Ramse was trembling, heavy where he leaned against Cole's shoulder.
"Not long now," Cole said. A fussy looking woman sent them a disapproving glare as she passed them on the street. "It's just around the corner."
"Everything's too bright and too loud," Ramse said, slightly slurred. "Is it always like this?"
"Nah, man," Cole said, tightening his grip on Ramse's waist as he freed his other hand to knock on the door of Cassie's hideout. "Some of us are just made of stronger stuff."
"That's nice. That's real nice, brother" Ramse said. His tone was light, but his eyes were squeezed shut, a line of pain etched into the furrow between his brows.
"What can I say?" Cole slammed the heel of his hand against the door a few more times to hurry Cassie along. "I'm a real nice guy."
"Hey, here's a suggestion," Ramse said just as the door flew open. "Why don't you go and have yourself a real nice fuck, all by your lonesome."
"Hi," Cole said to Cassie as he shouldered past her, dragging Ramse in with him. "Sorry about my friend, he was raised in the woods."
"Look who's talking."
Cassie hurried to close the door behind them. "Cole. Who is this?"
"Cassie, Ramse, Ramse, Cassie," Cole said. "We'll borrow your bathroom for a bit."
"Cassie," Ramse said, squinting back at her as Cole tugged him along. "Hi, Cassie."
"Hi," Cassie said politely, on automatic, then shook her head as she followed them. "Cole. Is he drunk? Is he hurt?"
"No, just disoriented," Cole said. "Look, just give me a second and I'll explain."
She didn't follow them into the bathroom, and Cole finally relinquished his hold on Ramse, who slid down the tiled wall until he was sitting on the floor. Cole squatted in front of him.
Ramse leaned his head back against the tiles. Cole could see his throat moving as he swallowed, but after a moment, he nodded.
"I need to talk to Cassie for a bit," Cole said. He glanced around the small bathroom. "Nice and quiet here, yeah? Crappy lighting, rusty pipes. Almost feels like home."
He got a weak smirk and a raised middle finger for his efforts.
"Maybe I should tell Cassie what you think about her place, hmm? See if she still likes you?"
"I didn't mean the whole place, asshole."
"Listen, are there any good restaurants around here? People used to do that, right, go out and eat? Think Cassie would like that?"
"Yeah, you're definitely feeling better," Cole said, steadily ignoring how ashen Ramse still looked.
"Yeah, yeah." Ramse made a lazy shooing gesture with his hand. "I thought you were supposed to go and talk to Cassie, so what are you still here for, yapping at me?"
Cole snorted as he stood up. "Remind me not to do any more favors for you."
"Other way around, brother," Ramse said. "Other way around."
"Why?" Jones had asked, her hard stare aimed at Cole, thoughtlessly dismissive of Ramse standing right next to him.
"Because you already have," Cole had replied, and damn if that didn't sum up exactly how weird his life had become.
He was reminded of her uncompromising demeanor when he came back to the front room and was confronted by Cassie sporting an expression he was a little too familiar with. The set of her eyebrows meant business, and she was doing something with her eyes that, well, it didn't make it impossible for Cole to deflect when he didn't feel like sharing or whatever, but doing so sometimes made him feel guilty.
Cassie's eyebrows moved up a notch. "Who is he?"
Cole scratched the back of his head and looked down. Personal or not, it wasn't the sort of question he could just avoid, not under the circumstances, but he wasn't sure he knew how to answer it.
"My best friend," he said, but it didn't sound quite right. "My brother," he tried next. Close, but still not entirely accurate. He shrugged, defeated. "He's the only family I've got."
"All right," Cassie said, her expression softening a little. "Why is he here?"
"Because three weeks from now, you'll ask me about Ramse like you know him."
That was the short version, anyway.
Cassie frowned, far from satisfied. "He's… he's from your time," she said. "First time here?"
Cole nodded, and Cassie cast a worried look toward the bathroom.
"How is he?"
"He's fine," Cole lied.
Cassie's eyebrows conveyed a mix of disbelief and disappointment, both aimed at Cole. It was pretty impressive. "He's not fine."
"Yeah, okay," Cole admitted, "but he's getting there. He's tough, he just needs a moment. It's, you know, it can be overwhelming."
Being pulled apart and put together, time flowing through every atom and molecule you had while Jone's injections wreaked havoc on your system – that was one thing. Seeing the world as it used to be, full of life, full of sound and color and people everywhere, that was something else.
Cole had coped mostly by ignoring it, by focusing on the mission and by compartmentalizing. Human life was cheap where he came from. One meal was sometimes all it could buy. So how was it that on some days, it felt worth more here, in the past, when there were so many people around that it sometimes seemed impossible that the death of any one of them could have the slightest impact on the world?
Everyone here was already dead. That's what Jones' had told him before he splintered for the first time. One life meant little, but all of them put together? That's what they were here for. All those lives, all those people, everything the world used to be.
People like Cassie, who deserved better than to die and then have some asshole steal their watch. Cole shifted where he stood and looked around the room, trying to see what had changed since he'd last been here. He couldn't think about Cassie dying, not when she was right there in front of him.
"Can I help?" She asked.
Help with Ramse, she meant.
"No," Cole said. "No, I think I'll just –" He gestured vaguely in the direction of the bathroom.
"Okay," Cassie said, then nodded, as if making a decision. "I still want an actual explanation, but that can wait until he's feeling better, and I need to do some shopping anyway. I'll bring him – something. Food. Clothes?"
Cole wanted to refuse, to tell her stuff like that would be wasted on Ramse, on the both of them, but it would have been a lie. The worst of it was that he had no way of paying her back, but then, she knew that too.
He shrugged, like it didn't matter one way or the other. "Sure."
Cassie rolled her eyes, picked up her wallet and shrugged into her jacket. "There are towels in the hall closet," she said. "I'll be back in an hour or two. Don't burn the house down while I'm gone."
What a weird thing to say.
"Of course not," Cole told the closing door.
"Catch," Cole said as he tossed a clean, oddly fluffy towel at Ramse.
"What's this now?" Ramse asked, slowly rubbing the edge of the cloth with his fingers. He was still on the floor, looking like he hadn't moved an inch, but he was getting a bit of his color back.
"It's a towel, genius," Cole said, setting a spare one aside. "Cassie says you stink."
"She said that, huh?" Ramse was still looking at the stupid towel. He lifted it up to his face and pressed his nose to it. "Sure she wasn't talking about you? Ain't either of us ever smelled like this."
"I know how to take a shower," Cole said with an unsubtle emphasis on I. He nodded at the part of the bathroom separated from the rest by a plastic curtain. "All sorts of weird scented soap things in there. Make you smell like daisies, shit like that. Wanna?"
Ramse took a moment to mull it over. "When in Rome," he said with a shrug.
"When in Rome," Cole echoed. It was something Ramse's mom apparently used to say, but fuck if Cole knew what exactly it meant. "C'mon. You've been sitting on your ass long enough."
"Yeah," Ramse said. He took Cole's offered hand and leveraged himself up. He still looked a little shaky, but he wasn't falling down or anything. Good enough for now.
Cole left him to strip and went to get the shower going.
"You joining me?"
Cole glanced at Ramse over his shoulder. "Should I?"
"Two towels," Ramse said. "And you definitely don't smell like daisies right now."
There were showers back at the facility, but water was rationed and, more often than not, freezing cold. Sometimes, if you were lucky, there was soap. Washing clothes was a pain best avoided for as long as possible, especially back when they'd been on their own and didn't always have spares available. Cole had not so fond memories of scrubbing his only set of clothes clean in a river while Ramse stood guard nearby.
Here in the past, they had everything. Soap, showers, washing machines, laundry detergent. Everything was so clean it almost felt unreal.
"Yeah, sure," Cole said, pulling his hand out from under the spray. "The water pressure is crap, man, I was at this hotel once and you would not believe the shower they had, but at least it's –"
"Warm," said Ramse, who'd come to stand next to him, reaching out to hold his hand where Cole's had been. There was something a little too close to wonder in his tone. "It's warm."
Cole swallowed and turned away to tug off his own clothes. "It's gonna get downright hot. And it'll stay that way, too, for a pretty long time before it starts cooling off."
"Shit," Ramse said faintly, barely audible over the shower.
He was already under the spray by the time Cole got naked and stepped in, pulling the curtain closed behind him. Ramse's head was bent, his shoulders up, and there were tremors running down his body.
"Don't. Okay? I don't need to hear it from you."
Cole reached around him, grabbing a washcloth and the first soapy looking thing within his reach. He wet the cloth, worked up a lather and started none too gently scrubbing Ramse's back.
"You can do your hair yourself, what little you have of it. Just grab whatever." He glanced at the assorted bottles and changed his mind, remembering that Cassie had at one point tried to explain all the differences to him. "The green one. Grab that."
While Ramse did as instructed, Cole ran the washcloth over his shoulders, down his back and his legs, only pausing to rinse off the cloth and add more soap. There were showers, back home, and it wasn't like they didn't use them, but the water going down the drain still had a brownish, dirty tinge to it.
"Okay, done, turn around."
Ramse did, but he also stepped around Cole so that they switched places and Cole was the one under the spray, getting his hair wet. When Cole started working the lather down Ramse's chest, Ramse pulled him a little ways forward from under the water and started massaging the slick soapy liquid into his hair.
"I can wash my own hair," Cole said, but it wasn't much of a protest. It felt nice, having Ramse's fingers against his scalp.
"And I could scrub myself clean without your help," Ramse said. "Tilt your head back, you'll get this stuff in your eyes."
Cole abandoned the washcloth for the moment and did as he was told, closing his eyes and tilting his head back. After a minute, Ramse nudged him back under the spray and rinsed off.
"Feeling better?" Cole asked without opening his eyes.
"I don't know how you do it," Ramse said, his voice low. "This. Hot water, thick towels, all this stuff, and – there are so many people. I don't know how you can stand it."
"Seven billion people," Cole said. "And they're all dead. You just gotta remember that."
Ramse was quiet for a moment, his hands coming to cup the back of Cole's head, his thumbs brushing his jaw.
"All of them dead. And Cassie, too?"
Cole blinked his eyes open, wiping off excess water with one hand.
"I'm going to save her, aren't I?" Cole grinned, tried to make it look real. Confident. "I'm going to save all seven billion of them, and you're going to help."
"No pressure," Ramse said, his mouth pulling into a lopsided smile. His hands were still in Cole's hair.
Cole shrugged, a twitchy, careless movement of his shoulders. "Saving the world is probably easier than finding breakfast back home, right? No big deal."
"I don't know," Ramse said. "Finding breakfast could be pretty damn impossible, so that's not saying much."
"Nah. You and me? We always pull through." Cole followed the statement by leaning in to kiss Ramse, giving in to the urge to feel that lopsided smile against his mouth.
It wasn't the first time, and Cole was willing to bet it wouldn't be the last time. Sometimes months or even years went by that they didn't slip into each others' bedrolls for anything more than shared warmth, but eventually they always cycled back to this. Other people came and went, but Ramse stayed.
The kiss started with an edge of amusement still lingering around their mouths, comfortable and familiar, but then Ramse's fingertips pressed against Cole's skull and the kiss became heavier, more demanding, amusement fading into something akin to desperation.
"Cole," Ramse said when they pulled apart, his lips brushing against the corner of Cole's mouth, a breath away from another kiss. "Fuck."
Cole dropped the washcloth he was still holding in one hand and slid his palms over Ramse's water-slick skin, mapping familiar ground. "Yeah," he said, feeling the tremors in Ramse's body, the coiled tension. "You're okay, you're in control. I'm here."
Ramse pushed him against the shower wall and Cole shivered, the tiles cool against his back despite the warm water steaming up the air around them. Ramse crowded him in, his dick hard and hot against Cole's hip as he fumbled for the green bottle, making a low, guttural noise at the back of his throat when he got a slick hand around them both. Cole swallowed around the tightness in his throat and pulled Ramse into another messy, open-mouthed kiss.
Between Ramse, the shower and his own arousal, Cole felt overheated, like he was drowning, about to pass out, but in a good way that made him try to get closer, made him want to get more. It had been a while since they'd last done this, since Cole had been with anyone at all, and he could feel himself on edge, winding up tight until the tension spilled over. He broke off a sloppy kiss on a gasp, the back of his head meeting the tiles as he came. He let Ramse tug at his softening dick a few more time before he mustered up a noise in protest.
Ramse patted his flank. "Face the wall," he said, and Cole did, crossing his arms against the tiles and lowering his head as black spots danced on the edges of his vision.
There was more soap, and Ramse pressed in close behind him, his dick slick against Cole's ass, slipping between his cheeks. Cole felt a frisson of residual arousal and pushed back, enjoying the resulting groan as Ramse grabbed his hips and started thrusting, seeking friction, chasing his own pleasure with intent.
Ramse's breath was hot and unsteady against Cole's skin. He reached an arm around Cole's chest and gripped his shoulder for leverage.
"I'm going to come all over you."
"Yeah," Cole said. "C'mon, Ramse."
One thrust, two, and Ramse came with a near-violent shudder, his grip becoming almost painful, a long stripe of heat against Cole's ass and back. Cole made a small sound at the back of his throat and sagged a little more against the wall. After a long moment of stillness, Ramse's breathing slowed down to normal. He brushed his lips against the nape of Cole's neck in a lingering kiss, like he couldn't help it, too sweet by half.
"Okay, okay," Cole said, shrugging away from under the touch. He grabbed the back of Ramse's head and gave him a quick, hard kiss in apology. "We should finish up here before Cassie comes back. She promised to bring you some clothes and like – food, man, the variety here is amazing."
Ramse gave him that lopsided smile again, not happy, but not unhappy either, and Cole turned to face the shower spray. The water temperature was starting to drop.
"Honestly?" Ramse said, picking up the abandoned washcloth and starting to work on Cole's back. "I wasn't looking forward to climbing back into my own clothes, so having an alternative to that might be better than the sex."
"Liar," Cole said, laughing.
"No, no, I mean it," Ramse insisted. "I don't think I've ever been this clean in my life."
"That's sad, man."
"Says the guy who waxes poetic about water pressure and daisies."
Cole none too gently elbowed Ramse in the ribs.
"Ow," Ramse said. "Not cool, brother."
Later, when Cassie was back and they were all in the kitchen, Cole and Ramse wearing clothes so new and clean they felt alien against the skin, Cole looked at them, the two people he felt closest to in all of time and space, and wasn't sure what to feel.
"If this works," Ramse had said while they were drying off. "This time, next time, whenever. The point is, if you save the world, that means you disappear. We both will. You okay with that?"
"A little late to get philosophical about this," Cole had replied.
"We might never even meet," Ramse had said, not taking the hint. He hadn't sounded resigned or even sad, just quiet.
"We will. Of course we will. You're not getting rid of me that easily."
And Cole did believe that. He had to believe that. If it sometimes bothered him that their lives would be erased, it wasn't worth dwelling over. After everything they'd done, maybe they deserved to get erased. Cole did, anyway, and once everything was set to rights, Ramse would live in a world where he would never have to stay awake at night, thinking about the people he'd killed.
Above all else, Ramse was a good man, and Cole had to believe that was possible for him, too, if he got a chance to grow up in a world with an abundance of soap, showers, washing machines and laundry detergent.
"So tell me," Ramse was currently saying to Cassie in the sort of tone that immediately snagged at Cole's attention, "are there any restaurants around here?"
"What?" Ramse asked Cole, doing a pretty decent job of looking innocent. "I don't think I've ever been to one. You definitely haven't. She could take us both, chalk it up to charity."
"She's charitable enough to tolerate your face for more than five minutes," Cole said.
"She puts up with yours all the time," Ramse countered, as if they were having a reasonable discussion.
"She would like to get this conversation back on track," Cassie said, but there was a smile hovering around the corners of her mouth.
"Okay, but just to be clear, you can't trust anything this guy has to say about me." Cole jabbed his thumb in Ramse's direction. "And I mean anything."
"He has blue eyes," Ramse, the little shit, said immediately.
"I've noticed." Cassie's voice was full of dry amusement.
"He's really bad at feelings," Ramse told her earnestly.
"I've noticed!" Cassie said with more enthusiasm, sitting up straight in her chair.
That was the moment Cole finally realized he'd made a huge tactical error.
"Okay," he said, raising his voice in an effort to cut that particular conversation short. "Back on track, remember? So here's what we know…"
And he did manage, in the end, to wrestle the discussion back to the topic of saving the world. Cassie was pointing at a map, Ramse was listening to her with a little furrow between his eyebrows, and Cole thought that if they succeeded, when they succeeded, he would lose them both.
It was strange seeing them together. Sometimes the only reason he didn't mind going back home was the knowledge that Ramse was there waiting for him, and this time, this time there was only the mission. He could hear Jones in his head, telling him that nothing else mattered, and he knew it to be true, but deep down, he didn't always believe it.
He had Cassie, and he had Ramse, and sooner or later, they would find a way to stop the plague.
If he had to lose them to save them, it was a price he was willing to pay.