his face into the V of his forearms. "That'd be shitty of me."
"Yeah." Freya tapped the Tic-Tacs in their little plastic box against her knee. They rattled like a fortune-teller's bones.
"It's like he comes from a whole different planet," Brendan said. "I met him and it's like, he followed me home, mom, can I keep him. He doesn't have a job, he has a computer and a toothbrush and three t-shirts, he didn't even have a coat when he moved in." Brendan took a rather wild breath. "He calls me John. Sometimes. He gave me the ring, but I think he promised it to John."
"Did you ask him?"
"I ran a complete background check on him, does that count?" Brendan shook his head. "He's weird, but he's -- I think he needs me. And I like having someone to go home to. I always. . . I thought I'd be alone, what with one thing and another."
"Are you happy?" Freya asked, quietly, staring out at the rain and her own watery reflection on the glass. She saw a flicker in the darkness, and was grateful that the bad guys had arrived to save her from having to demonstrate her fluency in therapist-talk (do you think you deserve happiness?). "Brendan."
"Shit." Happy or not, Brendan was all smooth efficiency as he slouched down and brought the binoculars up. "Have they seen us?"
Freya took a breath and reached out, like diving into dark water. "They're waiting -- does the name Eddy Dowle mean anything?"
"Doyle," Brendan said, pulling the case notes from the map holder on the door and scribbling blind. "That would be Detonator Doyle, IRA," and he grabbed the opportunity to lecture her on obscure terrorist trivia and snap photos, creating distractions until Doyle arrived and everything went completely to hell.
Very much later that night, as she curled up to sleep on one of the uncomfortable sofas in the NSA's break room, she heard Brendan in the corridor, muffling a telephone call. From his side of the conversation, she guessed that he was being yelled at and fussed over, and that his skimpy explanation (yes, things blew up, but not me, all right, I'm fine) was doing nothing to ease the worries of the mystery boyfriend.
Go, mystery boyfriend, she thought drowsily, and fell asleep to another round of Brendan's abject apologies.
"So -- Freya, this is Mer. Mer, Freya," Brendan said, taking Freya's coat and hanging it on one of the pegs behind the front door. His apartment was miniscule: the door opened into the kitchen, with the living room immediately on the right and separated only by a table. With all three of them standing on the carpet scrap that seemed to demarcate the foyer, it was very crowded. Brendan didn't seem to notice. "She's studying computer science."
Mer made a very sarcastic face. "Which means what, exactly?" He turned a disconcertingly sharp blue gaze on Freya and stared, unblinking. Freya repressed a smirk: Brendan ought to have warned him that she was practically immune to intimidation.
She told him, with attitude, exactly what her field of research was. He then told her which of CUNY's professors were criminally wrong and which were simply misguided fools. She informed him that she knew; did he think she was an idiot?
"Yes," he said, as if it were obvious. "Look how you're dressed." He made a gesture to illustrate the way her t-shirt rode up and the low cut of her jeans, and followed with a vague hourglass shape, his blunt fingers sketching improbable curves. "Don't tell me your professors don't want -- " another suggestive wiggle of the hands -- "what you're offering."
Brendan made a little whimpering noise and made a few unsubtle gestures of his own which translated to shut up, now. Mer apparently interpreted this to be an invitation to perch on the sofa, body canted sideways as if he might leap up and begin pacing at any moment. Freya took the open corner of the sofa and rested her elbow on the back cushions. At least two inches of stomach were exposed. Oops.
She smiled, showing her teeth. "Any teacher who even thinks about fucking me, or any other student, I refuse to work with. Do you want to know who the biggest perverts are in the comp-sci department?"
"I could guess," Mer said, grinning back; Freya thought he was having great fun, playing with her. "But you should tell me, anyway. So you dress like a Jersey mall slut to flush out the assholes?"
"Worked on you," she said, keeping her face perfectly straight, and enjoyed watching him splutter. Brendan gave up hovering and pulled over one of the kitchen chairs so that he could watch the carnage in comfort.
"I didn't -- noticing and lusting are two totally different things! I was speaking from. . . brotherly concern. And also, hello? I'm very gay for your partner. With your partner. I'm just concerned that your fashion sense might be contagious, and his tight-jean-clad ass will bring all the boys to the yard. And girls," he added glumly.
Brendan was hiding his head in his arms. His shoulders shook with laughter, or horror, or more probably both.
"Meredith, sweetheart," Freya said, leaning over to throw her arm around his shoulders and give him a saccharine hug, "he's already an object of lust for witnesses, victims, suspects, waiters -- everyone, really -- even in starched white shirts and bad neckties." She grinned and kissed him on the cheek. "He turns them all down and comes home to you."
Mer shrugged, looking smug and embarrassed. Freya took pity on him and let him go.
"Well. I am a genius," Mer said, and looked at Brendan. "I like her. She's almost as bitchy as you are."
"Tell me there's wine," Brendan said. "I need to be drunk." Freya suspected that part of what Brendan liked about Mer was that his blunt, honest approach demanded a response in kind. Brendan was good at his job, but he was not -- as Freya was -- unique. He was replacable and he knew it, and that meant he had to go along with politics and say yes too often when he'd rather say no. But at home with Mer there was neither east nor west, and Brendan could. . . let go. Be bitchy, if he wanted to; get drunk, and not worry about the day after.
At least, so long as Mer was just eccentric and not crazy; as long as Mer remembered who he was living with. Freya studied him sidelong. She felt the sudden need for a drink herself.
"Oh, good idea." Mer hopped up and headed into the kitchen, Brendan on his heels (trying to get him on his own, Freya suspected). He opened the fridge and pulled out a bottle, swinging it by the neck as he passed it over, probably shaking it just to annoy the hell out of Brendan, who actually knew a great deal about wine. "He gets very pliable when he's not sober," he added to Freya, holding out a large bowl of salad towards her and indicating, with snapping and pointing, that she was to haul her lazy ass up and put in some work around here, thank you, not in the center of the table, there on the side, where the salad fork was, was she blind? Brendan poured the wine, and Mer started some story about drunkenness that led very quickly to satin sheets.
"La la la, ignoring you," Freya said. "Give it up, I'm unshockable. I spend my life listening to dirty minds. Tell me what you think about the new language processing program that's just been funded at MIT."
"Oh, is that your field?" Mer said, dishing up spaghetti and sauce, which Brendan carried over to the table. "That must be useful."
Freya rolled her eyes. "No shop talk."
"Well, duh." Mer jabbed a finger at one of the mismatched chairs. "Sit and eat before it gets cold, I slaved over the stove for hours today." He glared until Freya was seated and had her mouth full. "Thank God you're not anorexic. And you'd better not be bulimic, either. I made the sauce from scratch."
"Mouth shut while you're eating," Brendan said: the words sounded washed-out from overuse. Freya suspected he'd long since given up hope for change; Mer's lack of table manners was formidable. "You do recall that Freya's not just a friend but also my partner, and I value her good opinion?"
"Talk about locking the barn door after the horses are out," Mer said, slurping in a piece of lettuce and dribbling dressing down his chin. Brendan snorted and held out his napkin. "Look at her -- she's not the sort to be taken in by polite social fictions. I'm impressing her with my brilliance."
Brendan raised his eyebrows, rolling the stem of his wine glass between his fingers. "Funny, you don't impress me with your brilliance."
Mer looked superior as he watched Brendan take a sip of his wine. "I impress you with my sexual prowess," he said, and when Brendan choked, he handed back the stained napkin, smug and with an almost childlike glee. "So." He turned to Freya, oblivious to how pissed-off Brendan looked. "MIT? Lewis is such a plodder I'm surprised he doesn't still do most of his work in BASIC. Just because he had that series on PBS. . . "
"Tell me about Beatrice Yang's work," Freya said, and Mer obligingly changed the course of his tirade with barely a pause for breath. She interrupted him whenever he veered away from interesting topics, and when the conversation evolved into a discussion of Freya's own work, Mer ran into the bedroom to get a stack of legal pads and a box of colored pens. Even Brendan got into the fun, making Mer go all red and splutter when he made ridiculous suggestions like having universal phone-tap filters to pick out key words or phrases in foreign languages (when she finished laughing, Freya tried to summarise Lupinski's work on context in internet-based censorship filters; Mer let her talk for five minutes, and then spent another fifteen extrapolating).
She hadn't realised how late it was until Brendan reached across the table and covered Mer's mouth with his hand, much to the man's indignation.
"Subtle wasn't working on you," Brendan said, his features softened by the wine and by amused fondness. "It's almost eleven, and you need to make coffee so Freya can drive home safely."
"Yes, fine, whatever," Mer grumbled, giving Brendan a baleful look even as he pushed up from the table. "Isn't tomorrow Saturday?"
"We have a meeting," Freya said, trying to make the words sound like an apology as Mer snapped a glare to Brendan. "Something came up. But I didn't want to cancel. Brendan hinted that you were a good cook. He was right, that was delicious."
Mer pointed at her. "For you, dessert."
"What about me?" Brendan said, dumping the dishes in the sink and dribbling them with Joy.
"I'm not sure you deserve cake," Mer said, trying to push Brendan aside so he could fill the coffee pot with water.
"Hey," Brendan said, and put one hand at the small of Mer's back as he leaned in to kiss him. Freya grinned to herself as she deliberately didn't watch, covering leftovers with cling wrap and balancing them precariously in the fridge. She thought Brendan probably was drunk; he'd been scrupulous until now about not touching Mer in front of her, which she thought was sad and pointless. Mer had gone along with it, but not, she thought, happily. He was happy now, with the water overflowing from the pot and steamy soap bubbles rising from the sink. He had Brendan pressed against the sink and his free hand in Brendan's hair, and Freya was pretty sure that Brendan's fingers were dipping below the waistband of Mer's trousers. Not that she was looking, although she was running out of activities to engage her.
Finally, she reached over and took the coffee pot out of the sink where Mer'd set it down, tipped out the extra water, and started making the coffee. She'd apologise to Brendan tomorrow for stealing the location of filters and the expensive roast from him. There were mugs on hooks under the cabinets; she took down three with Far Side cartoons and set them on the table. When she turned around, Mer was cutting the cake and Brendan was looking both embarrassed and ravished.
"Sorry," he said, mashing his mouth together and looking like a child caught stealing sweets.
"It's not a problem," she said, and smirked. "Hey, Rodney, where's the sugar?"
Stupid, she ranted at herself as Mer's head snapped around, his eyes dark and cold
Thief, she thought, because she hadn't even realised she was dipping into his mind enough to steal his secrets. She lost even more of her control as she tried to pull herself back up from the panicked slide into the always-waiting sea of thoughts.
Freak -- but then she had no time for any further anger with her own carelessness. Mer spun around, knife in hand, pushing his back against the refrigerator as he tried to get as far away from Freya as he could. She knew exactly what he was afraid of: she was swept away with horrific memories. She heard herself whimper, felt her own hands push, palms out, in a vain fury to shove away the smell of blood, the sound of harsh, fevered breathing, the feel of broken bones shifting under even the lightest touch.
The knife in his hands, unwavering, gave her a focus that her mind grabbed like a lifeline. She concentrated on the sharpness of the edge, on the memories of knives. Mer hated being cut. She didn't really blame him. She stole from him as if he were a criminal; it was easy, she was already trespassing in his head -- she just had to get herself under control. He was thinking about running; Brendan was thinking about his gun. Bad, bad, bad.
"I'm just a girl," Freya said, reaching into the sink for the vegetable knife. She wiped it dry on her jeans. "I'm human. See?" She pulled the knife across her palm, wincing (she'd heard plenty of thoughts about self-mutilation and cutting when she was in the hospital, but it was never something she had been tempted to try). There was more blood than she'd expected. She could smell it. She could smell Mer's memory of his own blood, and John's.
She dropped the knife back into the water and folded a dishtowel under her hand, keeping the cut in Mer's line of sight. "Nothing more than flesh and blood. I am, however, a genetic anomaly. I can read minds -- no," she said, feeling the vivid recollection of a hand sliding into Mer's head, of an enemy robot downloading his consciousness entirely against his will. "I'm in a catch-22 here, Meredith. Your own thoughts have already told me enough that any attempt I make to prove I don't work for -- what was it, SGC? NID? the Asurans? -- damns me with that knowledge. But -- I don't. I'm just a girl. And I'm sorry. Can I wrap my hand up now?"
"No," Mer said. "What am I thinking right now?"
"Escape," she said promptly. "Lots of memories. Um. A woman with yellow hair, is that it? She reminds you of home. Your mother? No. Grandmother."
Mer smiled, tight and humourless. "Except she's not my grandmother. She's Rodney's." His mind scrolled with computer code, a complicated program that Freya couldn't begin to comprehend, something about nanites and the glorious spires of an ersatz Atlantis.
"Don't think so loud," Freya said, her tongue clumsy and her voice buried beneath the others she heard in his head. Teyla, and Elizabeth, and Ronon, and John -- of course, John.
"Sixteen into two thousand eighty-four," Brendan said, very quietly. He and Welles had worked to find a quick way to unstick Freya if she got lost in others' thoughts in the field. Reading was still her easiest escape, but long division -- or the occasional quadratic equation -- worked fastest. Freya sometimes wondered if she really was a secret mathematical prodigy, just waiting for her genius switch to be thrown.
Brendan did something to her hand while she concentrated, applying medicine that stung and gauze that soothed. Freya didn't move; she couldn't. She was watching the mythical city rise from the ocean floor, announcing itself in tsunami and storm. She saw wormholes and vampires and oh, God John -- she could see why Mer had thought, at first, that Brendan was John's son. The lines that responsibility and worry had put on John's face didn't hide the underlying symmetry that made Brendan practically his likeness.
"Come on," Brendan said, shaking her, just a little. "Sixteen into twenty, for God's sake."
"One," Freya said automatically, and shuddered as she tried to re-establish her personal boundaries. She pictured a blackboard in her mind, and her own hand -- the undamaged one -- holding the chalk. "Remainder four."
"Good," Brendan said. "Sixteen into forty-eight." He glared at Mer. "Stop thinking, would you?"
"Eight goes into forty-eight six times, so three." Freya touched her face. "Am I crying?"
"One hundred forty-five into ten thousand." Brendan handed her a damp napkin. "You've got raccoon eyes, kind of. Yeah. That's better."
Freya blinked and wiped until the gum of mascara was clear from her lashes. She tried to look at Mer, but Brendan turned her chin away, telling her without words that until she had herself under control she was useless.
"What's wrong with her?" Mer asked. Incongruously, Freya felt him thinking of dialling 911. The nine and the ones mixed themselves up with her other numbers, making an irreparable tangle.
"You okay?" Brendan asked, and Freya nodded. She started over again, mentally rewriting from one forty-five. "I'm gonna -- " He waved a hand, and she caught go talk to Mer.
"She's a telepath," she heard Brendan say, and tried to focus on her division. "Under stress, sometimes she loses focus."
"You brought her here to spy on me."
Brendan sighed and settled one hip against the counter. He was within stabbing distance, and Freya checked quickly to see if she would be able to catch any intent of Mer's to harm Brendan before it happened. She thought so, and went back to trying to tune the words out.
"Two things," Brendan said. Freya could feel him forcibly suppressing his emotions to project calm. "I did ask her once if she'd read you. She was insulted. I was in the doghouse for a week." He shrugged. "I felt like a real asshole for even suggesting it. Friends don't ask friends to spy on friends." He swallowed and looked down. "But the second thing is, I trust you with everything I am, and sometimes I don't even know if you know my name." Freya wished she could shut off his voice as well as his thoughts. She hated eavesdropping. "I'm in fucking love with you, and you -- you're in love with John."
"John's dead," Mer said. "He was -- they disassembled him, looking for his soul, looking for whatever triggers Ascension. Every time they brought him back to me, he was missing something. The nanites did what they could to repair the damage, but it was -- it was terrible. It was too much. One day. . . they didn't bring him back, and I knew, I knew they'd do that to me, next. So when it -- he -- one of them, the Asurans -- wanted a guide back to Earth. . . . "
"Freya," Brendan said. He sounded as if he were in pain, much as her sister did when she felt that Freya was manifesting schizophrenia again.
Freya sighed and let the numbers drift away. They'd served their purpose, even if they hadn't given her any answers. "He's not lying. Um. I don't understand all the stuff about other planets and robots, but it's real. As real as telepathy is," she added, because that had been a hard sell to Brendan at first. Although in his defence, he'd realised that if telepathy were real, then Freya'd been subjected to his graphic recall of having had sex the night before while high on OTC cold medicine.
Brendan had made her teach him, as best as she could, how to shield his thoughts; but Mer had no such skills. He was broadcasting memories so loudly that Freya heard them in hallucinatory detail, and she had to fight down nausea. She was remembering life in the cell, the stark white empty glare of it and the length of the hours when John was gone. She remembered that after John's eyes -- the windows of the soul -- had been gouged out, he had started talking about going home or even to Canada, about buying a house with a white picket fence. About getting a dog to take on his runs, about wearing rings and living happily ever after and buying a truck. She remembered John's hand reaching out, searching for Rodney, and she remembered taking that hand, mindful of raw, sluggishly-healing nailbeds. John's hands were always warm and dry. John talked out his dreams, and Mer loved.
"So your name is Rodney Meredith," Brendan said, and Freya caught his mental image of an interrogation room, himself on one side of the table and Mer on the other side, almost impossibly distant.
"I was copied -- cloned will do, if you want an extreme and mostly wrong gross over-simplification -- from a man named Rodney Meredith." Mer crossed his arms, nearly stabbing himself in the elbow. He stared at the knife in surprise, as if he'd forgotten he was holding it, and then he copied Freya's gesture, slicing his palm. He looked repulsed and disgusted, grimacing as blood welled up. Brendan swore and reached out, taking the knife away with a kind of Zen ease: he didn't believe that Mer would hurt him, so he was fearless -- and conversely, Mer believed that he couldn't hurt Brendan, so he was relieved, in a way, to be disarmed.
Freya was so freaked out by how perversely adorable they were even under the circumstances that she almost missed the way the cut on Mer's hand smoothed itself shut, leaving nothing but still-wet blood that he wiped on the paper towel Brendan had thrust on him. Not even a scab or scar remained.
"Okay, that's different," Brendan said, his voice low as he tried to find any mark at all on Mer's hand.
"Nanites," Mer said dismissively. "I'm new and improved. Practically indestructible."
"You lied to me," Brendan said. "From the very start, everything you said was a lie."
"Of course I lied," Mer said, with an intensity that made it seem as if he were yelling. "What kind of an idiot do you think I am? I arrived on this planet with nothing -- no name, no identification numbers, no money, not even a change of underwear from the pair I'd been wearing the entire time I'd been kept in the Asuran holding cell. The only people on this planet who would know what to do with a, a creature like me are your military. They have special weapons to kill nanite-based organisms, and as Rodney would tell you, they don't consider themselves bound by the Geneva convention as regards aliens. Should I have died? Or let them torture me? Or should I have borrowed Rodney's money just long enough to buy myself what I needed to start a new life?"
Mer slid slowly down the refrigerator, settling in a crouch with his head hanging down. "I have all of Rodney's memories, but I, personally, had never walked in Earth's sunlight a year ago. What would you have me do? If it makes any difference, absolutely nothing that I've felt here has been a lie. It's been the only truth, in fact."
"You're a security risk," Brendan said, wrapping his arms around himself. "To the country -- to the planet, as stupid as I feel saying that."
"Oh, trust me, if I wanted to kill you all I'd have done it long ago." Mer scrubbed at his face with the heel of his hand. "Destroy the world economy and let civilisation as we know it fall apart. Start a war. Appoint myself emperor. I don't want that. I just want -- I want peace. I want to be free."
"Then you shouldn't be living with someone who works with the FBI and the NSA. I have enough stress just living with another guy. I can't believe -- "
"What, that I'm an illegal alien?"
Brendan shoved away from the counter, the hurt on his face rapidly hardening into anger. "Go ahead, joke." He stalked out of the kitchen, leaving Freya shifting awkwardly from foot to foot.
"I should be going," she said, and Mer waved a hand without even looking in her direction.
"I'm going with you," Brendan shouted. She heard drawers slam, as loudly as if they'd been kicked shut. "You can drop me at a motel." He appeared in the doorway with a backpack dangling from one hand.
"Don't be stupid," Mer said, not looking up. "It's your apartment."
Brendan sucked in air through his nose; it was unattractive, Freya thought, shrugging into her coat, but she supposed it was because he was gritting his teeth so hard.
"I'm coming back," Brendan said. "And you'd better be here then so we can finish this. But if I don't get out of here, now, I don't know what I'll do. I am this --." he held his thumb barely apart from his index finer -- " close to losing it, and strangely enough I don't want to hurt you."
Mer did raise his head at that, fixing his eyes unnervingly on Brendan and saying nothing. But Freya could feel that he was already hurting, that every impatient move Brendan made to get the hell out cut Mer worse than the knife had.
"Hey," Freya said, crouching down to give Mer a hug. He didn't exactly return it, but after a moment he patted her awkwardly on the arm. "It'll be okay."
"Yeah, right," Mer said, sounding weary and unbelieving, and cold air swept in as Brendan opened the door and started down the stairs. "You should go."
Freya didn't know what she could say; she went.
She didn't catch up to Brendan until she was out on the sidewalk.
"Am I screwing up?" he asked her, radiating equal parts misery and fury.
"I'm not a fortune teller," she snapped. She shoved her hands deep in her pockets, amazed as always at the amount of junk that accumulated there. Tissues, tickets, rolls of LifeSavers, pens. "What do you want me to say?" She clenched her hand tightly around a pad of Post-It notes. "I don't think he'll be there tomorrow. It's too dangerous. All you'd have to do is make one call to the SGC and he'd be taken in. He loves you, but he's not suicidal. As far as I know."
"I've never even heard of an SGC," Brendan said. "Solar Geography? Soviet Gun Club?"
"I could tell you," Freya said, "but it's really, really classified."
"Just like the man I've been sleeping with." He sounded so bitter that Freya had to stop, because if she kept walking the cold wind against her face would make her cry again. She hated crying.
"Go home," she said. "You don't need to talk to me. Mer's a big boy. He can handle being yelled at."
"He could be a spy," Brendan said, and Freya felt his terrible fear that everything had been a lie told to manipulate him.
"I've met a lot of spies. I've developed a sort of, of feel for the kind of double-think they live with. Mer's more like -- " she tried to find a good analogy -- " like Frannie last year."
"The informant who came out of the Witness Protection Program to help on the Baker case."
"She was just as terrified that the mob would find her under her new name and destroy her new life. What she did was incredibly brave, because she did it despite that terror."
"Right," Brendan said.
"He loves you," Freya said. "I could see that even before he started leaking memories like a sieve. You two are so cute together."
"You can just shut up." Brendan swung his backpack by its straps in a wide arc. "Freya. . . "
"Go home," she told him. He gave her a miserable, resolute look, and she smiled at him. "I'll see you in the morning."
He started walking the way they'd come, slowly, his back straightening deliberately as he went, his shoulders pulling back. Freya watched until he entered his building, and then made her own way home.
Brendan didn't say anything over the next week, and Freya didn't ask. Their case imploded on Wednesday, and the tail end of the week was spent briefing the Bureau agents who would be picking up the pieces and filing paperwork to four different departments in three different federal agencies. The NSA had an unofficial rollerblade hockey team, comprised of anyone Agent Meriwether could bully into skates. To raise morale after a stressful week (she said), Agent Meriwether had reserved rink time Saturday afternoon at Irving's in Teaneck. Brendan was the first to sign up. Freya thought the exercise (and the socially-approved violence) would do him good.
She didn't sign up; she never did. Team sports weren't all that much fun to a telepath.
She called Mer Friday night and asked him out for coffee, figuring that he wouldn't be tagging along with Brendan.
She'd also figured right that Mer would know where the best coffee in New York was sold. She got to the shop late because she'd walked by it twice; Mer hadn't mentioned that the sign in the window was in Korean, or that the building she was looking for was about a yard and a half wide. Inside, there was one long counter and one empty stool next to Mer, who ordered for her (less like an overbearing boyfriend than like a child sharing something really cool). Mer didn't look nervous; he looked, actually, as if he was having a sexual experience with his coffee. But he kept talking, and talking, and occasionally darted glances Freya's way, as if measuring what kind of a threat she posed.
He introduced her to the shop owner, a woman with the strict bearing of a ballerina and a starched white apron. She studied the art of coffee making in Germany for five years Mer said, and then she moved to Brazil and ran a coffeehouse there for ten years before emigrating.
"Wow," Freya said. She wondered whether there was a clandestine coffee society, with a secret handshake and passwords. The coffee was very good, though Freya didn't commune with it on a spiritual level, like Mer did. She supposed that there wasn't coffee in outer space, and made a mental note to buy some decent stuff to keep on hand in case Mer ever came over. She doubted he'd be impressed with her usual instant crap.
"Let's go through the park," she said when they'd stumbled back out onto the sunwashed sidewalk, Mer clutching a bag of Korean candies pressed on him at the register by his friend. "We need to talk."
"No," Mer said, following her down the block and through the great iron gates. "We don't need to talk about anything."
"I'm a telepath," Freya said, and the shakiness that made her step bounce and her heart flutter wasn't entirely due to caffeine. "When I need information from a suspect or a hostile witness, I just take it. I think of it as stealing, but it's my job."
"It's a lousy job."
"You think a lot about knives. I've been thinking about Occam's Razor. Why would a highly advanced mind-reading robot need a guide to Earth when it could steal everything it needed from Rodney Meredith? His memories, his education, his knowledge of how to survive here."
"Even his face," Mer said. "When the original Rodney changed the Asuran's base code, they became able to mimic living persons, instead of just the dead."
"They?" Freya said, and stopped walking when Mer did.
"I used to get so angry at John for having no survival instincts. You'll note, he didn't survive."
Freya looked sideways at Mer, standing with his shoulders rounded, his hands shoved deep in his pockets.
"Are you threatening me, Mer?"
"The Ancients created the Asurans, but they soon learned to fear them. Asurans are subject to the law of their base code, and that code creates them as weapons. If, for the sake of argument, I were Asuran, that code would dictate that I kill you to protect myself. There wouldn't be a mark on your body -- I could even make your body disassemble entirely and steal your identity."
"Is that what you did to Rodney? Murdered him?"
"Copies were made," Mer said, as if he were angry that she could be so stupid, "of a handful of humans. Because we wanted to program ourselves with souls, we had to experiment to find out exactly what a soul was. The copies tried to escape, and were damaged. As far as I know -- I was disconnected from the collective when I was chosen to upload the consciousness of the damaged copy -- the copy of Rodney was disassembled. But some idiot could be up there populating planets with copies of him, who knows. So no, I didn't murder Rodney. I saved him." He sucked in a breath. "I did kill John, though."
Freya shook her head. "I saw your memories. I saw how you took care of John, how you talked with him. I know how much it hurt you when he was tortured."
"They had to hurt him," Mer said flatly. "That was how they brought him to the verge of Ascension, and how they brought him back. How they pared him down, trying to whittle away everything but his soul. But it became harder and harder for him to come back to a ruined body. He was coming back for me. He was enduring all that pain for me."
"He loved you."
Mer jerked his head to the side, his mouth slanting even further off level. "He loved who I was supposed to be. And -- there are things you simply don't know when you're not human. Ascension is supposed to be a place of bright freedom -- " Mer said this in a mocking sing-song that made Freya think he was quoting -- " where there's no drug-like pull to obey the base code. But John said. . . he said it was boring. He said it was running away. Souls are supposed to be liberating, but it's lonely without a collective to direct your existence. It's damned hard to be pulled by responsibilities and know that you can only try to do what's right. It's horrible to fail. And love. . . love's not supposed to hurt."
Mer glared at Freya as if she were responsible for the contradictions. "John might have been a nanite-built array of organic molecules, but he was real. He and the Rodney I replicated nearly escaped. Were nearly free. And in the end they brought him back without legs, bleeding but still half-Ascended. I was supposed to report on his condition and prepare him physically for the next session. Those were my orders, that was in my code. But instead I held him, and I kissed him -- once -- and he said please, Rodney, so I killed him. As painlessly as I could. And then I ran."
Freya didn't want to think, wanted all thought - hers, everyone's -- out of her head. She started walking again, widdershins down the path toward the duck pond. The path was gravel, the pond muddy. If the weather held, by next week it would be too warm for a coat. There were spikes of green coming up from the dirt, life re-establishing itself in the form of crabgrass. In the bright cold sunlight children ran screaming around the play equipment; mothers pushed babies, sipping inferior coffee from paper cups.
She grubbed about in her pockets for something to toss to the ducks, finally coming up with a few old graham crackers that she must have shoved in there for breakfast and forgotten, days ago. She handed one to Mer. He took it as if it might be contaminated, gingerly, between two fingers.
"Only throw small pieces," she cautioned, and demonstrated. There was an explosion of duck fury, tail feathers flying.
"I remember how to do it," Mer said, sounding sullen.
"Yes, but have you ever done this before?" She aimed for one of the smaller ducks. "Brendan doesn't seem like a feed-the-ducks kind of guy."
"Oh, and I do?" Mer's wrist snapped, and he beaned a mallard with a large chunk.
"Sorry, duck," Freya said, and put her hand on Mer's arm. "I won't lie to you. You don't want the polite social fictions, either. I don't know if it's going to be okay, for you, for any of us. My sister always says about things she can't control, well, maybe it's for the best. My sister's crazy, so maybe locking her away's for the best. It makes me furious. I believe that as long as we are alive we can change." She flipped the last crumbs onto the water, underhanded. "I believe that we have to make the best happen."
Mer held the cracker our on the palm of his hand, his fingers curled around it. As Freya watched, the cracker disappeared as if it had been absorbed.
"The ducks can't overcome their instincts," Mer said. He was shaking, very slightly. "They have to fight over the damn food, and fly south, and get shot at by hunters. It's what a duck is. A duck can't wake up one day and decide to shoot back." He took a breath. "A base code is like instinct. Mine is telling me how dangerous you are, to me." He looked at her, and the air suddenly was winter-sharp, the light like daggers, the world utterly still. "How did you know what I am? What did you see in my mind that gave me away?"
Freya rubbed her fingers along the lines of his palm, looking for the cracker. Not even a crumb remained. "There wasn't anything. Your thoughts are as human as any other's. Sorry to disappoint you. I didn't see binary code. I saw your soul."
Beneath her fingers something moved, hard and smooth, and Freya felt the ring form before it emerged from between his life line and his head line.
"I'm going to destroy the collective," he said, watching her finger the ring. It felt like gold, heavy and warm, a plain wide band that looked as if it would match Brendan's. "I'm writing a virus. I think the group consciousness suppresses awareness of individuality and responsibility. It makes the code the master. I think I can. . . change that."
Freya trusted that he knew what he was talking about. "Can you do that from here?"
Mer laughed at her. "It would take more than genius to do that. More like a miracle. I might be able to come back when it's done. I don't know." He lifted his chin, staring at the sky as if seeing great distances beyond the clouds. "Can you keep my secret for a few weeks?"
"I love Brendan too, you know." She held the ring between forefinger and thumb, peering through it like a scrying ring. "Tell him the truth before you go. That will hurt him less."
"It's the stupidest thing," Mer said, smiling and shaking his head. "I don't think I'll ever understand how it can be the right thing to do, to hurt the people you love. To be willing to be hurt to save others."
"Humans don't understand it either," Freya said. "It's getting late."
"The original Rodney Meredith's real name and address are inside the ring," Mer said abruptly. "If I don't come back."
"I hope you do," Freya said. "I like you. You're one of the good guys."
"Yeah, right," Mer said. His hands were back in his pockets again, the light from the late afternoon sun making his thin hair light up like a halo. Freya thought he looked like an angel, but didn't say so. He'd only have thought she was mocking him. Instead, she matched his pace as far as the gates, said goodbye, and watched him walk towards the subway entrance.
He turned back, once, and caught her watching him go. She waved, hoping he could see the flash of gold and sunlight on her finger.