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                 Stone swam through darkness, felt invisible hands on his face, a cup at his lips, and strived to reach them. Weights held him, pulling him down into depths he feared he could not return from easily. Possibly not at all. The moment of decision upon him, he hesitated, recalling the peace of the dream. But the Goal, the redemption he’d yet to find… he could not go to meet Her without it. He could go a hero, died in the line of service to his Species, but not as a failure died on a soft couch in the arms of a girl. He fought, felt his body move and tear, and pain gave him strength to wake.

His convulsions took him off the couch and he hit the cold floor with a shock. The tearing repeated, and a wetness spread down his front onto the floor. Small hands gripped him, pulling him onto his side, and wrapped him in the fallen blanket. He shuddered still, and he heard Mike begging silently for his survival. Her fear showered him, and her desperate determination was a distraction from his own. Faced with the grain of the floor and the legs of the couch, he focused on breathing, pulling the icy air into his screaming lungs, wondering that she let it get so cold.

"I can’t kill the fever,” a soft voice whispered to him. “I know you can stop the bleeding; can you stop the fever, now that you’re awake?” Her faith was truly amazing, he thought, and hoped it was not misplaced. “I did everything I know, and if you can’t, we may have to get help. I’m afraid if we wait it out,….” She didn’t finish, unable to speak of the inevitable. He was touched, despite the pain and turned his head to peer at her. Her face was shadowed, the window at her back, and for a moment…

No. Not a moment. What he was seeing was not fever dream, not the play of light on his wearied senses. This was real. He felt his heart hammer, then pause as the understanding hit him. The face in the dream, in the tunnels, the face that thrilled, then destroyed him every night now hovered above his, anxious and despairing. This was God’s revenge. Karma beyond bearing. To not have seen before, that was understandable. But this was beyond his strength.

He did not ask how. It was not possible that this be the same person. But no other explanation came to mind. His heart began to beat again, and he took a breath, not feeling the spears that came with it. If She had lived, she would be at least eighty, right? A shriveled old woman. Not this, young, and strong, no more than twenty or so. He knew this was beyond him as he was. To live was hard enough, but to think? He needed. There was no one to assist. No one but this living memory, and that was worse than none.

Ricci. He’d never let this life touch that one, had avoided sullying it at all costs. Now he was without options. Not for the body, but the soul, he would ask for help. She would come, and she would help him understand this. Her level head had been what had attracted him to her to begin with, and she would cut through this in a moment’s time. Yes. Call Ricci.

Mike got him back on the couch, with effort, and replaced the upset patches. Stone tried to keep his eyes shut, to avoid the shudder he got every time he SAW, but could not. Having seen, he could not un-see, and his sight was dragged back to Mike’s face again and again. The differences were all in life’s wear, the shadows under the eyes, the thinness of the face. Her hair was shorter, drabber, not as full as the memory, but the set of mouth, the cheekbones under skin tight with tension as she worked on his rent flesh. A firm chin, a sharp jaw, the pieces fit together  beneath the sculptured brow, delicate but strong. Fear chewed at him, and unreasoning dread of his past, of her suddenly remembering him. Knowing it to be irrational did nothing to kill it. She looked up, and he stifled a scream he knew to be fever’s doing.

“What do I do?” she asked, her own fears more reality-based. The shift of thought left him grasping for context, as he wondered what she meant, and finally realizing she was unaware of his inner turmoils, gathered himself. This is becoming a pattern, he thought to himself; I haven’t had a clear thought since I met her, it seems. Then thought passed again, and he relied on the gift that had saved his ass so many times before.

He lashed out from deep inside, a great wave of images and need that engulfed her. She blinked at the barrage, left without thoughts of her own for several minutes, then she rose, nodding. A quick perusal of what was close, then a shuffle as she arranged for him anything he might need. A shot, a pillow, a clean blanket, and she was ready.

“You will be here when I get back, right,” she said with her face to the door. He took a second to get the meaning of it, then tried to respond. No voice was to be found, and he settled for the effortless habit. She nodded again, opened the door, but paused again at the threshold. Looking back at him, fully into his eyes for the first time since the office, she held him for a helpless moment. “You are forbidden to die here. Do you understand? I cannot move you, and there is nothing to return to now. You are forbidden to die.” There was a power there, in her words, and for a moment, he was sure he was dreaming, though he could not have said why. Then she was gone, the door sounding out heavily as it locked behind her. The feeling of dreaming lingered, and he tried to place it.

He knew that his usual nightmare had been absent, he knew he’d dreamed of his field, but beyond that, he could not say, though it seemed suddenly and desperately important. The sweat dripped and ran, distracting him, and the thought was gone. He reached for a gel pack, found an activator, and blessed it’s creator as cool seeped into his skin. A second of sense sipped in, and he wrapped it around his neck, cooling the blood rushing to his head. A pressure he’d not noticed eased, and his mind slowed a bit, clearing by degrees, so to speak.

Should he check on Mike? Would she realize she was free, and slip her bonds, running to a constable to confess her part of the crimes last night? The possibility was there; you never knew sometimes which one would have a conditioning that superseded his. And the dark spot- what lay there? The changes she underwent, from empowered problem solver to silent submissive, they meant something, assuredly. Why did she not live below, with the rest of her kind? Why this dark hidey-hole, bereft of all but the simplest expressions of self? No answers were forthcoming, and he settled for looking out of the lonesome little window across the tiny room. As the light shifted, it caught the ruined blanket, garish stains obliterating the richly colored satins. So symbolic of his effect on her life, on every life he touched. Now he would corrupt the peace he’d built for Ricci. Was the Goal worth this? 


Sir, we’re sorry to wake you, but there’s been an incident.”

“Yes Sir. It involves Project Basement -1001. We just got word from the division involved. They were not aware of the nature of the situation, and reported it as a basic data-theft.”

“They considered it a corporate sabotage job, Sir. They reported it through the regular channels, but there were a few anomalies that brought it to our attention.”

“No, Sir. The perpetrator’s M.O. is similar to a Class 3 saboteur one of our operatives has been following for many years. The subject stays out of camera view, and uses employees to gain access to high clearance areas. It is suspected that he/she has aberrant mental capabilities that allow him superior persuasive power. It has also been considered that he/she is a true clairvoyant with FULL telepathic function.”

“Yes Sir. That was my concern as well, Sir. We are attempting to track their movements now. I will need access to the full database , however, in order to utilize all our resources.”

“I understand, Sir.”

“I will be working on it while you make your decision, Sir. If I may add, Sir, I have no desire to retain the access once the Project is secured, if you do decide to open it.”

“Yes Sir.”

“I will Sir.”

“I understand fully Sir. Utmost aggression on this issue. And the safety of Project Basement 1001 is our greatest concern as well, Sir. We will get it back.”

A soft breath on the back of her neck told Mike she was not alone. She felt Stones’ presence as a pleasant warmth, like a kitten draped across her shoulders. If he was there with her, did that mean the body was growing cold on her sofa? She felt not, and hurried along the street into the waning light. She felt his surprise at the hour, and tried to tell him of his two-day rest, but had no idea how to do so without talking to herself in public. She turned away from the issue, and the conflicts it involved. Talking to oneself was impolite, therefore it was an anti-social act and undesirable. Did he feel her as she felt him? Or was he watching, separate from all but the most basic observations?

This was the place she’d seen. Up the stairs, around the corner, and knock on the door. Stone faded out, and she had a moment of panic at the implications. Then she received the words she’d need, and she breathed again. The door opened, and at first she was at a loss. Her face, aged and painted, looked back at her. Her hair was dyed a deep burgundy in this apparition, curled and falling to her shoulders. A frown met her scrutiny, and the door was closing when she finally spoke.

“Ricci?” The door paused, and the face returned, even less thrilled now than before. “He is not eating well, or dressing warmly, and he’s calling now that he needs you.” Her words had little meaning, and she felt slighted as she heard herself say them. Had she not exceeded his expectations?

The face became a body, and it dragged her inside.

“Where is he? Is he OK? What happened? What does he need,” Ricci demanded, and the Tech responded.

A quick rundown of the situation, as well as a list of necessary supplies had Ricci running for the phone, and a few minutes later, they were headed for the street again. Two stops, money exchanged hands, and they were moving again. Stone heard small bits of the conversation, and found humor at the re-emergence of the authoritative person Mike could be when needed. A shame it lasted only as long as the problem. Perhaps, when all this was done,…. If it was not necessary to end her, he would merge the two. She would be formidable and glorious if she had access to that all the time.

But it was best not to get attached. Things happen. Invariably.

Some dark shadow rose up between Stone and Mike as she and Ricci reached the alley. Limited he was, he knew, but this was a confusion to him. She was inaccessible, enveloped in the dark, it seemed, behind a wall he could not breach. The dark. This was the dark. He could not penetrate it, nor guess what would emerge. Was she slipping? He could reach Ricci from here, if he must, but he would have to remove Mike now, before the job was done. He might not die waiting for help, but he would have to steal another to replace her.

>He reached out, finding the familiar soul close by. Ricci felt him, and welcomed him fervently. Her rushing questions and need for reassurance were almost an attack in his weakened state, and for a few precious minutes, he missed the quiet, ordered precision of the mind he’d left. By the time he had her quiet, Mike was moving again, that emptiness he’d seen before leaving her. What had happened there? They were up the stairs, and at the door, and he let it go, as he had before. Too much else, and too little time. Nothing seemed changed.

Ricci’s screams were the main concern now, as she saw the bloodied furniture, clothes, ect. Lost peace, Stone thought sadly.

“It’s not as bad as it looks; he’s survived amazingly well considering,” Mike informed Ricci firmly, seizing her hands to keep them from his chest. “You will be quiet, or I will be forced to gag you. He wanted you here, but you cannot make such noise, or you will endanger our safety.” There was no stopping Ricci’s shock, though, so Mike was obliged to live up to the threat. Strong and sure again, one hand covered Ricci’s mouth, the other took her hands hostage. Eventually subdued, Ricci sat on the sad little chair at the table, conspicuously far from his side.

>The supplies were opened, and fresh anti-biotics filled his veins. A nutrient- replacement, jellied, supplemented the soup Mike fed him, and he felt his body refreshed, even as his heart died. The shock on Ricci’s face informed him of the momentous mistake he’d made sending for her. She made no attempt to aid Mike as the bandages were changed, stitches repaired, ect. Life was cold where she lived, but this was far above what she’d seen in the bar. He’d broken his promise to himself to keep this separate, even as he honored his promise to her to call if….He’d been right before.

Mike finished, and replaced the gel around his neck with a new one. The cool was delicious, the skin of his face paling as the blood slowed. The fever lessened as drugs took over the fight he’d waged, and he waited for the painkillers to lift that last burden. When he had his whole mind free to devote, he asked Mike to remove the bloodied mess he’d made of her living room. She picked up blankets and such without hesitation, while Ricci blanched. Mike glanced between the pair, and went to wash her filthied hands. She remained gone for a good while, and Stone looked for her mind, finding her intent, and was once again grateful for her knowing of what was needed.

He held out a hand to Ricci, and she looked at it as if not recognizing it. He sent a gentle wave to her, a sharing of the feelings they’d had, the power of their history together, the trust of years, and she closed her eyes, resisting. He sent his regret for bringing her, and she turned her head. Finally, he gave her his blessings to leave, without regret, and she stood. He was dust, as she took a step, but was reborn when she slowly lowered herself again, glassy-eyed and staring again.

“This is what you do?” She had no voice, but would not use the connection that they had relied on so many times. Her mind was a blank wall. He did not try to scale it, and responded in kind.

“I would never have let you see this, I tried for years to keep you in a vacuum rather than have you look like that, but things got,,,” he could find no way to finish the thought. I needed you to explain my obsession with another woman, my dearest? Who would want to hear that? But the truth of it remained, and she was here. How to start? And the age-old answer was- at the beginning.

He leaned his head back for a moment, looking at the ceiling, taken aback a moment to discover a mural. Ricci shifted, looking also, and he remembered the current need. The story. To tell it well, that would be a task, now, wouldn’t it?

He lifted his head from the padding, and took a breath in preparation. Ricci glanced back from her study of the ceiling, and waited.

“Once upon a time, there was a small boy who heard the truth in people’s souls, no matter what they said with their mouths, and he lived with his parents, who were the kind of people who thought big thoughts, felt big feelings, and knew big truths. As the boy grew, he learned that no one he knew could do this, and in time, his mother told him he had been given a great gift, and would have a great destiny to fulfill. When his parents died, as all people do, he was alone in the world, and though he was old enough to take care of himself, he was not really old enough to understand the great truths they had given him, so that the wisdom was lost.

“When he went out into the world, he found that most people did not think big thoughts, sometimes they did not think at all, letting others do the thinking for them. He thought little of them, and for a time, used his gift for foolish, selfish things. He was not a bad boy, really, and soon learned that these things gave no lasting pleasure. So he began to look for something to give him purpose. For a time, he tried to teach people that they needed to take responsibility for their own lives, but they did not listen, telling him-you are not like us. We must work for our bread, and do as we are told, or suffer. They told him to listen to those who knew best, the leaders of the people, for they had wisdom, and took care of things for all alike.

“So the boy went to the leaders, and asked them for wisdom, and looked into their hearts, and he found them to be men, doing as they liked, because they could, just as he had. And his own shame rose up, and he found hatred for these men who used their power to help no-one. So he discovered, by accident, a true evil in the world, which was growing in depth and speed.

“He decided that he would find a way to help all people rid themselves of this evil, and the burdens the leaders placed on them. He tried many things, but not enough, and the more he discovered of this corruption at the heart of things, the more he allowed his anger to rule him. In time, he let himself believe as all revolutionaries do, that to save the people from themselves, he must sacrifice some of them, even if they did not choose to be saved.

“The boy was growing taller, and stronger, and his gift grew with him. He made mistakes, and tried to learn from them, and sometimes he did. He knew his power, and learned vanity. His attempts became more violent and less caring of the lives he forfeited in the pursuit of ‘saving the world’ from the power of these men. In the meantime, the men he fought learned of him and his quest, and began to use his work for their own purposes, unknown to him. They found new ways to bend people to their will, to make them willing to give up their choice. The more the people became puppets, the harder he fought to awaken them, and the less he accomplished. He who fought to force them to think, forgot to think himself, and used blind, uncaring violence against the masses in his anger, though it never touched the ones he intended it to.

“This might have gone on forever, but finally, and again by accident, he came upon a person who reminded him to think. But so long had he been unfeeling for those he meant to save, he did not look into her soul, and so great was his vanity, that he did not think it necessary.

“There was a battle, and he almost lost. It did not occur to him to surrender, or to make peace, in his pride, and she died.” There he stopped, the reason for the story coming back to him, and he realized he could not treat this part the same. The full detail, the shame and the self-horror, as he was given back his conscience- it needed more. Ricci would think differently of him after, he had no doubt, but to understand the problem of the years that followed, she would have to have it all. If she wanted it, if she was willing. So much had been held so long,…

“Ricci, I need you for a reason. All this is nothing. A past that could die now and never matter, except the last. When I began, it was a noble idea of youth. The need is real, but I stopped working for the Ideal a long time ago. I continue now, not for humanity, but because not to finish would make all the pain I caused worthless. I need to justify my existence, to atone for my mistakes.

“People will survive or not. My ‘destiny’ may not be to save them. We’ve been killing ourselves for millennia, and if nothing else, the Planners did slow that down. But the last, the battle, that matters. I cannot explain the changes, the time and torture and guilt. It is a human thing, the last human feeling I have, sometimes. I need to share this with you. I need your understanding, your perspective. But not without your consent.

“If you refuse, if you want to go now, I swear I’ll hold nothing against you. I understand what this is like already. But I have to ask. Please. Help me understand this thing that’s killing me, while I still have some soul left to me. All the things you hate, they start there, and we may be able to live, if I can.”

She sat. Still as stone, Ricci sat and looked at him. The subtle changes of her face were unreadable, and he would not go where he was not welcome. So they sat, he waiting, she thinking. At last, she came to the couch, and found a clean spot to sit. She ran her fingertips over his battered flesh, and inspected the work done.“Who’s she?”

No point now to lie. “She’s a body with clearance to get me where I needed to be. She’s still a person, but with an altered objective. I will need her again if I want to finish what I started, and now I may have a way to. It will be over. One way or another.” There was implied promise and warning both in the statement.

“Or another.” Ricci fingered the patches again, and leaned cautiously against him. He eased an arm around her, leaning down to kiss her head. He rested his chin there, her face against his neck, reveling in the feel of her warm breath against his neck. So good, to be close,to hold and be held, when one was at low ebb. She shifted, and he caught his breath at a sudden lance inside. He compensated, and they sat a while, taking the comfort of touch, when none else was to be had.

She kissed his neck, and whispered to him. She was ready, and he slipped into her mind with the quiet joy of a homecoming. For a moment, he lingered, the safety of her a shield against what was next, then he found that place in himself where he’d buried his life and love. So hard, to open the wound on purpose, to truly feel again, after the years of feeling so little, harder still to share the lack with the one person who’d deserved feeling for, knowing her unaware of it before.

She saw, felt, remembered with him, looking into a third mind together, finding his/their own weakness reflected there. She saw both sides, and the cruelty, and the casual rape that was turned on itself. The disposal, the months of growth that followed, becoming years, gave her a new understanding, and part of her turned from him, as if finding a snake in her bed. He hurt, but forgave her, as he did not forgive himself. And when all was revealed, he returned her to her own mind, and let her go, to do or think what she would.

Again, he waited for her to respond or leave with what she’d discovered. She did not move, and he was not certain whether to be relieved or not. When she took a deep breath, he felt the cold of air on tears, and stroked her hair, fingered her face. No trace of her thought was audible, so he did not pry. She kissed his neck again, and he smiled inwardly, tension easing. He returned it, and squeezed her gingerly. She did not leave, and she did not let go.

Ricci raised her head, and gazed at him. He could not read the expression, and she looked away to the kitchen door without speaking.

“Stone,” she began, “why did you choose me? All those years, I wondered, and you never said, but I assumed there was a basic human attraction. Then we had history together, so I thought that was why you stayed. I knew you didn’t love me, not the way I did you, but I believed you felt something for me.”

She stood up, and he wanted to speak, but she continued before he knew what to say. “You do feel, but you bury it. I can understand now why, and how, but the feeling you’ve had had nothing to do with me, that’s the surprise. It’s OK, I knew it wasn’t love. I didn’t expect it to be, at this late date.”

“I don’t want you to think I was ever deceiving you, Ricquetta; you know how I feel, you can’t not know, we’ve been so close to a singe person so many times, you’ve been part of me, and vice versa. If I were going to love, if I were capable of it, you would be the only person I could conceive of loving. I feel with you, no matter what happens, and that means more than I can say. You have been the only thing keeping me human and alive for so long I couldn’t begin to tell you what I would have done without you.” He tried to rise, but the repairs were not as complete as were necessary, and he fell back cursing. She turned, and frowned at the attempt, coming back to set him upright.

“You don’t see it. Maybe when you feel a thing long enough, you stop being aware of it. Like a war wound. It aches, but you almost forget it’s there unless it rains.

“You are in love. You have been for.. God, that’s a whole different problem there, isn’t it? You’ve devoted your life to the redemption for and forgiveness of one woman. THAT is love. This feeling you have, the thing that is “killing you” is love betrayed, a love you failed. You’re in love with a dead woman you never really knew, based on her willingness to fight rather than submit. Anything you feel for me, the reason you said hello in the first place, it’s all founded on my resemblance to a woman you killed at least ninety years ago.” She had returned to the window, and studied her reflection in the panes. “You’ve taken care of me, to make up for not taking care of her. Through me, you’ve been an incredible lover, attentive, gentle, and passionate, to a body that’s been dust for decades. I have a personality that resembles hers in the one thing you had to go on, and the rest we have to hope for, don’t we?

“If she came back tomorrow, then what? You don’t know if she fought because she was brave, or just habitually a pain in the ass. Is the ‘feeling’ you have of her really her, or what you want to believe she was? Could you tell the difference?

“I know this sounds harsh. I hate hearing myself. But this is as objective as I can be. I should be grateful that I had a face that would bring you into my life, because I have enjoyed you so much… But it may take a bit to get over the idea of your making love to me, while you pretended - on some level - that I was someone else. Or vice versa. It’s hard to figure which considering there is no real HER in the mix. Just a face. I hope you thought she was beautiful? That wasn’t ‘in there’.” She looked back at him, at his lost expression, and realized he still didn’t see ‘it’. “Call her in here, would you?”

She looks like someone, that’s all. She’s a symptom. The rest is in me. My problem. You got it wrong, Ricci; my feelings for you are so separate from all this..” He wanted to explain so much, but how to say more than what a sharing could reveal? And if this is what she’d got, then what could words change?

“Your feelings for me are a direct result of this.”

“You’re. Wrong. I don’t see how you’re getting this out of what you saw, but you’re wrong. If you looked like her, I could understand you thinking it, but you don’t. I know why I said hello that first time, and why I wanted you, and why I stayed, when I never had before. Ask anything. I have answers. True, precise answers.” He shook his head, not knowing how to convince her. “This is so off the point, and time is limited. Please, can you just believe me, and look beyond this idea you have?”

Ricci stood, gazing at him, and for a moment, he wasn’t sure if she would kiss or kick him. Then she walked into the kitchen.

In the half-light from the window, Ricci saw Mike cutting vegetables, her eyes on the rhythm of the knife. The pale, thin face showed no life, and no sign that it was not alone. Ricci hesitated to speak, to break the spell might cause a startle or worse. She had never met anyone Stone had ‘changed’. The folks at the bar- he’d put a small thought in their heads, but this was different. And she was ashamed to realize she was scared. She cleared her throat, once, twice, to no visible effect.

“Excuse me,” Ricci said, in her most effective voice. The head turned, but the hands continued unerring, and the vacancy in the eyes said volumes. Ricci backed out of the door, but Mike began to blink slowly, and frowned.

“Is there something you require, Miss?” The cool polite voice was as normal as any other. Ricci started to ask her to come into the living room, but realized Stone had not named his ‘assistant’.

“We haven’t been properly introduced. I’m Riquetta. I want you to know how much I appreciate the help you’ve given Stone.” She extended a hand, trying to look casual. Proud of the fact that it didn’t shake, she attempted a warm smile to accessorize it. The politeness in Mike’s face cooled further. A hand reached out, took Ricci’s, and a smile was returned. Yet Ricci was not reassured.

“You can call me Mike.” Having said this, the hand was dropped, and the knife retrieved. “Your thanks are unnecessary. We both know how it came to be given, don’t we? Therefore it would be ludicrous to pretend.”

Ricci stood, stunned. Such an idea, that the ‘changed’ would understand the changing, … She had always assumed they would be zombies, or blissfully unaware that anything was wrong. But … “I … He’s very ……” Finally left with her mouth opening silently, she gave up.

“Was there something you needed, Ricci?” The face turned to her again, and for a second, for no real reason, a feeling of competition flitted by. This non-person knew things about Stone she’d never known. In this captured brain was the memory of his skin, and the scars she’d fingered in the dawn light. And Mike’s face was suddenly a lot more human, a lot more threatening. Mike was young. Subdued, dull, but young. And Submissive.

“Would you come in here for a moment, Hon? I need to show Stone something.” This could serve a double purpose, then.

Leading Mike into the living room, Ricci turned on the only switch she found. Soft panel lighting filled the space, and the barren walls were given a bath of warm color. Dull carpeting was shown to be a deep blue, and the ceiling mural shone with texture, begging to be admired at length. A quick flick of Mike’s wrist closed spotty curtains, and the fading light from behind revealed a jewel-toned family of paisleys. Stone looked around, surprised, and Ricci saw his smile with rising ire. This was not the time to appreciate the decor.

“Mike?” She led the younger woman to the couch, then set the chair down for her. Pulling her hair back, she clipped it there, and caught Stone’s eyes with her own as she did the same for Mike. Reaching into her purse, she got a wipe, and took off her makeup. The differences removed, she leaned over Mike’s shoulder, putting her face close for comparison.

“Stone? Can you see now?”

“I still don’t see it. It’s not there to be seen, Ricci. Please, Can we get past…” And he stopped dead, as Ricci covered her hair, and turned both faces to the side. First just a similarity of jaw, then the brow, and the pieces began to fall together as they had before, becoming a cohesive whole. The face, repeated endlessly across his eyes, turned back to burrow it’s gaze into him. Ricci loosed her hair, and Mike took it as a sign to free hers, so that he saw both faces at once, the differences become insignificant. A flood of other faces joined them, hookers he’d bought and returned to too often, girls he’d blessed with prosperity for no real reason other than a kind word, women he’d risked capture for by warning them to leave a place before the melee ensued. Why? For nothing more than a resemblance to someone he’d know less than an hour as a person. And Ricci; Ricci was so close as to be a twin. Somewhere inside, he’d seen it. And somewhere inside, he’d known to hide the seeing. And kept her.

And the man who’d walked into gunfire, and created abattoirs without blinking, fainted dead away for the first time in his long, bloody life.

Stone awoke to a much changed scene. It was obvious that there was no great love between his female companions. But a meal had been made, and Ricci ate slowly at the table, Mike was occupied at the far side of the room, preparing the small bed. He had been stretched lengthwise of the couch again, finding it less comfortable this time. Fresh gels decorated his front, and he felt achy in the small of his back. Struggling to a sitting position took a minute, and Mike was at his side the moment his head topped the arm. Ricci made it halfway across the floor, but paused when Mike reached him first.

“There is food if you think you are ready, and I have prepared the bed for your lady. If she desires to stay. I cannot recommend that you share a bed, until you are better knit, but it is of course your decision. Are you feeling better?” Mike looked into his eyes, lifting the lids, checking for fever beneath his chin. Always and ever efficient. Practical.

“What’s on the menu?” he murmured through the inspection. He could smell a warm, rich meaty something, and was informed from within that all his fondest dreams were simmering in that pot. He was also threatened by that same source with dire consequences if he should fail to retrieve a good helping or three. “Skip the menu. I’ll take it sight unseen.” Mike nodded, and was off.

Ricci came to join him, and leaned against him. “Domestic little thing, isn’t she? She ranted for a good while about ‘stresses’ and not upsetting you again after you bailed. Went to the corner market for supplies, cooked, scrubbed the floor; I don’t think she’s sat down once since I got here.” She turned his chin, and kissed him well, as Mike emerged from the kitchen. “Enjoy it while it lasts, boy. When you’re all fixed up, I got plans for you. Believe it.” He tried to smile back, and she went back to her dinner.

Mike set the tray closer, and filled it again. This time the soup was left to stand on it’s own, and the lack of additives was reassuring. She seemed to feel he was doing well on his own, apparently.

“Do you want help, or do you prefer to feed yourself?”

“I can manage. Thanks. It can’t possibly be as good as it smells, can it?” He smiled, and Mike blinked at him, blank faced. Behind her, the smile Ricci had grown at his refusal of help withered. Stone waited a moment, and tried again. “Perhaps it can. But my stomach is building expectations my mouth had better deliver. My nose has a big mouth.” Again the joke went flat. No response. This was less than her usual quiet. He frowned, and reached out, just a bit, and found walls. Mike walked back to the bad, and resumed her work.

Puzzled, he looked up to find Ricci watching him. She smiled warmly, and he tried to return it. She seemed satisfied, and he took a bite of his own dinner. It lived up to the praises his senses had sung. So they continued, in silence, until the bowl was emptied, and Mike appeared at his elbow to take it. A refill was quick coming, and then she was gone. The dynamics of the group had changed while he was out, and he wondered what had happened.

When her bowl was emptied, Ricci let Mike take it, and sat down beside Stone. “I may have some answer for the repeating face issue. Want to hear it?” He nodded, and she smiled again. “I look like my mother, and she like hers. My sister looks a lot like me, but not exactly, and a cousin I used to know looked like both of us. I have hundreds of relatives I’ve never met, but the family resemblance is strong enough that we can recognize each other as family outside of reunions. It is entirely possible that she and I are related. If a family were large enough, lots of them could be wearing the same features, and never see each other. You just happened to catch on to a dominant gene in the pool.” Her earlier irritation at the situation seemed to have passed, and she squeezed his hand. “I don’t think it goes any farther than that, Stone. You are drawn to women with a face that is passed down mother to daughter, and never knew it. So it seemed like a conspiracy, fate, karma coming to get you.”

“If that were the case, … I will have to think about that. The idea has a valid base, and would explain a lot. My obsession is my problem, but this takes a lot of the ‘mystic’ out of it.” He dropped his head back, and Ricci snugged up next to him.

“Will you be joining me in the bed, or should I head home to wait? Will you use the bed if I go, instead of this tired old couch? You can’t be comfortable.”

He considered. It had seemed softer before.

“I have no idea. I might make it over to the bed, but where will she sleep? It’s her house, and I’ve already ruined most of her furniture, a nice blanket, her rug, lost her her job,… I hate putting her out when I don’t have to.” He held her, and decided. “You would probably be safer and more comfortable at home. I should be done with my ‘repairs’ in a couple days, and I’ll be there as soon as I can travel.” Ricci hid her frown under his chin, and agreed.

When all the talk was done, Ricci went, leaving Stone with a long, heated kiss, and dire threats for not showing. Mike shook her hand, and made arrangements to bring Stone home via a safe route later. The darkness swallowed Ricci’s retreating shape as he/ Mike watched from the window, and he was tempted to call her back. It had been good to have her close, to hear sensible talk through the whirlwind. He felt immensely better, and if he were accepting her explanation too easily, who was to care? It helped. And that’s what mattered.

The Mike problem remained. The strange behavior continued, and the wall did not drop. He was loathe to pry without cause, but he wondered what had occurred during his ‘absence’ that to bring about the withdrawal. Not that she’d been loquacious, but any change he did not instigate concerned him, and it was easier to share space with a pleasant attitude. Mike was not hostile, more …absent. He could hear activity in the kitchen, and she emerged on occasion to replace this or that, but it was a ghost that moved through the apartment, without emotion or emanation. He reached, and got nothing, coming up once more against a blank nothing, stronger than most would have any reason to keep. Natural, or learned? Natural was possible, but doubtful. One in< a thousand had any wall at all, and few of those were of any real strength. Learned implied strong conditioning- a reaction to long-term abuse, or a heavy discipline.

The temptation to pry was strong, and he shifted, the guilt of thinking it pressing on his shoulders already. He would not. No cause, no leeway. But the absolute silence was eating at him, accustomed as he was to the constant whispers of thought from everywhere. Unconscious, he had not noticed the quiet, had not needed distraction or company. But he was awake. And trapped by his injuries in a small space with - to all intents and purposes- a total stranger who did not speak, and to whom he was indebted. Had Ricci said something? The equation had changed only after they had been left alone. Should he ask? But the ‘lack’ he saw in Mike did not feel like anger. Was there any point in speaking at length with Mike, considering the odds of her survival based on past experience? He did not want to get to know her. He would not want to remember her afterwards. But this was maddening.

Without a real decision, he found himself listening for her, stretching for anything that would ease the tension. And then she was at the door, towel in hand, looking at him. Caught in the act, though he couldn’t say how.

“You needed something?” Mike asked, folding the towel. She crossed the room, and checked his supplies.

“I didn’t say anything,” Stone replied, and she stopped her inventory to look at him. He looked up at her a moment, then away. The closed face was more the ‘after the quarry’ Her than before, empty with a thoughtful turn to it.

'I thought you called me.” She looked into a corner. “Are you tired? You have slept for over two hours, but I am uncertain how restful it was, based on the nature of your going, and how it offsets the prior stresses you seemed to be under. I have the bed ready, as I am sure it would be more comfortable for you, but I cannot be certain your condition is sufficiently improved for you to move.”

He shifted. The couch was uncomfortable, but sitting, here or there, was still sitting. And he was not tired enough to sleep.

“No. My repairs are going smoothly, but I’m not ready to move. Or sleep. I’m just bored. This is the longest I’ve sat still for months, and I’m achy all over from it.”vNow that she was here, he was less anxious, but felt awkward. The walls were still in place, and she was distant, leaving him groping for words.

“Are you sufficiently knit to stretch? It would help avoid future problems to move the joints and ligaments, and should ease the discomfort you are experiencing. I would recommend my helping you, to avoid your using abdominal muscles.”

It sounded reasonable. It was activity, and he nodded. Sparked by a thought, he asked “Do you have music? It would pass the time better to have something to listen to, and I can’t keep you up all hours to entertain me, can I?” Her response was to turn to the wall just beyond his head, and open a papered closet door.

“Your preferences?” She looked back to him, waiting for instruction, and he deferred to her. She turned back to the darkness, and a soft instrumental piece wafted into the room. Unusual and understated, it gave a serenity to the scene, and he was soothed in spite of himself. Mike returned to him, and took a bottle from the table. Opening it, she shook a palmful of liquid out and rubbed it between her hands to warm it. She extended the hand, and waited for his, then began working on his fingers. He sat back, uncertain what he should do with the rest of him as she slowly continued up his arm, feeling the loosening of tensions he’d not noticed. Her cool hands were good on his hot skin, though the fever had eased, so he settled for listening to the harmonies of the music. Deep horns sang mournfully in counterpoint to her fingers running deep into the muscle, oboes cajoling as she pulled at his tendons.

At his shoulder, she left off to catch his other hand, and the first whispers of her floated by, faint and secretive. He was cautious not to move to quickly as he peeked at her, finding her nodding minutely in time to the simple play of notes. Her hands continued on their own, gentle and strong, as the piece grew in complexity, and became richer. Stone heard the inner song, as somewhere deep beneath, she sang along, and he felt her carried on waves of sound, closer to being a person than he’d seen her. Emotions filled the automaton, and she forgot her company, in spirit if not in action, and her hands were a joy to him, taking out the soreness, though her thoughts were elsewhere.

Reaching the other shoulder, she turned him cautiously, and gave her ministrations there. He folded onto the pillows, feeling selfish but not willing to complain about the attention. He ‘heard’ her cringe at the red scars forming in his harshly bruised skin, and was shocked out of his reverie as her next thought flitted by.

Her instinct to kiss the hurt away was cut off by a sharp black wave, and he recognized the blackness this time. The conflict of impulse caused a shutdown, then. This was a new malady; he knew no cause or cure for it. She had not stopped moving, however. The wave had replaced the wall, but not interfered with function. Efficient. As always. It was a beginning of an explanation, but opened more questions.

“You are tensing. Are you uncomfortable? I cannot assist you if I do not know what you need,” Mike told him. Having no reply, he agreed, and she helped him stretch out at an angle along the length of the sofa, and resumed at his feet.

She had removed boots much earlier, but had left him as dressed as was practical in respect for his modesty. Now it occurred to him that she must have removed everything at one time or another to have washed out the blood. That was a sobering thought. Naked and unconscious in front of a stranger. What else had been necessary while he was out? Retro-actively embarrassed, he realized that to complete her task, she would have to re- ‘expose’ him. This time, the tension returned with a vengeance, and she looked up, an eyebrow raised.

“If you would prefer I not touch you, I can find an alternative method to ease your discomfort. I understand that you were not in a position to object earlier, but there is no need to feel obligated to continue so if it is uncomfortable for you.” She wore the waiting face again, expectantly expressionless. He wanted to explain, fearing that he would offend her, yet unable to decide how much to say, and how much to let lie.

To have had no conversation, yet have been so dependent and exposed, this was somewhat new to him. Always he had been a shadow that borrowed a ‘body’, did a job, and was gone. A few times, he’d hidden, hurt and weak after a bad bit, but left his ‘helper’ without memory, or dead by necessity. No names if he could help it. Now he was keeping a companion, for what could be days, and had exposed her to his other life. Do you re-introduce yourself, he wondered. What was the proper etiquette for this situation?

He fought to find a way to say the right thing, but what was the right thing? She’d already seen him, hadn’t she? So this was irrational, this hesitancy. She knew what she was doing, and there was no protocol or precedent to follow. She was unconcerned, and following his directive to assist. So then…

“Sorry. It’s my first time. Be gentle with me…” he tried to smile it off but decided she hadn’t seen that movie either. “Go ahead. Should I strip?” Blunt was more effective than mincing, and she began removing his clothes. He lay back, letting her work, and working on relaxing. A word spoken aloud raised the room temperature, and a quick flip of her wrist left him lying mostly in the warm air, but slightly covered by the blanket as a nod to his modesty. He closed his eyes, and she lifted his ankle.

The music had changed, become deeper, more yearning, almost strident with it’s demands. Stone listened to it call, then pause for a moment of soft pleading before it swelled again, and for a second, he saw the kitten in the grass, wanting it’s head scratched as it chewed a sandal, and then the dark hillside of his garden. Melancholy filled him, and he fought it, trying to remember how close he was to an end. Soon… Soon he would finish and then he could give in to the ache. But the horns were stilling, and he heard a calling, soft in the breeze, and … an answer. A softer sound still, it came in response to the pleading, and at his feet, Mike paused. He opened his eyes enough to see her, caught and helpless by it, her eyes also shut, small tears gleaming on her face as the note stretched out, and became harmony.

It was automatic. No thought; if he had thought, he would not have done, but he did not, and the wave went out of him before he knew he’d had such an impulse. Release the wave said. <>Free it whispered, and Mike’s face came alive as she sang along, soft and high, to the harmony. Her hands resumed, and Stone saw the person she would have been in a different life. The resemblance to the Her of his past was complete, the passions and fears and pain loosed to run. If he had ever wished once, he’d wished a million times over to have Her with him, and now…

Mike’s hands moved independent of her, yet also felt the music, slowing on his skin, moving languorously in their task. Her fingers pulled and spread, drawing out the stiffness, and Stone watched as they worked, feeling the languor creep into him, as well. She crooned, blissful and oblivious to him, harmony and comfort in the strange circumstances, the scent of the lotion a summer field. The ease and pleasure of it all pushed back the despair, and he breathed deep, letting it go. Mike reached his thigh as he gave in to the moment, and he smiled as she reached a ticklish spot.

“Careful…” he whispered, trying not to tense as she skirted the nerve cluster, deft hands moving beyond it to ease the bruised muscle above. She quirked a half- smile, hearing but not hearing, and her fingertips brushed the spot playfully but did not press. Then it was time to move to the other foot, and begin again, and the song was lighter, sweeter, the yearning not lost, but hopeful now. A few notes swept by, and he thought them familiar, but lost the thought in the cool of her hands.

So hard to stay awake, he thought. And so easy to enjoy. He let his head drop back, and looked at Mike over his nose a moment. She had tilted her head to listen better as her thumbs slid across the sole of his foot, and expressions flitted by. He let himself imagine the hair longer, fuller, and the wear of life erased from beneath her eyes- there-and the illusion was complete. Here was his Lady, smiling softly as she took away his troubles. He had such faint memory of the voice; Mike’s would do, singing him to sleep.

The spell deepened for him, as his eyelids tried to rob him of his vision, and he could begin to ‘hear’ her if he listened. Wordless, unfocused, her thoughts were a vague montage of feelings- need and pain restrained in iron cages, compassion held hostage by fear, quiet acceptance of an agonizing loneliness without end… this was the music made real, the life created by what he would destroy, it’s most extreme end. And now she was cut off, abruptly, from what little purpose she’d had, by the very person she tended with such gentleness.

>“If I had known..” he whispered, but he had, hadn’t he? Every life was real to the person living it. And he did what was necessary, despite it. She shushed him in return, and he turned to the instinctive alternative. He sent his regret, his guilt and pain at what was, and would come, as he followed the Goal onward. Breaking his own rules, because he was tired, because of a resemblance, and because she would hear him somewhere below the conscious mind, he sent.

Again she shushed him, continuing to smile softly, and he heard the music through her as a sweet pain, welcome and sad at once, and the quiet acceptance of all things flowed from her into him. Not a forgiveness, but an understanding that this IS, what will be will be, and life may or may not go on. Nothing mattered unless you allowed it to. Accept,enjoy now while now was here. The music found a high swell, and she/he held a breath while a second note found a poignant harmony, and in his dreamy state, he saw her eyes close, and her hands tightened on his thigh. Then the harmony dropped, and she/ he sighed in unison.

She moved closer to reach the next bruise, and Stone found her hands cooler than before. Or perhaps the fever was trying to return? It was good, a contrast to be relished in better circumstances, and he sighed again. Her warmth so close re-opened his eyes a moment, and he saw her at his knees, intent on her work. The pose, so reminiscent… no. Avoiding the thought, he tried to find the sleepy spell of a moment before, but the damage was done. The comfort her hands brought became something else entirely, as he felt his temperature rise with the swell of his cock. Half-awake, he tried to push her away, but his arms were leaden, and the attempt turned her gaze his way. Undone, he felt his face flush, and the motion of her hands slow.

He faced the wall. “Hand me the blanket, if you would,” he mumbled. “We should get some sleep,” knowing he would not sleep for some few hours yet, but wanting desperately not to see her seeing him. Her hands slipped away, and he waited to feel the cover across his lap. But the moment spun out and still he lay there, exposed in his dubious splendor. Finally it was too much, and he reached out, intending to spur her past the apparent shock, and help her cover him. He found -nothing. She was there, but gone; he could feel her shoulder at his thigh, but the essential self was missing. Awake at last, he turned back to her and found the memory returned to confront him in her empty face. Confusion warred with remembrance as the scene was brought full circle- him and Her, the empty shell at his knee, even the lack of expression re-created for his torment.

Pushing himself up to sit at the edge of the couch, he frowned, and snapped fingers at her, waiting for a response. None came. He reached again, and found only the blackness; it was better than nothing. Better a wall than the emptiness of….. He sat back, looking into Mike’s dead face, wearied by the turns of fate, overwhelmed by omens and shadows. And the memory lingered, returning full force as he puzzled. He groaned, knowing no way past it, and leaned to retrieve the blanket. Why did it have to be a quilt? Heavy fucker.

His hand closed around the satin at the same moment Mike began to blink, and he had pulled it toward him when she turned her head his way. Startled, his fingers slipped, and he was left eye to eye with the ghost. Not a whisper of self escaped her; only her eyes were alive, slightly narrowed, boring into his, holding him.

Mike looked at him, into him, while he tried to right himself, tracking his face as he sat back. He was trapped, unwilling to lean closer in search of cover, too aware of her to sit still long. Left without options, he would have to resort to more basic ways of solving the problem. But as he reached out to change her memory, she reached out her hand, dropping her eyes to his cock.

Motionless, he fought for breath, feeling her stroke his length with the back of a finger, the deep consideration still in her gaze. Helpless once again, Stone gripped the cushions behind him, sensation exploding beneath her touch. Ever so softly, she led lines of fire from tip to base and back, oblivious to his shock.

Frighteningly powerful need kept him speechless for long minutes, and when he breathed next, it was a gasping half-sob that lifted her eyes to his. The earlier compassion had returned, and he grasped the questing fingers tightly. Too tightly, in his attempt to do right, and Mike winced, but was silent, her sight not leaving his.

“Go to bed.” Simple to say. And an agony.

Mike frowned, her focus moving beyond him a moment, as if trying to grasp the meaning of the words. He released her hand, and it hovered where he’d left it. She did not move, and the need became a voice of it’s own, cajoling him, reminding him of the uses to which power could be put. Heat showed him the lines of her mouth, small and soft, and the voice offered him the option of her forgetting what could occur. Strength would be useless if not used NOW, so he put a hand on her shoulder to push her away.

A good idea, betrayed by the brush of her hair on his wrist. The texture, light and silken on his skin was so like Hers, and the light startle of the discovery distracted him long enough for need to have him touch it. Then he’d run his fingers through a strand of it, and it was on his palm as he immersed his hand in it.<

She did not protest, or speak, or move a inch while he stroked it, her hand still in the air between them. The unfocused gaze shifted, and she watched him fight with himself, filling his hand again, finally resting it against her nape and breathing deep to gather his resolve. And she waited. Detached and impartial.

He met her eyes a final time and opened his mouth to speak, but no words would come to him. He gave up, stretching his mind to hers to end the problem cleanly,vintending to send her to her bed, alone, and safe. He found there the music, still playing, filled with the acceptance he’d felt briefly, and vague thoughts - snatches of things said, the belief that whatever was needed should be given freely, the underlying fears of the invisible people when brought into light. All hazy, all hiding behind the calm, impassive face that betrayed nothing.

When the resolve broke, there was no single cause, and no single thought. He was sure of his purpose for one clear and shining moment, and then it was gone as sure as if it had never been. What he was lashed out, and the need defined itself in crystal edged lines- what, and how, NOW, before he could regret himself fully.

One kiss, apology and entreaty buried in it, his hand still holding her fast by the hair, then he lay back, wanting the memory, knowing it impossible. Mike sat kneeling before him as before, the pensive look returning for a time, and she paused before extending the hand he craved. Her lips parted, and he waited for words, but none came, and she touched him lightly. Her fingers traced him delicately, and a sad smile graced her mouth. Settling closer, she became grave.

“This is not a procreative act. It is unnecessary and therefore undesirable,” she intoned. Stone sought a response, but having spoken, she leaned down to kiss his cock at the base, and coherent thought left him in the surge of heat that followed. Her tongue found occupation traveling his shape, and her hands cupped him firmly to her chin.

No part of him was left wanting, the whole of his cock and balls being tended to in turn. He was lifted and pulled along by gentle caress and pressures, his hands in her hair again, on her face, pulling her close, feeling the movement of her jaw as she squeezed at him. He was young again, decades falling away to place him in his chair, and he looked at her as she worked, knowing her name, and where he was, but it meant nothing to him. This was Her. This was the dream, and the sight sent him over that final edge.

Though it was not the screaming orgasm of remembrance, the crash of sensation in his head left him spinning, and he clutched at the body before him for support as it shook him. The blankness of overload held him mindless while Mike drew out the climax, until he was left breathless and gasping his surrender. He buried his face in the silken mop he’d made of her hair, breathing in the scent of her, letting the spell pass. When he was free to think again, he pressed his lips to her crown, and stroked her smooth again, feeling every hair with fingers that hummed and twitched. Then he fell back, seeing the sad smile again, and hearing the softer, but still serious repeat of her earlier statement.

“It is unnecessary and therefore undesirable.” She stroked his shrunken part soothingly, leaning against his inner thigh. One kiss, then a second on his balls, and she stood away from him. Now she lifted the quilt he’d wanted before, and spread it over him. An adjustment of the pillows, a check of the supplies. Stone followed her movements, dazed, as she resumed her usual duties without looking at him.

Now was the time to remove the memory, while it was still in short -term storage. But he could feel the sleep creep up in him as it always did after he came, and the phrase she’d whispered stayed with him. So like the comment after he’d killed the men in the shed. Was that the new teaching? The corporate lifestyle had not erased the family, yet, but in time… Could he remove the act itself without disturbing the command sequence that governed it? How deep was it buried, how extensive was it?

He was drowsing. Thought trailed off, became a feeling of something unfinished, and he was unaware of anything beyond the discomfort of the couch. He shifted, and twisted, and hovered between states for what seemed hours. He groaned. And Mike was beside him, hands on his face, checking patches, seeking the hurt. Pills and cool gels, but it lingered, and he ‘heard’ her anxiety grow.

A soft chime sounded in the dark, repeating several times, until Mike snapped out a harsh word. Stone pulled open his eyes, confused.

“What’s going on,” he mumbled irritably. He’d yet to see her angry despite the harsh stresses of the last few days.

“I have neglected to re-set the work alarm. I apologize.” She was moving toward the closet, making changes to an unseen clock. “You should sleep. I will rectify the problem.” She spoke softly, but shortly. Stone guessed at the cause of her discomfort, and knew he should replace her memory now, before it caused her more anguish.

“Mike, come here,” he asked tiredly. She turned back to him, frowning a bit, and bent down to look at him more closely.

“What do you require? I am uncertain what else can be done to help you sleep, but I would welcome suggestions. I would prefer to avoid sedatives, but I will bring them if you request I do so.” Her face was drawn and shadowed, and he felt worse for seeing it.

“Sit down a moment. I need to ….” He left off, finding no point in finishing the thought. Better to do and have done. He made room on the couch for her, and she sat. He looked at her for a minute, trying to decide if he was up to the subtle twist it would require, when her stomach snarled.

Not a rumble. Not a growl. Loud and harsh, it filled the silence with it’s complaint, and even in the dim light, he could see her color darken. Her eyes became huge, and she stuttered out apologies again.

You okay?”

“The habits of a daily routine are hard to break, even in crisis. I should have canceled the reminder as soon as I knew my schedule had changed, but there seemed to be no time in which there was not something that needed doing.” She sounded so guilty, and Stone couldn’t grasp the cause.

“I’m missing something. I’m asking if you feel alright - Here,” and he poked lightly at her middle. “Not about the clock. I can’t see a connection. Now, are OK?” He spoke slower, hoping to focus her on the issue at hand.

“I will be fine. I have fasted before, during long projects that required an aggressive schedule, but I always disabled the sleep and meal chimes to avoid being reminded of hunger or exertion. The need for sleep is not as great, as I am generally awake during the evening and night hours, but food is not as dependent on habit, therefore it is a more easily triggered system. I regret the failing, and will be certain to take better precautions in the future.” Proffesionality to the last. “What was it you wished to discuss?”

Stone processed the new information slowly, trying to keep up and doing poorly. “Hold on. Let me make sure I understand this. You have neither eaten nor slept since I … approached you at your work?”

“I slept approximately three- fourths of my normal hours the first night due to several factors, being awake more than twenty-four hours with no prior warning under high-stress and high physical exertion. I regret not keeping better watch then, but there was little I could have done at that time beyond what had already been accomplished.”

“And beyond that?”

“I have endeavored to remain at full functioning until such time as it was no longer necessary.”

“And food…”

“ I did not think a meal break appropriate with the constancy of the requirements on my time.” She gave no indication that this was unusual to her.

Stone leaned back, remembering the comment Ricci had made to that effect. He was totally unused to such single-mindedness. It explained the shadows and irritability, though. Easily solved. And how nice to have a problem that was easy to solve for a change.

“From now on, so long as it does not endanger our lives, eat and sleep, ect., as you feel the need. Take care of yourself as well as me. Waiting will leave you weak when I need you strong, understand?” he told her firmly. “Go eat, then sleep until you wake up on your own. Is there any soup left?”

“I keep it stocked to avoid shopping. Do you want some?” She was ready to serve, and he considered, then decided there was no harm.

“If there is enough to fill you and still feed me a third helping, sounds great. Get you full first- you’re the arms and legs of this operation ‘till tomorrow at least.”

She was off, and he imagined fasting for three days and smelling the soup earlier. He shook his head. She was all work. Shame. She returned with bowls, started more music, and they ate with few words. So little time had passed, but so much happened, Stone felt it should be morning soon. With a full belly, he reclined and remembered why he was not asleep. What an awful couch. Had his been this bad?

She offered him the bed, but he was not ready to be that selfish, and sent her on. After half an hour, she got up and came back to the couch.

“You can’t sleep. What do I do? The bed would be better, and I have slept on my awful couch many times. Trade with me.” Had he said awful aloud? He couldn’t remember, and decided she would not sleep until he did, so he accepted. He was unwilling to suggest they share it the bed.

That thought reminded him of the other task, left undone and forgotten. He was sure he was not up to subtleties, and put it off.

Mike got behind him to help lift, and for a moment, he was leaning against her. So warm. And soft.

That was why the couch had felt so comfy before.

He’d paused, and she paused with him. Tired washed over him, and he sighed, seeing the bed a million miles away. She looked over his shoulder, and shifted a bit, letting him sink back further, till his head dropped onto her shoulder, and he was asleep. Cautiously pulling the quilt over them both, she rested her cheek atop his head, balanced herself around his shoulders, and slipped out of herself into that vague place he’d gone.

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