Cole dreamed of the day he and Ramse first met. He was fifteen again, and there was frost on the ground. It would soon be winter, and he'd barely survived the previous one. He should have tried going south. That's what birds did, even now, flying over cities turned graveyards. Nothing had changed for them.
Lucky fucking birds.
Cole kicked at the dead leaves at his feet once before reining in his frustration. Making noise was like poking a sleeping lion with a stick. You never knew who was listening.
He'd seen a lion once, a few months back, roaming the streets of a city-gone-quiet like it had never known a cage. Afterward, Cole spent more nights than he'd ever admit waking up with a hastily swallowed scream on his lips. Some nights the lion was hungry and ate him alive, outrunning him every time; other nights Cole found himself trapped in a zoo, clutching at the bars while animals slithered, walked and flew by.
Sometimes he still felt like that, even awake. Birds and lions and bears and deer and way too many goddamn insects, having the time of their lives while people rotted away.
But it was a bit like that saying -- the more things change, the more they stay the same. Exhibit one: people. Some were good, some were bad, and trust usually just got you a kick in the teeth. Exhibit two: everything else. The world had gone down the drain, but it had aways been shit, so who was even surprised.
Cole had never been lucky.
He was smart, though, and stubborn, and paid attention even when his gut was eating itself out of hunger. When he heard a twig snapping under someone's boot, a little ways off, he wasn't surprised, and he wasn't alarmed. He was ready.
He saw the boy before the boy saw him: a couple of years older, maybe, and taller, yeah, but just as scrawny. Cole could take him, if it came to that. Probably. Maybe.
He thought of slipping away unnoticed. He might succeed, and even if he did not, the boy might not give chase. Only, it had been weeks since he'd seen another survivor, unless the mean group of scavengers he'd played hide and seek with for a couple of days counted, and Cole didn't think they did.
He stepped out in the open, twenty feet away from the boy. It was a good distance. There was room left for words.
"You're loud," he said.
"No, I'm not." The boy had stopped in his tracks the moment he'd caught sight of Cole, but he didn't look frozen, or even tense. Wary, yes, but anyone with half a brain would be.
"I heard you coming," Cole said.
"Maybe I wanted you to," the boy said.
"Maybe you don't want to admit you'd be dead if I was a scout or something."
"Maybe it helps you sleep at night to think you have bat ears."
Cole had his mouth open for a retort before the boy was half through the sentence, but what came out instead was a short, rusty laugh, which threw them both.
"Bat ears," Cole said, kind of awkward, keeping the boy in his peripheral vision as he swept his eyes over the woods. No bears or lions or scavs lurking about. Score one for staying alive another day.
"Bat ears," the boy said, his voice softer. A moment passed, and another. "I'm Ramse."
A heartbeat, two, three.
A heartbeat. Two. Three.
"What," Cole muttered, blearily blinking up at Ramse hovering over him. "Shut up, I'm awake. Bat ears."
The corner of Ramse's mouth pulled up into a wry smile. "Sure, man. You're awake. Bat ears."
"Shut up," Cole said again, struggling to sit up. "It's time?"
"Yeah." Ramse stepped back, giving him room. "Jones is gonna be cross if her Sleeping Beauty sleeps for much longer."
"There's something seriously wrong with you."
"There's nothing wrong with me, brother," Ramse said with a subtle emphasis on 'me'. He hauled Cole to his feet. "Ready for another day in paradise?"
"Oh, yeah," Cole said. "The beaches are to die for."
Ramse snorted and clapped him on the shoulder, but his touch lingered, turning into a reassuring squeeze before falling away. Cole wasn't sure which one of them the gesture was meant to reassure.
"Relax," he said. "It's just another long, boring-ass meeting. I tell them what Cassie told me, they talk about it like we have options, then they send me back and it's done, over."
"If you say so," Ramse said, sounding more worried than supportive.
"I do," Cole said and headed out of the room, not in the mood to argue.
It would work. The machine, the plan, everything. The Night Room was so close Cole could almost taste it, death and decay at the back of his tongue.
Tomorrow, thirty years ago, in a world where lions born in a zoo would never see the world outside their cage, some better version of Cole would tell Ramse I told you so, and neither of them would know how right he was.
Cole splintered into existence, his hand shooting out for balance as his vision blurred. Damp, crumbling wallpaper clung to the skin of his palm, and he knew, even before his eyes adjusted, that he hadn't made it back to 2015. It was night, and while there was moonlight edging around corners and shapes, the quality of the darkness it didn't reach was absolute.
He was in a hallway of a house that, judging by the state of it, had been empty for a long time. He stood still for a long moment, listening, then crept forward to the nearest window and peeked out: a suburb of some sort, full of empty streets and dark houses. No light pollution, no cars and no people. Home sweet home.
A muffled sound coming from the back of the house made him still. He waited, and it came again. Someone was coughing.
He almost left. Jones and her team would realize their mistake soon, and in the meantime, it wouldn't be smart to risk everything by putting himself into an unknown situation with unknown people. Then again, neither was going outside when he wasn't sure when and where he was.
There was something niggling at him, an almost-memory that slipped away when he reached for it. The sound of muffled coughing came again. Cole followed.
The memory caught up with him a fraction of a second before he stepped into the kitchen: a lifetime ago, before Jones, before Deacon, in the spring following a particularly harrowing winter, Ramse had gotten sick. He'd gotten sick, and for the longest time, it had looked like he was never going to get better. It wasn't the virus, but there were plenty of other bugs that hadn't seen fit to die alongside the human race, and being immune to the plague didn't mean they were immune to everything else under the sun.
Cole came to an abrupt stop in the doorway, his heart in his throat, because motherfucker, he was in his own past, and if his younger self was around --
The weak query was followed by coughing, the sound of it deep and horrid. Cole remembered hearing it in his sleep for weeks after Ramse had gotten back on his feet. He was moving before he could second-guess himself.
The kitchen had no furniture, just rotting cupboard doors and cracked, filthy tiles. In a corner, on the remains of a mattress and a pile of blankets and rags, was Ramse, young and feverish and dying in the moonlight.
Not dying, Cole reminded himself. Just taking his sweet time to get better.
"Hey," Cole said, dropping to sit down next to Ramse, because his own younger self was nowhere to be seen.
He'd been gone a lot back then, looking for food and water. He remembered now.
Ramse tried to talk but couldn't, and Cole reached for a half-empty bottle of water, helping him drink from it.
"I was starting to think," Ramse said when he could, "you weren't coming back. That something --" he broke off, coughing. "That something had happened."
Cole gave him another sip of water and capped the bottle. "Nothing's happened to me. I'll be back soon with spoils to share with your lazy ass."
Ramse reached out and closed a shaky hand around Cole's wrist. "Don't -- don't go yet."
"I'm here," Cole said, but didn't promise to stay.
"Listen," Ramse said. "I don't think I'm gonna make it."
He looked exhausted. His fever was scary-high, his skin burning up, his eyes bright and and having trouble focusing. Cole took a deep breath and reminded himself, again, that this was the past, this had already happened.
"What's all this doom and gloom? You'll be fine, Ramse, I promise."
"No, listen, if I die --"
"But if I do --"
"Cole! Would you let me --" Ramse broke off and turned his face into the blankets, trying to dampen the jarring sound of his coughing.
"Okay," Cole said. "Okay, I'm listening."
Ramse took a shallow, shuddering breath. "Promise me -- if I die -- I know you'll survive, it's not that. You'll do fine without me, but -- try not to do anything stupid, yeah? Keep your head."
Cole snorted, ignoring the tightness in his chest that had nothing to do with sickness. "You don't ask for much, do you?" He was quiet for a bit. "What's your back-up plan? Will you haunt me to make sure I don't stray?"
"You bet your ass I'll haunt you," Ramse said, briefly tightening his hold on Cole's wrist. "Be good, Cole. That's all I'm asking."
I'm trying, Cole thought, but he didn't say anything. What he might have turned into without Ramse's steadfast moral compass around didn't bear thinking.
Cole shook his head. "That's all, he says. Have you met me?"
"Yeah, asshole." Ramse released Cole's wrist. "I've met you. Lucky you."
"Lucky me," Cole said, and blinked. The world flickered. Ramse didn't seem to notice.
"There's something else," Ramse said. "I know it isn't fair, but I get to be selfish, this one time."
"Don't ask me to --"
"I'm not asking. I'm telling you. If I live, we can pretend I didn't say anything."
Another flicker. Cole could feel the tug of it in his blood.
"Close your eyes, Ramse," Cole said, and after a moment, Ramse obeyed. Cole slowly reached out and cupped his cheek, sweeping a thumb over the fragile, too-hot skin under one eye. "I have to go, but I'll be back soon. You won't die. I won't let you."
The younger version of him would be back soon, it was true, but he'd be gone again soon, too, the need to get away from the sound of Ramse's coughing warring with the paralyzing fear that there would be nothing but silence waiting for him when he came back.
He'd always been an asshole. Ramse deserved better.
"Go ahead," Cole said, moments away from splintering. "Be selfish."
He could feel Ramse's smile against his palm, little more than a twitch of his cheek, there and gone.
"I love you," Ramse said, no hesitation in his voice, and no regret. "I always have."
Cole could tell Ramse didn't mean like a brother, and what the hell was he supposed to do about it? He was running out of time.
"You have a terrible taste in men," he told Ramse, feeling like he was choking, his heartbeat out of control, blood at the back of his throat.
Ramse laughed, the dry, pained sound of it lodging itself in Cole's head.
"I know," Ramse said.
At the last possible moment, Cole leaned down and pressed a kiss to the corner of Ramse's mouth.
Three, two, one, and he was gone.
"I told you so."
"Whatever, man," Ramse said.
"I was right, you were wrong," Cole gloated.
"Whatever," Ramse repeated, tossing the comic in the general direction of his desk. "You take Batman way too seriously, anyone ever told you that?"
"Yeah, you. But you're an asshole, and also wrong."
"Oh, I'm an asshole?" Ramse flopped down on the bed next to Cole and tucked an arm behind his head. "I guess that means I'm not inviting you to stay for dinner."
Cole stuck out his tongue. "Your mom already did. She's way nicer than you. And prettier," he added, just to see if he could get a rise out of Ramse. "Do you think she'd mind if I went to hang out with her while you take a remedial course in comics?"
Cole made a show of starting to get off the bed, and Ramse's leg shot out, making him tumble back down. After a brief tussle, Cole came out on top, though to be fair, Ramse didn't put up much of a fight.
"Did you call your foster mom about staying?" Ramse asked, seemingly unbothered by Cole straddling his waist.
"Yeah, goody two-shoes. You know why? 'Cause I knew you'd nag about it."
"That's what I'm here for, huh? Someone's got to keep an eye on you, or you'd fly every which way."
Cole opened his mouth to trash the argument, but something about the way Ramse looked, his wry smile and kind eyes, made him pause.
Ramse raised his eyebrows. "What? There something on my face?"
"No. I don't know." Cole hesitated, reluctant to explain because it sounded so stupid. "It's like I remembered something from a dream."
"A good dream?"
"No. Not really, except --"
Cole felt like he was still dreaming. He leaned down and pressed a kiss to the corner of Ramse's mouth, and Ramse went still under him.
"Cole?" Ramse asked, his voice so, so quiet.
"Sorry," Cole said, scrambling back so fast, he would have fallen off the bed if Ramse hadn't sat up and caught him.
"Listen, hey, it's fine," Ramse said. "It's fine, I just didn't think you --"
And he was kissing Cole, a real kiss, a little bit awkward and a little bit messy. Cole's heart rate kicked up all over again.
Ramse pulled back with reluctance. "Is this okay? Tell me this is okay."
"Yeah," Cole said; licked his lips; swallowed. "Yeah, Ramse, we're cool. Everything's cool. The coolest."
Outside, it was starting to get dark. Lights flickered into existence down on the street and in the surrounding buildings, and somewhere far away, a lion was dreaming of a life outside the cage.
Life wasn't fair, and Cole wasn't lucky, but all of that was hard to remember here, now.
When they kissed again, Cole could feel Ramse's smile against his mouth, against his palm, and all the way down in his heart.