hughes: (it's crazy)
Erin (La Cidiana) ([personal profile] hughes) wrote2015-09-18 04:22 am

Fanfiction: Starman | II: The Seeker | ii

ii.

I asked Bobby Dylan
I asked the Beatles
I asked Timothy Leary
but he couldn't help me either

---

The words fell out of his mouth.

"You're posh."

"Oh, I'm lots of things, turns out." Sam grinned and caught his gadget mid-flip. "Murderer, obviously, though I suppose mass-murderer is more apt -- serial killer? No, too crass -- slaughter enthusiast?"

Nichols' dead body slid out of Gene's hands and onto the ground.

"They called me 'The Decimator' for a year." Sam scratched his chin. "That was nice -- though 'His Lordship' was even better, I think--"

"What the hell is this?" Gene rose to his feet, fists shaking, voice catching in his chest. "Tyler--"

Something slammed into him, into his lungs. Gene fell back to his knees, wheezing, as his palms hit the wet concrete.

Sam's heels clicked on the floor, then stopped in front of him. He crouched down and yanked Gene's gun from its holster.

"Gene, Gene." Sam's voice tut-tutted above him as he tossed it away. "You're out of your league."

Gene raised his head. Sam smiled down, serene, and that's what did it -- that's what shattered it all, turned the mirror to the dirty side, smacked him upside the head. Sam had never been bloody serene.

"You came out of that room," Gene muttered.

Sam's mouth mock-pouted. "Look -- he's trying so hard."

"You," Gene repeated, low, "came out of that room."

Sam's arms flew up in feigned surrender. "I'm caught. Please, officer -- don't hurt me!"

Gene moved to stand. Sam's hand whipped out his gadget.

"There are explosives in all four corners of this building," Sam's voice said, one chilling octave lower. "This is the detonator."

Gene's fists clenched against the ground. "You'd go too."

"So would all your little detectives." Sam's smile split into a grin. "Shame if DI Tyler made a miscalculation, put that perimeter just a little too close. Damn shame."

Gene grit his teeth. He raised his eyes as Sam -- Sam, in his worn leather jacket, his poncy flared collar, the little gift shop medallion that swung around his neck -- stepped back and strolled into the bullpen.

Gene stood and followed. Sam dropped into his usual chair and kicked his Cuban boots up on his desk. He crossed his arms across his chest and shoved a pile of papers off with his heel.

They fell to the floor like leaves, typewritten pages, stupid memo pad scribbles. Scattered pieces of someone. Ashes.

"Who the hell are you," Gene said.

"The Master." The thing wearing Sam's skin grabbed for the tape recorder on his desk. "Music?"

He pressed down the play button. Paul McCartney started belting out chipper lyrics from what had been one of Sam's interview tapes. Gene dug his fingers into the seatback of the nearest chair.

"Thought 'the Doctor' was ridiculous enough."

"Oh, he is." The Master leaned forward, one hand on his knee. "He is utterly ridiculous, and I'm about to prove it to him."

A spark lit up his eyes, familiar fire. "Let me show you how clever I really am."

Gene's mouth went dry. "You're the bastard playing Beatles after murder."

The Master canted his head. "Thought you told me to cheer up, Guv."

"Go to hell." Gene stepped forward and the Master raised his detonator. Rage flooded Gene's vision, his words. "Where is he? Where the hell's my DI?"

The Master paused, then smiled. He leaned back in his chair and stretched his arms behind his head.

"Hello, hello," he sang with the music on the tape. "I don't know why you say goodbye, I say hello."

Steps pitter-pattered up the stairwell. Gene's head snapped toward the bullpen doors.

The Master stood. A door creaked out in the hall. Someone gasped -- a bird.

"Annie, get out!" Gene shouted. The Master's unseen force slammed into him again and he fell on his stomach. He gasped, winded.

Annie shoved through the doors, gun raised. Through bleary vision, Gene watched her face go pale.

"Sam...!"

"The little lady, right on schedule." The Master raised his gadget in the air and it let out four high-pitched beeps. Out in the corridor, something rustled.

"Sam..." Annie's voice trembled as her eyes darted between him and Gene. "Sam, what's..."

"It's not him!" Gene gasped. He slammed his fist on the floor. "Cartwright, shoot--!"

A figure burst through the bullpen doors behind her. Annie whipped around and Nichols' body from the corridor bloody hit her, knocked the pistol out of her hands. Gene could see the hole through his head as he grabbed her and yanked her arms behind her back. His eyes stared forward, glassy.

Lennon and Harrison sang happily. "Hello, goodbye, hello, goodbye..."

Annie yelled, kicked. Nichols didn't budge. The Master hit the tape player and it stopped, abrupt, sending the room into silence. He kept his gadget trained on Gene as he approached Annie.

"Brilliant, isn't it?" The Master grinned. His heels clicked on the floor. "Playing with dead things -- fun and practical!"

Annie breathed hard. The Master tapped the back of his neck with his free hand. "Plant a little chip just so in their neural cortex, and... voila! Henchmen who follow without question because -- well, let's face it, they've not much to lose."

Gene managed to get to his knees. The Master clicked something on his gadget as he approached Annie.

She shook her head, wide-eyed. "Sam," she whispered, "please... god, Sam, if you're there--"

The Master struck Annie across the face. She yelled. Gene wrenched himself up, slammed his hand on the nearest desk.

"You keep your fucking hands off her, you murdering bastard--"

The Master clicked his device again, then gazed down at it with a grin.

"Oh," he said, "that worked nicely."

Gene roared and lunged at him. The Master flicked his gadget back toward him, didn't even look in his direction as Gene went flying and slammed against the side of Chris' desk.

"Guv!" Annie shouted.

"That's right." Gene's ears rang with Sam's warped voice as his palms slid against the floor. "Kiddie gloves off -- I've got what I need from you pathetic pair. Only fun and games keeping you alive -- for now."

Annie let out a breath. Gene raised his head to see the Master lean in toward her. He bared his teeth, ran a finger down the red mark on her cheek.

He tapped it gently, four times.

"Playing with dead things. My favorite."

Sound hit the air -- scratching and scraping. The papers on the floor rustled with wind.

The Master turned from Annie. He watched for a moment, then stepped toward the light that tore through the center of the room, chin high, shoulders proud. Something spread across his features, sly and smug. Like when he won a round of cards, Gene thought with a horrible wrench to the gut. Like when he won a bloody round of cards.

The light changed shape, solidified into something real, man-shaped. The Master's expression shifted from triumph to disappointment. He curled his lip.

"You left your car in the garage."

"Yes, well," said the shape as the light died away and turned into a gangly bastard in a longcoat, "your time pocket trap is only as good as my teleportation array is bad, meaning -- well. Here I am, aren't I?"

"Hm," the Master said. He pointed his gadget and shot the Doctor in the leg.

The Doctor yelped and fell on his side, grasping his thigh where it sizzled from the impact. He scrabbled against the ground and groped under his coat before a look of horror crossed his features.

The Master raised a second device, deadpan. "Looking for this?"

The Doctor sputtered. "How did you--"

"Ask your teleportation array." The Master dropped the Doctor's device to the floor, then pointed his own at it. The Doctor's gadget exploded into bits and pieces.

Gene closed his eyes. The back of his head hit the desk behind him.

"Can you do anything without making a mess of it?"

The Doctor looked at Gene, stricken. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, I'll fix this--"

The Master stormed toward him, dragged him up by the collar, slammed him into a chair.

"Sorry?" the Master hissed into the Doctor's face."Sorry? Is that all you have to say for yourself, you self-righteous, catastrophic prick--"

"You left me no choice!" The Doctor shouted through a grimace. "Do you think I wanted to? Do you think, if there was any other way--"

"You could have killed me." The Master's rage twisted into a grin. "But oh, no, not the Doctor. He has to make people better, doesn't he? Blood spills and bodies drop, but the Doctor walks out clean as Rassilon's sheets--"

The Doctor yelled something back, but Gene shut it out as he grunted and grabbed his aching shoulder with his throbbing hand. His eyes slid over and met Annie's across the room. She swallowed, still trapped by Nichols' dead arms, still struggling in his grasp.

She mouthed something at him. Gun. She nodded to where hers had fallen near the door.

Gene thought, Flash-knickers, you angel.

"--dare put this on anyone but yourself," the Doctor growled. "You're a bloody psychopath, you've already killed today!"

"Five." The Master grinned. "About to be seven, and there wouldn't have been any, would there, if you'd kept me locked up nice and tight--"

"You were locked up!" the Doctor yelled.

"Was I?" The Master leaned toward him. "Was I really?"

Gene tore his eyes away, fixed them on the gun lying on the ground. He slid himself slowly in its direction.

Sam's stupid posh voice carried on behind him. "Didn't you think it odd, how quickly the Chameleon Arch homed in on a time and place to put me?"

"I--" the Doctor tried.

"Of course you didn't. You scavenged some memories from a coma ward and thought -- 'oh, lovely, precious Master can learn to be a wuvvy-duvvy bobby!'"

Gene paused a second, curled his nails into his palm. Annie had stopped struggling, stopped making noise. Her eyes darted between him and them.

"You tried to sabotage the TARDIS," the Doctor grated out. "I gave you a chance and--"

"I did sabotage it." The Master grinned. "And you found out. Sloppy. So sloppy. Very unlike me."

The Doctor went silent. Gene started sliding to his feet.

"You planted tachyon particles," the Doctor whispered. The Master didn't respond, leaving the Doctor to go on, "as a safety measure, when you were PM--"

"Minister of Defence, actually." The Master's feet scraped against the ground and Gene turned, teeth grit. The Master's back still faced them. "That little construction site you found your TARDIS parked at yesterday, 2008? Was my own classified project -- convenient, to build a top-secret facility, particularly when unloading time-unstable material--"

"Unstable enough to reversely degenerate on a timeline and form a psychic field at that exact location in the past, which..." The Doctor raised his head. "Which would attract a TARDIS right to it."

"And nosy Torchwood idiots, and amplify the power of any psychic entities in close proximity, like -- oh, I don't know, a Time Lord Chameleon Bowie tape."

Somewhere between "tachyon" and "David Bowie", Gene had stopped trying to make sense of whatever bollocks-arsed chat ex-Sam and his boyfriend were having. He kept his attention on their movements instead, back against a file cabinet as he sidled closer to the pistol.

"See, Doctor..." The Master crouched down to meet him at eye level. "That's what I love about you. Smart enough to appreciate a Machiavellian ploy, stupid enough to fall for it."

Gene heard something creak behind him. He whirled around--

And took a fist to the mouth. He staggered, crashed into a chair. Two hands gripped his arms and yanked them behind his back as cold metal snapped around his wrists.

"...As opposed to stupid enough to interrupt a Machiavellian ploy and stupid enough to fall for it -- really, Hunt," the Master hissed as he glared over his shoulder, "as if I don't know your tiny little brain."

"You don't," Gene growled back. He wrestled against the second zombie as it dropped him to the ground. "You don't know a damn thing, you sodding--"

"Is it because I made you promise to stop me?"

Gene's words stopped. His blood went cold. At the edge of his vision, Annie raised her head.

"No... no, wait." The Master turned to face him. He laughed Sam's laugh, his fucking laugh, and pointed joyfully with his device. "This is about your brother, isn't it?"

"Stop," Gene said.

"You couldn't save him, so you have to save me -- oh, that's..." Sam's laugh came out again, a little giggle, as he slapped his leg with one hand. "That's spectacular--"

"I'll kill you where you stand," came out of Gene's chest, dark, primal, so deep it almost scared him. His wrists rattled the police cuffs. "I will kill you."

The Master straightened and waved him off. "You can't." He jerked his thumb at the Doctor. "And he won't."

He turned toward the Doctor, who'd gone still, pale.

The Master grinned. "You really, really won't."

"You don't know that," the Doctor said, quiet.

"Don't I?" The Master strolled to the desk next to the Doctor and leaned a hand on its surface. "Mr. Metal Fingers--"

"You're making assumptions," the Doctor shot back. "Stupid assumptions -- as if Time Lords can't regenerate limbs--"

"Time Lords use perception filters. Time Lords know when things will happen, know when a powerful psychic might be most vulnerable, when they could dig in the deepest--"

"I would never." The Doctor shook his head, voice low, furious. "I would never violate someone like that--"

"You would." The Master drummed his fingers against the desktop. "A future version of you already did."

Gene twisted his mouth. "Sodding hell are you on about?"

"Nothing that concerns you," the Master hissed back.

"Master," the Doctor breathed, "you have to believe me--"

"You don't believe you." The Master raised his hand and continued the tapping on his own temple. "Whoever slipped into my head that night knew it like the back of their hand. Tell me, Doctor, how much work did your little Chameleon Arch trick take? Implants of human memories, psychic filters to project the drums as hallucinations, and then -- true stroke of genius, this -- placing your masterpiece in the wrong era as a distraction from itself..."

The Doctor grit his teeth. "I had. No. Choice."

The Master leaned toward him. "Will you have a choice in 2008, Doctor? Will you raise one hand and weigh the lives lost today, the many more to come -- will you still knock down that door, will you cradle me close, will you dive into a mind you know better than any other and sacrifice a piece of yourself, Doctor, even yourself, for this--"

The Master reached forward, grasped the Doctor's hand, pressed it to his own cheek. Gene ripped his eyes away because bloody hell--

"--for this."

Gene's mind raced, wondered where he'd seen that look on the Doctor's face before, that wide-eyed, stupid stare, and he remembered -- Lost and Found. Beating the bastard raw, and the Doctor watching Sam--

Sam.

Gene looked up. In front of him, Sam smiled back at the Doctor same as he had back then, with that darkness in him, that same ragged, beaten edge. Happy Hitler, Gene thought, worn to the bone.

Sam's smile widened. "You're shaking."

The Doctor whispered, "You're mad."

"And you want to fix it so much it hurts." The Master laced his fingers in-between the Doctor's on his cheek. "You have the key to my subconscious. You could stop me right now... and you can't even bring yourself to try. 'Dodona rejection is so ugly,' you tell yourself. 'If I'm not the one who planted it, it'll splinter both our minds.'"

The Doctor swallowed. His fingers tensed.

Gene thought, You coward.

The Master pulled the Doctor's hand away from his face.

"You won't ever dare," the Master said. "But I know. And I'll kill, Doctor, I'll kill so many for you, in your honor. You'll cry for them all."

"Please--" the Doctor said.

"And one day, you'll break. One day, you'll take this--" he pressed the end of his device into the Doctor's palm, "and you'll set it to something regeneration won't heal. You'll prove to yourself you're the one who can shape my mind the only way you know how. You'll hate yourself as you go to the appointed place and time, as you step into that flat in 2008 and save me all the same."

The Doctor sucked in a breath, deep and harsh. The Master shook his head, clicked his tongue.

"The only way to save them... will be to let me kill them."

"Is that all you do?" Annie asked.

Gene froze. He turned his head. She stood in front of Nichols, arms still trapped behind her back, gaze fixed on the Master like it must've been the whole time.

"Kill people, hurt them for fun." Annie pursed her lips. "Is that all you do?"

Gene stared at her. Bloody hell are you doing?

"Cute and sassy," the Master muttered to the Doctor, unconcerned. "Just the way you like them. You'd have tossed her into your box on sight, I wager -- shame she won't be around much longer."

"Are you afraid to look at me?"

The Master paused. He grit his teeth and rolled his eyes back toward her.

"Cartwright..." Gene growled.

"I mean it," Annie continued, stubborn, steady. "You've barely looked at me. Is that why?"

The Master paused. The side of his mouth lit up with a smile that rang a whole new set of warning bells through Gene's skull, bloody blitzkrieg sirens.

"Is that why." The Master turned to grin at the Doctor. "'Is that why."

"Don't." The Doctor shook his head. His hands went back to his injured leg and he dug his fingers in. "Please, Master, I'm the one who did this, punish me--"

"Let me tell you a story." The Master faced Annie again. "About the man who never was."

Gene's wrists twisted inside the cuffs. "I've got one about the bastard who murdered coppers!"

The Master ignored him. Shit, Gene thought, buggering shit, as the Master approached Annie, step by step.

He laughed quietly. "Dear little Annie -- do you think you'll wake your prince with a true love's kiss?"

Annie tensed. One of her heels scraped the ground as the Master stopped in front of her.

"Is this another nightmare to pull him out of? Another broken thought to mend?"

"You've killed people," Annie whispered. "Our friends--"

"Not his." The Master shrugged. "You saw that -- how little he noticed, how little he cared. Closest he came to giving a damn was you and the oaf over there."

Something tightened in Gene's chest. "Oi!" he yelled.

Annie raised her head to meet the Master's gaze, something fierce in the lines of her face. "Sam Tyler was a good man."

"Yes," the Doctor cut in. He tried to stand and hissed through his teeth when he couldn't. "Sam Tyler was good, Yana was good -- Master, you're capable of so much better--"

"Oh, shut up." The Master flicked his device and the Doctor slammed back into his seat. Strange bands of light snapped over his front, like electric chair straps.

Annie searched the Master's face.

"You're in there, aren't you?"

The Master raised a brow. Annie bit her lip. "Sam -- you have to... please, you have to fight this--"

"Do you know how old I am?" the Master asked.

Annie blinked. The Master ran his thumb down the length of his device and Gene's hands clenched, his mind raced. Around his wrists were cuffs. Not whatever alien bollocks what was holding the Doctor down, just cuffs, simple, copper's lock and key--

Annie narrowed her eyes. "I don't..."

"One-thousand, two-hundred and seventy-five." The Master smiled and outstretched his arms. "Relative to you, I was born when the Arabs sacked Carthage. In linear time, I learned to chart the stars when trilobites roamed your seas."

Annie shook her head. "Those are words, bloody words -- Sam, we're your friends--"

"Eight months." The Master's voice went cold. "Eight of your pathetic Earth months, stuck in a pathetic Earth shape, and an insect like you has the idiocy -- the utter blind arrogance to think yourself more than a smear on my windscreen."

Annie's voice shook, like a little girl's. "You haven't killed us yet."

Gene grit his teeth. Key, key, sodding key. He wrenched his neck around to see the puppet-corpse of PC Maxwell hunched over behind him, the lining of one of his uniform pockets yanked out halfway.

Gene's eyes darted to the ground. The key glinted amongst the floor's dust, just beneath him.

Gene's fingers scrabbled backward for the key, finding it, fumbling it. Maxwell's corpse didn't react. Gene halfway registered the Master leaning toward Annie, pulling her hand from Nichols' grasp and holding it in his own.

Gene twisted his palm, clicked the key into the slot. He turned it--

"Do... do you feel them, Annie?"

Gene froze. He raised his eyes to see Sam clasping Annie's hand to his chest, brow creased, frown deep. He spoke again, way he always did.

"Both my hearts are beating, so yours doesn't have to."

Annie blinked. A tear rolled down her cheek.

"Oh, Sam," she whispered.

Sam's brow smoothed.

"Doctor!" the Master called over his shoulder, "Doctor, I think she gets it! Oh, and just in time."

He clicked his device. The Beatles started up on the tape recorder again, loud, tinny. Drums echoed off the walls.

"Hey-la, hey, hello-ah..."

The Master tightened his grip on Annie's hand. He raised his device with the other, pressed it into her chest.

"Master!" the Doctor yelled. "This is between us, just the two of us, please--"

Gene wrenched his hand from the cuffs.

"Hey-la, hey, hello-ah..."

"Hello, goodbye," the Master said.

Gene leapt, ran. He caught a sliver of the Master's face as he turned, yanked a fistful of his sleeve as he fired.

Light shot through Gene's hand. Pain exploded.

His shoulder hit the wall before he heard Annie yell, before one hand gripped the other and he felt blood, hot blood, all over, dripping, smearing. He yelled and didn't recognize his own voice, raised his left hand and saw a mangled mess, two ragged, fleshy stumps.

Annie shouted again. But all Gene saw was Sam, bloody Sam, skittered back, arse on the floor, eyes wide and made of horror.

"You..." he said.

Gene's nails dug into his wrist. He spoke, delirious, in agony.

"You told me to stop you."

Sam shook his head. "You can't. You can't possibly..."

Heels clicked on the floor. The Master turned and Annie kicked him square in the gut, where he'd been bleeding the night before.

The Master yelled and doubled over. He clutched his stomach and Annie grabbed up his gadget from where he'd dropped it. She stepped back and pointed it at him, rage in her teary eyes.

"I know how to hurt you too," she said through teeth.

The Master wheezed. Annie shoved the device in her vest pocket and yanked her blouse sleeve clean off as she turned toward Gene. He registered the Master's puppet corpses as they collapsed to the ground.

"Just keep breathing." Annie pulled the fabric over Gene's palm and wrapped it tight where his last two fingers should have been. "Keep pressure, Guv, keep breathing..."

Her voice came from far away. The sharp edge of pain ebbed and flowed, and when the Master picked up his head, he fixed his eyes back on Gene. Like his lost gadget didn't matter. Like the jaws of a nightmare had opened before him, ready to swallow him whole.

"Sam," Gene said, hoarse.

"Is that what you do?" the Doctor uttered.

Gene turned his head. Over Annie's shoulder, the Doctor stared at Gene from his chair, same look of stricken shock across his face. "Is that... God, is that what you do?"

Annie tied off her makeshift bandage, tight. She pried Gene's hand from his wrist and pressed his palm over the wound, then let go and marched toward the Doctor. She pulled the gadget from her pocket and slapped it into his hand.

"Fix this," she said.

The Doctor blinked back at her. He curled his fist around the thing.

"I can't," he whispered. "You don't understand, I..."

The Master laughed.

Gene looked at him. He held one hand to his stomach, splayed the other on the floor, and yet he still laughed, a short, choked thing, loud and manic. Painful.

Gene's hand tightened on his searing wound. It hurt like a bastard, that empty spot, the ugly space where a part of him used to be.

"That's right," the Master breathed. "You can't do a bloody thing, you can't, you can't."

He slapped his palm against the ground with the rhythm of his words. You can't, you can't.

The restraints around the Doctor crackled and disappeared. He stood up and grimaced, device clutched in one hand. Annie grabbed his arm to steady him.

"Can't what," Gene muttered.

The Master raised his head, eyes wild, grinning teeth stained with blood. "Exactly. You don't even know, fucking idiot. Idiot."

He laughed again. The Doctor tried to step forward, but Annie tugged him back.

The Doctor grit his teeth. "You have to tell me everything that happened that night, Master, this isn't funny--"

"It's hilarious." The Master rose to his feet, shaky. He pressed his palm to the top of a desk. "Appreciate the concern, old chum, but I can take care of myself."

"Like you took care of my officers?" Gene rasped. Officers. Our officers.

Sam's face grinned. "You can blame yourself for that."

The white-hot pain at the edge of Gene's hand turned cold.

Then it slammed into him again. He sucked in a breath and shut his eyes. As his palm tightened against bony, blood-soaked cloth, it hit him like bricks -- nothing was there.

Nothing was there.

The Master took a step back. "Anyhoo. Been swell, you lot, but I'm afraid I've a diabolical plan to reconfigure."

The Doctor's hand tightened on the device. "You expect I'll let you go."

"I expect you'll have to." The Master pressed one hand to his injured stomach and raised the other in the air. He snapped his fingers.

Nichols' and Maxwell's bodies began to stumble to their feet. Annie let go of the Doctor's arm and snatched her pistol from the ground.

The Doctor grit his teeth. His eyes darted from the Master's device in his hand back to the Master. "How are you--"

"You'll work it out." Nichols and Maxwell shambled toward them as the Master backed away. "Right after I blow this place to hell."

A shot cracked through the air -- Maxwell stumbled. Gene turned to see Annie standing rigid, pistol pointed at the Master.

The Master glanced where she'd hit his minion, just past him, then grinned. "You don't have the nerve."

Annie tilted her head, tears wet on her cheeks. "Don't I, sir?"

The Master's grin faltered.

The Doctor grasped Annie's shoulder. "He won't," he hissed. "He can't. He'd create a paradox -- he'd die, if he killed us all."

"Doesn't apply to the girl." The Master cocked his head. "Or you, for that matter."

Cold air hit Gene again. It was impossible to miss, who they weren't talking about, who they weren't even looking at, the both of them.

"What's going on?" Gene said.

The Master glanced at him. "I'm destroying you. Ciao."

White light shot out of the floor, between concrete cracks, specks of graphite dust. Gene staggered back as the Doctor yelled something over the sudden roar, something about Annie and take my hand.

Gene felt nails dig into his shoulder, then turbulence, and a vacuum, awful and sick. Air left his lungs. His hand throbbed with pain and heat.

Then his shoulder hit gravel. He tumbled, once, twice, the world a dizzying whorl of black and grey. He stopped on his back and gasped in breaths, an overcast sky above him.

He wrenched himself to his feet. Nearby, the Doctor's lanky form was sprawled out on the ground while Annie struggled to her hands and knees. Gene's eyes adjusted to the light, and -- roof, they were on a rooftop. No idea how, or why. Didn't bloody care--

A boom cracked and sizzled through the air.

Gene turned, slow. Annie stood upright, staring off at some unknown point, her knees skinned and bloody, one shoulder bare. She pressed a hand to her mouth.

Gene followed her gaze. In the distance, in his skyline, under the haze of clouds and the city that bore them, a grey concrete building stood firm and familiar, robust in its rain-stained exterior, its ugly grey walls.

Looking at it, you could almost forget the world had gone upside down.

Until it groaned. Until it cracked and shattered, like brittle bone. Breaking to pieces and rebar chunks, as dust and smoke billowed into the sky.

For a second, Gene didn't feel it.

Didn't feel the sound that came up his throat, his fist as it slammed into the ground. Didn't talk, didn't breathe past the hole in his chest, the jagged edges that caught on his ribs, that pulled him down to his knees.

Didn't feel until an arm held him back and a voice pierced the flood -- "They're okay, they moved back. Guv."

Gene looked at Annie, her face marred with scratches and grit. Her fingers dug into his shoulder.

"Ray told them the perimeter was too close, had them move back after you left -- everyone's safe, Guv. It's okay."

Gene breathed in. He shoved her away and turned his head, for a second just tasting the air.

Between his dry tongue and his aching gums, he got out, "No it's not."


---

[To be continued. See notes.]

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