The Pen flashed, and the world turned gray all around him as Ethan Kairos drew a circle in midair with it. The scene within the glowing blue circle was equally gray, but it showed an entirely different world, to him.
Ethan looked at the café on his side of the Hole, staring vacantly at the ruined remains of what had, once upon a time, been Chronos. Dust motes swirled in midair, frozen in time, and if Ethan looked hard enough, he could almost imagine an entirely different moment. Glasses clinking in a series of impromptu toasts, chairs sliding across the floor, laughter and warm drinks and friends all around…it hurt. It really did. But that moment was dead, even if he tried to keep it in his head far longer than it had actually spent in this world.
On the opposite side of the Hole, perfectly visible in grayscale, was a frozen version of a moment from fourteen years ago. Ethan's only uncle, Derek, sat at the counter that had once stood in Chronos, his head in his hands. Beside him, there sat a pile of slanderous ads, all against Chronos on its first day. And yet, while it seemed like everything on that side of the Hole in time was perfectly real, Ethan knew better. They were all real then, but had long since disappeared. They were gone, swept up in the flow of time and causality.
Everyone was gone. Or perhaps they had never existed in this world to begin with.
One last change. That was all he could afford now. After a week of frantic time-shifting, he'd managed to wear himself to the bone. Now it was almost impossible for him to shake the ever-present fatigue long enough to even fight Irving's machinations anymore.
Irving… For a fellow time-manipulator, or even for someone who had as much power as Ethan did over the past and present, Irving Onegin was a monster. He'd met both versions, three or four times each. One, the original Irving Onegin, who killed Kori in at least four different timelines without any outside interference, and who had spent five cyclic days tormenting Ethan by killing his friends over and over again. The second was an Irving who had grown up under his older self's tutelage through time travel, who had later killed his old homeroom teacher and assumed the new identity of Jack Twombly just to spite everyone else. Who had killed Uncle Derek twice over, had killed all of his friends multiple times, and who had stabbed Kori to death in front of him just before the worlds had reset.
No matter how many times Ethan managed to undo the time changes that had allowed Jack or Irving to kill in the first place, they always seemed to find a way to work around it. If Ethan saved his friends by sending them somewhere else through notes and hints to the past, Jack would immediately shift the timeline and kill another just because he could. If Ethan managed to protect his uncle from being chased down and killed by loan sharks, Jack would send him to be killed in a gas explosion. And if Ethan avoided that somehow, maybe he'd beat Ashley and Emily to death with a tire iron because it amused him.
Just thinking about the time-manipulating sociopath made Ethan sick.
Maybe that was the nature of the Hollow Pen? A simple, innocuous time device that allowed its sole owner to change the past to suit them. Ethan found himself wondering if two users had ever gotten into a pitched battle like this before, where every move was countered by a further disaster. But then, no one could have really "won" without erasing the loser from history…
Maybe that was the ultimate solution. But so far, he didn't have a way to change it. If only he'd ever gotten a vision of Irving's past! Then, maybe, he would have been able to know what to shift in the monster's path so that he never became as dangerous as he did…
Ethan sighed. One thing at a time. Splitting his attention too much had gotten Jacob Eleven and his dog killed in another timeline once, even as Ethan had been trying to concentrate on saving Olivia.
He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the crumpled old note that, in one world, he had used to convince his uncle not to give up on Chronos. It had worked for a day or two, until Irving had devised another way to get Derek retroactively killed.
Still, maybe it would work one more time. It was the only hope Ethan had left. Maybe it only took one Hole in time to change the future, like a ripple in a pond. Just once more.
He sighed and put a hand against his forehead. Only one thing left to do. Then I can try to…try to recover, maybe? So tired… Though how much of a recovery would be necessary after this most recent run of timeline shifts…that, Ethan couldn't even guess.
Ethan reached out, feeling his arm pass through the ice-cold tunnel that the Hole represented between the future and the past. He put the note on the table next to his uncle's elbow, hoping that was enough. This time…I'll do it right. I just need another chance. I won't screw up again, okay? Ethan wasn't sure if that thought was a silent message to his frozen-in-time uncle, or to reassure himself. It didn't matter anyway.
Retracting his arm, Ethan prayed again, silently, and prepared to close the Hole with the Pen and hope for the best.
That was when Ethan felt a pair of hands slam into his shoulders and he pitched forward, through the Hole.
There was a flash of bluish-green light and everything went dark.
What the hell happened? Ethan wondered, blinking. Quickly taking count of his limbs and sitting up, he immediately started looking around. I just…and then…did I go through a Hole?
"Hey, kid. You up?" Ethan froze at the sound of that voice. It…it couldn't be. I— Tempting fate, he looked up.
Ethan found himself staring into the gruff, yet concerned, face of Derek Kairos. Only…about fourteen years younger than Ethan remembered him being. He froze. This is not happening. This can't be happening. I…I just…
Derek frowned. "What the hell's your problem, kid? Don't I get a thank you or nothing for looking after your passed-out carcass for fifteen minutes?" He sat on a nearby chair and Ethan looked up, staring at the once-familiar ceiling of Chronos.
Maybe the mood lights weren't in yet, and there wasn't a motherly older woman like Eva Sixon staring at the scene from behind the register, but it was definitely Chronos. Battered, slightly old-fashioned, but perfect.
Ethan stared sightlessly up at it. …Shit.
"What's wrong with you?" Derek demanded. "Can't you talk?"
With difficulty, Ethan managed to climb onto a chair opposite Derek's. He avoided looking at the past version of his uncle, staring in stunned disbelief at the woodwork on the table.
He'd…he'd fallen through a Hole, just like Kori had all those years ago. Kori couldn't age—she couldn't live any kind of normal life, stuck permanently at age sixteen while her classmates all graduated and moved on. She'd been completely at Irving's mercy in more than ten worlds, just because he had a Hollow Pen and could have fixed things. He could have made it possible for her to live a normal life—it didn't take a genius to realize that he wouldn't keep his end of the deal. After a time, she had eventually met Ethan and agreed to work with him so they could save as many people as they could from Irving Onegin, starting with Uncle Derek.
And in the end, Kori had died throwing herself between the fake Jack and Ethan. She'd died trying to save the only Hollow Pen user who had ever agreed to try and help her and honestly meant it.
And now what? Ethan was as stuck as she was—trapped outside of time fourteen years too early, unable to use the Hollow Pen even if he could see the damn thing, without any resources…and he'd never be able to help her, or Uncle Derek, or anyone he cared about if Irving attacked again.
Ethan put his head in his hands, biting back his frustration and grief. "Damn it. Why can't I do anything right?"
"What are you talking about?" Derek asked, but this time his voice was kinder, almost. Maybe it was just his imagination, but Ethan felt a hand on his shoulder. "Did you lose someone, kid?"
"Y-you could say that." Ethan muttered, taking a deep breath. I lost my chance to save them. What kind of idiot does that? Stupid, stupid, stupid!
The sympathy in Derek's voice was almost palpable now—Ethan abruptly remembered that even this version of Derek had lost Kori at least once. She'd run away from him in the past when she discovered she couldn't have a normal life with him, and it had torn Ethan's uncle apart. "Who was it?"
God, everyone? Ethan snapped mentally. Mom and Dad, you, Ben, Vin, Morris, Ashley and Emily, Kori…and all of them to Irving and my own stupidity! "A friend." That was the most recent, at least. And Kori had died in front of him, trying to keep Jack away. It'd worked, for a day or two. Ethan drew a shuddering breath, remembering all the blood and Kori screaming and Jack ranting about how he didn't understand... "I…she was trying to protect me."
Derek winced. "Why didn't you…?"
"Fight back? I don't know!" Ethan half-snarled. "I didn't know what I was doing any better than she did and…and he killed her because she was there." …Did I just say that out loud? Agh! I'm going to cause a paradox!
Derek's eyes seemed to blaze. "Who?"
"No one you'd know." Ethan drew a shuddering sigh. "Just…never mind me. It's not worth getting into some stupid fight."
"Someone was murdered." Derek said fiercely. "I'd say that's something worth fighting for."
Ethan cringed as Derek put a hand on his shoulder. "Just…look, just stop, all right?" Stop trying to get yourself killed. Don't catch his attention any more than you already have. I can't lose you again. He pressed his tightly clasped hands to his forehead, willing himself to think. I'm too much of a wreck to even think straight right now.
"Kid," Derek's voice was soft and strangely subdued. "What happened to you?"
Irving happened. "I…" His throat closed. He couldn't speak, so instead he just stared down at the table. And by doing so, he found the same mess of flyers he remembered seeing from the other side of the Hole.
Unsurprisingly, his uncle seemed to subside for a moment. Derek slumped in his seat, glaring at the woodwork. Apparently, his own issues had just come back to haunt him.
Ethan said nothing for a while. I am not going to just sit here like some emo teenager who can't deal with reality. Then he asked, "This is Chronos, isn't it?" to try and pull himself out of his bout of depression. He was fairly sure he succeeded, for a bit.
"Yeah." Derek muttered. He glanced at the pile of flyers on the table. "Not for a whole lot longer, though."
"I'm not so sure about that." Ethan remarked absently. "Can I see one of those?"
Derek blinked. "Sure. Don't see what for, though." He grabbed one of the papers at random and slid it across the table to Ethan.
It's the same as before. Ethan thought, staring at the malicious ad. "Chronos is a hotbed of corruption! Keep it out of our town!" It's even all done by the same computer—the ink's smudged in the same place. "I wouldn't listen to these, if I were you. It's only your first day, right?"
Derek stopped, staring at him. "Wait, what?"
Ethan bit the inside of his cheek, wondering how the hell he was supposed to explain this. He knew what would save Chronos, from his odd variation of foreknowledge, but that version of Derek had thought the helpful note was from Ethan's father, Timothy. Would it still work if the hints came from some random teenager?
…I have to try anyway. Even if I can't use the Hollow Pen, even if I could find it again, I can't just let Irving win again. "There has to be a way to make your café so popular no one will care about these things." He picked up the notice and tore it in half. "I already don't."
"You're also just one kid." Derek told him, but he didn't sound like he was actually disagreeing.
"Well, it just takes one." Ethan said with false cheer. I learned the hard way that it also takes just one person to ruin everything. I won't let you win, Irving Onegin. Maybe I can't stop you here, but I can damn well try. "All you need are a few ideas."
Derek leaned back in the chair and crossed his arms over his chest. "If that's what you think, lay it on me. What are your killer ideas?" The half-smirk was back. If it wasn't for the fact that this Derek Kairos was way too young, Ethan could almost believe that the world had gone back to normal. "Mind, that doesn't mean I'm going to do everything you say, kid."
I wouldn't expect you to, Uncle Derek, Ethan said silently. Now, to play up the perverted teenager angle. "Well…I've heard that female waiting staff might be a big part of it. With the economy the way it is—" Ethan mentally checked what he remembered of late-20th century history to be sure and remembered that yes, the economy was currently completely shot, "—there're more than a few girls who need jobs. But make sure they're really, really pretty."
Derek snorted. "You're some piece of work, kid. Okay, I'll bite. What next?"
That's Ben and Aaron's suggestions worked out, so… Ethan looked up at the ceiling, as though thinking hard. "Everyone likes free refills." Okay, that's Vin… "And you need to change the atmosphere."
"To what?" Derek asked, frowning a little. He'd probably set up Chronos the way he thought Kori would like it, or something like that. Maybe changing things would be harder for him than Ethan remembered.
Ethan made a sweeping gesture. "Like, more casual. Less like a restaurant, more like someone's living room or something."
"More casual…" Derek looked at the walls, considering. "Okay, I can see that. I guess it's not much of a café if everyone feels like they have to run off or get yelled at by the waitress or something."
Ethan shrugged. Ben, Vin, Morris, Aaron…who else? Did I even ask anyone else? Ashley and Mr. Twombly didn't have any ideas, and neither did Olivia or Sara… "That's pretty much the basics. I figure you can put your own spin on it."
Derek's frown deepened. "But we've got a problem, kid. I'm already in debt from just opening this place, and there's no way my brother will lend anything more than he has. Tightwad."
Ethan mentally winced. That was his dad Derek was badmouthing… "So, you can't afford to renovate or hire new workers?"
Derek shook his head. "Probably not. Especially after all this bad press." He jerked his thumb at the pile of slanderous flyers on the counter.
Ethan shot the pile a sidelong look. "Well, I figure you need to catch up with your recycling anyway."
"That doesn't help with finances much." Derek said. He sighed.
He's on his own, Ethan thought suddenly. And so am I. Why can't I work with that? "I…I might have an idea, if you just need help for a while."
Derek raised his head and his eyebrows. "Oh really?" The red-brown eyes focused on Ethan.
Ethan almost flinched under his past-uncle's gaze.
"Hey, you can spit it out. You were doing pretty good before this, kid." Derek reminded him. He pointedly didn't mention how Ethan had shut down earlier in the conversation.
"Yeah, it's just…" Ethan sighed. "Look, I'm pretty much broke, too." Or rather, I'm carrying the wrong kind of money—it won't be designed for another five years. "But if you need an extra hand around here, I'm willing to work just for a place to stay."
Derek blinked. "Haven't you got parents?"
This time, Ethan let himself think back. Mom…Dad…I just remember fire. What the hell happened to them when Irving shifted the past? "They're gone. Gas explosion."
"Sorry." Derek mumbled. "I didn't…"
"You didn't have anything to do with it, so don't apologize." Ethan told him. "And…and if you'll let me crash at your apartment, I'll work as long as I have to so you can get Chronos up and running. You don't need to pay me at all until we start getting customers." It might take a while. But I don't legally exist here as a teenager—I bet past-me isn't even in preschool yet. Fourteen years…I think I'd be about two-and-a-half then. Now. Something like that. Time travel is so confusing. "I…I really don't have anywhere to go now." My friends are all toddlers or infants in relative time. My parents' son is nearly three. Kori's dead. Irving's still running around. This is hell.
"What kind of teenager thinks like that?" Derek asked, confused but not hostile. "Not any friends, or family?"
"…She…" God, it hurts. Kori was the last one. I couldn't save them, and not even her in the end. Why couldn't I have at least saved someone? "My uncle's gone. Hell if I know where. Same with everyone else, but…no, I remember going to their funerals." The one time I couldn't change the past for long enough that I had to, anyway. And then I realized I couldn't fix some things. It all started changing so fast…
Derek put his hand on Ethan's shoulder. He was smiling sadly. "Look, I at least have to know your name, okay? Easy on the nerves and all—it's not exactly a tough question."
No way in hell am I telling him my real name. Ethan decided instantly on that, but what to tell him? Almost immediately, he found an answer. Time, and the will to change things. Why the hell not? "The name's Will. William Secc."
"Okay then, Will." Derek said, sticking out his hand. "I'll put up with you for a few weeks if this pans out. You get the couch if you shake, though."
Ethan didn't even have to think about it. "It's a deal."
Not much later, Derek Kairos sat by his writing desk, occasionally glancing over at Will while the teenager slept on his moth-eaten couch. He didn't seem to mind, amazingly enough. Even though Derek would concede that someone who looked only a few years younger than him was probably just spry enough to tolerate the sagging cushions, it didn't explain how Will had slept through the car backfiring an hour ago, Sox the cat kneading his claws on Will's jacket, and the bit where Derek had dropped and broken a coffee mug and swore like a sailor about it. He'd liked that mug.
Sox, who had settled his black-and-white mass between Will and the couch, meowed at him.
Derek blinked. Actually, he could never remember a time where Sox got so comfortable with a stranger so quickly. Maybe there was more to Will than just the desperate teenager side he kept showing.
Will rolled over at that moment, throwing one arm out wide and spooking the cat latched to his side. And yet, Sox merely repositioned himself so he was sitting on Will's chest instead. Derek had never seen that happen, either. He'd seen a whole lot of people, even his little nephew Ethan, get scratched by the cat for much less. Hell, Sox had almost torn his hand off just that week for giving him a bath!
Derek sighed. He'd admit that Will was a bit of a mystery. The brunet was just too strange, flitting back and forth between brash confidence and the utter wreck Derek had seen twice over the course of just one conversation. He wondered what, if anything, had taught the boy to compartmentalize his emotions so obviously. That was a question for another time, though. Tomorrow, remodelling would begin.
Still…thinking about it, Will really did have an uncanny resemblance to Ethan, though they were obviously years apart and Derek knew his brother better than to think he'd cheat on Pamela. Besides, Ethan looked a bit like both of his parents. Will just looked a bit like Ethan. They even had the same blue eyes, but that would be a bit of a stretch. Maybe that was just how doppelgangers worked.
Will yawned in his sleep and Derek heard him mutter something indecipherable. Then, after a longer pause, Will shifted and this time, Derek heard him say, very softly, "Sorry..."
"About what?" Derek asked without thinking. He almost slapped himself in the face. He's not going to hear you, stupid!
Will stayed silent.
Deciding that enough was enough, Derek stretched and yawned. Time for bed.
Outside of the apartment shared by the two Kairos men, there was a swish of darkness and bright pink, ghosting in the breeze like a mirage.
The apparition watched the distant, bright window with sad eyes. Then, after the final light went out, the wind swept over the bare street. It was like no one had even been there to begin with.
A/N: Honestly, I just wanted to post this to see if I got a response. There is quite a long fic ahead of this one scene, but it will involve time paradoxes and stable time loops and I really just want to know if anyone else is interested in reading this kind of thing.