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Primeval fic: Two Steps Back (3/3)

December 15th, 2016 (05:45 am)
complacent

feeling: complacent

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE





-o-


With the morning, came fresh dread. The news of Cutter’s death had been devastating from the start, but each passing moment in London made the absence feel even more acute. This was where so much of it had started, after all. Stephen had always thought that when he came back to London, it’d be to meet Cutter.


That wasn’t going to happen now.


Even the idea of meeting up with Connor and Abby would have been something he might have looked forward to, but under the current circumstances--


Well, Stephen wasn’t sure why he’d come back at all. Except that he knew he needed to. Running away would have been easier, but he’d taken the easy way out with Cutter too many times. He needed answers. He needed closure.


He was up and ready before Allison and even made a run down to the corner market to buy something fresh for breakfast. He was sipping on coffee, eating a piece of fruit when she finally came out of her room, hair tousled and blinking sleepily.


She poured herself a cup of coffee and snapped a banana. “No breakfast in bed?”


“I didn’t think it’d be appropriate,” Stephen said.


She grunted. “Don’t be the gentleman now,” she mumbled. “You were just scared to wake me up.”


“Well, you are grumpy in the mornings,” Stephen pointed out.


She narrowed her gaze. “Watch it,” she warned. “Or you’ll lose your chauffeur service for the day.”


“Yeah, about that,” Stephen said. “I don’t need you to drive. I can get around.”


She scoffed. “The car’s just sitting out there,” she said. “I might as well use it for something.”


“I don’t want to be a bother--”


She groaned. “It’s too early in the morning to deal with your self-deprecation. Let’s at least make it until after I’ve had a few cups of coffee before we get into that conversation.”


Stephen gave her a look. “Fine,” he said. “I’m meeting them for lunch.”


“A late lunch?”


“12:30.”


Allison nodded, humming a little. “Good,” she said, taking another long drink. “I should be awake by then.”


Stephen smirked. “Take your time.”


And he was only half-joking.


-o-


Despite his teasing, Allison was ready in plenty of time, and they navigated across town to one of the cafe’s near CMU’s campus. Stephen hadn’t visited there often, but Cutter had liked the coffee from the shop down the street so he knew where it was.


Surprisingly little had changed. A year had gone by, and Stephen still recognized all the landmarks like it had only been a few days. The minute Allison dropped him off and he stopped out of the car, his pack slung over his shoulder, he remembered being an undergrad, walking these streets and trying to find his future. He’d been uncertain if optimistic. He’d never even heard of an anomaly. He’d never met a Cutter.


He took a step, leading with his prosthetic as he stepped up on the curb. The street hadn’t changed, but he had, and he suddenly wished he’d asked Connor to meet him someplace different. Like so many things in Stephen’s life, the regret was too late. He had no choice but to live with it now.


With a steadying breath, he made his way through the crowd, navigating into the cafe. He glanced back, where Allison was still waiting at the curb. He waved to her. She hesitated, but finally nodded and pulled back. He was grateful for her support, but this much of the journey was Stephen’s.


Anxiously, his calf started to itch, and his palms were sweaty. With one last breath, he went inside.


-o-


It wasn’t hard to find them, even with the lunchtime rush at the cafe. Being around so many people made Stephen feel strangely claustrophobic -- after months around the same group of a dozen people, he’d grown used to a quieter, more isolated lifestyle. With his anxiety already running high, Stephen had to force himself to keep going, but it was all rather a moot point about a second later when Connor called, “Stephen! Hey, Stephen!”


Stephen glanced across the room to a table by the window. There was Connor at a table, chair facing the door. He was grinning widely and waving.


Next to him, Abby was perched, more withdrawn. But when Stephen looked at her, she smiled.


Swallowing, Stephen forced himself to move, walking carefully through the crowd and pulling out a chair across from his former coworkers. He put his bag down, settling in the chair with a small smile. “It’s been a while.”


“A while!” Connor exclaimed. “It’s been almost a year and a half. But you look great!”


Stephen blushed, busying himself by picking up a menu and staring at it blankly. He glanced at them, offering a small smile. “You two look good, too.”


“Not like you,” Connor continued at breakneck speed. “I mean, I can’t even tell--”


Stephen nodded, remembering the last time he’d seen Connor he’d still been trying out a much cheaper prosthetic. “Yeah, I finally got an upgraded model,” he said, sticking his foot out a little. “Honestly, I don’t think about it much.”


Connor laughed. “Only you could make losing a foot seem so awesome,” he said. He looked at Abby. “You have to admit, it’s pretty awesome.”


Abby rolled her eyes before pursing her lips and looking at Stephen. “Are you still doing the conservation work?”


“Yeah, in the Congo,” Stephen said. “I’ve probably been there six months now.”


“I read up on it a bit,” Abby said. “They’re doing remarkable work. It’s a spectacular ecosystem.”


Stephen smiled. “You’d like it,” he said. “I don’t do much with the animals, but it’s sort of hard to avoid them.”


Abby’s expression brightened. “I’ve always wanted to travel, and that’s been one of the places on the top of my list. Though I’d probably try the Amazon first.”


“I’ve heard great things about the Amazon and the work they’re doing there,” Stephen said. “My ex-girlfriend spent several years there and called them the best of her life.”


Connor’s ears perked up. “Allison?”


Stephen shifted uncomfortably, eyes diverting. “Yeah,” he said, remembering all too clearly his overtures with Abby while still technically dating Allison. “She’s the one who helped me get the job in the Congo.”


“Well,” Abby said, “Someday you’ll have to give me her number. I keep thinking that if the ARC ever gets under control--”


Connor chortled. “Like that’s ever going to happen.”


Stephen straightened. “How is the ARC?”


Connor’s humor faded and he traded a reserved look with Abby. “I’m not sure how much we can actually tell you,” Connor admitted.


“He already knows the most secret parts anyway,” Abby said.


“Things have gotten worse,” Connor blurted. He looked around, dropping his voice. “The more we learn, the less we know. We’ve been able to start tracking them now, but we can’t control them.”


“And it seems like every time we make progress, there’s all these things working against us,” Abby said. “It’s not just about the creatures anymore.”


“It’s not even about the science,” Connor said. “I mean, we’re talking about massive conspiracy theory stuff, which we probably shouldn’t even be telling you.”


“He deserves to know,” Abby said. “Especially since--”


Connor shook his head, exchanging a meaningful look with Abby.


Stephen leaned in, curiosity creasing his brow. “It’s about Cutter, isn’t it?”


Connor pressed his mouth shut, and Abby chewed her lip. “It’s Helen,” Abby finally said.


That wasn’t the answer Stephen had been expected. “Helen?”


“Ever since she disappeared through the anomaly in the Forest of Dean, she’s been more trouble than ever,” Connor continued.


“Trouble? But I thought she wanted to help,” Stephen said uncertainly.


“No, not in the slightest,” Abby said. “She kept trying to contact Cutter.”


“But then we found one of her moles,” Connor said. He leaned forward again. “Oliver Leek.”


“Lester’s right hand man?” Stephen asked, trying to make sense of the revelations.


“We stopped him before that was a problem,” Abby said. Then she faltered. “But then…”


Connor grew somber. “She came back,” he said. “She talked about the future -- one she was trying to prevent. She was willing to do anything…”


Connor trailed off, too, and a silence followed. Stephen looked from Connor to Abby, shaking his head. “Wait,” he said. “What are you saying?”


Abby couldn’t look at him now. Connor’s eyes were apologetic. “It was Helen,” he said. “Helen killed Nick.”


The frankness of it didn’t make it any easier to understand. In fact, Stephen couldn’t even begin to comprehend it. He’d come to realize Helen was manipulative -- far, far too late. He’d come to accept that she probably didn’t have anyone’s interest in mind but her own -- but not before he’d let her ruin his life. But he’d never thought of her as evil. Not even after she outed the affair. It had been obvious, then, she’d only said it to get back at Nick.


Because Helen loved Nick. That had been the point Stephen had failed to overlook in the beginning. Helen loved Nick, and Nick had loved Helen -- and Stephen was just a pawn between them. He’d spent a year trying to get away from that, for everyone’s benefit.


But if Helen had killed Nick…


Then what the hell was any of it for?


He shook his head. “That doesn’t make any sense.”


“Nothing with that woman makes sense,” Abby said, her voice rising with emotion. When she looked up, her eyes were damp. “It’s not the anomalies that are the problem. It’s her.”


Stephen still didn’t understand. “But...how?” he asked. “Why?”


“She staged a takeover of the ARC,” Connor explained quietly. “She had a clone, of all things. When Cutter tried to stop her…”


“She shot him,” Abby concluded.


Connor swallowed. “I was there with him, when he died,” he said. “I carried him out.”


Stephen’s stomach rolled and the blood drained from his head. He forced a breath out through his nose as the room began to spin. He shook his head, the denials rising in him against his will. “No,” he said. “Why didn’t someone stop her?”


“She had it all planned out,” Connor said.


“But someone should have been there,” Stephen said. “You can’t trust Cutter to go off on his own. He’s too brash and too stupid -- and far too sure of himself.”


“None of us meant for it to happen,” Connor said.


“We literally had other fires to put out,” Abby added.


Stephen breathed heavily, his palms spread on the table as he shook his head. “But someone should have been there,” he said as the emotions choked him. “I--”

I should have been there.

It was almost an irrational thought, but it was the only thing that made any sense in his mind. If he’d been there, he didn’t know what he could have done, but he could have done something. He could have talked Cutter out of taking a stupid risk; he could have gone ahead of him, just to be sure. He could have been the buffer with Helen. He would have taken the damn bullet, if he needed to.


He would have done anything to stop this.


Anything to bring Cutter back.

Anything.

“Hey,” Abby’s voice cut quietly through his thoughts. “It’s not your fault.”


He looked up, too shell shocked to speak.


“You couldn’t have known,” she continued. “None of us did.”


It was a reasonable, rational response. Normally Stephen liked reasonable, rational responses. But this...it didn’t even compute. It was one thing to lose Nick -- the anomalies made for dangerous work -- but to lose Nick to Helen.


She’d taken him once.


Now she’d taken him forever.


“His sacrifice won’t be forgotten,” Connor said. “His work -- the work we all did -- it’s still going to go on. We’re going to stop Helen. And we’re going to learn what’s causing the anomalies.”


“And we’re going to learn from it,” Abby promised him. “It’s all we can do. Just keep going.”


Just keep going.


One foot in front of the other.


Stephen had spent the last year and a half living that. Now...he didn’t know.


With difficulty, he swallowed, taking a few more breaths before he looked up. “I assume you’ve already handled all the...arrangements?”


Connor hesitated, but Abby nodded. “Yeah, his sister came down and cleaned out his house. Connor and I did most of the work at his lab,” she explained. “And the, um, service was last week.”


“Sort of awkward because we couldn’t tell anyone what really happened,” Connor said. “But a lot of people showed up.”


A lot of people, because Cutter had had friends and colleagues and family members. He’d been loved and respected. He mattered.


Stephen hadn’t been there, though.


He took a ragged breath, nodding a few times. “I meant to get in touch with him,” he said. He looked feebly at Abby and Connor. “With all of you.”


“None of us blamed you for going,” Abby said.


“I mean, we missed you,” Connor said.


“But it would be hard, I think,” Abby continued. “To keep going through anomalies after your accident.”


His foot -- it was a convenient crutch, as it were. Everyone could say Stephen Hart lost his foot and didn’t have to think that Stephen Hart slept with his best friend’s wife. It wasn’t that simple, though. Not for Cutter.


Not for Stephen.


He looked up, watching Abby and Connor for a moment. They were quiet, but closer. He couldn’t miss the way she leaned into him, the way his hand touched her leg. “You two still sticking with it then?” Stephen finally asked.


Connor nodded readily. “Yeah, at first it was all the rush, you know,” he said. “But now--”


“Now we have something to prove,” Abby concluded.


“And we’re going to do it,” Connor declared. “For Cutter.” He stopped short, glancing at Abby again. “You know, there’s still a place for you.”


“There has been all along,” Abby said. “But with everything that’s happened--”


“You’d be good at it,” Connor agreed. “A real man of action, heading up the team. We can’t replace Cutter, but with you we’d come pretty close.”


Stephen blinked. “Wait,” he said. “Are you...offering me a job?”


“It just seems like a natural thing,” Connor said. “You have the skills and the knowledge.”


“And you clearly get around well on your foot,” Abby said.


“And we missed you,” Connor said, shrugging.


“Does Lester know you’re talking to me?” Stephen asked, incredulous.


“You were the first name on his shortlist,” Abby said.


Stephen stared for a moment, and then laughed. He shook his head. “I didn’t come here for a job. I came here to pay my respects.”


“And you can,” Connor said. “And there’s no better way than to help finish what Cutter started. It’s still your team.”


Stephen shook his head again. “I don’t know about that…”


“There’s no pressure,” Abby assured him. “We’ve just -- we’ve all had a hard time, you know?”


Stephen nodded. “I can imagine.”


There was a silence, awkward and lingering.


“It is good to see you, though,” Connor added finally. “It really has been too long.”


Stephen smiled, ducking his head. “I never quite intended it that way.”


Stephen never quite intended a lot of things. That didn’t stop them from happening anyway.


“I’m sorry,” he said abruptly. “I should have -- I don’t know -- I should have emailed.”


“We’re just glad you visited,” Abby said. “You have a place to stay?”


“Yeah,” Stephen said. “Allison’s letting me stay in her flat.”


“Well, if you’d like to come over for dinner sometime,” Abby ventured.


Stephen looked at them carefully. “So you two…?”


Abby blushed.


Connor couldn’t hold back a smile. “Not all the changes have been bad since you left.”


At that, Stephen laughed. “Well, I’m glad to hear that.”


“And really, if there’s anything we can do for you,” Abby said.


Stephen turned somber, looking his friends in the eye once more. “Actually, there is one thing….”


-o-


The rest of lunch was uneventful. They talked about some of the changes, about some of the people who had been added to the team, and some who had left. Stephen told them a little more about his work in the Congo and about the way his prosthetic worked. When the conversation lulled, Stephen took the opportunity to make his exit.


Abby and Connor didn’t try to stop him, but on the street, they both hesitated.


“I don’t want this to be goodbye,” Abby said.


“It doesn’t have to be,” Stephen said. “Just because I’m not on the team doesn’t mean we can’t do better at keeping in touch.”


“You should reconsider, though,” Connor said. “The offer’s going to be open as long as the ARC is.”


“I’m not the leader type,” Stephen said.


“You’d do better than you think,” Abby said.


“Just consider it, anyway,” Connor added.


It was too awkward to say no. He changed topics instead. “Thank you,” he said. “For everything.”


“We didn’t do anything,” Abby said and then she reached out, pulling him into a hug. Connor joined in and Stephen stiffened but didn’t pull away.


These were his friends. As much a part of him as anything else. He didn’t know how to reconcile that, exactly, but denying it wouldn’t do him much good at this point.


He hugged back, offering a small squeeze. “You did more than you know.”


Pulling away, Abby smiled. “The same goes for you.”


“Feel free to email,” Stephen offered.


“We will!” Connor said.


Then, they turned, starting off the street together. Abby shoved him for a moment, before they clasped hands, bumping shoulders as they went down the street together. It was oddly hopeful. That people could still find each other and make it work. That people could still go after something and have it turn out good.


That maybe there were happy endings -- for some people, anyway.


Stephen sighed, pulling out the piece of paper from his pocket. Connor had scrawled the address there -- the site of Cutter’s grave.


There were happy endings -- for other people.


-o-


Stephen didn’t have a mobile phone, so he’d arranged for Allison to pick him up. Not knowing how long the lunch would last, Stephen found himself with some time to spend. At first, he walked a bit directionless, walking in the opposite direction as Abby and Connor out of instinct. It seemed one of the few things he was good at anymore -- walking away.


Still, when he got to the end of the block, he took a right, and after several minutes, he was back on CMU’s campus. It hadn’t been intentional, and the minute he realized it, he wanted to leave. His heart skipped a beat and his breathing heightened. This was where it had all started.


This was where he’d met Helen. Where he’d met Cutter. This was where he’d started his degree and never finished it. This was where he’d spent ten years of his life.


This was where it had began.


He could still see the lecture hall where he’d first seen Helen. Walking down another block, he could see Cutter’s lab. He could still hear Cutter’s laugh, still feel Helen’s lips pressed against his. Hell, he could probably go find the corner of the faculty access room at the library where she’d taken his clothes off and seduced him.


There was the path toward the Dean’s office, one Stephen knew well from handing in Cutter’s paperwork. And he could see every lecture hall Cutter had been assigned to, because Stephen had been there, too. He’d sat through every lecture; he’d memorized every assignment. This had been the place, after all. The place that had defined his life.


Until an anomaly opened up and Helen came out.


Until an anomaly closed and took his foot with it.


It was too easy to blame the anomalies, though. Stephen had made his choice. He’d slept with Helen. He’d stayed on as Cutter’s assistant. He’d kept the secret. And he’d been the one to go back and make sure Cutter came back. He never mentioned it, but he was the one who chose to take up the rear. He was more athletic than Cutter -- he could outrun him any day. But he’d wanted to make sure Cutter got back safely. He’d wanted to see it with his own two eyes.


He’d had his eyes so fixed on Cutter, he hadn’t even seen the damn raptor until it bit down on his foot and pulled.


There’d been a time when Stephen could never imagine leaving here.


Now, standing on one prosthetic foot, Stephen couldn’t even imagine going back.


But where else was he going to go? What else was he going to do? What else?


Stephen had probably never known -- he was just able to admit it now.


-o-


He spent most of his time a bench, watching the students come and go. He noticed some familiar members of faculty, but none of them even looked twice at him. He wondered how many of them had even known his name; he wondered how many had come to Cutter’s funeral.


He wondered if any of the students would make as many mistakes as he did.


Sighing, he pulled the paper out of his pocket, looking at the address again. Cutter wasn’t at CMU; he wasn’t even at the ARC. He was at a plot in a cemetery. He was dead.


No matter how many times he realized that, each time made less sense than before.


-o-


When Allison finally picked him up, Stephen sat heavily into the passenger’s seat. “How’d it go?” she asked, sounding somewhat apprehensive.


Stephen didn’t say anything.


Allison let the silence last for a moment. “I’m free for the day,” she said. “Is there something you want to do? Someplace you’d like to go?”


Stephen unfolded the address, but shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said.


“Anything you want, Stephen,” she offered. “It’s up to you.”


He folded the address again, pressing it into his palm as he closed his eyes and leaned back against the seat. “I just don’t know.”


-o-


With no particular input from Stephen, Allison took him back to her place. She went about her businesses, shuffling things around the flat and starting something for dinner. At one point, she went out. At another, she disappeared into her bedroom.


Stephen barely noticed.


He sat on the couch, mostly staring vacantly at the wall. In his hands, he played with the paper. But he didn’t open it. He didn’t ask Allison for a ride. He didn’t even Google the location for directions.


He didn’t do anything at all.


-o-


The next day, Allison took him on some errands. She ran into some friends, who invited them out, but Allison declined politely. At dinner that night, she finally said, “You sure there’s not something you want to do?”


Stephen felt in his pocket for the paper, and shook his head.


-o-


The third day, Stephen managed to check his email. Both Connor and Abby had sent follow up messages, and there was a third unexpected email from Jenny Lewis. She invited him in to the ARC, to talk.


Stephen sent brief messages to Abby and Connor, and then stared at the one from Jenny. After a while, he opened the one from Cutter and fell asleep in the mid-afternoon.


-o-


The next few days, Allison arranged for him to meet some of his mentors at the university. Stephen’s degree with Cutter was no more, but he was still enrolled to finish. He hardly thought himself fit, but when they asked him questions, he was able to respond. His advisor smiled at him sadly on the way out. “I was very sorry to hear about Nick Cutter,” he said. “He was a good man.”


“One of the best,” Stephen agreed numbly.


“That was one of the reasons I was so eager to take you on as a student,” he replied. “Cutter always had great things to say about you.”


Choked, Stephen thanked the man and left. He was supposed to wait for Allison, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t wait. He couldn’t do anything.


He walked the whole way back, using the spare key to let himself inside. Then, he went to the bathroom and locked the door. At the sink, he let out a desperate breath, almost choking on a sob. It threatened to shake him, and he closed his eyes, squeezing them shut in a futile attempt to purge the feelings.


He waited to cry.


He waited to break.


He waited for anything.


But nothing happened. No tears came No emotions crested.


When he opened his eyes and looked in the mirror, he was the same as he’d always been.


Stephen Hart.


There was no Cutter. There was no Helen. There was no ARC. There wasn’t even Allison and the team.


Just Stephen.


Whoever the hell that was.


-o-


After about a week, Allison finally sat down across from him, perched on the coffee table and staring him down on the couch.


“Okay,” she said.


Stephen looked at her, surprised.


“I want you to know before I say anything that I understand how hard this is for you,” she said. “And I want you to know that I will be there for you no matter what.”


Stephen didn’t even know what to say.


“But I can’t sit here and watch you do this to yourself,” she said.


“Do what?” Stephen asked.


“That’s the point,” Allison said emphatically. “Do what? You’re doing it again, Stephen. You’re sitting there in permanent limbo, too afraid to go forward or backward. And I can’t let you do that. You did it for eight years after Helen Cutter, and you’ve been doing it for the last year and a half.”


“I left after losing my foot,” Stephen protested.


“I know,” Allison said. “Which is why I was so willing to help you. I thought you were finally moving on.”


“I did,” Stephen said.


“Yeah, until Cutter emailed you out of the blue,” she said. “You were just biding your time until then.”

“That’s not fair,” Stephen said.


“It’s not about fair,” Allison said. “It’s about the truth. Come on, Stephen. You couldn’t even reply to the email. You stared at it for a month and did nothing because you’ve still been stuck this entire time.”


Stephen’s face flushed. “It was just a lot, you know?”


“I know!” she said, her frustration showing. “And I don’t begrudge you that, I really don’t. I can’t even imagine the things you’ve been through. But I can’t stand to see you do this to yourself. You’re too good of a person -- you’ve got too much to offer this world -- you can go forward, or you can go backward, but you can’t sit here and squander it.”


Ears starting to ring, Stephen blinked rapidly, looking down at his hands. “I just...I don’t know what to do,” he admitted.


“Hey,” she said, moving from the couch and sitting next to him, placing a gentle hand on his knee. “I’m not saying you have to figure it all out, but you’ve got to make the first step.”


He looked up at her. “And what step is that?” he said. “Allison, I’ve been sitting here for a week, and I don’t -- I don’t even have a clue.”


“You do,” she said, inclining her head toward his pocket. “And it starts with that.”


Stephen glanced down, his fingers numbly reaching for the address. After a week, the paper was worn, but the address was still plain enough as he unfolded it.


“It can be an ending or a beginning,” she said. “But it has to be something.”


He shook his head. “But I don’t know if I can…”


She sighed. “Well, it’s time to find out.”


Eyes looking up, he met her gaze again. “I’m scared.”


At that, she smiled. “If you haven’t noticed, most of us are,” she told him.


He looked down again.


After another moment, she sighed. “You have a few more days,” she finally said. “But then I’m going back.”


He glanced back up.


“I have a life, too,” she said. “I can’t keep mine in limbo just because you are.”


“I’m sorry,” Stephen said.


She held up her hand. “It’s no trouble,” she amended. “I’m happy to do this for you. I wouldn’t have it any other way. And if you want to come back, I already have your ticket. If you want to stay, though, you can use my flat until you get one of your own.”


It felt stupid to sit there, but there was nothing else he could do. The words were so kind they almost hurt, and he felt numb to pain.


“Stephen, I know Cutter died. I know it’s a loss I can’t possibly begin to understand. But you didn’t. You’re still here. So it’s time to live.”


She gave him a look, mixed with sympathy and determination. He wanted to look away, wanted to disappear, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t.


She squeeze his leg, eyes intent. “One way or another.”


-o-


That night, Stephen didn’t sleep. He was tired but restless, and he threw off the sheet and maneuvered himself off the couch. His prosthetic was close, but he didn’t bother to put it on. Instead, he hopped across the room, resting against the windows just outside of Allison’s dining area.


The idea was something to consider, he reckoned. Staying here. Living here. Going back to the ARC. Being part of that team again. He could do it, physically. He was in better shape than ever before, and if his shooting was a little rusty, it’d come back soon enough.


He couldn’t deny that it appealed to him. Part of him had wanted it the whole time he was gone -- and even before that. Having his place back at the ARC had been his desire from the second Helen told everyone what he’d done -- that he was a cheater and a liar -- and his entire world had been torn apart.


But it started before that, he knew. He’d lost his center the moment Helen pressed her lips against his, silencing his protest with another kiss. He’d slept with his teacher; he’d had an affair with a married woman. He’d believed he loved her, because if she didn’t…


Then, it was all for nothing.


That was the problem, though. It was for nothing. Staying with Cutter had been another penance, and he’d built a life out of guilt. There was always a Cutter at the center, and he’d never realized how far he’d let it go until it all came crashing down.


Going back to the ARC wouldn’t bring back Cutter. It also wouldn’t change what Stephen had done or who he was. It would be like strapping on a prosthetic foot every morning -- it worked pretty damn well but it wasn’t the real thing.


But was that so bad? His foot was part of him, now. The metal and plastic was just as good as flesh and bone -- only better. It didn’t bleed and it didn’t hurt. It was entirely practical, hardened and steeled, honed for the job that matter.


Wasn’t that what Stephen wanted? Wasn’t that what he’d been trying to do this whole year? Trying to hone himself, to relearn to walk -- to relearn to live.


He reached into his pocket and unfolded the address, looking it over in the dim light. He’d always been so scared. And he’d never let himself take the risks that mattered. He’d let a mistake define him, and then a lie. And then a person and a job.


There was nothing to show for that now.


He folded the paper, putting it back in the pocket as he looked into the dark street. There was nothing. But maybe tomorrow that would change.


Stephen didn’t dare hope, but couldn’t bring himself to doubt.


-o-


He was up at dawn the next morning, showered and shaved. He was packing his bag, finishing a cup of coffee when Allison came out, surprisingly dressed and ready to go.


“You’re up early,” he observed.


She suppressed a yawn. “I can do it when it matters,” she said. “Though you better have saved me some coffee.”


“You have plans today?” Stephen asked.


Pouring herself a cup, she turned to him. “Figured you’d need a ride,” she said. “It’s a haul to the cemetery.”


“Nothing worse than we’ve walked in the Congo,” he said.


“Can you even get there without taking the highway?” she asked.


“Yeah, I mapped a route,” he said. “A bit circuitous, but it should work.”


“But it’ll take you half the day,” she objected.


“Well, I didn’t have any other plans,” he said. Then he hesitated. “What time’s the flight?”


“Late,” she said. “If you’re walking, you’d have to go straight there to have any chance of making it.”


He nodded. “I can get a cab if I need to,” he said.


It was her turn to hesitate, wrapping her fingers around her steaming mug. “You think you’ll be there?”


Stephen breathed out. “I don’t know,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t have any idea what I’m going to do. I’m sort of hoping once I get there...I don’t know, it’ll work itself out.”


She nodded, taking a slow sip. “You sure you don’t want me to come?”


He shook his head. “Not that I don’t appreciate the offer, but I have to do this. Alone.”


With another drink, she looked contemplative. “Okay,” she said. “Well, the ticket will be at the airport, ready for you to pick up if you decide to come.”


“That’s good to know,” he said.


“You don’t have to call or anything, unless you need something,” she said. “If I don’t hear from you, I am getting on that plane.”


“Understood.”


“But if you need anything--


“Allison,” he said. “You said it yourself. You need to go back. You’ve done more than enough for me.”


“I just want you to know that you have people who care about you,” she said. “No strings attached. You don’t have to earn a friend. You deserve it, just because you’re you.”


It was a strange thing, unconditional love. He’d looked for it so long, and here it was -- from one person who had every reason to hate him. He’d been a bad boyfriend, and he’d been a neglectful friend for months at a time during her time in the Amazon, and yet she’d never deserted him. It was funny to think about, she was the only person in his life he’d known longer than Cutter.


She’d always been out of his league. Not just because she was beautiful, but because she was smart and good and kind. He’d failed to appreciate that until he needed someone to help him stand, and she had never wavered.


“Thank you,” he said finally. “That’s woefully insufficient, but that’s all I’ve got. I’ll never be able to repay you.”


“You never have to,” she said. “That’s the point.”


“Still,” Stephen said. “I can honestly say my life would be much worse without you.”


“Well, then, that much is my pleasure,” she said. “Though really I should be thanking you.”


Stephen tilted his head. “Why?”


She shrugged with an ambiguous smile on her lips. “Because my life would be much worse without you, too.”


Scoffing, Stephen made a face. “All I’ve done is cost you money and use up all your free time.”


“You are rather high maintenance,” she joked. “But seriously, you’ve done more than you know. I mean, just being with you -- it’s a constant reminder that life is for living. I’ve watched you learn to walk all over again. I’ve watched you start over in an entirely new place. You’ve picked up your degree after all these years. You’re doing things, Stephen, even if it doesn’t always seem like it to you. You’ve defied all your expectations and limitations. And I don’t know. After watching that, I think maybe I’m ready to do the same.”


“Somehow I think you’ll be better at it than I have been,” he said.


“At least you’ve started to try,” Allison said. “I’ve got my own issues to work out.”


“Well, if you need someone to talk about it,” Stephen began.


She grinned, winking. “Yeah, I reckon you do owe me a few.”


Gathering a breath, Stephen pulled his bag over his shoulders and finished his last drink of coffee. He looked at Allison with a nod. “I guess this is it.”


She rolled her eyes. “Don’t be so dramatic,” she said. “Whether or not you get on that plane, I do expect to be hearing from you. Soon. And regularly. Understood?”


Stephen blushed faintly.


“And I swear to God, if you get an email from me and spend a month angsting about it--”


“I won’t,” Stephen assured her.


She moved toward him, dark eyes twinkling. “You better not,” she said, pausing. She leaned up, pecking him softly on the cheek. “Whatever you decide, Stephen. Make the choice for you.”


He pressed a kiss into her cheek in return. “Don’t worry,” he said. “This time I will.”


-o-


Before his accident, Stephen had liked to run. He’d plan long, winding runs, going for miles through the city. On trips, he’d been partial to tracking, hunting low to the ground, watching for the smallest disturbances as he all but prowled through the brush, looking for his quarry. Even as a child, he’d been particularly attached to his bike, letting it take him to school, his friends’ houses, the local market and beyond.


A lot had changed since then, though. Stephen could still run and track and bike. But there was a newfound pleasure in walking.


It was steady and consistent. It was methodical and effective. He liked the feel of it. He liked the sensation of stepping, putting his foot down on solid ground and pivoting, one foot to the next. He worked hard on his gait -- those early days of therapy had been brutal -- and he’d fine-tuned his walk so that each foot moved identically. Flesh and metal, all the same.


Stephen had a perfect walk. Better than he ever had before. He’d just never paid attention before, he’d never even thought about it. And he’d never appreciated it like this.

Even now, a year and a half after he’d lost his foot, he still marveled that he could do it. An anomaly had taken his foot, but it hadn’t taken that much in the end.


Every step proved that.


Still, it was a long walk. It was a hard walk. With every step, he was less certain than the last. Because this wasn’t just about him. This wasn’t just a journey. He had a destination.


Cutter’s grave.


He’d always held out hope for Cutter, but now that Stephen was ready to go back, there was nothing left to salvage. Stephen had faced many trials, but none as hard as this.


He could turn back. He could walk to the airport right now, be waiting when Allison got there. He could work his way through the city to the ARC and take Jenny Lewis up on her offer. Those trips would be shorter -- and a lot less painful.


But he couldn’t turn back now. He wouldn’t. Even if it hurt. Even if it broke him. This was a walk he was going to finish.


One foot in front of the other. Metal or flesh, it didn’t matter.


Just one step at a time.


-o-


When he got there, it was after noon. He was tired and hungry, and he’d sweat through his shirt. His prosthetic was chafing against his calf, and the gnawing hunger in his stomach and turned into an all out ache. At the entrance to the cemetery, Stephen stopped, sitting at a bus stop while he cooled down. Taking out his bottle of water, he finished it and found himself wishing he’d brought more.


Next, he found one of the granola bars he’d taken from Allison’s kitchen. It was woefully inadequate, and he ate it in three bites. He scrunched the wrapper up, stuffing it back in his backpack before zipping it back up.


Sighing, he looked back at the cemetery. He pulled out the address again, checking the directions to the plot one last time.


He folded the address again, running his fingers over the well-worn creases. It wasn’t too late to turn back.


But then, he’d come this far.


Chewing his lip, Stephen got to his feet and kept on going.


-o-


The last leg was the hardest.


The physical exertion was manageable, but every step felt more arduous than the last. Inside, navigating the gravestones was confusing and grim, and Stephen felt nervous, treading on the dead.


Connor’s directions were good, and Stephen counted the plots and marked his movements until he was there.


The headstone was simple and mostly unadorned. Someone had put flowers on it, and the sod was freshly laid.

Nicholas Cutter
Died 2008
Beloved Scientist and Friend

It was simple and to the point. There were no frills. Cutter would have appreciated that. He wouldn’t have wanted people to be bothered by that sort of thing.


Of course, Cutter never slowed down long enough to think about that sort of thing at all. It had been Stephen’s job to handle the little things. He’d done the paperwork; he’d taken care of the details. He’d had Cutter’s back, in the office, in the field, in life.


Not in death, though.


Stephen inhaled, holding the breath tremulously. He walked so far to get here. He’d tried so hard…


For this.


A gravestone.


Cutter was nothing but a memory.


His best friend was gone.


Cutter was gone.


The loss was palpable, and it rose up in Stephen with a sudden force that he couldn’t control. It shook him, breaking through his body with a wrenching emotion that physically hurt.


The sob started in his chest, ripping through his throat until it escape. The sound was almost inhuman, and he tried to squelch it, but found he couldn’t. It rose again, and this time he shuddered with it as his eyes burned and his chest constricted.


He’d held out for so long. He’d been numb for a year and a half -- and so much before that. But it was all just a facade. It was a lie, every last bit of it. Because Stephen wasn’t strong. He wasn’t capable at all. He was a broken mess, and he had been every day since he let Helen Cutter seduce him.


And he’d lost. He’d lost Helen. He’d lost his degree. He’d lost any hope of a happy and healthy relationship. He’d lost his future. He’d lost his direction.


And then, he’d lost Cutter, too. He’d lost the man’s trust and he’s lost his right to look him in the eye. He’d lost every good thing he’d managed to scrape out for himself, until there was nothing left. Not even his damn leg.


Because he’d lost that, too. It’d been taken by a damn anomaly, disappearing into the fabric of time and space like it’d never existed at all. Stephen didn’t think much about that, but not because he was coping great. But because he didn’t even know what to make of it. He didn’t know what it meant. That part of him could be erased so easily. That part of him could just disappear. As if it’d never existed at all.


And sometimes, when he was tired and sore and lonely, he couldn’t help but wish the anomaly had taken more than that. That it’d closed before he ever had a chance to step through and just spare him the long and tiresome road to recovery.


Or whatever the hell this was.


Because Stephen had worked and he’d labored and he’d given everything, and for what? What did he have to show for it? Was he any better of than he was the day he lost his foot? Would he ever get there? What the hell was the point of fighting when the universe ripped itself apart just to destroy everything that mattered in Stephen’s life. Just to take everything good.


Stephen had lost his foot. He’d lost Cutter. He’d lost himself.


They could strap him with a prosthetic. He could visit Cutter’s grave. But he didn’t know if he’d ever find himself in any of the mess that was leftover.


Or if there was even anything left to find.


The grief was paralyzing. It was overwhelming. When it took him to his knees, he didn’t fight it. He stared at the headstone until his vision blurred and the tears came.


For the first time in a year and a half, Stephen stopped running. He faced the cold, hard truths and cried. For Cutter. For his foot.


For everything.


-o-


When the tears tapered off, Stephen was still breathing hard, his body shivering even in the afternoon sun. This wasn’t something he was used to, but then again, nothing in his life had turned out exactly as he planned it. It was mentally exhausting and emotionally wrenching, which was to say it was probably the first time he’d felt honest in years.


Because he was broken. He’d suffered loss -- in real and overwhelming ways. Cutter was just the culmination of it -- and his foot and his life in London and his entire career were all just collateral damage along the way.


Here, he had nothing left. He had no home. His past was a farce. His future was unknown. He was a man without a foot and a gaping hole inside of him where his best friend used to be. If he thought hard enough, sometimes he could almost remember what life had been like before Cutter, before everything.


It was hard, though. He’d been young and idealistic, blind and over-eager. Hell, he’d just wanted to save the world.


Funny thing, that. It was all Cutter had ever wanted, too. Stephen had largely stayed out of guilt, but Cutter’s integrity had always attracted him. Helen Cutter had made him passionate for the first time in his life. Nick Cutter…


Well, Nick had made him understand sacrifice and commitment. He’d been in love with Helen Cutter, but he’d followed Nick because he’d seen things in the other man -- things that he wanted for himself. He’d seen certainty and joy; he’d seen brilliance and instinct. He’d seen a man dedicated to his friends and his career, to scientific advancement and the world at large.


Cutter was the better man, and that was why Stephen had stayed. That was why Stephen had wanted to come back -- because being around Cutter had made him feel like a better person.


Cutter was gone now. The gravestone was a poor monument to the man, but it offered a finality Stephen couldn’t deny. It was closure.


It was goodbye.


It wasn’t Cutter. It wasn’t worth staying for. Because that wasn’t what Cutter’s legacy had been. That wasn’t what Cutter would have wanted for him, not in the end, anyway. There was a reason Cutter had let Stephen go -- the same reason Allison let him go -- because Stephen couldn’t find purpose in other people. He couldn’t save the world riding on the coattails of people he cared about. He couldn’t make up for his mistakes by forfeiting his choices.


The ARC -- that had always been about Cutter.


The Congo -- that had always been about Allison.


Stephen was grateful for both, and he knew he’d needed both, but that wasn’t all there was. That couldn’t be all there was. If Stephen wanted to honor Cutter -- if Stephen wanted to give as freely to Allison as she had given to him -- then it was time to get up.


And walk away.


He stood shakily, finding his footing on the warm sod. There were still things he wanted to say. There were apologies and explanations, regrets and forgiveness.


Ultimately, though, there was just one thing left to say. “Thank you,” he said, his voice rough and still hoarse from the tears. “Abby and Connor and the rest -- they’ll finish what you started at the ARC. As for me…”


He shuffled, swallowing hard and smiling.


“I’ll finish the rest,” he said. “I’m not sure how, but it’s about time I worked that out.”


Turning away wasn’t easy, and the first step was heavy, running so deep that it almost hurt. But there was nothing to go back to now -- and maybe there never had been. The next step was just as hard, and it took all he had in him not to turn back in guilt. Going back would be easy, after all. Finding a place with Connor and Abby; going back to Allison. Those were good things. He might like it, even.


But it wasn’t for him. It wasn’t his choice or his future. Cutter and Allison -- they were his past. He didn’t have to forget them, but walking away wasn’t an insult. There was no disrespect.


It was time for him to live. Alone and quietly. On his terms.


The next step was a little easier, and the next easier still. His stride lengthened and he held his head higher. His eyes were dry, and the tightness in his chest started to unfurl. The tension released, from his shoulders to his toes and he picked up speed, crossing through the graveyard with newfound purpose.


At the gates to the cemetery, Stephen paused briefly, looking both ways down the street. Then, with another breath, he adjusted his pack, steeled his resolve and just kept walking.