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Primeval fic: What Follows Next (1/1)

December 20th, 2017 (08:59 pm)
okay

feeling: okay

Title: What Follows Next

Disclaimer: I own nothing.

A/N: I wrote this quite some time ago, and it was beta’ed by kristen_mara. I just never got around to posting until now. This is set S1 I believe, and it fills my wild card for hc_bingo.

Summary: Cutter leads; Stephen follows. This is how they are. They work so well together this way.



-o-

It all goes according to plan.

It could be luck, or maybe they’re just getting that good. Connor knows what it is; Cutter can identify where it comes from. Stephen tracks it, and Abby manages to lure it back to the anomaly, simple as that. No one is hurt. There is minimal damage. The two blokes who saw the thing have been dealt with by Claudia. It’s a shining example of what the team can do together. Even Lester will be pleased.

Cutter doesn’t think twice when Abby says they have to lead the thing home. It’s not his first choice, necessarily, though he can’t deny that a trip through an anomaly sounds enticing. It’s a hard thing with anomalies -- to see and not touch -- and it’d be silly to say they all don’t secretly relish the chance to go through.

Still, Cutter appreciates the risks. He instructs Abby and Connor to stay before looking Stephen squarely in the eyes. “This is our part.”

Stephen smiles a little, but there’s a cold look in his eyes. If there’s something he wants to say, he’s not going to say it now. “Lead the way, then.”

Glancing back toward the creature, Cutter takes a nod from Abby. Connor looks anxious and a bit disappointed, but keeps his position next to Abby. At Cutter’s side, Stephen is taut, the gun in his hand pointed down but still ever at the ready. They’ve scanned the other side with all the equipment they have available, but there’s no guarantee what they’ll find when they actually go through.

Even if Cutter’s more than ready to find out.

He looks at the anomaly. It’s shimmering, the fractured light shining like a beacon.

Cutter steps through.

-o-

The other side is arid, and the thick heat clings to Cutter the minute he steps through. The air is thinner, and he breathes in greedily to compensate. He pauses, but Stephen’s at his back, and they move forward together, Stephen with his gun at the ready, Cutter watching as the creature tentatively walks through behind them.

Once the thing is all the way through, it seems to stop. Its defensive posture shifts, and Cutter sees recognition in its eyes. It knows its home, and it barely spares Cutter another look as it skitters off toward the nearby brush, leaving the anomaly behind.

That’s that, then.

He looks to Stephen, who is still scrutinizing the land around them. The younger man’s posture has eased, and he shakes his head. “I always knew the anomalies went to the past, but…”

It’s Cutter’s turn to smirk, glancing over the landscape and taking it in. “But it’s another thing to see it.”

Stephen shakes his head. “It’s something to study the past,” he says. “I’m not sure it’s meant to be re-lived.”

“I can see the appeal, though,” Cutter replies. “If this is what Helen discovered…”

Stephen’s stance changes, and he swallows, his gaze diverting.

Cutter’s own posture eases, and he shakes his head, turning his gaze outward again. “Just think of the things we could learn,” he says. “All the theories we could test.”

Stephen meets his gaze. “Maybe,” he says, then his eyes go to the anomaly. He nods with a sudden urgency. “But not today.”

Cutter turns, and his stomach clenches. “It’s fading,” he notes, watching as the light ebbs and flows. “Come on!”

He starts to run, and he hears Stephen doing the same behind him. It’s not far to run, and Cutter crosses the distance with ease, diving headlong through the anomaly, not sparing another look back.

When he lands on the other side, he rights himself on all fours. The air is cooler; the ground is familiar.

He chuckles with relief, pushing himself over until he’s sitting on his backside. Abby extends a hand, and he takes it, letting her help pull him to his feet. “The anomaly--” she says.

“Yeah, that was a bit close,” he observes.

Connor looks at him oddly. “But Stephen…”

Cutter’s smile fades and he pulls away from Abby, turning around. Once and then twice. “He was right behind me,” he says, looking back toward the anomaly site. “He was right there.”

Except he’s not.

Because the field is quiet and vacant, and he’s there with Abby and Connor, and Claudia has a containment zone set up a half mile away, where Ryan and his men are waiting just in case.

And everything is right, and everything went perfectly except for one small thing:

Stephen is nowhere in the last million years.

-o-

For a moment, no one does anything. Abby and Connor are too dumbfounded to act, and Cutter is seized by irrational and desperate denial. He charges back to where the anomaly used to be, staring at the air and kicking at the ground is if that could bring it back.

“No,” he says, spinning again, hoping in vain that it has just moved, that he’s been turned around, that it’ll open up again. He shakes his head, equilibrium almost failing him. “No, no, no, no.

“He was behind you?” Abby asks, her voice almost trembling.

“He was right behind me,” Cutter says. “We saw it was closing, so we started off and he was right there.”

Because that’s where Stephen always is. For the last eight years, Cutter’s counted on nothing else so solidly as that. Stephen is his right hand man; Stephen is his best friend. He trusts Stephen implicitly, and Stephen has never let him down. Cutter leads; Stephen follows. This is how they are. They work so well together this way.

And now it’s got Stephen trapped in the past.

“Well, probably not right there,” Connor amends pointlessly. “I mean, it could be worse if he were. We’ve never seen what happens when an object is only partway through an anomaly when it closes, but I can’t imagine it’s good.”

Abby turns and stares at him in horror.

Connor blushes. “I’m just saying,” he mutters.

Cutter shakes his head, turning again. “Anomalies come and go, right?” he says. “So maybe it’ll come back. The one in the Forest of Dean does. It comes back. This one will, too.”

He says it because it’s true, it has to be true. Cutter knows this, and Cutter’s never wrong, not when it counts.

And this counts.

God help him, this counts more than anything else.

Because if he’s wrong. If it doesn’t open. If he left Stephen behind….

Well, that’s just not an option.

-o-

The despair in Cutter’s gut is heavy and bitter, but he doesn’t feel it. This is how he coped with Helen’s disappearance -- mostly, he didn’t. He works through it, he puts his energy into other things, because if he tries hard enough, he can still make sense of things.

And really, the universe can have Helen. He’s fairly sure their marriage was over before she ever stepped through an anomaly. He’ll give it that.

But the universe can’t have Stephen.

Cutter’s bull-headed and stubborn, and he’s defiant and obstinate. Those are his weaknesses.

They are his strengths, too.

-o-

It doesn’t take long for the rest of the team to converge. Claudia arrives with Ryan and his special forces not far behind. They’re all used to working with few pretenses, and Cutter takes full advantage of that. He doesn’t have time to explain what happened.

Stephen doesn’t have time.

“We’ll need to set up something a bit more permanent for a perimeter,” he says. “And I want Connor to go back to the lab to gather whatever he thinks he need. We’ve got data on the how anomalies work, and I know we’ve started toying with the idea of controlling them. Now’s the time to stop playing and make it happen.”

They’re all staring at him, though, watching him like he’s crazy. Claudia is the one who finally asks the question, “But where’s Stephen?”

It’s not meant to be cruel, and Cutter thinks if he doesn’t let himself acknowledge it, then maybe it doesn’t actually feel like an accusation. He lifts his chin. “He’s on the other side of the anomaly,” he answers in a perfunctory fashion.

Claudia looks a little lost, her eyes searching the vacant field. “The anomaly is gone.”

Cutter nods tersely. “Which is why we’re not going to stop until we get it back.”

-o-

If people think he’s crazy, no one dares to question him. At this point, it’s probably not so unusual anyway. Connor disappears with Abby, and Claudia somehow finds some tents. Ryan and his men start to set things up, and within an hour, they have what passes for a command post in the field, with the would-be anomaly site at the center.

Cutter organizes and he instructs. Absently, he thinks how much he could use Stephen’s help. Claudia manages the phone calls and outside coordination well enough -- which is very good since the last thing Cutter wants to deal with is Lester right now -- but Cutter misses Stephen’s foresight on the ground. He’s got an eye for detail; he knows the things Cutter overlooks. He could make this go smoother, just by being here.

Which is, of course, the point.

It just makes Cutter work harder. He checks and double checks. He helps Connor set up the equipment and works with Abby to establish a schedule.

But mostly he stands with his eyes pointed ahead, waiting and praying for the light to bend and the anomaly to open up once more.

-o-

“It’s not so unrealistic,” Connor explains, making his way through his makeshift field lab. “I mean, the data from the Forest of Dean is pretty convincing. It opens up on and off.”

“But we haven’t seen a pattern yet,” Cutter reminds him.

“But sometimes it reopens in a matter of hours,” Abby says.

Cutter’s face darkens. “And sometimes it’s months.”

Connor twitches a little, and Abby looks down.

“That’s why monitoring isn’t good enough,” Cutter says. “We’ve already started to theorize on the electromagnet frequencies associated with anomalies. If we can somehow replicate that frequency, we can reopen the anomaly ourselves.”

Connor is thoughtful. “It is a good theory,” he agrees. “I just…”

“You’re the one who keeps insisting it’s possible,” Cutter cuts him off. “So let’s do it this time.”

Connor seems to take it as encouragement, which is good. Cutter’s not so good with inspirational speeches. There’s a reason Stephen taught most of his lectures for him, and it’s not just because Cutter is the epitome of an absent-minded professor when it comes to his work. He’s used to doing things on his own -- with Stephen.

He’s just so used to Stephen.

“Whatever you need,” Cutter says. “Tell Claudia. I don’t care what we have to promise Lester, we will get it.”

He hesitates, looking out the tent toward the vacant anomaly site. He’s not keen on making deals, especially not with the likes of Lester, but in this case, he thinks there’s probably no price too high.

-o-

Connor makes fast progress, and Abby learns to monitor the frequencies with an intense dedication. Ryan has his men on shifts, just in case, and Claudia checks in with him often.

No one questions.

No one doubts.

This is what they have to do. They’re a team, after all. It seems the rest of them have figured out in a few months what it took Cutter eight years to appreciate.

And then night falls.

-o-

The dinner hour passes, and Cutter stubbornly refuses to acknowledge it. Someone shows up with food about the time Claudia has lights ordered in. They eat together under the harsh glare, with every spotlight centered on the middle of the field.

Cutter can’t bring himself to eat. If Stephen were there, he’d make a plate for Cutter and put it in front of him, sitting down next to him with his own and waiting until Cutter took a bite. They’d eat together, usually in companionable silence.

Still together.

Tonight, Cutter wonders what Stephen will eat. When Claudia offers him some food, he just shakes his head and gets back to work.

-o-

That night, Abby falls asleep with her head against the monitor. Connor drops off mid-sentence a few times, before he tips his head forward and just goes still.

The camp is quiet, and Cutter sinks down against one of the crates, leaning his head back and staring at the sky.

Stephen would like this, he knows. Stephen always likes the simple things. He’d take a night out in the woods over a night in the lab any day. They rarely get the chance, though. Anymore, when they get to be out in the field, they’re dealing with dangerous predators and national secrets. But Stephen never complains.

That’s just not how Stephen is. It’s not who he is. Stephen’s the lab tech; Cutter’s the professor. Stephen’s the side kick; Cutter’s the superhero.

Stephen follows; Cutter leads.

After eight years, Cutter’s stopped bothering to look back.

He’s starting to think he should have. Not just this time, but all the time. What has he missed by looking forward? What has he neglected? What hasn’t he seen and what has Stephen had to sacrifice?

Stephen makes his choices.

Cutter makes his.

It’s only now that Cutter wonders how many choices Stephen made for Cutter -- and how few Cutter made for Stephen.

This is his fault.

So this is his to fix.

-o-

The next day, Cutter makes the coffee. His eyes feel scratchy, but he blinks the sleep away because he doesn’t have time for sleep -- Stephen doesn’t have time for sleep. People come and go, but Cutter refuses to leave.

More staff arrive. Connor gets more equipment. The grounds buzz with work and anticipation. This is where Cutter flourishes, under pressure. Working against a deadline gives him stamina; the looming threat of failure is the thing he needs to succeed.

This time is no different.

Cutter watches for the anomaly. Just a little longer, Stephen, he promises.

-o-

By the mid-day, Cutter is pleased with their progress. Organization isn’t his strength, but he thinks things are operating at a good efficiency. Stephen would be proud.

Of course, if Stephen were here that wouldn’t be an issue at all.

And Cutter just works harder.

-o-

He checks in with Connor, expecting good news. He hasn’t known the lad long, and he’s never been impressed with his juvenile attitude sometimes, but he sees the spark of brilliance there. It has to be harnessed and directed, but it’s there.

Cutter’s been counting on that.

“So?” Cutter asks. “Where are we at?”

Connor looks up at him. The wide-eyed promise is gone. In its place is something like desperation. He shakes his head. “I’ve tried everything.”

Cutter moves forward, looking over his work. “It’s only been a day,” he says. “You can’t have tried everything.”

“I’ve tried everything,” Connor repeats, this time sounding on the verge of despair. He runs a hand through his hair, leaving the greasy locks askew. “I mean, we both agree that the theory is sound. We should be able to recreate the frequencies needed to open an anomaly.”

“Exactly,” Cutter says. “So we just need--”

“No,” Connor interrupts. “We just need everything. I mean, think about what we’re talking about. We’re trying to single out one frequency among thousands -- millions -- an infinity. Because even if we had the hardware to open an anomaly, we need the technology to fine tune our instrumentation so far that it’s almost impossible. I mean, even the smallest error in calibration could leaves us hundreds of years off our mark--”

Connor’s monologue is starting to sound strained, and Cutter sees the signs of exhaustion. The boy has been worked hard, and he’s hardly slept or eaten. He’s young -- so very young -- and Cutter forgets sometimes that he’s really hardly more than a child who’s been dragged into all this. Cutter almost feels sorry for him -- because this is his fault, too. He’s the one who let Connor stay on the project, and even if that’s what the boy wants, it doesn’t mean it’s the best choice.

Because it’s not like Cutter’s an infallible leader.

Even so, Connor is here. He’s on edge and he’s exhausted, but he’s here and safe. And he’s Cutter’s best chance of opening up a rift in time to bring Stephen back.

“--and I still don’t know if we can stabilize the wavelength at all,” Connor continues, voice hitching a little hysterically now. His hands flail. “I mean, we have to maintain a connection, or we just run the risk of losing more people. And truthfully, we haven’t even considered the impact on the time-space continuum--”

“Connor,” Cutter interjects forcefully, making the younger man look at him again. “Can you do it or not?”

Connor stops, his face paling. His shoulders fall. “I can’t,” he says. “Maybe with enough time….”

Time. Stephen is millions of years behind them. In reality, his bones are already lost out there in the fossil record. For all Cutter knows, they’ve been excavated and examined, catalogued in the name of science.

There is no time.

He grinds his teeth together, and holds himself steady. “Keep trying,” he says, resolute and unwavering. “Don’t worry about the hardware. If you need something, we’ll get it.”

Connor nods promptly, still as ready to please as ever. But he hesitates, looking as young as he truly is. “What if we can’t?” he asks nervously. “What if we never get him back?”

Cutter’s throat tightens. It’s the question that’s nagged at the back of his mind since all this began, since he looked behind him and the one constant in his life was missing. He still has only one answer. “We will,” he says resolutely. “There’s no other option.”

-o-

As the day wears on, Cutter almost feels like this isn’t real. Stephen is always there; he’s Stephen. Cutter’s never had to look back to trust that much.

He wonders, though, if this is the only thing he’s missed.

-o-

Abby reappears after making a supply run sometime in the mid afternoon. She sees Cutter, and unloads her pack. “Any word?” she asks, and she sounds hopeful even if it’s clear she almost doesn’t trust herself with it.

For some reason, Cutter doesn’t even have the heart to look at her. He’s not sure if he wants to protect her -- or just himself. “No,” he admits, not bothering to recount the long hours of silence that have filled the makeshift camp. No signs of activity; even Connor’s frantic building of equipment has gone eerily still.

Somehow, Abby is surprised, which just makes it so much harder to take. He can only think such a response is natural, though. In their short time as a team -- and they are a team, even if they never intended to be one -- they’ve always made it work. They’ve had close calls and near-misses, but they’ve pulled through. Even when civilians have been in harm’s way; even when one of them almost dies; they still win.

It’s been a messy, haphazard sort of success, but it’s just another thing Cutter’s seemingly taken for granted.

His frustration flares. His doubts do nothing for anyone, especially Stephen. “We’re still working, though,” he says.

Abby tries to nod, and it’s not clear to Cutter if she believes him or simply wants to make him feel better by agreeing. “I just...it’s funny, you know?” she asks, glancing at him from behind her bangs. “We’ve only worked together for a few months, but it seems like more. We seem like family, though I don’t know much about any of you at all. I mean, Stephen -- I don’t know his favorite restaurant or what shows he watches. I don’t even know what music he listens to. I didn’t even know he had a girlfriend.” She tapers off, her gaze going distant as she shakes her head. “I don’t even know him at all.”

Cutter doesn’t know what to say to that, especially when he realizes that he doesn’t know either. He and Stephen have had more than months -- they’ve had eight years -- and Cutter’s never taken the time to ask such trivial questions. He’s not even sure if Stephen and Allison are actually still together. He knows she came back to visit, but he’s never thought to have a conversation about it.

Because that’s just not how it is with Stephen. Stephen is quiet and reserved and private.

Stephen is also gone, and Cutter should know. He should know who his best friend is; he should never have let the other man out of his sight. “There’s still time for that,” he finally says, a little hoarse. He lifts his gaze to look at Abby. “When we get him back.”

Her lips twitch upward in a smile. “I hope so.”

Cutter nods again. “I know so.”

-o-

Cutter can make promises. He can make bold declarations.

But when night falls on the second day, they’re still no closer to finding Stephen.

No one says anything.

No one has to.

Still, Cutter refuses to leave.

-o-

Near midnight, Claudia comes into the tent where Cutter is working with Connor. The younger man finishes off an energy drink, a stimulant that leaves eyes a little wild as he tries to get his shaking fingers to piece together an electrical circuit while Cutter works through an equation.

She stands in the entryway for a moment before she marches over and takes the tools from Connor.

“Hey!” he yelps. “I’m using that!”

“Not anymore,” she says, tucking it in her pocket. “There’s a bed over in one of the tents. You’re going to be using that for at least the next six hours.”

Connor looks dismayed, turning wide eyes toward Cutter. “But I’m not done.”

Claudia doesn’t appear to care as she forcibly pushes him out the entrance. “I don’t care,” she says. “Get some sleep or I will have you fired.”

Cutter can still hear Connor protesting, even as his voice gets further away. He decides not to look up as Claudia approaches him again. “This is getting ridiculous,” she announces.

“Stephen’s still out there,” Cutter replies.

“No, Stephen is trapped millions of years in the past,” she says bluntly.

“Which is why we can’t waste another second,” Cutter returns, his eyes flashing up toward Claudia’s.

She holds her ground. “I’m not proposing we stop,” she says. “But I am proposing that you should look carefully at your priorities. Having everyone running around, throwing themselves on their swords looks very heroic, but it doesn’t actually get us anywhere.”

“We’re all trying to do our part!” Cutter objects.

“Which means working together,” Claudia says, far too reasonably. “It’s mad, how you and Stephen act. I don’t know which one of you is worse. Loyalty is a wonderful and important thing, but he doesn’t want you to die for him any more than you want him to die for you.”

“I’m not dying here,” Cutter says.

“No, but are you willing to sacrifice the rest of your team for him?” Claudia asks. “Connor and Abby, they would do anything you tell them to.”

“For Stephen,” Cutter says.

“And this is what Stephen would want?” she asks. “Working through the night? No rest? No sleep?”

“He’s trapped in the bloody past,” Cutter snaps. “Because I went through an anomaly without looking back. What do you want me to do?”

Her expression softens. “I want you to recognize that you can’t save Stephen by killing yourself,” she says.

“He’d do it for me,” Cutter says stubbornly.

She sighs. “And he’s a bigger idiot than you are,” she acknowledges. “What you and he do -- it won’t end well. It can’t.”

She’s right, in a way. In a lot of ways. And there is a practical side of Cutter that understand. That knows.

Yet, he can’t leave.

He just can’t.

Looking Claudia in the eyes again, he shakes his head. “I can’t stop looking,” he tells her. “Don’t ask me to.”

She draws in a breath. “I wouldn’t dream of it,” she says. “Just remember that Abby and Connor and the rest -- they need their sleep, too. They’re going to take their lead from you, and you’re just as responsible for them as you are for Stephen.”

Cutter’s stomach churns, a little guilty now. “Understood.”

She smiles in earnest now. “Good,” she says. “Now can I get you anything?”

Cutter is too weary to even know how to answer that. He hasn’t thought about himself, so preoccupied with Stephen’s well being. He hasn’t thought of anything.

“Coffee, perhaps?” she asks, giving him a keen look. “It’s going to be a long night, it seems.”

Cutter grins, feeling a rush of thankfulness. “Coffee would be lovely, thank you.”

When she comes back, she has two cups. One she hands to him, the other she holds, as they work through the night.

-o-

Claudia falls asleep in the early dawn, and Cutter needs a break. He takes his cup for more coffee, but finds himself standing in the field.

It seems like another lifetime, standing here with Stephen.

This is our part,” Cutter had said.

And Stephen hadn’t missed a beat. “Lead the way, then.”

He couldn’t have known. There was no way to know. No way to think that anomaly call would be Stephen’s last. There’d be no reason to think they wouldn’t walk back through, with everything right in the world.

None of this is Cutter’s fault, and Stephen would never blame him. But Stephen would follow him anywhere, and Cutter’s always trusted that.

Maybe he’s always used it.

He’s not even sure what he’d say to Stephen if they found him.

An apology? Regret? Thankfulness?

Cutter turns away from the rising sun when he realizes he thought if for the first time.

If they find Stephen.

Somehow, the acknowledgement of the simple facts seems more damning than anything at all.

-o-

Connor wakes with energy; Abby wakes with dedication. They work hard, and Connor is almost relentless. He’s talking about what he needs, about fine-tuning the equation, about tweaking the equipment. Abby stands close and nods, and gets all the tools they need.

Cutter can’t, though. Instead, he stands out, watching in the field, remembering those days after Helen had disappeared. He’d felt so lost, then. So alone. Stephen had been there, though. Stephen had been through all of it.

Cutter used to laugh at the ideas -- the notion that Helen had thrown everything away from some far-off theory.

To think, all this time, and he’s guilty of the same.

He’s sorry, now.

He’s just not sure why.

More than that, he’s pretty sure it doesn’t change anything.

-o-

It’s been three days, and Cutter hasn’t really slept except for small snatches he just can’t account for. His body aches, and his vision is haloed. His eyes feel like sandpaper, and his mouth tastes like something foul has gone and died in there. He feels lightheaded and weak, the caffeine making him jittery on his mostly empty stomach.

He has to lean against the work table before he heads back out of the tent in search of food, and everything spins for a moment when he sees the air shift and tear in the secured grounds.

Lights flicker; something shimmers.

Cutter thinks he may be hallucinating until he sees the rip expand and burst before settling into a familiar, translucent form in the middle of the circle.

He blinks.

It’s still there.

It’s still there.

The anomaly.

A link to the past.

A link to Stephen.

-o-

The hope is like adrenaline, injected straight into his heart. If he’s tired, he no longer feels it. It doesn’t mean anything. Nothing means anything except the reality of getting Stephen back.

Frantic, he scrambles into the tent, brushing past Abby, who is drowsing next to the machine. He stands next to it, watching as the readout crackles. “Connor!” he calls. “Connor!”

That rouses Abby, who sleepily gets up next to him while Connor stumbles in. “Is that--”

“The anomaly--”

Cutter ignores them both. “Tell me the readout is the same,” he says, blinking as he tries to clear his vision. “Tell me the frequency matches.”

Connor stands there for a moment, grabbing the original readout in his hands and studying it before looking at the fresh readout. “I mean, it’s not entirely identical,” he says.

“But it’s been three days,” Cutter says. “Surely those small variations could compensate for the change.”

“Yeah,” Connor agrees. “I mean, the variations are so close that we’re generally looking at the same window, give or take a few days.”

“A few days,” Cutter says, feeling hope swell in his chest. He storms out of the tent, almost bowling over Claudia as he does.

“Cutter, what--”

Cutter waves the readout wildly. “It’s a match!” he says. “It’s a match!

Claudia blinks, turning toward the anomaly. “So you think--”

“I think that Stephen’s on the other side of the anomaly,” Cutter says definitively. “And I’m going to go get him.”

-o-

Claudia has that look on her face -- the one where she wants to tell him he’s being stupid but she’s looking for the best way to do it without insulting him -- and Cutter almost thinks it’s adorable if entirely poorly timed. Because stupid or not, he’s doing this.

He barges into the tent where Ryan and his team have the tactical gear. When he starts to rustle about for a weapon, Claudia finally objects. “You can’t just walk through without backup.”

Cutter snorts. “Since going with someone worked so well for us last time?”

Claudia gives him a long-suffering look. “We can’t send people to the past without some sort of checks and balances,” she lectures. “If we standardized our procedures a bit--”

He looks at her, still suiting up. “You sound like Stephen. Always so pragmatic.”

“Well, if only we could get him to show the same common sense when it comes to following you,” she comments.

“Look,” Cutter says. “If you want to write up a report about my failings on the initial incursion, fine. If you want me to think more carefully about how we go through anomalies, I’m definitely willing to take it under consideration at this point. But if you think I’m going to sit here and wait patiently while Stephen is in the past--”

Claudia sighs. “Of course not,” she says. “What I’m saying is take Ryan with you.” Her face reddens a bit and she shrugs uncomfortably. “And this time try to all come through together.”

Cutter can only smile at that, the subtlety of her concern. There’s something there, perhaps. Something he hasn’t felt since he first courted Helen all those years ago. Back when he’d been young and anxious; back when he believed the future was as fascinating as the past.

All the pieces are coming together, he thinks. With Claudia; with his team. Once he gets Stephen back, that is.

“Okay,” he says, giving Claudia a reaffirming nod. “But I’m leaving in two minutes. With or without Ryan.”

-o-

Ryan, fortunately, is just as prompt as Stephen is, and by the time Cutter gets out to the anomaly, the man is already there, gun at the ready. Connor and Abby linger nearby.

“Are you sure we shouldn’t come?” Connor asks.

“We can help,” Abby offers.

Cutter shakes his head. “Until we can better predict the timing of anomalies, we can’t take the risk,” he says. “Besides, we’ll only be gone a minute. No sense in getting all worked up over it.”

Connor still looks disappointed, but Abby nods. “Just bring him back.”

“Tell him I haven’t touched his iPod,” Connor rejoins.

Cutter grins. “You can tell him yourself,” he says. “As soon as we get back.”

-o-

The minute they step through, Cutter feels the shift in atmosphere. The heat is instant, and as uncomfortable as it is, Cutter finds it reassuring. He’s even more heartened when he recognizes the terrain. The open area; the wooded patch to the side.

“This is it,” he says with another good look around. “This is the right anomaly.”

Ryan turns slowly, gun up and ready. “Then where’s Hart?”

Cutter turns again, looking for any sign of life. He realizes now that he’s not sure what he expected. If he thought Stephen would still be standing there, just waiting blindly for them to come back. That wouldn’t even make sense, and if it were the case, he would have seen the anomaly and come through by now.

No, Stephen is smart. He’s practical. He’d do what he needed to survive.

It’s been three days, after all.

Cutter swallows. “Probably took up shelter nearby,” he says.

Ryan does not look particularly pleased. “All right,” he says. “Then I guess we start looking.”

-o-

Cutter’s got good instincts, but Stephen’s the tracker. Ryan is an apt stand-in, though his expertise does not seem to include animal tracking. Even so, they both notice the evidence of large creatures in the area. Ryan pauses, looking at a print. “What sort of creatures would be in this era?”

Cutter looks at the print, and thinks. “We’re early enough that most of the really big carnivores aren’t around yet,” he notes.

Ryan looks at the print, then looks at him.

Cutter shrugs feebly. “Relatively speaking anyway,” he says. He nods forward. “Those tracks look like a quadruped.”

Ryan looks unimpressed.

“Which means they’re probably herbivores,” Cutter continues. He scans the area, noting the scuffling in the dirt. There’s a trodden path, clearly visible in the brush. “This looks like a trail. It probably leads to some sort of water source.”

Ryan squints into the distance. “Hart would need water.”

Cutter nods. “But so does everything else.”

Ryan gives him a look. “What do you mean?”

“Just that watering holes are essential but dangerous,” Cutter says. “If you’re a predator, looking for an easy meal…”

Ryan understands the implication and lifts his gun back up. “Let’s hurry this up then.”

Cutter suppresses the urge to shudder. “Agreed.”

-o-

It takes some effort not to call out -- that would make it easier to find Stephen, but it would also make it easier for any predators in the area to find them. Cutter’s starting to feel anxious, but he’s not stupid.

At least, he’s not that stupid. They follow the path cautiously, and Cutter pulls them to an outcropping of rocks when they reach the crest of a hill. From here, they have a good view down into a shallow valley, where a small river is babbling, and fresh green plants line the banks.

“Definitely a main water source,” Cutter says, observing the myriad of creatures taking shelter at the shores. It’s actually a spectacular display -- Cutter can see at least half a dozen species at a glance -- but no sign of Stephen.

“If this is the closest water source to the anomaly, my money is that Hart’s not far,” Ryan says.

Cutter nods in agreement. It’s tempting to stay, in some ways. The sheer scope of what he’s seeing -- the things he could learn. He followed Connor’s crazy lead to the Forest of Dean because of Helen. But he’d stayed for this.

Yet, it’s not the most important thing. Of all the things that bothered him about Helen, her ability to put the science above the people had irked him most. She’d left Stephen for dead, and that was more damning than just about anything else she may or may not have done.

Cutter’s not going to make the same mistake.

“He’d find a good place to set up a shelter,” Cutter says. “With only three days, I imagine it’s in the area.”

Ryan nods, pointing down to a rocky ridge on the far side of the river. “Those look like caves. Easy access to the water. Not far from the anomaly.”

Cutter shakes his head. “Too obvious,” he says. “Stephen wouldn’t pick something where he’s likely to run into trouble. Those caves have probably been used by countless creatures, including some carnivores.”

Ryan turns his head. “So where then?”

Looking out again, Cutter looks beyond the caves and the river, following it to where it disappears into another spread of hills. He cranes his head, looking up and around, then along down the ridge toward the thicket of trees that runs parallel to the trail.

There’s a lot of things Cutter doesn’t know about Stephen -- too many -- but he knows this much. “There,” he says, pointing to the trees. “I think he’d go there.”

-o-

They make good time over to the trees, although Cutter feels his anxiety ratchet up as they enter the cover. It hides them from the path, perhaps -- but it hides other creatures as well. Ryan seems to share his anxiety, and presses closer, trusting Cutter to best trust his instincts.

He’s used to that, but the stakes have never felt so high. Because if he’s wrong--

Well, he can’t be wrong.

He keeps close to the ridge, because Stephen wouldn’t want to lose his line of vision. Plus, it’s a defensive position, and that would be just like Stephen.

Still, there’s not a good place for actual shelter. With enough time, Stephen might be able to build a lean-to, but in three days?

“Cutter,” Ryan calls, and Nick turns abruptly. The other man is kneeling, picking up something off the ground. He holds it up.

Cautiously, Cutter takes it. It’s nothing more than a ripped piece of cloth -- so small that it’s hard to place definitively, except for one simple truth. This is millions of years in the past. Cotton isn’t going to be invented for a few millennia.

Which means... “Stephen,” Cutter says, feeling his heart buoy. “He’s been here.”

“And here,” Ryan says, nodding to another place on the ground.

Cloth in hand, Cutter moves over to Ryan and looks down -- and just that fast, his heart plummets. Because there’s another piece of tattered cloth. This one Cutter recognizes as part of Stephen’s jacket.

It’s stained with blood.

Cutter swallows hard. “Come on,” he says. “He can’t be far now.”

-o-

He can’t be far, Cutter tells himself.

He can’t be far.

For three days, they’d been separated by millions of years. Cutter is here now. The anomaly opened, and Cutter is here.

Stephen can’t be far.

He holds that hope tight, clinging to it with staunch denial of any other possible truth.

This is his team, his project, his best friend.

This time, he’s not going back alone.

-o-

They find more pieces of tattered clothing along the path, before Cutter almost trips over a rock.

Not a rock.

He stares at it in shock.

It’s Stephen’s pack.

He looks at it, fondling a fresh tear in the fabric. One of the straps has been ripped clean off, and it’s clear that Stephen has ransacked it, seemingly in a hurry. The items missing are too purposeful to attribute to any passing creature. There are some open wrappers from an energy bar or two. The water bottle is gone, and so are Stephen’s spare weapons. There’s more blood on the pack, dried stiff and dark. The rest of the contents are scattered in a mess on the ground.

“He left in a hurry,” Cutter says, not sure what to make of that.

Ryan bends over a short distance away, picking up something else. “And he didn’t go without a fight,” he says, examining a gun and checking the clip. “It’s empty.”

Cutter’s stomach flips. “It’s not like Stephen to leave it behind,” he says. He looks down at the mess. “Or any of it.”

“Unless he was in trouble,” Ryan deduces.

Cutter shakes his head. “Stephen’s a survivor. It’s only been three days.”

Ryan puts the gun in his own pack, and shrugs cautiously, clearly not wanting to argue with Cutter. “Something happened.”

Cutter looks back at the evidence. The broken pack; the sprawled supplies; the blood.

Something has happened.

In three days.

And a million years.

He inhales deeply. “Come on,” he says, jerking his head back into the trees. “Let’s keep going.”

-o-

When Ryan spots signs of a fire, Cutter thinks that’s a good sign. When Ryan explains that it looks like the site is over a week old, Cutter doesn’t think much of it. He can’t.

All he can think is: “Stephen!”

He’s waited too long, and he can’t hold it back any longer. The risk is worth it now. Anything is worth it now. They’re so close. They’re too damn close.

“Stephen!”

He’d been so sure. About everything. So damn confident. And it’s all on edge now, this close to breaking. His heart is pounding, because Stephen.needs </i>to find.

“Stephen!”

Ryan edges closer. “Cutter,” he hisses. “Quiet--”

Cutter takes another step, ready to ignore him, Stephen’s name on his lips--

When the ground moves beneath him and he’s swept up into the air.

-o-

It takes several moments -- several long, horrible moments -- before Cutter realizes he’s not dead. He hasn’t been taken by some creature; he hasn’t been attacked by some unknown prehistoric being.

No, this is nothing prehistoric at all.

This is…

“A trap?” he asks, squirming as he tries to right himself. He’s crumpled in on himself, his gun lodged awkwardly against him.

At his back, Ryan is struggling, cursing under his breath.

A trap, Cutter thinks, trying to place it. He’s seen this before. Stephen was fond of traps; he said simpler methods were the best way of making sure the quarry was safe.

Stephen.

Ryan is flailing to get free, but Cutter turns, trying to see through the knitted vines. It’s hard to see with the leaves and the disconcerting angle at which he’s hanging, but he still sees the figure approaching him.

“Stephen,” he breathes, watching as the figure lurches forward. “Stephen!”

Stephen makes no reply, walking past Cutter to a point he can’t see. He struggles, trying to get a better look.

“Stephen!” he calls again. “Stephen!”

There’s no reply, but he feels something give a little -- and then a lot. Ryan curses again as they tumble hard to the ground.

-o-

The impact is jarring, but Cutter doesn’t have time to be disoriented. He flails blindly, shoving away the ropes and leaves until he is sitting with his head free. He turns his head frantically, looking up until he sees his friend.

“Stephen,” he says in absolute relief. “Thank God.”

Stephen stares at him for a moment, and then blinks. His forehead creases and his mouth opens as if to speak.

Before his knees give way and he promptly crumples to the ground.

-o-

For a second, Cutter doesn’t know what to do. None of it even makes sense. To think, he’d left Stephen a million years in the past three days ago, and it turns out Stephen’s still the one who found him.

Stephen’s also the one on the ground.

Ryan recovers faster, and he’s already on his knees beside the fallen man, rolling Stephen over by the time Cutter gets to his feet. When he hits the ground next to his best friend, Ryan is checking his pulse, face taut with concentration. “He’s alive,” the soldier reports. “But his pulse is fast; erratic.” He runs a hand along Stephen’s brow. “I think he’s going into shock.”

That doesn’t even make sense. Except--

Cutter looks Stephen over. His face is pale where it isn’t covered with grime or beard. It’s hard to tell exactly what it all is, but there seem to be traces of blood, including some that is dried into his greasy hair.

His clothing has fared even less well. It looks to be mostly coated in mud, and his jacket and outer shirt are gone entirely. The t-shirt has a hole on one side, and the knees of Stephen’s jean have been worn through and left fraying. His boot are caked in muck, and his knife is tied tightly into a makeshift holster at his waist.

None of that covers the obvious problems. Stephen’s forearms are scraped and bruised, with a still-healing gash hastily wrapped in a failing strip of Stephen’s jacket. The hole in Stephen’s shirt does little to conceal three jagged streaks, all red and inflamed.

“He’s been attacked,” Cutter says, almost in disbelief.

Ryan nods. “The arm suggests a defensive wound,” he says. “He put up a fight.”

“And won,” Cutter says. “The size of these tears...means it was probably not a small predator.”

“That would explain the empty gun,” Ryan says.

Cutter looks at Stephen again, his too-pale face. He reaches out tentatively, cupping Stephen’s cheek and tilting his head toward him. He’s surprised by how hollow his cheeks are, covered by the makings of a full beard. “Stephen,” he calls, more gently now. “Can you hear me?”

It’s just like Stephen -- injured as he is -- to respond. He’s never denied Cutter anything, and he doesn’t deny him this.

His eyes are bleary when they open, though, the blue too bright and muddied. He has trouble focusing, and even then, he seems to have trouble recognizing who Cutter is.

“Stephen?” Cutter asks. “You with me?”

Stephen’s brow scrunches him, and he shakes his head slightly. His mouth parts, and Cutter can see now that they’re chapped and cracked. Words don’t come.

“Stephen, what happened?” he asks.

“You left,” Stephen says, and his voice is rough and garbled. “You left and didn’t come back.”

“The anomaly closed,” Cutter explains. “But it’s only been three days.”

Stephen blinks, looking confused. He shakes his head. “More ‘n that,” he says. “Lost track of a few…”

Cutter’s disconcertion deepens. “More than three days?”

With effort, Stephen wets his lips. “Three weeks,” he breathes, his gaze going distant again. “Three weeks.”

It’s such a shock, that Cutter doesn’t even know what to do as Stephen slips from consciousness and goes lax once again. His breathing is wet and shallow, and he’s probably in shock and rife with infection.

Three days. It’s only been three days.

And a million years, give or take a few lifetimes.

Cutter grits his teeth. “Come on,” he says, working to pull Stephen up and over his shoulder. “We need to get out of here.”

-o-

This time, Cutter lets Ryan lead. The other man is better with a gun, and Cutter’s got his hands full with Stephen.

Not as full as they should be, though. He’s hauled Stephen a time or time over the last eight years, most recently when Stephen went and got himself bit by a giant, venomous centipede. Stephen’s trim and fit, but he’s not a lightweight.

At least, he wasn’t three days ago when Cutter left him here. Now, however, Stephen is noticeably lighter, and his bones protrude far more than they used to. He’s lost weight -- quite a bit of it -- and while Cutter wouldn’t call him emaciated, the man is clearly not eating well. That’s not the kind of weight you lose in three days.

Three weeks.

Cutter grimaces, and adjusts his grip, clutching Stephen’s limp wrist and thigh closer as he hauls him across the terrain, breathing hard. He’d known this was a possibility, of course. Logic necessitated such things, but he’d been so fixed on getting Stephen back that he hadn’t allowed himself to consider the implications of how.

Ryan takes them along the edge of the forest until they both recognize the opening in the trail. Ryan pauses, checking the area before leading them out into the open. The anomaly is still there, glittering invitingly, and Ryan glances back at him. “You first,” he says.

Cutter grunts, briefly using one hand to forcibly push the soldier forward. “Not this time,” he mutters as they all go through together.

-o-

Back on the other side, Cutter is greeted by cooler air. And Connor and Abby. Claudia.

It should be a relief.

But as Stephen is taken from him and laid out on the ground, swarmed by a pair of medics, it feels like anything but.

-o-

At the hospital, Cutter tries to focus on the positives. Stephen is back -- he’s really here -- and he’s safe and secure in a warm and comfortable hospitable bed. More than that, the doctors expect a full recovery.

But it is a recovery. Because Stephen is suffering from exposure and the early stages of malnutrition. He’s dehydrated and suffering from shock. He has a serious infection, though it at least isn’t systemic yet, and it seems to be responding to antibiotics. He needs time and rest, though. Lots and lots of rest.

And time.

Abby and Connor are the first ones who appear, clearly both bothered by what’s happened.

“How is he?” Abby asks.

“He’ll be okay,” Cutter tells them, because that is the point that matters.

“He looked bad,” Connor says. He falters. “Like before.”

Like with the anthropleurid. Cutter inhales, running a hand through his hair. “This isn’t as complicated at least,” he says. “He just needs to heal.”

Abby frowns. “It wasn’t three days for him, was it,” she deduces softly. “The extent of his injuries...Stephen’s too good for that.”

“And in theory, it makes sense,” Connor continues. “Small variations in the frequencies.”

“He said it’d been three weeks,” Cutter tells them.

They both fall silent, thinking about that.

Three weeks fending for himself. The gun would only be good for so long. And his knives were too small to be much more than tools or last-ditch defensive weapons. The area was hostile, with plenty of predators. Stephen would have had to find food, get water, take shelter -- all with countless other creatures vying for the same resources.

“This job really is dangerous,” Connor muses. He cocks his head. “We should get paid better.”

Abby rolls her eyes. “This isn’t about the pay,” she admonishes. “It’s about doing what we have to do.”

“Sure, but it has to be worth it,” Connor says. “I mean, I don’t fancy dying, yeah?”

Abby shakes her head. “None of us do.”

Cutter’s expression hardens. “None of us are dying,” he says curtly. “Not if I have anything to say about it.”

Connor and Abby both fall mercifully silent, looking duly chagrined. Finally, Abby ventures with a shy shrug, “Can we see him?”

Cutter sighs. “They’re still getting him settled into a room,” he says. He looks at them, both wide-eyed and expectant. They care about Stephen -- a lot. That’s another thing Cutter has taken for granted, that this is more than a group of people. This is a team. This is his team.

He’s known Stephen the longest, but sometimes it feels like he’s getting to know them all at the same time. “I’ll come back when I find something out,” he continues.

Abby nods gratefully. “And he’s really going to be okay?”

“I hope so, but really, he’s going to make this be a thing,” Connor says. “Cutter’s the leader; Abby works with animals; I, obviously, bring the brains -- and Stephen’s the one who’s always trying to get himself killed.”

Cutter huffs. “No one’s dying,” he says. “Unless you two can’t shut up. And then, I make no promises.”

-o-

It’s easy to say, but not as easy to do. Because with Abby and Connor, he still has his defenses in place. He’s still their fearless leader, incapable of failure.

But standing in Stephen’s hospital room, that seems more and more like a fallacy. The last time Stephen had been in the hospital, Cutter had been conveniently indisposed. He’d been so busy trying to save Stephen’s life that he hadn’t had to face the possibility of actually losing him. Now, that simply isn’t an option.

Because he spent three days looking for Stephen.

Three days that turned into so much more.

Now, he can’t leave.

He won’t.

Gathering himself, he steps closer, loitering next to the bed. Stephen’s been cleaned up a bit, though his hair is still a mess -- not that it makes much difference, given Stephen’s inability to brush his own hair. The blood and grime has been cleared away, leaving the bruises and abrasions more plainly visible against his sallow complexion. The beard still looks wrong, but it hasn’t been shaved, and Stephen’s tattered clothing has been replaced with a sanitary medical gown.

He’s getting oxygen through a cannula in his nose, and there’s an IV stringing from the back of his hand. The sound on his heart monitor has been turned off, but Cutter can still see the steady rise and fall of Stephen’s chest, even as his forehead glistens with sweat.

He looks ghastly, if Cutter’s being honest. He looks so far from healthy that it’s downright uncomfortable, and standing there, watching Stephen sleep, is almost voyeuristic. This isn’t what they do, after all. They talk sparsely; they don’t share their feelings. They coexist simply, and trust that the rest just doesn’t need to be said.

It’s easier that way.

Maybe not better, though. He thinks about Abby and Connor, and how much they want to be here. They’ve only known Stephen for a matter of months, and they come willingly to his side. Cutter’s been his best friend for the better part of the decade and he has no idea what he’s doing here at all.

Except this is where he belong, as far as he can tell. He’s not Helen; he can’t use people and leave them behind, hoping for the best and accepting the worst. And this is Stephen. Just because they’ve spent eight years in companionable silence doesn’t mean it has to stay that way, or even that it should. This is a new world for them -- for everyone.

The anomalies have changed everything.

Everyone.

It’s up to them to make sure that change is for the better.

Sighing, he lingers. He doesn’t know what to say, but he hope that standing close is better than nothing.

-o-

He lets Abby and Connor in briefly, but then makes a fuss about Stephen needing his rest. They retreat reluctantly when Cutter forcibly guides them out, and Cutter’s on his way back to the room when he sees Claudia.

She smiles, and he notices just how worn she looks. “A happy ending after all,” she says. “The doctors are quite optimistic.”

Cutter manages to smile back. “Seems like we cut it rather close this time.”

She doesn’t deny it. “Unfortunately, that may be the nature of our job.”

“You’re the one who’s always telling us to be more careful,” Cutter points out.

“Only because I know there are so many elements we can’t control,” she says. “It only makes things worse when people are reckless.”

“Stephen’s not reckless,” Cutter replies.

Claudia arches her eyebrows. “He did defy orders and go back in to an infested and uncontrolled anomaly site, where he almost got himself killed.”

“He did it for a good reason,” Cutter says.

“And I’m not just talking about him,” she continues. “What about you? Asking an angry centipede to bite you? And then charging back through time to find him?”

Cutter feels his cheeks start to burn. “I wasn’t about to let anything happen to him.”

Claudia’s look is knowing. “Funny,” she says. “He said the same thing about you.”

The flush builds in his cheeks, and he has no reply.

Her expression turns a bit more gentle. “It’s respectable, really,” she says. “And the makings of a good team. I just don’t know what you’ll do when you two run out of ways to save each other’s lives.”

“It won’t happen,” Cutter replies promptly.

“I hope so,” Claudia says. She smiles, but there’s still a trace of doubt in her eyes. “I really do.”

Claudia’s not the only one.

-o-

Cutter stays for the rest of the day. Claudia had been kind enough to bring him a spare outfit, and the nurses take pity on him and get him some food from the cafeteria. He sleeps awkwardly in a chair by Stephen’s bedside, and in the morning, his neck hurts so bad that he almost can’t move. He’s attempting to stretch it when he looks at the bed.

Where Stephen is looking back.

For a moment, they sit like that, eyes locked, neither sure what to say.

Cutter is practically gaping. “Stephen.”

Stephen frowns back. “Cutter.”

His voice is thinner than usual, but the guarded tone is familiar.

Cutter blinks a few times, before he asks, “How do you feel?”

It’s not a brilliant question. Stephen’s been fever-ridden and malnourished. He’s not going to feel well.

“Like I tried -- and succeeded -- to eat a desert,” he quips, swallowing forcibly. He winces. “Is there something to drink?”

Cutter startles a bit, before he remembers that yes, of course there’s water. There’s an entire damn pitcher at the bedside, complete with a cup and a straw. He fumbles to get some, uncertainly holding out the cup, not sure if Stephen needs help or not.

It’s a slow process, but Stephen eventually sits up, propping himself up a bit more. His hands are shaky as he reaches for the cup, but he takes it and drinks of his own power. After a sip, he eyes Cutter warily. “What happened?”

“You passed out,” Cutter says. “But before that, I was hoping you could fill me in.”

Stephen looks away, taking another drink. He holds the cup, eyeing it thoughtfully. “Nothing too particular, really,” he says. “What you’d expect for a prehistoric landscape.”

The description is decidedly underwhelming. Cutter shakes his head. “You said three weeks?”

Stephen flinches a bit. “Give or take,” he says. “I may have lost a few days.”

“From what?” Cutter presses. “You’re a good hunter, and a good survivalist. What happened?”

The look on Stephen’s face is almost one of embarrassment and Cutter immediately regrets his question. “I wasn’t prepared for an extended stay,” Stephen says. “I kept close to the anomaly site for the rest of the day, waiting for it to open. But I needed water and shelter, so I hiked to the river. I managed to sleep near the anomaly for the first few days.”

Cutter swallows. “And then?”

Stephen shrugs. “It was a popular trail,” he says. “I mostly saw herbivores, but they didn’t take well to newcomers on their territory. I managed to pick a few off with my knife, hoping to not use the bullets. I didn’t want to mess up the fossil records.”

“It was survival, Stephen,” Cutter reprimands.

“I know,” Stephen replies, slightly dark now. “But even then, they didn’t last me very long.”

By his tone, Cutter knows there’s more to that story. Possibly more he doesn’t want to know, He already knows he’s going to ask, though. “Is that what happened to your side?”

Stephen glances down, as if he notices the bandages for the first time. “Never did get a good look at it,” he murmurs. “Came at me while I was setting up in my camp for the night. I’d been sleeping in the trees for protection, but it got me before I was able to get up into them. Slashed me a few times before I filled it with bullets. Damn thing still limped away. That’s why I set up the traps. I think it was still stalking me.”

Stephen says it so simply. It’s a tale of near death and scant survival, and Stephen underplays it, damn near brilliantly. He says nothing of the horror or blood; he says nothing of the desperation or confusion. He says nothing of infection or dogged survival.

Mostly, Stephen says almost nothing.

No wonder in eight years Cutter hardly knows him. It’s not just that Cutter’s not asking; Stephen’s not telling either. For all the ways in which they are so close, there are countless others in which they are so far apart.

In all honesty, it makes him mad. For all he’s worried, for all he’s done -- and this is all there is. Distance and short answers.

He deserves more.

He wants more.

Because the other glaring truth is this: he cares. He cares about Stephen. They don’t have to say it to make it true, but the things they say can only make it better.

Hesitating, he holds back his jokes, swallowing them along with his frustrations. He’d like to make this easier, but it’s about time for something a bit more genuine than that. “You scared us,” he says. Then he sighs. “You scared me.”

Stephen looks surprised. “It was an accident,” he says, almost defensively.

“Because you were behind me,” he says. “You don’t have to follow me, Stephen.”

The blank look on Stephen’s face would be almost comical, in another circumstance. “You’re the team leader.”

“But we’re all in this together,” Cutter insists. “We can’t afford to lose you.”

At this, Stephen shakes his head, suddenly adamant. “I’m exactly the one you can afford to lose,” he says.

“Stephen--”

“I’m serious, Cutter. I don’t regret following you.”

“But we’re not soldiers,” Cutter protests. “We shouldn’t have to die for this.”

“And if we do?” Stephen asks.

“We won’t,” Cutter says. “I’ll make sure of that.”

“You shouldn’t make promises you can’t keep,” Stephen says knowingly.

“Who says I can’t keep it?” Cutter challenges. “And really, it’s not negotiable. No one is dying. And no one gets left behind. We do this. Together. No matter what.”

Stephen looks like he wants to believe Cutter -- he really does -- but there’s some trace of doubt, some lingering uncertainty. Even so, Stephen says nothing.

Settling back down a bit in his chair, Cutter smooths his pant leg absently. “I’m still sorry,” he says finally.

On the bed, Stephen shrugs. “Three weeks isn’t so long.”

“I doubt that,” Cutter says. “Three days felt like a lifetime. I can’t imagine what you must have thought…”

Stephen doesn’t finish the thought for Cutter, and shows no inclination of wanting to talk about it. “It does give me pause,” he says finally. “About Helen. If that’s what happened to her, trapped in the past, skipping from one anomaly to the next.”

“That doesn’t excuse her,” Cutter says abruptly.

“But maybe it explains her,” Stephen says. “And it makes me think. What’s she’s been through…” He trails off, shaking his head.

Cutter clears his throat. “If you ask me, we’ve spent entirely too much time thinking about Helen. I know I spent years trying to find her, but now I think I’m perfectly fine with her staying the past.”

Stephen diverts his gaze. “If we have any choice in that.”

“Maybe not,” Cutter relents. “But for now, we do have the chance to make this whole team thing better.”

Stephen eyes him cautiously.

“No more near-death experiences,” Cutter lectures firmly. “You may be the last man out, but you are always coming out. Do you understand?”

Stephen looks doubtful. In fact, he looks like he wants to say no.

But this is Stephen.

And Cutter doesn’t know everything, but he still knows this much: Stephen will follow him, no matter what. It’s up to Cutter to make sure he’s leading him in the right direction.

That goes for all of them. If this team is going to work, it starts with Cutter. This isn’t just about science or national security. It’s about Connor and Abby and Claudia. It’s about Stephen.

Finally, Stephen’s expression steadies. He still looks sickly on the bed, but his nod his firm and his eyes are clear. “Understood,” he agrees.

“Good,” Cutter says, and he feels the relief unfurl in his chest. A smile spreads across his face. “Now that that’s dealt with, we need to focus on getting you better.”

Stephen winces, easing back against the pillows. “Are you offering to play nursemaid?”

Cutter raises his eyebrows. “Do you want me to?”

Stephen grunts. “No,” he says. “You can barely take care of yourself.”

“I’m not the one laid up in hospital!” Cutter reminds him.

“Three weeks, Cutter,” Stephen reminds him.

“Move faster next time,” Cutter says.

“Slow down,” Stephen returns.

“Aye,” Cutter finally relents. “Maybe it’s a little of both, then?”

Stephen nods, a hint of a smile on his face. “I can live with that.”

It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, but for now, Cutter thinks that’s something they all can live with.