Cole can go back in time. He can fix things. He can change things. He has to be able to change things, because otherwise the world is exactly as fucked as it is now.
Ramse has to believe in Cole. He has to believe in something. He has to believe in something, and he has only ever believed in Cole. "You saved me," he babbles. His heartbeat is still thundering in his chest, as Cole wraps him up in a hug, same as when they were kids.
"You're my brother," Cole whispers.
The God's-honest truth is that Cole keeps Ramse alive. They both know it, but Cole never asks for anything in return, and Ramse follows him, and he doesn't ask for anything either. But how can he not think about what might be – what might have been – when they live in a compound with a literal time machine.
Cole says he's not getting back together with Max. He talks about Cassandra Railly, the blonde, but she lives in 2015, a place and time so long ago and far away that it can't be real to Ramse. What's real is this. Here. Now. His hand in Cole's, the warmth of his skin, the heat of his breath, in 2043. Cole saved him. And here, now, in 2043, Cassandra Railly is already dead.
"Ramse, leave me the fuck alone!" Cole snaps, when Ramse badgers him with endless questions after a splinter. His head is spinning. Painfully spinning. He can barely hold onto the second-floor railing looking down over the machine. It's like the worst fucking hangover in the entire world, but more than that – he has to keep a thousand constantly changing timelines in his head, he has to think a thousand moves ahead. Ramse's the one that fucking plays Go. He's the one that would be good at this. Cole is still pissed that he wasn't wiped away after pointing a gun and pulling the trigger. That was the promise. One and done. He should've known better. Promises mean shit in the world they live in now.
"You have no idea what it's like!" he snaps. Ramse doesn't even flinch. He's been screamed at for years, by people a lot fucking scarier than Cole.
Of course he doesn't know what fucking time travel is like. How could he? "You won't tell me!" he yells back. "You never tell me a goddamn fucking thing."
"Fuck!" Cole screams. Their voices are too quickly absorbed by the concrete walls of the bunker. There's no satisfactory resolution. So Cole picks up a glass paperweight from a nearby desk and throws it. It shatters spectacularly, sending down a rain of sharp fragments. He grins, baring teeth that look sharp and predatory in the red glow of the emergency lights.
Ramse grabs his arm, twists him around, forces Cole to look him in the eye. "Tell me," he demands.
Cole shakes his head. "I can't."
He cannot explain 2015 to Cole, any more than he could explain 2032 or 2043 to Dr. Railly. Both of them are lacking an entire vocabulary of experience that Cole can travel between, but cannot fill in.
Ramse asks Cole, teasingly, to describe Cassandra's breasts, her body, because what else can he ask – but 2015... Cassandra... it isn't sex, hot and heavy. It isn't Max, but blonde. It isn't survival.
2015 is Chinese food, and electricity, everywhere, lighting up the whole entire sky. It's phones, looped around people's ears and glued to their hands at Metro stations, it's open highways with the car windows down, and singing off key to some woman called Taylor Swift. Cassandra's breath smells of mint toothpaste. And when he is with her, Cole can forget about bullets and broken watches. When he is with her, he can pretend that the world is not already dead, in the real landscape that he traces over the illusory image whenever he closes his eyes.
2015 is the illusion, and Cole knows it, and Ramse knows it too. He knows he cannot touch it because it isn't real, but he sees Cole seduced by the fantasy, a little bit more every time. And every time he splinters, Ramse is afraid that he'll lose the only man he's ever loved, forever.
When Cole is away, Ramse lives fantasies of his own. He sleeps alone, in a sleeping bag atop a military cot, hand reaching out for an illusion just as strong as whatever keeps calling to Cole from the other side of the machine.
Ramse feels phantom fingers, strong fingers, massaging his naked skin. Cole's rough, callused hands roam over Ramse's scarred body. He pulls the other man atop him, and Cole's kisses are just as rough and desperate as everything else he ever does. Ramse takes slow breaths, trusting completely in Cole's orders. He would not be alive if not for Cole, and so what if it hurts sometimes when Cole fucks him. The pain is worth it. Anything is worth it.
Ramse wakes up alone every time, the wet dreams leaving his sheets embarrasingly dirty, as though he were still an inexperienced teenager. Which, at least when it comes to this, he may as well be. He takes quick, cold showers – the only kind of shower they have, and just as well, and he does his laundry in the sink of the compound's communal bathroom, ready to start a fight with anyone who confronts him, but no one ever does.
Ramse is just a ghost as far as these people are concerned. He would not be here except that Cole demanded it.
He knows that if things go right, Cole will prevent this world from ever existing. Ramse may well not exist; he may never meet Cole. But there is something in the illusion that must be real. Cole saved him. Not only did he not pull the trigger, he went back in time to stop Deacon's men from doing so. Cole's world is constantly in flux, but Ramse's never changes. And he has to believe that there is some possible iteration of past or future where he can get the only thing he's ever really wanted.
He watches the machine, watches Cole splinter back into reality. He holds his breath until Cole meets his eyes, and then he smiles.