This is a work of fanfiction by Butterfree/Dragonfree/antialiasis and is not to be reposted without permission. This story is in no way official or endorsed by Nintendo, GAME FREAK, Creatures Inc., or The Pokémon Company.

Morphic

For more information on this story and a full list of chapters and extras, click here. Please note that Morphic is rated R (M if you prefer Fiction Ratings) for strong language, violence and other sensitive subject matter.

Extra: Groundhog Dave (time loop AU)

“Dave. Dave, wake up. We should check on the kids, see how they’re holding up.”

He stirred, elbowing Martha’s hands away. “Yeah,” he mumbled. “Okay.”

Dave clutched his head in his hands for a few seconds as his brain throbbed. Maybe he shouldn’t have drunk quite so much last night. Not that he was sure exactly how much it’d been; most of the evening was, thankfully, a murky cloud by now.

He rubbed his eyes before opening them, wincing as he blinked. The morning sunlight made its way mercilessly past even the firmly drawn curtains, casting cruel strips of blinding light on the white walls. Fuck the sun.

He took a deep breath or two and then pushed himself up from the couch. The others were already up and waiting, their faces pale and exhausted. Cheryl didn’t look like she’d gotten any sleep at all, bags under her eyes, her hair a tangled mess.

She leaned against the door to the girls’ room and gave it a careful knock. “Kids? Are you awake?”

Silence. So somehow the kids were sleeping just fine. Good for them.

She glanced back at everyone and gently opened the door. Then, as she stepped inside, she suddenly froze, staring. He automatically leaned over to look over her shoulder and –

Empty sleeping bags lay strewn across the floor in disorderly piles. By the window stood Lucy, alone, turning around to look at them, tilting her head innocently. Dave blinked. What?

Cheryl pushed the door all the way open in alarm. The room was empty, nobody else there. “Lucy?” she asked, wary. “Where are the others?”

“They left,” Lucy said simply, looking back out the window. “They’re going to save Gabriel.”

Dave stared at her. “What?” Cheryl looked back at the others in horror, silent. “Fuck. What?”

“They took Dan and Martha’s car.”

What?

Fuck.” Dave dug into his pocket for his cellphone. “Hold on, I’ll call Jean. Talk some fucking sense into them. What the fuck.”

-------

Mia was dead. So was Will. Gabriel was in critical condition at the hospital. Jack and Peter and Katherine had all been shot. Hell, they’d killed the fucking dog.

Jean was okay, aside from the burns on the inside of her mouth and looking like she’d been struck by a furry whirlwind. Lucy was okay, aside from being mute and staring into space like a shellshocked war veteran. That was something. Jean, exhausted after crying for hours, fell asleep at the Kerrigans’ house, and he took her home and put her into bed and then tossed the gun into a drawer and sat by her bedside for a while, squeezing the armrests of a hastily-moved chair, watching her alien new form breathing contentedly and somehow loathing it with every fiber of his being.

Eventually exhaustion got the better of him. After he woke with a start some time later and nearly toppled the chair over, he dragged himself over to his bedroom. It was almost too early for bed, really, but he just wanted this fucking day to end. Maybe, hopefully, tomorrow he could actually think.

-------

He awoke again to hands shaking him. “Dave. Dave, wake up. We should check on the kids, see how they’re holding up.”

“Huh?” His brain was still the same sludge as the day before. Martha? What was she doing here? “What are you talking about?”

“Gabriel, the kidnapping. Wake up.”

“That was… that was yesterday,” he mumbled.

“And they’re probably still worried sick. Aren’t you?” She pulled his arm to drag him out of – no, he wasn’t in his bed, he was on the couch at the Kerrigans’ place. He blinked rapidly. A dream. It had all just been some fucked-up crazy dream.

Christ. He took a deep breath, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes as Martha let go of him. “Jesus,” he muttered.

He stood up, inhaling and exhaling again, letting it all just fade into the haze of last night. Probably, hopefully, by lunchtime he wouldn’t even remember he’d dreamt anything. In the corner of the room, Cheryl nodded at him, leaning on the door to the girls’ room.

“Kids? Are you awake?”

Nothing. Dave shifted, glancing towards the windows, the drawn curtains, the light just squeezing past the edges. A strange unease crept slowly up his back, his pulse uncomfortably thick in his ears.

Lucy by the window. A pile of empty sleeping bags.

“Lucy? Where are the others?”

“They left. They’re going to save Gabriel. They took Dan and Martha’s car.”

Abruptly, Dave was swaying, nearly losing his balance before he managed to support himself against the wall. Cheryl whirled around as everyone looked at one another in horror. “You okay?”

“Sorry, just…” He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples for a moment. Fucking déjà vu. That was all it was, hypersensitive pattern-matching grabbing a vague memory of something kind of similar from the dream and insisting it was exactly the same. He’d… he’d probably heard them through his sleep when they’d left or something, and his brain had made up the rest. Fuck, it’d felt real, though. “I’ll… I’ll call Jean and talk some sense into them. Fuck.”

The others waited, silent, as he dug out his cellphone and dialed her number. In the dream, he remembered distinctly, he’d told the kids they were keeping Gabriel at the church, for some godforsaken reason. He sure as hell wasn’t doing that for real.

“Hi, Dad!” said Jean cheerfully.

“Jean, what the fuck do you think you’re doing? Get back here right now.”

“We’re saving Gabriel! We took the Harrisons’ car, and Katherine could totally drive it all the way over here! And Felicia can smell Gabriel, so we’re gonna go and torch all the bad guys!”

Even though he knew it was just déjà vu, it was still fucking disorienting. “Look, you’re not going to torch any bad guys. This isn’t a movie. You don’t even know where they are, and even if you did you’d all get yourselves killed. These are people with guns and you’re a bunch of fucking kids. Don’t be stupid. Come on home and we can figure this out.”

He heard disruption and then, suddenly, Jack’s voice. “What the hell else do you want us to do? Just leave him to die?”

“I mean, if you want to get into that, him dying is a fuckload better than him and all of you too.” Jack didn’t answer that one, probably rightly. Dave pressed his lips together. “Look, for all you know they don’t even have him anymore at this point. He could’ve gotten out. You’re planning to go endanger yourselves anyway for fucking nothing?”

Sure. In the dream, it was kind of a blur but he was pretty sure Gabriel had just… spontaneously developed fire powers and fucking straight-up murdered some guy. That definitely wasn’t happening, on multiple levels.

“My point is, if you try to play superheroes, you’re not going to be fine, because you’re not fucking superheroes. Just get the fuck back here, understand?”

There was a long silence on the other end. “All right,” Jack said at last. “Fine. We’ll come back.”

“Good, you’d better. And, uh…” This was incredibly dumb, but the image of the thing that Jean had become in that dream was still fucking unsettling. “By the way, you know you all shouldn’t touch evolution stones with your bare hands, right? For all we know it could make your organs explode out of your chest. Just… don’t do that.”

Jack paused. “What?”

“Never… never mind, just something I was thinking about. Just get home.”

And Jack hung up. Dave exhaled slowly as he lowered his phone. “They’re coming home,” he said. “It’s fine.”

-------

They didn’t come home. Somehow they managed to figure out who the kidnappers were and where they would be anyway (Dave had a horrible suspicion that Mia was involved), and they stormed the church.

Jean didn’t come out of it a misproportioned, furry mess; she came out of it in a body bag.

They were all dead when the ambulance got there, all of them except Mia who’d been shot in the back and had passed out from blood loss. Dave went with the Kerrigans to the hospital and sat there by her bed, drumming his fingers, restlessly watching Cheryl and Howard as they hugged each other close, pale and exhausted and weeping, like a cliché out of the latest inevitable award-bait tragedy-porn flick. Lucy had been standing by the bed for hours, silent, staring at her sister’s unconscious face, not moving.

“Why’d you let them go?” he asked when he couldn’t stand it anymore. Lucy turned slowly, blinking, but said nothing.

“Dave,” Cheryl said sharply.

“You’ve got… you can do more creepy Pokémon shit than any of them.” He waved a hand vaguely, voice shaking, anger boiling in his lungs. “Why’d you just watch them fucking go?”

“Dave,” Cheryl repeated, her voice icy. “Don’t take this out on her.”

Lucy backed away from him, eyes welling up with tears before she vanished into thin air. Cheryl sprang up, looking around, murmuring her name softly, but not before giving him a silent death glare. Howard sighed deeply, shaking his head with his face in his hands, so pathetic-looking that Dave almost felt sorry for him. Almost.

Dave exhaled, massaging his eyelids. Wasn’t like the functional eight-year-old could’ve done much anyway. What, like she should’ve rushed in there herself, gotten killed too? Fuck.

But it was no use saying sorry to empty air. Wouldn’t fix anything anyway, for her or anyone else.

Mia lay silent, unmoving in her bed, and Dave stared at her, fists clenched and shaking, until sometime, much later, he drifted off into some kind of sleep.

-------

“Dave. Dave, wake up.”

He started awake immediately, a strangled noise emerging from his throat, hands clutching at the sofa. Martha gave him a concerned, warily sympathetic look. “You all right?”

He just blinked. “We should check on the kids,” she went on. “See how they’re holding up.”

“I…” He stared at the others, standing in exactly the positions he remembered. “Okay,” he croaked as he rose to his feet. Okay, okay, what the fuck. Science and rationality. Just pattern-matching, for fuck’s sake. For this kind of thing to mean anything, you’d have to predict what’d happen ahead of time. What did he remember of the dream, exactly? Cheryl had knocked on the door and said…

“Kids? Are you awake?”

A fluke. Just a couple of words. He struggled to pull up words, exact words, as she reached for the door handle. Lucy? Where are the others? That was what he remembered. They left. They’re going to save Gabriel. And now it’d be different, different words, different events, because –

“Lucy? Where are the others?”

“They left. They’re going to save Gabriel. They took Dan and Martha’s car.”

Dave’s ears rang as everything melted together, voices echoing incoherently as blood pounded in his ears. Before he knew it he’d turned, stormed out the door and slammed it behind him, glaring daggers at the gray, cloudy sky.

“You think this is funny, huh? Think this’ll make me come crawling back?” His voice shook with rage. “Well, why doesn’t every other motherfucker who loses his kids get a second fucking chance, huh? You couldn’t use your almighty fucking magic to tell your shitbag worshippers not to murder kids the first fucking time? You couldn’t spare one fucking second to cure malaria instead of fucking with me? Fuck you!”

The sky didn’t answer. Dave took a deep, agitated breath, then another.

Fuck. Whatever was really going on here, he wasn’t this far gone. He turned back to the house and grabbed the doorknob, but it didn’t turn.

Cheryl opened as soon as he knocked, giving him a look that said oh, Christ, she’d heard him, hadn’t she. “Never fucking mind,” he said, whirling back and making a beeline for his car.

He stepped into the driver’s seat, started the car and headed north before she could come out and stop him. He’d kill those motherfuckers himself if he had to. The drive was a blur; he wasn’t quite aware of himself until he’d parked somewhere by the side of the church, diagonally across at least two spaces, marched up to the door, and torn it open.

A man stood there, armed with a handgun, staring at him in surprise. “Murderous fuckers!” Dave snarled, raising his own gun.

His hand trembled as he aimed, jerked with the unfamiliar recoil, and the bullet shattered a stained-glass window. The next one hit, somewhere; the man jerked backwards and then swung his gun arm back around and pulled the trigger.

Something punched Dave in the lung. He blinked as something sharp stung in the wake of the punch, squeezed the trigger again and again as everything became warm and wet and he couldn’t breathe. The other man collapsed as the gun clicked uselessly. Dave tried to take a step forward only for the power to leave his legs, sending him crumpling to the floor.

The gun clattered against the stone; he tried to reach for it, but all he could see was his fingers twitching uselessly in a spreading pool of blood, and the other man further away, eyes glassy and frozen and staring unblinkingly back at him from a lifeless, blood-splattered face.

There was a strange, cold numbness spreading through him as he struggled to breathe, to squirm towards the gun. The more his lungs tried to pull in oxygen, the more the taste of blood rose in his throat. He tried to cough and everything hurt. This had been a really, really fucking stupid idea. Why’d he ever thought this’d fucking work? (Maybe he hadn’t, really.)

He coughed again, gurgling blood, a stab of pain shooting through the numbness. His racing heartbeat thumped deafeningly in his ears. God, why wouldn’t it just fucking end? The other guy stared lifelessly back at him, and Dave tried to savour the small victory of taking one of them down with him, but all he could feel was nausea and spreading, throbbing agony.

Somewhere in the distance, a door burst open. A scream – Katherine? Hands were shaking him, and he tried to tell them to go, just leave, but nothing happened. The last fuzzy thing he saw as the world began to fade, finally, was Mia’s face leaning down into his field of vision, frowning at him, like he’d just done something incredibly, incredibly dumb.

-------

And then he was back. He jerked awake, limbs flailing in Martha’s face as she tried to rouse him, his heart pounding, and sprang to his feet like the world’s most frazzled jack-in-the-box. He felt his chest – no holes, no blood, nothing – and only after staring at Martha’s baffled face for a moment did it properly sink in that it was that morning, again. It had rewound, again, and he wasn’t dead, and none of that had happened.

“You okay?” asked Cheryl.

“Yes. No. No! The kids are gone. They’re gone, off on a fucking suicide mission, again. Fuck!” He clutched his hair, fingers digging into his skull.

“What?” said Martha, skeptical; Cheryl ran to the girls’ room and opened it, gasping in shock.

“They went to save Gabriel,” Lucy said, and Dave marched into the room, grabbing her by the shoulders.

“Lucy. How do I fix it?”

She blinked at him in confusion. He shook her shoulders. “Lucy, I swear to fucking God, if you don’t tell me what’s going on and how I save them –”

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Cheryl tore him away from Lucy with unexpected force, holding his arm in a painful grip, and Dave swayed on his feet.

“Ow, let me go, I just –”

“Not until you tell me what the fuck is going on and leave my daughter alone.” He stared at her, and she stared back, her gaze deadly firm. He’d never seen her quite this angry, and that sobered him a bit. He took a breath, his arm throbbing.

“Okay. Okay. Look, I’m… I’m stuck in a fucking loop. It was this same day yesterday, and the day before that. I know what happens. They go there and then they fucking die. Fuck!”

Cheryl glanced around silently. “Dave,” she said, loosening her grip on him slightly but not letting him go. “I think you should probably get a bit more rest.”

The others nodded in silent agreement. Dave stared wildly at them and opened his mouth, then closed it again. Yeah. He sounded like a fucking lunatic. Really, he would’ve been fucking worried if they had believed him.

“Okay,” he said and took a deep breath. “Yeah. I just… I’m just going to lie down and think for a bit.”

Cheryl didn’t let go of his arm until he’d laid himself back down onto the sofa. He pressed his hands against his eyelids, trying to soothe his pulsing headache, and tried not to listen to the others as they made phone calls and agitated arguments.

The first thing that flew into his head was to just walk out right now, drive to the nearest shooting range, practice until they closed, and then go to sleep, rinse and repeat, until he could waltz in there like a fucking action hero and dispose of the fuckers. Hell, apparently, if he failed he could just try again. Easy. Why not?

And yet, he didn’t move. His throat tightened with blood that wasn’t there, a coppery smell in his nostrils, quickening heartbeat thumping in his ears, lifeless, glassy eyes staring back and nausea rising in the back of his mouth, and he stayed rooted to the couch.

What the fuck kind of plan would that be, anyway? Save them, and then get arrested and tried for a fucking mass shooting in a church? Imagine the goddamn headlines.

It had to be possible to fix this. Somehow, he could make them turn back. And he had… his stomach did a queasy flip, but he could probably experiment. It’d all be reset anyway. He could do one thing, see what the consequences were, then do something else next time. It was a perfect setup, wasn’t it? Infinite replication with all variables identical, except for whatever he chose to change?

He started to sit up, but Cheryl pushed him back down. “I think you should stay there and let us handle this,” she said firmly.

Okay. Perhaps this wasn’t the best starting point. But that was fine. He had time. This was fine.

-------

The first thing he tried was to just not do anything. Sharon instead called Jack and tried to talk him out of it. Again, he promised they’d come back, but they didn’t. The outcome was the same as the first time, more or less: Jean returning home after touching a Fire Stone, Will and Mia dead.

For the next few goes, he tried calling Jean and saying different things. “Letting slip” that Gabriel was being held in a warehouse on the other side of town. They saw through it – Mia saw through it – and the same thing happened. Any time he warned Jean off the Fire Stone, everything somehow turned out worse.

Just taking a nap wasn’t enough to fast-forward to the next iteration. As best he could tell, after a few goes, it looped over at six AM. If he was still awake by then, he’d just blink and find himself waking up on the sofa again. He restlessly accompanied the others to hospitals, nauseous as he identified Mia’s body for the fifth or sixth time, waiting to just get to sleep already so he could try again.

It crept up on him, finally, as he sat by Mia’s bedside once again, agitatedly trying to fall asleep on the hard chair, that technically he had a much quicker way to reset.

Yeah. Why not? He’d already died once. Be way fucking easier. He’d read enough at one point or another to not bungle it, to know where to shoot. Really it was a no-brainer.

He didn’t move. The bile in the back of his throat tasted of blood.

His gaze slid over to Mia, injured but alive this time around – not that it mattered, not that anything mattered when it’d all be erased in a few hours. She would tell him there was no reason not to, that he was just wasting his own time sitting here, trying to sleep in the world’s most uncomfortable chair. What was he even waiting for?

He stood up. Cheryl looked up at him, questioning. He pointed vaguely towards the restrooms. “I’m just…”

She nodded absently, looked away again.

Dave headed for the nearest bathroom, mouth dry, and the instant he’d closed and locked the door behind him, he was hit with a flash of intense nausea and only just managed to throw open the toilet and collapse in front of it before he was throwing up bile.

By the time he finally had control of himself and his stomach had settled into a dull, passive ache, he was shaking. He pushed himself weakly to his feet, rinsed out his mouth in the sink and then rose up again in front of the mirror, supporting himself on the brim of the sink. (God, he looked like shit.)

He pulled the gun out from under his belt and lifted it to his temple. His hand trembled in the mirror, and he squeezed his eyes shut. Willed himself to pull the trigger. Nothing happened.

This was dumb. Just fucking do it. He wouldn’t even actually die, for fuck’s sake.

Nothing. Why the fuck should he even care? They’d all just pop out of existence in a few hours anyway, gone like everything else.

Or would they? Was it the world that was looping, or just him? Would everything be erased, or would he be spawning an entire fucking alternate timeline where Howard and Cheryl watched him go in and lock the door, and then heard a bang, and would be left trying to explain to Mia when she woke up why he’d suddenly blown his brains out in a hospital bathroom?

(Worse, they probably wouldn’t even think it was that inexplicable, would they. Most of the kids were fucking dead. They’d just figure—)

There was an abrupt knock on the door, and he jumped, lowering the gun quickly, like a kid caught playing with something he shouldn’t.

“Dave?” It was Cheryl, of course it was. “You okay?”

“Yeah. Fine.”

“Do you need anything?” Her voice was exhausted.

“No.” Goddamn it. Why was she there, acting like she cared?

“It’s going to… We’ll get through this. I know that’s easy for us to say, our girls are still…” She trailed off with a heavy sigh. “I can only imagine what you’re going through right now. But they need you. Mia needs you. And we’re… here for you.”

What the actual fuck did she think he was doing in here. “Look, I don’t…”

“I know that’s not something you want to hear, but maybe you should hear it anyway. I just… I’m so sorry about Jean.”

His fingers clenched around the handle of the gun. He heard a soft thump and a slide, like she’d just sat down against the wall outside.

“I just keep replaying it all in my head, wondering if there was anything we could have done,” she said, quieter, only barely audible through the door.

Yeah. That’s what I’m doing too, with my new time-travel powers. He imagined opening the door, telling her that and raising the gun again. Just seeing the look on her face before pulling the trigger. Why not? It’d all be reset. Even if it spawned an alternate timeline, wasn’t like he’d have to fucking live in it.

He stood and squeezed the gun, jaw clenched.

Fuck.

Slowly, he put the safety back on and stuffed it back under his belt.

“Still there?” she said on the other side.

“There’s only one door. Do the math.” He sank down by the door and rubbed at his face. He was so fucking tired. Maybe it’d be easier to fall asleep in here than on that goddamn chair.

There was a pause. “You don’t have to deal with this alone,” she said.

“Great. Thanks. Eagerly awaiting your bright ideas on resurrection.”

She let out a long, exhausted sigh. A few seconds passed in silence before there was a shuffling of fabric as she stood up again. “Can’t say I didn’t try.”

Dave flopped his head against the door behind him and squeezed his eyes shut, waiting for sleep to come.

-------

“Hey. Jean? Where are you?”

“We’re saving Gabriel! We took Dan and Martha’s car and—”

“Look, it’s… it’s okay. You don’t have to do this. They just rescued Gabriel. He’s safe with the police. They just called to let us know.”

“Really?” Jean gasped over the phone. There was a little note of disappointment behind the relief in her voice. God, Jean.

The others were staring at him, faces shocked. Bill looked angry. Sure, let’s hear his genius idea. Their kids about to get slaughtered by a bunch of gun-wielding lunatics, and what, they were going to get on his case for fucking lying to them? Let them relive this day in a fucking loop, see what they came up with.

He heard indistinctly as Jean relayed the message to the others. There was a crackling as Jack took the phone, as usual.

“You sure? He’s safe?”

“Yeah. It’s all right, everything’s fine.”

“Weren’t you saying last night that probably some of them are in the police? How can you be sure they aren’t just saying they rescued him to stop us trying anything? Or that, that he’s even safe in their custody? When can he come home?”

Fuck. Had he said that to them? It’d been weeks by this point. “I called around, guy I know knew an officer he trusted, they put a team together. It’s fine.”

“It’s…” Jack hesitated. God, let him please just buy it, or he’d have to do a whole other iteration just to figure out a better fucking lie. “He’s really okay?”

“He’s fine.”

There was no way to tell whether Jack really believed him. The previous times he’d sure also made it sound like yeah, they’d be coming back, only to not do it. Dave paced, and drank half a bottle of scotch, and tried to tune out the others’ conversation about whether this was right and what they could possibly tell them when they got there, until the doorbell rang.

He held Jean, okay and fine and normal, for a long time, and didn’t have the voice to say anything at all.

Mia was looking at him intently from where she stood, and he half-expected her to bust out one of her sudden inspired deductions about everything based on the exact rate of his pulse or the contraction of his pupils or whatever the fuck. Instead, it was Jack who first asked about Gabriel and Bill who told him he was still at the church and always had been.

Jack stared at Dave mutely for a moment. Then he screamed and lunged. Dave let go of Jean, shoving her out of the way just before Jack’s fist barreled into his stomach. He staggered backward, wind knocked out of him, and before he could do anything at all, Jack’s antennae lit up with electricity and swung into his shoulder. His muscles seized up, everything cramping, and he hit the floor hard, teeth clamping down on the edge of his tongue.

“You fucked-up asshole,” Jack snarled, voice breaking, struggling as his parents pulled him back. “They’re going to kill him and you don’t even care!”

Dave tried to breathe through his nose as his mouth filled with blood, body locked in a fetal position, every muscle in his body simultaneously on fire. Cheryl and Dan were rushing to check on him, but all he could do was grunt vaguely. Jean watched with tears in her eyes, as betrayed as the rest.

Of course Jack wanted to head out again, but at least his parents were firm that that had never been a good idea and wouldn’t help anyone, and they sure as hell weren’t leaving him alone to rally the others again. Instead, Jack insisted they actually do what Dave’d said he’d done – call around, find a trustworthy connection with the police.

Dave sat on the sofa, silent, arms folded, glaring at nothing, with another glass of scotch. Yeah. Maybe they should’ve just done that in the first fucking place.

He downed the rest of the glass as the others made phone calls. His tongue was still aching and uncomfortable in his mouth, the cut stinging at the alcohol. Who the fuck would he have called anyway? But eventually someone bit and said they’d be looking into it.

They waited, and waited. Eventually Jean exhaustedly joined him on the couch, sniffling, curling up against him, and he put his arm around her and pulled her close.

He dozed off like that, eventually, after a long, long time, until he started awake at his phone buzzing in his pocket and fumbled to answer it.

“Hello, David Ambrose.”

The same voice from yesterday (weeks ago), laced with smug malice. Ice shot through his veins, evaporating the exhaustion out of his brain.

“Let him go,” he growled.

“Unfortunately you didn’t hold up your end of the deal. You know what that means.”

Fuck. Fuck. How the fuck had he even known? “The fuck are you talking about?”

“You know perfectly well.” There were faint sounds of movement from the other end of the phone, the opening of a door, footsteps. “Did you know, he was trying to escape earlier today? We had to tie him up.”

Dave pressed the phone to his ear, heartbeat thundering in his head. “Let him go, you piece of shit.” His voice was shaky and unconvincing. “Look, we can—”

Another door opened, and suddenly he could hear a muffled scream. “Say goodbye. There will be a next time. Remember this then.”

“Hello?” came Gabriel’s voice, panicked as whatever had covered his mouth was removed. “Help! Someone, please, he’s—”

There was a gunshot, and then dead silence.

“Gabriel?” The other end hung up. His phone slid uselessly out of his grip.

Jean clutched his shoulder, sobbing quietly. Why’d they even tried? Fuckers. He’d always known this was a bad idea. Why’d he even fucking let them? Wordlessly, he pulled Jean close and squeezed her tightly.

Wasn’t this basically the ideal outcome, anyway, the one he’d been trying for? Only one fucking dead kid, Jean alive and well? Maybe with that achieved, the loop would break and they could all move on with their lives.

There was an icy pit in his stomach that wouldn’t go away.

“S-shouldn’t we tell the others?” Jean murmured.

He took a deep, sickening breath. “Yeah. I’m… Hold on.”

He let go of her, gently, and rose up, stumbling into the kitchen. He’d expected it to be empty, but Mia was standing there, hand in a bag of beef jerky. Alive and well, too.

“I was hungry,” she said.

“They shot Gabriel,” he said, his voice shaking uselessly.

Mia nodded. “They said they would do that.”

“How did they even fucking know? I just…”

“You said they rigged a Gardevoir test. Maybe they’re using Psychic Pokémon.”

Maybe. Did it even fucking matter? Just one more thing that didn’t work, because nothing worked.

“Hey, Mia.” He found the bottle of scotch, poured out another glass with trembling hands. “Say you could go back in time and just redo something. Do it better. What do you do?”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “You can’t do that.”

He waved a hand. “Hypothetically imagine it, okay. Just, humour me for a moment.”

“Can I only go back once, or many times?”

He raised an eyebrow. “As many times as it takes.” And what, then it’d stop? Who said it would? Maybe he’d save them all, do everything perfectly, and it’d just fucking reset itself again and undo it. His personal Hell, forever. Maybe that was what this was.

He downed the glass as Mia thought about it, the cut on his tongue burning, and started to pour out another.

“If I didn’t do something right the first time, it’s because I didn’t know all the information to do it right,” she said. “So once I know what happens, I have the information. Maybe something changes when I do it again, but it’s only going to take a few tries.”

“Well, what if the thing you’re trying to get right isn’t even really about something you did, it’s other people. How do you convince them to not do what you know is going to be a goddamn disaster, when nobody’s going to believe you’re a fucking time-traveler who knows the future?”

Mia frowned. “You could prove that you know things you couldn’t know. They should listen if they’re smart. But people are weird.”

Huh. Dave swirled the drink in his glass for a moment. “Yeah. That’s a good point.”

He finished the glass and went rummaging through the cupboards for more alcohol.

-------

Dave woke on the sofa again with his head pounding and just wanted to go back to sleep for at least another fifty years.

He waved Martha away vaguely, couldn’t get his eyes to do anything but stare at the curtains. She gave up and went to check on the kids. Gabriel’s scream and the gunshot that cut it off into silence echoed in his ears under the sickening slow thump of his pulse in his temples.

He told himself to get up and call Mia, but his body was made of lead, the thought floating vaguely by without doing anything. What would it actually accomplish, anyway? The universe would just find some new way to twist the knife. Maybe his next intervention would just kill a different one. Maybe he’d save them all and then a fucking cartoon piano would fall on Jean, just to spite him.

The others tried to get a response out of him, but not for very long; they had better things to think about. As they began to call around, the same insufferable panicked voices clamoring obliviously for the twentieth time, Dave realized there was no fucking point.

He pulled out the gun. When someone screamed his name, he was already squeezing the trigger.

Maybe, he managed to think before the bang, this was how to get out of it all along. Maybe this was just it, and it’d be over.

And then, he was back on the sofa.

-------

“Hey, Jean. Is Mia there? I need to talk to her. It’s really important.”

Jean seemed taken aback. She was probably expecting him to ask where they were, what they were doing. No point in any of that.

“Um, okay. Hang on.”

Distortion again, then Mia’s voice. “Hi.”

Dave took a deep breath. “Hey. Bear with me for a moment. Hypothetically, what would it take for me to prove to you, right now, that I’m in a time loop and know everything that’s going to happen today?”

There was a beat of silence on the other end. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

“I know, Mia, but let’s say it came up. Just imagine it.” Thank God this was Mia and not literally any other person in the world, who would think this was a fucking bizarre thing to waste time on right now of all times. He was calling from the bathroom just so the others wouldn’t hear him, rip the phone out of his hands and try to get him institutionalized. He’d suggested they try to reach police contacts anyway, just to keep them busy. Clock ticking until they’d trip whatever had alerted the kidnappers before, probably. Not that it mattered. This was a throwaway timeline, just setup for the next. Probably best to just end it before it got to the point where anyone died. He’d had some practice at that by now.

There was another brief silence. “You’d have to tell me things that are about to happen that you wouldn’t be able to control, in enough detail that it couldn’t be a guess.”

“Okay. Cool. Problem is, hypothetically, I don’t know yet what’s about to happen around where you are right now, because I’m not there. So this is the loop where I ask. Can you describe some things like that as they happen, over the phone?”

“This is stupid.”

Deep breath. “Mia, please just fucking do it.”

Another pause. He could practically hear her frowning. “You’re being very weird. It’s more likely that you’re wrong or insane than that you’ve discovered time travel.”

“You’d think, huh. I mean, I didn’t exactly discover – look, just treat it as a hypothetical.”

“If you really were in a time loop, that’d be interesting. Time travel would have a lot of implications for science.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’ll write thousands of fucking papers on this, I bet.”

There was a pause on the other end. “Katherine is yawning. She’s tired because she’s not photosynthesizing enough. Jack’s looking between me and her because he’s waiting for us to keep going. Will has his hands in his pockets. Jean is talking to him about her fire powers. She just said ‘I hope I learn all kinds of Fire moves when I grow up, like Eruption! Blast Burn! Blaze Kick!’ She kicked the air and almost fell over but Will grabbed her.” Pause. “There’s a yellow car coming from the east, and a blue car about to come from the west.”

“Okay. Okay.” He struggled to memorize the whole sequence as she said it. Would they even be doing the same things next time? Maybe something about the exact millisecond timing of it would affect something, set a train of thought going somewhere just slightly different. God. Fuck. Yellow car from the east, blue car from the west. No way in hell that’d be in any way affected by his actions.

“A Pidgey just landed on the closest traffic light, about two and a half seconds before it changed to red.”

He looked at his watch. 9:46:37. Pidgey on the traffic light.

“If you were really in a time loop, you should also tell me something that’s not visible. You could just know about the Pidgey or the cars approaching from security cameras.”

God. Dave rubbed his hand over his face. “Right. Okay. So tell me something I’d never know unless you told me. Something you were thinking, or whatever.”

Mia paused. “Earlier while we were driving I was thinking about what Katherine would taste like. Maybe the chlorophyll would make her taste like a plant. But that’s just in the skin, so if you removed it the flesh would probably be more like normal meat.”

Jesus Christ. His insides squirmed uncomfortably. “Okay, well, I sure hope your next-loop self knows I would not fucking think of that myself.”

“It’s still very unlikely that you can travel through time,” she said.

“Well, lucky for me, I’ve apparently got all the time in the world to convince you. See you next time.”

-------

He was prepared for Mia to not believe him, but once he’d told her all that, she was willing to entertain it, at least tentatively.

His shoulders sagged as he rubbed a hand over his face. Still sitting on the toilet lid in the tiny guest bathroom, indistinct voices somewhere on the other side of the walls.

“If you’re in a time loop, does that mean time is linear and everything rewinds, or are there different timelines branching off every time?”

Dave sighed. “I don’t know, Mia. All I know is I wake up again on that sofa every fucking time, and it’s always the same day and everything happens the same way, and I remember everything but nobody else does.”

“If you’re getting sent back in time, what happens to the you that was there?”

“Well, I’ve died a few times now and I still wake up alive. And I’ve still got the same goddamn hangover every time. So I’m not physically going back in time, it’s just the memories.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Mia said. “Your memories are just patterns of neural connections in your brain. If your body is the same as at the beginning of the loop, your memories should also be the same.”

That was a good fucking point, wasn’t it. Was this insanity somehow proving the existence of the fucking soul? What was the alternative, that his brain was traveling back in time, magically scooping the original brain out of his head and replacing it while leaving him unharmed? Was that really any less insane?

He massaged his eyelids. “I don’t know. None of it makes a lick of sense. All I know is it’s happening. You just heard me predict the future.”

“Do the other timelines keep existing after you loop? Maybe you split into one copy of you who stays in the timeline and another who loops back. Then each copy would always eventually stay in one of the timelines.”

“God, at this point I hope not.”

“Why?”

He scratched his scalp. “I mean, it’s not exactly helpful if every day there’s just a fifty-fifty chance I walk away in a world where some of you are dead and there’s nothing I can do about it, is it?”

Mia considered that for a moment. “So you don’t actually want to get out of the time loop. You just want to make it so that we win.”

“I… ‘win’?”

“Yes. You want us to go to the church and get Gabriel, without any of us dying. If you tell me what went wrong before, then we can do it better. Then, once it works, every time it loops you can tell me the same thing, and then we can win every time.”

“Look, no, hold on, Mia, I…”

He was going to tell her no, he wanted them to come back there. Just leave Gabriel for now and… then do what? Keep calling the police, with whatever unknowns were at play there, until somehow they wouldn’t find out? What the fuck was he trying to accomplish here?

He took a breath. “So what’s your plan here, exactly?”

“How did I die in the other loops? If you tell me, I can just not do that.”

Dave’s tongue was dry and uncomfortable in his mouth.

“The first time, you were shot in the back of the head. Three times. Died instantly.”

Mia considered that. “That’s dumb. I should’ve been listening for anyone behind me. Why wasn’t I doing that?”

His gut crawled with nausea. “Well, apparently you’d just slit somebody’s throat.”

“Huh,” Mia said, with neutral curiosity. “Who?”

“Please don’t do that, Mia.”

“Why?”

“Because.” He squeezed his eyes shut. “Because then even if you survive you’re going to prison and they’re going to activate the Dangerous Nonhumans Act and everything sucks forever, for all of you. You can never go to school again or get hotdogs or play with Lucy, okay? Do you want that?”

“No.” She paused. “Who was it?”

“One of those zealots at the church. How would I know?”

“Was it the one who killed Brian?”

Dave took a deep breath through his nose. “No.”

“That’s too bad. What about the other times?”

“Most of the time it was either that or you lived but got shot in the back while they killed everyone else. Look, Mia, I don’t know how the fuck you’re going to go in there and get Gabriel out without anybody dying. Again, it’s a bunch of people with guns.”

“This time I can hide,” she said. “I can see where they are and what they do, and then I can tell you afterwards. Then next time you can tell me before we go.”

Dave sat back against the toilet, jaw clenched. “So what happens this time around?” he asked. “The others all waltz in the same way and get killed?”

“If you’re really in a time loop, then from your point of view that doesn’t change anything. They’ll be back in the next loop.”

That was true, wasn’t it. Throwaway timeline. Just like the ones where he blew his own brains out and who knew what happened to the kids after that, if there was an after. Mia would stay in it, if there was any such thing, but she didn’t care, did she. Of course she didn’t. The only difference was he’d have to sit and wait while it happened.

“Okay,” he croaked. Worth a try. Had to be. What the hell else was he supposed to try?

“Then we should go.”

“Right. Okay. But…” He took a deep breath. “Just hang on for a bit. Please.”

“Why?”

He rubbed his face, the same stubble he’d had for weeks, months, clawing at his palm. Why? Good question.

He took another breath, like that, with his face buried in his palm, slumped against the back of the toilet. “Can we just talk, for a bit?”

“About what?”

“Anything. Time travel or science. The taste of fucking human flesh, whatever.”

“You’re being weird.”

He was so, so fucking tired.

Dave took another breath to say something, and it came out wordless and wavering. The next a trembling sob.

He removed the phone from his ear. “Dave?” said Mia’s voice on the other end.

For a moment he stared at the phone, teeth clenched, trying to blink the blur from his vision, body helplessly shuddering. He wavered over the end call button for a few seconds, throat tightening.

“Dave?” she said again.

Fuck. He punched the button, put the phone down by the sink with a clatter and curled up on the toilet lid, head in his arms, waiting.

It took a few agonizing minutes before his body had wrung itself dry, everything aching and swollen and wound. He wiped his face off with a few squares of toilet paper and then sat squeezing the wad, limbs shaking and powerless.

His phone started vibrating again on the counter. He picked it up and answered.

“Dave?” said Mia.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m here.”

“Why did you hang up?”

“Never mind. Are you – are you still there?”

“We’re in the car now,” she said.

He took a deep breath, rubbing his face again. Options. There had to be options that weren’t sitting around waiting while they obliviously got themselves murdered.

Jack? He read a lot of sci-fi. He’d also fucking punched and paralyzed him, but at least this Jack didn’t remember him lying to them to make them leave Gabriel to die. Small victories.

“Look, can you… Just tell them. Tell Jack. Let’s see how it goes.”

Some part of him expected her to object, but she didn’t. Indistinctly he heard her voice, in the same tone as always, saying, “Dave’s in a time loop.”

Jack: “What—Mia, what?”

Indistinct explanation in Mia-speak. Jack, a little louder: “Mia, just – put him on speaker, please?”

“Hi,” Dave said.

“Dave, what the fuck are you talking about?” Jack had already sounded agitated on every previous phone call, but even more so this time.

(“You’re in a time loop?!” Jean gasped somewhere in the background, like it was the coolest thing ever. This girl was going to be the death of him.)

Dave sighed. “Look, I know it sounds batshit but – I proved it to Mia’s satisfaction by predicting the fucking future earlier. You think she’s a person who’d play along with this for a laugh, or what?”

“But that’s… Okay, let’s say we believe that crap. What do you expect us to do exactly? Not save Gabriel? Is that what this is about, you trying to get us to come back and just leave it? Like he’s nothing?”

He gritted his teeth. “No, Jack, I want to save him without you getting shot down like a pack of children attacking a church full of armed fucking nutjobs. That’s all.”

There was an uncomfortable silence. “So we did save him before?” Jack asked, his voice tight.

“Yeah, and two of you ended up dead instead. The next time went even worse. Now will you fucking listen to me?”

“Dave, this is insane,” said Katherine’s voice, tense and wavering. “You can’t just call and say you’re in a time loop – look, I’m going to pull over before I – shit!” A car horn blared. “Sorry!”

He’d almost managed to forget about the whole Katherine illegally driving a car aspect of the whole situation. “Yes. Yes, for the love of God, pull over. And be careful; first time around you managed to crunch somebody’s car in a goddamn parking lot.”

Will’s small voice piped up timidly, audible for the first time. “Who… Who died?”

Him. Him practically every single time, dead on the spot from a bullet to the head.

Dave inhaled. “Does it even matter? I hope to God none of you do this time.”

“He said earlier that the first time I did,” Mia said, helpfully. “And that the next time I lived but everyone else died.”

There was another uncomfortable silence. All of them realizing they were mortal, that versions of them had been torn apart by bullets and bled out on a church floor. Maybe it was for the best that Mia had just said it.

“I’ve got an idea,” Jack said, voice wavering. “We’ve – we’ve got Felicia with us. What if we get a Fire Stone and…”

“You already did and they fucking shot her too,” Dave snapped. “Fantastic idea, by the way, because before that Jean touched the fucking Fire Stone and…” His throat closed up, his grip on the phone tightening. Did they really need to hear about that? Probably not.

“Did you try just calling the police?” Katherine asked after a pause, hesitant.

“Of course we did. They found out.”

“And they…” Jack’s voice.

“Yeah.”

There was a long, thick silence.

“I want to go home,” said Jean quietly.

“You can’t just go home, Jean,” Jack snapped. “We need to save him.”

“I don’t want to if everyone’s just going to get hurt,” she said. She sounded like she was about to cry. Dave wanted to just reach through the phone and get her away from all this. Fuck.

“You want to just leave him to die, then?”

“Jack, for fuck’s sake, nobody wants to leave him to die. Do you want to get everyone else killed a dozen fucking times? Because, congratulations, you already did.”

Another silence. Dave rubbed his face in agitation.

“Dave, that’s uncalled for,” came Katherine’s voice finally, unsteady. “We all chose to be here.”

“Then what do we do?” Jack asked, voice breaking. “If we can’t go to the church and we can’t do nothing and call the police, what can we do?”

Dave took a deep breath. There wasn’t anything. Wasn’t that the point, last night, that night a century ago? There was nothing they knew would be safe, not in this timeline. Not unless they experimented. Put themselves in harm’s way just so he could move to a different timeline and save some other copies of them. Real fucking reassuring.

Fuck.

He sat up straighter, clutching the toilet lid. “Look, I’m… I’ll come out there and help.”

“What?”

“I’ve got a gun. I’ll come over where you are and we’ll all go in. I tell you everything I know. I can… What if I stop at the ranch and borrow more of Dan and Martha’s Pokémon?”

“Dave, this is… this is insane,” said Katherine. “Going in there got everyone killed before, and you want to join us?”

“Well, if you’ve got a better idea where Gabriel doesn’t die, I’m all fucking ears.”

“Our Pokémon aren’t really trained for high-stakes battling,” Peter muttered. “They’re not…”

“Don’t you see what he’s doing?” said Jack, cold. “He’s in a time loop. It doesn’t matter to him if this is a bad idea, because he can just try again. Right?”

Dave pressed his lips together. Had Jack always been this fucking cynical? In a flash he imagined just letting them go, whatever, seeing if he could have a better version of this conversation, or not have it at all, just figure out something else that wasn’t trying to convince a bunch of kids he was a fucking sci-fi character.

He rested his forehead on his palm. It didn’t even make any fucking sense, not at this point. Every previous batch of kids was already gone, either killed or wiped out by the reset or in some inaccessible alternate universe. Why should he even get attached to any one set of them? What was the fucking point of any of this?

“Jack,” he said finally, squeezing his eyes shut. “What exactly do you think I’d be doing if I just wanted you to not die? Because if you’ve got some brilliant idea of what that is, then please just fucking tell me.”

His voice came out wavering despite his best efforts. There was a long silence.

“Okay,” Jack said eventually. His voice was shaking too. “Okay, Dave. I don’t know. I just figure…”

“What happened when I touched the Fire Stone?” Jean asked in a small voice.

Deep breath. Dave pressed down on his eyelids, wished for the colored spots to just dissolve everything.

“You evolved,” he said. “But just… halfway. The Vulpix parts evolved. You came out of it blonde and proportioned like…”

Like a monster freak. Like a fucking Barbie doll. Like an uncanny valley character out of a video game with too many sliders.

“…Just fucking wrong.”

There was another cold silence. Why even tell her that? How was that helpful?

“You should tell us more about what happened on the previous loops,” Mia said. “The more we know about what happened, the more likely it is we could do it differently this time.”

“Mia, we can’t just…” said Katherine, her voice squeaky.

Jack swallowed. “No, it’s… I think Mia’s right. If we’re going to figure something out, we need to know exactly what happened.”

Dave’s stomach crawled. That first time was a long time ago now. The more of a blur it’d become, the better.

“First time,” he began, swallowing the sickness in his throat. “First time we woke up to all of you gone. I called Jean and told her you should come back, and you didn’t. Then eventually Jean shows up at the door, looking like… like that. Says she left you after the Fire Stone accidentally evolved her and came back by public transport, and the rest of you were going on to the church, even though you were already fucking figuring it was a trap. Lucy’s been there staring out the window this whole time, but once Jean says that she just floats out and goes oh, since they’re not coming here I’m going to help the others.”

“Wait, what?” Jack said. “Lucy?”

“Yeah. Lucy went and…” Hold on. “She went to the church, after you. By the time she gets there, Pete’s been shot, Katherine’s been shot, Will’s dead, Mia’s dead. Gabriel’s fucking dog is dead. Gabriel’s burned some man alive and then fainted, Mia’s slit somebody’s throat. Someone’s about to shoot Jack. And that’s when Lucy arrives on the scene, attacks that guy, and then when she sees Mia she goes berserk. Turns out she can use Perish Song, knocks out everyone in the vicinity and herself. And that’s how the police and paramedics find you.”

Lucy was powerful. She really could do more creepy Pokémon shit than any of them. She could make herself impermeable to bullets and knock out a building, just like that.

She was also as good as eight fucking years old. A horrid weight twisted in his stomach.

“Lucy can…” Jack said, realizing the same thing. “She can use Perish Song? And it… it just knocks everyone out? Safely?”

“Jack, you can’t be thinking –” Katherine protested.

“She could do it. She could save Gabriel and everyone.”

“She’s just a kid!”

Wasn’t like Lucy’d come out of it unscathed. She’d refused to speak. But then again, that was in the timeline where she’d arrived to find her sister shot in the head.

Was he really even fucking contemplating this?

“It…” Dave swallowed. “It might be worth a shot.”

-------

There was no way in fucking hell that the others would okay this. So Dave just told them he was going to see how Lucy was doing.

She looked up at him as he entered the girls’ room, all bright innocent eyes, smiling serenely. Like everything wasn’t fucked-up and upside-down.

“Hey, Lucy,” he said, his voice fucking weird, and instantly she just ran up and put her arms around his waist.

“It’s okay, Uncle Dave. They’re going to save him,” she said, with dumb little kid certainty.

He swallowed hard. “Look, about that. They might need your help.”

She released him, blinking up at him. “I have to stay here and take care of you,” she said after a moment.

Take care of them? “Yeah, uh, it looks like maybe you don’t, after all. They just want you guys. Kidnapping Gabriel and all that, it was mostly a plot to get the rest of you over there. They’re not planning to come here.”

Lucy stared at him, hesitant. “How do you know?”

He exhaled slowly, shoulders sagging. So fucking tired.

“Because I’m in a time loop, okay?”

She blinked.

“As in, this whole day happened, and when I woke up again it was this morning again. And then the whole day happened again, and so on, and it’s still happening. And it’s gone a million different ways, but I’m telling you they never fucking come over here or hurt any of us. They just… they’re going to hurt Mia.”

Lucy looked at him carefully. Did she think this was some elaborate make-believe? Or would she actually buy it? Hard to tell.

Her brows knitted together. “How can I help?” she asked.

Dave took a deep breath. “Do you know how to use an attack called Perish Song?”

-------

She didn’t, apparently. But she did have some attacks that she practiced sometimes when she was alone that she hadn’t told anyone about. People would think she was a freak. Weird. And they all kept telling her and Mia that they had to be really sure not to hurt each other in their games, after all. So she’d just kept it a secret and never done it in front of anyone.

(It would have just about given him a heart attack to learn that, if he hadn’t already learned it so many times as part of learning multiple kids were dead.)

So Perish Song… That one must have been spontaneous. A reaction to Mia’s dead body. They sure as hell weren’t recreating that just so she could do it again.

But it was still better than nothing. Or so he hoped.

Again, there was no way in hell the others would approve this. So Dave just told them he wanted to have a look around for whether there was anyone watching the building, and once he was out he got in the car and signaled Lucy so she could float out through the wall and get in the back seat before anyone noticed a thing.

It only took a minute after he’d started the car before his phone started ringing frantically in his pocket. Yeah, right. Not answering that.

He imagined who it might be. Cheryl, probably. Asking what the fuck he was doing with her daughter, was he mad, where did he think he was going. What would he even tell her, anyway? Don’t worry, I’m in a time loop? I’m sorry but I tried fucking everything else? Just personally bringing Lucy into danger too, she’s the only one who hasn’t fucking died yet?

The buzz in his pocket continued until it rang out, went quiet for three blissful seconds, and then immediately started again.

He reached a shaky hand into his pocket, the other gripping the steering wheel, and fished it out before extending his hand blindly toward the back seat. “Lucy, can you just press the fucking red button if it starts ringing.”

“You don’t want to answer?” she asked hesitantly, but took the phone anyway. In the rear-view mirror, he watched her flip it open with a look of intense concentration and then press the end call button.

“Well, no. It’s probably your parents and they wouldn’t exactly give a nice thumbs-up to this.”

Lucy looked guiltily away. He probably shouldn’t have fucking said anything. The phone rang again in her hands and she pushed the button.

“Why didn’t you tell them about the time loop?” she asked.

“Because they’d never fucking believe me, okay? They’re grown-ups with brains who know this makes zero scientific sense. I wouldn’t fucking believe me either.”

“You said the others believe you,” Lucy said. “The other morphs.”

“Yeah. Open-mindedness of youth, I fucking guess.”

Lucy watched him carefully in the rear-view mirror. Again the phone went off and she silenced it.

“Is the time loop going to stop if we can save everyone?”

He exhaled slowly.

“I don’t know. Maybe. Best fucking guess.”

Why would it? Why the fuck would it? Wouldn’t that require there to be some kind of benevolent fucking god-entity who was actually doing this just so he could save all the kids, yet wouldn’t just intervene in any of the billion better ways to do it? Why wouldn’t everything just reset again, force him to do it all again until the end of time? What was the point?

“What are you going to do if it doesn’t?” Lucy asked, hypnotic eyes unblinking.

He took a deep breath.

“Well, then we’d just have to save them again.”

“Even if it won’t work?”

“Well, if we can do it once, we can try again. Guess I’ll get it down to a fucking art. Shortest conversation that’ll get you on board, go.”

She was silent for a few seconds. Who the hell knew what she was thinking.

“You’re scared,” she said.

He raised an eyebrow. “Uh. Okay.” She sounded… what? Worried? Unsettled? Accusatory?

“You’re scared that we can’t save them. Or that it’s never going to stop even if we do.”

Christ. He got enough of this psychoanalytical bullshit from Mia.

“I mean, what, do you expect me to just assume baselessly that everything’s going to be great, in this fucking science fantasy bullshit scenario? What do you want from me?”

Lucy’s gaze stayed on him in the mirror for a few seconds before the phone began to buzz again. She hit the button and then turned away.

-------

Katherine’d pulled over into a grocery store parking lot, and there they stood, restless, avoiding suspicious glances from customers. Dave parked in the next spot over and opened the door.

Jean immediately flung herself at him. Will took a step closer but then stopped and looked uncomfortably away, fidgeting. Peter patted Will’s shoulder awkwardly, without saying anything. Jack and Katherine looked at Dave, eyes haunted, lips wavering. Traumatized by knowledge of things that hadn’t even happened.

Lucy ran out to hug her sister, who stood there blankly, brow furrowing, clearly not entirely comfortable with not being able to move her arms.

Dave held Jean tightly while she cried into his shoulder and didn’t have the voice to say anything.

“Lucy,” Jack began after an uncomfortable minute. “So you can… You can use Perish Song?”

She sniffled, shaking her head. “I don’t know.”

Jack raised his hands in agitation. “Then what—”

“But I can do Shadow Ball,” Lucy went on. “And Confusion, and… I think it’s Pain Split.”

Jack stared at her. “Since… Since when?”

“I’ve been practicing,” she said, looking down shyly. Yeah. Secretly practicing powers the rest of them couldn’t even imagine, just casually in her free time.

Jean had stopped crying, but didn’t move, clutching the back of his shirt and taking deep shuddering breaths. “What are we going to do?” she muttered, her voice small.

Some exhausted part of Dave’s brain didn’t want to do anything. Just stay here and hold her, savor this moment of the kids just being alive and well.

But right now, Gabriel was somewhere captive in a church, terrified, waiting to make a foolhardy attempt to escape that’d be quickly squashed with no one else there diverting the zealots’ attention.

He exhaled carefully, squeezing his eyes shut for a moment before letting go of Jean. She released him too in response. “Okay. Lucy, show me you can turn invisible.”

In the space of a second, Lucy’s body dissolved into smoke and then vanished entirely. Then, a second later, she reemerged. Quick, effortless. So long as she could do that, she should have plenty of juice to stay insubstantial. Impermeable. Bulletproof.

That should have been helpful, but it didn’t stop his gut crawling.

“So you’d go in there, insubstantial.” He half wanted to suggest she be invisible, too. But that was harder to keep up for long, actually riskier. And better if they wasted bullets on someone who wouldn’t be hurt, wasn’t it? Better if she stood there, a little girl, and just let them fucking shoot at her. Christ.

“You try to knock out anyone who’s there, okay? Just knock them out, until there’s no one left. And then you find Gabriel. He’s in the back somewhere. Just find him and help him get out.”

Lucy nodded, almost imperceptibly.

“And then we go home, and everything’s going to be fine.”

They all looked at one another. Tired. Haunted. Unsure.

“I guess that’s the best we can do,” Katherine said anxiously. “Are we getting back in the car?”

“No. No, you’d better stay safe here. I’ll drive Lucy up there.”

“But then she doesn’t have any backup, if…” Jack trailed off.

“You’re not going to be anyone’s fucking backup. Just stay clear and let us handle this.”

Jean shifted on her feet, uncomfortable. “Be safe, Dad,” she said, averting her eyes.

What could he do? He hugged her again, uselessly. “Look, I’ll be back,” he said. “I’ll be fine and then we’re coming back. With Gabriel.”

With that, he got back in the car with Lucy.

They drove on in silence, Lucy’s big round eyes looking this way and that. Dave knew the way to this fucking place far too well and hated it. He pointed out the building as they approached, then parked out of sight a little way down a side street.

“I’ll be back soon,” Lucy said before he had managed to work out what he wanted to say to her. She ran a hand through Dave’s body with a small giggle (a cold tingling went through him, sent a shiver down his spine), then phased out of the car and ran off down the street.

Dave sat and squeezed the steering wheel, pulse pounding in his ears. He’d just taken Lucy right up to the cult who wanted to murder her, expecting her to singlehandedly beat them. He’d officially fucking lost it.

The minutes crawled on as he waited. Nothing but the omnipresent sound of traffic, kids yelling shrilly somewhere up the street. Had there really been nothing he could do to help her? She’d just fucking up and vanished before he’d had a chance to think, and now they hadn’t even fucking talked about it. What was she even doing?

Then, suddenly, the boom of a gunshot. He stiffened in his seat, blood running cold, a sharp spike of adrenaline piercing through him. Another. And another four in quick succession.

Silence stretched on, his heart thundering in his chest. Confused shouts in the distance. His knuckles tight on the wheel.

Then more gunshots. Fuck. Fuck.

Lucy could take it, she was insubstantial, she could take it – but what about Gabriel? Would they get him? He should have come in there with her, done something, something

After another eternal, sickening pause, he heard rapidly approaching footsteps.

He whipped his head around to look up the street. And there… there was Lucy, running in a flurry of giggles, dress streaming behind her, and… Gabriel? Glowing. Naked.

He blinked, frozen. The two approached the car, Lucy easily phasing through it, Gabriel wrenching the back seat door open and sitting down, panting. Slime messily squelching against the seat.

“Please, just drive,” Gabriel gasped.

Did they have someone coming after them? Dave didn’t wait to find out. He backed out of the parking spot in a single quick turn and then floored it out of there.

-------

No pursuers. Not that they could see. Lucy said she’d knocked most of them out with Shadow Ball, and she’d had to knock out some of them twice. Which was probably good. It should mean it was nonfatal, right? No permanent damage? Nothing to pin on her other than reasonable self-defense?

Gabriel looked from side to side, swallowing. If he was glowing like that, he had to have been using his fire, like the first iteration. Had he used it on anyone?

“Hey, uh,” Dave said, “what about you?”

Gabriel looked wildly up. “What?”

“You hit anyone with your powers?”

“No! I…” He looked away, uncomfortably. “I mean, a little. But then Lucy appeared and knocked him out, so I stopped.”

Jesus. Would they have to deal with someone with second- or third-degree burns? Easy to use that to present the Pokémorphs as a danger even if no one had died.

Fuck. Think about that later.

They stopped where the other kids were. Jack hugged Gabriel tightly, ignoring the slime staining his clothes, and Gabriel sank into him, breaking into sudden sobs.

They couldn’t possibly pack all eight morphs into his car, so Jean came with him and Lucy and Gabriel and he let Katherine drive the others back, so long as she was very fucking careful. (It was probably for the best that he didn’t try to squeeze another morph in the middle back seat next to Gabriel, given he was oozing everywhere.)

In the end, they got them all safely back to the Kerrigans’ house, after a detour to get clothes for Gabriel out of the lab, some of the old test garments. Martha grilled Dave angrily on what on earth he’d been thinking when they were all inside, but at least she couldn’t argue with the goddamn results.

Everyone was safe. Gabriel was safe.

Dave sank into the sofa as the barrage of questions died down, all energy gone somewhere in it all. He wanted to sleep, for a thousand years. But if he slept, probably it’d all be gone by morning. He clung to wakefulness, to just watching the kids, there, all of them. Alive.

Jean sat on the sofa beside him, quiet but leaning on his shoulder. Lucy shrieked with giggles as Mia chased after her. Peter and Katherine and Will were talking with their parents, who hugged them close, even with no idea what had happened to them all the other times.

Jack and Gabriel were talking in the kitchen for a while in hushed tones. Gabriel squirmed uncomfortably in the clumsy test clothes, but his skin had slowly darkened to its usual tone.

“Hey,” Gabriel said eventually when the two of them stepped back out into the living room. “Dave? I… Jack told me what happened today and… I don’t know what’s going on, but thanks.”

He didn’t entirely look Dave in the eye. Gabriel didn’t, a lot of the time. Either it was just the normal thing, or the bit where supposedly Dave was living a ridiculous sci-fi scenario that nobody should take at face value, or something else.

“So long as nobody’s dead,” Dave said.

Now that they could just call the police without risking Gabriel’s life, they did. There were some calls back and forth. Apparently Gabriel’d indeed given one of the gunmen nasty burns, and of course they’d probably have to fight tooth and nail to call that a case of obvious self-defense, but they’d cross that bridge when they came to it.

Howard and Cheryl made everyone dinner, and finally they headed home.

Dave put Jean to bed, a tight knot in his chest. It should be over. He’d saved them all, hadn’t he? It was supposed to be over now. This batch of kids was supposed to be the one that lived, that wasn’t erased from existence.

He crawled into bed exhausted and tense and wound up, limbs shaking. Somehow he fell asleep anyway.

-------

“Dave. Dave, wake up. We should check on the kids, see how they’re holding up.”

Hands were shaking him. Martha. He was on the sofa again.

He waved her away and just lay there for a while, breathing.

So this was forever. This was all that there was, this day, trying to save them, again and again, until the end of time.

He didn’t want to rise from the sofa, or do anything. He just wanted some goddamn rest. He wanted to not have the same fucking headache every day.

But he couldn’t have any of those things.

He braced for the Herculean task of standing up. Cheryl came by to prod him and he hardly noticed. At least now he knew what he had to do. Maybe eventually he could just do it on autopilot and stop thinking.

-------

In the back seat, Lucy punched the red button on his phone.

It’d all been easier this time, in a way. Persuading them there was something they could do was a lot smoother when he could just tell them he had a plan and it’d already worked, though convincing them he wasn’t just picking the worst possible moment to fuck with them was still an ordeal. In some fucking way it felt wrong. Like he hadn’t earned it without Jack hammering him about whether he even cared, Jean horrified and distraught about what’d happened to her in some other timeline.

“The loop’s not going to stop even if we can save everyone, is it?” Lucy asked quietly.

“I don’t know. Apparently it fucking didn’t last time.”

“So what are you going to do if it doesn’t?”

He took a deep breath. “I’ll just have to try again, all right?”

“Even if it won’t work?”

“Well, what the fuck else do you expect me to do? Just leave them all to get themselves killed in new and interesting ways?”

Her hypnotic gaze stared at him in the rear-view mirror. “You’re scared.” Same weird combination of tones in her voice.

He clenched his teeth, exhaling, and didn’t say anything.

“You’re scared that it’s never going to stop.”

Christ. Was she going to do this every time? “Well, it already hasn’t stopped for however long it’s been. So what’s another fucking lifetime of this?”

Lucy surveyed him for a few seconds in the mirror and then looked away to silence the phone again.

-------

This time he warned Lucy to try to find Gabriel early, make sure he wouldn’t burn that one guy too badly. And she had managed to cut him short a little earlier this time, it seemed.

“Hey, Gabriel,” Dave said after a minute of silence, glancing at the Slugma morph in the rear-view mirror. Still brightly glowing and restless in the back seat, even though Lucy’d assured him he’d only burned the guy a little. “Where exactly were you in the church?”

Gabriel’s head whipped around. The way he acted unusually alert, almost as if he were ready to dodge an attack, was still disconcerting. “Uh… some kind of storeroom, I think. Really small and dirty. I think they stored shoes there or something, but they’d emptied it out.” He paused. “I tried to eat the dirt off the floor,” he added with a manic chuckle. “That’s how I… That’s how I discovered my powers. Because I realized it’s my skin that eats it. And then I just… stripped and rolled all over the floor and then I could just… just burn my way through the fucking door? It was… it was easy.” He giggled madly in disbelief.

That explained a lot. A much better reason than most for why Gabriel had been naked.

“Where exactly is that room? Like, what’s the best way into it, from the outside?”

“It was way in the back. Closer to the back door. It was…” Gabriel fell silent, looking back at Dave in the mirror. His slimy hands dug into the leather of the car seat. “Why?” he asked, voice wavering.

Dave let out a long sigh. Explaining himself was never going to stop being a fucking headache. “Never mind.”

“Lucy… Lucy said something about you being in a time loop,” Gabriel went on, glancing at Lucy. “Is this… Is this for the next loop? You figure we’re all just going to poof and disappear, and you just try to do it better next time with some other us?”

His gaze was wild and haunted, probably exacerbated by his Pokémon half. Dave didn’t know what to fucking say to that, to the inherent existential horror of everything about this.

“Well, maybe your timeline just goes on from here, for all I know.”

“But you think you’re still going to go back? How do you stop it?”

“I fucking don’t, apparently. What, do you have some bright ideas?”

Gabriel pressed his lips together, folding his arms and looking away. The glow of his skin throbbed restlessly like a flickering candle.

“I… I always wished they’d shot you instead of my dad,” he blurted out quietly, in one breath, like a secret he’d never before been drunk enough to expel.

A cold, awful chill went through Dave’s veins. Dumb, really. It wasn’t surprising. It wasn’t even fucking wrong.

He didn’t answer. Gabriel sat there, braced for something, shoulders tensed, like he expected to be yelled at. Dave’s knuckles tightened on the steering wheel.

“Well, who fucking doesn’t?” he said.

Gabriel looked up, blinking in confusion, his brow furrowing again. Lucy stared at him from the other seat, fiddling anxiously with the folds of her dress. Dave pointed his eyes firmly back at the road. Just drive, just fucking drive. Next time he would keep his fucking mouth shut. Or maybe next time he’d give Gabriel what he wanted and next time after that he’d keep his fucking mouth shut.

“Are… Are you okay, Dave?” asked Gabriel’s voice, wary.

“Yeah,” he said, teeth clenched. “Never fucking better.”

-------

Gabriel didn’t thank him this time. He looked harrowed and agitated even after he’d calmed down and his skin turned its normal dull orange. Dave caught Jack giving him strange, accusing glances but staying away. Maybe, on some level, that was better.

When he’d put Jean to bed he just sat and watched her for a while, stroking her delicate Vulpix curls and fighting the hollow ache in his chest and the burning in his eyes.

He didn’t want to leave her, lose her, lose these last moments with this version of her. He wanted to just hold her and hold onto her until she came with him. He wanted to just fucking hold onto all of them and then free them from this endless nightmare.

But he had to let her sleep.

Slowly he stood up, retreated to his bedroom, and curled up under the covers in his clothes, clutching the comforter, waiting.

-------

He told Lucy to enter from the back. To find Gabriel before he burned anyone. The less could be pinned on them, the better.

The phone buzzed in the back, and Lucy silenced it.

There was a long pause.

“The loop’s not going to stop even if we can save everyone, is it?”

“Nope,” Dave said, staring at the road ahead.

Lucy was silent for a few long seconds. “Then what are you going to do?”

“Well, I’m just going to have to keep saving them better. I’m the good fucking timeline factory and that’s all there is.”

Silence. Then, “You’re scared,” she said, again.

“Yeah? Scared of fucking what?”

“Everything.”

“Well, maybe everything about this is a fucking nightmare, okay? Maybe I’m here living my own personal customized Hell and even when I do fucking save them you’re still all going to disappear once the clock ticks past six AM and that’s it, forever. Does that sound fun to you?”

Lucy shrank back in the seat, silent, hands in her lap. Another phone call came in, and she silenced it listlessly.

“Then why are you still doing it?” she murmured.

Good fucking question, wasn’t it.

“Fine. You’re right. Why should I even bother? I guess I should just go fuck around for the day, doing whatever I want, and forget about the bit where kids are being murdered.”

Lucy looked away, hands fidgeting. “Why are you always so mean?”

“I’m not—”

There was an abrupt blockage in his throat. He stopped, swallowing, breathing through his nose.

“About why you’re still doing it, I meant…” Lucy began hesitantly, almost inaudible. “I didn’t mean you shouldn’t.”

No. She meant she was worried he wouldn’t. That was what it was, what this had been the whole time.

“Lucy,” he managed to say. “I’m not going to stop.”

His throat was still aching, burning, eyes prickling uncomfortably.

“Why?” she asked, quiet.

“Because…” His voice came out strangled, dying before he could finish the word. He pressed his lips together, staring out at the road.

Lucy’s gaze was steady on him in the rear-view mirror, questioning.

“Because I need to keep doing it. I need you, all of you, alive, or there’s no fucking point.”

His face twisted into a grimace, struggling, his eyes threatening to burn out of their sockets.

“If I keep doing it then there’s one more evening where you’re all there, and one more timeline where you’re all okay, even if I’m not fucking in it.” His voice shook helplessly, his efforts to steady it scrabbling uselessly for purchase. “That’s what matters. It’s all I’ve got. There’s nothing else.” He tried to take another breath, and it dissolved. “Fuck.”

He wanted to pull over and leave the car and just fucking walk straight ahead into nowhere until everything stopped. But the clock was ticking until Gabriel discovered his powers and started burning zealots, and he couldn’t afford to.

Instead, he took shuddering breaths there, in the car, staring red-eyed at the road, knuckles white on the steering wheel.

“Look, I’m sorry,” he said. For snapping at her. For the previous times he’d snapped at her. For involving her in this at all, over and over, when she should never have had to go through or think about any of this. For whatever the fuck this was.

“It’s okay,” Lucy said, her voice small. “Thanks for helping. I want to help you, too.”

He couldn’t speak. He just kept driving, knot tight and aching in his chest, and thought of Gabriel.

-------

And this time, he really hadn’t burned anyone. Gabriel had rolled around on the floor in that little room, begun to realize he had powers, and then before he’d actually gotten to smashing his way through the door, Lucy’d drifted in and told him it was okay, she was here and she could knock them out without anyone getting hurt. And Gabriel’d agreed that that made sense. Put his clothes back on while he waited for her.

His skin had been glowing brightly when he’d gotten to the car, his eyes wild and shining, his movements restless. Like a Pokémon pumped up for battle only for its opponent to flee, still hopped up on hormones waiting for an outlet.

“I think…” he said after a while of silence, a strange waver in his voice. Confusion, fear. “I’m… I think I can…”

“Yeah,” Dave said, staring ahead at the road. “Your skin eats dirt. Always did. Once it’s properly fed, your Slugma side’s finally happy and you can use Fire moves. Should’ve been fucking obvious that’s what was going on. Just never managed to figure it out.”

“I…” Gabriel looked away. Hands clenching and unclenching, lips pressed together. “How did you know?”

“Let’s just say I’ve had some time to think about it.”

In the rear-view mirror, Gabriel’s brow furrowed in confusion. His eyes were still shining, gloved fingers digging into the seat.

“What… What do you mean?” He paused. “Is it… Lucy said something weird about a time loop. Is that… Is that really what’s going on?”

Dave took a deep breath. Then another.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “What matters is you’re okay, and we’re going to get you home, all right?”

Gabriel stared at him in restless, frustrated confusion for a few seconds more, and then he exhaled, sagging back in his seat, squeezing his eyes shut for a moment before opening them again.

“Okay. I… Thanks for coming,” he said, quiet. “For saving me. I’m… I’m feeling kind of weird.”

Dave took another breath past the tight ache in the middle of his chest. “It’s probably your body temperature,” he said. “You’re going to be okay. Just breathe.”

“Okay. Okay.” Gabriel closed his eyes again and inhaled. “Just breathe.”

The boy’s chest rose and fell, the tension in his body slowly fading. His skin was starting to look a little more normal, too.

“You need to tell me about this time loop thing later, though,” Gabriel muttered. “And Jack. He’d love it.”

Dave exhaled. “Maybe.”

-------

He should have been getting Jean into bed once they were home. But this time he just couldn’t. He collapsed on the couch and told her she should go brush her teeth and he’d be right there.

He sat there and he shook, and the more he tried to stop it the worse it got, turned into full-body shudders. He buried his face in his hands and just waited.

Everything was fine. Everything was fine. Everyone was okay, no one had died, no one was hurt. He could do it again. Shouldn’t he be fucking happy?

“Dad?” asked Jean’s voice, rapid footsteps approaching. He didn’t have the energy to even care. She wrapped her arms around him and he pulled her in tight and just clung to her as everything emptied.

“What’s wrong, Dad?” she asked, quiet, concerned.

“I don’t want you to go,” he muttered, brain blank with exhaustion.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she said. “It’s okay.”

Only she was. Six AM would roll around and he would wake up back on that couch and a different Jean would be back in the car with the others. A different Jean who’d also disappear, forever.

“So you think you’re still in the loop?” she asked, quiet, without letting him go.

He nodded silently, unable to speak, still holding onto her, and she stayed, head buried contentedly in the nape of his neck.

“Well, I’m not leaving until you say you want me to,” she said firmly.

He breathed in and out. Stroked her hair, numb, the knot in his chest tightening.

“Hey, Jean,” he managed to say eventually. “How about we just… stay up and watch a movie for a bit?”

She lifted her head, grinning eagerly, eyes sparkling at the official parental permission to stay up late. “Ooh! It can be like that time you were going to the conference! What movie should we watch? It loops at six AM, right? Maybe we can even do two movies! Ooh, can we make popcorn?”

He meant to say something like yeah, why not, it’s been a day, hasn’t it. His brain struggled to gather the energy.

“Please,” he said instead, voice wavering.

She squeezed him again. “Don’t worry, Dad. I’ll make the popcorn.”

She dozed off halfway through the movie, head resting on his shoulder, arm still draped around his neck, the bowl of popcorn lying empty in his lap. He stroked her hair carefully and listened to her heartbeat until, sometime, without realizing, he drifted off too.

-------

Dave woke up, hands automatically flailing to push Martha away. But she wasn’t there.

He blinked slowly. He was… home. In his bed, staring at the bedroom wall.

He jerked upright. Home. He was home.

“Dad?”

The door pushed open, and—

—and Jean was there, too tall on awkward legs, unruly blonde mane, and for a good five seconds he had no fucking idea what was going on anymore.

And then he remembered, head spinning, that that day had been months ago. Not subjective months ago in a time loop, months of life and everything continuing on despite everything. Months of Jean in her new form, of funerals and hearings and house arrest and dragging himself to work every morning. Of Mia and Will being dead, shot at the church. Of Gabriel a murderer.

“Dad, we’re out of cereal. Can you go to the store? Since… I can’t.”

Jean’s posture was awkward as she hugged herself, like she’d been ever since then, familiar but not. Dave stared at her, months or years of thinking of this form with unthinking horror and revulsion curdling in his stomach. What? What the fuck? What kind of fucked-up fucking dream was that?

Jean flinched under his gaze. “I’m sorry,” she said, turning, ears drooping.

“No, no no no,” he said, grabbing his shirt and jeans from the other side of the bed. “I’ll go. Hang on.”

He pulled on his clothes hurriedly. Jean stood by the door, hesitating, and stepped aside to let him pass when he approached. He stopped in the doorway, looking at her, her eerie red eyes and her strangely elongated face.

“Um, Dad?” she asked, ears flattening again. “Are you okay?”

Something broke, and before truly deciding anything he was hugging her, arms tight around her torso, fighting the blockage in his throat. Everything was wrong and nothing made any fucking sense. But at least she was there. She was alive. And she’d still be there tomorrow.

“Yeah,” he said. Slowly he let go of her, exhaling. “You know you’re beautiful and I love you, right?”

Her awkward, confused smile turned into a broad grin. “I love you too, Dad.”

He ruffled her hair. “Let’s get you that cereal.”

He stepped out into the living room, and – Lucy. Lucy was there. Why was she here? He stared at her for another long moment of confusion and… Right. The Kerrigans had asked him to look after her while they were at some overnight thing. Sometime, back in the ancient past, yesterday.

“Hey, I was… just about to go get some cereal. Did you want anything?”

Lucy locked eyes with him, hypnotic red and yellow, and in a stomach-churning freefall moment he was gripped with a powerful, burning sense that she knew, she knew everything, the time loop, all of it. That she’d gotten him out, or she’d caused it to happen in the first place, or some fucking bullshit that didn’t make any sense.

She gave an innocent smile. The sadness in her eyes had never quite left her since Mia’s death, but right now, in some strange way, it had retreated just a little.

“I’m okay,” she said. “Thank you.”

“Lucy, what the—”

Dave stopped and took a deep breath, the world still spinning and reeling in his head. Slowly, he lowered the hand he’d been raising.

He exhaled. “Yeah. Okay. You know my number if you remember anything.”

Lucy smiled gratefully. He looked at her for another breath.

“While I’m out, why don’t you think about what you want to do later, okay?” he said. “Just… Let’s all do something fun, all right?”

“Are you?” Lucy asked, her eyes surveying him carefully. It took him a moment to connect what she meant. Another moment to work out what the answer was.

He nodded slowly. “Yeah, I’m okay.”

The air outside was thick with morning traffic but less oppressive than the air he’d breathed in years. Above, the skies were clear.

Page last modified February 1 2024 at 01:18 UTC