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Eric and the Ring

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“This is the most ridiculous argument we’ve ever had,” Wes says, sliding his lunch tray along the railing behind Eric’s. “And that’s saying something.”

“It would be saying something if it’s true,” Eric says. “It isn’t. You’ve made a lot more ridiculous arguments in the past. I can think of three off the top of my head.”

“Oh no,” Wes counters. “My argument is good. The fact that you’re fighting with me about it is what’s ridiculous.”

“Well I guess that’s a matter of delusion,” Eric replies. He makes the minimum amount of effort at pretending to correct himself. “I mean, perspective.”

“Those are veggie burgers,” Wes tells him, as though Eric can’t read the sign saying “garden burgers” himself.

“Good.” He drops the burger on his tray alongside chips, corn, and ketchup, and then takes a second one. “Thank you,” he tells the person on the other side of the counter.

“They’re for vegetarians,” Wes says, following him out of the line to their usual table by the windows. “Why are you always taking food away from people with a registered dietary restriction?”

“I have a registered dietary restriction,” Eric says. “I don’t like cows.”

“Vegetarians do like cows,” Wes says. “I’m pretty sure that’s why they don’t eat them.”

Eric takes his seat and kicks Wes’ chair out for him from the other side of the little table. “I couldn’t care less why other people don’t eat cows.”

Wes holds up his own burger. “This is delicious.”

Eric takes one of his chips. “How nice for you.”

“First you take the vegetarians’ food, then you take my chips,” Wes says with mock sadness. “I see all my efforts at socialization have failed.”

“At your own socialization?” Eric asks. “I think that’s pretty clear.”

“Are these corn chips?” Wes frowns down at his tray. “I don’t like corn chips.”

“I know,” Eric says, taking another one.

“Hey, Eric,” Jennifer calls from two tables over. “Garden burgers today!”

He waves back at her without looking up. They discussed the merits of garden versus veggie burgers two weeks ago, and he knows she has friends in the kitchen. At least she uses her powers for good.

“Why does everyone think you’re a vegetarian?” Wes demands.

“Why would anyone think I’m a vegetarian?” Eric replies.

“Because you eat food that’s for vegetarians,” Wes tells him.

Eric doesn’t point out that he’s answered his own question, because that’s technically untrue. “It isn’t for vegetarians,” he says. “It’s for people who checked the vegetarian option on their cafeteria form.”

“Which you did,” Wes says skeptically.

“I didn’t say that.”

“Hey, Eric.” Leslie’s walking by with yet another giant German Shepherd, because it’s canine integration week and no one else is as good at reassuring new recruits, but of course they pause long enough to say, “Congratulations.”

He tosses the dog a chip without answering, but it’s enough to make Wes say, “Yeah, so, is that what that means?”

Even for Wes it’s cryptic, so Eric feels justified in saying, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“I saw Taylor when she stopped by to drop off her paperwork,” Wes says. “She was wearing your ring.”

“I doubt that,” Eric says, taking another bite so he doesn’t have to swallow for no reason.

Wes is watching him now. “Oh?”

“I think I’d notice if I was missing a ring.”

“The ring you gave her,” Wes says, like he really thinks Eric misunderstood. “She was wearing it this morning.”

He shrugs. “None of my business what she does with her own jewelry.”

Wes doesn’t fall for it a second time. “When did she start wearing her engagement ring again, Eric?”

“How would I know?” Eric counters, but he catches Wes’ eye and as usual, that’s his mistake. “Probably this morning. Or last night. Depending on when she found the note I left next to the bed.”

Wes raises his eyebrows. “You proposed in a note?”

“No,” Eric says.

“Then what does the note have to do with anything?” Wes demands. “And why are you writing notes to the person you broke up with who's now sleeping in your bed?”

“It said she could wear the ring,” Eric mutters. “Obviously.”

He can hear Wes grinning. “You proposed in a note,” he says.

Eric isn't looking at him. “She was wearing it when you saw her?”

“Hard to miss,” Wes tells him.

Eric starts on his second burger, but there's only so much he can do to hide his smile.

“Hey,” Wes says. “I know this is a new idea, but have you considered actually talking to her?”

Eric doesn’t reply. It’s not like it bothers Wes, and it will make his day better if he doesn’t have to walk out of the cafeteria to avoid… well. Making the day worse. He still has most of a garden burger left; there’s no reason to care about this conversation.

The thing is, he talks to Wes because Wes is obnoxious and unrelenting that way. (He doesn't talk to Jen because she's not his girlfriend, but he’s pretty sure talking to Wes is talking to Jen by proxy, these days.) He talks to far too many of his coworkers who pass in the lunchroom and the halls. He talks to Alice.

He doesn't talk to Taylor.

Mostly. He doesn't talk about anything meaningful, and she returns the favor. They can't coexist without arguing, but it doesn't hurt as much when they're fighting in glares and clipped sentences over who drank the last of the orange juice instead of whose is the greatest betrayal.

The thing is, Eric didn't break up with Taylor. She broke up with him, and he's still angry about it. He's also, as Alice insists on reminding him, heartbroken. It turns out that's an awful combination, and some days he doesn't know who he hates more: Taylor, or himself.

Unfortunately he has no principles, so when Taylor shows up at his house to hide from whatever she’s avoiding now, he lets her. He tries to ask her to stay. He tries to ask her if she needs help. He has a lot of questions, but at the end of the day the only answer is it doesn’t matter, so he doesn’t ask.

Eric remembers what it was like to only care about one thing, but the thing is he doesn’t anymore. He cares about a lot of things. He cares about Wes and Wes’ stupid team, and those damn birds, and Alice. So caring about Taylor isn’t unfamiliar, but it’s inconvenient, because everything he cares about complicates his life a little more.

He’s supposed to go home after lunch, because they were out most of the night. He does, mostly because if he takes a nap before Alice gets home from school then they can go to the park. He has a morpher. He doesn’t need much sleep.

He didn’t have to ask if Taylor gave her morpher back after Time Force recruited her. Them. Recruited everyone, maybe; they’re sloppy for future police who supposedly know everything about time.

She keeps it on the table beside the bed when she sleeps over. He does the same. They look vastly different, so there’s no chance of mixing them up.

They’re not Wes and Jen.

He stares at the note Taylor left him for a long time, and then he kicks his boots off and changes into clothes he can wear to the park. He lies down on the couch where he’ll hear the door and he doesn’t set an alarm. He already knows he isn’t going to fall asleep.

(His note told her to wear the ring. Hers is asking him out. So his is the bigger presumption, right? But it feels like hers is… more, somehow. Everything with Taylor feels like more.)

He’s forgotten where he is when he hears the knock. It isn’t morning. The adrenaline--or the Power--kicks his brain into the middle of the afternoon, and Alice is home from school. He rolls off of the couch and goes to unlock the door, only realizing he’s still holding the note when he goes to run his hand through his hair.

“Hello,” Alice chirps. “What are you reading?”

He doesn’t know why he hands it over, but she scowls as soon as she sees the words. “Is this from Taylor?” she asks. “You can’t go out with her, Eric. She’s bad for you.”

It makes him smile, and she glares up at him. “It isn’t funny. She’s mean. You said so yourself.”

“We’re all mean,” he reminds her. “That’s how we survive.”

“Well, yeah,” she says. “But we’re not mean to each other. You’re not mean to me. You should come over to my house for dinner. Tonight. My mom says you can.”

“Oh, does she,” Eric says. “That’s very interesting, how you can read her mind like that.”

Alice rolls her eyes at him, and he takes advantage of the moment to pluck the note out of her hands. “I can’t read her mind,” she informs him. “She told me. She said, tell Eric he can come over for dinner tonight, if he’s out of frozen dinners and MREs.”

That makes him laugh. The woman Alice calls “mom” is rude and practical and Eric likes her. He tries not to care about her too but sometimes he can’t help it.

Before they go to the park, he writes a note to Taylor: I’m not going anywhere with you until we talk. Alice approves of this note (at least the first part). She doesn’t approve of the flower he leaves with it, but he tells her to get her own girlfriend and then she can tell him what to do.

She says she has enough problems without adding girls. She’s probably right, but he doesn’t say so. They go to the park, and then they have dinner with her mom, and Alice makes him stay afterwards to watch the recording of Enterprise that Wes always makes for them.

It keeps him from watching out the window for Taylor, and Alice doesn’t wake him up when he falls asleep, so he doesn’t see Taylor’s answer until late. He texts her anyway, and it’s the first time since she told him to go to hell: Come over tomorrow. No notes.

She replies immediately, and it’s stupid but he’d forgotten how it feels to see a message from Taylor on his phone. You realize texts are basically just electronic notes, the message says.

He doesn't answer. He isn't going to answer; there's a reason they have to talk. But there's a reason they can't, too, and when he's brushing his teeth it comes to him.

If there's something you can say in a text to convince me, he writes, I'm listening.

Even he doesn't know what he wants to hear. What would be enough? Nothing? Or anything?

He told her to wear the ring. He isn't fooling anyone. So probably anything.

Except that this is Taylor, so. Anything except what she would actually say. She'll come up with something horrible and offensive that he can't even imagine and it won't be funny tonight.

When his phone buzzes, he looks. Of course.

If I had to choose between you and the eagle, it says. I'd choose you.

He has no idea what to say to that. He falls asleep with the phone in his hand, and when he wakes up in the morning he checks to make sure he didn't send anything while he was mostly unconscious. He didn't. Neither did she.

So the words I'd choose you are still the last thing on the screen, and it's too late for an answer even if he had one. Since she choose the eagle over the Air Force, the only thing that comes to mind is, Don't lie, but hasn't that always been their problem? If they were willing to lie a little more, they wouldn't hurt each other so much.

The thought paralyzes him when he finds her standing on the step outside his door that night. Why she didn't just walk in, he has no idea, but he has to open the door for her and then he can't think what to do next. Say something? Should he ask? Mock? Compliment?

Should he take the bag she's holding? Invite her in? Get out of the way?

Close the door again, because he clearly loses all capacity for rational thought when Taylor wears her hair loose?

“Hi,” she says. “Can I come in?”

He opens his mouth to say, yeah, of course, or maybe, no, what do you think this is, a date? But what comes out is, “That depends. What’d you bring?”

It makes her smile, just a little. “Takeout from Phil’s,” she says.

“Then yes,” he says, stepping back and pulling the door open the rest of the way. He would have let her in anyway, probably, but Phil’s was a good choice.

They get the food on the table, with plates and chopsticks and he gives her a fork without comment. What’s more impressive is that she accepts it without comment. They pour drinks and pass napkins and it’s awkward in its familiarity.

He pretends not to be waiting for her to sit down, but she doesn’t, so he doesn’t. Finally she stops with her hands on the back of her chair and glares at him across the table. “I don't know how to talk about this.”

“Yeah,” he says, because he wondered if they were just going to pretend everything was fine. He doesn’t know how to do anything else. “Neither do I.”

“I don’t want to,” she says bluntly. “I’d rather eat, and sleep with you, and think it’s all going to work this time. But it didn’t last time.”

“It would have,” Eric tells her. “If you hadn’t given up.”

“I didn’t give up,” she snaps. “It was my fault, fine. But I didn’t give up.”

He braces himself against his own chair so he has something to hold onto. “Then why the hell did you leave?”

She makes a frustrated gesture, shrugging and pushing her hair back all at once. “I don’t know.”

He scoffs, and she exclaims, “I don’t know, all right? I do stupid things; you know that! This was stupid. You deserve better.”

“That’s a lousy excuse,” he says. “What, you’re a bad person so you do bad things? There’s no way around it?”

“You’re the one who says I have a destiny,” she retorts. “Maybe it’s a bad one.”

“It’s whatever you say it is! If you don’t like who you are, be someone different! Make a different choice!”

“That’s really what you get out of time travel?” she says. “Make a different choice and everything will be okay?”

“That what I get--” He’s about to say from Jen, and also from Wes, but then he realizes that’s the same thing and what does it matter, anyway? “Yeah,” he says instead. “That’s exactly what I get out of time travel.”

“Well, I get that no one really changes,” she tells him. “Thousands of years and they’re still the same people they were then. Who cares what choices you make it if all turns out the same in the end?”

So Wes’ team probably shouldn’t be anyone’s role model, but Taylor’s is arguably worse. She’s not wrong about that. And she spends way too much time with her self-sacrificing princess friend.

“If it takes a thousand years to get there,” he says, “then how you get there is more important than how it ends.”

She frowns at him. “What?”

“Choose not to walk away,” he says with a sigh. “What’s so hard about that?”

“You tell me,” she counters. “We’re always fighting. You’re miserable. I’m bad for you, Eric. Even Alice knows it.”

“What do you think I have against fighting?” he demands. “I like fighting. You like fighting. Wes and Alice like fighting. Everyone I know likes fighting; that’s why we get along!”

She looks away for the first time, and she’s smiling. Or she’s trying not to.

“Don’t tell me what’s bad for me and what isn’t,” he tells her. “We agreed, remember? We get to make our own choices.”

She folds her arms, still staring at the table. “Maybe I didn’t want my choices to make you unhappy.”

“Well, great,” he says, before he can stop himself. She’s trying to tell him something and he’s so angry he doesn’t even care. “You really nailed that one. I should thank you for how happy I am without you. Why bother coming back?”

“I don’t know,” she says, lifting her head to catch his eye again. “I guess I’m a fighter.”

“I hate that you left,” he tells her.

“I love that you let me come back,” she says.

He has no idea how to reply to that.

“I’m sorry,” she adds. “I know it isn’t enough, but it’s true. We never had any trouble telling each other what we wanted, and I want you. I want us. I want this back.”

He just looks at her, because what else is he supposed to do?

“Well, not this, exactly,” she says. “This is uncomfortable. And this conversation sucks. But this, with you. In general. Actually, I guess if this is what we’re doing, then I want this too.”

“You convinced me last night,” he blurts out. “Don’t get me wrong; keep babbling if you want. I’m enjoying it. But the food’s not getting any warmer.”

She takes the out without batting an eye, and her familiar complaint is reassuring. “You don’t have to give me a fork,” she says.

“I do if I want you to finish eating before tomorrow,” he replies.

She makes a face at him, and when she pulls out her chair and sits down she reaches for the chopsticks. “Don’t tell me what to do,” she says.

“Don’t make decisions for me,” he warns her.

She rolls her eyes. “Don’t make stupid decisions!”

He wants to point at her chopsticks, but the irony is too much. “You sound just like Wes,” he says instead.

She pauses, but for some reason she doesn’t look upset. “Really?”

This time he does point at her. “It's not a good thing.”

She rolls her eyes, which Wes is just going love. “No, of course not. It’s terrible. How dare you compare me to your best friend.”

He lets it pass, reaching for the soy sauce instead. “He saw you wearing your ring yesterday.”

“It’s a nice ring,” Taylor replies. “I like it.”

He can’t help smiling back, even as he asks, “Did it work?”

“So far,” she says, glancing around the kitchen. He doesn’t realize it’s deliberate until she looks back at him and adds, “I mean, we haven’t set a date. But yeah. So far it’s working.”