The doctors say he’s fine. Colonel White says he’s fine. Paul himself, when asked repeatedly, will eventually insist that he’s quite fine now will you please try and focus?
Adam is not fine. How can Paul be fine if Adam isn’t? Paul went through worse. Didn’t he? Isn’t dying and waking up in an alien-constructed body — and then dying again, and then one more time for good measure — the kind of thing that makes an impact on a man’s psychology?
He’s not a man, though, Adam reminds himself.
A fact he’s beginning to find difficult. The more he accepts it, the harder it is to believe. Existential paradoxes are somewhat out of his repertoire, and seem to require close unarmed combat — the kind where you have to feel around blindly to try and figure out what your opponent’s doing, and where brute muscle counts for more than it should. He’s sick of grappling.
Too bad there’s still nobody to tag in.
He finds Paul in the mess hall, buttering toast. “Morning, Blue,” says Paul as Adam slides in across from him. “Not eating?”
“Not very hungry, no,” says Adam.
The scrape of the knife pauses, then resumes much more briskly than before. “Something the matter?” asks Paul. “You don’t look very well.”
“Not sleeping much, either,” says Adam.
“That’d explain the bags under your eyes. Any particular reason?”
Look in the mirror, pal. Adam scrubs his hands over his face and watches the movement of Paul’s jawline as he chews.
Paul sets down the toast. “Come on now,” he says. “I know you didn’t come in here just to watch me eat. Out with it.”
Adam doesn’t say anything at first, but Paul’s just sitting there waiting, giving him that look, and that’s not a battle worth choosing. Adam lowers his hands to the table. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Oh, for god’s sake, Blue. How many times are you going to insist on — I am perfectly alright. If anything, I think that you’re the one we ought to be worrying about.”
“I’m not the one who’s off his food,” says Paul. “And I’ve been sleeping like a baby.”
“I just don’t see how I could possibly be the only one who’s been affected by…” He trails off, silently begging no one in particular that he won’t have to find the words to finish that sentence.
Captain Scarlet sips his coffee, eyes calculating. “By what?” he says.
Adam laughs to himself, darkly, and gestures loosely at Paul.
“No, Captain Blue, I’m afraid I still don’t understand. You’ll have to say it outright.”
“You died, Scarlet,” says Adam. “I killed you. You came back to life and then you killed yourself. And here you are again! Doesn’t that — how can that not be a problem for you?”
For a while Paul doesn’t move, and his face isn’t giving anything away, either. “I don’t particularly remember the parts where I was dead,” he says, quietly.
“Well I do!”
Paul scowls. Stands and picks up his tray. “If you’ll excuse me, captain,” he says, “I have duties to attend.” On his way out he dumps the entire tray, silverware and all, into the trash.
Paul comes up beside him while he’s playing three-dimensional chess with himself (and losing).
“Bishop to queen's level 6,” Paul suggests.
“Nobody asked you,” says Adam.
Paul sighs and takes off his hat, runs a hand through his hair. “I came to apologize,” he says. “I overreacted. It was childish and downright unprofessional.”
Downright un-Paul-like. Adam pauses, knocks over the white king in disgust, and leans back. There’s not enough fight in him for this. Not right now. “Apologize to the mess staff for trashing their plates,” he says.
“Already done. Now it’s your turn.”
“Running down a list, then? I can think of a few more names to add.”
“You didn’t overreact,” says Adam. Then, after a beat: “Okay, well, you did. But we can be honest here: I’m really the one who’s been overreacting, for weeks.”
“No,” says Paul, sitting down beside him. “You haven’t.”
“Everyone else in Spectrum seems to think so. As well they should. Earth’s just gotten involved in its first interplanetary war and I’m still hung up on…” He flaps a loose hand toward Paul again.
Paul actually chuckles, the bastard. “Under normal circumstances,” he says, “I’d say discovering that death is not necessarily, well, permanent... is well worth an existential crisis,” he says.
Adam scowls. “I’m not having a —"
“But these aren’t normal circumstances. I don’t know, Blue, maybe everyone would be more interested in reversing death if they weren’t so focused on simply preventing death right now. Death on a rather large scale, need I remind you.”
“Captain Scarlet, your gift for understatement continues to astound and amaze.”
“Blue, please. I’m only suggesting that most of Spectrum probably consider it their duty to ignore…” in lieu of words Paul gestures at himself (a light mockery at Adam’s expense), “…so that they can focus on the immediate threat. They’re being pragmatic, if nothing else.”
“Heh. Where are my priorities?” Adam says. He’s only half-joking.
“I also think it’s more than reasonable for you to be preoccupied by it,” says Paul. “Not including myself, you’ve seen the gruesome side of retrometabolism up close and personal more than anyone else alive. You’ve had some… rather hands-on experience, as it were.”
Adam thinks, but doesn’t say, that “hands-on experience” is a hell of a way to refer to your own murder. He shakes the thought away before it starts conjuring images. “I just don’t see why people are so eager to actively sweep it under the rug,” says Adam. He tips his head back, leans it across the back of the couch, looks up at the ceiling. Paul is an unmoving red blur in his periphery. “Obviously the Mysteron threat is top priority, but the lengths people are going to in order to avoid even acknowledging what's happened to you — it’s ridiculous! Particularly since —"
Suddenly he finds the join between those two particular ceiling tiles fascinating.
“Particularly since what happened to me is part and parcel to the Mysteron threat,” Paul finishes for him, without inflection.
Adam only nods.
“There, you see?” says Paul. “Even you don’t want to say it out loud.”
Adam decides that giving him a dirty look is well worth the effort of lifting his head from the back of the chair.
Paul’s smiling at him, wryly.
“Jackass,” says Adam.
Paul shrugs. “Perhaps you’re serving an unintended example.”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean it’s plain to see you’re stuck on this. My continued existence and evident freedom from lasting harm has become your own personal zen koan. You’ve made it rather obvious. Perhaps everyone is looking at you and deciding that if they give me any more thought than usual, they’ll end up stuck on the same puzzle.”
“And then who’d be flying the plane?” Adam says.
Adam leans forward, elbows on knees, and buries his head in his hands. “Of course,” he says to the carpet. He feels an awkward hand lay on his shoulder blade. Pat, pat. Then it’s gone.
“Alright, so they can ignore it,” says Adam.
“They can’t afford not to,” Paul corrects him.
“Whereas I can’t avoid it.”
“Have you given it a try?”
“Why would I —" He squints up from beneath his hands, scanning Paul for signs, little facial hints that mean he’s joking. It’s harder to tell these days. His self-control, at least outwardly, is tighter than ever. “There’s the other thing,” says Adam, pointing at Paul's poker face. “That right there. How are you still functional? Much less coaching me through it? I’ve been losing my mind trying to wrestle this beast into logical sense and you’re carrying on as if nothing ever happened!”
“Give or take the occasional tantrum in the mess hall,” Paul mutters, clearing his throat.
“Which was in response to my hounding you, not to, y’know. All that other stuff.”
Paul shifts in his seat. “Your repetitive line of questioning has, yes, overstayed its welcome,” he says, “but that only makes me impatient. It doesn’t make your concerns unreasonable.”
Adam twists his mouth. “Thanks, I think.”
“To be honest, Blue… I’m glad someone at Spectrum is wrestling with the concept. Otherwise I’d think everyone here were under Mysteron control.” He fidgets his shirt-hem. “You’re being human. That’s more important now than ever. I’m sorry I’ve been so irritable about it.”
They look away from each other for a bit.
Adam sits up straight, pulling in a deep breath through his nose. “So? How about it?”
“How about what?”
“How are you functional? That stiff-upper-lip stuff you fellas over here are so fond of can only get you so far.”
“If I recall correctly,” says Paul, “you fellows over there have a similar thing, if a bit more far-fetched. Something about bootstraps, I believe?”
“You’re deflecting again.”
Paul gives him a watery smile. “Ah, you’ve found me out.”
“Please.” Adam forces himself to make eye contact. Another thing that’s harder these days. “Just one straight answer,” Adam says, quietly. “That’s all I’m asking. Otherwise I’ll never be able to leave it alone, and — dammit, Scarlet, I’m not ready to retire yet.”
“A straight answer?” Paul seems disproportionately troubled by the concept. “Alright, I’ll do my best. Since you asked.” Then, as if it weren’t already obvious he’s stalling, he clears his throat for longer than could possibly be necessary.
“Put simply,” he says, eventually, “I’ve… largely been doing what everyone else has been.”
All the muscles in Adam’s face fall slack. “You mean ignoring it,” he says.
“More or less, yes.”
“You can’t do that.” Adam’s shaking his head, but it’s involuntary. “If you’re really as perfect a copy as they say then that means your brain works just like any human brain. And people can’t do that.”
“Everyone already is.”
“I don’t mean ‘everyone’. I mean you. Everyone else didn’t go through what you went through. Hell, I was basically a spectator and it’s still too much for me. You can’t just shove it all down and leave it! It won’t turn into compost and start sprouting daisies!”
“Now listen —"
“No, Paul. No. It’s going to backfire. It’s going to catch up with you.”
“Of course it will! You think I don’t know that?”
“Then why are you —"
“What would you ask me to do differently?” Paul stands up. “I won’t compromise my fitness for duty, Adam, I won’t. Not when I can do things other agents can’t risk. Not when my existence may lead to new intelligence about the Mysterons. Spectrum need me, and I do what I have to in order to meet that need. Any psychological repercussions down the line, well… those are the risks anyone takes becoming an agent. We didn’t sign on in order to be comfortable and happy.”
Adam waits a while without saying anything, half-expecting Scarlet to storm out again like a moody teenager. He certainly looks like he wants to. It’s probably only pride holding him in place, a desire to cancel out his strange outburst in the mess hall, more than any real desire to be here.
That stings a great deal more than Adam might’ve expected.
“Sit down,” Adam says.
“For what purpose?”
He’s not entirely sure, actually. But there’s the chess set in front of him, cheap plastic tiers smudged with fingerprints. Adam sets the kings back into starting position. “I’m tired of playing against myself,” he says. “I always lose.”
After some grouchy shuffling, Paul swipes the rumples out of his shirt, then sits stiffly down. “You’d rather lose against me?” he says.
Paul blinks, and fixes him with a long, testing stare.
“At least if I lose to you, it’ll be in new and exciting ways,” Adam says. “You’re better at surprising me than I am at surprising myself.”
Paul settles deeper into the chair. “I take it you won’t be trying to turn the game into a wager this time, then?”
Adam grins. “Fool me once,” he says. He sets up the boards, trying to draw out the moment a little, because he can feel the body heat coming off of Paul’s leg beside his own, and can smell the sweat that Paul works so hard to hide. And as long as Adam doesn’t look directly at him, he can pretend this is just another peaceful time-killing session with just plain Paul-Metcalfe-who-has-never-died and the Mysterons don’t even exist.
It's a sensation worth protecting.
Maybe there’s a trace of merit in that turn-a-blind-eye strategy after all. At least in a temporary capacity. The knights find their squares last. “Black or white?” he asks.
“It makes no difference to me. What color do you want to be when you lose?”
In the end, they flip for it.