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Earth Below Us (Drifting, Falling)

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Doug pinched the paper between his fingers, forming the final crease in the small paper star. He flicked it into the jar next to him with a sigh, taking a break to admire his work.

 

The jar was nearing half-full, filled with a galaxy of tiny folded stars that started messy at the bottom and got better as the pile rose. Each star was formed sloppily from a different color of paper, pink and blue and green and yellow filling the jar with soft hues.

 

Of all the things to remember how to do, he thought, This might be the most useless.

 

He pulled another strip of paper from the pile next to him, working it into a pentagon between his fingers. As he wrapped the strip around and around he let his mind drift off in the now-familiar cycle of dimness and cotton-behind-the eyes, blurry vision focused on an invisible point.

 

Fuzzy memories rose to the surface, like the dim shape of something bright underneath a sheet of ice. He could never truly remember anything but he often had half-memories, passing someone on the street or pausing in a place that seemed so achingly familiar. He wanted to remember, remember, remember, why couldn’t he remember?

 

He had gone to visit his daughter - she looked so much like him and yet also like someone else brushing up against the ice in his mind, it caught him by surprise - and they had just sat there, expectant. He didn’t remember her and she had few memories of him and, besides that, he couldn’t remember sign language anyways, couldn’t speak to the girl that must have been so important to Doug one-point-oh but that he couldn’t even fucking remember-

 

He twisted a light blue piece of paper between his thumb and forefinger, letting the texture calm him down. Tie, fold, wrap and repeat, the familiar actions put a pause to his racing thoughts - he was here he was here he was here - and he pressed creases into the star with careful familiarity.

 

He had looked up the story once he discovered that he remembered how to fold the little stars, had read the same page he was sure his past self had once read. Everlasting love, it had said, luck for eternity, luck and preservation . He liked it, the idea of preserving something as big as a star in a tiny strip of paper, liked the repetition and hope of the process and the feeling like he was creating something.

 

He heard footsteps outside of his bedroom and he rose with a smile, shaking out his stiff knees with a lanquidity that was reserved only for the weekend. The slow, soft steps of socks on hardwood told him that it was Isabel who had risen first, followed by the light patter of bare feet as Renée followed.

 

Life was nice, better than anything he ever could’ve hoped for. He lived with Renée and Isabel - his friends, he reminded himself - and Hera watched over them from brand-spankin’-new security cameras set like a sentinel around the house.

 

But something was… he never felt quite right. Something was always off, like when a song comes on the radio that you know you’ve heard before but can’t quite remember?

 

His job at the radio station was great and he thought that his past self would’ve enjoyed it too, getting to speak to hundreds of listeners instead of just mission control. The house was big and his friends tried, really and truly tried, to make him feel at home, but…

 

They always expected someone else. They expected him to be their friend, to be Eiffel, to make dumb pop culture refereces and joke about one of the adventures that he had forgotten. And he tried to be that person for them, but there were times that he just…

 

Renée would make some reference and look at him expectantly, only for her face to fall when she realized he wouldn’t get it. Isabel would start telling a story about one of their escapades and expect for him to jump in, set the tale straight, but he couldn’t. The Douglas Eiffel that they knew, the one that they loved, was gone. He couldn’t be that person, and he didn’t want to try and become that person.

 

So Doug was just, well Doug. He watched new movies and got a job and went on walks around the neighborhood, he got a therapist and learned to deal with the nightmares, the not-memories that would plague him and leave him waking up gasping, expecting the vortex of space and instead opening his eyes to his dim bedroom.

 

He traced his fingers over their frostbite scars one last time, then opened his door.

 


 

The doorbell rang while he was preparing dinner, house otherwise empty and dim with only the warm lamps of the kitchen lighting his work. The only hint of the storm outside was the faint susurrus of the rain rebounding off of the asphalt, whispering against the windows and pinging off the roof. He flipped his quesadilla in the pan and went to open the door, expecting Renée and Isabel back early or another delivery from Hera’s new Amazon addiction.

 

Instead, Daniel Jacobi was leaning against their doorframe, all sharp edges and volatility.

 

“Hey, Eiffel,” he said, eyes dark and almost sad in the fading light. Rain dripped from his flattened curls and down across his face, the water already soaking through his faux-leather jacket. Doug let his eyes graze, just for a moment, over the ripped seams where a Goddard patch must have once sat proudly on his breast.

 

Doug smiled cautiously, opening the door further to let the man inside. He didn’t know much about Daniel Jacobi, hadn’t gotten that far into listening to the tapes, only that he was on the same crew as…

 

The same crew as the ones who didn’t get to come back.

 

“What brings you by, Jacobi?” he asked, turning back to his now-crispy quesadilla. He flipped it out of the pan and deftly onto his plate, then turned to face the other man.

 

Jacobi settled on one of the bar stools, water already pooling at his feet.

 

“Oh, y’know,” he said, waving a dripping hand in the air, “The usual. Had a mental breakdown, ended up here, yada yada. Got anything to drink?”

 

Doug sighed but turned to the cabinets, pulling out a nearly-full bottle of whiskey. He poured Jacobi a glass and sat down next to him, sliding his own plate of dinner across the counter.

 

“Thanks,” the man said, taking a deep sip. He tilted the glass to Doug with a raised eyebrow once he stopped to take a breath, continuing, “Want any?”

 

Doug frowned, picking at his meal. “I… don’t drink,” he said, staring pointedly at a spot on the wall just above Jacobi’s head. His eyes refocused after a moment and he made eye contact with Jacobi, letting his face soften. “Are you… okay, bud?” He asked, choosing his words carefully. “Do you want to… I dunno, talk about it?”

 

He knew next to nothing about Daniel Jacobi, let alone how to comfort him. God I wish Renée was home, he thought, jogging his leg under the bar. She actually knows the man, and that’s better than nothing. He probably came here for one of them anyways, don’t know why he would want to see-

 

“It’s… been a rough night,” Jacobi said, interrupting Doug’s thoughts. The man brought his glass to his mouth but didn’t drink, instead staring distantly into its amber depths. “I’ve been thinking. About Kepler, about Maxwell…” He sighed, lowering his glass to the counter with a clink. “I just needed to be around someone. Sorry it had to be you.”

 

“Hey!” he said, in mock offense, “You should be honored, Jacobi, being in the presence of the great Douglas Eiffel .” He tried to color his voice with the same dramatic flourish as the version of him he had heard in the tapes, but it didn’t come out quite right. He flinched at his poor attempt to lighten the mood, frostbitten hands twitching on the counter.

 

To his surprise Jacobi began to laugh, a warm and low sound that started as a chuckle but became something frantic. He had actually started shaking before Doug realized Jacobi was crying - deep, hysterical sobs that brought tears to join the rain on his face.

 

Doug brought a hesitant hand to the man’s back, standing from his chair to wrap Jacobi in a warm - and slightly wet - hug. “Hey, hey! Jac- Daniel? Can I call you Daniel? Listen, it’s gonna be okay buddy, I’m here. I’m here.”

 

Daniel’s tears began to slow until he was only shaking slightly in Doug’s arms, Doug on his tiptoes and Daniel slouched to fit together like old discarded puzzle pieces. They stood like that, for a moment, and Doug breathed in the heavy, smoky scent of gunpowder that lingered on Daniel’s clothes. He reveled in the warmth of the man, the way heat seemed to thrum under his skin and out through the burn scars that riddled his arms.

 

Daniel pulled away.

 

He swiped a hand across his eyes and downed the rest of his glass, resolutely avoiding eye contact with Doug. A series of complicated emotions flashed across his face for just a moment before the slider stopped on something blank and hard, the hazel of his eyes growing harsh in the fading evening light. “I’m taking the couch, that alright with you?” he asked, not even waiting for a reply before turning on his heels and collapsing onto the couch, wet clothes and all.

 

Doug really didn’t understand Daniel Jacobi.

 


 

Doug woke to distant shouting, one voice the high, angry shouts of Renée and the other a low and defensive snark from Daniel. He could hear snippets - raised questions along the lines of “Why the hell were you on our couch?” and “Where have you been all this time?” - filtered through his door. He rose to his feet with a groan and the goal to mediate between the two.

 

He stepped out into the kitchen to find the two spitting at each other over a forgotten breakfast of omelettes - had Daniel cooked for them? - and Isabel watching with a strange mix of annoyance and amusement on her face. Daniel had that infuriating smug grin on his face but it didn’t quite reach his eyes, and his posture was stiff as he leaned against the counter.

 

Renée whirled around as Doug entered the room, fixing him with that fiery glare he still hadn’t grown accustomed to. (Had he ever gotten used to that? Back when he was Eiffel?) He flinched back on reflex and her face softened slightly, her eyes flickering between him and Daniel.

 

“Did you invite him here?” She asked, anger just barely held back. Her shoulders were squared and she somehow managed to look threatening, even dressed in Isabel’s baggy star-patterned pyjamas.

 

Doug’s brown eyes met Daniel’s hazel, and an unspoken plea passed between the two.

 

“Yeah, thought he could use the company,” Doug lied, reaching over the counter with practiced disinterest to scoop up a plate. He leaned back against a stool and regarded the two of them with a look plastered on his face that he knew Renée found infuriating. “Why?” He asked, mouth full of - really well cooked, damn - eggs, “Do you have a problem with him or something?”

 

The challenge was obvious and Renée narrowed her eyes, about to snap back when Isabel stood to take her hand. The taller woman whispered something into Renée’s ear and she sighed, taking a seat at the bar.

 

“It’s just-” Renée paused, considering her words. “I didn’t know you two knew each other.” The implications were clear and they both flinched at her bluntness, Doug shoveling another bite of cheesy goodness into his mouth to avoid replying.

 

There was an awkward silence for a moment as he chewed, and then Daniel stood abruptly from where he had been leaning.

 

“I should go,” he said, voice hard, pulling his jacket on over his rumpled t-shirt. The three of them watched him silently as he strode out of the kitchen, and it took Doug’s hazy sleep-muddled brain a few seconds to realize he should probably go after him. He came to his feet, fork bouncing off of his plate and on to the granite with a clink.

 

He found Daniel on the front porch, watching the rain that was still falling, albeit lighter, from the sky. The man’s hazel eyes caught the silver grey light of early morning and reflected it, making him look almost ephemeral, like something from the stars. His hands were clenched tightly on the railing, burn scars against wood against sky. The cheery bright orange of his hearing aids seemed wrong against the somber, papery blue of the clouds, and they stood out too against the hard look in Daniel’s eyes.

 

Doug reached over and very carefully took one of Daniel’s hands, marvelling still at the warmth. He didn’t flinch away so Doug held him there, rubbing careful circles with his thumb across the scars burnt into Daniel’s skin.

 

Daniel twisted their hands, silently, until they were pressed palm to palm, tilted so he could run his own thumb along Doug’s frostbite scars. Daniel smiled then, gingerly, as if it might break him, as if it might shatter his face into a hundred pieces, as if it was his first time smiling in a while. When his face stayed intact his smile grew, the look in his eyes softening down to something that Doug still couldn’t recognize.

 

Then he pressed a warm kiss to Doug’s hand and, well, Doug recognized that.

 


 

Doug pinched the paper between his fingers, creasing it carefully again and again. The repetitive motions soothed his racing thoughts and he let the tension fade from his shoulders, let the stiffness leave his jaw. He looked down at the pile of stars in his lap. Orange, the color of Daniel’s hearing aids, a bright burgundy - Daniel’s favorite color - and a deep brown, the color of Daniel’s curls.

 

Doug had it bad.

 

He screwed the top onto the jar, took a deep breath, and tied a red bow around the lid. Giving gifts is cool, right? He thought, running a sweaty hand through his frizzing hair. It’s normal to give a thoughtful origami gift to your bro who kissed your hand yesterday morning and hasn’t talked to you since?

 

He pulled himself up off the floor, knees creaking in protest. Grabbing the jar, he strode out of his room before he managed to second-guess himself. He was just about to leave - was in the middle of lacing up his boots - when the familiar sound of the comms system crackled on.

 

“Doug? Can we talk for a sec?” Hera asked, her flickering voice uncertain.

 

“Sure, Hera,” he sighed, lowering his leg in front of him so he was sitting on the floor. “This is totally a good time to do that.”

 

She ignored his snark, instead turning one of the cameras on the ceiling to face him. “It’s just that… you’re going to visit Jacobi, right?”

 

He stiffened, making steady eye contact with his shoelaces. “Aaaand?” He said, after a pregnant pause, “What about it?”

 

Hera sighed, the sound crackling through the speakers above the door. “Doug, I can see the living room. The, uh, the couch - and the kitchen, and, and, um, the porch.” She paused, embarrassed. Doug’s shoulders got even stiffer, his stomach feeling like it was burrowing a pit down through his other organs.  

 

“I saw you two on the porch yesterday and in the kitchen last week and...” She paused. “I… it’s okay if you like him I just-” She groaned in frustration, her voice flickering again. “What I’m trying to say is-”

 

“Hera. Are you… jealous?” Doug asked, finally frowning up at the camera.

 

Her silence was enough of an answer, and he sighed.

 

“Hera, you have to know that I… I’m not the Eiffel you fell in love with. Not the Eiffel, the uh, the me, from the Hephaestus . I know... that it’s hard for you all, but I can’t, I can’t be him for you.” He looked back down at his shoelaces, fiddling with the knot. “I don’t think I… I don’t think I ever will be him. I’m… I’m really sorry.”

 

She let out a little crackling breath, an unnecessary bodily function simulated by machine. “...Okay, Doug. Have… Have fun at Jacobi’s.” The speakers buzzed, just for a moment, and then she blurted out, “But if he breaks your heart, so help me I’ll-”

 

Doug laughed to hide the melancholy in his eyes, struggled to his feet to hide the way he was working his jaw. “Yeah, I gotcha Hera.” He paused with his hand on the door, looking back to make eye contact with the camera. 

 

“And… I’m sorry. Again. For not being Eiffel.”

 


 

He eventually found Jacobi not at his flat but on a bench outside of it, watching the sun set with dark and angry eyes. The oranges painted in the sky reflected back in those hazel irises, and Doug felt nostalgic for a life he had never lived. A life with a red star that would reflect off those eyes every day, a life where he’d get to work alongside this man and maybe keep up some sort of friendly banter.

 

But neither of them were really the same person anymore, so Doug sat beside him and said nothing.

 

After a moment he felt warm fingers intertwine with his, Daniel’s ( absolutely batshit) body heat (jeesus how hot is this guy?) soaking into his hand. Daniel met his eyes with a fiery intensity he thought maybe he had experienced, once, back when he was Douggie one-point-oh, but this time around it was all new and he was enraptured.

 

Somehow he was breathless from the eye contact but he managed to breathe out a few words, gasping “I made these for you-” in the fading light of the evening. He pressed the jar into Daniel’s hands, the glass still warm from his pockets, and Daniel smiled.

 

He was really batting two-for-two with those incredible smiles - if the first one was brittle as stained glass then this one was a sea of it, glittering and warm with the reds and purples and oranges of the sky painted above them. It was volatile with gunpowder and whiskey and lingering sadness that neither of them could explain, and Doug considered, for a moment, that maybe he could get drunk off of a smile.

 

Daniel pulled his hand away to open the jar and Doug missed his heat immediately.

 

The man smiled softly, sadly down at the stars, eyes lost for a moment in a sea of lightning-quick emotions that Doug couldn’t catch. He lifted one out - a burgundy one, almost the same color as his eyes were reflecting back - and twisted it between his fingers.

 

“Wishing stars,” Daniel said, voice softer than Doug had ever heard it. “I used to make these all the time, back when I was in training.” He put the star back in the jar and met Doug’s eyes, an expression clearly showing there was more to the story than he was letting on. “Thank you,” Daniel said, hand returning to its perch as Doug’s personal one-arm space heater.

 

What were you wishing for? Doug wanted to say. Did you go through the motions to calm down or was there something more behind them, something like that feeling of ice that you can’t quite melt through, he wanted to ask, something like that twisting of an extension cord in your gut that still feels like it’s connected to a spaceship somewhere up there?

 

But Doug was a coward, so he took Daniel’s hand in his and said nothing.

 

They sat like that for a while, watching the sky turn from orange to red to purple to blue, watching as the stars emerged from their flickering sleep. Doug felt that same startling nostalgia looking up at them, the feeling like part of him was still out there, and the tightness of Daniel’s fingers on his told him that Daniel felt it too.

 

The moon rose, full and glacial, over the dusty light pollution of the city, and then Daniel leaned across to kiss him.

 

Daniel’s lips were just as warm as the rest of him, chapped and rough and desperate. Daniel was like a furnace cranked up to full blast, like a grenade in mid-explosion, like the sun on the desert. He was sharp edges and volatile anger and rain on a faux leather jacket, and Doug loved him. Doug loved him like he was sure he had never felt before - this version of him, the last verison of him, who fucking cared, he was kissing Daniel Jacobi-

 

Doug caught the taste of whisky on his lips and he paused, pulling away with all the control he could muster.

 

“Are you drunk?” He asked, hands flung over Daniel’s shoulders. He could feel his heart beating both at the sight of the man in front of him and at the lingering taste of alcohol in his mouth, the lingering taste that brought with it an unexplainable revolution carried along from his past self.

 

Daniel frowned but pulled off, his sigh leaving a little puff of white in the ebbing chill of the evening. “Just a little,” he said with a pout, but that was enough. Eiffel pulled himself up and off of the bench, taking Daniel and the little jar of stars with him. He tugged on the sleeve of Daniel’s jacket, just once, and it was around his shoulders, surrounding him with that hot, smoky scent of gunpowder that lingered like a cloud. 

 

“Then we aren’t doing this,” He replied, guiding Daniel with firm hands towards the front door of his house. “Not now.”

 

Daniel met his eyes with a coy smile.

 

“Later, then, Doug.”

 

He herded them both into Daniel’s house, too flustered to even mention that that was the first time that he had called Doug by his first name. “I’m taking the couch,” he said instead, forcing aloofness, “If you don’t mind.”

 

He pulled Daniel’s jacket tighter around his shoulders and, with a smile, slipped down onto the sofa, the jar of paper stars still in hand. He ran one through his fingers out of habit as he watched Daniel trudge off grumbling into his bedroom, smiling at the scowl on the man’s face. The door shut with a slam and Doug turned his attention to burgundy paper, folded and pinched in a sloppy imitation of the celestial body that had once ruined his - Eiffel’s? - life.

 

Of all the things to remember how to do, he thought, looking down at the star, This might not be the worst of the bunch.

 

End.