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Some people had made noises about a speech, but Vincent had rebuffed them all with an icy look, hunched against the cold in his tweed jacket, feeling old in a way he didn't think he ever really had, before.

He'd felt bad before, and furious, and sad, but not really old. Age had always been simply something that happened - to him, to other people.

Harry, he thought, touching the scars on his face. You should have been here.

Under more regular circumstances, he might have comforted himself with the thought that there was always going to be a next time, another chance to get it exactly right. He'd been so sure he had it this time, that they'd be together and happy in this moment, proud of what they had achieved together.

Instead, he stood here surrounded by self-important strangers, waiting for his life's (all of his lives') work to be unveiled and shared with the rest of the world.

Someone pushed a button - it really wasn't anymore complicated than that, and there was a flash and a bang, and then -

 

Vincent is young, and nervous, and reluctant to show it.

He's been born with the vaguest, least helpful soulmark he's ever seen - yes i agree it says, in lowercase letters that add insult to injury, even if Vincent is more interested in physics than calligraphy. Still, he thinks it would be nice if people employed proper spelling.

Of course, it's up for debate whether or not soulmarks are created by actual people.

Vincent isn't overly fussed either way. Soulmarks - what nonsense! What utter tripe! Who in their right minds would believe themselves predestined for one particular partner, one special person whose equal or substitute cannot be found anywhere else?

Sex is all very well. He's not attractive enough to get a lot of offers, but neither are plenty of others, so when he has an interest, an itch to scratch, it's easy enough to come by.

He's not here to find romance. He's here to have a serious conversation, a discussion, if at all possible.

"Dr August. I wish to discuss the multiverse," he says.

(People who create soulmates are either total pricks or frighteningly all-knowing, Vincent concludes later, but by then he's lost count of the number of times Harry's had him bent over his desk or the number of times he's had Harry in his favorite comfortable chair, because desks are a terror for one's back, and there's only so many sacrifices and concessions Vincent is willing to make.)

(Either way, he'll discover a way to find them, to analyze them and show the world.)

 

flash

 

The Cronus Club. Bloody busybodies, Vincent thought, aiming for dispassion, indifference. He'd deal with them, had dealt with them already to some fair degree, and here in Russia, he'd found a near-perfect location to work in peace and quiet, without anybody bothering him too much.

Finding out Harry - sweet, misguided, passionate Harry had been (and, he supposed, still was) one of them had come as a blow. In hindsight, he probably could have handled that better.

I trusted you, he thought, staring at a set of formulas. You were always so easy to talk to. He missed that, more than the sex, missed the pleasant endless afternoons, the sound of Harry's voice, the sensation of coming up against a mind almost his equal, but full of different idea, different ideals.

No one here offered anything remotely as good. They offered near-unlimited funding, and secrecy, and flunkies to do his bidding, and that was enough, but it wasn't ... I want more than that. I need more than that. Great ideas weren't born in isolation.

He realized he'd been staring at the same formulas for about five minutes, without having the least ideas what they were for. He'd written them, so they had to be for something, but what?

So much for my perfect memory, he thought, feeling the tug, the seduction of remembering Harry as he had been, when Vincent hadn't known, when they'd gone punting on the river with two girls and he'd kissed one of them, knowing Harry was watching, hoping Harry would feel -

You're older now, he told himself. And Harry's far away from here. How about a bit of focus on the here and now? The Cronus Club is going to come after you again. You should be ready.

Almost on cue, a guard entered the room, red-faced and wild-eyed, yelling something in Russian.

Vincent frowned. He spoke Russian fluently - he had to, in order for this facility to function as it should, but - "What do you mean: we are under attack by a goose?"

 

"I don't fucking believe this," Vincent says. He feels too much, like he's become used to an absence of any emotions stronger than mild annoyance, light distaste, and now here's Harry, and he feels again.

Vincent decides he doesn't like it. Which isn't to say he's not damn happy to see Harry - and just in time, too, and he knows, he simply knows that if he makes his case, if he and Harry can discuss things again the way they used to, back in Cambridge, he can talk Harry around, make Harry a part of this, the greatest venture ever undertaken.

"I don't think belief is required," Harry says. "On either of our parts." They're pressed close together, which seems to soothe the goose but then it starts honking again whenever Vincent tries to move away, to get back to work or (he thinks determinedly, on the off-chance the beast is telepathic - and what the bloody hell is wrong with this world that it requires him to spend time wondering if a goose can read his mind?) to find a more comfortable place to fuck Harry's brains out.

"It's just a goose," Vincent says. "I should let the guards shoot it."

It's not just a goose, of course. The guards will let themselves get shot first before risking any harm to the Goose That Binds Souls Together as Communism Binds Our Hands. (Vincent's not sure if the translation loses something in English, or merely reveals the irony.)

Communism doesn't allow religion, but it's quite comfortable allowing geese.

Having met one of them, Vincent supposes he can see where communism is coming from, other than a place of fine ideals and a terrible practical application. (It's a bit like Harry in that way, up to and including the secrecy.)

"Or we could - " Harry frowns, then suggests, " - kiss?" in a somewhat hesitant tone of voice. "I feel I should warn you, there's a gun in a pocket of my jacket. I thought I might need it to get in."

"We kiss and the goose goes away?" Vincent asks. "Do you have anything at all to back up that hypothesis?" He could kiss Harry anyway, he supposed, but he'd rather do it because he wants to, rather than because a goose is giving him dirty looks.

"We could experiment," Harry says.

I could get down on my knees to beg you to stay and work with me and suck your cock at the same time, Vincent thinks. Doesn't mean I'm going to do it, though there's a certain appeal to the idea, to the fantasy that Harry is susceptible to that sort of inducements, that Vincent can simply seduce Harry to the side of the angels - if angels existed, which until today, Vincent would have argued they didn't. Now, he's willing to stipulate that they might, wings and beak and all, and they are all Old-Testament wrathful.

The goose honks and starts waddling out of the door.

Vincent relaxes. "Or not, it seems." Part of him is disappointed. It will be a bit harder now, to break the ice, to get their relationship back to the way it's been before, and he's so busy already.

"We could - " Harry starts, but Vincent has moved away already; he has his pride, his principles and Harry's come here as an agent of the Cronus Club: these things can be ignored for a while, but not forgotten, nor forgiven.

Something crashes to the floor in the other room, and Vincent feels himself go pale.

"Your - it's in there, isn't it?" Harry says.

"Only a rough prototype," Vincent says. "Nowhere near ready yet."

They listen to the sound of an angry goose bringing down the wrath of the gods on Vincent's grand design. Vincent's suddenly glad he's kept a spare set of blueprints in his room.

"Look," Harry says, "Vincent. I - "

"Shut up," Vincent says, pulling him closer and kissing him, thinking to himself, you stupid idiot, you could have done this before and then you wouldn't need to go beg for new funding again, but then Harry starts kissing him back and Vincent lets it happen, lets himself forget anything matters except having Harry here.

 

bang

 

We did it. Vincent stared at the model that was slowly rotating on his screen. It's done.

His exhaustion muted his excitement, though he still felt it. Dozens of lives, years upon years of research, finding new and other ways to bend Harry to his will, to ensure Harry would lend his genius to the project, willingly and unstintingly and with a ready smile and wit.

I did what I had to do, Vincent told himself. The words felt truer in the face of his success. I didn't enjoy it. He simply didn't leave me any other choice.

"Is that it?" Harry asked, coming to stand behind him, one hand on Vincent's chair, at the back of his head, in a perfect position to try and strangle him.

Vincent forced himself to relax. Harry didn't remember. Vincent had taken away his memories, his pain - it was better that way. More convenient as well, true, but that hadn't been his sole motivation.

"Yes. That's it, Harry. All we need to do now is to build it. A matter of days."

"I'm half surprised you're willing to wait that long," Harry teased, his hands moving to Vincent's shoulders. "The way you've been driving everybody insane these past weeks - and now you're content to sit on your hands for not just hours, but actual days? Who are you and what have you done with Vincent Rankis?"

Vincent chuckled. "What's the rush?" He ignored the hint of doubt, the tiny chill of fear. If the Cronus Club got to him now somehow, if they'd get their hands on him and made him forget - it would all have been for nothing. He'd lose everything.

They can't know, he reassured himself. Harry's on your side. Loyal. Dependable. Yours. He hadn't even needed Harry this time around, not really. Still, he felt it only fair to think of the project as theirs, to share the glory. The Cronus Club is as it has always been: a group of people unwilling to act, afraid of change. Even if they wanted to, what could they do? If they could have gotten to you, they would have done so already.

Harry swiveled his chair around, intention clear, and Vincent smiled up at him, feeling an overwhelming sense of love and pride and goodwill, an utter conviction that everything was going to be all right now.

 

The next day, Harry's gone. Vincent can't believe it, but he makes himself think, forces himself to make arrangements, to yell at and threaten and coax all the right people.

He knows they have hours now, not days.

He makes sure they count. If he's fast enough - once the quantum mirror is up and running, there will be nothing Harry or anyone else can do. (Well. There will be some things, he assumes. It's not as if a single activation is going to give him all the answers, reveal all the truths and secrets there are to know about the universe.) If he can manage it, though, he knows that will stay with him, no matter what happens to him, after. He'll always know that he did it, that he glimpsed the fabric of reality.

Harry, he thinks, touching the scars on his face. You should have been here.

Someone pushes a button - it really isn't anymore complicated than that, and there's a bang and Vincent slowly realizes that it's not the bang there should have been, the bang preceded by a flash, to indicate the quantum mirror's been activated.

There are screams, and several someones with guns, and Vincent thinks, if they kill me, I'll still have won, unless, of course, someone's discovered where and when he's been born, but that's information he hasn't shared even with Harry.

It takes a remarkably short amount of time for the room to clear, to leave him alone with one of the gunmen - masked, and Vincent wants to laugh at the cliche, at the theatricality.

Even so, he'll play his part. Why not?

"You're too late," he says and then, because he's almost sure, "Harry. I did it. It's done."

The gunman removes his mask.

It's not Harry.

 

flash bang

Vincent will stare at the model rotating at his screen

and

Vincent will stare at the amount of havoc a very determined, extremely annoyed goose can wreak

and

Vincent will kiss a girl while her sometimes-boyfriend watches and his often-lover

and

Vincent will sink to the floor, his back against the door, trying not to hear the sounds of what is happening on the other side, of Harry, screaming, weeping,

and

Vincent will find the gun, Harry's gun, and try out the way it feels against his skin, toying with the idea of self-destruction, even if it would only be for a moment, but no, he musn't, can't leae Harry like that

and

Vincent will kiss Harry, the taste of Scotch on his lips, in his mouth

and

Vincent will read the words written on his wrist, and the words written on Harry's, and laugh

and

Vincent will take the gun, knowing what he needs to do, what has to be done

now

"A bit of a shock, I dare say, old man," the gunman says, smiling. He's had several lifetimes to get used to this, after all. He barely remembers how he felt during the first few of them anymore. (This is a lie.)

"How?" Vincent asks and then, even if it seems the less relevant question, "Why?"

"How? The quantum mirror, of course. One of its applications, anyway." The gunman beams at Vincent. "There's quite a few more than you've considered, you know. Though I'm afraid you won't actually get to put any of them into practice. It's all theory and models from here on out for you, I'm afraid, my boy. Still, at least you'll have Harry. That's something, eh?"

Vincent realizes his mouth has gone dry. His mind is racing. "So the why would be that I ended the world as people know it?"

"Afraid so. Well, happens to the best of us, doesn't it? And, if you look at it properly, you've also saved the world as people know it, so it all evens out, really. Not that you can expect everyone else to see it that way, of course, but then, I know how you feel about other people's opinions."

"I rather imagine you do, yes," Vincent says. He's beginning to feel calmer. More in control. Why not - he is, after all. One of him is. He's not entirely sure if it's the him that's holding the gun or the him that isn't, but it hardly matters. "So what happens next?"

"I fire the gun," the gunman says. His tone is almost kind. "It's still got Harry's fingerprints on it. The police will look for him a while, but no one got hurt, so they won't look too long and anyway, these are civilized times. The rest is up to you."

"You're going to destroy - " Vincent can't bring himself to say it. He feels there are answers, waiting for him. He could learn so much, see so much. The answer to everything.

"42," the gunman says. "See? That one's a doozie. Trust me. There's no other choice. You can't kill me, not in any meaningful way, unless you also want to kill yourself, in which case we get ourselves a classic time travel paradox. That means the world still ends," he adds helpfully, like he's not Vincent.

"I hate you," Vincent tells himself.

"I know," he replies.

 

curtain

We did it. Vincent stared at the model that was slowly rotating on his screen. It's done.

"Is that it?" Harry asked, coming to stand behind him, one hand on Vincent's chair, at the back of his head, in a perfect position to try and strangle him.

Vincent sighed and clicked the button that would delete everything he'd worked for. "Yes. That was it."

Harry said nothing for a long while. Vincent wondered if he should offer some sort of explanation – but then, what was there to say? Harry didn't know what had just happened. He didn't understand it the way Vincent did.

"There's something you should probably know,” Harry said at last. “Now seems as good a time as any to tell you, really."