HE WAS reaching, falling. The music sang to him, promising him an eternity of everything he wanted. It caressed him, loved him, while at the same time, whispered goodbye.
It started to fade, just like it always did. A whimper escaped his lips. “No. Please. Don’t leave me again.”
Why couldn’t it stay just this once? He sang the lyrics but already they didn’t make sense, sentences breaking into words, words disappearing into syllables.
They were important, not just because of what they said, but because of where they originated, if only he knew where that was. Unfortunately, all he was ever left with were snatches of a tune he couldn’t quite remember and glimpses of sunlight fading into shadow. “Please,” he whispered.
Someone shook him. He tried to pull away. He heard his name, the voice familiar, a woman calling him. It felt so very far away.
“Jason!” Louder this time, closer, impossible to ignore.
His eyes opened, the light burned them. He rubbed at them, his mind struggling to grasp onto something that was no longer there. A tall, dark-haired woman stepped away from the bed, her olive skin bathed in the sunshine that streamed in through the windows. “Alisha?” His voice was muffled, groggy. She’d always loved mornings. He hated them. “What time is it?”
“Too late for you to be still in bed.” Alisha sighed. He was nearly three years older than she was, but she often despaired of him acting his age, and reminded him of that fact frequently. “I’ve been trying to wake you. James wants to see you. It’s important.”
“James?” Jason buried himself in his pillows. Wonderful. What had he done to screw up this time? An order to meet with the head of the Tempus Institute was never a good thing unless…. He ignored the sliver of hope that dared sneak through. Was his request to be sent somewhere, anywhere that wasn’t here, about to be granted?
“Yes. James.” Alisha urged him to sit up and then handed him a cup of steaming coffee. She settled herself on the end of his bed. “You were dreaming again, weren’t you?”
He sipped at the coffee gratefully and nodded. It wasn’t the first time she’d woken him from this dream. It probably wouldn’t be the last. Still, he couldn’t find it in himself to berate her for it. They’d been friends far too long for that.
“Did you remember any of it this time?”
He shook his head. “Just a snatch of music, nothing more.” He hummed the couple of bars for her, for all the good it did. It did nothing to shake the familiar feeling of panic that he’d just lost something very important. Or was about to.
“Sorry.” She stood and turned to go, giving him some privacy to dress. “You still don’t remember any more of it, do you?” They’d both tried to find the origins of that tune, to match the part of it to a whole.
“No,” he said, managing a smile, already focusing on the crap that was about to blow his way. “But then I never do.”
IT WAS raining outside. Two days spent in 2011, and nothing but rain. Jason brought the cup to his lips and drank slowly, savoring the taste. It was bitter, more so than he was used to, darker in color even with the addition of milk, and tasted earthy for some reason.
The cafe was warm, a cozy haven from the cold. He could get used to this. An assignment that meant spending hours drinking coffee and surrounded by books. He gazed again at the bookshelves visible through the huge door that marked the threshold between the two businesses. Heaven on both counts. It was a brilliant idea, combining a cafe and bookshop under the one roof. It was a shame neither of them existed in his own time, as it was just what he needed in order to distract himself from the events of the previous six months.
The tinkle of the small bell hooked over the front door signaled the arrival of another customer. Jason looked up and smiled. This was the real reason he was here, the person he was supposed to be observing and under no circumstances interacting with.
He added sugar to his coffee, stirring it absently. James had been adamant in that, and about the fact this was Jason’s last chance. One more screwup and he’d find himself stuck down in the stacks forever. Time travel was a risky business; the timelines were definitely not something to be interfered with just because someone was curious or got double-dog-dared.
In hindsight, admitting to tapping that guy on the shoulder because of a dare had not been one of his brightest moments. How was he supposed to know what would happen next?
Sure, he could have read the paperwork attached to the assignment, but he’d never been one for that. Nor had he felt the inclination before now.
But then there was something about this assignment that was different. As soon as he’d seen the photograph he knew he couldn’t turn it down.
Outside, the heavens opened, rain dancing on the roof as though in a mad tango with a full orchestra complete with timpani behind it. Water pelted against the window, people scurrying across the road seeking shelter.
He loved this time and Wellington in particular. It was simpler, nature as it was meant to be before man had begun to control everything. He stood, drawn to the rain, intending to experience it up close, wondering if he dared stand outside, let the water just run over him and throw his hands open to the heavens, or whether it would draw too much attention to him.
A loud clatter interrupted him. Someone swore, papers flying in all directions, several heading toward the door as it opened again, bringing with it a sudden gust of wind. Without thinking, Jason bent to help pick them up, crawling under the table next to his and knocking his head against someone else’s in the process.
“Umph.” The voice was male, although not deep. Gray eyes, framed by glasses, met his.
Jason backed away quickly, letting go of the piece of paper he held. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled, ready to help his unfortunate victim to his feet.
“No problem.” The man retrieved the errant piece of paper. Jason got a glimpse of scribbled words, crossed out in places, circled in others. “There you are!” His companion turned, bending to pick up the last of the papers and giving Jason a view of a very nice firm behind at the same time.
He swallowed. This should never have happened. Two days in, and he’d done the very thing he was instructed not to do.
His assignment turned toward Jason and smiled, holding out his hand. “Thanks for your help.” His eyes crinkled at the corners before he indicated Jason’s now empty coffee cup. “Let me refill that. It’s the least I can do. I would have been screwed if I’d lost all my work. The name’s Sean, by the way. Sean Henderson.”
“Jason Adams.” Jason shook Sean’s hand. Hell, why not? He hadn’t initiated this, and it would look more obvious if he refused the offer. Anyway, it would be impossible to watch the guy if he left now, and saying no would be just plain rude. “Another coffee sounds great, thanks.”
The grin Sean gave as a reply told Jason that it was the right response. That, and the fact Sean looked very pleased with himself, although for some reason also a little surprised. “Stay there. I’ll be right back.” Sean tucked his papers securely under one arm and headed for the counter. Whatever he was working on was apparently considered too precious to be left in the hands of someone he’d just met, even if that person had just saved it from an impending fate of flying out the door to parts unknown.
Jason leaned back in his chair. He didn’t need to mention this in his report, did he? The assignment was a simple one: observation of both the subject and his interactions. After all, Sean was no one important, just one of the few chosen randomly to give a realistic view of the time period. Making friends with the guy would make the task easier. Jason had been in this time before. He knew his way around, and the cover the Tempus Institute had put in place for him was airtight.
His fingers brushed against his wallet, still in his pocket. He fought the urge to open it and compare the photograph he’d been given to the reality of the man he was about to have coffee with. Sean’s was one of the few files Jason had been tempted to read, to the extent that he’d gone as far as flipping through the highlights. He didn’t know what it was, but something in that image had touched him. Jason closed his eyes, bringing the details to life in his mind once more. The color of it had faded with time but the essence of its subject remained. Sean was smiling, his lips crinkled up at the corners, his attention caught by someone or something the camera could not see. It wasn’t posed, more of a candid shot taken unawares.
No secrets. I want you to know me.
Or rather Sean wanted the person at whom the smile was directed to know him.
“Penny for them?” Sean interrupted Jason’s train of thought. He placed a cup on the table, the thump of it against the wood causing Jason to open his eyes with a start. They still used crockery, not the plastic or paper cups that were already sneaking in some of the other places. “Everything okay? I asked Ruth to give you the same order you’d had before. Hope you didn’t want anything different.”
“Yeah, everything’s fine.” Jason shrugged. “Just thinking. I do that occasionally. It’s supposed to be good for the soul.”
“I’ve heard that.” Sean chuckled, sitting himself down and adding several spoonfuls of light-brown crystals to his own drink. Jason stared. He’d seen them on the table earlier, of course, but hadn’t known what they were and didn’t want to risk showing his ignorance or ruin a good cup of coffee. “Coffee sugar. Want some?”
“Sure.” Jason helped himself. He took a cautious sip, decided it was definitely something else he could get used to, and added another spoonful. “We don’t have these at home,” he explained, noticing Sean’s amused expression.
“I don’t either. They’re a bit pricey, and I’m on a budget.” Sean stretched back in his chair. He had long legs, lean but muscular. His jeans slid up at the ankle to reveal tanned skin at the top of his sock.
“Umm, yeah.” Jason forced himself to focus on the conversation. Sean was an assignment, nothing more. There was no point in getting too friendly, as there would be no future in it. “Do you come here often?”
“Most days.” Sean looked up, took his glasses off, and polished them with the hem of his shirt. His eyes were the most amazing shade of light gray, although close up like this, without the magnification of his glasses, they appeared almost blue. “But then you’d know that, yeah?” It was spoken as a statement rather than a question, casually and without accusation.
“You were in here yesterday. I saw you watching me.” Sean leaned forward in his chair.
“Do you have a problem with that?” So much for subtle; he was definitely slipping.
“Nope,” Sean said as he took another sip of coffee, “unless you have a problem with the fact that I was watching you?”
“Why?” The word came out more accusing than he’d intended. Surely his cover couldn’t have been compromised. No one knew he was here. Jason glanced around more than a little nervously. Could this be a test of some sort? A final assignment designed to make sure he ended up in those damn stacks? If it was, it was a dirty one. He hadn’t hidden where his preferences lay; there’d been no need for it. It was one of the few things in his time that was not preplanned and controlled by the powers that be. If Sean just happened to be the type of guy to which Jason was drawn, that was no one’s business but his own. It didn’t mean he couldn’t do this assignment properly, either. He might have some issues with authority, but geez, he could still act professionally and keep business and pleasure separate, as he was supposed to. Falling for someone from another time? Jason snorted. Please. Give him some credit.
“Why what? Why was I was watching you? Or why do you think you’d have a problem with me watching you?” Sean seemed genuinely curious.
Jason wished that he had read more of Sean’s file, although it was doubtful it would have given him much of an insight into this unexpected turn of events. Often what was noted about a subject had nothing to do with their actual personality, but was more a reflection of whatever they wished to project. “I wouldn’t be so upfront about the fact I was watching another guy,” he pointed out. “You don’t know me. Aren’t you taking a bit of a risk here?”
“Yeah, right.” Sean rolled his eyes. “We’re in a cafe, Jason, and drinking coffee. People do that when they first meet.” He shrugged. “It’s not very often that I see a good-looking guy watching me so intently. I….” He looked down, a slow blush spreading over his face. “I’ve just made a total bloody idiot of myself, sorry.”
“Are you trying to pick me up?” Jason spoke softly, not wanting to cause Sean any more embarrassment.
“Yeah.” Sean studied the knot in the floorboard under their table intently. “I don’t usually do this kind of thing, but there was something about you. I didn’t think a coffee would do any harm and….” He made a half choked noise. “I’ve always been told that I ramble when I’m nervous but this… fuck.” He pushed the chair back. “I think I’ll leave now.”
“You don’t have to.” Jason heard himself speak the words, although in the back of his mind he could hear James’s warning repeating itself. No fraternizing. Observe, don’t interact. He was going to hell when he got back. They’d find his shriveled up body down in those stacks, an old man who had never done anything with his life. Buried in the last remaining paper archive that existed on the planet.
Sean froze. “Are you sure?” His voice was no more than a whisper, his face still bright red. A couple of girls at a nearby table stared at him, one murmuring to the other. He sat down again quickly.
“I’m sure.” Jason smiled, trying to put Sean at ease. “Thanks for the compliment, by the way. It’s been a while since anyone’s made the effort or shown any interest.” No one since Rex, but that was history in every sense of the word. They hadn’t spoken to each other since they’d broken up three years ago, and the last he’d heard Rex was on assignment in the mid-1940s. Very hush hush.
“I’m usually a little more subtle.” Sean sighed. “For all the good it does me.”
“I’m surprised.” Jason leaned over and placed a hand on Sean’s arm. It was warm, fine dark hairs smooth under his fingers. He thanked the powers that be that it was warmer today so that Sean’s shirtsleeves were rolled up above his elbows. “You’re a good-looking guy.” More than good-looking. Jason made a point of looking Sean up and down. “I’d even go as far as to say hot.”
“Really?” Jason could almost see the steam coming out of Sean’s ears at the idea. Sean shook his head in disbelief. “Me?” He shook his head again. “Hell no. Now you….” His voice trailed off. “Um, can we change the subject onto something else? Are you from around here? I hadn’t seen you before the other day.”
“I’m from… overseas.” Jason nodded, running through what was left of his cover story in his mind. “I’m a journalist, travel, mostly. This looked like an interesting place, so I thought I’d look around for a few days, take notes, that kind of thing.”
“Where overseas?” Sean settled back into his chair, relaxing as the conversation moved onto a safer topic. “I’ve been to Aussie once, but apart from that I haven’t been out of New Zealand. It’s on my list of things I’d like to do one day.” He laughed, but there was a self-deprecating air to it. “Perhaps once I’m rich and famous. Can’t see it happening otherwise.”
Jason thought quickly, latching onto the first country that came to mind. “Canada.” He hoped Sean wouldn’t ask for anything more specific than that. Giving the truth wasn’t an option. He couldn’t very well explain that although he was a local, the Wellington he was used to was very different from how it was now. It was better this way; there was less chance of slipping up and referring to something that didn’t exist yet.
“It’s on the list.” Sean sipped his coffee, thoughtful. “I’m a mainlander myself. Christchurch. My parents are still down there, don’t want to leave. They reckon they’ve spent their whole life there, and it’s going to take more than a few earthquakes to make that change.” He shrugged. “They’re one of the lucky ones. Their house is still relatively intact.”
“Have you been to see them recently?” Jason hoped Sean had. Closure was important. He’d seen too many families who’d missed out on that. They couldn’t be there at the end, but at least having had some contact beforehand had helped.
“Yeah. I went down as soon as I could after the first big one and spent some time.” Sean wrapped his fingers around his cup, long fingers, slender. “I offered to move back, but they wouldn’t have anything of it. My life is here now, has been for a few years. I’ve got my music, and I work in the cafe part time. Never going to be rich, but it works for me.”
“You’re a musician?” A familiar not-quite tune whispered to him. He ignored it.
“Yeah, although more of a songwriter than a performer.” Sean shrugged. “I doubt you’ve heard of me, although a couple of local bands are willing to play my stuff. I play keyboards for them on the occasional gig, too, when the usual guy is off sick or whatever.” He glanced toward his pile of papers, his mouth twisting into a half grimace, half-shy smile. “I’m working on a new one but having trouble getting it quite right. That happens sometimes, then when it’s the right time, it all falls into place. It drives me crazy until it does, though. I swear I eat, drink, and sleep the thing.”
“I’d love to hear what you’ve got so far.” Jason could have kicked himself for not taking the time to listen to the sound files attached to Sean’s dossier. However, it was Sean’s role at the cafe that was the focus of the assignment, not his music.
“That settles it.” Sean grinned. “I knew you were crazy with all your talk of hotness. Now you want to hear music composed by a guy you’ve only just met.” He schooled his face into a solemn expression. “I think that’s about the fourth sign of madness isn’t it? After all, for all you know my music could be really bad. How do you know you won’t lose your hearing and good taste for the rest of eternity?”
“And here I was thinking the fourth sign was being a true believer of the sanctity and healing properties of coffee,” Jason deadpanned.