There was something quiet about the Galena Police Department 2nd Precinct on September 13th at 9:07 PM, during Officer Derek Gear’s shift. Nothing particularly out-of-the-ordinary- in such a small town, there could only be so much crime.
Officer Gear had never considered himself “normal,” per se. For one thing, he was, at the moment, making a sudoku. Not solving, but making. He wasn’t quite sure when he had picked up the habit, but he had, and would now sometimes drop copies of them off at neighbors’ houses. His father had been shocked to learn that he wasn’t charging for them- Derek simply wasn’t interested in that kind of thing. He was, however, interested in all kinds of random things: Chinese architecture (it was always awkward to be the only person of Caucasian heritage on tours), synesthesia (not in a weird way, as he continuously reassured himself), sociolinguistics (the way language evolved as it was influenced by culture was fascinating), and immune system homeostasis (balanced by proinflammatory and counterinflammatory immune responses, of course- he loved saying long words and knowing what they meant; it made him feel smarter) were only a few.
9:07 became 9:08 as he rubbed at the grid with an eraser. If that eight was there, then the sixes were lined up…no, that wasn’t right either. When he joined, just a few years back, Derek had been planning on shootouts and handcuffs, not sitting quietly at a desk strewn with paperwork, making a sudoku. He supposed a part of it was where he was- Galena was pretty tame, to say the least. Too small for anyone to hide, too old-fashioned for any particular wealth, and too unpopulated for any petty crime- or murder.
He loved the word. So ominous, so sudden. So dangerous. It wasn’t like he liked the concept. The word was just so cold and descriptive- it was exciting, in a dark way.
An alarm sounded, and Derek leapt from his seat, slamming his pencil down. Another officer, James O’Dear, was running over.
“Derek, someone’s broken in. I don’t know how, but I glanced at the cameras and there was a face on one.”
“Where? Anywhere near the cells?” He was settling into Officer Gear, shoulders relaxing, muscles unwinding. The stranger who had so quickly risen in rank- Real Derek admired his confidence.
“No, but he was in the hallway leading to the lockers.”
“The lockers? What would he want with-” Derek felt his face fall. “Weapons.”
James’ expression, he was sure, mirrored his own. “Oh shit. I’ll go check.”
Officer Gear wanted to join him, but Derek was yelling to stay away. After a strange little lurching step, he decided that O’Dear hadn’t asked for help, and awkwardly stood for a moment, unmoving, before starting back towards his desk, ready to call for backup, if need be (official-sounding words…he loved official-sounding words).
With his hand on the phone and his heart racing, it seemed like everything came to a standstill. Nothing happened- the clock never made it to 9:09, his pencil (which had been consistently creeping towards the edge of his desk) didn’t fall, the world slowed, just for a moment.
The ceiling of Derek’s office was suspended, a framework of slightly shabby-looking squares of some unholy origin on a framework of a metal that could just as easily be aluminum as stainless steel. The squares, he knew, were removable, but he had never actually touched the ceiling; it was a good three feet above his head. Nor had he ever seen them removed, but he assumed they led to pipework and beams, the skeletons of the building. Therefore, they remained a little cloud of mystery, quite literally over his head. He had gotten used to their enigmatic presence, and quite forgot about them, for the most part.
And yes, now there was a man falling from his ceiling.
He was very good-looking in that personable, exciting way, with a well-proportioned figure, smooth dark-ish skin, and a mop of curly hair that seemed to be constantly changing color, though it never left the range of caramel (the last thing Derek had thought beforehand was that he was hungry) to a sort of oak bark (inspired by today’s computer wallpaper). He had petite, almost elfish features, with unobtrusive-looking shoulders, slender limbs, and straight lines all over- his jawline, his long fingers, his waist where his plain, white t-shirt had ridden up as he dropped. Even his nose, until the end, where it curved up in a little snobbish-looking point. His jeans were ripped, though it didn’t look intentional, and his legs were muscular but thin. His eyes were startlingly bright, hazel with more brown at the center and a pure green at the edges that Derek could see even from their five-foot-or-so distance.
Altogether, he looked like someone who had gotten used to not getting used to things, in a charming way. Derek would have liked to spend much more time staring at him if his attention hadn’t already been occupied with the sleek dark pistol he was holding, the hand around it fierce and unyielding.
“Kill me or I’ll kill you.”
“What? No. Wow. No, wait, um.” This wasn’t Derek’s specialty. Anything that involved social interaction in general wasn’t Derek’s specialty. “No, um. Hold on, just- just hold on.”
The stranger rocked back on his heels, not dropping the gun. His nostrils flared around his freckles, and he sucked in his cheeks- evidently it was intended to make him appear angry, but it only enhanced his strong jawline.
“Okay, um, what’s your name?”
The stranger blinked, looking surprised, and Derek doubted he was telling the truth when he muttered “Jace.”
“I’m Derek. Derek Gear. What are you doing here?” It was kind of obvious, but nothing made sense.
Jace-but-maybe-not-Jace stamped his foot on the floor suddenly. “I’m asking you to consider me crazy.”
“What?” That wasn’t the answer he’d been expecting.
“Say that I’m crazy, put me somewhere I’ll be safe.” When he looked back up, his eyes were no longer wild, but steady and dark.
“Is…safe from what?” He was lost.
Jace strode towards him, still clutching the gun. Derek was trapped against the wall, trying hard not to provoke the young man. He moved till they were split only by his hands around the gun, and stared up- he was more than a head shorter than Derek, maybe 5’7″.
“I used to be an international spy. I seceded, and they want me back.”
“I’m sorry, what?” Jace was getting more and more unbelievable- perhaps he had hallucinated another life for himself and was confusing the two.
“You heard me. Get me somewhere I’ll be safe.” His voice trembled on the last few syllables, but his eyes never faltered.
“I’m- I’m sorry, sir, but it’s my duty to report-“
“I know how to use this gun!” Jace snarled suddenly. It was already at Derek’s head, his fingers ready. It was like being threatened by a Tasmanian Devil- he wasn’t physically all that large, but he was unpredictable and ferocious.
“Sir- that won’t be necessary.” He wanted to slap himself- so much for being brave. “Where did you-“
But Jace was driving the gun further into the side of his head. “Shut up and get me somewhere safe.”
Derek nodded. “Okay! Okay.”
Carefully, he reached up and took the weapon, pointing it away from himself. “We’re okay. We’re good. I’ll get you safe.” He wasn’t really sure what he was saying- just anything to keep from provoking this “spy”.
“Can you tell me where you’re from, Jace?” He reached behind him and took a pair of handcuffs.
“I’m from the US, but I got roped into some nasty business with some other countries. Also, I’d really rather not be handcuffed.”
What did he mean by “nasty business”? “I’m sorry, but I’m required-“
“I’ll give you the gun, and I won’t hurt you. I mean, what good would it do me?” Fair enough.
“Okay.” Didn’t mean he was going to let his guard down.
Derek reached his hand out, and, after a long, hesitant moment, Jace gave him the pistol. It seemed to take more willpower than it should have- maybe it was some kind of personal item.
He checked the weapon. It really was loaded, ready to kill. Awkwardly, realizing how close he had been to death, he pulled the bullets out and set them down on the desk, before reassembling the gun and leaving it, as well (he knew it was technically against protocol, but he really didn’t want to deal with it just then).
Jace smiled at him then, and it would have seemed genuine if it wasn’t that manic.
They’d talked a bit more as they walked towards the cells. Jace was apparently 21 (he looked quite young, though Derek supposed that was a thought of his own, as a 6’2″ permanently-old-looking 22-year-old), and Colombian. He’d been born in the US, but there was some spy-skirmish or something that led to him being squirreled away to North Korea. When asked what it was like, he just shook his head.
“I wasn’t with civilians much, mostly with the government and intelligence. What I saw was harsh, though. Very military, strict, poor living conditions. And half the time no one seems to care. It’s like they’re being brainwashed or something. Not,” he added, glancing at Derek, “that I know much about brainwashing. That was never my department.”
“Hm.” He was thinking. “They just let you run around your home country without guards or anything?”
Jace laughed sharply. “Well, I was being monitored, but conventionally- North Korea is surprisingly far behind in terms of tech. There were just a few guards- oh, look.”
He nodded with his chin at O’Dear, who was running down the hall. Derek slipped into a third persona, someone who wasn’t quite Real Derek or Officer Gear.
He shook his head frantically at James, who slowed immediately, sizing Jace up. When he got close to them, he fell in step by Derek, whispering to him.
“This is the guy who broke in?”
It was said so quietly that Derek could barely hear him, but Jace glanced over at them. “People often underestimate me because I look young.”
“That’s nice, Jace.” He tapped James’ hand so he could see what was written on Derek’s palm.
Not right in the head. Be careful not to provoke. We need to get him to a psychiatric ward.
“What’s your name?” Jace glanced curiously at O’Dear, looking innocent.
“James, sir. James O’Dear.” He seemed frightened now- often innocent spells like this came right before outbursts.
“That’s a nice name. There was a little boy named James in my neighborhood…I think his name was James. Yeah. James. He disappeared one day. I don’t think I did it, though.” They hadn’t exactly come up with a script, so Jace was just improvising at that point.
“I, um, no, sir, I don’t think that was me.”
“Oh.” He jumped suddenly into a bit of a skip. “Don’t call me sir, please. Makes me feel important.”
Then he turned, stopping dead in front of them. “I’m not important, am I?”
Derek almost wanted to smile. It was a question he could be disappointed by the answer to either way. Jace was smarter than he had anticipated.
“I, um, that depends. You’re- I mean-“
He stepped closer and grabbed James’ shoulder with one of his hands. “I’m not important, am I? Please say I’m not important.”
James reached for his gun, probably just to know it was there, but there was another hand on it already. He froze, blue eyes icing over. “No, no, of course not, sir. Jace.”
Jace relaxed, but didn’t move away, staring up at the police officer. “Okay,” he whispered, stepping back. Then he smiled, eyes still too wide.
“That’s better.” He turned and began skipping again.
“You know, people always say they want to be powerful. To be important.” Jace shivered a bit. “I don’t know why. If you’ve always got a spotlight on you, how will anyone notice if you shine? If someone’s always watching you, when can you do all the little things people tell you not to do?”
“Like what?” Derek spoke up.
“Like…you know. All the things you aren’t supposed to do.” He didn’t know exactly what Jace was talking about, but had quite a few ideas.
“Sure.” Jace spun again, suddenly, and bumped Derek’s shoulder, falling into step with him.
“You get it. I know you get it. It’s nice, no one ever gets it.”
He awkwardly patted the younger man’s back, confused. “Of course.”
Jace looked up at him. “You aren’t gonna figure anything out that you shouldn’t, right?” His eyes were bright.
“Of course not. Just what you want me to know.” Jace smiled and settled against him.
Derek glanced up at James, imploring him with his eyes, trying to prove just how unstable Jace was. O’Dear tapped his wrists in question. Why isn’t he bound? He just shook his head and motioned again, trying to make any point that could be used in defense.
James nodded, and they were go.
While Officer O’Dear prepared paperwork, Derek entered the break room with Jace, signaling to another officer to watch on the cameras, which he muted, locking the functions remotely. The young man seemed much more relaxed, having been reassured that he would be admitted to a mental institution. However, there was still a wall in his eyes.
“So what’s your full name?”
Jace ran his hand through his mess of curls. “I don’t use it.”
Derek nodded slowly. “But what is it?”
“Johnathan Rodriguez Gonzalez de Sousa Herrera García. Are you happy yet?”
He shrugged. “Getting there.”
“You’re lucky you have such a short name.”
“My dad wanted me to have five middle names. Got it down to three eventually: Grace, Helena, and-“
“Isabelle.” Jace guessed.
“I mean, it’s another European feminine name. What, Geraldine?”
Derek burst out laughing, not having ever noticed the similarity.
“Charlotte? Amanda?” He seemed to be trying hard not to laugh. “Amelíe? Don’t keep me waiting!”
Derek shook his head, grinning. Officer Gear was shouting at him for losing his formality. “And Dormé.”
“Ha!” Jace pointed at him. “There we go. That’s French.”
“It’s not a name, though.” Derek protested, in defense of his own name.
“Yeah it is. Star Wars. One of Padmé’s handmaidens is named Dormé.”
“Are you kidding me? I’ve watched the Prequels about a million times, and I never knew that.”
Jace grinned, victorious. “Bam. Derek Grace Helena Dormé Gear.”
“It’s your name. Hello, Derek Grace Helena Dormé Gear, my name is Jace.” He held a hand out.
“Well, hello, Johnathan Rodriguez Gonzalez de…”
“De Sousa Herrera García.” He nodded his head with every word.
“Look at us, Derek Grace Helena Dormé Gear and Johnathan Rodriguez Gonzalez de Sousa Herrera García. We certainly got the short end of the stick in terms of easily remembered, unable-to-be-made-fun-of, have-extra-space-when-filling-out-a-form names.” He took Jace’s hand and shook it leisurely.
“There we go. Now we’ve officially met. How old are you, Derek Grace Helena Dormé Gear?”
“Please don’t call me that. I’m 22.”
“You look older.”
He sat up from where he was reclining on a couch. “No, no, not in a bad way. You just look important, like there’s something amazing that you’re gonna do.”
Derek raised an eyebrow. “Well, there’s something I’ve done that I never told anyone about. Here, come closer.”
Looking suspicious, Jace leaned forward, looking past his messy curls and light eyelashes at him. Derek did the same, till he was on his knees in front of the coffee table.
“I-” He glanced around quickly. “I’m not straight.”
He motioned to the pride flag hanging on the wall. “You wouldn’t think it, you know? It’s something I’ve always kept quiet about, but I trust you enough to tell you. I’ve definitely known you for long enough. Don’t tell anyone, okay?”
Jace blinked slowly, looking unamused. “Mmm-hmm. That’s not something you’ve done, though.”
“No,” Derek whispered. “It is, though. I’ve, like, I’ve thought that I was gonna go to heaven. Y’know, like a good little straight boy. God hates people like-”
He broke off, and burst out laughing.
Jace couldn’t help but grin. “God hates dumbasses with police badges and five-word names. Now, I’m good, my name is seven words long.”
He nodded wisely, and Derek did as well. “God also hates anyone shorter than six feet tall with curly hair named Jace.”
“Oddly specific. Do you like to showcase your sexuality like that?”
No, he actually didn’t, believe it or not, not unless they seemed to have a problem with the flag hanging there. But why not? Jace seemed amiable enough.
“Do you not?”
“Um…no? I don’t know. Why not? Cool?” Jace shrugged with a grin.
Trying to calm his smile, Derek moved back. “Sure. Now, tell me more about your situation. How’d you get out?”
Jace sighed, probably at the return to more somber topics. “Well, I’m a spy. I’m supposed to be inconspicuous, so they couldn’t exactly run around with guards climbing all over me. They were expecting me to stay loyal, but I didn’t spend as much time there.” he added, seeing the look on Derek’s face.
“I don’t know what they do there, really, but half the time everyone seems brainwashed and the other half either terrified or furious. But anyways- I got out because I think they rely on fear to make sure their spies and whatnot stay loyal. It’s an imprecise art, fear.”
Derek bowed his head in appreciation. “And now they’re after you?”
“About sums it up, yes.” Jace grinned out of the side of his mouth. “And you’re my way out.”
“And you’d really rather just hang out with a bunch of crazy people?”
He nodded furiously. “Oh yeah. You have no idea what it’s like- they have spies to spy on the spies to spy on the spies.”
“Okay. That made perfect sense.” Derek paused. “But couldn’t there be somewhere else you could go? And why did you immediately run to the police? I mean, that’s what people are supposed to do, but no one actually does it.”
Jace leaned back, lacing his fingers in his lap. “First of all, no, there’s nowhere else I could go. Chances are they’ll still get me soon. I’m just trying to run for as long as I can. And secondly, it’s because I have information that some random civilian would have no idea what to do with.”
“The usual- government infiltration, assassinations, plans, weapons, whatever.”
“So…why this random Illinois middle-of-nowhere town?”
He shrugged. “Because it’s probably the safest. I’m sure they expect me to go straight to the government or some big police department or something. Better if I’m here.”
Derek paused, thinking. He was right. “Now, what do you have to tell me?”
Jace narrowed his eyes, suddenly looking much more dangerous. “I’ll tell you if…”
“If you buy me about a hundred bucks worth of junk food first.” He grinned widely and settled into the couch, extending an arm. “Deal?”
There was a large supermarket near the police station, good for late-night runs and “help I’m gonna die if you don’t have chips” kinds of people- Jace seemed to be one of them.
Speaking of Jace, there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with letting him go, so long as he kept his face at least partially covered- it’d be a shame to see him disappear, but it was necessary.
On the walk there, they switched the spotlight to Derek, who was happy to finally have someone who seemed interested in him specifically, for no reason at all.
“Why’d you join the police forces?” Jace leaned forward so he could watch him without his hood opening.
“Well- I wanted to be able to call myself the good guy. When I came out at my high school, people kept telling me there was something wrong with me, I shouldn’t be happy, you know the drill. The worst ones were the people who thought they had to protect me and whatever, the guys who thought I was mentally ill and needed help.”
Jace made a sympathetic noise and the hood bobbed in a nod.
“I guess a part of me still had to prove to myself that there was nothing wrong with me, that I could save people’s lives, too.”
Derek grinned. “And I just got used to my job. It was fun, you know? I mean, I expected a lot more running around shooting bad guys-” Jace laughed, “-but it’s fun enough. Very official.”
“Oh, I love when you just do something and realize how official it sounds.”
He clapped in excitement. “Exactly! Why does no one else understand that? Like, I wanna look smart.”
Jace beamed, his teeth shining in the darkness of the cowl. “I love that- it’s so true, though.”
He pulled back, walking alongside Derek, who noticed that they weren’t as far apart as they had been before, with some satisfaction. It took some convincing to get himself to believe that it was because it would be easier to wrestle information out of him.
“Do you have any family?” His voice was quieter.
Derek nodded, smiling. “I live with my dad. I swear, if he wasn’t there I would have died a couple million times there.”
Jace laughed, a sound tinged with sadness.
“What about you? Back home?”
He exhaled. “My mom, a little brother. I guess he’d be…nine, by now. It’s the 14th, right?”
Derek wondered why he didn’t know the date. “13th. Almost midnight.”
“I miss him. Milo. I remember…the last time I saw him he was, like, four. I got mad at him cause he’d made a mess in the kitchen or something. I just- I’d been allowed to come back, just for a few nights, and I was so scared that he’d forgotten about me. He hadn’t. He just ran up and shouted my name. And I still got mad at him, and I was mad when I went to bed. Turns out they needed me to go that night. No goodbyes.” He swallowed. “We’re here.”
And they were. The half-unlit neon sign, the advertisements, all these things that Derek knew by heart and was returning to, this time with a stranger. He walked in immediately, grabbing a shopping cart. “Now let’s buy you some unhealthy shit.”
They were getting in line to pay when he heard a bird call. From his short time studying native birds (just another strange hobby), he knew it wasn’t from the area, and, to prove his suspicions, Jace froze and threw himself over Derek, pushing him to the ground with a crash.
“Get down!” he roared at the grocery store.
There was a moment of silence when everyone just stood, shocked, wondering what he was talking about. Then came a crash- the window nearest to them had been shot and collapsed. Machine gun fire followed, swiping a wide arc over their heads. Derek heard screams as people ran for cover, the firearm bddd-ing. He risked a glance past Jace’s head, trying to pinpoint where the bullets were coming from. Outside, definitely.
It was a car, an oldie, 80s-looking, with one of the doors wide open. The machine gun was set up there, the single person manning it clothed in all black, following every stereotype in the book. Almost as soon as Derek saw them, though, they briskly took the weapon apart, slithering back into the car. The door slammed shut and they drove away.
Behind the car was a sandwich board, one of the dry-erase ones with a message on it in neat, curvy script. Though he couldn’t see what it said, it was clearly directed at someone in the grocery store.
It took him a moment to get his wits about him again, but when he did, Officer Gear was on his feet, blinking back blood from a cut on his forehead, shouting into his walkie-talkie (one of the most undignifiably unofficial words he had to deal with). His mind was clearing, losing all other direction, watching the glaring lights as he helped a wounded teenager to her parents on the other side of the store.
Jace hadn’t done anything more than get up and walk a few feet, watching in guilty shock, his hood down and forgotten. Was that all for him? Was that what he was wondering?
When everyone had been rounded up (there was a particularly nasty incident with a shopper who had gotten caught under a falling display), Derek went over to him with a First-Aid kit, wordlessly taking his arm, which was bleeding. He cleaned it delicately, trying not to hurt him much as he wiped the long gash, but Jace didn’t seem to have even noticed it, staring into space. When he finished, he wrapped an arm around the younger man’s shoulders and started to move him towards the exit, no one having read the new sign yet.
Jace’s breathing grew quicker, more audible, and he blinked suddenly, eyes widening. “We need to get to that sandwich board.”
He broke into a sprint, straight through the doors (now held open by volunteers) and to a skidding stop in front of it. His eyes raked the board quickly, and then he started- shivering, somewhat. Derek ran over to him, and read the words.
Sorry I missed that officer. Might have killed a few more than I’m supposed to, but it was worth it- now you know I’m coming to save you. Maybe I won’t do it for a few days to keep it even.
I’ll get you back, don’t worry. They can’t hide you away from me for long.
Derek was about to ask what the message meant when Jace collapsed into him, shaking, gripping his jacket firmly.
“Ja- what is this?” More than they were supposed to? The note sounded like it was from some crazy stalker- was that what was really going on? He wouldn’t let himself admit that he had begun to forget his suspicions, but now they were coming back with renewed enthusiasm.
Jace seemed to shrink into him, crying. Derek rested his chin on his curls awkwardly, arms around the younger man’s back. It hadn’t taken any training to realize how much sometimes all someone needed was the knowledge that there was someone there, no matter who.
“Who did this?” He didn’t respond at first, entire body rigid and tight. “I need to know, Jace, please.”
He looked up suddenly, staring clearly into Derek’s eyes. He started to say something, then shook his head and stood on his toes to wrap his arms around his neck, leaning forward. Derek was about to ask what he was doing when he heard Jace’s voice in his ear, fast and stilted.
“He- he’s after me. All the shit about spies I made up. The- The Jackpot Murderer.” Of all the things Jace could have said, that was…actually kind of expected.
But the Jackpot Murderer? The most brutal, powerful murderer in the world? Their death count was supposed to be near seven hundred- one every day, earning them their name. And all that about “love you”- how deranged was this killer?
Jace moved back a bit, resting his forehead on Derek’s chest to continue. “He doesn’t want to kill me. I- I’m supposed to help him kill people.”
He exhaled. So that’s what this was about- he’d never before heard of the Jackpot Murderer missing their mark- or his mark, he supposed. “It’s okay. We’ll keep you safe. He won’t be able to-“
“You don’t get it!” Jace threw himself away from Derek. There was a cold bite to the air, signaling nightfall.
“You don’t get it, you don’t get it, you don’t get it.” He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands in frustration. “No, no. You should just- I don’t deserve to be safe. I don’t-”
He collapsed in front of the sign. “I’ve killed people, Derek. I’ve killed people.” And Jace stared up at him with eyes full of battling self-loathing and fear.
“I’m why they’re all dead,” he whispered. “It’s me.”
Derek swallowed, sitting next to him. “Well…why’d you come to the police?”
“I want to get him caught. Use me as bait.” His eyes started lighting back up with sparks of determination.
“Okay.” Jace laced his hands behind Derek’s neck, forcing his head down. “But it’s not gonna bring them all back. Getting him ain’t gonna bring them all back to life.”
He looked back over. “I’m not the good guy, Derek. I know that. I just wanna do something. Please.”
The ensuing chaos was a mess of phone calls and scribbled scenarios. It all seemed quite official (which was a pro, of course), but it all seemed to have passed the entire stage of being processed and thought about, and had just been stored in his brain, not allowing him to actually think about it.
He’d been surprised to realize that it was almost six PM on the following evening when he finally left, joints cracking their protest. He had offered to let Jace stay with them, forgetting the fact that his father knew nothing about their plans, but Jace had declined, setting up camp in his office instead (he should have pushed farther).
“Hey, D.” Michael Gear was standing on his footstool plating something when he came in. He was used to Derek completely forgetting to come home, showing up hours after his shift ended at 9 AM.
“Hey, Dad.” He grinned, flopping his hat on the hat rack. “Whatcha making?”
His father turned around, lined face splitting into a smile. “Linguine.”
Then he paused. “What’s wrong? Do you really hate linguine that much?”
Derek forgot all pretenses of a smile- he’d forgotten how easy it was for his father to see through him. “Work. There’s this kid…I dunno.”
Michael took the two plates and got off the footstool, then climbed another near the table to set them down. Derek wished he would just make everything smaller- he could cope. His father had refused, though, saying that it was his job to make sure Derek was comfortable. So instead he installed footstools all over the house, their compromise.
“Tell me about them.” He started to gather pasta on his fork.
“Well- I don’t really know all that much.” Derek had long given up the pretense of keeping cases from his father- he was a horrible long-term liar.
“I mean, he says his name is Jace. Rodriguez Gonzalez de Sousa Herrera García,” he added cheekily, not able to stop himself. “He’s from Colombia. Um, not exactly fair, but he doesn’t have particularly dark skin, either. Really deep hazel eyes.”
“As in dark or as in thoughtful?”
“Thoughtful.” He smiled for a moment.
“He’s 21. Curly light brown hair. Maybe five foot seven. Pretty funny but also seems kinda borderline psychotic.” He laughed.
His father joined him. “I’m getting some…love interest vibes?”
Derek snorted. “Jeez, Dad, he’s practically in custody. Besides, I’ve known him for, like, a day.”
Michael shrugged. “Well, there was that one kid- what was his name? Kingston? Why was he there again? Point is, for a few days it was just ‘King this’ and ‘King that’ before you got tired of him.”
He hid his blush with linguine. “I didn’t-“
“Also, you never said you weren’t interested in this Jace.” He grinned. “S’he handsome?”
Derek nodded regretfully. “Yeah.”
“I mean, yeah, I guess. I’ve said this already, he seems like half the time he’s about to flip out on me or something. It’s kinda insane.” He laughed. “I don’t know everything about him. In fact, sometimes I wonder if I know anything.”
His father sighed. “And I guess that’s what’s bugging you?”
He paused to swallow before answering. “Well- yes and no. There’s that, and then-” he tried to compose how much he was going to say. “He’s got a really crazy story. If we can get this to work…I dunno. It’s big, though. And I don’t even know what might happen.”
Michael glanced at him thoughtfully. “Interesting. Does he have a place to stay?”
Derek awkwardly bobbed his head. “I mean, he said he wanted to stay at the police station. I dunno why, but he did.”
“You should’ve invited him over!”
He shrugged. It would be strange, anyway- rooming with a kid he met the day before who was going to help him catch a serial killer who also, incidentally, happened to be drop-dead gorgeous; nothing wrong with that, right?
“Okay, okay.” And they finished the meal in silence.
When he got upstairs, he collapsed on his bed, fully dressed, lights still off, and tried to force his brain to think. It wasn’t going particularly well, considering that he kept almost-falling asleep and, when he managed to focus on something, it was always either how cold the meeting room he’d spent the day it was or Jace’s flippant moods, alternating between the way his eyebrows jumped and then furrowed when he smiled or the way he’d held on to Derek, shaking, his weight almost a physical presence. He supposed it was because of how horror-imbued the memory was that he could almost hear Jace’s voice calling him, quietly.
“Get up!” It whispered.
Derek blinked, sitting up. After turning around wildly for a moment, he realized that there was a large shape behind his window that had nothing to do with the succulent on his windowsill.
He undid the lock and pulled the window open, astonished. “What the- what are you doing here?”
Jace grinned at him in the darkness. “I dunno, I got bored.”
He stared dumbfounded at him before moving the tray with the succulent off the windowsill, putting it down next to his keyboard. Waving him in, he started to take off his jacket to reveal the plain black t-shirt beneath. The man slid in easily, his shoes and socks…nonexistent? Derek shrugged his jacket on the back of a chair and sat down on his bed, watching Jace move.
He really was like a panther, sinewy, small but powerful, finding an empty chair with the moonlight bouncing off his curls and tanned skin. His eyes tapered in a feline curve, and his lips were full, though a bit chapped. He sat and stared out the window for a good long moment, seeming to be gathering thoughts.
“You done staring?” His earthy eyes flicked to Derek’s, eyelashes lowering unevenly with his eyelids.
He stuttered for a moment, a habit he had never fully gotten over. “N-no, I wasn’t- well, I mean- I guess I was just wondering what you were doing here.”
He didn’t bother to ask how he’d gotten there- he wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
“Sure, sure. I don’t know. I guess it was just lonely there. No one wanted to talk to me just for the point of talking to me. There was always some kind of motive. We, though, spent the better part of an hour wondering why dry-erase markers come in so few colors.”
Derek snorted. “Not exactly my best career moment.”
“Yeah.” Jace grinned. “But yeah. If you aren’t too tired, I might just hang around, if that’s cool.”
“Sure. Not creepy at all.” He relaxed.
Derek blinked back a yawn, and so did Jace. He vaguely remembered something about yawns being contagious.
“Look, if you’re tired, I can go.”
He waved his hands in negation. “No, no, it’s fine. Stay.”
“You sound like some anime yandere.” Jace paused. “Not really into that shit, but you do.”
“I- I do not! Look at you, falling from a ceiling, almost getting me killed, breaking into my house, and calling me a yandere?”
“Meh….fair enough.” His eyelids drooped a bit. “Anyways…what did you used to want to be when you grew up?”
“Is that generally a starter point for conversation?”
“Well, why not?” Jace got up and sat down on the bed next to Derek.
“I guess. I wanted to be a teacher for a while. I thought a bit about medicine. I just wanted to call myself the hero, in whatever form it took.”
“Well, look at you. You’re a hero.” Jace stared at him. “Are you happy?”
He swallowed. Those weren’t things he thought about, and he wasn’t about to start now. Was he happy? Of course- he was doing his dream job in a comfortable middle-ground position, his father by his side. Why wouldn’t he be happy?
“I’m…that’s a complicated question. I guess this is just what I’m gonna do my whole life.”
“If this works, you may find yourself with a comfy promotion. Maybe buy yourself a mansion with all that reward money.”
Derek laughed. “Yeah. Maybe. I like the way things are now, though. I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else. This is my home.”
Jace watched him, sadness filling his eyes. “Hm.”
He guessed he’d never made any lasting connections, moving around like that. “What…how’d you get roped in with the Jackpot Murderer?”
Wrong question. He looked down, biting his lip.
“I, um. Well, it was a few years ago. We’d met just hanging out at a parking lot- we were both alone. We got really close, cause neither of us really had anyone. One day Louis-“
“Yeah. That’s his name. Anyways, he drives up in that car of his with a gun, taps the passenger seat with it. ‘Get in’ or something like that. I do, cause he doesn’t look like he’s in a good mood. He was like that sometimes.
“I get in, and he drives off. He goes, ‘I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna kill them. One a day, just like we said.’ Now, every once in a while he’d get into this really crazy mood where he’d say that he was gonna kill one person every day to help curb the population. He could sound so convincing when he said it…”
Jace trailed off, staring somewhere behind Derek.
“I never thought he’d actually do it. But he did. I asked him why, and he just said again that not letting people be born wouldn’t help, that there were people whose possibilities were being cut short, that killing random people would be better and all that. We were driving around, and he says, ‘What’s a random letter of the alphabet?’ I say X, because no one ever uses it. He nods and keeps driving.
A while later we get back to my block. He tells me to open the window as we’re driving past the houses. I ask him if it’s a good idea and he points the gun at me, tells me to do it. I roll down the window and he shoots. Only took one round before a scream.”
He shivered and trapped his hands between his knees before continuing, eyes cold steel.
“I was so freaked out about what he’d done that it took me a while to realize that that house belonged to a neighbor of ours, Xander. And, um. He killed his wife. Because his name started with the letter X.”
Derek swayed back a bit. How menial, how insignificant did these lives mean to this Jackpot Murderer, this Louis? “I- that sounds horrible.”
Jace nodded. “Yeah. He drove off, out of town, into some woods. Tells me to get in the back. I ask him why, but he just motions again with the gun. I’m not really thinking right at this point, so I do. I just didn’t wanna get shot. I just didn’t wanna die.
“He gets in the back with me, and we- well, you know. The entire time I just kept seeing that bullet pierce the glass. I didn’t want to end up like that.” He put his head in his hands. “I’m such a coward.”
Derek got closer to him and pulled him into his lap. “Hey, hey. You aren’t. There’s nothing wrong with not wanting to die.”
Jace combed his hands through his hair. “But that wasn’t it. After- after that he fell asleep. And that gun was right there. He wouldn’t have even known.”
“But I didn’t. And I think he knew I didn’t have the courage to. We did that every day until yesterday.” Derek swallowed. Every day.
“Sometimes he made me do it. And if I was scared, he’d hold me and tell me again about how much it would benefit the world if I did it. And he’d wait until I was ready. He just sometimes could sound so reasonable and so menacing at the same time.” Jace curled up against him. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I could have saved so many people. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t. I couldn’t. I couldn’t”
He devolved into whispering those two words, tears leaking from his eyes. Derek pulled him closer and tucked Jace’s head beneath his.
“It’s okay.” He breathed. “It’s okay. You’re safe now.”
Jace was curled up against him when he woke, the sun already beating down on them. Derek realized that he’d never closed the window, but he felt too comfortable and unmotivated to do it just then. Instead, he lay there and stared at the foliage outside his window.
What if Jace had never met Louis? Would he be attending college or working at a restaurant? Would he be worrying about an exam or a paycheck? Would he be getting over an ex or falling in love?
Derek’s face closed instinctively at the last one. Who would he be falling in love with? Some charismatic student in his year who never seemed to want to bother with him? Some quiet boy he grew up with who would lead him through the forest at a sprint, hands intertwined?
He didn’t like the idea of Jace leading a mundane life, dating people. He just seemed like he had to be in the center of attention all the time, like he was too important to be normal. He supposed it was none of his business, but he’d rather he dated Derek, if anyone, so he was always appreciated properly.
Not like that, of course. But Jace was better than people would otherwise realize, and Derek understood that.
Jace rolled over, blinking sleepily. “Oh. Hey.”
Derek grinned. “You awake yet?”
“If you really wanted me to get up, you would’ve shoved me or something. Poured cold water in my ear, maybe.”
He jerked his head back in mock disgust. “I wouldn’t! What do you take me for, a lunatic?”
“Yes. A six-foot-tall weatherbeaten lunatic with a nice face and an annoying disposition.”
“If I’m in a good mood. Which, coincidentally, I am.” Jace swept his feet off the bed and onto the floor, sitting up and stretching. “I should go, or your dad’s gonna have a lot of very awkward questions for us.”
He was an idiot for smiling like that. An absolute idiot. “Yeah. I could get you some breakfast, though- the station doesn’t have much food, and my dad is the best cook you’ve never heard of.”
“How’re you gonna make carrying two humans’ worth of food up to your bedroom seem normal?”
Derek nodded slowly. “Working on that.” He sat up and sighed, still tired.
“Or hey,” Jace added, leaning back against him, “we could tell the truth.”
His father was flipping pancakes when they got downstairs, Derek in front.
“Hey, D.” He called, without looking up from his work.
Michael finished the last pancake and slapped it down onto a pile. He picked the plate up and turned around, barely missing a beat when he saw Jace. He just glanced at Derek and raised his eyebrows.
“So this is Jace. He climbed through my window last night and called me a yandere.” Jace opened his mouth to protest, and then stopped, looking bemused.
“Hey. You can call me Michael.” He walked over and shook his hand.
“Hi. Yeah. Um, sorry I just showed up. No offense, police stations are boring.” Derek’s father laughed, the long lines in his face relaxing. “Okay, maybe a little offense.”
“I get it. Do you want pancakes?”
Jace seemed a bit surprised by the quick change in topic- this was Michael Gear, understanding, able to make situations mundane, and without warning. “Well- I mean, you- I don’t want to-“
“I’ll take that as a yes.” He waved them over to the table. “Sit down, I always make too much anyway.”
Jace grinned in appreciation and bowed his head in thanks, sitting down next to Derek, whose father started loading pancakes onto their plates. When he was done, he took out a bottle of cold maple syrup from the fridge.
“Hope you don’t mind cold syrup- I’ve always found it better.”
“Never tried it colder than about seventy degrees. Colombian household- everything seems to be very warm.” He smiled, that happy beam, his eyebrows doing that little jumping thing, where they perked up and then furrowed before settling.
And so they proceeded. They talked about simple things- the news, food, police stations, food, college, politics, food, et cetera. Jace seemed to get along well with Derek’s father, or maybe he was just being agreeable- he did notice that he seemed a bit tamer.
Speaking of which, he was wearing one of Derek’s shirts, which was charmingly oversized on him. It was better than he had expected, but the neckline went to the outer edges of his collarbones, smooth gray against his dark-ish skin. He noted how lean but muscular Jace was with discomfort- years on the run must have helped cultivate that. The man noticed him looking and smiled at him briefly, before continuing his talk about regressive taxing. He just glanced down and kept eating.
When they were finished (Jace insisted on doing the dishes), Derek got his jacket on (he was working overtime to coordinate everyone- in a very official manner, of course) and they prepared to go. Michael made Jace promise to stay with them, which he agreed to laughingly. They set out to go, and only after they were nearing the station did Derek realize he had never closed the window.
There was more to be done, always more. They were contacting powerful strangers with official-sounding titles, who Derek automatically respected, regardless of rank; they were shaking hands with people, too many people, and he kept losing names and titles and therefore not knowing how to get their attention; Jace seemed intent on ruining everyone’s opinions of each other: twice he walked in on a conversation Derek was having and sat down next to him with his legs on his lap, calling a random greeting and therefore disturbing the rest of the discussion entirely.
It was all being brought together, though, slower than Derek would have liked (not knowing whether or not the Jackpot Murderer would continue his killing streak), but quicker than he had expected. Within a few more days, maybe, they would be able to do it. Assuming Jace really mattered to Louis as much as he said he did.
Speaking of which, his moods didn’t seem to have changed, though there was a definite spring to his step, a playfulness to his general attitude. Jace didn’t act particularly overjoyed at the prospect of locking a serial killer and rapist away- just like he was enjoying his visit. It took until nighttime for him to open up.
“Hey, you awake?” He glanced over from the air mattress he was on.
“Yeah.” Derek sat up and crawled over to the edge of the bed, to better see him. “What’s going on in that head of yours?”
“I’m…I don’t know, really. I know it’s irrational, but a part of me doesn’t want him to get hurt. Louis.” He looked down at his laced fingers.
“I mean-” Jace got up and onto the bed to sit with him. “I dunno. I hate what he’s done, yeah, but I also feel bad for him. I mean, this is what he believes in above everything else. Why is he punished for it when others aren’t?”
Derek lay back again and stared at his gray ceiling. He had always liked the color- neutral, a background for whatever else happened. He supposed he was like that- no matter what happened to him, he was always there to tell someone else’s story. He understood what Jace meant, as someone who’d been told that “gays go to hell” (if the speaker was feeling particularly mild-mouthed at the time) a million times. That was pain. He suffered from that. Was this just Louis’ religion of sorts? Why didn’t all of his haters repent while Louis would have to?
“I think…” He knew it was a dangerous path he was leading himself on, one that ended at an utter rejection of all belief, religious, moral, even factual.
“I think it’s all just something we have to work on. There’s always going to be something else to ‘fix’-” he put up air quotes, “-and that we’re never going to be done picking away at each other. It’s just a part of our world, our diversity. We just have to- to change the immediately life-threatening ones.”
Jace stared down at him and shook his head. “That was really deep. Makes you look cute.”
Derek stuttered, but just for a moment. “I don’t understand you.”
He smirked, laying back with him. “I dunno. I like utterly ruining other people’s reputations and opinions of me. Is that so strange?”
Derek raised his eyebrows. “Um, yes, actually, it is. We’re meeting with some of the most important people in the country and the first thing you do in their presence is to throw your legs in my lap?”
Jace’s smirk widened. “Well, don’t tell me you didn’t enjoy it.”
He snorted. “Well, their expressions were pretty priceless. Usually somewhere between ‘what the fuck is wrong with these guys’, ‘why am I here’, and ‘oh, so this is Illinois, I guess’.”
Jace laughed, sitting up again and clapping his hands. “True, true, but I meant you.”
“What do you mean?”
Derek stuttered, but not because he was having trouble speaking, seeing as he had nothing to say in particular. “I swear, if we pull this off I’m gonna straddle your waist and kiss you when no one’s looking. With a knife. Very roughly.”
“Oh, now that’s….”
Derek shrugged lightly. “Or I guess there are better places for that.”
“We’re talking about the knife in better places, correct? It’s hard to tell sometimes with you.” Jace stuck his tongue out.
“You little-” He jumped up and started to chase him around his room, two pairs of feet against the cold floor, Derek’s pounding and Jace’s a light patter. After a bit of struggle he wrestled the man onto his bed, laughing.
He was just debating the best place to tickle him when his father opened the door with a whoosh of air and started to close it just as quickly. “Sorry- I heard sounds- I can-“
Derek jumped back, knowing how it must’ve looked. “Oh! No, uh, we were-” He stuttered for a good ten seconds before he could talk, and he wasn’t much more comprehensible when he continued. “I was just- we-“
“He was chasing me because I had to reaffirm that it was the knife he was debating where to stick me with.” Jace said it quite plainly, and left more questions than answers, by the look on Michael’s face.
“I’m sorry- the knife?” He was blinking furiously.
“Yeah. The imaginary knife he was going to kiss me roughly with.”
“What?” Jace was grinning.
“I’m not sure myself.” Derek found his voice again and smiled, going to close the door on him. “But we weren’t- or anything- I mean. Yeah.”
“Uh-huh.” Michael let him shut him out. He could hear his father laughing through the door.
“Kissing you with a knife is starting to sound more and more appealing. Or your chest. Or your neck. Or maybe up your ass.”
Jace spun elegantly. “You would ruin this?”
Derek punched his shoulder. “Yeah, I would ruin the grown man twirling like an idiot in my room.”
Jace leaned against him delicately, one hand draped over his face. “Oh, of course, I’ll rely on the big, tall police officer! He has common sense and doesn’t talk about lewd things!”
Derek made an odd noise in his throat. “You shut up.”
“Ohhh, am I making you uncomfortable?” Jace was grinning broadly. “Am I making you feel-” he raised his eyebrows, “-gay?”
“I swear- I’m gonna kick you out for this. You can go hang out on the street all night for all I care.”
“Oh, but you wouldn’t. You care.” Jace paused. “How much, though? How much do you care?”
He looked back up and all traces of a smile had disappeared. “Enough to risk your life?”
Derek grinned forlornly. “Yeah. I’m a police officer. That’s what we do.”
Jace looked away, eyes not quite focused on a waterfall of medals he knew were there even though he couldn’t see them. “I like the idea of that. To help people just for the point of helping them.”
He leaned his head against Derek, bumping it gently against his chest. He wasn’t used to being so physical, but it just felt companionable, because sometimes, alone in his room, he could believe that he was the only person in the world. Jace was proving otherwise.
“You have a strong heartbeat.”
“Thanks.” He glanced down at Jace where he was standing with his cheek pressed against Derek’s chest, looking childish.
“No, it’s like, it’s really strong. But steady, too. It’s not going anywhere. You’re not going anywhere.” Jace smiled softly. “It’s nice. You’re still here.”
“Yeah.” It was.
When he stopped, he could feel his heart clearly, and Jace’s too. He was right- Derek’s was low and steady, like the drums he heard sometimes at contemporary dance performances. Jace’s, though, was lighter. It was doubtlessly because he was shorter, more slender, but it made him seem like he was living on the edge of life, barely at the Near Shore, being circled by Valkyries, any way it could be put. Like he was just barely there, supposed to be somewhere else.
“This is nice.” Jace looked up. “Sorry. I ruined it.”
“No, you didn’t.” He looked down, and inhaled sharply at how close they were. The rational, most Derek-esque part of him kept whisper-shouting at him to get away, but the primal, most human parts of him just felt good, in his room with a friend, just talking and joking, being dumb and being together.
“No, you didn’t ruin it. This is nice.” He forced himself to keep his head down and look into Jace’s eyes, no matter how alien it seemed.
Jace smiled. “Yeah.”
He lay his head down again, swallowing. “What do you think will happen if we get him?”
“When we get him,” Derek whispered. “Say when we get him.”
“When we get him.” Jace rolled his shoulders. “What’s gonna happen to me? Can I see my family again?”
He swallowed and glanced up, eyes welling with pain. “Will they want to see me?”
Derek shook his head. “Of course they will. It doesn’t matter what you’ve been forced to do. They’re your family.” It was such a strong word to him.
“No- no.” A tear threatened to tumble down his eyelashes. “You don’t know her- my mom. She’s- I think she sometimes blamed me for it all.
“My dad loved the outdoors. The two of them used to go camping all the time. My mom was eighteen when she found out she was pregnant, and they got into an argument about it. My dad’s family was super religious about not having kids before you were married, not marrying till you were 21, and he didn’t know how he would tell them, cause he was nineteen. Eventually they decided that they had to marry, because my dad’s parents said that they wouldn’t give them any aid otherwise. And my mom wasn’t sure about it because she was so young, but she thought that I would need it. It was all very rushed for them, and I think my mom had wanted a flowery, over-the-top wedding, but they didn’t have the money.
“My dad was restless. They had to stop camping when my mom was in her sixth month because their doctor had a fit over it, and my dad never said anything about it, but I think that really hurt him. When I was born, though, he seemed happy again, and my mom thought that I would keep them together. And it was all working out, for a while.
“Then one day, when I was three or four, my dad goes up to her and says, ‘Hey, I love our family, but my parents want us to have another child’ and my mom says that it’s not their decision to make, it’s her and my dad’s. He’s agreeing with her, but he kept bringing it up. Never happened.
“One time, when I was five, my dad didn’t come home from work. He had a big presence- he was very loud and happy, so it felt like something important was gone, and it was. My mom was really worried: she thought he’d left her. Turns out he’d just been held up, forget why. My mom was really scared, though, I remember that much.
“A few weeks later it happened again. I’d already fallen asleep. My mom was really happy because she thought it meant that the company my dad was at was taking off and he might start making more money. It kept happening, though, and one day he just disappeared and didn’t come back.”
Derek stood silent as tears rolled down Jace’s cheeks, trying to convince himself that he could be a shield to all the memories he was recounting. “My mom always saw the best in people. When he didn’t show up the next day and his coworkers said he’d checked out as usual, she went insane. She thought he’d been kidnapped or something. She called the police, but they never found him.
“The breaking point was when his parents came by and said that her daughter was a beautiful baby girl. She just collapsed. My dad had been having an affair with someone else, and they must’ve run off. No one ever found them. I think she blames me sometimes for having arrived so soon- they’d only been dating for a few months when she found out, and she never figured out how much of an asshole he was. I think she misses him, though. She still wears her wedding ring and twists it when she gets nervous.”
Jace licked his lips and exhaled. “She tries, but Milo was a surprise, too. She had been in a relationship with her boss- it was horrible, she just really needed the money, and he got her pregnant. And there she was, with two kids from people who’d hurt her. She tried to do everything, but I ended up organizing bank statements and cleaning and shit. She took care of us because we were her responsibility, but I think she held back because she didn’t want to think about them. We were living in her space and using up her money, but she felt like she needed to be the best mother she could. Even if she didn’t want to.”
He looked up at Derek. “I doubt she even wants me. Wants either of us.”
He awkwardly moved his hand to touch Jace’s face, but stopped. What did he want? Comfort? Denial? Anger? But then, Derek always overthought things, so he cupped his face in his palm and brushed his tears away with a calloused finger. Jace just stared at him, painfully. He was about to move away and apologize when delicate, slender fingers covered his hand and Jace leaned into it, stroking his knuckles with his thumb unconsciously.
“I’m sorry. I’m just dumping life stories on you now.” He looked down and the moment broke, but he didn’t move away. If anything, he pressed closer to Derek, leaning against him again with one arm around his neck, the other on his chest.
If he really thought about it, it was probably the strangest and most intimate conversation he’d ever had with anyone, and he wasn’t just talking about the way Jace’s breath was warm on his chest, right at his heart.
“No, no, don’t worry. It’s okay. I’m good.” He half-closed his eyes, trying to remember this painful, quiet, standstill moment, so multidimensional and yet not.
“Okay. Good.” Jace sniffled, tracing the neckline of Derek’s shirt with his finger.
“Sorry.” He looked down. “I guess…”
He paused, stared into space for a long moment. “Did that make any sense? I was kind of just thinking out loud.”
Derek tilted his head. “It doesn’t have to make sense.”
“Yeah. It doesn’t, does it?” Those dangerously glimmering hazel eyes met his, and Jace whispered, “Can…can I stay here?”
Derek opened his mouth for a moment, and, upon noticing that his vocal cords weren’t working, closed it and tried again. “You mean- you mean, like, right here?” His voice was a couple notes higher than it was supposed to be, and he awkwardly moved his hand to his throat, pressuring it to work.
He nodded. “Yeah. I don’t like to sleep alone. It makes me feel so vulnerable, like the million demons lurking in the umbridge are finally going to swoop down on me.”
Derek smiled, trying to ignore the harried warning in the dramatized words. “The umbridge?”
Jace shrugged sheepishly. “It’s pretty archaic. It means the shadows, usually the shadows of trees. I had an Old English phase.”
“I’m imagining a fifth-grade Jace spouting Jane Austen to a half-asleep class.”
“Jane Austen? Oh, she’s a little kid compared to what I’m talking about.” Then he sombered and folded his legs beneath him, not meeting Derek’s eyes. “But, um…can I?”
He smiled slightly. Everyone had their demons. No one was invincible, and he’d felt like, despite every time he’d broken down, Jace had still been hiding pieces of who he really was. Derek wanted to put those pieces together until he found some semblance of a human, for both their sakes. And Jace’s mother, for if they got back to her. When they got back to her.
“‘Course.” He swallowed before continuing. “Y’know…I’m sure they could sneak some time so you could see your family again.”
“I don’t want to, not before…” Jace paused, and ran his fingers through his caramel curls. “Scratch that. Yeah. I want to. I’m trying to protect them from having to leave again, and I’m trying to protect me, too, but I don’t want to…I don’t want anything to happen to me without seeing them again.”
“I’ll find time for you.”
“For us? I don’t want to face them alone. My mom’s gonna freak ‘cause I’ve left her with Milo so long.”
Derek didn’t like the way he said it, like taking care of both of them was Jace’s responsibility. “Yeah. But you have to go in first. It’s your family.”
He nodded and lay back on the bed, soundless. “Okay. I’m gonna go to sleep now. It’s late.”
Derek was ready to just think for a while. He would have to get over the childish fear he had ingrained in his own mind, that people could read his mind just by touching him. He knew it was irrational, but it was a piece of his childhood that he liked to keep with him.
He had to grow up.
He fell back and turned away from Jace, not wanting to push boundaries. He didn’t want to seem standoffish, but he also didn’t know how he would respond. Let Jace make the first move- he certainly wasn’t going to.
Derek was just getting into a true thinking mood when there was a tap on his shoulder. He rolled over somewhat irritably, his focus shattered, and was about to ask what Jace wanted when he caught the look on his face: awkward, if that was possible of him; embarrassed to the point of anger and shyness, something Derek had never seen on his face but thought looked just as good, if tremendously different, as he did normally.
Jace grabbed his arm and tugged it around him, curling up in his warmth wordlessly without letting go of him. Derek was pulled forward, his heart speeding, around him, who was warm, like a hot water bottle. Not like a hot water bottle, though- he was moving, breathing fast.
“Shut up.” His voice was quiet but a bit sharp and hoarse, like he had said that as an automatic reaction, not really thinking about it.
Derek squirmed a bit to get more comfortable, and sighed. Jace was staring resolutely at his own thighs, refusing to make eye contact. After a moment, he blinked and swallowed, before looking up, eyes firm. They said something along the lines of this never happened, or maybe shut up and go to sleep. Something Jace-like.
So Derek closed his eyes, trying to get back into his thinking mood, instead of his oh-god-no-what-yes-no-what mood. It was a struggle, but then it always was.
He woke up before Jace, with the sun, as always. The open window blew a soft breeze into the room, and everything seemed so light, so light, like silk spun into Derek’s tapestry. There was no way he could think of to describe it, the airy walls, the soft comforter beneath him, the coolness of his own hair. It was like a light greyish blue made into a world.
Jace yawned, tucking his head in, closer to Derek. Then his eyes widened, and he glanced down to see how close they were and flinched away.
“Jesus- did you do that on purpose?”
“No! No, of course not. I just woke up.”
“Uh-huh.” He eyed him. “Why didn’t you do anything about it when you woke up?”
Why hadn’t he? He supposed he hadn’t wanted to disturb the moment by moving. He rarely saw Jace so calm, so free of motives- it was strange, like even when he was being honest and vulnerable did he have some restraints.
“I don’t know. It was nice to see you unburdened.” Derek blinked, pausing. “Not what I meant. I mean, you just looked really peaceful and I didn’t want to wake you.”
Jace raised his eyebrows. “Okay.”
Then he grinned and pushed away, sitting up. “Jesus. I feel like every time I try to sleep I just get more tired.”
“I know what you mean,” Derek commiserated, not really knowing what he meant at all.
Jace paused mid-stretch and opened an eye to stare down at him. “Good, ’cause I don’t.”
Derek forced himself upright and ran his fingers through his stiff hair. If he was being honest with himself, he felt calmer, more collected, than he had anticipated, what with sleeping next to a perpetual ball of energy and lewd jokes, but he still felt tired down to the very marrow of his bones.
Jace, standing, glanced back at Derek over his shoulder. “Hey, do you have any other shirts I could borrow? Sorry, I just feel dirty.”
“You are dirty. I’ll get you something, you can shower.”
Jace nodded and rolled his shoulders. “Thanks,” he added, looking uncomfortable, “I’m not really used to this.”
“This?” Derek rested his chin on his hand, which in turn was digging into his leg.
“Yeah.” He looked away, down at his lacing fingers. “Like, people just doing things for me and not expecting anything in return. My mom did stuff because I was doing stuff. And Louis…you know what he wanted.”
Jace sat back down. “Sometimes…sometimes when I’m alone with myself, I can feel his hands all over me. I sometimes shiver from the pressure of his gun in my hair. My mind fools me, that he’s still here, that he’s right behind me, that we’re-” His fingers seized.
“I don’t want- I don’t know if I can do this, Derek. And it’s not like I can run away and be a coward again. And half of my brain keeps telling me to do one thing, the other half is telling me to do something else, and I don’t know which is right. Cause I don’t want to just step back and run away, but that’s kinda my thing. That’s what such a big part of me is telling me to do.”
Derek moved closer. He wasn’t the guy who ever ran away. He was that cardboard cut-out good guy. He’d never been in many life-or-death situations like that, though. He never had to dwell on his own mortality.
“Well, if you get through this, there’ll be no more running needed. You can go back home, finish college, whatever you want.”
Jace’s hands tightened. “Hey, Derek?”
“Yeah?” He turned to face Derek, eyes pleading.
“I-” Then he stopped and took a breath that never seemed to reach his chest.
“I don’t know. You’re right. Okay.” Jace turned around and crawled over to him, eyes inscrutable.
“Thanks for everything that you’ve done for me.” He was suddenly dead serious, gaze powerful. “You didn’t have to do any of it, but you did.”
Derek exhaled, embarrassed. “Well- I mean, of course. We’re friends, right?”
His breath caught for a second, and then Jace moved, curling up in his lap. For a moment he didn’t move, and then he started crying in earnest against his chest. Somewhat worried, Derek wrapped his arms around Jace and let his sobs echo through his body. It was cathartic to be there, comforting someone, just being because that was all that mattered.
He wasn’t sure how much time passed, but Jace slowly calmed, though he could still see tears running down his warm, soft cheeks. He looked up, Derek barely avoiding an altercation with his ear, and the world was…comfortable.
Jace laughed chokedly, wiping one of his eyes. “Great. You made me cry again. I’m honestly gonna rub my eyes off one of these days.”
Derek allowed himself a chuckle, but didn’t let him walk away from the conversation and his emotions like he always was. Instead, Jace’s body having relaxed, he hugged him tightly, warmly, hoping he could convey as much compassion as possible. Jace responded in earnest despite the tears blazing silently down his face, arms around Derek’s neck like a small child that just wanted a break. And he understood that this was the maybe-boyfriend of a serial killer, he understood that they had met less than a week ago, he understood that they were police officer and criminal, but for a moment it was just two guys who got differently than they deserved. It was just Jace. And maybe Derek, if he’d have him.
And maybe this was how they coped. Finding new things in a world they’d already seen. Finding new people in a familiar sequence. They weren’t to get everything, they weren’t to find everything, but they had to get used to living the way life was telling them to.
The next day brought a lack of work that left Derek aimlessly meandering the halls of the station, thinking about whatever came to mind whilst acting like he had something important to do. It was less posturing and more a sudden aversion to everything he had to do, which wasn’t much of anything. His main goal was to avoid Jace, who, like him, had nothing to do, and had taken to prowling the halls, trying to scare him. It was childish, but he enjoyed the game, at least until he popped up in his face and stuck his long-fingered hands in Derek’s back pockets to balance himself on top of his shiny, newly-polished shoes, prompting a lapse in a conversation they hadn’t noticed- it was their luck that the people communicating were the lieutenant heading the Marines and the chief officer of all Illinois police departments. That was an awkward conversation.
By the afternoon, though, Derek had run out of excuses to make for himself, and decided to leave the rest to the higher-ups. He wasn’t someone who enjoyed letting others take the reins, but he truly had nothing to do, and headed back home, Jace in tow.
There was nothing more to do there.
Eventually, he accepted defeat and demitted, retreating to his room with chips, chocolate, and Jace, who seemed to have taken the tedious stagnance as a personal challenge and was quite literally bouncing on the balls of his feet. When he got upstairs, though, there still didn’t seem to be anything of interest to him, so Jace livened it up.
“This seems weird, I know,” and he was starting to deflate as he spoke, “but could you…hold me?”
“I sometimes get freaky like this and I just need something to calm me down. Like a hug. Sorry.”
“Don’t be.” He hadn’t expected Jace to suddenly be okay with that kind of thing, but at least it would keep him occupied. So, awkwardly, he complied.
He woke up with Jace clinging to him so tightly that he felt he was about to be rent apart. The man was motionless except for his soft breathing, but tears escaped from his long eyelashes, soaking into Derek’s clothes. At first, all he wanted was to get away, but he realized that, for one thing, Jace needed someone to hold on to like this. For another, he would wake him up if he moved, and then there would be the awkwardness of I’m-not-crying-go-away that he really would prefer to avoid. So, having realized his exhaustion, Derek settled, trying to ignore Jace and sleep.
It didn’t work.
When Jace woke, though, he at least felt better rested. It came in slow movements, starting with a quickened heartbeat, the occasional movement. His grip loosened. His shoulders relaxed and set. And finally, his eyes opened, tears still falling silently.
There was a moment of serenity in which they just faced each other quietly, and then he wiped his eyes and grinned sheepishly.
“Sorry. That happens sometimes.” Then he brightened. “Got you to fall asleep, though, didn’t I?”
Derek paused, taken aback. “What do you mean?”
“I know insomnia well enough to get that jittery behavior. Chances are you were just tired but running on adrenaline.”
He stared. He didn’t want to admit to himself that it made sense, or that he had fooled him that easily. “I guess.”
There was a moment when Jace’s face seemed to freeze, and a little bit of life fled it. It made Derek want to somehow reach out, inquire after his tears.
“Hey, you good?”
Jace reanimated swiftly, standing and starting to walk away. “Yeah. That just happens every once in a while, it’s nothing weird.”
His nonchalant attitude was quite clearly an act. “Doesn’t make you okay.”
“Look, Derek.” Jace turned back to face him. “Okay is irrelevant. Will I survive, at least until I get thrown back to Louis? Yes, probably. But okay hasn’t been important in a long time.”
Derek bit his lip, anger surging to the forefront of his mind. “Why not? You can’t just distance yourself from everything. When will you get to enjoy good things if you’re always so busy running away from bad things? Like, I get that you’ve made some mistakes-“
“Derek, I’m the reason why seven hundred people aren’t alive. If I stop running I don’t think I’ll ever move again, okay? Don’t lecture me about mistakes, Gear. Don’t talk about things you don’t understand.”
Jace gazed hauntingly at him. His eyes weren’t wet anymore. They weren’t burning with anger, they weren’t cold and demeaning. Rather, they were completely void of emotion. It was like he’d lost himself, and yet it seemed so much more genuine than the Jace that Derek knew.
He turned on his heel and padded out of the half-open door, shoulders rolling with every step of his haughty stride.
Jace didn’t return until that evening. Derek was terrified of what irrevocable remark had set him off, and had drifted countless excuses for his absence to his father and himself, though he doubted either believed any of them.
When the knock on the door came, his heart leapt – goodie, maybe he hadn’t lost the murder convict and potential sociopath, though he privately suspected that there was more to the hoarse scream in his stomach, maybe hoping that somehow he hadn’t broken the man, that they could rewind – until he realized that it was likely just another deputy. Jace’s caramel curls were a great satisfaction, and proof to himself that Derek was more capable than that, as he pointedly ignored the fact that it was Jace who left and Jace who came back.
“Hey. Sorry for running off.”
Derek lowered his head in acceptance, glancing off towards the azalea bushes on the sides of the walkway.
“Sorry for making you run away.” And, after an awkward moment of silence in which neither could they meet each other’s eyes nor think of anything to say, he stepped back into the house. “Come on in. My dad’s making soup.”
Jace nodded and noiselessly slipped into the doorway, his entire form leaner, slimmer, as though he was trying to squeeze himself into an invisible point in space. Derek closed the door, busying himself with putting his hat on the hat rack. When Jace disappeared beyond the doorway, he finally relaxed, leaning against the door, his entire self seeming to have collapsed. He hadn’t let himself admit how worried he was that Jace wasn’t coming back, and now his pent-up adrenaline had nothing to do, and contented itself with lighting his legs on heatless fire.
Jace and Michael were in the kitchen when Derek had calmed his nerves enough to join them. They were talking and joking as though nothing had happened, working together to finish the meal. Derek smiled forlornly as he watched them. What would his father say when he learned of the horrors Jace had survived and the risks he had to take?
Jace glanced over at him and grinned. “Hey. Come join us instead of sulking in your little corner.”
One shoulder bare, a black apron with some forgotten logo on it covering his collarbone, curls frizzing from the steam rising from pots behind him, everything about him seemed innocently cheerful, a far cry from who he had been just hours before. Derek could almost believe that Jace was over for dinner in a mundane life where they complained about insignificant things and talked about boys and work and politics late into the night, It was a world where they were equals and they were gods, safe and secure, with nothing more to worry about than who would make the first move.
Derek nodded, knowing that it was just a dream but content to just reach for the sun until his wings burned and he was forced to return to earth. For now, though, maybe he could fly.
The next day, having battled his way through at least four rounds of approval (he was too tired to count after three), he found himself with exciting news for Jace.
“I just got the okay. We can go visit your family!”
If he expected a straightforward exclamation of delight, he was somewhat disappointed. The younger man’s face contorted slightly with apprehension, eyes swinging from fear to some sort of hopeful relief and back again. Slowly, though, cautiously, he began to grin.
Derek put a hand to his chest in mock offense. “You think I would lie about something like that?”
Jace stared blankly at him for a moment and then burst out laughing, the book in his lap falling onto the sofa. He clapped, and the plunge of the neckline of his shirt when he raised his arms revealed part of his ribcage, the bone somewhat visible as a result of the past two years’ odd nomadicy. It reminded him of Jace’s errant life, his pain, his fear. Even this happy figure carried with him more trauma, probably, than anyone else Derek knew. Was he that good an actor? Did he even know when he was faking at that point?
Jace jumped up from the sofa and threw his arms around Derek’s waist. Where all of their other embraces had seemed joking or fake, this was more genuine and carefree. His every muscle seemed to relax, warm and comforting, curling his head in instead of lifting it in challenge. Derek had thought every time that he had finally reached the heart of his enigmatic (friend?), just to realize that he still had miles to go. Now, though, at least he had better proof that he had begun to close the distance.
He returned the gesture, letting Jace’s heartbeat absorb into his skin, hoping that, no matter what happened in the next few days, he never forgot the rhythm of a soul forever dancing in chaos. Though it seemed light, the beat thrummed in his entire body clearly, as though calling out for someone to notice. Derek could see why a desperate psychopath would love this man. He could see the intrigue.
Even if he didn’t quite understand it.
“When?” Jace murmured into his chest.
“Tomorrow, if they’re near enough. They’ve been kind enough to let you keep your anonymity, but we’re gonna have to know where it is if we wanna go there.”
He glanced down, as though the caramel curls could tell him what Jace was thinking, They remained opaque in their simplicity, though, and all Derek had was the words he said, the lips that so often wrought lies.
“Well, everything ends eventually.”
Jace glanced up at him, freckles like cinnamon, and smiled sadly. His eyelids began to fall, and he became all softer lines, simpler shapes. His eyes lost their intensity as long, pale lashes fluttered over them.
Derek didn’t know how to respond to that, and suddenly felt incredibly awkward, muscles seizing, wishing he could relax again but not wanting to embarrass himself any more than necessary. He stepped away from the hug, hoping not to hurt Jace’s feelings, and sat on a chair across from the sofa, crossing his legs.
“So…are you excited to be going home?”
Jace sat as well, and stared down at his interlocked fingers. “I mean, yeah, I guess.”
Jace glanced up sharply, eyes piercing once more, though not intimidating in quite the same way. Derek was encouraged more than anything. He had reached a deeper level much more quickly than before, proof of the progress in their relationship. Which was necessary for purely informational purposes.
“I dunno. I’m…I’m scared. It’s irrational, I know, but I’m worried that he won’t remember me. Milo. He was so young when- when I left.”
Derek wanted to comfort him through reassuring him that there was no way they’d forget him, but he knew that primal terror that somebody, something, would decide that he didn’t matter. He knew that spiraling horror. He knew that fear. But all he had to counter it was his infuriating logical reasoning.
“He won’t have. They’re your family. Your mom loved you enough to take care of you for however many years. She wouldn’t let him forget. Besides, it hasn’t been nearly enough time for him to not remember his own brother.” Derek hoped he hadn’t done too graceless a job.
“Feels like another life.” Jace’s shoulders fell and he keeled over, forehead resting on his arms. “Oh my God. “
He pivoted his arms again, elbows never leaving his thighs, and buried his hands in his thick hair. “Oh my God. All these-“
He broke off, and all was silent for a solid minute or so. Derek was about to start talking again when Jace reanimated, lacing his fingers behind his neck.
“I never really realized how much I didn’t do. Even with Louis, it was always ‘go, go, go’…I never paused to think about everything I meant to happen. I just…it’s too late now. A boy who was moving to Canada I never got the number of. I wanted to throw my mom a big birthday party, my brother got into an advanced school. We were s0 excited for him. All that time I wasted. I just- I always thought I had more time.”
Jace uncrossed his fingers and stared up at him through a silkscreen of copper and auburn. “Do you think it’s gonna work? Like, honestly?”
Derek stretched his neck to one side, a nervous habit. Did he? Would Louis keep to a promise not to kill anyone else? Already communication had been established, already the Jackpot Murderer must have been preparing to meet with them. There was no turning back, no second chances. It was happening regardless of their personal opinions. The government had heaved its bulk around to face them, and thus they had become no more than words on a page. The army had no time to spare for them. They didn’t matter.
“It has to.”
“It’s gonna be hard.”
“But it’s gonna work.”
“…Yeah. Yeah, it’s gonna work.”
“Are you ready?”
“Doesn’t matter, does it?”
“It matters to me.”
“Then no, and I’ll never be.”
“I’m gonna take that as a resounding yes.”
“You do you.”
To be continued…