Chapter Four: Self-determination

It was not the best week ever.

Gabriel had been very busy at work for the past several weeks, which meant that instead of getting to see him every weekend, it had been a while since we'd had anything other than phone calls and e-mails. And even if it made me uncomfortable to admit it, I missed him. After seeing him weekly over the past four years, and the renewed closeness that we were beginning to enjoy, living over 200 miles apart was…difficult, to say the least.

Living in New York was weird for other reasons, of course. I'd seen Angela a couple of times, but not as often as a good granddaughter would have. It was hard visiting her and knowing that she'd lost both of her sons when they'd played such large roles in my life. I think being with me was hard for her too; she saw me as one son's bastard daughter and the other son's…obsession, maybe. Save the cheerleader, save the world, and in the end he had died trying to save me. I still got angry sometimes; mad that nobody could seem to remember that I can't die, and protect their own skins. Too many people had died, and when I was alone in New York it was easy to get depressed over how many more deaths I would have to watch in the oncoming succession of years.

The city was large and bright, and I understood why so many people were drawn to it, fell in love with it. To me, the regular bustle of the city seemed a little superficial, even more so when I considered that the entire place could have been completely destroyed only so many years ago. After so much gravity had centered on the metropolis, everything else seemed so inconsequential.

Even in spite of all that, I enjoyed grad school most of the time. The classes were typically more interesting than the ones offered at undergrad levels, and the people in them genuinely cared about the subject matter, rather than sleeping at the back of the room or chatting on Facebook.

Today, however, was different. The social-personality psych professor was talking about self-determination theory again; not quite halfway through my first semester of the program, I was already sick to death of those three words. And I'd have to get used to it. Self-determination theory was Rochester's favorite subject, it seemed, and it came up in every class.

"Self-determination," he droned, "is an endorsement of one's actions at the highest level of reflection. Those of you who remember Maslow from Psychology 101, who can tell me what that means?" Several students raised their hands, and a small, mousy girl was called on.

"It means that in order to have real freedom, a person's choices have to fulfill the highest level of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Determination is equated to actualization." She sniffled and adjusted her glasses on her face.

"Excellent. Unless a person has fulfilled all the previous levels, he cannot self-determine."

I raised my hand. "Excuse me sir? Is it not possible that a person could fulfill self esteem and actualization before, say, love and belonging?" I was thinking of Gabriel, who was achieving his goals of power collection well before he was worried about friendship. Actually, most of my graduate studies reminded me of him. I wondered sometimes if that wasn't why I'd chosen the track that I had.

The professor made a face at me, as though I'd said something distasteful. "Not impossible, no. But the idea is that the needs at the bottom are the most important, and therefore should be given precedence. This is basic material, Miss Bennet."

"No, I know that," I said, not willing to let him make me feel stupid. "But I asked because I've met people who are definitely self-determined on one level, but maybe haven't fulfilled the lower levels."

He rolled his eyes, clearly impatient to move on with his day's planned lecture. "Then I would suggest to you that their priorities are out of order."

"Tell me something I don't know," I muttered to myself as I sat back and kept my mouth shut.

Apparently my words in class had attracted some attention—one of my classmates stopped me on our way to Quantitative Methods. His name was Blake, and he was a pretty nice guy; not the smartest person in class, but not the dumbest either.

"You want to get a coffee some time?" he asked as he sidled next to me. "You seem to think about things in a different way than a lot of the students here. I think it would be really cool to hear more from you." I wondered if I saw things in a different light because of the people who populated my life, or because I had an ability that altered my need to worry about the lower levels of Maslow's hierarchy. Then I wondered what Blake would think if he could follow my current train of thought.

"I'm actually really boring," I joked. "You'd be begging to leave after five minutes."

"Is that a no?" he asked, playing it cool. "Because somehow I doubt that you're as boring as you say. If you don't want to, just tell me. I can take it." He put on an exaggerated tough-guy face and I laughed.

"No, we could get coffee sometime if you want. But just so you know…I have a, uh…" The word 'boyfriend' sounded so juvenile, especially when applied to someone like Gabriel, but I didn't really have another word for him. What did you call someone who'd been your stalker/killer, college boyfriend, best friend, and more?

"Sugar daddy?" Blake supplied with a wink. I laughed again.

"No, just a boyfriend I guess."

"Does he go to school around here?" Blake didn't seem disappointed, just interested in my life outside of class.

"No, he's older than me, got his MBA. He works in Virginia right now." I was surprised at how casual and open I was being with someone I didn't really know that well. But what was there to fret about? With Samuel dead and me dating the most powerful man I'd ever known, life felt pretty uncomplicated and worry-free.

"Sounds like a cool dude. Maybe he's where you get all your insight from," Blake commented as we reached our next class.

The rest of the day was pretty boring. I didn't speak up in class anymore, and it went by reasonably quickly.

My phone rang just as I was unlocking the door to my apartment. I dropped my bag by the door and took off my jacket before answering. Gabriel's voice was enough to make me smile.

"Good day?" he asked, sounding kind of exhausted.

"It was all right," I answered, kicking off my shoes and lying on the couch. "I disagreed with my professor and decided to meet one of my peers for coffee sometime."

"That sounds like fun. What's his name?"

"The professor? Dr. Tate."

"Not your instructor, the classmate. If it had been a woman you would have said so."

I rolled my eyes at his confidence in his own assumption. "Blake. He knows that it's just a casual thing, though. I made sure to mention you."

He chuckled dryly. "Thanks for reassuring me. I was afraid for a moment there that I was going to lose you to some little boy you've known for a matter of weeks."

"How do you know it was a guy my age? For all you know, he's a grown-up man of thirty-seven," I teased, rolling onto my back to stare at the ceiling.

"He'd better not be. I don't like the thought of lecherous older men preying on an innocent twenty-two year-old." I started laughing at the judgment in his tone, and he protested, "It's different for me. In another few years it won't matter for you and I anyway."

I told him that yes, while Blake was older than me, he was not in his thirties. I asked about his day and we talked for a while longer before I brought up another subject.

"When do you think you'll be able to visit?"

His voice was warm as he countered, "Why do you ask?"

"You know why, Gabriel."

"I'd like you to say it, though," he said, voice soft.

I sighed, sitting up and hunching my shoulders. "I want you to come visit me because I miss you and you haven't been here in ages. Is that what you want to hear?"

His laughter floated across the line again, and I smiled in spite of myself. "It's nice to hear every once in a while. And if you're not doing anything this weekend, I'm free from Friday afternoon until Monday morning."

"That would be great." I smiled at the thought of seeing him so soon.

"Great. I can pick you up from class and we'll go to dinner."

That promise kept me smiling through my solitary meal, homework, and all the way until I fell asleep. You'd think that with such a happy thought I'd have nothing but sweet dreams, but instead I had a nightmare. I was standing in a hallway, and Gabriel was lying on the floor covered in blood. There was a man stabbing him over and over, and somehow I knew that Gabriel wasn't healing. The killer turned around…but he was Gabriel too.

I woke up in tears, confused and frightened, and I'd already hit speed dial before it registered that it was three in the morning.

"Claire? What's wrong?" Gabriel's voice was groggy.

"I'm sorry," I said, lying in the dark. "I didn't realize what time it is."

"It's okay. Tell me what's going on."

"Nothing; I'm sorry I woke you."

"Claire," he said, voice clearer and stronger than it had been seconds ago, "you're obviously upset. Just tell me."

"I had a bad dream," I said, feeling suddenly stupid. "And you got killed, but you were also the killer."

He talked to me until I felt better and went back to sleep, but it wasn't the same. This time as I drifted off I could only think of the last nightmare I'd had about him, and wonder if this one meant something as well.

A/N: Hey all, We are so sorry its been a long time. It will probably continue to take a while to update, because its the end of the semester and we're both stressing over school. Chuck is still in nursing school and Mel is recently engaged and in the process of wedding planning. It's hectic. But today, we got a review from a new reader, and it temporarily reinvigorated us. Please have faith that eventually there will be a steady pace again and that both Collide and The Agency will see an ending.

Yours, Mel and Chuck.